«A More Perfect Commodity: Bottled Water, Global Accumulation, and Local Contestation Daniel Jaffee Department of Sociology *Washington State ...»
Rural Sociology 78(1), 2013, pp. 1–28
Copyright © 2012, by the Rural Sociological Society
A More Perfect Commodity: Bottled Water, Global
Accumulation, and Local Contestation
Department of Sociology
*Washington State University
School of the Environment
Washington State University
Bottled water sits at the intersection of debates regarding the
social and environmental effects of the commodiﬁcation of nature and the ways neoliberal globalization alters the provision of public services. Utilizing Polanyi’s concept of ﬁctitious commodities and Harvey’s work on accumula- tion by dispossession, this article traces bottled water’s transformation from elite niche item to a product consumed by three fourths of U.S. households.
Drawing on ethnographic research with participants in two cases of proposed spring water extraction from rural communities by industry leader Nestlé Waters, we make two principal arguments. First, the case of bottled water necessitates a reevaluation of existing theoretical frameworks regarding water privatization and commodiﬁcation. Municipal tap water networks pose sub- stantial barriers to capital accumulation, leading one inﬂuential scholar to frame water as an “uncooperative commodity.” However, bottled water’s char- acteristics enable it to evade many of these constraints, rendering it a “more perfect commodity” for accumulation. Second, expansion of the market good of bottled water alters the prospects for the largely publicly provided good of tap water. We conclude that the growth of this relatively new commodity represents a more serious threat to the project of universal public drinking water provision than that posed by tap water privatization.
The biggest enemy is tap water.
—Robert S. Morrison, chairman, PepsiCo North American Beverage and Food Division When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.
—Susan Wellington, president, Quaker Oats U.S. Beverage Division Introduction Thirty years ago, the prospect of a large segment of the population shunning tap water and families spending hundreds of dollars or more annually on bottled water would have struck most people as ludicrous.
Yet today, bottled water is second only to soft drinks as the world’s 2 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 most-consumed beverage, surpassing 56 billion gallons in 2010. U.S.
consumers collectively guzzled 8.7 billion gallons, or 28 gallons per capita, below Italy at 49 gallons and Mexico at 64 gallons (Rodwan 2011).
Much of that growth has come at the expense of the tap: Since 1980, per capita consumption of tap water in the United States has fallen by 36 gallons (Gleick 2010). As the epigraphs above indicate, the bottled water and beverage industries are engaged in a public relations battle against municipal tap water, one that has proved strikingly effective.
The commodity of bottled water sits intriguingly at the intersection of current debates regarding the appropriate boundary between the private and public spheres (e.g., Laxer and Soron 2006); the ways neoliberal globalization has altered nation-states and the social compact regarding provision of basic public services (e.g., Dilworth 2007; McMichael 2011); the construction of identity through consumption (e.g., Wilk 2006); and the social and ecological implications of the commodiﬁcation or “neoliberalization” of nature (e.g., Castree 2008).
The riddles posed by the meteoric rise of this commodity—for which consumers pay thousands of times more per gallon than tap water (Environmental Working Group 2008) to consume a product that is less regulated, can contain more toxic substances, and uses over 1,000 times more energy (Gleick and Cooley 2009; Parag and Roberts 2009;
Stephenson 2009), yet (at least in most of the global North) is largely unnecessary for meeting physical need—presumably would be of great interest to social scientists. Yet despite bottled water’s dramatic growth over the past quarter century, its present ubiquity, and the not insigniﬁcant local contestation it has generated, scholarly attention to this phenomenon has been surprisingly sparse. This is true regarding not only its social, political-economic, and environmental effects but also the ways that bottled water parallels and diverges from the process of privatization and commodiﬁcation of municipal drinking water systems in the global South and North. That latter phenomenon—the privatization of tap water—has received far greater scrutiny, in particular the efforts by transnational water corporations to open municipal public water systems in the global South to private ownership and management, and the often dramatic protests that have accompanied this phenomenon (e.g., Bakker 2010; Goldman 2005). Bottled water extraction, as we explain below, represents a distinct (though related) set of processes, and the industry is dominated by a different group of multinational ﬁrms.
Sociologists and other observers of such instances of privatization have found utility in a range of analytical frameworks, among these A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 3 David Harvey’s prominent notion of “accumulation by dispossession,” and have generated a substantial body of literature focusing on water as an exemplar (e.g., Ahlers 2010; Bakker 2005; Castro 2007; Goldman 2007; Roberts 2008; Spronk and Webber 2007; Swyngedouw 2005). Yet a key issue remains undertheorized: the differential barriers to accumulation that are posed by distinct forms of what is ostensibly a single resource. By extending this analysis to incorporate the complex relationship between bottled and municipal water, this article contributes to a more nuanced debate regarding the manner in which commodiﬁcation, accumulation, and social contestation intersect.
In the following section, we chart key debates over the commodiﬁcation and enclosure of nature, drawing parallels to scholarship on the political economy of food systems regarding biotechnology. We brieﬂy synopsize the issues raised by the privatization of drinking water globally, examining both the contestation it has engendered and the barriers it has posed to capital accumulation. The third section focuses on bottled water speciﬁcally, charting its meteoric rise from an elite niche product to a $65 billion annual market. We trace the growing opposition to bottled water extraction in the United States as well as the industry’s changing strategies in response to this activism. The fourth section examines these issues through ethnographic research on two speciﬁc instances of local contestation over bottled water. A ﬁfth section evaluates the ways that bottled water diverges conceptually from tap water, but how the expansion of the former is intimately linked to the fortunes of the latter.
