Casaubon's Book

The Water Fountain

Like everyone in the rich world, I carry bottles of water with me everywhere I go. Were someone from the past to spot me, they’d be stunned by the sight of all the people, clearly headed on long treks into the uninhabited jungle, carrying water lest they die of dehydration. Because, after all, in historical terms, at least in the US, one carries a canteen or other source of water while camping or otherwise engaged in a trek to uncertain, undeveloped lands. In populated areas, folks 30 or 40 years ago, would have told a thirsty person – “wait until we get to the water fountain.”

You remember those water fountains, right? The things that meant you didn’t have to buy soda or haul a bottle around? You just waited until you passed the next one, and drank your fill. You remember playing the game of getting enough water up, or squirting your sister in the nose? I do.

They were in public parks and by public restrooms, in town centers and everywhere you went. They obviated the need to purchase anything when you had such a simple, basic human concern as ordinary thirst. You could trust them to be there – if you whined “Daddy, I’m thirsty” – waiting for the next water fountain was reasonable, achievable, because they were always there.

And, of course, it was this very public-ness that was dangerous. Dangerous once because one’s lips might touch metal that had touched the lips of a person of another skin color. Then dangerous because one might get germs from them. After all, they are PUBLIC, and public is scary, because anyone can use it. Even poor people. Even icky people. Even people we would normally never actually choose to share anything with.

Thus, we magnify our fears of other people to avoid having to find public solutions. Or we simply get in the habit of privatizing everything, leaving the public sphere only to those who can’t afford to leave it – and thus allowing us to call this “the tragedy of the commons.” In fact, it has little to do with “commons” and is the tragedy of privatization and wealth and our rejection of both commons – and common ground with other people.

When my youngest son was in the full throes of toddlerhood, and was required to accomodate his brothers in some way, he would shout, “I don’t! I don’t share!!” Most of us don’t share very much either – we have decidedly toddlerish relationships to sharing.

There are two very serious problems with this. The first is that it isn’t right to allow poor people to be screwed because we’re afraid to have to sit next to them on the bus. Despite the truth of this, we have already degraded the public sphere and public resources badly, without regard for the needs of the poor and for those with ethical considerations that prevent them from having one private one of everything.

The deeper problem, at least for the people who have most embraced private solutions is that when we’re unable to achieve and afford private for everyone – everyone with their own car and vacuum cleaner and washing machine and water bottle – we find that we’ve trashed our infrastructure. That is, as we began carrying our water bottles around, we closed up and stopped maintaining our water fountains. With cell phones, we lost the pay phones. With cars, the exurban and rural buses. And now that it turns out that the bottles are bad for us and the water in them contaminated, our options are a lot smaller.

The same is true of most peak oil and climate change preparations. I’ve been accused here of fatalism, because I don’t think we’re going to have money or resources to radically transform ourselves into a society powered of private households, each powered by alternative energies. I don’t think most of us are going to have the money to put tens of thousands of dollars into retrofitting our homes. What I do think we could do is dramatically reinforce and recreate our public infrastructure, and to create public solutions to problems we now typically examine as private. We can live in homes that are dramatically stripped down, with low energy infrastructure, if we have access to a few powered public resources that we share with others.

That is, while it is unlikely we will all have solar powered pumps to bring up water from our private wells, there is no reason your town cannot put solar or hand powered pumps in central, public places to provide water in the event of a major outage. While most people will not have a perfectly retrofitted canning kitchen, there’s no reason our church and school kitchens can’t be transformed into public use. While we won’t all have cars, there’s no reason those of us who do can’t put many more people in them for most trips, a la The Community Solution’s smart jitney program. I may not be able to afford a solar system for my home, but my neighbors and I may be able to afford to solar retrofit a garage on our street that could be used as a schoolroom, a clinic for our local nurse practitioner, as a place for band practice, a place to put the shared washer and freezer and neighborhood parties.

It is easier to plan for ourselves. It is easier in many ways to carry our water bottle. It is easier not to talk to other people, it is easier not to need other people, or have to share and accomodate them. It is easier to pick the people you want to share with, to be exclusive rather than inclusive. There are all sorts of reasons not to think in public terms, and only, I think, two major ones to do so.

First of all, if we are to break out of our isolation, we have to, and second, because we have no choice – privatized solutions are too costly, too exclusive, too limited. Anyone who goes into peak oil and climate change imagining you will be one of the rich and lucky who will always be able to afford your bottle of water is, I think, betting on winning the lottery.



