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«A More Perfect Commodity: Bottled Water, Global Accumulation, and Local Contestation Daniel Jaffee Department of Sociology *Washington State ...»

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Overcoming Barriers to Accumulation in Agrifood Systems These core themes are also central to debates within the literature on the political economy of agrifood systems regarding the nature of enclosures 6 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 in agricultural production. This extensive literature traces its origins at least to Mann and Dickinson’s (1978) examination of the persistence of family agriculture in highly industrialized economies, which they attribute to the incompatibility of some aspects of commodity production with the requirements of capital accumulation. More recently, this scholarship has raised the question of which factors have enabled capital to overcome structural obstacles to accumulation under neoliberalism, centering in particular on the role played by genetic engineering and seed biotechnology. Kloppenburg (2004) and others have persuasively argued that seeds, because of their unique structural characteristics— they are self-reproducing and can be saved—“have offered a particularly large stumbling block to capital accumulation” (Mascarenhas and Busch 2006:125). Their dual structural character, as both the means of production and as grain, “is antagonistic to the complete assimilation of seed (as opposed to grain) under the commodity form” (Kloppenburg 2010:370). However, genetic engineering (GE) has managed to overcome that barrier to enclosure in several major crops. According to Pechlaner and Otero (2010:185), GE represents “the key technology driving capital accumulation in the neoliberal food regime.” Of course, while this technology is transformative, it has ultimately succeeded only because of the broader political, institutional, and even discursive frameworks within which it is situated (see, e.g., Kinchy, Kleinman, and Autry 2008). This context includes intellectual property regimes in international trade and investment agreements that offer legal recognition of patents on life and seed licenses, dramatic industry consolidation, and a deregulatory agenda that in the United States ironically prohibits the labeling of foods containing GE ingredients. These transformations in the agrifood realm have also generated a diverse and growing set of countermovements, which aim to resist or reverse such enclosures.

In this article, we draw parallels between these phenomena of enclosure and dispossession in the agrifood arena and similar dynamics occurring with regard to water. We focus in particular on the specific ways in which drinking water has posed obstacles to accumulation, and how the technological development of bottled water and its transformation into a global commodity has managed to surmount these hurdles. We first briefly review some of the key issues regarding the privatization of tap water, before turning our focus to bottled water.

Privatizing the Tap An estimated 40 percent of the world’s citizens do not have dependable access to potable water supplies (Barlow 2007; Shiva 2008). In many A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 7 cities of the global South, only upper-income residents are served by the municipal piped water networks taken for granted in much of the North.

Middle- and lower-income neighborhoods often must rely on a mix of informal sources, including water vendors and locally bottled water, for which they pay many times more than their often wealthier neighbors served by tap water (Bakker 2010). Due in part to this growing crisis of access, water is increasingly viewed as “blue gold” (Barlow and Clarke

2002) and has come to represent a profitable commodity to be sold at market rates to consumers.

A global water industry has for over 20 years focused on privatizing the provision of municipal drinking water supplies in the global South, as well as the North (Snitow, Kaufman, and Fox 2007). Two multinational corporations, French-based Suez and Veolia, presently control 70 percent of a rapidly growing drinking water market worth over $400 billion (Barlow 2007). In 2011, private water firms supplied over 900 million people, up from 50 million in 1990 (Pinsent Masons 2011).

The privatization of public water services in the global South was largely imposed, especially during the 1990s, through World Bank and IMF loan conditions and structural adjustment programs requiring states to open public utilities for sale, lease, or concession (Conca 2008;

Goldman 2005). Yet the result of two decades of private sector involvement, many observers concur, has been a failure by the market to meet the stated goal of “water for all” in the global South (Castro 2008;

Kessides 2005; Prasad 2006; Swyngedouw 2005). Even the World Bank has since acknowledged that privatization has generated social discontent but neither sufficient profits nor adequate numbers of new water connections (World Bank 2005).

