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April 27th, 2012

Creating a Secure Water Future: Looking Beyond Personal Change

By Sam Law

Take Back the Tap poster by Phoebe Konig

This is the second of two blogs  from Take Back the Tap Coordinators in honor of Earth Week. Food & Water Watch is working with 62 active Take Back the Tap campaigns on college campuses across the country. Emory University, Carleton College, American University, and Reed College have passed resolutions banning or significantly reducing bottled water usage on their campuses. Over the past two years, Food & Water Watch has trained over 100 student leaders on how to run successful Take Back the Tap campaigns.

College students, like many people, are incredibly involved in their own lives. This presents two unique challenges for organizing on campus around environmental justice issues. The first problem, so prevalent in our culture, is apathy. Whether a defense mechanism to protect individuals from the realization that people have very little power in this country when they organize against the moneyed interests of transnational corporations, or pure laziness is hard to tell. It’s likely a combination of the two. The second problem this egotism presents is that people, when they do get involved, so often want to focus on personal change such as turning out light switches, buying sustainable products or reducing waste.

I am not arguing that such individual actions aren’t important, if we want to live on this planet in a way that doesn’t destroy it, drastic lifestyle changes will be necessary. However, when campus activism focuses on policing personal decisions it ignores the larger destructive systems at work. The individualizing logic of these systems pushes people to view their individual choices as meaningful when in fact these choices are constrained and over determined by the same economic interests that are polluting communities, robbing people of their natural resources and indeed destroying the planet.         

For activism to be effective, we must look beyond ourselves and try to understand how, together, we can collectively enact the kind of systemic change necessary to usher in the world we wish to see–a world where environmental degradation and industrial pollution don’t create unlivable ecosystems and communities.      

That’s why our Take Back the Tap Campaign this semester at Reed College has been such an exciting campaign. We tabled, screened films, got petitions signed, gave out water at dance parties, and in every interaction we managed to convey some of the  larger problems associated with bottled water. People, who may have been originally attracted to the campaign in order to learn some basic facts about why they should stop purchasing water quickly learned about water privatization across the globe.

We talked about how water is being redefined as a commodity, about how multinational corporations create indebtedness in the Global South by selling water that was once publically owned, and we even talked to people about Nestlé’s new proposed bottling plant right outside Portland on the Columbia. Finally, after raising awareness, we demonstrated what systematic change could look like on a local level by passing a resolution to ban the sale of bottled water on campus.       

By next year, Reed College will no longer sell bottled water. But perhaps more importantly we gained an understanding of how we can work for change beyond ourselves and enact the institutional and systemic changes necessary to bring about a just and sustainable world we truly want to live in.

Sam Law led the Take Back the Tap team at Reed College to a huge victory in their first semester working on the campaign.

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