Bottled water snobbery

by Rob Horning

1 May 2007


Daniel Gross raised an interesting point in a Slate column about bottled water:

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.

This illustrates why environmental politics tends to be a loser at the ballot box. It often plays out as a luxury only the effete elite can afford (latte liberals, etc.) and the Republicans are quick to exploit that sense that supporting environmental causes is an attempt to crash a party you weren’t really invited to. The dynamic Gross notes here is what makes it so easy to reconfigure environmental concerns as an alibi for It also illustrates why a conservative notion like conservation (note the etymological similarity) has no hold in American conservatism, which has come to rely on anti-elitist, quasireligious populism. 

That said, bottled water is wasteful and it augments a coming public-goods problem, when bottled-water drinkers decide it is not such an important priority to maintain safe, clean drinking water in the public system as our drinking-water infrastructure decays.

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