Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bottled Water Now Politically Incorrect

From Slate, an observation about how snobby, trendy people are realizing that a key artifact of their lifestyle is . . . well, not politically acceptable.
In March, the San Francisco Chronicle spotted a hot new food trend in the Bay Area. Instead of offering diners a choice of still or sparkling bottled water with their (inevitably) locally grown delectables, trendoid restaurants such as Incanto, Poggio, and Nopa now offer glorified tap water. Sustainable-dining pioneer Chez Panisse has also joined the crowd, tossing Santa Lucia overboard for filtered municipal water, carbonated on-site. The reason: It takes a lot of energy to create a bottle of water and ship it from Europe to California. And so of-the-moment bistros can boost their enviro cred by giving away tap water instead of selling promiscuously marked-up bottled water. “Our whole goal of sustainability means using as little energy as we have to,” Mike Kossa-Rienzi, general manager of Chez Panisse, told the Chronicle. “Shipping bottles of water from Italy doesn’t make sense.”

Chez Panisse’s decision to swap Perrier for public water highlights how quickly the culture surrounding food, drink, and the environment has shifted. Not long ago, bottled water represented the height of urban sophistication. Today, bottled water is just another cog in the carbon-spewing, globe-warming industrial machine. There is a growing conflict between those who want to drink clean, pure water and those who want to breathe clean, pure air.

Until relatively recently, bottled water was a snobbish luxury good—Perrier, Evian, and San Pellegrino, fey-sounding foreign brands, seemed absurd. Thanks to our superior infrastructure—New York City’s delicious tap water is actually believed to be a competitive advantage for the city’s bagel and pizza makers—it is perfectly safe to drink the water in the United States. Given the price—for long periods of time, a gallon of bottled water cost more than a gallon of gas—it seemed silly to pay up for this plentiful commodity. And it seemed pretentious to believe that our overburdened palates should be forced to develop a preference for what is generally presumed to be a tasteless substance. The presence of water sommeliers at the Ritz-Carlton in New York and at Alain Ducasse’s New York restaurant (now closed, soon to reopen) was more novelty than a necessity.

But like other high-end comestibles—sushi, good coffee—bottled water has become democratized. According to data from the International Bottled Water Association, bottled water in 2003 became the second-largest American beverage category. As soda sales stagnated, bottled water sales took off. Total U.S. consumption rose nearly 60 percent between 2001 and 2006. Last year, industry revenues were an estimated $11 billion. Per-capita consumption has risen almost 50 percent from 2001, to 27.6 gallons in 2006. Globally, the United States is the largest consumer of bottled water, although on a per-capita basis, we were only 10th in 2005. (That year, Italians consumed almost twice as much bottled water per capita as Americans.)

Bottled water’s swift transformation from glass-encased luxury good to déclassé, plastic-wrapped menace was entirely predictable. Over the past century, we’ve seen numerous examples of products that, so long as they were available only to a select few, were viewed by those elites as brilliant, life-improving developments: the automobile, coal-generated electricity, air conditioning. But once companies figured out how to make them available to the masses, the elites suddenly condemned them as dangerous and socially destructive.

So long as only a few people were drinking Evian, Perrier, and San Pellegrino, bottled water wasn’t perceived as a societal ill. Now that everybody is toting bottles of Poland Spring, Aquafina, and Dasani, it’s a big problem.
The yuppie lifestyle not only stakes a claim to cultural superiority, it also (we can’t help noticing) asserts the right to govern the country politically.

Thus the elitists moan and complain when people they consider their cultural inferiors — Southerners, conservative Christians, blue collar workers, people who live in Texas — get uppity and elect a President or Congress of whom the elitists disapprove. How dare people who drink tap water (or Miller Beer or iced tea) think they can govern the nation!

But the game is entirely transparent, and ordinary Americans aren’t impressed.

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