Elevate Difference

Yours, Mine, Ours, or Theirs?: Accessing and Controlling Oil and Water

Chicago, Illinois

Humanities lectures and art openings are consistent sources of free entertainment, so I was delighted to attend “Yours, Mine, Ours, or Theirs? Accessing and Controlling Oil and Water,” a conversation hosted by the Illinois Humanities Council. Panelists provided an engaging and far-ranging forum regarding two globally vital substances of incomparable importance. Some theorize that just as twentieth century conflicts began over the control of oil resources, our future conflicts will be over water. In 2002, Fortune magazine was blithely reporting on bottled water as the next hot commodity. Within two years, they were publicizing Pentagon reports that speculated on future wars incited by a water shortage brought about by climate change.

The litany of casualties in the name of oil includes the blood of Ken Saro Wiwa in Nigeria and the child of the neighbors two blocks east, a military service banner hanging in their window. Oil is a substance that we can live without, conserve, or replace with alternate energy sources. Not so with water. Will future conflicts bring a quieter carnage in the form of mere famine and dehydration? Does any human have the claim to meeting fundamental needs, or will we perpetuate societies in which there are no rights—just commodities and people who survive through persistence and happenstance, chance, and tenacity—vicious inheritors playing a Darwinist game in a world concocted by Smith and Hobbes?

Future hot spots include the Ogallala Aquifer, Mexico City, Chad, and China. My imagination spun a future combining elements of Frank Herbert's Dune with Mad Max. The scenario made my head hurt. Good thing that I had packed water in an EcoUsable water bottle to wash down some aspirin. Their stainless steel bottles are 100% recyclable and available in three sizes. As I’m always thirsty, for me, there is no choice other than the 33-oz. version—mine has a fun pattern of dots and hoops on its enamel shell— but there is also a 25-oz. size featuring a more curvaceous shape and built-in water filter. I had rationalized my bottled water consumption by reusing the bottles for homemade sun tea, but there are economic and environmental reasons to stop buying bottled water, period.

The artist Chris Jordan created powerful images of American consumption in his series Running the Numbers including an image of the two million plastic bottles that are used in the United States every five minutes. After a brief self-congratulatory moment of not having used a plastic water bottle, but speculating about the carbon imprint of one made in China, I was promptly thrust back into demoralization after viewing an excerpt of The Water Front, a documentary covering four years of water conflict in Highland Park, Michigan.

Using the phrase “water scarcity” in a community on the shore of a freshwater inland sea would be absurd if not for the impact on people's lives. The financial crisis precipitated by the town's Chrysler plant shutting down resulted in the auctioning off of municipal water services. Bills skyrocketed, and unpaid tabs were added to property tax bills, resulting in a spate of foreclosures. One water company representative states that “Nothing is free,” and someone has to pay for cleaning and infrastructure, but it appears that the market has neither mercy, nor any conception of fundamental human needs or rights.

The invisible hand is neither just nor kind. Privatization trends suggest that they would sell you the air if they could. Zimbabwe's current cholera epidemic demonstrates the limitations of perceiving clean, potable water as anything other than a necessity. The faucet drips as I write this. If I replaced a washer, I might save three gallons a day...

Written by: Erika Mikkalo, February 18th 2009