Even Big Bird knows better
Religion & Liberty Online

Even Big Bird knows better

You may have seen this story a few weeks back toward the end of last year: “Some faith groups say bottled water immoral,” by Rebecca U. Cho of the Religion News Service.

The core of the story revolves around this assertion made by the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program and a number of other mainline projects: Drinking bottled water is a sin.

Cassandra Carmichael, director of eco-justice programs for the National Council of Churches, bases this claim on the assumption that bottling water by definition deprives access to a natural resource basic to human existence.

“The moral call for us is not to privatize water,” Carmichael said. “Water should be free for all.”

According to the RNS piece, “Rebecca Barnes-Davies, coordinator of Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, said bottled water companies encourage a culture in the U.S. that is comfortable with privatizing a basic human right.”

“As people of faith, we don’t and shouldn’t pretend to have ownership of any resource — it’s God’s,” she said. “We have to be the best steward we can be of all those resources.”

The foundational document for the NCC’s campaign is “WATER: THE KEY TO SUSTAINING LIFE: AN OPEN STATEMENT TO GOVERNING BODIES AND CONCERNED CITIZENS,” which presents the following false dilemma, “Water should be viewed as a gift from God for all people, not a commodity that can be traded for profit.”

The problem is that “Access to fresh water supplies is becoming an urgent matter of life and death across the planet and especially for the 1.2 billion people who are currently suffering from a lack of adequate water and sanitation.”

The lack of access to water in many developing nations is a real and serious problem (more on that here). The exploitation of this real problem by the NCC, however, is indefensible.

Instead of focusing on the issues and problems that surround the question of access to water in developing nations, the NCC and other mainline denominations are using the reality of the situation merely to engage in ideological posturing and attack their favorite targets: market economies and big business.

The NCC’s claims are based on a view of natural resources that allows for no “ownership” or property rights at all. For if everything belongs to God, the thinking goes, nothing can belong to human beings. While giving lip-service to concepts like stewardship, the NCC undermines the foundations necessary for stewardship to be exercised.

As Thomas Aquinas observed, “It is lawful for man to possess property.… Human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately.”

That truth, that human beings must have property in order to exercise stewardship, is a core reality and one that the NCC view explicitly denies. By the NCC’s logic, no natural resource should be commodified, since they are all ultimately “gifts that God so abundantly provided.” Notice too the self-refuting circularity of the NCC’s position: if no one has the right to own water, then neither do those who need it have any claim on it.

So, given that access to clean water is a problem in many areas, what are the NCC’s suggestions for addressing the issue? Almost none to speak of, except for asserting that the solution is to be found in legal action and government intervention: “Our leaders have the responsibility to continue to create and enforce laws that protect this necessary ingredient for life.”

The NCC’s claim that drinking bottled water is a sin is so patently absurd that it is hard to take it seriously. And it is in this that the NCC commits the real injustice. The issue of access to clean water is one of critical importance for millions of people, and the NCC trivializes these needs by engaging in flagrantly overblown rhetorical gamesmanship.

In rejecting any basis for property rights and market exchanges, the NCC ignores an important means for getting water to areas where water is lacking. Even someone as perennially dopey as Sesame Street’s Big Bird can see that market mechanisms can function to get water where it is wanted and needed most:

(Linda Heyward, I Can Count to Ten and Back Again, ill. Maggie Swanson [Sesame Street/Golden Press, Western Publishing Company, 1985]).

In the panel above, Big Bird is fulfilling the role of an entrepreneur, setting up shop to fulfill the needs he perceives and imagines among his fellow residents of Sesame Street. In the case of the water he has for sale, Big Bird will eventually meet the demand for water on the part of Oscar the Grouch’s pet worm Slimey, who wants to buy a swimming pool. It happens that the glass of water is “just the right size swimming pool” for Slimey. Talk about serving the least among us!

It is also the case that the sale of water does not prevent the complementary function of charitable activity to get water to areas that don’t have the resources to purchase it. But where water is scarce and there are financial or exchangeable resources (often the result of work and use of other natural resources), the market will function to move what is plentiful in one place to where it is scarce. That is the nature of voluntary exchange, and the profit motive is a powerful incentive to accomplish exactly what the NCC desires.

It isn’t as if companies that bottle water are actively depriving access to water in areas that would otherwise have it. The fact of water scarcity is a reality independent of the phenomena of bottled water. No doubt many people would love to have access to clean and reliable sources of water available in bottle form, and Carmichael inadvertently testifies to this when she says that “water is being sold as a commodity where the resource is scarce.” Better water sold as a commodity than not being available at all!

As is so often the case in such ideological crusading, the NCC has missed the mark with its water campaign (recall “What Would Jesus Drive?”, the campaign that focused on gasoline rather than coal, which is the number one source of fossil fuel consumption in the US).

The NCC should be focusing on ways to increase material prosperity in developing countries, giving them the financial resources necessary to buy amenities like bottled water if they like. And in the meantime, there are plenty of other practical solutions that can be undertaken not only by government fiat, but by the voluntary and charitable initiative of individuals and non-governmental organizations, including the Church. Some of these possibilities include technological innovations, community-managed water projects, and further research into reducing and recycling water in agricultural activities.

It’s the case in fact that in areas where the need for consumable water is greatest that the water is being diverted not for export and bottling to the US but in the irrigation and watering of crops. The real culprit behind the problem of access to water in developing nations isn’t the practice of bottling water, but rather the reality of farming practices in basic agrarian economies. These are the kinds of realities that the NCC’s demagoguery ignores.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.