The French Chef in America
Both books are about Julia Child, of course, but they are different in tone and focus. My Life in France is Julia’s memoir of living in Paris and Marseille, France (1948-1954), learning to cook, and co-writing her first book; it is written in the first person, in Julia’s voice. The French Chef in America, on the other hand, is a journalistic look at Julia’s life in America during the 1970s, when she produced four books and various TV shows; it is written in the third person, in my voice. I think of the two books this way: while My Life in France tells the story of Act One of Julia’s adult life, The French Chef in America is about Act Two.
To briefly recap, My Life in France explains how Julia McWilliams and Paul Child met in Sri Lanka while working for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), during WW II. They married in 1946, and were posted to Paris by the US Information Service in 1948. In the early Fifties, Paul worked at the US Embassy, while Julia graduated from the Cordon Bleue cooking school and discovered her raison d’etre in cooking la cuisine bourgeoise – excellent, middle-class food prepared according to an established set of rules. (Julia loved rules.) With her French friends, Simone “Simca” Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Julia opened a cooking school and toiled for years on the book that was finally published in 1961 as Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That book led Julia to television, where she began to perform as The French Chef in 1963.
I think of those years as her gestational period, when Julia was in her thirties and forties and morphed from a too-tall, too-loud, social butterfly into a worldly diplomatic wife, expert cook, and gifted writer. In her memoir, she recalled this period as “the favorite years of my life,” when she experienced a “flowering of the soul.”
Julia died in August 2004, two days before her 92d birthday, while we were in the midst of writing her memoir. It took me another year to finish it, and My Life in France was published in 2006. It became a best-seller, and in 2009 inspired half of the movie “Julie & Julia.”
The French Chef in America focuses on Julia in the 1970s, when she was living in America as an established celebrity. The Seventies was a decade of global upheaval when Julia was in her sixties, and she consciously transformed herself a second time.
She broke away from cooking classical French food and working with her French “sister” Simca Beck. With encouragement from her editor at Knopf, Judith B. Jones, Julia began to use recipes from around the world, wrote in the first-person, embraced her American roots, and created different kinds of books and TV shows. I regard this period as Julia’s Second Act: the moment when she consciously broke from “The French Chef” and reinvented herself as “Julia Child,” and discovered her true voice.
After My Life in France was published in 2006, I wrote articles and books about many subjects, but there were a few stories about Julia Child that stuck with me. A decade later, they had become an itch I wanted to scratch.
There were stories of Julia’s return to America and her TV career that intrigued me, but one adventure in particular had piqued my interest. In the spring of 1970, the Childs took a small crew to France to shoot a series of short documentaries (on 16 mm film) about traditional foods and food makers. They referred to the films as the “French Chef in France” (FCiF), and spliced them into Season Two of The French Chef.
We mentioned the FCiF episode in Julia’s memoir, and for years I wondered what had happened to them. One day in 2012 I called WGBH – the Boston Public TV station that Julia called home -- to ask if they had any record of the FCiF documentaries. There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Keith, the researcher, gasped: “It’s amazing that you called. We recently discovered a pile of old, rusty cans of the film on the back stairs, and were about to throw them out. But we took a look first, and it was Julia in France!”
I rushed up to Boston to watch the footage on the one remaining machine that could run the old film. It was a treasure trove. There was Julia in Technicolor: neatly coiffed and wearing far more stylish outfits than her usual flour-dusted apron, a charming host who took her viewers to places they’d never been –up to a hilltop olive oil mill in Provence, deep into the crowded fish market in Marseille, down to the basement ovens of a bakery in Paris. She showed butchers hand-cutting meat, traditional roast duck, a flaming fennel-roasted seabass, olives and anchovies and pisalladieres, frogs legs and cookware, chocolates and cakes, cheese and wine. These foods had been Julia’s original inspiration, and she wanted to demystify them for her audience and explain how to replicate them in American home kitchens.
I thought about writing an article, or stitching the films into a documentary, and began to research Julia in the 1970s. I discovered letters, scripts, brochures, photographs, and film footage – much of it in the Childs’ papers archived at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe -- detailing episodes in Julia and Paul’s lives that I had no idea about, or was only vaguely aware of.
Soon, I had far too much material for a film or article. So there was only one thing to do: sit down and write a book.
I found all sorts of great anecdotes, large and small, funny and sad, many of which people – including me -- don’t remember or never knew about.
For instance, I knew that Julia had been to the White House, but I didn’t realize she had visited twice – the first time in 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson hosted Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, and the second in 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford hosted Queen Elizabeth for America’s bicentennial celebration. In both cases, the White House chef was Henry Haller, an unflappable Swiss cook who gave Julia a behind-the-scenes look at his elaborate food preparations. When it came time for the entertainment at the end of the state dinners, LBJ picked the crooner Tony Bennet, who made Julia laugh. Ford picked the pop duo The Captain and Tenille, who played treacly hits like “Love will Keep us Together” and “Muskrat Love,” which Julia deemed not fit for the Queen (her audience agreed).
