Picture a shot, a glass thimble spilling liquid as it surfs across a crowded bar. In ounces, you’re seeing one-and-a-half. Cut off a third and imagine one ounce, then divide that by 30. Barely enough to wet the tongue. What you’re picturing is known as a milliliter in science classrooms and all of Europe, or a cubic centimeter in American hospitals. The CC is not just used to measure IV medications, it is also the preferred unit when it becomes necessary to track the liquid entering and leaving a patient’s body.
I will know this conversion for the rest of my life. When I was 15, I had a complicated open-heart surgery for a lifelong defect. Afterward, I had to divide the white board in my hospital room into two columns: one labeled “I” for input, the other labeled “O” for output. Everything I drank, down to the sip, had to be counted in CCs and thrown up on the board. I peed directly into a bottle; that was recorded, too. I was a machine that operated on the back of an equation. As long as, by midnight, the “O” column was greater than the “I” column, I was solved. This practice continued for months while I was inpatient, which came at the tail end of over four years spent in and out of hospitals. And over the following three years, I would return occasionally just for my water consumption to be monitored like this.
Here’s what happened: After the surgery, the right side of my heart was pumping too slow, in a way they called “heart failure.” This was the result of an episode of human error that occurred somewhere in the surgical pipeline, but nobody took responsibility. People argued about the real cause, each trying to blame someone else or claim the problem didn’t exist. All the while, blood was backing up into the veins, causing fluid throughout my body to go unprocessed and forcing it to gather in my abdomen. Anything I drank went right there, resulting in a water baby that grew faster than normal urination could handle. To bail me out, I was prescribed a course of heavy diuretics and a twice-weekly tap, which is a fully-awake procedure where the offending organ gets punctured with a comically oversized needle and juiced like an orange.
My drinking was also severely restricted. Twenty-five hundred CCs (84 ounces) per day, then 1,500 (50 oz.), 500 (a single bottled water). One day, I drank exactly nothing. My tongue trawled the corners of my mouth. I dreamt of walking under a leaky air duct, head up and lips open like a child on a snow day.
After that period of deprivation, something broke in me. Water had always been an inconvenience, like it is for many people. On the advice of a doctor, my parents had trained me to prefer water over juice from a young age. But even so, the taste never excited me enough for it to become a habit. Suddenly, I was an addict. I fought with and whined to nurses, begging for more. I’d blow half my daily ounces by 10 a.m. and spend the rest of the day working strangers for a fix. I’d open my mouth in the shower, sneak a cup into the bathroom sink, “forget” to report ice I’d hid in my cheeks ‘til it melted. At my most deranged, I spent $1.99 on an app that simulated a vending machine. Selecting a bottle of water or a can of Coke, the screen would fill with liquid. I tilted the screen toward my mouth — lips touching the corner of the phone — and pretended I was drinking, swallowing air as the animation drained.
Nothing could convince me not to drink, due in no small part to the fact that it was water. It was supposed to be good for me.
Previously, I found it difficult to drink the recommended eight glasses of water a day. My cardiologist even made me keep a journal where I’d record my attempts to reach the prescribed amount; not getting enough water could cause hospital stays, complications, even death. She and my parents would try to scare me with the threat of dehydration — at that time my body needed more water than most, because of the self-same condition that would eventually lead to me regretting every single passed-up drink.
Still, I had never taken to water like a fish until my crisis. Suddenly, even though it may well have been poison to my body; nurses literally had to wrestle it away from me. And the diuretics only made things worse: they made me pathologically thirsty, so I’d drink more, which would increase the swelling, for which I’d need more diuretics. In the first six months after the surgery, I skirted right up to the edge of kidney failure several times. All the while, my heart’s pumping continued to slow. Still, I drank. I had never known thirst like this, and the feeling of it on my lips, in my mouth, was so acutely uncomfortable that it demanded more water. Each sip was cure and reward all in one. Nothing could convince me not to drink, due in no small part to the fact that it was water. It was supposed to be good for me. People find fallacious justifications for their addictions all the time — this was mine. Water was everywhere, it was normal. I understood, technically, all the ways in which it was hurting me. But really — how bad could it be?
The transformation of water into a specialty product is one of the strangest results of the rise of wellness culture. Hydration improves the daily health of every part of the body, and at some point, wellness blogs and fitness authorities realized they could repackage this pedestrian information as a host of secret tips to fix everything from your skin to your sleep. At the same time, people seeking to reduce their soda consumption have turned to water — both still and sparkling — as a substitute.