  1. #1 Ed Straker
    September 30, 2010

    “…it was this very public-ness that was dangerous. Dangerous once because one’s lips might touch metal that had touched the lips of a person of another skin color.”

    Are you seriously insinuating that it’s only racism that drives people to be concerned about germs from public fountains? Maybe I should go french-kiss the nearest black-person to prove that I’m not a racist?

    Overall, your blog is great, but every once and a while I notice you like to build up these weak straw-men when you want to rant about some sort of social justice issue. You presume to know people’s motives but your logic is about as convincing as Dinesh D’Souza’s “How Obama Thinks”.

    Not every decision people make is guided by some contempt for brown skin or poor people.

  2. #2 dewey
    September 30, 2010

    Ah, the straw-man straw-man. Ed, if you will reread more closely, Sharon said that people ONCE avoided public water fountains out of racism, THEN out of germ phobia. Within the lifetimes of many older Americans, there were segregated water fountains in the South, openly marked “white” or “colored.” This constitutes proof beyond any reasonable doubt that many white people were once unwilling to use integrated water fountains.

    I might not want to use a fountain that someone had just mashed his lips all over, but is that how you drink out of a fountain? No, both for sanitary purposes and to avoid drowning, you drink from the stream in midair. Guess what, that’s what most of Them do too. We have these fantasies about how public goods might be safe if it was just us using whatever it is, but with all those filthy other people doing sinister things to it, it’s obviously too risky for our extra-special tender little immune systems. (If anyone in the last fifty years has died of a disease caught from a toilet seat, I am not aware of it.)

    On a related note, Paris has just inaugurated its first water fountain that gives fizzy water, based on an apparently popular Italian model. The good news is that they take seriously the importance of providing water for their citizens (with several hundred public taps and fountains); the bad news is that the French are starting to expect Perrier out of the freakin’ tap. 🙂

  3. #3 Alex Besogonov
    September 30, 2010


    And now consider that you also need to periodically check fountains for germ infestations if local wells are used, or make sure that they are not running when it’s sub-freezing outside (or pipes will burst), you need to have drinkable water, etc. Then the question of vandalism.

    Sometimes public solutions are not the best.

  4. #4 Alex Besogonov
    September 30, 2010


    “If anyone in the last fifty years has died of a disease caught from a toilet seat, I am not aware of it.”

    Quite a lot of people did. Google ‘Hepatitis A’.

    It’s uncommon, but mostly _because_ _of_ _good_ _hygiene_.

  5. #5 Christina
    September 30, 2010

    I don’t know how germy it is, but the public water fountains in our community are regularly used by dogs (with their owners’ help of course).

    I very much like this article; as with so many of your pieces, you happily take a hammer to the isolationist approach and rebuild it as a strong community. My adaptive vision is less and less a farm property, and more and more a tenement-style property with communal resources.

    …off to happily share a common truck to haul some common manure – community lives!!

  6. #6 Sharon Astyk
    September 30, 2010

    Ed, have you seriously never heard of Jim Crow – or did you just ignore the word “once” in your outrage?

    As Dewey points out, if you can’t drink from a water fountain without touching your lips to it, either it isn’t working (my point exactly) or you aren’t doing it right. The disease thing is really a strawman – the water may not be ideal, but then again, what water is these days?


  7. #7 sealander
    September 30, 2010

    My local park has a water fountain for the humans and a lower one for the dogs 😉
    I have noticed that whoever chooses the faucets and sinks in public restrooms these days seems to be deliberately picking them so that it is almost impossible to fill a water bottle from them.

  8. #8 Alex Besogonov
    September 30, 2010

    BTW, consider a huge amount of water wasted in these fountains.

    Is it cost-effective?

  9. #9 stripey_cat
    September 30, 2010

    Water wasted? I usually splash a few drops on my face when I drink from a fountain, but that’s all, and no worse (and probably better) than the amount I waste being careless filling bottles or glasses from a tap. If the water pressure’s screwy you can find yourself wasting more (either because it shoots into your hair, or is too low for you to get your mouth down to), but that’s exactly the sort of infrastructure problem we’re discussing here.

