Water Reading- The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman

“Many civilizations have been crippled or destroyed by an inability to understand water or manage it. We have a huge advantage over the generations of people who have come before us, because we can understand water and we can use it smartly.”

– Charles Fishman, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

Charles Fishman, bestselling author of The Wal-Mart Effect has most recently turned his attention to water. The leap from discounted mega-giant to Earth’s most essential resource may seem like a big one, but Fishman is interested in relationships-whether it’s to Wal-Mart or water.  Fishman first began his flirtation with water in a 2007 article entitled, “Message in a Bottle”, published in Fast Company magazine. In this piece Fishman lamented, “Thirty years ago, bottled water barely existed as a business in the United States. Last year, we spent more on Poland Spring, Fiji Water, Evian, Aquafina, and Dasani than we spent on iPods or movie tickets– $15 billion. It will be $16 billion this year” (Fishman, 2007).

Fast forward to 2011, and Fishman tackles both the history and future of water in our world. The Big Thirst seeks to open people’s eyes to the reality of water in the twenty-first century. Similar to what the book and film, Fast Food Nation did for revealing the atrocities of the United States fast food industry, Thirst delves into people’s water consciousness. For example, do you know where your water goes when it swirls down the drain, flushes down the toilet or leaves your washing machine? A majority of Americans have no idea.

Also consider that most Americans don’t know where the majority of their daily water usage comes from. Do you? In 1999, a group of researchers used electronic water-flow sensors in 1,888 homes for four weeks. The results showed that the primary way American’s use water daily is by flushing the toilet. About five times a day per person if you want to put a figure on it. We literally flush 5.7 billion gallons of water down the toilet a day (Fishman, 2011).

The Big Thirst’s strength stems from Fishman’s ability to storytell. He connects you to your relationship with water in a multitude of ways. Take for example, this excerpt, “Like so much of modern life, safe, reliable water and sewer service is both essential and a complete mystery. We have no idea where our water comes from, we have no idea what happens to it when the dishwasher is done with it. We have no idea what effort is required to get the water to us, and no idea what’s required to get rid of it. That ignorance doesn’t matter, until things start to go wrong.”

Water is an essential resource in our daily lives- and most of us do not understand how much we rely on it, how much goes into getting it to our faucet, and what we would do if it were to stop flowing freely. Charles Fishman explores these questions through fascinating stories intertwining his personal travels to the water bottling plants of San Pellegrino, Italy and Poland Spring, Maine.  The main question being, why don’t we value our most essential resource the way we should?