The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman, Free Press, 388 pages, $26. 99, Hardcover, April 2011, ISBN 9781439102077 If Charles Fishman were a baseball player, he’d be a pitcher worthy of the Cy Young Award year after year. Lucky for us, Fishman ended up a business writer—one of the most consistently excellent in the field.
If Charles Fishman were a baseball player, he'd be a pitcher worthy of the Cy Young Award year after year. Lucky for us, Fishman ended up a business writer—one of the most consistently excellent in the field. And twice now, he has gone "the full nine" and delivered perfect outings at book length. We featured his first effort, The Wal-Mart Effect, in this space in 2006. He got our attention again with his 2008 article in Fast Company, "Message in a Bottle," which won him his third Gerald Loeb Award for outstanding business writing, the most prestigious award in business journalism. It was that article that served as the impetus for his new book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.
Water is at the heart of our very existence and essential to everything we do—from washing sheep's wool in Australia to hydrating the cells in our bodies. While most of us "take it for granted because good water is basically free," businesses like GE, IBM, Coca-Cola, Intel and the Australia's Michell Wool company use so much water that they understand the need to keep it flowing with different prices for different purposes and different tiers of water quality. Michell Wool, for example, doesn't need clean drinking water to clean its wool, so they now use untreated water for one-third the price. IBM's microchip plant in Burlington, Vermont, on the other hand needs water that is so clean that it isn't safe to drink.
But Fishman does not suggest that we should hand over our water supply to those corporations to manage on a for-profit basis—just that we need an economics of water to manage it, and that we need to value and price it correctly. He argues, somewhat contrarily, that "free" is the wrong price for water; in fact, some of the poorest populations on Earth who don't have easy access to safe drinking water are paying to belong to water co-ops so they don't have to walk for hours or wait in line to get water that is often not safe, while those in "water rich" countries are literally flushing treated drinking water down the toilet.
As Fishman writes:
Everything about water is about to change—how we use water, how we share it, how we think about it. [...] This book is an effort to rescue water not so much from ignorance as from being ignored.While Fishman's book may not be a business book in the strictest sense of the word, considering we spend almost as much on bottled water in this country as we do to maintain the nation's entire water infrastructure, water use and value is an intriguing economic conundrum. And in the end, Fishman shows that when we stop ignoring it, water can and will be used more smartly.