  10. #10 george.w
    September 30, 2010

    I do carry a (bpa-free) water bottle but that has more to do with having endured numerous bouts of kidney stones than anything else. I fill it from the tap, including drinking fountains if one is handy. Generally let it run for a moment first because valves sometimes leach lead into the water.

    (There! A third paranoia! Race, germs, heavy metals. Who’s next?)

    Alex, water fountains deliver water at a minuscule fraction of the cost of retail bottled water. The fact that fountains occasionally require maintenance hardly begins to address the disparity. Public solutions are, on the whole, fantastically efficient.

  11. #11 aimee
    September 30, 2010

    I miss water fountains. There are still many around, but some seem to have either been purposely decommissioned or are out of order. Nothing more frustrating than seeing a water fountain up ahead on a hot and thirsty day and then discovering it’s dry! I don’t carry bottles – I hate to carry stuff in general, and water is heavy.

  12. #12 Samantha in Oz
    September 30, 2010

    I haven’t used a public water fountain since the day (many years ago) when I saw one with an apparently used condom placed over the spout.

    You could say that that’s an extreme example, and that even HIV-infected semen could be washed away easily enough (BLERK!). But, the general problem remains, and it is a problem closely related to The Tragedy of The Commons.

    Unfortunately, a minority of people abuse community resources, which spoils the resource for everyone else. In the town where I live, the rate of mindless vandalism and abuse of public (and private) property is depressingly high.

    Then there’s the thorny issue of meeting council and government rules and regulations, not to mention issues relating to insurance and public liability.

    I’ve been trying to establish a community garden and kitchen for a couple of years, on half an acre of land that I’m happy to provide for the cause for free. But I am at the point of weeping and tearing my hair out in frustration, because as soon as I finish jumping through seemingly endless hoops for the local council, my hard-won efforts are vandalised, stolen, or otherwise spoiled. I’ve basically given up.

  13. #13 Brad K.
    September 30, 2010

    I had never heard that phrase, “tragedy of the commons”. What a whimsical, poetical justification for conspicuous consumption, and social status climbing through appearance of affluence.

    Alex Besogonov, I think Sharon has been pretty consistent in describing the post-industrial world as having little room for a middle class, and a much bigger poor or lower class.

    I do recall the buildings in 1973, at Great Lakes Naval Training Center (US Navy, North Chicago, IL) – with three restrooms. Men, women, colored. The signs were still there, then, though they were no longer used that way.

    Sharon, there is one aspect of class difference you gloss over – the violently belligerent, of any race or creed or persuasion. While I might be concerned about interacting with or contacting someone poor or other than white – the chances that the other person are much greater to be actively angry and hostile to me as a class symbol are much greater, that with people I am familiar with in my neighborhood.

    And please don’t gloss over – change is measured in pain. Not all pain is growth or improvement, either. The pain, the discomfort of mere change must be accounted for. In other circumstances the pain of change is called buyer’s remorse, or the depression that attends starting a new job. Change is nothing less than the end of assumptions – knowledge to that point in our lives – and redirecting of habits, whether addiction or work ethic or other adopted ritual.

  14. #14 Kelly R.
    September 30, 2010

    We must be sharing a vibe, Sharon. I was mourning the loss of more infrastructure today. and don’t get me started on public pay phones! Those started disappearing much sooner than cell phones gained in popularity.

    I think we’re witnessing the slow decline and disintegration of our civilization. Attila the Hun will be banging at the gate before long.

    I believe vandalism is misdirected anger. We are all angry that our society seems to be falling apart…that we can’t provide seemingly basics to our commons….that our security of income, property and person is threatened…that our young have poor prospects…that our aging also have poor prospects.

    Our isolation has been our undoing. We have lost our sense of community, and our commons spring out of our community. Our democracy springs out of our community. Our well being springs out of our community.

    You say it’s easier to isolate. Not quite accurate, I think. It’s less scary to isolate. We risk rejection if we make ourselves vulnerable. The amazing thing happens, though, when we do break out of our isolation, make ourselves vulnerable, and are rewarded by a sense of community.

    I think this is more where your post was aimed. I’m sorry things got bogged down in fountain germs.

    I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to adapt…in place doesn’t really work well, but I’ve more sense of community here. We might move to my partners hometown..smaller, and more rural and more tightly knit…it’s all a matter of timing and circumstance. But I realize now, I can’t just move out in the country and think that’s all I need to do and be self sufficient in the country. I don’t think anyone will do well without a strong community to depend on. I’m going to aim most of my efforts in that direction, now…plus find a nice size city or near suburban lot I can grow some food on.

