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Book Review: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

Charles Fishman, The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water (Simon and Schuster)
“Water, Water Every Where and Nor a Drop to Drink” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

image of book about waterThe Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman, a three-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award, the most prestigious prize in business journalism, plumbs the inconsistencies in our perspective on water. Fishman re-emphasizes the physical necessity of water and reveals the invisible cultural significance it has for our society. This book, much like Silent Spring and pesticides, is a call on society to drastically change the way we think about water before it’s too late.

For example, Fishman discusses (almost humorously) America’s absurd use of toilet water which demonstrates our lack of concern and care for something of which we seemingly have an endless supply. He explains that Americans use more water flushing toilets than doing anything else (including washing our hands). On average, a single person flushes a toilet 5 times a day, which is equivalent to 18.5 gallons. This means that every day, Americans use 5 billion 700 million gallons of clean drinking water at home for their toilets.

Fishman makes it very clear that we, as a society, are “water illiterate.” The average American does not know where the water from their toilet or faucet comes from or where it goes. What becomes of wastewater? We do not see the elaborate process that goes into getting clean drinking water, nor the effect such water treatment has on our environment. Most people do not know that the largest single consumer of water is electricity, including coal, gas, and nuclear power plants. Water is everywhere; yet it is invisible to us. We expect to always have clean drinking water at our disposal. What was once 10 gallons of water used by a single person has become 100 gallons of water today.

Fishman uses these examples, along with historical data and political and economic analysis, to explain our over-estimation of water abundance and the significance of revising our perspective on water. The Big Thirst asks for individuals to give the water crisis the same concern we have given pollution, greenhouse gases, over-fishing, and plastic straws. We have taken for granted that our society is built by water, our bodies are made of water, and life is sustained by water. Fishman explains that we do not realize that water will no longer be cheap or abundant if we keep using it the way we do and warns us about the deteriorating infrastructure that will only accelerate this scarcity.

Powerfully written and incredibly informative, The Big Thirst is a must-read. Silent Spring was undoubtedly instrumental in propelling the modern American environmental movement and The Big Thirst has the same potential, calling for a “water-use revolution”.

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water was praised as “an entertaining and torrential flow of a book” by Nature magazine, is the winner of the Booklist Editors’ Choice: Adult Book, and the bestselling book on water in the U.S. in the last 25 years.

—Lily Samuels


RCC Stanback Fellow – Lily Samuels

Lily Samuels is a sophomore at Duke University, intending to double major in Environmental Science & Policy and Economics with a minor in Computer Science. Lily was born in Beaumont, Texas, but has lived abroad in several countries. Moving to many different environments and experiencing many different cultures has deepened Lily’s concern for global unity and developing technology for a clean future and sustainable economy.


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