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This review takes issue with the leading thesis in Glannon's book. It also argues that his book is inconsistent because it begins in a strong assertive way with concerns about water and then trickles away to qualify the initial stance he takes to such an extent as to render the whole exercise pointless. The best interpretation of Glennon is that he believes in market forces - that is the point behind the book. Any interpretation that accepts his litany of qualifications later in the book is a liberal whitewash.
Glennon begins his book on a human note. He relates water use to the extravagant Las Vegas lifestyle to which many Americans aspire. "Sin City encourages irresponsible behavor about everything from sex to water" (1), he says. This opening sets up a straw-man, and directs us to Glennon's theme, which is that human beings have unfortunate instincts and are by nature untrustworthy. The opening example, Las Vegas, drives home the theme to a remarkable extent and in diverse ways. Glennon shows commendable creativity in finding his examples of human profligacy regarding water. He even provides a photograph of that well-known water-waster the Bellagio Fountain (3) which holds 27 million gallons of water and was one part of a $40 million water feature (2). The fountain now uses recycled water. On page 4 he develops the theme further with respect to town planning in Las Vegas, "In the 1990s ...
Las Vegas embarked on another expansion" (4). The awful ways of human beings are also apparent in their relocating to areas of mild climate when they lose their jobs, which he less than subtly suggests is the outcome of decisions by the Japanese to the disadvantage of good old American companies such as Ford and Chrysler. Enough: that Glennon writes in this extravagant way should alert us all to watch for deficiencies in his argument. We also gain the impression (before we have completed his 36 page introduction) that Glennon does not actually like people. All this is something of a pity, because the substantive chapters, which detail the interrelatedness of human processes with regards water, are worthwhile. For example, he details for us California's plans to produce a billion gallons of ethanol per year and establishes the implications of this plan for water use (55). These views on the overall worth of the book are indicative of the critique that follows in the present paper. This paper argues that the market model that Glennon advances to address water wastage is deficient on three grounds which are considered in the paragraph below.
The grounds relate to market models in general, and not just to the water example. We note that Glennon is not concerned simply to describe the functioning of the water market, but is actively advocating the deliberate establishment ("extension", is perhaps the more accurate word) of free market economics into the provision of water. Water is thus a commodity with a dollar value that is to be fixed by the free flow of commerce. He attempts, particularly in the latter part of his book, presumably when he comes to realise the inadequacies in his espoused position, to suggest that water ought to be priced on a dual system, that which is a social good and that which is a private good. He does not cost the implementation costs for dual reticulation systems, and we can note that many municipalities struggle to provide affordable potable water for their citizens through one system. That aside, the idea that enforced public policy can distinguish between the drops of water on the basis of their use is absurd. That it is a suggestion at all is the result of applying an inadequate economic theory to the problem of water shortage. Theory might require it, but the practical world does not follow the requirements of theory.
The first argument against holding water is a tradable commodity derives from the special place of, or relationship to, water that pertains to living human beings. Water - like the air we breathe - is foundational to our existence. The withholding of the materials of support for human life is regarded as a crime in many States. To withdraw from human beings, by deliberate action, their vital means of existence is in some circumstances deemed to be murder. The circumstances relate mainly to the action being done deliberately and with forethought. Consider the scenario where those in poverty are deliberately deprived of potable water by government statutes established to being into plan a free market for water. Even if deaths do not follow, there will be a diminution of life. Glennon, on this reviewers reading at least, does not deal with the moral situation of children or the poor, or the destitute people. Those who support market forces generally appeal to some form of "trickle down" theory to argue that those less affluent, or in dire circumstances, will be better off as a part of a general improvement in the economic circumstances of the nation. When Glennon considers disadvantaged groups on page 229, he restricts himself to "poor people" and his examples are the elderly and infirm. Thus, he leaves us with the impression that he has little experience or insight into the lives of millions of Americans, this even though he is a highly qualified academic.
The second argument in opposition to Glennon's zealous advocacy of a water market relates to its practicality. The first examples of impracticality have already been adumbrated in the first argument above. The poor, children, and the infirm are not in a good position to appreciate value, to plan, to budget and to pay market rates. Millions of American citizens are not of a commercial mindset. Glennon might be of the view that they ought to be so disposed to act rationally in their own interests, but the evidence is that people are different. It is possibly this factual situation which leads to Glennon's anti-human vehemence which is alluded to in the first paragraph of the present review. Capitalist countries are a success because they maintain a balance of market codification and socialism. The State has a substantial and vital role in the maintenance of our communities. All levels of government are involved in the provision of fundamental needs in the interests of both individual persons and in the interests of the State. Education, unemployment insurance, child benefits, and water services are traditionally in Western societies the responsibility of us all: consequently, they are taken as the responsibility of our representatives, elected officials.
Where there is the private provision of water services, the provider might be a commercial organisation, but the funding still is derived in large part from tax and rate money. The example of the United Kingdom comes to mind, where they have extensively the private provision of water services, but still maintain the public responsibility for these services. Thus, there is not a free market model in place although water was significantly privatised in the 1990s. When Glennon advocates that a market places a value on water - the price to be paid for a drop - he advocates for a system that holds uncertainty. It my be that the market is not an open trading market of the kind we associate with stocks, but nevertheless, there has to be a mechanism that allows prices to increase and decrease. Any mechanism of this kind imposes risks upon both communities and individual persons. The risk is that an essential requirement can at any time be placed beyond the reach of a community or an individual. If a community cannot afford the water it needs to operate its sanitary systems the public health implications are immediate horrendous. Glennon does not pay sufficient attention to such examples, because they are not likely events under the current system of governmental responsibility - they are off the radar.
In conclusion, for the two substantial reasons elaborated above, it is apparent that the deliberate establishment of a dollar value for water and its management as a commodity through market mechanisms is undesirable. The especial relationship of water to human life must be acknowledged and cherished. Each of us begins our life in water (amniotic fluid) and we maintain our relationship with water daily. This we do without the necessity or capability to distinguish between drops. Society as a whole through, for example, its sanitation needs is equally dependent on water. The second substantial reason why Glennon's thesis fails relates to practicality. He glosses over the actual situation in America regarding vulnerable but precious groups or classes of people. The present essay highlights children but the argument could be extended to other minority and relatively powerless groups. Attempts to pretend that potable water may be treated as two separate commodities are unconvincing. Water is unlike other products, it is a single uniform commodity with an indisputable chemical formula. Petroleum comes in grades, kinds, brands, and formulations - water does not!