Water Bottling In New Zealand Must End

As we head to the September election, water issues will be high on the election radar. Given the state of our freshwater sources, it is imperative we ban water bottling in New Zealand, especially since we have enough problems with our water as it is. Nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers used on farms degrade water quality, eutrophying rivers and streams and choking the life out of them. Increasing irrigation, especially in dry areas like Canterbury, put pressure on already straining water supplies and exacerbate the problems caused by nutrients. 

Many parts of the Far North are under extreme water restrictions, and supplies are so low that some marae are considering closing. Meanwhile, in other parts of the region, consents were granted for avocado growers to extract water from the Aupouri aquifer, despite concerns from environmentalists about contamination of said groundwater sources. It doesn’t sit well with people that our water resources are being put under pressure so a few people can make money, and in the case of the avocado growers, you are talking about a highly water intensive crop in a very dry part of the country. 

Placing value on making money over people’s rights to water is infuriating, so people are understandably angry that bottling companies pay next to nothing for the water they take. A Herald report found that New Zealand ratepayers pay about 500 times more for water than bottling companies, $1.60 per cubic meter while bottlers pay about $0.03. When a litre bottle sells for about $2.50, you know these companies are making easy money. It is absurd that they pay so little but because the government believes that no one can own water, companies cannot be charged for the water itself, only measly fees associated with the management and regulation of the water.

To put it nicely, that management of water quality is piss-poor, with a high number of rivers still unsafe for swimming. Plastic pollution makes it worse, like the plastic beads were found in the water and land near Cloud Ocean’s water bottling plant in Canterbury. The fine for this non-compliance? A $750 fine and two abatement notices, essentially, written slaps on the wrist. With such pathetic consequences it’s no surprise companies believe they can get away with anything. 

Then there is the plastic issue. Otakiri Springs estimates it would create 3.7 million plastic bottles each day, or a whopping 1.35 billion a year. That’s a lot of plastic being created from one plant, much of which will end up in oceans and streams due to abysmal recycling standards around the world. Unfortunately, the Environment Court is not allowed to consider such distant effects in its decision to grant consents which is ridiculous because our contribution to any global environmental issue should absolutely be considered in any such decision. 

Then again, we know the law is rarely designed to protect the environment for the environment’s sake. Last year the Greens faced backlash when Eugenie Sage granted Otakiri Springs consent to expand their bottling plant near Whakatane. She claimed as Minister she is forced to abide by the Overseas Investment Act which, while true, highlights our collective distorted priorities. 

We saw such priorities during the Australian bushfire when students at Tamborine Mountain Area School were asked to stay home due to a lack of water. As emergency supplies sent by the government made their way to the region, water miners were taking water to a Coca-Cola factory in the opposite direction. In Stanthorpe, when residents were put under extreme water conditions the day after a Chinese water mining company was given the green light to extract water from nearby. The day will come when we have similar situations here. 

Scenarios like this raise an important question about priorities: why are people’s livelihoods less important than the profits of a few corporations? Ultimately, this is what it comes down to. A rational person would assume environmental legislation exists to preserve natural resources like water for future generations to use. However, most such laws are simply mechanisms to help corporations extract those resources for as long as possible.  

A clear example of this is California’s Strawberry Creek, sucked dry by Nestle. The company was inexplicably granted consent by the Forest Service to continue operating in the area for another five years despite that same organisation acknowledging that Nestle’s previous actions had adversely impacted water supply in the region. This happens with companies in all sorts of extractive industries – look at the state of our fishing stocks for example. We don’t know when to stop. 

Here and abroad, exploiting nature is so rampant because of the belief in free market ideologies, even when those ideologies are clearly flawed. For example, water bottling companies are granted consent to operate as long as they provide jobs that the region needs, however. However, there is no way of guaranteeing those jobs are secure, and often we find out how precarious those jobs are.

