Last winter, I had a couple of students in my North American environmental history course come to me with ideas for research essays on the environmental history of bottled water. The topic is far too big for a relatively short undergraduate paper, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how the history of the bottled water industry brings together many themes common in environmental history.
In particular, the contemporary global bottled water industry shares characteristics with other extractive natural resource industries and demonstrates the interconnections between environmental exploitation, state power, and social conflict. Like many other histories of finite natural resources, the power to control and command the exploitation of those resources is embedded in the relationship between capital and government. Such a precious and finite resource as water is obviously not exempt from these conditions.
Many readers with a background in environmental history will already be familiar with the adverse environmental consequences of the global bottled water industry. Corporations, such as Fiji Water, have recently attempted to re-brand bottled water as a “green” industry. But the current issue of Mother Jones explores the history of Fiji Water (now the largest imported brand of bottled water in the United States) and exposes the actual environmental and social consequences of this industry. The article looks at a wide range of issues, including the environmental impact of water extraction on the Fijian poor, the troubling relationship between Fiji Water and the military dictatorship in Fiji, and the corporation’s deceptive efforts to market their product as environmentally benign or even beneficial.
I think this article very clearly lays bare the fallacy that drinking water can ever be privatized, bottled, and sold in a manner that is either environmentally responsible or consistent with any principle of social justice.