Economist technology editor Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in Six Glasses (which sounds interesting, to judge by the reviews I've seen), has an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times that says we shouldn't drink bottled water because many people have trouble getting clean drinking water of any kind:
Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year. This is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water.
I have no objections to people drinking bottled water in the developing world; it is often the only safe supply. But it would surely be better if they had access to safe tap water instead. The logical response, for those of us in the developed world, is to stop spending money on bottled water and to give the money to water charities.
This response may be symbolically appealing, but it is anything but logical. Rather than focus on bottled water, Standage could just as easily have condemned residents of affluent countries for spending money on soda, wine, restaurant meals, pets, TV sets, vacations, or any of the myriad other nonessential things that make their lives easier or more enjoyable. How dare we buy anything we don't need when there are desperately poor people in the world who need reliable supplies of potable water, among other things? Or, if you prefer symmetry, how dare we buy fancy cars when Ugandans lack decent roads, mansions when Bangladeshis lack huts, gourmet food when Haitians are malnourished? If people have books on cars, architecture, or caviar to promote, no doubt we can look forward to op-ed pieces tackling these profound topics.