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friday 21 august

Watered Down, Conservation Is Simple, Stop Doing What You’re Doing

I’m scrambling to prepare a keynote talk at the Philly Zoo’s annual docent dinner. I say scrambling because that’s kinda how I prepare any presentation—last minute, throwing pictures and words at blank power point slides, as a gazillion ideas dash about like panicked penguins on a sinking ice flow surrounded by leopard seals. There, got the general picture?

It’s coming along and will be ready (after suffering through my traditional midnight the night before changes) for the dinner on Sept 10th. My problem is always two-fold: 1) I have so much I have learned since last I spoke that seems too critical to leave out, and 2) how to make extinction, conservation failure, and the end of the world relevant to people (seems like it should be damn relevant without my trying) and of course keeping it all hopeful.

Last night a friend asked me about hope, about staying optimistic vs pessimistic in this work I am doing. A very relevant question for him considering he recently lost a son in a tragic unexplainable accident, and he was reevaluating life, and life in general. I explained it wasn’t really a question of optimistic vs pessimistic — I didn’t see it that way. As a consequence I didn’t really lose hope. It was a more pragmatic issue. I wanted to understand why we humans did what we did, versus not doing other things. No right or wrong. I was on a quest to understand why we, humans, would not do the simple things it required to save great apes from going extinct in the wild, or protecting the planet, which in turn benefit us. Hope, I explained, was like the big red button solution—push it and make everything instantly better—and I have never seen one that worked. Ever.

For sake of discussion I offered up water, specifically bottled water, as an example of a ‘just stop doing something’ idea that would make many things better and yet we won’t. And no, bottled water alone won’t save great apes, but it’s one of many ‘little green buttons’ we need to push to get to some point of sanity in our global resource use.

A few things I’ll share with my dinner guests on Sept 10th:

•       Making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. And that’s not even including the oil used for transportation.

•       The energy we waste using bottled water would be enough to power 190,000 homes.

•       Last year, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles, but only recycled 38.

•       Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. However, the U.S.’s recycling rate for plastic is only 23 percent, which means 38 billion water bottles – more than $1 billion worth of plastic – are wasted each year.

•       Its estimate 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills EACH DAY.

•       The recommended eight glasses of water a day, at U.S. tap rates equals about $.49 per year; that same amount of bottled water is about $1,400.

•       Antimony, which is found in PET plastic bottles, in small doses can cause dizziness and depression; in larger doses it can cause nausea, vomiting and death.

(BIGGER BULLET POINT) Perhaps the most appalling and insane fact is a liter of bottled water takes up to 1.6 liters of water to create, in some global locations even more (and in those same locations recycling is non-existent.)

Bottled water use is a more perfect example of the stop doing it idea than many others. It is as Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network* told the New York Times [4], “Bottled water is a business that is fundamentally, inherently, and inalterably unconscionable… No side deals to protect forests or combat global warming can offset that reality.” He was referring to “green deals” corporate conservation NGOs like WWF-US (Dasani/Coca Cola), CI (Fiji water) have struck to tout the virtue of these brands.

Around the idea of justifying bottled water flow some of the most ludicrous ideas and statements to ever confuse the conservation conscious. Take Lisa Manley, director of environmental communications for Coca-Cola for example, saying Coke has pledged to replenish the water it draws in communities in which it operates. What?

Seriously… pause from reading for a moment, and ponder that.


Okay, now ask – “What the hell does that mean?” Does anyone question where that water is coming from?  Now consider this, “Although many consumers remain unaware of the fact, half of all bottled water sold in the United States is now actually tap water (up from one third in 2000), drawn from treated municipal water supplies, filtered, and sometimes supplemented with minerals. Coca-Cola’s Dasani, Pepsi’s Aquafina, and Nestlé’s Pure Life brand consist entirely of tap water, and overall the industry continues to turn toward municipal sources.”[4]

Back to that big red button. People want simple solutions, but they also want something to do – I’ve been told by socio-ecologists who study this stuff, that we need to “feel good” to be motivated to do something. Trouble is solutions are simple, and simpler (it would seem) yet, is they don’t require you to do anything, they require you to STOP doing things. Yet we are told that’s just not reality, so better to make it less bad than good. Or in the words of Glenn T. Prickett, a senior vice president of Conservation International**, a nonprofit group that has been helping Fiji Water devise and carry out its programs. “Maybe it would be morally preferable to carry a bottle I filled at the tap, but bottled water is a consumer reality,” he said. “So rather than operate in a moralistic framework, we’ll use the economy as it exists to make a difference.”[5]   “bottled water is a consumer reality,” and who helped make it so? Conservation International, a corporate conservation giant worth $300 million. [6]

After I prattled on about being a pragmatist my friend said, so you are trying to educate people really. No, I said, I see it as communicating. I can’t teach people what they already know, I must find a way to tell people what they don’t want to hear, in doing so, I know with conviction, I have heard it. That’s the only thing I can hope for.


Note & Resources



3] Green, Inc, author Christine McDonald; ref. pages 72/73, 77; ISBN 9788-1-59921-436-8




* as of 8/2015 Executive Director Sierra Club

** as of 8/2015 Chief External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy



2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo





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