I heard an NPR interview recently with a mother in Flint, MI who was getting donations of bottled water to bathe her three-year-old. She was one of many. Amy Goodman did an hour special in which other adults, many of them mothers, were doing the same things. Strategies for living in a state of acute public health crisis range from those who are organizing free distributions, sharing their own resources, and going house to house to make sure people have enough water for the day to those who are hoarding. One particularly compassionate organizer, asked to comment on the evident fact that some people were hoarding water, said generously, “I don’t want to blame them. If it were my family at risk (this was a white organizer who didn’t live in the most severely affected area) I’d be tempted to hoard, too.
I’ve heard with some regularity since 2003 that our next wars won’t be about water, but about oil, and they’ll be here. As I follow drought statistics and watch the American River dwindle and read about the salmon die-off, I think about this prophecy—more so when I read about ranchers in the Central Valley actually engaging in water wars—poaching, spying, litigating, threatening each other, often with a good measure of righteous anger about the fact that it’s in the public interest for them to have the water. No water, no farms, no food, as the signs say, posted along the length of Highway 5. What the signs don’t say, and what slogans always elide, is that it’s more complicated than that. How Agribusinesses irrigate, what distribution measures have been legislated and by dint of whose lobbying, why we don’t have water rationing that applies both to individuals and to corporations are questions that need to be asked more frequently and answered more adequately.
Flint holds a magnifying mirror up to all of us who inhabit an infrastructure in which clean water (and other resources needed for survival) is unequally tested and distributed. TV specials like Goodman’s put a face on poverty, outrage, and take some measure of the loss of a sense of the common good. Recently my husband and I led a five-week series of discussions called “Reclaiming the Common Good.” We began by offering a little history of the term (one which goes back to ancient Israelites, among other communities. There farmers were expected to leave part of their harvest for the poor to glean, to contribute to shared stores, to care for widows and orphans, to extend generous hospitality to strangers, to forgive some debts every seven years, and all debts every 49 years. These were not matters of generosity, but of law and common culture. When Jesus famously said, “The poor you have always with you,” it was not a dismissal of the poor, but something more like “Duh. Of course. Of course you care for the poor. That’s not even in question.”
I am increasingly troubled by how deeply even those of us who think in systemic terms and understand institutional racism and exclusion (here I’m talking about myself) literally buy into the philanthropic model. We feel good about contributing “our” money to good causes. But one economic historian pointed out, in those traditional cultures where care of the poor was an axiomatic responsibility, supported by law and the teaching of elders, no one even thought it was “their” money—not in the sense in which we use that pronoun in a place where capitalism verges on a point of logical absurdity.
What can I do about Flint? Contribute, obviously, though I don’t want to support the companies whose bottled water are a huge part of the problem. So educate myself about where to contribute what I can. Consider which part of the chorus I want to add my voice. And in the meantime drink my own water with more mindfulness. I’ve stopped saying, “I’ll just have water.” I’m trying to remember to say instead, “I’ll have water. Thank you.”

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