26 January 2009

Missing the Point

This story (via DW) shows how the right diagnosis can come with the wrong treatment:
The world is in danger of running out of "sustainably managed water", according to Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute and a leading authority on global freshwater resources.

[snip]

A key element to tackling the crisis, say experts, is to increase the public understanding of the individual water content of everyday items.
Yes, we are running out of cheap water. No, the solution is not educating people on the water content of a glass of orange juice.

I don't care how much water it took to make my OJ; I don't care where it came from; I don't care who squeezed the fruit; and I don't care about the companies that conveyed the juice from somewhere to the market where I bought it.

What I do care about is the quality of the juice, and -- holding quality constant -- the price of that juice.

Now I may be an exception, but it's more likely that I am typical in my beliefs. What is very unlikely is that consumers will go to the market and shop for food based on price, quality, sustainability, water footprint, carbon footprint, vegetarian constant, harvest labor standards, locality, etc.

What most people shop for is food that they want to eat (taste), that fits within their menu (complementarity, culture and convenience), that looks good ("nutrition"), and that fits within their budget (price price price!).

There are, of course, a minority (<10% but perhaps a larger share among readers of this blog) who DO factor water footprints, etc. into their shopping decisions, but this minority is inconsequential in terms of market forces AND in terms of changing others' decision making. (It they were consequential, the organic and vegetarian movements would have dominated years ago...)

So what's to be done about the water content of food to make people understand that water is no longer cheap? I hate to say it, and it sounds like a tautology, but the price of food should rise to reflect the water intensity of the food. Duh.

Bottom Line: Prices make it easy for people to compare actions and make the "right" decision. Water prices should rise to reflect scarcity, and food prices will duly follow.

7 comments:

Ken Burgin said...

Classic - it's one of the two faux-solutions that are proposed by everyone who wants to avoid action that will actually work (and hurt vested interests). They are:

1. Public Education Campaign (like this)
2. Voluntary Code of Conduct (usually so weak as to be meaningless)

Michelle said...

I agree. However, I must be an idiot, because I'm sure I've asked this question before but I obviously haven't internalized the answer: who raises prices and how do they justify it to any disgruntled consumers? For things containing water, the price of water itself will have to go up (just as the price of carbon will have to go up for things containing carbon re:climate change). So the people controlling water will have to raise price of water. Since this is not being done I must assume that there is some other action that must happen before prices will be raised. High-level governmentally mandated water tax? Education of water managers (and perhaps consumers so they are ok with it) on why prices rising is the correct thing? Severe enough water shortage that the price goes up merely based on supply/demand pressures? What?

David Zetland said...

Michelle -- water prices are regulated and linked to the cost of delivery. To get prices above cost is politically difficult/illegal. I am someone who favors a change in that situation, but managers MSUT lead the way...

Michelle said...

David,

OK, from an activist's point of view - is there a chance of swaying the managers, and if so what do you recommend for action? Besides blogging intelligently on the issue, of course, which is already being done :)

David Zetland said...

The best way to get a manager's attention is to hassle them. They HATE public hearings, protests, etc.

So next time there is a hearing on rates or shortages, turn up and protest that rates are too LOW. If you keep it up, they will start to listen. (They often only hear that rates are too high, but THOSE activists fail to see the connection between low rates and subsequent shortages...)

Mupetblast said...

So next time there is a hearing on rates or shortages, turn up and protest that rates are too LOW. If you keep it up, they will start to listen. (They often only hear that rates are too high, but THOSE activists fail to see the connection between low rates and subsequent shortages...)


Good god, be prepared to be a pariah. Though harping on the fact (I think you've said so) that it is the central valley farmers who consume below cost that make up most of the problem, it might go over ok.

Anonymous said...

"What is very unlikely is that consumers will go to the market and shop for food based on price, quality, sustainability, water footprint, carbon footprint, vegetarian constant, harvest labor standards, locality, etc.

What most people shop for is food that they want to eat (taste), that fits within their menu (complementarity, culture and convenience), that looks good ("nutrition"), and that fits within their budget (price price price!).

There are, of course, a minority (<10% but perhaps a larger share among readers of this blog) who DO factor water footprints, etc. into their shopping decisions, but this minority is inconsequential in terms of market forces AND in terms of changing others' decision making. (It they were consequential, the organic and vegetarian movements would have dominated years ago...)"

I disagree with the above. You say that consumers won't choose products based on a whole list of things but then say that they will shop based on culture. Aren't all these things culture?

Also, to say consumers who do consider these things are inconsequential is completely unproven. 20 years ago there were no organic choices in a conventional grocery store. Now there is almost always one option organic to the other conventional options. Just because a movement is slow to take off (particularly because of price) doesn't make it inconsequential.

You seemed to pull a lot of information into this blog that was unnecessary to your point about water and generalize a very important movement of culture.