There is a scene from Andrew Sorkin's TV series The West Wing, now on DVD, in which two characters go through identical morning routines in two different hotel rooms. The point is to illustrate that Donna (once a lowly White House assistant, now a senior campaign staffer) is much more organized than her former boss, Josh (the high-powered deputy chief of staff). Donna has everything down to a science while Josh oversleeps, spills the coffee, can't find his shoes, etc. I love Donna, and in general, I root for her over Josh, but during this particular scene I can hardly sit still.

Since every second counts in her busy morning, when Donna walks into the bathroom she turns on the shower. Ever efficient, while the water is heating up she turns on the coffee percolator, fixes her toothbrush, and turns on the water in the sink to brush her teeth. But when Donna hears something on the television, she goes into the bedroom to listen, leaving both faucets running.

I can't watch this. I fast-forward.

For most of the twenty-nine years my family and I have lived in India, we have rented houses with no showers. We took “bucket baths,” in which you ladle water over yourself, one cup at a time. Now that we have our own home, we have showers. But lately, to save water, we've reverted to the old bucket system.

There's an excellent article in the July/August issue of Orion, Derrick Jensen's “Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Doesn't Equal Political Change.” I agree with Jensen's argument. My little gesture is just that-a gesture. Taken to an extreme, it could even make the problem worse by misleading me and others into believing that personal enlightenment is a substitute for political action.

In fact, that illusion is what representatives of corporations and agribusiness have been pushing for years: that responsibility for global warming and for climate change rests with individuals and individual effort. In the short term, this has proved an effective strategy. Because most of us are susceptible to guilt and know that we consume far more than our share of the world's resources, we attempt to assuage our consciences by going green. We carry cloth bags to the supermarket, recycle, drive less, invest in low-energy light bulbs, and maybe even become vegetarians. We can get so wrapped up in our new lifestyle that we forget where the real problem lies. Yet all our conserving and recycling hardly makes a dent in the ecological crisis. When a problem is systemic, acting only as individuals isn't good enough.

At one level, taking a bucket bath is no different from telling the kids to finish what's on their plate because children are starving in India. Individual use accounts for only 10 percent of water consumption (agriculture and industry account for the rest), and the child who dutifully cleans his plate is probably not much help to the hungry kid in Bihar.

Still, my family's bucket system keeps the issue of water scarcity front and center in our awareness. First, when you take a bath you know exactly how much water you have. Second, you are an active participant in the process. You don't stand there passively, letting the shower stream over you. You have to bend down, ladle the water, put the mug down before using the soap, then ladle more water, and so on. It's not difficult, but it requires attention and it makes you mindful. You are aware that each time you fill the mug, there is less water in the bucket. You can't delude yourself that there is an endless supply, or that you're entitled to one. And unless you go on refilling that bucket (which you won't do, because it's too chilly to stand there and wait while it fills), you use less water.

You realize that less is possible. And that seeps into your consciousness and can affect other parts of your life. You change. And once each of us begins to make similar breakthroughs, we can start to address the systemic nature of the problem.

As citizens, we have a wide range of possible actions. We can vote, lobby, demonstrate, write letters and articles, boycott, litigate in the public interest, and demand government response. But only when we stop identifying individual people as the source of the problem will we begin to find solutions.

Awareness of fuel efficiency and carbon emissions has grown enormously, through concerted efforts to educate the public about the urgency of the issue. But more fuel-efficient cars were not invented overnight, and weaning people from the myth that big machines make them sexier and more powerful is an ongoing task. A similar concerted, collective effort will be required to reduce our unsupportable consumption of water. We are responsible, and the changes required of us will be radical and deeply uncomfortable—until we get used to them. But they will make a difference only if they take place across the board. It's the system that counts.

As a campaign official, Donna always had the political process in mind, but apparently she had little sense of her role as an individual. She needs to keep on getting out the vote. But, Donna, please! Turn off the tap first.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2009-10-23 issue: View Contents
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