Conservation is for the Little People

In a development that will surprise no one, California’s wealthy aren’t doing their part to save water:

Beverly Hills and other affluent cities use far more water per capita than less-wealthy communities, prompting some to cast them as villains in California’s water conservation effort.

Residents in communities such as La Canada Flintridge, Newport Beach, Malibu and Palos Verdes all used more than 150 gallons of water per capita per day in January. By contrast, Santa Ana used just 38 gallons and communities in Southeast L.A. County used less than 45.

Water usage in Los Angeles was 70 gallons per capita. But within the city, a recent UCLA study examining a decade of Department of Water and Power data showed that on average, wealthier neighborhoods consume three times more water than less-affluent ones.

There is already ample sociological evidence that wealth leads to a reduction in empathy and a feeling of connection to one’s fellow human beings. It makes for that effect to show up in water usage as well.

Stephanie Pincetl, who worked on the UCLA water-use study, said wealthy Californians are “lacking a sense that we are all in this together.” “The problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich,” Pincetl said.

But there’s also the fallacy of individual action at work. The article goes on to describe some residents who are using shower buckets to water their plants, and minimizing their toilet flushes. Those actions do very little to curb the water usage problem, but make the people doing them feel better about themselves. To really make a dent in residential water usage the Beverly Hills crowd would have to let their thirsty lawns go dry. A thousand shower buckets generally won’t cover the impact of a week’s worth of lawn watering.

Ultimately, these folks aren’t going to enact real conservation measures of their own accord. Libertarianism doesn’t work when it comes to dealing with the selfishness of the very wealthy, or when it comes to proactive public policy. Water restrictions are going to have to be forced on them by government decree.

Not that even the lush lawns of Beverly Hills are more than a minor factor in the overall water equation. To really solve the problem, California needs to address the agriculture industry that takes 80% of the water but only delivers 2% of the GDP. But that would require confronting the people with pockets even deeper than those of Beverly Hills.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.