The Water Fountain

Sharon September 28th, 2007

Like everyone in the rich world, I carry bottles of water with me everywhere I go. Were someone from the past to spot me, they’d be stunned by the sight of all the people, clearly headed on long treks into the uninhabited jungle, carrying water lest they die of dehydration. Because, after all, in historical terms, at least in the US, one carries a canteen or other source of water while camping or otherwise engaged in a trek to uncertain, undeveloped lands. In populated areas, folks 30 or 40 years ago, would have told a thirsty person - “wait until we get to the water fountain.”

You remember those water fountains, right? The things that meant you didn’t have to buy soda or haul a bottle around, you just waited until you passed the next one, and drank your fill. You remember playing the game of getting enough water up, or squirting your sister in the nose? I do. They were in public parks and by public restrooms, in town centers and everywhere you went. They obviated the need to purchase anything when you had such a simple, basic human concern as ordinary thirst. You could trust them to be there - if you whined “Daddy, I’m thirsty” - waiting for the next water fountain was reasonable, achievable, because they were always there.

And, of course, it was this very public-ness that was dangerous. Dangerous once because one’s lips might touch metal that had touched the lips of a person of another skin color. Then dangerous because one might get germs from them (never mind that most plastic water bottles involve drinking a big old slug of dioxin, which isn’t exactly good for you). After all, they are PUBLIC, and public is scary, because anyone can use it. Even poor people. Even icky people. Even people we would normally never actually share anything with. Thus, we magnify our fears of other people to avoid having to find public solutions. Or we simply get in the habit of privatizing everything, leaving the public sphere only to those who can’t afford to leave it - and thus allowing us to call this “the tragedy of the commons,” when, in fact, it is the tragedy of privatization and wealth and our rejection of both commons - and common ground with other people.

My youngest son, Asher, is in the full throes of toddlerhood right now, and when exhorted that he has to accomodate his brothers in some way, he tends to shout, “I don’t! I don’t share!!” And most of us don’t share very much either - we have decidedly toddlerish relationships to sharing. There are two problems with this. The first is the problem that it isn’t right to allow poor people to be screwed because we’re afraid to have to sit next to them on the bus, but we’ve already gone there. The real problem for the people who have most embraced private solutions is that when we’re unable to achieve and afford them, we find that we’ve trashed our infrastructure. That is, as we began carrying our water bottles around, we closed up and stopped maintaining our water fountains. And now that it turns out that the bottles are bad for us and the water in them contaminated, our options are a lot smaller.

The same is true of most peak oil and climate change preparations. I’ve been accused here of fatalism, because I don’t think we’re going to have money or resources to radically transform ourselves into a society powered by alternative energies, and I don’t think most of us are going to have the money to put tens of thousands of dollars into retrofitting our homes. But what I do think we could do is dramatically reinforce and recreate our public infrastructure, and to create public solutions to problems we now typically examine as private. We can live in homes that are dramatically stripped down, with low energy infrastructure, if we have access to a few powered public resources that we share with others.

That is, while I think it unlikely we will all be having solar powered pumps to bring up water from our private wells, there is no reason your town can put solar or hand powered pumps in central, public places to provide water in the event of a major outage. While most people will not have a perfectly retrofitted canning kitchen, there’s no reason our church and school kitchens can’t be transformed into public use. While we won’t all have cars, there’s no reason those of us who do can’t put many more people in them for most trips, a la the community solution’s smart jitney program. I may not be able to afford a solar system for my home, but my neighbors and I may be able to afford to solar retrofit a garage on our street that could be used as a schoolroom, a clinic for our local nurse practitioner, as a place for band practice and neighborhood parties.

It is easier to plan for ourselves. It is easier in many ways to carry our water bottle. It is easier not to talk to other people, it is easier not to need other people, or have to share and accomodate them. It is easier to pick the people you want to share with, to be exclusive rather than inclusive. There are all sorts of reasons not to think in public terms, and only, I think, two major ones to do so. First of all, if we are to break out of our isolation, we have to, and second, because we have no choice - privatized solutions are too costly, too exclusive, too limited. Anyone who goes into peak oil and climate change imagining you will be one of the rich and lucky who will always be able to afford your bottle of water is, I think, betting on winning the lottery.

