In Central California, he reads, there are towns where the drought is not merely a conversation piece, a vague and far-off threat; for the citizens of these towns, the future catastrophe has already arrived. Hundreds of wells have already gone dry, meaning that thousands of people in Kern and Tulare Counties currently live without running water: to flush their toilets, take their showers, and wash their clothes they depend on charities and ad-hoc public water tanks, and for their drinking water they rely on bottles purchased at gas stations, supermarkets, country stores. It is a reality he finds almost impossible to conceive. For him, running water feels as natural as any other natural system in the world, as natural as the rising and setting of the sun, the growth of plants, the phases of the moon. He stands up from his desk, walks into the kitchen, turns the chrome handle on the sink’s tap—and voilà!, the thin translucent rope of water is simply there, waiting for him, an inexhaustible spring, unspectacular and routine. He is no more surprised by it, no more thankful for its constancy, than he is surprised by or thankful for the constancy of gravity. Both seem to him to be fundamental laws, the workings of which he does not need to understand in order to trust in their dependability.
Maybe this is what he really needs, he thinks: to learn to experience these systems as systems, to see the water emerging from his showerhead and faucets not as natural, guaranteed, but rather as the outcome of a complex and increasingly tenuous network of laws, physical infrastructures, city and state agencies, economic and political decisions. He needs to remember that it is the nature of his privilege not to have to know, that just as in the past the nobility did not have to understand the labyrinth of hidden passageways along which their servants moved, so too the members of a particular class do not have to ask what their privilege is built upon, how it all works. The water simply arrives, is simply there, and they do not have to wonder by what means, or at whose expense.
This myth of “depth,” however; this idea that there is something hidden beneath the illusory surface and that simply knowing more will give him access to it, let him touch the underlying forces structuring his life—hasn’t he learned that this itself is merely a further ideological sleight, one more way in which these same forces divert him from the fact that they are actually already present, blatant and unconcealed? After all, he already knows more or less how the water system works, knows how starkly water usage is divided along class lines and how Big Ag and Big Meat are by far the main wasters of water in his state. The data is all right there on the Internet, free for anyone to peruse. The real question, then, seems to be: not how do we know more, deepen our awareness, but how do we connect what we already know with the lived facts of our life. And for this, he thinks, we need stories, not stories whose secret meanings need to be uncovered, revealed, but rather stories that try over and over again to yoke the things we grasp abstractly to the things we feel and do concretely, in our bodies, day after day.
Will his own taps ever run dry? Will he ever reach for his toilet lever and find that it has grown useless, clanking, the water he expected to spirit his waste away suddenly diverted, vanished, gone? As hard as he tries, he still cannot imagine such a contingency. Before things reach this state, before the water system of a major American metropolis is allowed to collapse, “they” will have averted the crisis somehow, “they” will have discovered a solution to the problem. He stops, stunned to find himself thinking this way. It isn’t that he disbelieves in this “they,” a whole host of policymakers and corporate interests, scientists and entrepreneurs, whose very existence depends on avoiding such an event. Even if it means making sacrifices elsewhere, even if it demands fundamental shifts in the way we use water and land, the Los Angeles water supply will remain unaffected, at least for his lifetime. What shocks him more is how unquestioningly he slips under “their” outstretched wing, how naturally his position in society guarantees him “their” protection. He may pretend to resist “them,” he may declare himself opposed to “their” policies and “their” vision of the world—yet in the end “they” continue to care for him, and he, despite everything he says, continues to benefit from their care. It is at times like this, thinking this kind of thought, that he feels the need for total upheaval, the need to become a complete traitor to his whole way of living and everything he has previously known. How else, he asks himself—aware that the question is naïve, aware that he has asked it of himself a thousand times before—how else can his life be anything but the life of a hypocrite, a hypocrite whose privilege will always give the lie to whatever ethics he might profess?
At least he does not eat meat, he thinks to himself wearily—at least he does not underwrite that massive system of suffering and waste. And the water, meanwhile, continues to flow exactly where and how it flowed before, invisible in its twisting, subterranean ducts until, with an easy turn of his wrist, he summons it from the tap and watches as it falls—spontaneously, as if without a history—toward the drain.
Image Credit: “Untitled (Boy with Hand in Drain),” photograph by Gregory Crewdson.