Julia was a “history nut,” who was raised in Pasadena but proud of her family’s New England heritage. In 1975 she teamed with James Beard, “the Dean of American Cookery,” to create a TV series called “13 Feasts for 13 Colonies,” about Colonial food. (The title referred to the original British colonies along the East Coast.) The Colonists -- including Julia’s ancestors -- had arrived in the New World bearing recipes and utensils from the Old World, which they adapted to local ingredients, such as clams, cod, venison, turkey, corn, cranberries. This led to distinctively American cuisine. Child and Beard spent months researching the project, reading old cookbooks, and designing recipes that would tell stories about early American life. They even shot a pilot (test show), which I had a chance to see but was never aired. For reasons I explain in the book, Julia decided not to produce “13 Feasts for 13 Colonies,” which was a loss.
I was surprised to discover that Julia – who was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met – had enemies. They were not only those who disliked her liberal politics, or the nutritionists and “Fear of Fat Police” she insulted, but also fellow cooks. Madeleine Kamman, a French-born American cooking teacher, derided Julia as “neither French nor a chef.” And the food writers John and Karen Hess sneered that Julia was “not a cook, but she plays one on TV.” I found this criticism hard to swallow. So did the writer Betty Fussell, who felt “betrayed” by the Hess’s “friendly fire,” and considered Julia “a master … (who) brought home cooking back into the American home.”
Those are just a few of the nuggets I stumbled over in my research, and there are many more.
No, not by a long stretch. Many people are under the impression that Julia was the first chef on TV, but actually there were many people cooking on tv across the country -- from Mary Wilson’s Pots, Pans, and Personalities to Marjorie Hume’s What’s Cookin’ to the opera-singing Pino Bontempi and the blind chef Elena Zelayeta and her son Billie. James Beard hosted the show I Love to Eat on NBC in 1946.
But there was no one quite like Julia. She went on the air in 1963 and quickly developed a following, even amongst people who had no intention of cooking, because she was so unpredictable and entertaining.
However, I maintain that Julia was America’s first real celebrity TV chef. While she was not solely responsible for the extraordinary growth of the American food business, she mixed serious technique with great entertainment, encouraged the timid and the bold, created a new model for what cooks could do and food could be, and thus changed the national conversation about eating.
I think Julia would have mixed feelings about today’s 24-7-365 TV cooking extravaganza. On one hand, I suspect she would have deep reservations about the glitz and melodrama of today’s culinary circus: Julia loved cooking for its camaraderie and creative satisfaction, not for cutthroat competition or soap opera storylines. On the other hand, she’d be thrilled to know how many Americans consider themselves “foodies,” and are eating with gusto.
In October 1974, when he was 72, Paul underwent a quadruple bypass operation. Though it is unclear what happened, it appears that he did not get enough oxygen to his brain during the surgery. The result was that he suffered from “the mental scrambles,” lost his fluent French, his beautiful handwriting, and the ability to do many of the things he loved. This state of affairs forced Julia to slow down, too – just as her Second Act was heating up. She took time off from her writing and busy public life to care for him. It was an extremely difficult period for the Childs. Julia loved and admired Paul, and felt she owed him her career, so she took care of him uncomplainingly – and when his health improved, she got back to work.[/toggle][toggle title="Julia was known for her funny, provocative comments – such as “every woman should have a blowtorch” and “if you’re afraid of butter, use cream!” What is one of your favorite Julia quotes? " open="no"]Julia was a natural comedian, but she could also be contemplative or serious. I like when she said things like “Good results require that one take time and care (in cooking) … a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience.”
But one of my favorite Julia lines is: “Let’s all play with our food.” I end The French Chef in America with this quote, because it is simultaneously funny and heartfelt.
In explaining what she meant by this, Julia wrote: “ ‘Play’ to me means freedom and delight, as in the phrase ‘play of imagination.’ If cooks did not enjoy speculating about new possibilities in every method and each raw material, their art would stagnate and they would become rote performers, not creators. True cooks love to set one flavor against another in the imagination, to experiment with the great wealth of fresh produce in the supermarkets, to bake what previously they braised, to try new devices …. Let’s all play with our food, I say, and, in so doing, let us advance the state of the art together.”
I agree, Julia – Toujours Bon appetite!
My Life in France
We were related by marriage: Julia’s husband, Paul, was the twin brother of my grandfather, Charles Child. So she was my great aunt.
I grew up knowing her on TV and in person. The two Julias were one and the same. In other words, the personality you saw on TV was the same personality I saw at home — funny, smart, and happiest when cooking something delicious for an appreciative audience.