In seltzers, people are seeking water which reminds them nothing of it. Flavored sparkling water tastes much more like soda than any plain water that has ever been bottled. We don’t want to do the work of developing healthier habits; we want to chemically alter those habits until they fit the tastes we already have. It does not stop at seltzer; you can buy pods that squirt flavor drops directly into your own water; you can buy CBD seltzer and non-carbonated CBD water too; Aquafina now sells fruit-flavored still water; recently, a company called Liquid Death premiered their spring water tallboys — tall cans of “100 percent mountain water” designed to somehow evoke both Monster Energy and Pabst Blue Ribbon — meant for straight-edge punks and other sober people who want to avoid the stigma and discomfort that can come with not drinking socially. Their tagline, a catastrophic offender of self-aware brand voice, is “Murder Your Thirst.”
It was recently reported that sales of millennial darling seltzer brand La Croix are “essentially in a free fall.” The brand, which existed for nearly three decades as a regional favorite in the Midwest, suddenly exploded around 2015. A major digital marketing push sparked a rise in the drink’s popularity among creative class types, who then loudly broadcasted their affection for it. There are perhaps many factors to blame for the downturn — the CEO’s strange public statement earlier this year that managing the brand was “like caring for someone who becomes handicapped”; allegations against the same CEO for unwanted touching; the lawsuit disputing how “natural” the drink’s flavors are or, as I’ve always suspected would be their downfall, it was the baffling tagline that declared each can “INNOCENT!” in the same way Kanye West acquitted Bill Cosby on Twitter.
The real answer is probably quite simple: competition. Less than four years ago, La Croix had an estimated 30 percent market share in the seltzer space, outpacing companies like Perrier and San Pellegrino, which had dominated for decades. But over the same period, the sparkling water craze that propelled La Croix became its undoing. Seltzer sales have increased 54 percent, and competing brands, from PepsiCo.’s Bubly to the unique flavors of Spindrift, have been growing steadily in line with public demand.
There’s a fable about fish and water that David Foster Wallace used in his infamous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. There were two fish, the story goes, who were swimming along one day when they passed an older fish who asked, making pleasantries: “How’s the water?” Some time later, one of the younger fish turned to the other and asked, “What the hell is water?”
Wallace closed his speech with the now infamous phrase “this is water,” a mantra meant to trigger awareness in its speaker: water is a metaphor for the elements of life that are so obvious, so all-encompassing, that we do not see them.
In 2017, bottled water officially became our country’s top-selling drink, with more than 13.7 billion gallons sold that year. Bottled water took hold in the U.S. in the 1970s, when the French mineral water brand Perrier staged a major marketing campaign, importing to America the European habit of having table water. Perrier acquired the Maine-based water company Poland Spring in 1980, giving the French brand an 85 percent share of the bottled water market at the time. Many of the big-company water brands — Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Smartwater, PepsiCo’s Aquafina — emerged later, in the 1990s; in 1992, Perrier joined Big Water when it was acquired by Nestlé.
Worse than Foster Wallace’s vision of a world in which each fish swims along ignorant of the existence of water is the one in which we know what surrounds us and yet choose to change nothing about our behavior.
When we talk about bottled water today, we talk about the biodegradability of plastic; we ask, "Still or sparkling?"; we ask if we’re getting enough, and when we’re not, companies promise to help, whether that is through variations on the substance itself, containers for it, or little apps to remind us throughout the day to drink it. We rarely question its existence.
To try another fable, maybe you’d like one about a frog. There’s a debunked legend about a science experiment that sought to learn how a frog reacts to boiling water. Al Gore used the story in his first major op-ed about climate change, which ran in The New York Times in 1989. “In a classic experiment, a frog dropped in boiling water jumps out. The same frog, put in the water before it is slowly boiled, remains in the pot. Our environment is at the boiling point,” he wrote. “Will we react?” Time has answered his question. Half of all CO₂ currently in the atmosphere has been released in the time since Gore’s words went to print.
