A Toast to Clean Water

(Second in a series – click here for “Water – The Ultimate Fixed Asset.”)

Making homebrew – far and away my favorite hobby of all time.* When my brother Matt shared one of his first batches of homebrew – a smooth weissbier(wheat ale) – I was hooked. I brewed for seven years or so during the 1990s. My favorite concoction was a Cranberry Wheat; I would make it in November as soon as fresh cranberries appeared in the produce section of the grocery store. Charlie Papazian’s 1984 tome, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, served as my brew bible. I’m not the only one who can say so: Papazian’s book has sold close to 1 million copies. Take that, macro brews Bud/Miller/Coors (known as “yucky beer” in the Anderson household). Long live micro and home brews!

Cranberry Wheat – Houston, TX 1996 — Floral Design Wallpaper – looks like circa 1981?!

No offense intended to my friends who make their own wine. Making homebrew and wine are very similar in process – carboys, fermenting bubblers, specific gravity readings. But the end results are markedly different. A home vintner can ferment something decent, but rarely superior to the category of $10-12 bottles at the wine store. (Home vintners can create unique beverages not found anywhere else, however.) Home brewers on the other hand, consistently kick macros’ asses and can make stuff just as good as the American craft and quality import beers offered commercially.

The great reformer of the 16th century church, Martin Luther, famously enjoyed the homebrew made by his wife, Katharina von Bora. At that time, beer was available for sale (the 1516 Reinheitsgebot law dictated that beer be made only from water, barley, hops and yeast), but homebrew rivaled commercial beer production in quantity and quality. Luther lamented times of travel when he found himself in places where good beer was scarce; he pined to return home: “What good wine and beer I have at home, and also a beautiful lady.”

If you’re a homebrewer, undoubtedly you’ve heard the following narrative: beer, its alcohol content killing the impurities in the water, saved our medieval ancestors from peril and disease caused by drinking contaminated water. It sounds nice – especially to a homebrewer – but it’s mostly the stuff of legend. Many have died through the ages from waterborne diseases like cholera and dysentery, but it’s been clean water, not beer or wine, that ultimately allows for our collective gene pool to perpetuate.

Charles Fishman, in his excellent book on present and future predicaments related to water, The Big Thirst (Free Press, 2011), argues that our attitudes and assumptions about water need to change. Close to 1 billion people in the world lack ready access to reliably clean water. Meanwhile in the developed nations of the world, bottled water is one of the biggest growth markets of the last generation. Both the pros and cons of bottled water are well-known: bottled water is perceived to be safer than tap water in municipalities that have not updated aging distribution pipes; bottled water is a healthier option than sugary sodas; yet, the production of billions of plastic water bottles is an inefficient use of resources and a prolific begetter of pollution; and, the cost of bottled water, incredibly, is higher than milk or gasoline.

In my previous blog post on water, I expound on Fishman’s crowning of the twentieth century as the golden age of water, wherein the availability of potable water – “unlimited, free, and safe” – consequently became taken for granted. Fishman calls the business of bottled water “the final flowering” of the golden age of water. Stop by a quick mart store in Anytown, America and gaze through the glass refrigerator doors to see rows of bottled water available from the French Alps, the Italian Alps, Germany, and Fiji. Yes, Fiji, where more than half of residents do not have access to reliably clean drinking water. “A silly triumph for capitalism . . . the market has created very persuasive solutions for water problems that don’t exist, while failing to find any solutions for real water problems” (p. 137).

Fishman reminds his readers that all water problems are local and regional, and their solutions must be local and regional. Even so, with increasing global population (and an unchanging amount of fresh water available), more people worldwide moving into the middle class (and thus using more water), factories spreading to developing nations (using much more water), and the advance of climate change (more regions of the world affected by drought), our attitudes about water need to change significantly. By 2050, it’s possible that 2 billion people worldwide will not have ready access to reliably clean water.

Water issues and problems will predominate into the twenty-first century. The next time you raise a glass – beer, wine, or water – give thanks for what you have and be not afraid to change your attitudes about water. The survival of the human family, no less, depends upon it.


The next blog post continues this series on water and concerns specific changes needed in attitudes about water and related practices.

*Those who know me might think golf is my fave hobby of all time. In my world, golf is best categorized as an obsession – a healthy one, of course.


This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!


2 thoughts on “A Toast to Clean Water

  1. Jud Smith

    Another interesting blog, T. Carlos. I would like to know your source material for the statements that plastic water bottles are “an inefficient use of resources and a significant begetter of pollution”?

    The Plastics Division of the American Chemical Council asked the Earth Institute’s Earth Engineering Center to explore ways of recovering the energy inherent in non-recycled plastics. The resulting report, released in August 2011, determined that the amount of energy contained in the millions of tons of plastic in U.S. landfills is equivalent to 36.7 million tons of coal, 139 million barrels of oil, or 783 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

    Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Until you consider that IF we could recover all plastic bottles for recycling (highly unlikely) and IF it could be recycled cost effectively (not at all probable given current technology) that 139 million barrels of oil is only .48 % of all the barrels of oil produced worldwide in just ONE YEAR!

    The other day I heard a statement made by John Stossel that the hue and cry about our landfills being packed to overflowing in the U.S. could be solved by annexing less than one fourth of Ted Turner’s 113,000 acre ranch in southwest Montana. This new, lined landfill, it was estimated, would take care of the U.S. needs for the next 100 years and not endanger one head of bison, one Rocky Mountain elk, one gray wolf, a single Longhorn antelope or even one badger. In the end, it would be capped and a new ski resort built over the top with no harmful effect on the environment. The only cost effective, and I would argue necessary, recycling process is aluminum and paper. No other recycling makes sense….not even glass and certainly not plastic.

    I agree, managing our planet’s water will be the key to the survival of our species. But let’s put our intellect and energy into figuring out how to move water from where it is, at times, in abundance to where it isn’t, at times, readily available or available at all.

    Justin G.

    1. Justin – What an impressive if improbable moment of cooperation between the Earth Institute and the American Chemistry Council. Guys like us appreciate it when two groups, seemingly opposed, join together to seek out best solutions . . .
      My source for plastic bottle pollution is Fishman – and my good ol’ (debatable, I know) common sense. As you rightly imply, the recycling industry/movement is not as cut and dried as we assume it to be. There are pros and cons to recycling; it, of course, is an energy consumer and carbon emitter itself.
      There are very good arguments that better recycling (or use of materials) starts at the manufacturing end. I know you’re aware of this. Recycling, like most issues that are important, is quite complex.
      A big part of my message, as you know, is about overconsumption. Plastic water bottles fit in to that theme quite well. Mr. Turner won’t be permitting the use of his ranch any time soon for landfill, so in the meantime, I’m all for greater awareness and further efficiencies. I know you are, too.

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