    As for the poor…if we don’t build our community to be inclusive of all, including the poor, then they become the “they” banging on the gate. Anyone who’s been even a bit of an outsider, knows the anger and the pain that goes with that. That anger will get expressed.

    What people forget or don’t realize is that we are more together, than the sum of our individual parts. Together, we are synergistic and can accomplish far more.

    Thanks for the provocative post.

  15. #15 Birdwell
    October 1, 2010

    Nutley NJ has a public hand powered well pump located just a few paces from the Township Municipal Hall, the public library and the High School. The water is delicious and is monitored for water quality standards.

    Almost any time of day you’ll see residents filling jugs to bring home as well as cyclists and joggers filling their water bottles. Maybe quaint… but part of the fabric of life in our town.

  16. #16 Brian
    October 1, 2010

    I think, if you’re carrying your own water bottle, you’re not looking for the fountains. They are *everywhere* – at least in the US compared to every other country I’ve visited ever. Good luck getting something to drink without buying it in Europe.

    What an utterly off-the-mark post. Yes, it’s the fear of the blacks that have led to complete degradation of the public hydration infrastructure. Any possible lack thereof probably has more to do with the utterly irrational fear of anything to do with touching or coming in secondary contact with a stranger – black/white/blue/etc. To whomever complained about dogs drinking out of water fountains – you’d do better to drink out of a water fountain that a dog slobbered all over than one that a human touched. And still, it’s so fucking pointless to worry about it. You could be the one in a billion that catches TB from a water fountain in the US. Otherwise, there’s not much to worry about – maybe a three-day cold.

    I speak as someone who lives in the “rich world” who has literally never carried a bottle of water unless I was exercising or camping. And as someone who has been poor enough that buying a bottle of water or soda or juice was a big deal.

  17. #17 Dunc
    October 1, 2010

    And now consider that you also need to periodically check fountains for germ infestations if local wells are used, or make sure that they are not running when it’s sub-freezing outside (or pipes will burst), you need to have drinkable water, etc. Then the question of vandalism.

    Sometimes public solutions are not the best.

    Oh, for pity’s sake… Aren’t you the guy who’s always going on about how trivial all the engineering problems associated with nuclear power are, and how they’ve all already been perfectly solved?

    Nuclear power – easy!
    Public drinking fountains – too hard!

    Yeah, right.

  18. #18 Sharon Astyl
    October 1, 2010

    Alex, sorry, I’m going with Dunc’s response here.

    Brian, my experience is exactly the opposite – I’ve found more public fountains in Europe (although admittedly I haven’t been there in a decade since I don’t fly any more for environmental reasons) than in many American cities. And no, I’m not failing to observe – I started carrying the water bottles precisely because I couldn’t count on there being fountains when I travelled – and perhaps if you’ve never nursed a baby, you don’t realize how much you need water when doing it. Or how tough it is for a thirsty kid is in a place with no public fountains – or no working ones.

    I lived in Boston and travelled that city for many years, and watched as the public fountains began to disappear and be pulled out, or stopped being maintained there. And it isn’t just the fountains – they are, after all, a metaphor. Try and find a pay phone ;-).

    Our local county fair actually has no water fountains – there was a large one in front of one of the permanent buildings, and I went there to refill our drink bottle, since we had no desire to spend money, and was told that it had needed repairs and was simply pulled out. Only drinks at the whole fair had to be purchased.

    Moreover, you needn’t rely on my for this – there have been numerous reports on the degradation of public infrastructure over the last decades that indicate the same thing.

    Samantha, I agree with you, and it is an important and difficult issue. I also think of it as a logical consequence, however, of privatization – that when the majority of people are removed from the use of public infrastructure, it allows the infrastructure to be degraded. The contempt society has for public resources processes all the way down the line, and without sufficient number of people asserting public standards, it becomes easy to let vandalism and destruction go forward. But I do understand – and you are right, it is a challenge.


  19. #19 dewey
    October 1, 2010

    Alex is also wrong about “lots” of people dying from Hep A caught from public toilets. The Hep A virus is occasionally fatal, and is transmitted by fecal contamination that must be introduced into the digestive tract. That is to say, the most likely way to spread it is for a sufferer to use the bathroom, not wash his hands well, then handle someone else’s food or drink. There is not much feces on a correctly used and maintained toilet seat, and the virus cannot be contracted through the skin of the rump; if you wash YOUR hands after pulling your pants up, the incidence of disease, much less death, from “touching the seat” must be very low. Maybe the idea is that if the spreader had no toilet to use, he/she would just hold it forever?

