A city of scolds

Seattle City Hall has cracked down on drinking and clubs, it's on the verge of banning fast food and taxing plastic grocery bags, and now even plastic-bottled water is a civic sin. Switch to tap water! says the mayor. Mossback thinks enough is enough.
Crosscut archive image.

(Chuck Taylor)

Seattle City Hall has cracked down on drinking and clubs, it's on the verge of banning fast food and taxing plastic grocery bags, and now even plastic-bottled water is a civic sin. Switch to tap water! says the mayor. Mossback thinks enough is enough.

Once upon a time, Seattle wanted to be taken seriously as a place with class. A few early French restaurants in Pioneer Square in the 1970s signaled that sophistication was on the march. Seattle's old blue laws (such as no standing in a bar while holding a drink) began to be repealed. Outdoor cafes were legalized. During those reform years, it even became possible to buy a decent case of French wine without having to drive to San Francisco. In fact, Seattle began to put itself on the map by adopting and then adapting various European fads. A latte, anyone?

But what ranks as cosmopolitan today is something entirely different. Instead of becoming relaxed and continental, our most ardent urban advocates have become uptight and nativist, from new liquor crackdowns to calls for secession. Take Mayor Greg Nickels' new campaign against bottled water. Once, you may have looked for an authentic bistro that served Evian with your meal. Now, sipping foreign water out of a plastic bottle is tantamount to firing a slug into Gaia's gut. And don't tell anyone you like foie gras.

Nickels won't allow bottled water to be sold at City Hall and is encouraging all of Seattle to dump the stuff in favor of local tap water. According to a news release (one of a blizzard coming from hizzoner), "Mayor Greg Nickels today kicked off a six-week public awareness campaign aimed at promoting the quality of Seattle's drinking water and encouraging people to stop buying bottled water." This being Seattle, the new campaign comes with a scolding. Says Nickels:

"What flows from our taps is some of the finest-tasting, purest-source water in the world. That's why it makes little sense for Seattleites to waste their money on bottled water — which costs 2,400 times as much as tap water and creates thousands of tons of greenhouse gases."

Drinking Evian is destroying the planet. The press release contains this calculation: "Seattle residents use the equivalent of about 354,127 pint bottles of water each day. That equals to some 40,719 barrels of oil each year, creating about 5,439 tons of greenhouse gases."

So importing and drinking bottled water is bad, but exporting Boeing aircraft and war machines is OK? Which do you think has a bigger impact on greenhouse gases? Which uses more oil? Which contributes more to destroying the planet?

And what about Starbucks, for god's sake? How much carbon is burned and how much greenhouse gas emitted getting those beans here? Unless I missed it, there are no coffee plantations in Wallingford.

If the mayor's next press release announced an intention to lead a charge to abolish the Boeing company, maybe we'd begin to see some moral consistency. As it is, we're wasting carbon on city bureaucrats who are tapping on their calculators to produce such stats.

OK, if you want to forget the big picture for the moment, let's get to the details of Nickels' anti-bottled water campaign.

First, yes, Seattle has pretty good water and ought to be proud of protecting its supply. If you like it, drink up. More power to you.

Second, in my experience, there is no better water than fresh mountain stream water which, of course, you can't safely drink anymore because of the risk of pathogens. And besides, recent research shows that even our most pristine mountain lakes are laced with mercury and other chemicals that have floated in on the wind or fallen with the rain and snow. If we want fresh, natural sources of local water, we have to stop polluting it.

Third, the taste and quality of local water is often impacted by the pipes it travels through. Maybe it's just me, living in older homes and apartments, but even when filtered, my tap water doesn't taste as good as most bottled waters. Few can afford to replace their plumbing.

Fourth, plastic is lousy, but it has certain conveniences. It's light and portable (easy to carry on walks, etc.). I tried special ordering mineral water in glass bottles for awhile but could only get it by the case. Have you ever tried lugging a case of glass-bottled water home from the market? I suspect plastic may be better than hauling the bottles home by car.

Fifth, free public drinking water is not generally available. You can buy Evian in gas stations and quickie marts now, but where have all the public drinking fountains gone? And how many are maintained in good enough condition that you'd actually want to use them? Downtown Seattle used to have Bubblers on many corners, but no longer.

Sixth, where do campaigns like this end? The city has tried to control what types of alcohol can be sold where, it's cracked down on loud music, smoking, it wants to start charging you for using the "wrong" type of grocery bags, it wants to eliminate fast food from the city, it has employees inspecting your garbage to see if you're obeying recycling laws, and our elected leaders are just chomping at the bit to start tracking where you drive and when so they can charge you by the mile. Big Nanny is watching.

As a mossback, I am not opposed to nativist sympathies — I often share and applaud them. But one of the local traditions I treasure is tolerance, and the idea that there's more than one way of behaving and looking at the world. That used to be the essence of a vital city, until Singapore, I guess.

To me, one of the few mitigating factors in Seattle's march toward Manhattanization is the hope that the resulting mess will at least be broadminded, perhaps even creatively fertile. But instead Seattle seems to be on the forefront of a new kind of urbanism that demands we adopt its least appealing qualities (crowding, high cost) and eschew its virtues (broadmindedness, variety). Instead, we've got a dense city full of scolds and micromanagers.

It's enough to make this writer hit the bottle. Wild Turkey? Jack Daniels? No, ice-cold Evian in plastic, naturally. That's what the bad boys are drinking these days.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.