Again, Cloud Ocean is a great example to demonstrate this. Set up in 2017, the company was forced to lay off 125 staff a year later due to poor sales in China, which hardly seems like a welcome boost of stable employment the area needs. The flawed belief that creating jobs is inherently positive for rural regions is an idea that must be challenged if we are to raise the standard of living in rural New Zealand, because it is not working. 

Some argue that we should at least be making money from these water sales, and while it is undeniably unjust that a company can pay less than $1000 for millions of litres of water, this misses the point. Treating such a precious resource as a commodity results in what happens to most commodities: the exploitation of the resource until it runs out. We have to shift from this way of thinking and start thinking of the big picture. 

As the climate changes, droughts will become longer and more severe while storms and floods can contaminate fresh water supplies. There may very well come a time when we wished we had shown more concern for our water, because it could be the difference between life and death. 

So how do things change?

The most obvious individual action we can all take is to not buy bottled water. Get yourself a stainless steel reusable bottle, if not for environmental reasons, then get one for the fact it keeps your water cool for longer. Bonus fact: it also keeps your beer or cider cool for those sunny days at the beach.

In conjunction with this, our cities need to invest in more public drinking fountains. Most cities do a reasonable job of providing these, but there is room for improvement. The more readily available this water is, the less people need to buy bottled water. 

Most importantly we need to talk about water ownership. There are growing calls for Maori ownership of waterways, especially acknowledging the Crown’s failure to prevent the degradation of our waterways. This of course will be a contentious issue, but is a conversation we need to have. 

Another option that free-market enthusiasts would love is genuine public ownership and management, which means there might still be room for bottled water in the future but run by the state rather than private companies. This way, production only needs to happen to meet genuine need, such as during emergencies, rather than for profit. This means water sources won’t be polluted or over-exploited, and in times of crisis, those who are in need aren’t price gouged and forced to pay twice the normal price for water, as some in Australia reportedly did

Whatever the best course of action may be, we need to put a stop to water bottling now and figure it out. Remember, this is only the tip of the iceberg; our water sources are threatened by drought, contamination, and other sources of extraction such as irrigation, all of which also need to be addressed. The Coalition’s bold plan, which they failed to execute, was to put a levy on water bottling. That isn’t good enough.  For the future of our water, we can do better.

Surprise, Surprise, Another Recession Is Coming

Ten years ago the global economy suffered a calamitous meltdown and millions of people around the world struggled as a consequence. Now, if economists are to be believed, we are looking down the barrel of another recession.  

People could be forgiven for not hearing about it, but these concerns have been published a range by media outlets around the world (see below).

Forbes: Is the Next Recession on the Way?

Money.com: The Next Recession is Coming by 2021, According to an Overwhelming Majority of Economists

The Guardian: We are due a recession in 2020 – and we will lack the tools to fight it

Stuff: Why the Next Recession will be Bigger than The Global Financial Crisis

Unfortunately, this sort of thing simply doesn’t make the front page of the news. Trump or some other distasteful aspect of United States politics tends to occupy that spot. It is unfortunate that more people in the media and parliament are not talking about it because we are still dealing with the impacts of the last recession, and perhaps most frighteningly, we seem not to have learned any lessons.  

The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was a disaster for many people, but it was also an opportunity to change things. The predatory loans handed out to people from low socioeconomic backgrounds that were largely responsible for the crash should have earned the lenders serious jail time, yet they and everyone else who played a part got away with a fine and a slap on the wrist. Worse, many of the bankers who were bailed out used that money to pay themselves hefty bonuses and, in the absence of the introduction of meaningful legislation to prevent something similar happening again, many were able to carry on conducting business as usual.

For those interested in justice, the failure of lawmakers around the world to punish those responsible was frustrating. The Occupy Movement was the product of the anger and frustration of millions of people around the world disaffected with the way the global economy operates and the disproportionate power wielded by the financial and political elite. As valid as their points were, the media and indeed many ordinary people ridiculed the protesters in typical fashion using generic insults without even bothering to engage with the critiques or solutions the Occupy Movement was discussing.