    These days a lot of people also dislike pay phones because they are supposedly germy (as well as because they may be used by scofflaws and dissidents). Is there any disease whatsoever that you will allege to be transmitted through the ear? People have just gotten the idea that other human beings should be treated as toxic waste to which even indirect exposure should be feared, even if there is not the slightest evidence that anyone will get sick from it.

  20. #20 darwinsdog
    October 1, 2010

    I had never heard that phrase, “tragedy of the commons”.

    That’s the title of a very famous & influential 1968 book by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. If you, or anyone else, hasn’t read it, you should.

    Years ago I purchased a little water filter and have used it to purify water from Alaska to Argentina, and have never gotten sick from drinking water that’s been filtered thru it. Not even when the water was reportedly Giardia infested. These filters have gotten pricey since I bought mine but are still well worth the price. I don’t bother to filter treated municipal water with it (not even in Mexico) but use it when drinking from creeks & rivers. If the water is too turbid a coffee filter can be used to pre-screen the water. This prevents the fine filter from clogging with sediment. At home there is a carbon filter over the kitchen tap. The carbon filter can be bypassed for washing dishes, etc., in order to prolong the life of the filter canisters.

  21. #21 Christina
    October 1, 2010

    #12: “Unfortunately, a minority of people abuse community resources, which spoils the resource for everyone else.”

    This is true, but I think a far greater problem is that the majority of people don’t care enough to participate in supporting community resources with their time and energy (and then complain about their tax dollars being taken to do it instead). For example, how many people actually pick up litter when they see it? It’s a vicious cycle, but we can each insert ourselves to interrupt it as best we can.

  22. #22 Sharon Astyk
    October 1, 2010

    I agree with DD everyone might want to read Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” but I’d also advise everyone to read Maria Mies and/or Vandana Shiva on Hardin and what he gets wrong. There’s a detailed discussion by Mies in “The Subsistence Perspective” one by Shiva in “Earth Democracy” and a joint analysis in “Ecofeminism.” There’s a tendency to take Hardin’s case as though it is an inevitable fact, and both Mies and Shiva do a good job of showing the limitations of his analysis. I’m indebted to them for the idea that much of what we view as the tragedy of the commons in the west is really the tragedy of inequitable engagement with public resources and of privatization.


  23. #23 darwinsdog
    October 1, 2010

    I haven’t read Maria Mies or Vandana Shiva so I can’t comment on the quality of their critiques of Hardin. But Mies is a professor of sociology & Shiva has a PhD in philosophy. Without a background in the physical, biological or ecological sciences I would be skeptical of their qualifications for critiquing the work of an ecologist. Hardin’s work stimulated a tremendous amount of commentary & critique within the ecological literature. I would suggest that this literature might be a more appropriate source of background & critique of “Tragedy of the Commons” than anything grounded in the social sciences. Hardin’s later (1993) “Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos” is also very good.

  24. #24 Ambitwistor
    October 1, 2010

    I’ve seen more public fountains in the U.S. than I have in Europe. Neither place seems to have many outdoors anymore. But U.S. buildings still tend to have them near restrooms, while this seems rare in European buildings.

  25. #25 Sharon Astyk
    October 1, 2010

    I think Americans give Hardin way too large a space in their consciousness – the value of Mies and Shiva is that they offer a non-American perspective and critique that I think didn’t get the same voice elsewhere. Hardin steps beyond the purely physical well into social dynamics and philosophy, outside his own field, and critiques from there are entirely legitimate.


  26. #26 Aaron
    October 1, 2010

    I’m probably not qualified to comment on the private vs the public sphere – but I can say that I have trouble understanding where the line is drawn. Gas prices would be much higher without gov’t subsidies – airlines couldn’t operate without gov’t assistance. Most corporations enjoy huge tax breaks to bring us the goods and services we consume. If we as a community contribute public monies to make corporate goods and services available to us – doesn’t that make them public resources?

  27. #27 Ormond Otvos
    October 1, 2010

    My pet peeve is that, generally, society seems to run on the idea that people don’t pee, or shit, or drink water, or sleep, except in their own home or when they pay for it.