Public resistance to tap water privatization has often been quite strong. The April 2000 “water war” in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which some observers have characterized as an early victory against the neoliberal model, is the subject of particular scholarly interest1 (e.g., Spronk and Webber 2007), but major antiprivatization protests have also erupted in Argentina, Uruguay, Tanzania, South Africa, and other nations (Bond 2005; Castro 2008; Vidal 2005). A clear deprivatization trend has emerged, as both governments and firms terminate concession contracts (Vidal 2006). Currently, argues Bakker (2010), there is a “stalemate” in water privatization, with transnational firms retreating from long-term 1 After a World Bank–imposed, single-bidder concession to a local subsidiary of the U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation led to large water rate hikes, residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia, responded with mass protests that eventually forced company officials to flee the country and cancel the contract (Driessen 2008; Spronk and Webber 2007).





8 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 concessions in urban areas, but remaining involved in the management of water and sewerage systems (Barlow 2007; Packaging Digest 2010).

The reasons for this stalemate have particular relevance to the contrast with bottled water we draw in the following sections. First, providing universal tap water service is not sufficiently conducive to accumulation, in part because of the need for extensive sunk costs in maintaining and expanding water treatment and delivery networks (Loftus 2009).

Second, tap water has proved insufficiently price elastic to allow firms to raise water rates high enough to deliver the profit levels they seek; doing so often leads to mass disconnections for nonpayment or large-scale social conflict (Swyngedouw 2005). Third, while antiprivatization protests have occurred only in a minority of cases, they have played a key role in the cancellation of a number of privatization contracts (Bakker 2010; Lobina and Hall 2007).

Bakker argues that water’s geography, its sociocultural qualities, and its nature as a flow resource render it an “uncooperative commodity” (2005:559). Likewise, Snitow and colleagues (2007:197) write that because water is “heavy, slippery, and expensive to transport, it resists being made into a commodity.” That is, it does not cooperate sufficiently well with capital to ensure sustained high levels of accumulation.

However, this useful framing encounters at least two significant limitations. First, it at least partly contradicts the arguments of Harvey and others that water privatization is a prime example of accumulation by dispossession, a disjuncture we revisit in the discussion section later in the article. Second, it does not capture the ways that distinct forms of water turn out to pose differential barriers to accumulation, as we discuss below.

The privatization of tap water in the United States illustrates many of the same contradictions that apply in the global South. Although 86 percent of the U.S. population is served by publicly owned water utilities, many fiscally strained local governments in the 1990s turned to private firms as a way to maintain aging water delivery and sewerage systems (Food and Water Watch 2008; Snitow et al. 2007). However, grassroots social movements have succeeded in reversing private concessions in several large cities, including New Orleans; Indianapolis; Atlanta; Stockton, California; and Laredo, Texas (Barlow 2007). Privatization failures in these and several other cities led to a trend of remunicipalization over the past decade, in which contracts were canceled either by firms or local governments, and management reverted to the public sector (Esterl 2006; Food and Water Watch 2008; Snitow et al. 2007). However, the current recession has caused a renewed surge of system privatizations and sales (Food and Water Watch 2010b). Estimates for the 20-year cost A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 9 of maintaining public drinking water and sewage systems in the United States run as high as $1 trillion, yet public funding has fallen far short of the need and continues to decline (Szasz 2007:200). These infrastructure backlogs have led to occasional high-profile instances of unsafe water, contributing to a growing public distrust of tap water quality (Parag and Roberts 2009). This phenomenon is closely linked to the growth of bottled water.

Bottled Water The dramatic surge in bottled water consumption has spawned a global industry. The international bottled water market—expected to surpass $65 billion in 2012 (Boreal Water News 2010)—is dominated by four food and beverage giants: Nestlé, Danone, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi-Cola.