I’ve written more about this here:


22 Responses to “The Water Fountain”

  1. Anonymouson 28 Sep 2007 at 2:50 pm

    Just an aside comment: In Southern Europe you can still see waterfountains in most public parks and gardens, and the occasional street. It’s hot and people are still not used to carrying water around with them. Also, you can get glasses of water for free in most cafes, even if you’re not a patron. You go in, politely ask for a glasse of water (tapwater, that is), and teher you have it. In my country (Portugal) everybody does it. In Spain and Italy too.

    Marta from Lisbon

  2. Jimon 28 Sep 2007 at 2:55 pm

    –there is no reason your town can

    Sharon, do you mean “can’t”?

  3. Rejin Lon 28 Sep 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Same is true for public telephones. You used to be able to keep in touch when on the go by carrying a couple of coins around with you. But the phones mysteriously became unreliable, vandalized, dirty. Now, so many people carry a cell phone (if they can afford them) for which they pay a hefty monthly fee, pay to charge them, pay for shiny new upgrades. So much more costly than pay phones.
    I think we have been so brainwashed into thinking the privatized versions are better (designer bottled water, multi-function phones) that we don’t even realize how much we are being cheated.

  4. Anonymouson 28 Sep 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Why have tap water when one can have Fiji Water left to steep in a plastic bottle all the way from the south Pacific?

    Seriously, I constantly turn down offers of bottled water from friends, family, co-workers, and students. I had one student offer me a pack of this Fiji Water recently. I explained the case against bottled water, but especially “exotic” waters bottled and brought all the way around the world, but he just looked at me.


    Stephen B.
    suburban MA

  5. jewishfarmeron 28 Sep 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Re-reading this, I realize I should specify - I don’t carry “bottled water” I carry “bottles of water” - that is, a couple of reusable metal bottles that I fill from my own taps. But given that I’m in charge of keeping four kids hydrated, that means that I still need frequent refills, if I’m not to carry my own weight in water - and the fountains are stupidly infrequent.

    And yes, I meant “can’t” - some editing to do, clearly - that’s what I get for trying to get the post up on the run.


  6. Ameliaon 28 Sep 2007 at 4:21 pm

    I spend time in three parks in town; all of them have well-maintained public fountains, fed by an artesian spring — the ones in Liberty Park even have bowls on the ground for people walking their dogs.

    Artesian Well Park is a pocket park a few blocks away from me: three streams run continuously, and even though it’s in what’s considered one of the rougher parts of town I’ve never felt anything but welcomed when I’ve stopped to refill a bottle in the course of a walk; maybe a little of the concept of the “peace of the oasis” remains in local collective memory . . . .

    And in November of last year, “the Salt Lake City Mayor’s office asked all City employees to eliminate their use of single serving, disposable bottled water. In addition, all City sponsored meetings, interoffice functions and events no longer provide bottled water; pitchers and refillable containers are available.” (That’s from the SLC Green page, which also has a section on the front page on why residents should stop buying bottled water, with a link to the annual tap water quality report.)

  7. Ameliaon 28 Sep 2007 at 4:22 pm

    Oh! You know what else is scarce? Clean, safe public toilets!

  8. homebrewlibrarianon 28 Sep 2007 at 5:35 pm

    I haven’t quite given up my Nalgene bottle but at least I don’t store water in it. Besides being useful when exercising or walking around, it’s a great thing to have when flying. I bring it through security empty and then fill it up using the airport’s water fountains. Then I have on demand water during the flight and cut down the waste of a single serve plastic bottle. Eventually I’ll get around to replacing it with stainless steel but for now, it’s okay.

    As for the larger issue of privatizing everything in our lives, besides being a tremendous waste of resources and reducing the contact we have with others, I actually believe that it increases the fear factor which then drives people to seclude themselves from others. Check out a bus or an airport waiting area sometime and see how many people talk to each other. Especially if the group is mostly upper middle class. I’ve seen very active bus waiting areas but the people who are talking with each other are not the more privileged among us. Why is that? Because they have nothing to gain by becoming more “private” or maybe that’s not an option for them? I often wonder.


  9. feonixrifton 28 Sep 2007 at 5:49 pm

    Actually, yes, I am afraid to sit next to them on the bus. I’m afraid their weeks worth of grime picked up from pawing through trashcans for recyclables and unwashed body odor will give me an asthma problem yet again. But I do take the bus, and I don’t blame them, I just hold my breath a lot and am very disappointed in a society that is comfortable with people making a living by sticking their hands in its trash.