    If you include the polluted air, the noise, the sterility of paved vistas, I guess the failure to recognize our human physical and mind nature is endemic.

    We’ve lost sight of who we are, but we can send a machine to Mars. Doom seems a reasonable assumption.

  28. #28 clew
    October 1, 2010

    What annoys me about Hardin’s title is that the English commons was a system of shared, managed, not-private use rights for hundreds of years, and he practically rewrote the word (for USians, anyway). Hardin has since admitted that it was a poor choice of words for the problem he was describing.

    Elinor Ostrom is another rigorous thinker who is partly known for her analysis of durable, existing solutions to shared resource management.

  29. #29 phil harris
    October 2, 2010

    In the recent past in Scotland (my early adulthood) most urban tenements did not have baths or adequate washing for linen. There were superb municipal facilities, I used them occasionally, gleaming bath, taps, wonderful hot water, and there were communal laundries (known in Edinburgh as ‘steamies’). Disciplines were strict, and there was powerful pride in cleanliness. The same applied to most common stairs for the apartments/tenements – woe betide a careless student or such-incomer: the usually elderly women who ran the stair were very formidable.
    Similarly there were ‘savings’ clubs run very strictly by women, that were a godsend in ‘insurance’ against unemployment and the odd weeks without food. There are different assumptions when you are all on low-incomes with no chance of changing that. Some places dropped below sufficiency into degradation, and there were scandals especially in the 19thC of high rents (producing overcrowding in appalling properties with no public sanitation), and that inheritance lived on in some places. Glasgow, circa 1972 still had memorable areas of dire poverty. The epigenetic effects and bad health legacy are still marked in transition populations, with life outcomes similar to 3rd World.
    I guess there were similar in many American cities?
    Water fountains were a declaration / demonstration in favor of clean water provided by basic well engineered public health utilities. With out such facilities industrial urban environments struggle. Similarly, London would cease to function within days without rationally organized mass-transit for commuters. The combined mass transit carries x10 the numbers per day in radial transit compared with personal car transit. Guess we catch more colds squeezed together, but the more serious ‘public’ contagions are well-controlled.

  30. #30 Stephen B.
    October 2, 2010

    As other posters have alluded to, public fountains, along with other public facilities, have been disappearing for a long time.

    I recall when water bubblers used to be absolutely everywhere. I even recall when the Burger King in downtown Beverly, MA had one in their dining room, which is not far from where some of Sharon’s family still live if I recall the chicken open house announcements correctly. Heck, I’ll admit it – my father *built* that BK (sorry Sharon) back in 1970 when I was 7. I also recall a conversation about the water fountain’s later demise in the 1980s. It simply was too a high maintenance item relative to its benefit. It took constant cleaning. People would pound on the valve and break it. Customers would complain about it being dirty or not being cold enough, or not “shooting” high enough. My late father said it was tough to keep up with the abuse the public gave it.

    Amazingly, the fact that it also might have cut into drink sales really wasn’t even mentioned back in the day. But that was before BK pioneered self-serve drink stations circa 1988 as a staff-saving device. I think BK was still putting bubblers in at least some restaurants as late as 1979 as the one built nearer my house that year had one, but after that, the standard restaurants that BK architects built (all franchisees had their restaurants designed by approved architects down to such details) came sans water bubblers. Existing bubblers came out during remodels.

    The chilled water bubblers also took a fair amount of electricity, made a lot of noise, and had refrigeration innards that got very dirty and dusty.

    Nowadays, the thought of a water bubbler in a fast food restaurant is downright laughable, at least around here, though I seldom frequent the places myself anymore.

    I have to say, things really *have* changed greatly regarding public behavior. Also back in 1970, my father used to keep ketchup squeeze bottles on most of the tables along with real salt and pepper shakers. Later on, within 10 years, the ketchup started ending up on the ceiling and all the shakers and bottles started disappearing. It would be downright laughable to attempt to leave such things on a fast food dining room table nowadays.

    I also recall back in the day, when a city excavated a road for utility work, before work crews started leaving steel plate on top of the excavation to cover it for the night, they used to put those flashing lights on a construction saw horse to mark the hole, but the things would get stolen. Heck a bit earlier, say circa 1970 or before, I recall the city of Woburn, MA, had these flaming torch things that they’d leave around the work site. Looking something like a big, black bowling ball or old-fashioned bomb from the 1800s with a flattened bottom, it was filled with kerosene and had a flaming wick on the top, protected with a wind collar. The things were left overnight and weekends to mark the hole. Anybody want to try leaving one of those things on a public road over-night nowadays?