Trying to understand how the economy works is no easy task, whether it be in the local or global context. Thus, we rely on the information that we regularly receive (the news) and our lived experience. Those of us who are better off than others didn’t notice any immediate or significant change to our lives during or after the GFC, so we have little reason to complain and also little reason to analyse the claims of those speaking out against the status quo. Unfortunately, it is those who maintain this ignorance that are the biggest obstacle to doing things a better way.

This ignorance is not necessarily surprising, but it is incredibly disheartening. We know that the wealthiest 1% holds most of the world’s wealth and power and that accumulation drives many of our socioeconomic problems, which was one of the key points raised by the Occupy Movement, yet we still love to idolise the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as though they are our saviours. We are quick to ignore the fact that recessions offer the wealthy and opportunity to seize more assets (as happened with property particularly in the US after the GFC) which further deprives ordinary people the chance to get ahead. Perhaps most disappointingly, even though we know recessions occur every decade, we seem so shocked when the next one comes along.

People are often quick to dismiss socialism as a system that doesn’t work, and perhaps it isn’t a perfect model either, but we cannot continue to live under a paradigm predicated on greed and competition. More, to extol the unequivocal success of capitalism seems foolish when, not because of any anomaly but its very nature, it is driven into crisis every ten or so years, adversely affecting millions of people in the process. Ignorance is one thing, but we aren’t going to get anywhere if we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

I won’t lie, I’m not that thrilled about living in a system that we know is going to go belly up at certain intervals while we routinely do nothing at all to prevent it. The recent IPCC report claimed we have 12 years to stop runaway climate change, but if we can’t even manage not to crash the economy we revere so much, I fear there is little chance we will make the necessary changes that have been recommended to prevent many of the impacts of climate change.

That said, maybe there is reason to be optimistic. By all reports, the fallout from the upcoming recession will be bad, perhaps worse than last time. Also, we in New Zealand were lucky to be insulated from much of the fallout then, and it is likely we will not be so lucky next time. Maybe, just maybe, we will take the opportunity we didn’t take last time and seriously redesign the way society operates, because it may be that we have no other choice. It won’t be easy and will require massive amounts of energy, coordination and will, but another world is possible.

It’s Not Just You: Inequality in Society Causes Depression

When we talk about helping people overcome depression the solutions we offer involve them finding confidence and improving their self-esteem so they can deal with the challenges they face and ‘live normal lives’, whatever that means. This puts the emphasis is on the individual to change and carries the connotation that the problem is internal. Speaking from experience, I know that the causes are not always from within. In the past few years many researchers and commentators have pointed out that the high instances of depression we see today are likely caused by social influences such as income inequality, consumerism and competitive lifestyles, ideas which have not been talked about enough.  

Of course, bar media coverage of a few exceptional speakers and the occasional feel-good stories, we have done a dismal job of talking about mental health in the media, in schools and in the public in general. If we are serious about addressing this epidemic, we should be looking at all the information, something we have not always done well. For example, the common belief for years was that depression is simply a chemical imbalance where low levels of serotonin would cause people to exhibit depressive symptoms that medication (antidepressants) could alleviate. This idea was perpetuated despite a lack of evidence to support it and many doctors reluctantly prescribed antidepressants despite knowing they weren’t necessarily going to make a difference, at least not in many cases.

Thankfully, things have changed somewhat, and now we acknowledge that the causes of depression are unique to the experiences and lifestyles of the individual, and therefore the help a person needs is also unique. But there has still been little discussion of the social causes of depression despite researchers and organisations including the World Health Organisation have been saying for years that the causes of the widespread instances of depression in part result from the way society is structured.