These firms are developing high-capacity bottling plants to extract groundwater worldwide (Barlow 2007; Packaging Digest 2010; Rodwan 2011). The water itself can be global as well. According to Barlow, almost 25 percent of all bottled water crosses national borders, with firms often taking “water from poor communities in the global South to sell to rich markets in the global North” (2007:84). The large majority of bottled water extracted in southern nations, however, is consumed locally.

Increasingly, the transnational bottled water firms are buying up local companies and targeting middle- (and upper-) class consumers, while the remaining local vendors, often unregulated, supply many poorer residents with water of uncertain quality at far higher prices than their wealthier neighbors pay for tap water (Girard 2009).

In the United States, the bottled water industry has consolidated rapidly as demand has skyrocketed. Nestlé Waters is the undisputed industry leader with a 35 percent share of the $15 billion annual market, followed by Coca-Cola2 (Dasani) and Pepsi (Aquafina), each with 11 percent (Beverage Marketing Corporation 2010). A substantial portion of the U.S. population now consumes this commodity. A 2003 Gallup poll showed that 74 percent of Americans drink bottled water, with 20 percent consuming it “exclusively” (Szasz 2007:133). Prices for bottled water are dramatically higher than for tap water, ranging from 240 to 10,000 times more per unit volume (Natural Resources Defense Council 1999). Half of the bottled water sold in the United States is simply municipal tap water that has been treated or filtered (up from one third in 2000), with the remainder extracted from natural springs or groundwater (Food and Water Watch 2010a). Coke’s Dasani and Pepsi’s AquaDanone Group’s U.S. holdings were acquired by Coca-Cola in 2005, but the firm remains a major player elsewhere (Clarke 2007).

10 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 fina are drawn entirely from public tap water systems, while Nestlé sells several brands from both municipal and spring sources.

The environmental impact of bottled water is also substantial. Its production and distribution consume between 1,000 and 2,000 times more energy per unit volume than local tap water, and U.S. bottled water consumption requires the energy equivalent of between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil per year (Gleick and Cooley 2009). Bottled water’s negative externalities also include the impact of the extraction itself on springs and rivers, local ecosystems, agriculture, wells, and other water users.

Industry advertising campaigns subtly or overtly denigrating tap water have played a key role in altering public perceptions and behavior. The disappearance of water fountains in public places3 and the desire to consume “on the go” have also hastened the move toward bottles (Girard and Shaker 2008; Szasz 2007). The industry also promotes its product by associating it with exercise and a healthy lifestyle, contributing to a long-term shift away from the consumption of soft drinks, but also away from tap water (Gleick 2010). The overall result has been the normalization of bottled water across society in a remarkably short time.

Given the social and cultural shifts tied to bottled water’s growth in the past three decades, the paucity of scholarly attention to this phenomenon among sociologists is striking. Nonetheless, a few substantive contributions are worth noting. Sociologist Andrew Szasz describes bottled water as the prime example of a phenomenon he terms “inverted quarantine”: the pursuit of individual solutions to perceived environmental risk based on the consumption of safer products. Szasz argues that the inverted quarantine response diminishes the intensity of public demands for policy change because it produces a “false sense of security, undercutting political support for reform” (2007:202). The growth of bottled water not only feeds a generalized weakening of public policy responses but also contributes to additional decline in public water infrastructure. Parag and Roberts (2009) contend that this decline imperils tap water quality and further accelerates the shift toward the private solution of bottled water, at least for those able to afford it. John Vail, in a broader discussion of the effects of commodification on society, argues that when people opt for private services, they often prove less willing to fund public goods, the quality of public services subsequently worsens, thereby weakening the very rationale for 3 Girard and Shaker (2008: n.p.) attribute the decline and deterioration of public water fountains in Canada to a combination of “profit, underfunding, and ideology.” A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 11 these goods and creating a vicious spiral of decline that grievously corrodes the public’s trust of government services and damages the very possibility of cultivating a shared sense of community upon which a democratic citizenship is founded.



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