    No, our contemporary public is FAR more destructive and disrespectful of such things. 1970 might as well be another world as far as such things are concerned. I puzzle over this aspect of changed public attitudes and behavior. On this blog, Sharon has regularly explored many ways social attitudes have changed, especially regarding energy, public accommodations, and domestic roles. Some things have improved. Some have not. We’ve dispensed with many truly awful social imprisonments over the years. But one thing has deteriorated, and that’s the way the public treats public spaces and accoutrements. Frankly, I blame the general anonymity many people feel they/we live under nowadays that has resulted (I think) from the highly dispersed lifestyle cars and TVs have bestowed upon us. There is much less of a sense of shared responsibility and less of a sense that others are watching one’s public behavior, or that, if somebody actually *is* watching, that they actually care.

    At my present work, one of our two school dorms has chilled water bubbler, which is really strange as this “dorm” is really a large house that sleeps only 8 kids. (The bubbler is original. It came with the house in 1995.) It also makes a fair amount of noise, the dispensing valve sticks open sometimes, sometimes the drain clogs, and then staff have to run for a mop. No, the kids won’t stop banging on the valve either or help clean up without a lot of fuss. (They’re residential, high needs kids, most all with conduct disorder.) But even as late as only 15 years ago, the fountain got treated much better than it does now. Back not too long ago, even those conduct disorder kids behaved better towards shared, common property than now is my point. (I also don’t think old age has really impacted the fountain much, as facilities has kept up repairs on it. It’s the changed kids’ attitudes.)

    Beyond bubblers, even the natural road-side watering holes are being removed. They used to be all over Maine when I was a kid. I recall a natural spring that was encased in concrete with an outfall pipe that sat on the side of the road between Weld and Wilton, Maine. Rt. 156 in that area winds through some hilly, mountainous terrain and the water that came out of that spring was so cold and delicious I recall it to this day. My grandfather stopped us there once when he took us up to use a friend’s cabin further north. In my later trips to the area, I noticed that the spring got a renovation sometime in the late 1980s or early 90s, but was removed entirely if I recall correctly sometime about 10 years ago. Just before its demise the state put a disclaimer notice on the water that it’s not routinely tested and that they couldn’t be responsible for the quality. (I never doubted the water quality nor would others if they saw the pristine terrain the well-enclosed spring box was supplied by.)

    Ah well. All in all, bubblers and roadside springs got killed off by irresponsible public behavior, laws, lawsuits, and bureaucracy if you ask me. I miss all the bubblers and springs, along with the attitudes that, at one time, allowed these watering holes’ existence. I miss the sight of the little flaming time bombs by the roadsides too. 🙂

  31. #31 Isis
    October 2, 2010

    A scary thought occurred to me: are streetlights next? Just think about it, we’d all have to carry our own flashlights when we went out at night, even if we lived in highly populated areas…

  32. #32 Scibbly
    October 2, 2010

    I agree with DD everyone might want to read Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” but I’d also advise everyone to read Maria Mies and/or Vandana Shiva on Hardin and what he gets wrong.

    It’s all about Elinor Ostrom. You have to read Elinor Ostrom. Don’t worry about Hardin, read Ostrom.

  33. #33 dewey
    October 2, 2010

    Isis – Some cities are already cutting back on street lighting. This may not be as much of a “safety risk” as some people would have it; there is actually some evidence that too much lighting may increase street crime (not sure if that’s because it makes staying out late more attractive to potential victims, or because it allows muggers to see you coming more easily – probably both).

  34. #34 Stephen B.
    October 2, 2010

    I think another reason people today treat public accoutrements so poorly is that we no longer prize and value things the way we did when material things were so precious and dear. That is, it’s easy to mistreat a ketchup bottle when one goes into a restaurant if you’ve lived an easy life in a country where everything has been plentiful and cheap or seemingly so. But back in the day I was talking about in my post #30, the country had not too long ago come through very tough economic and war times (The Depression and WWII.) In fact, the times of plenty of the High Oil Age were still very new to civilization and the Easy, Oil Life hadn’t time to alter our ways of thinking (i.e., we weren’t yet spoiled.)