    But I did find a water fountain in the grocery store the other day. Tucked in a very hard to reach corner, but still operational.

  10. Anonymouson 28 Sep 2007 at 5:50 pm

    I think there are two non-evil reasons why people would bring water with them. 1. concern that domestic water is polluted with chlorine and fluorine and who knows what else.
    2. It’s really hard to drink more than an ounce or two out of a fountain. If you drink the “recommended” 2 liters or more of water a day, you’ll spend much of the day with your face in the fountain trying to get that much.

    This is not to say that you are incorrect about the larger issue, the degradation of public facilities. That is a big concern, and a sign of the lone-rangerism and social class divide rampant in the U.S.

    BTW I have glass bottles that I fill at home and take with me. Infinitely reusable.

    Lynnet in CO

  11. Ethanon 28 Sep 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Portland, Oregon has a wonderful array of functioning public fountains called Benson Bubblers. Most of them bubble continuously, which makes it easy to stop for a drink. Many have four heads, which seems excessive - but a marvelous feeling when a group of friends can all quench their thirst at once!

  12. emilyon 28 Sep 2007 at 9:58 pm

    On a positive note…

    I was in Berlin over the summer and shocked to see an old pump working in the former West! It was a very bourgeois street close to a former royal palace (I tried to imagine stepping into one of the immaculate gardens in front of the gorgeously painted 5-storey, pre-war buildings…). But there was this tall pump, immaculately painted green, with one of those long handles that you pull up and down. I refilled my Nalgene and it tasted great. Tourists took photos. :)

    Then again, most Germans I know insist on drinking carbonated water, and most buy it in glass bottles (but they recycle them doggedly due to the high deposit charged). It’d be great to move to a street like that and make a point of refilling my home’s water supply in public!

  13. Carmson 29 Sep 2007 at 2:21 am

    I think you’ve hit on an interesting point and I see a connection between privatising more of our lives and being less capable of living cooperatively. It seems to me that being able to work together and be mutually supportive is what will be needed when the full impact of climate change and peak oil hits.

    As an aside, we’re fortunate in Australia that there are still plenty of public drinking fountains in most towns and cities. In spite of this the bottled water industry is huge here and I don’t think that many people make use of the public facilities.

  14. --mfon 29 Sep 2007 at 3:47 am


    Dioxins are the least of the health problems with plastic bottled water.

    I urge you to research xenoestrogens in regard to plastic beverage bottles.

    If there is any other reason, beyond what you’ve already stated here, to avoid the bottled water (or any other plastic bottled beverage), this should be at the top of the list under dioxins.

    Look for a “7″ on the bottom of the bottle. This is the Canadian Standard Rating for plastics. The “7″ denotes that xenoestrogens are present in the plastic, and we can assume it has leached into the contained product. I suggest a proper glass-lined thermos.

    Just helping to build on an excellent post.

    Long life to you and yours,


  15. Alanon 29 Sep 2007 at 6:26 am

    Not every city has abandoned the idea of clean, pure, attractive public water fountains.

    Among Portland’s many old-fashioned amenities (along with our brand-new streetcar lines) are our “Benson bubblers”, drinking water fountains scattered throughout downtown and even in some older residential areas. They were first installed in 1896. They are carefully maintained and the citizenry makes certain that they are always available.

    Spring through fall, they bubble invitingly from early morning until around 10pm. There are 52 of the original design with 4 bubblers and another 76 with a single head.

    Here is a link which includes a photo:

    Portland, Oregon

  16. Anonymouson 29 Sep 2007 at 1:10 pm

    My question in light of the comments on dioxin and xenoestrogens is : How is one to properly store water in case of an emergency? And in what?

    We drink water purified by a filter on the sink tap but live in an apartment and would like a small just-in-case stock. Is store-bought water in plastic milk-style jugs kept in the fridge a bad idea? I was under the impression that the water would need to be purified and sealed to be able to keep for a while.

    Anyone have a better suggestion?

  17. Stephen Heyeron 30 Sep 2007 at 1:07 am

    First of all, I’m from small town North Australia and I’m happy to say we are still so backward, so disgustingly socialist and community minded, that we do public water fountains, lots of them.

    Further south, in the big cities, my people who live there tell me that in places they have been removed because the shop owners complain that they reduce the sales of soft drinks. They don’t seem to see anything wrong with this, but then they are rich, or like to think they are, and the rich and those who think they are or one day might be, really are different.

