Introduction

Imagine a huge room full of slumbering people. It’s not clear how they came to be there. Did they all get tired and fall asleep together? Or did some malevolent force drug them? Whatever the cause, here they are now, fast asleep. Some of them snore; some twitch in their sleep; others seem to enjoy “the sleep of the dead.”

Gradually, throughout the room, people begin to stir and awaken. Someone snoring or moaning in dream awakens one or two people nearby. As these people arouse, they turn, stretch, yawn, and make small sounds, which awakens others around them. Like waves slowly spreading, the group gradually comes out of sleep. Some stay asleep for a longer time, but continue to awaken others by their dreaming sounds and movements. People sit up, greet one another, and begin to stand up, move around, and talk quietly. Still more people awaken. Now only a few people remain asleep; their neighbors arouse them with varying degrees of gentleness. Some may experience a rude awakening.

I offer this story as an image of what we Americans are experiencing today. The roomful of people can represent us collectively; it can also represent each one of us, awake in some aspects of our lives, and still asleep in others. But we are all awakening together. Even those still fast asleep may be the catalyst for another’s awakening: in our efforts to remain asleep (“Go away! Don’t bother me!”), we may unknowingly help others to wake up.

What is this sleep from which we are awakening? It is the sleep of denial, of the fantasy that we humans can squander the resources of this planet without consequences, that we can always throw our waste “away” somewhere, that the supply of oil and coal and trees is inexhaustible, that we can pollute the air and water and soil of our ecosystems without significantly endangering our future. Waking up is the process of increasing awareness that certain of our common practices, especially more recent ones, have devastating environmental, social, and even spiritual effects. At a deeper level, we are waking up to our absolute interdependence within the web of life, and discovering our power and responsibility to restore the health of our environment and communities.

As one of the awakening throng, I want to share my experience in hopes of furthering the process for all of us. I hope that others will share their perspectives and insights to help me awaken, too. I plan to write and distribute one essay or article monthly, each focused on a different concern or issue. In some cases, I may suggest collective actions we can take to help awaken ourselves and others to the need for a change in our sleepwalking behavior.

I recently saw a video series called “A Force More Powerful” that portrays six nonviolent movements that overcame massive injustice in the 20th century: the American civil rights movement, the Indian struggle for independence (led by Ghandi), the end of apartheid in South Africa, the solidarity labor movement in Poland, the Danish resistance movement during World War II, and the defeat of dictator Pinochet in Chile. These history lessons inspired me to think about how we might use nonviolent means to free our world from the oppressive forces at work today. Our situation presents special challenges, because these forces operate subtly and nearly invisibly. We are fish who cannot recognize the waters in which we swim. We worry about the war in Iraq, for example, but cannot see how our daily lives and choices have anything to do with the Administration’s policies and actions.

Where are the unjust laws we might challenge through civil disobedience? Most of these laws, such as the Patriot Act, do not directly affect us as we go about our daily lives. They allow the government to intrude on our lives in various ways, rather than forbid us to do this or require us to do that. So we cannot practice civil disobedience in any direct way. However, we still have the boycott, which proved to be one of the most powerful nonviolent tools in the 20th century, especially in the South African and American civil rights struggles.

I personally make many choices about where I shop. Whenever possible I try to support local business and organic farmers. I try to avoid the worst offenders—polluters, sweatshop employers, mega-corporations that destroy local business and small farms, producers of genetically modified crops and seeds, and companies that work with and support oppressive governments. This may help me to feel better about myself, but doesn’t do much to awaken others, or to catalyze change in the corporate world. I want to support visible and vocal boycotts, so that others become aware of the problems we are trying to address, and so the companies themselves realize why they are losing sales. Hence, as I share my awakening regarding various unjust and destructive practices, I will also share ideas for collective action, often in the form of boycotts that can be organized and spread through the Internet.

Issue: Bottled Drinking Water?

Recently, Nestlé, a huge international corporation, came to town, to the tiny ex-lumber town of McCloud, about 12 miles from the city of Mount Shasta (where I currently teach half-time). Nestlé officials convinced the only local governmental body, McCloud Service District, to sign a contract allowing Nestlé to build a water bottling plant there. The contract was signed behind closed doors, with only one public hearing prior to the signing at which almost no information was made available. A group immediately formed to oppose this action, bringing an initial lawsuit and putting on a public “Water Forum” in November, which I attended. What an education I received there! I came away convinced that responsible, concerned citizens across the country need to stop consuming bottled water, specifically in small throw-away plastic containers, with brand names such as Arrowhead, Crystal Springs, Alhambra, Ice Mountain, etc.

