Watery morality

WaterBottlesGet past the incredibly careless writing in this Newsweek story, and it turns out that the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, has made an order that the city government won’t buy any bottled water or allow it to be sold from concessions it controls. Like the City Hall cafeteria, type of thing.(For carelessness, this TreeHugger headline is even worse: “San Francisco Mayor Bans the Bottle.” Arguably true, but definitely confusing, since it’s only the city administration itself that’s affected.)

The argument against using city money to buy bottled water — for speakers at public meetings, say, or visitors to the mayor’s office — is pretty straightforward. Buying the bottles and then disposing of them is more expensive than keeping and cleaning glasses that get filled with tapwater, which is of perfectly good quality. They’re a waste of taxpayer money, $500,000 a year according to Newsom.
Unless they aren’t, in a wholly intangible and unprovable way.

Bottled water, in places where the tapwater is drinkable, is purely a positional good — people buy it because they like the way the brand makes them feel, makes them look, and makes them feel about how they look. Clearly, even though it’s based on vapour, that feeling is worth something, or else people wouldn’t buy ordinary water that costs more than something useful, like gasoline. In the corporate world, bottled water is a mark of status.

So what’s it worth, if you’re the mayor of a major west-coast city, to serve a visiting dignitary a chilled bottle of branded water, versus a glass from the pitcher in the fridge? Might you be giving up more than you get, if somebody who could do good things for the city goes away thinking San Francisco is run by cheap losers?

In San Francisco’s case, the glass of water is a different kind of positional good, one that ostentatiously declares Newsom a green champion. His real argument isn’t just based on efficiency with tax money, but on moral principle: “These people are making huge amounts of money selling God’s natural resources. Sorry, we’re not going to be part of it,” Newsweek quotes the mayor saying.

Steady on, there. A solar power plant or a wind farm (or a coal mine, or a wheat farm) does substantially the same thing, right? As long as the water in the bottle didn’t come from someplace dry where someone who couldn’t pay the price went thirsty so this 16-ounce bottle could be filled, I don’t get the moral argument Newsom is making, and I’m not convinced he ought to be making it on behalf of the people of San Francisco.

(Photo credit: “water bottles,” Flickr/shrff14.)

3 responses to “Watery morality

  1. I think that you’ve answered your own question there. The obvious positional good is in saying that SF is a city with a progressive green agenda. That’s worth a lot these days.

    Solar and wind power aren’t just selling natural resources, either. They’re about creating something from those natural resources… If they were just selling us wind or sunshine, that would be another matter. Here in the UK, I’d quite like somebody to sell me some sunshine right now.

  2. I see your stance. However, I personally feel that it is just poor economic sense for people to drink bottled water if their municipality produces quality tap water. An article appeared in the Globe and Mail on Sep 23, 2006, written by Martin Mittelstaedt. It discusses the push against bottled water by numerous Protestant church groups. The statement that really stood out for me was that drinking a litre of Dasani bottled water is 3000X more expensive than if you just got it out of your tap. 3000 TIMES!!! I do also have a problem with it from a moral standpoint, but that is for another day.

  3. As a financial matter, it’s a no-brainer. No two ways about it, bottled water is a waste of taxpayers’ money compared to tapwater. My complaint, maybe poorly expressed, is that the moral argument that there’s something inherently wrong with selling “God’s natural resources” doesn’t seem to stand up, as long as the bottled Dasani isn’t coming from someplace where somebody’s going thirsty because Coca-Cola bought all the water up to send somewhere else at a giant markup.

    I take the point that wind or sunshine, converted into electricity, might not be the best parallels. Bad choice on my part. But you can substitute coal (which nobody argues it’s intrinsically wrong to sell just because it’s found naturally in the ground) or wild mushrooms or fish caught in the sea and I think the argument holds.

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