We make two principal arguments in this article. First, we contend that bottled water represents a challenge to the primary ways that scholars have so far conceptualized the privatization and commodiﬁcation of water. Speciﬁcally, bottled water does not present many of the barriers to capital accumulation posed by tap water networks, in contrast with Bakker’s (2005) inﬂuential framing of water as an “uncooperative commodity.” Many observers conﬁrm that the privatization of municipal (tap) water systems around the world has encountered signiﬁcant obstacles to capital accumulation (Bakker 2005; Loftus 2009; Swyngedouw 2005).
However, bottled water’s material traits—as well as the technological and political-economic transformations facilitating its dramatic growth globally—have enabled it to evade many of these constraints, rendering it a “more perfect commodity” for accumulation. Second, expansion of the market good of bottled water alters the prospects for the largely publicly provided good of tap water. Half of all bottled water sold in the United States today is ﬁltered municipal tap water (Food and Water Watch 2010a), yet the bottled water industry contributes to the devalorization and deterioration of public drinking water systems in both the 4 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 global North and South, both directly and indirectly (Parag and Roberts 2009). However, its rapid expansion has not gone unchallenged. In this article, we draw on interviews with participants in two U.S. cases of proposed spring water extraction from rural communities by the industry leader Nestlé Waters to illuminate the tensions between differing conceptions regarding the nature and ownership of water. As the case studies illustrate, the opposition generated by bottled water’s extraction and consumption has raised the industry’s costs and helped to alter its accumulation strategies. Nonetheless, given the large proportion of the public in both North and South that already relies on bottled water for at least part of its drinking water supply, we conclude that the continued growth of this commodity represents a tangible threat to the project of universal safe public drinking water provision, one likely more serious than that posed by the broader phenomenon of tap water privatization itself.
Water: Privatization, Commodiﬁcation, and Resistance Theoretical Perspectives on Commodiﬁcation In his foundational work The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi identiﬁed what he termed the “ﬁctitious commodities” of land, labor, and money as central to the destructive tendencies of an unregulated market economy. While genuine commodities are produced for sale in the market, Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, ﬁnally, is merely a token of purchasing power.... None of them is produced for sale. The commodity description of labor, land, and money is entirely ﬁctitious. (72).
Polanyi wrote that nineteenth-century society had undergone a “double movement” in which “the extension of the market organization in respect to genuine commodities was accompanied by its restriction in respect to ﬁctitious ones” (76), through increased state regulation of capital and the rise of labor movements and the welfare state. However, neoliberal globalization has since removed or weakened many of these safeguards, and stretched the ﬁctitious commodities even further into new areas such as knowledge, body parts, life forms, and genes (Kloppenburg 2004; Laxer and Soron 2006). The commodiﬁcation of water—an element of Polanyi’s land—likewise offers a provocative modern case study of the perils of the commodity ﬁction.
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 5 Some scholars (e.g., Roberts 2008) describe the conversion of water and other public goods into marketable commodities as a form of primitive accumulation, drawing on Marx’s (1867) analysis stressing the historical process by which capitalism has separated producers from the social means of subsistence and production (Glassman 2006). However, the geographer David Harvey (2003) has usefully extended Marx’s framework to emphasize the variants of these dynamics occurring in the present day, coining the term “accumulation by dispossession.” This phenomenon, Harvey argues, is a response by capital to a crisis of overaccumulation—“a condition where surpluses of capital... lie idle with no proﬁtable outlets in sight” (149)—in which it must conquer new terrains in order to retain or return to proﬁtability. “What accumulation by dispossession does,” writes Harvey (149), “is to release a set of assets... at very low (and in some instances zero) cost. Overaccumulated capital can seize hold of such assets and immediately turn them to proﬁtable use.” At the heart of this phenomenon is the process of commodiﬁcation— the incorporation of formerly public, common-pool, or otherwise nonmarket goods, resources, and services into the market. Harvey describes privatization as the “cutting edge” of accumulation by dispossession, stressing the role played by the World Bank, IMF, and WTO in imposing privatization of public goods, services, and property on southern debtor nations under structural adjustment regimes, through conditions attached to debt renegotiation (2003:148).
Several scholars have applied Harvey’s inﬂuential framework to water and extended it, analyzing both the broad process of commodiﬁcation and speciﬁc instances of water privatization in various countries, as well as the opposition they have engendered (e.g., Ahlers 2010). “Nature itself has long resisted commodiﬁcation,” argues Swyngedouw (2005:87), “but in recent years, nature and its waters have become an increasingly vital component in the relentless quest of capital for new sources of accumulation.... [A] local/global choreography is forged that is predicated upon mobilizing local H2O, turning it into money, and inserting this within transnational ﬂows of circulating capital.” Thus, the privatization of drinking water can be understood as one facet of a much broader, ongoing process of commodiﬁcation of nature, linked to the strategies of global capital ﬁrms to ensure continued accumulation.