Failing to Make the Connections

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by William Bowles

From Investigating New Imperialism, August 7, 2007 I’m torn, really torn between trying to keep up with the deceptions the corporate press keep feeding us and wanting to ignore the entire sorry mess completely, but well you know how it is, almost without exception, everyday there’s a story that grabs my attention because it represents all that’s wrong with the way events and their causes are reported.

The Independent on 4 August ’07 had a major story on bottled water titled ‘Bottled Out’ about a campaign currently being waged in New York and other US cities to ban the bloody things, the rationale being the amount of energy taken to produce and ship the plastic bottles the H20 comes in (bottled water is more expensive than petrol). With revenues totalling $11 billion in 2006, it’s really big business (especially for the two major distributors and marketers, Pepsico and of course, Coca Cola).

The quality of tap water is actually more stringently regulated than bottled water in many US cities including New York and the article though packed with facts, for example the incredible waste incurred (more than 80% of the bottles are not recycled but end up in landfills), it still fails to draw the right conclusions about the direct relationship between arbitrary production and the capitalist economic system.

Thus the article tells us

“We used to live perfectly well without either of these modern accessories [the other being the cellphone]. Today, they are vital to our happiness … [and] no one would suggest returning to the pre-wireless age of course.”

Of course not! Nor, it seems, that we should return to the age of drinking tap water! Happiness? Is the writer being sarcastic? I doubt it.

Predictably, the article consists mostly of ‘personal stories’ of individuals caught with the obligatory bottle of H2O as the writer wended his way through the streets of New York.

What’s missing of course is the simple fact that the wasteful nature of bottled water is merely the tip of a (melted) iceberg, for what applies to bottled water can be extended to the millions of products that like bottled water, are unnecessary and produced merely for the sake of profit and nothing else. Like bottled water, they do not improve our quality of life, not that this stops the major producers from whining that,

“We think it’s unfortunate it’s turned into this either-or battle …. We do feel like we’re being unfairly targeted.”

So says Joseph Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association using the well-worn excuse that consumers should be given the “choice.” And in a way he’s right, why single out bottled water from the millions of useless products churned out in gay abandon, all just as damaging and wasteful of resources?

Well bottled water is an easy target to take on (even the major media networks have jumped on the bash bottled water bandwagon) but that’s where it ends. The Independent article does not draw the obvious conclusion that what applies to bottled water also applies to millions of other products that we neither need nor asked for and were it not for global warming, rest assured that this article would never have seen the light of day, it would continue to be “business as usual.”

Indeed, I argue that climate change has become a replacement for challenging the fundamentals of the capitalist economic system, firstly by making the consumer the guilty party in the process and secondly by diverting attention away from the economics of capitalist production, which is why the Independent article avoids the subject like the plague.

The god of “choice” is the predictable mantra as if “choice” is some kind of gift from a capitalist heaven but “choice” is one of the fundamental propaganda weapons of capitalism regardless of the consequences, for once the consumer makes the “choice” it’s effectively out of the hands of the producer (“we give ’em what they want, nobody twisted their arm”).

That the article doesn’t actually mention economics at all is the most revealing (and depressing) aspect of the way the article misrepresents the facts. It’s as if by magic billions of plastic bottles of H2O just appeared one day and suckers that we are, we “decided” to buy them.

Thus economics is reduced to a simplistic formula whereby we are “free” to “choose” and yes it’s true, we do have the power to choose, therefore, why don’t we especially when we know the damage such arbitrary production does, let alone the immense waste of money involved which explains why bottled water has become a sitting target for its obvious redundancy is impossible to ignore.

Not so obvious (because it’s never revealed in the corporate press) is the relationship between the economics of capitalism and the crisis we are facing. One has to ask why the writer of the article, David Usborne, didn’t join the dots together and arrive at the obvious conclusion? No prizes for guessing the answer.

The author of the article has a real problem, how to square the circle? How does one condemn the sale of tap water in plastic bottles without calling into question the entire basis of capitalist economics? But this is an issue that the writer dare not raise, for then he would be entering the “forbidden” area of “opinion” as opposed to “facts.” This is why the bulk of the article concerns itself with people caught with bottle in hand (or bottle holster) and not with the underlying economics. Had it done so, the connection would no doubt would have been edited out (do a search on the Independent website and the article is not there but the Google ads for bottled water are).