The Great Lakes as Bottled Water

When bottled water is placed next to Coca-Cola and other sugar-laden soft drinks, it seems a positive alternative, or at least benign. But take a closer look at the process by which that small unit of ordinary water has been acquired, packaged and marketed to you — for $1.50 a bottle, say — and you begin to see how bottled water is often a deep offense against the commons.

It’s a matter of taking something that belongs to all of us, denying its ecological importance, adding some modest proprietary value and marketing sizzle, and then selling it back to us at a huge markup. Disney did this with folk classics, Big Pharma does this with federal drug research, West Publishing does this with federal court decisions, and bottled water companies now do it with water.

An egregious case in point: recent legislation that Michigan Governor Granhold signed that allows Nestle to appropriate water from the Great Lakes. As Brian McKenna reports in a remarkable article in the Columbus Free Press (April 22, 2006):

The new Michigan law allows Nestle Corporation to continue its five-year takings of up to 250,000 gallons per day and sell them at a markup well over 240 times its production cost. Nestle’s profit from drawing this water could be from $500,000 to $1.8 million per day. A key proviso is that the bottles can be no larger than 5.7 gallons apiece.

What makes this privatization of the Great Lakes so pernicious is the precedent it sets for future exploitation of the water by others. Under NAFTA trade rules, if another corporation decides that it wants to extract water from the lakes and send it to Saudi Arabia or any other paying client, any restrictions would be considered a discriminatory barrier to trade, and struck down. For years, there has apparently been talk about shipping Great Lakes water to the Southwest (now that it has depleted the Colorado River) or to the Far East. So will the Nestle deal prompt other companies to start demanding a right to exploit Great Lakes water? It’s unclear what could stop it.

The basic problem is the market enclosure of a primary element of nature. Once water is considered a fungible commodity, its ecological significance is considered secondary. If the Great Lakes ecosystem suffers from the over-extraction of water, well, that’s too bad — market “progress” is a higher priority. Commodifying water also means that the public’s equity interests can more easily be shunted aside. In its place, all sorts of revocable surrogates are offered up — jobs, economic development, etc. This is how a ripoff of the public’s wealth is disguised as a public service.

According to the neoliberal worldview, progress looks like this: Michigan exporting great quantities of water from the Great Lakes and importing tons of garbage from Canadians into private landfills. “Progress” simply means lots of money changing hands. The net deterioration of the ecology and the plunder of the public’s resources count for naught.

Mainstream environmental organizations are showing themselves to be either clueless or indifferent to these developments. As Brian McKenna reports, James Clift, the policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), a coalition of about 70 environmental organizations, called the recent law signed by Governor Granhold “a huge step forward for Michigan.”

It has fallen to Native Americans to raise the fundamental issues that neoliberal politicians are too timid or ignorant to raise — namely, that the Great Lakes are not for sale. In 2002, the Little Traverse Bay tribe of Indians filed suit in federal court to prevent the Nestle project and reassert that Great Lakes water is a public trust. But the judge ruled that the tribes did not have standing to sue. I’ll let Brian McKenna tell the rest of the story:

_[Frank] Ettawageshik [head of the Little Traverse Bay tribe] fought on, telling audiences he feared, “soon there will be bus tours of the sunken ships of the Great Lakes,” if this goes forward. He calls the Lakes “the white pine of the 21st century,” referencing the logging assault which felled most of Michigan’s forests in the nineteenth century.