    Anyway, from historical knowledge here and from watching parts of the world that have had or are having collapse situations and visiting some, I agree totally that community is what will get you through.

    However, I think you are being a bit too pessimistic when it comes to modest alternative energy solutions on an individual bases.

    We seem to have just reached a crucial tipping point where technology becomes easier, perhaps progressively easier and more useful and more doable on modest scales. For example, installing a modest solar panel and/or small wind generator and a few batteries to run some ultra-efficient LED lights is now easy and cheap.

    Anyone who has spent time in places where there is no electricity will know the revolution that even modest electric lighting brings to peoples lives.

    And there are many other, small scale, fairly inexpensive, technologies such as water purification that would be immensely convenient. Many could even be manufactured in a small to middling regional city once local manufacturing was started up again.

    But of course, trying to fit out a typical McMansion and two SUVs to run “off grid” is totally impractical and for reasons I won’t go into here undesirable.

  18. foeckingmfon 30 Sep 2007 at 7:36 am

    Nice piece Sharon.

    Just a comment. Water bottles do not contain dioxin. 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (the nasty one), is an industrial impurity in the banned herbicide Silvex (agent orange). Polyethylene terephthalate bottles have no organic chlorine, thereore cannot make dioxin.

    They can have phthalete plasticizers, some of which are xenoestrogens. People feel that is why American girls reach puberty faster - any other effects are controversial.

    You might want to check with a chemist or doctor before posting artciles like this. I’d do it if you want.


  19. jewishfarmeron 30 Sep 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Hi Mark - Thanks for the correction. I admit, I had read in some now-unremembered article that most plastic bottles, when heated, leach dioxins into liquid. Since bottled water generally sits on loading docks, inside trucks, etc… for long periods, it seemed a given to me that they got heated as some point. But I must be wrong about this - I will check with a chemist, or if you do, let me know. Thank you for the clarification.

    I’m glad to hear that some places still place a heavy priority on public water fountains. One of my current projects is to get my town and other towns in my regions to consider placing manual well pumps in public places, so that in the event of long-term power outage, residents can have a local water source.

    Stephen H., I agree with you that there are some impresive new technologies, and I see the value of electric lighting. I strongly advocate people equip themselves with some kinds of renewable technologies. But my difficulty with the idea of “house attached” solar technology is that it seems like such a waste of money. You might spend one to two thousand dollars for solar panels, installation and wiring, batteries to run 4 LED lights, and you have a lighting system that doesn’t work 1/5 of the year in my location because it is often cloudy and dark for days in the winter, and that requires huge costly, toxic batteries to be replaced regularly. Or, you could buy 4 $25 solar battery chargers, 8 sets of renewable AA batteries and 4 portable LED lights for a grand total of $250 and have exactly the same effect, only with little tiny batteries and 1/10 the hassle. No electrician need call.


  20. Matton 30 Sep 2007 at 5:19 pm

    This is brilliant, I just came here from a comment someone left on Greer’s site. Thank you Sharon, it is good to have some one clearly and succinctly say the things that have been kicking around my head for too long.

    Just as an addition, thinking about public and private. I have been thinking about housing, and how i want a yard, nut then I thought about parks, and how they can serve as yards, if only we allow our sense of private space to change.

  21. Matton 30 Sep 2007 at 5:33 pm

    Reading back over that comment, I realize that I was kind of incoherent for the last part. However, I am going to write my own post on something like this, so I am not going to go back and revise it.

  22. Alanon 30 Sep 2007 at 6:24 pm

    Another point about water in plastic bottles — it’s going out of style!! Huzzah! All the information that’s been getting out about the wastefulness, silliness, and possible unhealthiness of buying, carrying around, and drinking bottled water is starting to make a difference.

    The latest style is to carry around your hydration supply in stainless steel or colorful, anodized aluminum Sigg-brand bottles.

    In addition, there are all these municipal authorities putting the quietus on city governments shelling out for bottled water in city offices and city board and committee meetings, etc.

    The bottled water industry which has been laughing at us all the way to bank for the last 15 years or so as bottled water came to be the hip thing to be seen with, are starting to get worried.

    So, even if you don’t think you need to carry water around with you, carrying around a metal bottle and drinking out of it frequently is making a statement that helps build the momentum against the absurdity of drinking water flown in from Fiji, or some glacier in Norway.

    Portland, Oregon (where our tap water is some of the purest in the world and it doesn’t even need to be filtered)

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