“It is No Measure of Health to Be Well Adjusted to a Profoundly Sick Society” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

To paraphrase Johann Hari who has written on this very topic, rather than viewing depression as the problem that needs to be fixed, perhaps we need to look at it as a symptom of much bigger problems we face. After all, if one in six people in this country suffer from depression and many of them because they are struggling with daily challenges like unemployment, economic uncertainty and material hardship, perhaps the system isn’t working as well as we like to think. Indeed, there are some pretty clear ways this is happening.

The Influence of Social Hierarchy

A popular theory is that top-down hierarchies adversely impacts an individual’s mental health, particularly that of those in the middle and lower end of the pecking order. Hierarchies cause those with less power to avoid conflict with those that control resources and wield economic and political power because they live in a state of perpetual fear; their position and access to resources that sustain their lifestyles are not guaranteed as they are dependent on those with more power. They must tread carefully, for to upset the powers that be too greatly is to risk losing much. Thus, they suppress their emotions, often choosing to keep a low profile and accept the status quo rather than expressing how they really feel, just as the middle and lower classes do in Western societies in the face of injustice. As we know, the worst thing people suffering mental health problems can do is keep things bottled up.

Surprisingly, it is often those in the middle who exhibit higher rates of anxiety and depression than those in the lower section, possibly because their position in the social hierarchy is so precarious. They are not at the top of the order but believe they are almost there, but they are also aware that they are not far from the bottom and only a few missteps could land them there. This fear of being inferior or becoming even more inferior adds to the likelihood of anxious or depressive symptoms.

“…social pressure to be polite and deferential to people with greater status and power results in more emotion suppression among those who occupy low positions within a social hierarchy” (Langner et al., 2012, p4)

The modern workplace is a great example of such a hierarchy. The more responsibility a person holds within an organisation, the more pressure they are subjected to. Those in supervisor and manager roles are subjected to pressure from above, the executive level, and are also the ones that have to deal with the workers and pressure from them. As they embody that precarious middle space, they are often striving for higher office (and therefore pay) while being aware that several mistakes could see them demoted, which would undoubtedly be embarrassing. The workers on the ground floor are equally miserable because they have little control over the allocation of resources and wealth, in particular receiving a relatively small share of the latter. The executives on top of the pile have all the power, significantly more money and less reasons to be stressed, anxious or depressed.

Income Inequality and Depression

Because of the obvious class divide in this country and similar developed countries, it goes without saying that the distasteful levels of inequality are having an impact on our mental health. Numerous studies have demonstrated a positive relationship between economic inequality and depression in countries all around the world which cite a range of reasons for this relationship. One reason is that people compare themselves to others who are better off and feel a sense of defeat at the structural unfairness. Other reasons include associated developmental disorders in adolescents and a sense of withdrawal or shame by worse-off people in a community.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains it is a serious problem. The graph below shows how in the United States, states that have higher levels of income inequality according to the Gini Coefficient tend to have higher instances of depression.why-greater-equality-makes-societies-stronger-richard-wilkinson-and-kate-pickett-bestselling-authors-of-the-spirit-level-why-equality-is-better-for-everyone-38-638

This phenomena is not unique to the United States, and nor is it limited to mental health. As the graph below demonstrates, more unequal countries experience a range of health and social problems which combine to create a perfect storm for those less fortunate.

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In unequal societies, competition for resources and wealth creates a host of problems.

Competition breeds misery

The defenders of the capitalist status quo love the idea of competition because apparently financial incentives foster innovation. To be fair, they are correct. It is amazing how much money and effort companies will invest to extract as much value from workers without paying them their fair share, or how to extract as much capital from the natural environment without having to pay to fix the problems they create. From that point of view, competition certainly does lead to innovative thinking, but not necessarily thinking that will benefit the majority of people.

Elsewhere, competition leads to misery in other ways. Financial wealth is often a determinant of social status, as it allows individuals to afford the symbols of wealth. In our consumerist society, clothing brands, expensive cars and the price of one’s house are common symbols of wealth, and targeted advertising convinces us either subconsciously or consciously to pursue these things. When societies are as unequal as New Zealand is, the class divide is noticeable. Because people want to climb higher up the social ladder, they pursue as much as possible the appearance of high social status, often by purchasing material goods like those mentioned above and often to the detriment of their health and well-being.