Worse than Foster Wallace’s vision of a world in which each fish swims along ignorant of the existence of water is the one in which we know what surrounds us and yet choose to change nothing about our behavior. If we’re Gore’s frog, then we’ve been sitting in the slowly boiling water, even luxuriating in it like a hot tub, fully aware of the rising temperature,. Among those of us who’d like to jump out, there is a debate about how to do it — whether individual actions matter at all compared to the harm done by corporations. In 2017, the Climate Accountability Institute identified 100 companies as being responsible for 71 percent of all emissions, and so a popular line on Twitter goes: It’s just 100 people — CEOs, that is — responsible for this mess. It’s gratifying, the image of a pool of villains small enough to be dragged from their corner offices, rounded up and dealt with. But it’s not just laws and ethical concerns about violence that keep us from solving climate change by visiting vigilantism on every oil CEO. We are creating the demand that these companies are helping to meet. The rise of designer water speaks to this capitalistic trick; companies normalize our dependence on things we do not need.
In his 2019 polemic The Uninhabitable Earth, the journalist David Wallace-Wells notes that “if the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by more than half,” while at the same time, “If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third.” Meeting these restrictions, though, would involve repeated recognition of habits so ingrained that they’ve become invisible. Gas-powered vehicles: this is water. Air-conditioning: this is water. Food waste: this is water. Single-use plastic: this is water. Meat consumption: this is water. And bottled water: this, too, is water.
There are few other products so representative of the perverse way in which we are killing our own future.
In 2007, when the U.S. consumed more than 33 billion liters of bottled water, it was estimated that all that product required the equivalent of more than 32 million barrels of crude oil to produce. There is massive energy cost to every step of the pipeline: the bottling of the water, the processing and filtering of it, the manufacturing of the plastic, the emissions of the vehicles used to distribute it across the country. Then, if you’re drinking something specially bottled from some remote island where the springs run angel piss, factor in more output from the planes and ships bringing it back. Maybe you offset your habit by recycling the bottles, but it turns out our consumption well exceeds what the world’s recyclers are able to handle. Just recently it was revealed that only about nine percent of global plastic is actually recycled. And even aluminum cans, which are more recyclable, are made from energy intensive bauxite-mining and don’t eliminate the emissions from the distribution pipeline.
Bottled water is hardly the greatest contributor to the climate crisis, and eliminating it alone would not restore the planet to balance. But there are few other products so representative of the perverse way in which we are killing our own future. Water has always been a replenishable resource, but through the ways in which we consume it, we are unleashing a course of events that will eventually turn it into a finite one. There’s always been a disparity between first-and third-world access to clean water, but as climate change drives migration and the effects of the climate crisis draw nearer, these disparities become more acute, harder for those of us in relative comfort to ignore. Americans at large have found themselves unable to agree on how to solve climate change, and recently, 12 specific Americans in Arizona found themselves unable to agree if providing water and other aid to migrants fleeing conditions which have been worsened by climate change meets the standard of a felony conviction; prosecutors recently vowed to retry the defendant.
In the coming decades, as freshwater becomes more rare, as groundwater becomes more easily polluted, as droughts become standard across the globe, it will seem decadent, even perverse, that we spent the years before needing digital reminders, flashy packaging, and hundreds of different flavors to be convinced to drink it. We will miss it, and we will wonder why anyone ever struggled to gulp it down.
Today, I am supposed to drink no more than two liters of water per day, but I never drink less than three, and often I can house more than four. While water doesn’t gather in my stomach as quickly as it used to, drinking so much still affects my weight, continues to put stress on my heart and my liver, and prolongs my risk of kidney disease through the use of diuretics. In those early days with doctors closely monitoring my consumption, the heart failure did lessen. Despite my petulance, my intake was limited enough to improve my body’s processing of water, but once free of oversight that change didn’t last. Now, years on and left to my own devices, I don’t even pretend to recognize the authority of any restriction. The original problem — the heart failure — is someone else’s fault; the daily worsening is mine. Through more conscious consumption, I could improve my fate, but I can never fully reverse it.
Reversing climate change will not only require identifying the causes or even assigning blame; it will require changing our daily habits so significantly that we no longer recognize them, and then making those new habits so, well, habitual that we no longer see them. We must make ourselves forget that there ever was a time when we treated water any differently.
I know that by drinking so much water, I’m actively contributing to my personal crisis. But when I consider not doing it, making a sustained transformation in my life, I am overwhelmed by thoughts of deprivation and austerity. It is my behavior to change, yet it only ever has when under the authority of someone else. But at least I know what I’m doing. This is water. I can quit anytime I want.