In the late afternoon a few days ago—having missed lunch—I went into a bakery to get a quick snack. Munching on a little pizza, I overheard a couple at the next table. She needed a napkin and he went to get one for her. He returned a moment later, not with one, but with a fistful, which was far more than they could have used even if they both spilled their coffee on the table.
“Why so many?” she asked.
“What’s the difference?” he replied, “It’s free.”
Of course, the napkins may have appeared free to that couple, but they weren’t. Few things are free and for sure the napkins weren’t. For starters, and most obvious, the owner of the bakery had to buy them. Even if some part of the price of their food could be made attributable to a fanciful napkin allocation by the owner, their use, however minimally, reduced his other economic choices. With more money spent on napkins, there would be less money for fixing up the store or for hiring more workers or for other lost opportunities.
And beyond the store, those napkins weren’t free because energy and water and resources were used to make those soon-to-be wasted napkins—and landfills are already overfilled.
That not very remarkable overheard conversation has stayed with me. As I’ve replayed it, I realized it is a metaphor for how most people think about water in all of its many forms. “It’s free.” And when something is free, or thought of as free, it can easily get wasted by the actual or metaphorical fistful.
If there is a sure way to fix our global water problem, it is to set a price for water. Not a random price, or the cost of pumping it to our homes, but the whole cost—without subsidies—of finding, transporting and purifying it while inbound, and of removing it in the form of sewage, and then treating and disposing of it while outbound. No more hidden subsidies or blind eye turned by government officials to curry favor with voters or special interest groups.
With the actual price charged for their water, people would use what they need, but likely, not more than they need. In the real world laboratory of Israel, when water went from subsidized to reflecting the actual price, consumption dropped 16%. With wasted water costing something, farmers chose more water efficient crops and homeowners tore out gardens and replaced them with cactus and native habitation. No one had to pass a law making green lawns illegal. No one had to start a water shaming campaign against people with swimming pools.
The man in the bakery who took so many napkins would likely have brought back one or two, not a few hundred, if he had to pay even a penny a napkin. The same is true with water.
Article Credit: Seth M. Siegel via The Let There Be Water Movement.