A Bottle of Water with a Scarlet Letter

What is the Green Campus Initiative Up To?

By Michael Talent

Bottled water falls into the category of "things that most people don't care about." After all, for most of our lives, we have been drinking bottled water without as much as a second thought. However, the University of Chicago's Green Campus Initiative wants to change this. They want to reduce bottled water use on campus in the name of sustainability, citing, among other things, that bottled water transport requires burning fossil fuels; plastic bottles are piling up in our landfills; and other reasons that span the economic and administrative.

However, the bottled water push is just one facet of the sustainability movement on campus. As of February 2011, the University of Chicago Sustainability Council, part of the Office of Sustainability and the main coordinator of environmental events on campus, came up with the following definition of sustainability: "Sustainability embraces and pursues the precept that human well-being is ultimately sustained by the natural world, which is increasingly impacted by human activity. This calls for balancing development with attention to and investment in the health and productivity of the environment." Pursuant to this goal, the group has started many other sustainability projects. Some are more well known, such as advocacy of Meatless Mondays and the creation of Earthfest. Others, however, are more obscure; promoting urban agriculture and the creation of SAGE (Sustainable Action for a Greener Environment), which educates students in the University's sustainability policies and has them work on projects to promote green initiatives.

Preserving the environment is a worthy cause. However, the central argument regarding bottled water reduction so far has focused on the economic benefits of its substitute—tap water. As quoted in the Maroon, Students Against Bottled Water (SABW) leader, Joe Sullivan, emphasized the economic argument against bottled water, claiming that it the movement's most persuasive point because "not everyone is passionate about the environment." However, there are going to be individuals out there who would argue that people around know about the relative cheapness of tap water, yet still choose bottled water as a matter of taste. SABW and the other groups affiliated with the anti-bottled water movement have answered this question. They point out that that "40% of bottled water in the US is sourced from public tap water" and have set-up drinking booths at different University events where people, in a blind test, compare bottled water with tap water. The result is that people could not tell the difference.

It does appear, therefore, that within this movement is a strong desire to educate students about the economic benefits of drinking tap water. There might be some individuals who have never thought about this before, and, for them, what the campus sustainability groups are doing is instructive. However, it is unlikely that the majority of the student body and faculty have not already considered the economic arguments and the relative difference—or similarity, as the case may be—in taste of tap and bottled water. The formula cannot be as simple as tap water is free and tastes the same as bottled water; therefore, you should consume tap water. There are other considerations that people make when deciding to consume bottled water. Economically, this makes sense. It is hard to believe that individuals would choose a relatively expensive substitute for a cheap one if there were no other factors involved. For example, some people may find bottled water to be more convenient since they can carry the water around and not have to look for a water fountain.

One of those factors, and one that needs to be addressed better than it has been by the sustainability groups pushing for bottled water reduction, is the belief that bottled water is healthier for an individual than tap water. To be fair, the anti-bottled water campaign has attempted to address this issue, citing the fact that bottled water is less regulated than tap water. However, tap water is not without its own regulation and health issues. Part of the reason bottled water became so popular was that a 2009 study was released showing that tap water contained "315 pollutants," that "more than half of the chemicals detected [in tap water] are not subject to health or safety regulations and can be present in any amount," and that these chemicals included an ingredient of rocket fuel and arsenic. Thanks to this study released by the Environmental Working Group, a green organization, the US population found out that their common drinking water was going to kill them and decided that they should consume more bottled water.

Yet, has this point come up at all in the discussion about reducing bottled water use? After all, the Environmental Working Group found that the tap water supplied by the Chicago Department of Water Management contains fourteen chemicals in concentrations over health guidelines as well as twenty-one pollutants. But, as of February 2011, the Sustainability Council had only considered getting a FOIA request from the city regarding tap water quality. One would think that getting this information would be a top priority number when considering a campus wide movement designed to phase out water bottle use. At the very least, intellectual honesty requires that they deal with this fact.

I am sure there are other reasons why people drink bottled water besides just for reasons of convenience and health. Human preferences are complex, since they are personal. In fact, the entire economic argument against bottled water, as currently presented, is shallow, bereft of any true value, ignoring, as it does, the complexity of human preferences. It is one thing for the sustainability group to bring up points regarding the environmental impact of drinking bottled water, and try to influence students that way—in fact, I encourage such behavior as an exercise in true intellectual discourse—it is another to state that "tap water is free" and "tap water is the same as bottled water." The first is obvious; the second is a matter of personal preference. These points are not influential or educational.

But why would they be brought up, then? The people who run the bottled water reduction campaign are not stupid, and they surely know that their economic arguments are shallow. The reason is found within the sustainability movement's mentality that bottled water is an environmental evil, and, therefore, bottled water must go. It follows from this that those who drink bottled water, as contributors to this evil, are either evil in and of themselves or hopelessly misguided.

Understanding this intellectual premise provides the framework under which the mantras "tap water is free" and "tap water tastes the same as bottled water" should be considered. Firstly, they are unassailable statements. Tap water is free, and no one denies it. In addition, tap water, as has been shown, does taste the same as bottled water. But tastes and taste are two different things. The former is hard to quantify and, in many cases, hard to explain. The latter is relatively easy to prove, an item has either one flavor or another. But only looking at the surface, the environmentalists have a deceptively persuasive argument, consisting, as it does, of a stated fact and a gross simplification of human preference. In fact, one would have to be rather stupid not to accept their arguments, if one is immediately confronted with it—and that is the point. Considering how they framed their arguments, there is no way an individual can rationally choose to drink bottled water.

The National Association of Scholars issued a critique of sustainability online, citing nine points in which "the sustainability movement has gone wrong." One of their points is that the sustainability movement seeks to stifle inquiry because of "its tendency to assume rather than argue its basic propositions." The bottled water reduction campaign is a classic example of this. From their assumption that bottled water is an evil, they have derived an economic argument that is too simplistic to be educational, but, at the same time, deceptively persuasive enough to condemn those who drink bottled water as economic morons. And, for the sustainability movement, condemnation is their modus operandi when it has come to reducing bottled water. The Sustainability Council, for example, wants to give stickers to individuals with reusable water bottles, thereby creating a class of the environmentally conscious in contrast to the environmentally insensitive. Furthermore, the posters that hang above the water bottles in campus stores are clearly meant to arouse guilt, not intellectual debate.

There is no doubt that the individuals pushing for a reduction in bottled water use are well intentioned. But they are also idealistic, attaching to the environment a mystic position in their life. And, like all idealistic movements, they are prone to Puritanism and a belief in the absolute rightness of their agenda. From this stems the disturbing tendency of the environmentalist to hold more to dogma than debate. It is my hope that, at a school like the University of Chicago, which believes in debate and academic discussion, this sustainability movement's unfortunate tendency towards stigmatization rather than debate can be halted, and, in its place, an intellectual discussion about what will bring about true sustainability can take place.