    Now, however, we’re spoiled rotten in my opinion, or at least enough are to make a critical difference. All too often, public thinking goes something like: “Who cares if we trash a water fountain or public phone so much the owner simply gives up maintaining it? Who cares if we trash our kid brother’s XBox? Mom will get another. Who cares if we toss our litter out the window and onto the street? There’s plenty of (lazy), public employees that are supposed to pick up after me! That’s what they’re there for.”

    Many blog readers here seem to suggest that water fountains and the like have been taken because the greedy owner wants to simply save or make another buck. Instead, I see it all too often as owners of a business or a local government simply getting too weary at the thought of trying to keep up with the complaints and vandalism about the broken water bubbler, etc. in the face of a population that doesn’t seem to value and treat such public accommodations in a good manner any more. Anybody that has catered a business front to the public has seen the change over the years.

  35. #35 David Bacon
    October 2, 2010

    In all the time I attended medical college, trained as a pathologist and practiced pathology, time which included running hospital microbiology labs and extensive contact with infectious disease specialists, I never heard any serious discussion of disease transmitted by water fountains, public toilets, or other such public contrivances. Nor any similar discussion about the need to constantly rehydrate throughout the day. This from a group of physicians constantly on guard against in-house transmission of infection and aware of the health risk of real dehydration. All the hype about regular sips of ultra pure water and the many so-called germocidal products now on the market are marketing, not science.

  36. #36 Mike
    October 2, 2010

    Even as a kid, I thought public drinking fountains were one of the great inventions of civilization. (If you’re concerned about germs, just let the water flow for a few seconds before drinking, and touch your lips to the water only, not the fountain itself. it’s not difficult.)
    I think the loss of public drinking fountains, and public phone, and even public clocks, is a real shame. The decline of support for public parks and public libraries, even worse. And the continuing lack of support for public transit, Amtrak, and public broadcasting, also a crying shame. These things are all connected in my view.
    On the topic of plastic containers, I am trying to drink water from bottles much less. And I was reminded of a funny experience that made me aware of my own “American thinking.” When in Venice, Italy in 2004, staying with a group of art students, I was sent by one of them to the grocery to get some lemon juice. Since he was cooking and I was eating, I was glad to do it. But I wandered around the grocery for awhile, looking for those plastic containers of lemon juice, before it hit me: I bet Italians have never seen such things! I bet they just get lemon juice from … lemons. Duh!

  37. #37 Christina
    October 2, 2010

    Scibbly, do you have a top recommendation for an Elinor Ostrom book? There seem to be a lot of similarly concepted titles and I’m interested to read something recommended. Thanks!

  38. #38 Scribbly
    October 3, 2010

    Christina, any. The cheapest. I like the old ‘governing the commons’. Apart from that I’ve only read papers and articles I think, I’d like the newer one about institutional diversity myself but haven’t had the chance yet. The vibe is what you need, it’s very freeing after all this analyzing things to death (literally in Hardin’s case) and charybdissing state and private enterprise alike. Ostrom is about not getting stuck in the models. She’s real world.

  39. #39 Jim Thomerson
    October 3, 2010

    Garett Hardin wrote a number of interesting books and articles worth knowing about. I recently lost my plastic water bottle which I had carried for almost 20 years (I’m sure the whatever bad in the plastic is all leached out by now.) On water fountains, I can remember when stores had two: one white, the other colored. When I was in grade school, we were told not to use the water fountains until the janitor could disinfect them. A dog had gotten into the building and went around licking water fountains. I think the lack of water fountains in Europe correlates with non-potable water.

  40. #40 clew
    October 5, 2010

    I second the recommendation of _Governing the Commons_ as a first Ostrom book.

    It covers the ideas and evidence that much of her later work is built on; it’s easier to read than her scholarly papers, if you aren’t used to that style; and it’s easy to find.

  41. #41 John Wilson
    October 5, 2010

    Hey, same here, the local park here has a water fountain for the humans and one for the dogs (much lower). I thought public drinking fountains were one of the great invention and convenience to all of us 🙂

  42. #42 dewey
    October 6, 2010

    Jim Thomerson: “I think the lack of water fountains in Europe correlates with non-potable water.”

    Huh? I trust you are not saying the tap water in Europe is not safe, but I’m not sure what you did mean.

New comments have been disabled.