Most bottled drinking water brands have been bought up, or are being bought up, by three mega corporations: Nestlé International, Coca Cola, and Pepsi. According to the Alliance for Democracy, Nestlé is the biggest producer in bottled water worldwide, and also the biggest offender in terms of draining water resources, pollution, manipulating and exploiting local communities, and abusive legal practices to suppress opposition. These companies make huge profits: bottled water sales in the U.S. alone came to $8.3 billion in 2003. They share a tiny percentage of this profit with the local communities from which they extract their water; Nestlé will pay $45,360 for 1600 acre feet of spring water annually, about .001 cent per gallon. That seems like a lot of money to this impoverished town, but it is a miniscule percentage of the profits Nestlé will make from the water extracted there.

Nestlé is bottling water from sources all over the United States. Many locations, even watery areas such as Michigan, have experienced drastic reduction in lake and river levels as a result of bottling activities. Areas suffering from drought have not been spared: Nestlé continues to harvest water while local wells run dry. Nestlé’s exclusive-use contract with the McCloud Service District would even require the District to drill holes if the spring water is not sufficient to meet Nestlé’s requirements (presumably at the District’s own expense).

Nestlé proposes to build a one million square foot bottling plant in McCloud, vastly exceeding the size of the town itself. The plant would be the largest in the world, serving as a regional distribution center to markets in every direction. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to forecast the kind of truck traffic that will bring to the area, with all the attendant pollution and hazards.

Many people buy bottled water believing it to be healthier to drink. It ain’t necessarily so. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, bottled water is not subject even to governmental standards set for municipal water supplies. Any type of coli form bacteria is allowed up to a certain level in bottled water, while none is allowed in municipal water supplies. There are no standards for HCP bacteria or for Giardia, nor requirements for filtering. Bottled water need only be tested once a year for synthetic organic chemicals, as opposed to quarterly testing of municipal water supplies. No enough is known about the out-gassing of the plastic bottles themselves. In short, the very water people drink for health may carry more pollutants than the city water they scorn.

The third area of serious concern is the disposal of the throw-away plastic bottles, now being produced in increasingly smaller sizes, and therefore in larger quantities. In many parts of the Third World (where the bottles are imported primarily for tourist use), mounds of used bottles are building up in canyons, on hillsides, in waterways, etc. These bottles will not decompose and, if burned, produce toxic smoke. I don’t know the figures for how much these bottles are contributing to the waste stream in the U.S., but I imagine they are having a significant impact.

In short, we have a huge, powerful multinational corporation moving into local communities and watersheds, essentially privatizing one of their most precious resources, putting it in little plastic bottles (manufactured on-site, with all the toxic chemicals—and waste water—involved in that process) and paying a pittance for the resource they extract. They sell this water at more than the cost of gasoline, promising health while delivering a suspect product at inflated cost, and with apparently no concern for the final resting place of their containers.

Anyone over the age of 20 can probably remember the time before drinking water was sold in small disposable plastic bottles. Perrier (since bought up by Nestlé) offered a boutique French import for “connoisseurs” and Yuppies, in glass bottles. Only in the last few years have cartons of bottled drinking water appeared in every discount store and grocery in the country— a vivid example of a manufactured “need” sold to consumers through advertising and product placement. I recall we all had plenty of water to drink before, although we may have had to carry it with us, and plan ahead a bit more. I carry water from my tap (thankfully tasty and pure) in Nalgene bottles, because I understood they had less out-gassing. That no longer being certain, I plan to switch to a stainless steel flask. In Durango, where the water contains some objectionable minerals, one can buy water for 25 cents a gallon from dispensers in every supermarket—bring your own bottle to refill. The dispenser has a built-in reverse osmosis (RO) filter—removing every possible contaminant—similar to the ones many people have in their homes. We got along without bottled drinking water in the recent past, and we can do so again.

In this case, a boycott of a product is not aimed at changing a business practice or law. This boycott aims to do away with a product altogether by drying up the market (pardon the pun). Nestlé and Coca Cola and Pepsi have other—perhaps more responsible—ways to make profits for their shareholders. Let’s move them out of the business of privatizing water altogether.

Note:  Since I wrote this article in 2005, a great deal of citizen activism has succeeded in discouraging Nestlé frjom trying to exploit the little town of McCloud.  I am grateful for the countless hours these activists spent in meetings, educating the public, studying and responding to the  Draft Environmental Impact Report initially put forth by Nestlé, and other activities. I believe that Nestlé officials came to realize it just wasn’t worth the effort to move forward.  Hurrah!

Information for this article came from:
Alliance for Democracy, July 2004 Special Edition; www.thealliancefordemocracy.org/water

Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org/water/drinking

McCloud Watershed Council, email: info@mccloudwater.com