What should we be doing about it?

We should be working together

The strength and quality of relationships between people within communities plays a significant role on mental health. Alienation, isolation and loneliness are causes of depression that are themselves caused by inequality. Neoliberalism favours individualism and places emphasis on ‘individual responsibility’, even for socially-created problems, which only further isolates and alienates people. Therefore, we can live healthy lifestyles in which we accomplish things by working together.

In a clip discussing this very topic, Johann Hari presents an anecdote of a woman suffering from crippling anxiety and depression who finds purpose by working with others to create a garden. The best thing about this story is that it isn’t some unsubstantiated ‘hippy cure’ or anything; there are plenty of studies that link improved mental health to exposure to green space and working on collaborative projects like community gardens. We should be thinking how our communities can be restructured to encourage neighbourhoods the care for and empower each other.

We need a society that works for everyone

Perhaps the best way that we can care for each other is by creating a society that is fair and just. Currently, our neoliberal capitalist system is designed to continually advantage a select few while an increasing majority are left with less. This is making the mental health problems so many people face even worse and there is no legitimate reason why such an unfair regime should continue. Not that long ago, the distribution of wealth was more fair and those who earned more than enough would pay higher taxes that would ensure they are making positive contributions to society. Now, with essential services like healthcare and education so underfunded, it is beyond time for them to give back and use their wealth for good.

Currently there are a range of wonderful and aspirational organisations working on initiatives to combat mental health by empowering people, and while it is great they are making a difference in communities, imagine how much more they could accomplish if they didn’t have to rely on charity and volunteers. Imagine how much happier and productive people would be if they weren’t living with the constant anxiety of worrying whether they will be able to make rent or put food on the table. If people were taxed appropriate to their means and needs then those struggling to get by wouldn’t have to endure tax hikes for necessary infrastructure upgrades and others could have access to suitable, equitable education, housing and health services that are needed to improve mental health. Finally, imagine the things we could accomplish if society didn’t pit people against each other and valued cooperation and working for the collective good.  

Understand That It’s Not You

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this is that depression and anxiety are not always caused by chemical imbalances or traumatic experience, but can actually be a response to a world that isn’t right. The problem, certainly in my case, is with the society we have created, a society that compels us to compete with each other and to be critical of ourselves. As we work to combat mental health in New Zealand and abroad, while our efforts should certainly empower people to find joy and purpose in each day and encourage openness about our feelings, we should also be talking about how our values as a society need to change. A happier society will be found when things are more fair and equal.

 

  1. Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Bellew, R., Mills, A. & Gale, C. (2009) The Dark Side of Competition: How Competitive Behaviour and Striving to Avoid Inferiority are Linked to Depression, Anxiety and Self-Harm. Psychology and Psychotherapy, 82(2), 123-36.
  2. Lacasse, J. & Leo, J. (2015) Antidepressants and the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression: A Reflection and Update on the Discourse. Florida State University Libraries.
  3. Langner, C., Epel, E., Matthews, K., Moskowitz, J. & Adler, N. (2012) Social Hierarchy and Depression: The Role of Emotion Suppression. Journal of Psychology, 146(4), 417-436.
  4. Macintyre, A., Ferris, D., Goncalves, B. & Quinn, N. (2018) What Has Economics Got To Do With It? The Impact of Socioeconomic Factors on Mental Health and the Case for Collective Action. Nature.com, <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-018-0063-2>
  5. Patel, V., Burns, K., Dhingra, M., Tarver, L., Kohrt, B. & Lund, C. (2018) Income inequality and depression: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of the association and a scoping review of mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(1), 76-89.
  6. Schultz, W. (2015) The Chemical Imbalance Hypothesis: An Evaluation of the Evidence.  Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(1), 60-75