Sunday, March 19, 2006


How Dry I Am

An interesting review in today's Times of London of When the Rivers Run Dry, a new book by Fred Pearce -- a splendid fellow writer for New Scientist. Pearce, the review notes, goes beyond the usual feel-good rhetoric to get at the real problem:

We have all heard the entreaties — not to run the tap while brushing our teeth, putting a brick in the cistern, using grey water on the garden. The savings are useful but pathetically small. In Britain, our daily personal consumption — drinking, cooking, washing and flushing — is about 150 litres each. In Australia and America, it rises to 350 and 400. But these are mere damp patches on the world water map. The real torrent flows into our food. It takes up to 5,000 litres to grow a single kilo of rice. A kilo of potatoes swallows 500 litres, wheat 1,000, sugar 3,000, coffee 20,000. Just to grow enough beef to make a quarter-pound hamburger takes 11,000 litres. Pearce makes a good joke about the T-shirt slogan “Save water, bath with a friend”. Good message, he says, “but you could fill roughly 25 bathtubs with the 250 grams of cotton needed to make the shirt”.

(An upcoming spoiler alert here, if you haven't read Elizabeth Royte's Garbage Land.)

This is more or less the upshot of Royte's fine book as well -- namely, that after dutifully following the path of her garbage to various dumps, and working to reduce her household output, she completely whips the rug out from under you by revealing that the problem of manufacturing waste vastly outweighs household waste. In other words, by the time you're in the garage trying to sort packaging into the right bins, it's already too damn late.

The grandstanding of "Buy Nothing Day" types -- yeah, taking swipes at Starbucks and Nike is, you know, so radical man -- would be a lot more useful if they would point out the quantifiable reasons why not to buy specific products, or why to favor some less wasteful forms over others.

One thought: you could introduce a water usage tax on agricultural products, with varying levels depending on the variety of produce -- or, more simply, a tax on water-intensive varieties of produce but not on the more efficient ones. This which would effectively push the markets towards less wasteful varieties of produce; money from the more wasteful products could help subsidize water efficiency programs. Congress and state governments are too hog-tied by farming lobbies to do anything like this, I imagine -- but cities and counties might not be.

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