As some may have noticed, I’ve recently been thinking a great deal about the different ways that water is embodied, through appropriation, commodification and consumption, and the consequent emergence of conflicts across scales. Asparagus and televisions, jaguars and forest fires, jobs and burial sites, elected officials and geopolitical disputes.
Today, the latest instalment of Nestle’s trials in the western U.S. emerged in the form of a ballot to block the global food giant from bottling water from an Oregon spring. Reading into it, what strikes is the contrasting ways in which this particular conflict plays out in comparison to other examples: a copper mine in southern Arizona, for example.
What difference does geographical and historical context make to these debates? How do the politics of risk and reward play out in relation to copper on the one hand, and bottled water on the other.
Addressing the latter question first, the obvious starting point is the difference between the way in which water, as an object of contention (a contested resource), is embodied within two types of commodity.
Copper has become one of the key elements of modern society. No other metal with equivalent properties of conductivity and malleability is remotely as easy and cheap to produce in large quantities. It’s application in wire and cable, electric motors and electronic devices have made it inextricable from our everyday lives.
Water is an essential element in the manufacture of copper – in it’s transformation from mineral earth to commodity. The mining and processing of copper ore is impossible without significant quantities of water, which is used at every stage in the process.
Moreover, the excavation of a vast open pit has serious hydrological implications for the surrounding landscape, creating a hydraulic sink which draws water tables down towards the pit bottom.
Copper deposits are also typically located in upland headwater areas, at the top of river basins. This means that the construction of a copper mine has considerable implications for competing downstream human and non-human water ‘users.’
Copper production thus incorporates not only the mineral resource into the commodity, but also the water resources that are necessarily and incidentally appropriated in the process. Embodied within copper are human and non-human relationships to those waters of an ecological, economic and cultural nature.
Imagine an ‘ingredients’ label attached to our cars or mobile devices that lists and quantifies the local habitats, economies, and histories which were collaterally destroyed or created as a result of their manufacture.
It is these competing interests, across scales, from the global economy to the individual, which are at issue in local conflicts around the exploitation of resources. But how do the spatial politics of these debates differ between copper and bottled water as a marketable commodity?
Some obvious statements. Water is an essential element to human life. More than 50% of our bodies are composed of water. Free access to clean water is increasingly recognised as a ‘human right’. Most of us, at least in developed, western societies, are privileged to receive water piped directly to our homes.
Bottled water, however, exemplifies consumerism in perhaps it’s most pure form. Indeed, claims of purity and nourishment are what underpinned the successful development of the bottled water industry – to the extent that its patrons now view tap water as it’s opposite, dirty and dangerous. Meanwhile, bottled water companies jump at increasingly frequent opportunities to be photographed handing out their life-giving product at scenes of humanitarian disaster.
But so pervasive has become the culture of bottled water drinking, that the planners and architects of our burgeoning cities have had no need to increase the provision of hygienic public access to drinking water at a rate proportional to the density of the population which routinely occupies our parks, streets, office buildings and airports.
Indeed, relatively small bottled water companies, absorbed by global food corporations such as Craft and Nestle, now have the power to exert influence on the politics of planning and development so as to ensure that their market remains. They are also able to lobby against environmental restrictions and tariffs on their activities, to the effect that water resources on public land are often acquired at nominal cost.
But, we might ask, is it the vital, more immediate aspect to water that makes the difference? While the hydro-social nature of copper is more difficult to articulate, most people recognise the absurdity of bottled water. While both copper and water have become woven into the fabric of our consumerist lifestyles, is it only water to which we retain corporeal relationship?
Is this a reason that local resistance to bottled water companies has recently met with considerable success, whereas efforts to oppose copper (or any other mineral, for that matter) mining are drawn into lengthy legal battles biased toward those with superior financial resources?
It is this vitality, I argue, that produces a curious inversion between the two examples. On the one hand, when an argument is presented for the disastrous environmental effects of excavating a copper mine, one of the most common contentions is that, ultimately, “we all need copper.” This is self-evident, however unpalatable.
But for a bottled water company to argue that “we all need water”, on the other hand, is to risk its own demise. Yes, we all need water, but water that was ours in the first place? Which you have seized and are now selling back to us for the purpose of gleaning exorbitant profits to be distributed among greedy executives?
That water belongs to the people, it is ours to drink, we pay for it to be piped to our homes, it is essential to our economy, it irrigates our crops, it is in the food we eat, it sustains the remnants of our natural places, it is part of our wellbeing and our livelihoods. These are the arguments which Nestle and the U.S. Forest Service have met with at San Bernardino in California and at Cascade Locks in Oregon.
Nevertheless, while water embodies and is embodied by social life, as I have suggested, copper also embodies water. Ultimately, the conflicts are over the same thing: local resources, the rights to which are legally biased toward the interests of global capital.