Paul was shorter and quieter than Julia. He’d been a diplomat, was an accomplished artist, and was an essential part of Julia’s success. In fact, our book is dedicated to him. He was ten years older than she was, knew all about wine, and entertained us with unusual tricks — how to tie a bowline knot with one hand (he’d been a sailor), how to trip someone (he was a black belt), how to hold a wineglass when making a toast (by the stem). He and I shared a love of bacon and bananas, and Julia thought we looked alike — which is probably one reason she liked me.
Quite well. Although they lived in Cambridge Mass, and we lived in New York, they were frequently in Manhattan as Julia’s career flourished. We’d often have Thanksgiving together, and we’d see each other in Maine during the summer, where Paul helped my grandfather build a log cabin.
They never had children of their own but were close to Charlie’s children (my mother, aunt, and uncle). They weren’t quite another set of grandparents to us — Julia was a celebrity, and they were always flying off to exotic places like France or California — but they were very down-to-earth people, and always curious about what WE were up to.
Julia and Paul were generous and would pass on gifts of food and cookbooks they’d been given from well-meaning friends. But their biggest gift was to live their lives in an exemplary way: they taught us the importance of passion, doggedness, creativity, and humor.
Mostly about eating, of course. Julia’s kitchen in Cambridge was her laboratory and the center of the house. We’d sit around the big table there talking – about movies, politics, food – while she tinkered with some new recipe on her old Garland stove. There were all sorts of giant knives and copper pots and exotic culinary contraptions in her kitchen — like the giant mortar and pestle she bought in Paris. (Her entire kitchen is on display at the Smithsonian.) This seemed natural to me, and it was only much later that I realized how lucky I was to spend time with her.
In Maine, Julia would join us in picking strawberries, fishing for mackerel, and digging for clams. She’d make chowder, bouillabaisse, lobsters, bread, and — our favorite — lace cookies, jams, and berry pies.
In New York, Julia would sometimes take us along to a fundraiser she was doing, and then we’d go out to a restaurant, where they’d seat us in the middle of the room and feed us way too much food. Afterward, Julia made a point of going into the kitchen to thank everyone from the dishwasher to the head chef. Entering a restaurant with her was an experience — I’ve seen near-riots break out when Julia walked into a room. Once, a woman nearly broke her ankle in front of a Howard Johnson’s when she saw Julia and tripped off a curb. Another time, a woman at a fancy restaurant set her napkin on fire when she knocked a candle over in a rush to get Julia’s autograph. Julia handled the crush of attention very well; Paul didn’t like it much but put up with it for her sake.
In France, we visited Paul and Julia in Provence a number of times. Shopping at the great outdoor market in Cannes, Julia spoke to every vegetable and meat purveyor, and, naturally, they loved her. In 1976, when I was 14, she took us to La Colombe d’Or, a restaurant in St. Paul de Vence, where I had my first really extraordinary, three-plus hour French lunch. On that visit I also learned how to drive a stick-shift car in their field (I ground the gears and put a dent in the bumper, but it was fun!). Then Paul set up a TV on the veranda, and we watched the Montreal Olympics while Julia grilled the most delicious chicken I’ve ever eaten.
Of course, one of my best memories of all is spending time with Julia at the end of her life: we were writing this book together, and getting to know each other — and our family stories — all over again. I feel very lucky.
The years she lived in France, Julia said, were “among the best of my life.” It was there that she figured out who she was and what she wanted to do with herself. And for almost as long as I can remember, she talked about writing a book about that time — “the France book.”
In 1969, Paul suggested printing the letters that he and Julia had written to my grandparents from France. But the publishers weren’t interested. Julia liked the idea, though, and kept mental notes about it. She kept files of things she had written about her experiences there — her first meal in Rouen; how to shop for partridge in Paris, or fish in Marseille; the trials and tribulations of getting Mastering the Art of French Cooking written and published. But for some reason, “the France book” never got written.
I was a professional writer and had long wanted to do something collaborative with Julia. But she was self-reliant, and for years had politely resisted my offer.
By December 2003, Julia had retired to Santa Barbara, CA, and when I made my annual visit, she once again mentioned “the France book” in a wistful tone. She was 91 and growing frail, and I once again offered to assist her. This time she surprised me by saying, “All right, dearie, maybe we should work on it together.” I wasn’t especially prepared, but we sat down and did our first interview the next day. Our collaboration grew from there.
For a few days every month, I would sit in Julia’s modest living room, asking questions, reading from a stack of family letters, looking at Paul’s evocative photographs, and listening to her stories. Occasionally we’d watch a tape of one of her old TV shows, and she’d tell me about it.
It wasn’t always easy, though. Julia could only work for a couple of hours at a time. She didn’t like to talk about her innermost thoughts. My tape recorder distracted her, so I took notes instead. But after some fits and starts, we finally got into a good working rhythm. Many of our best conversations took place over a meal, on a car ride, or while I rolled her wheelchair through the farmer’s market. Something would trigger her memory, and she’d suddenly tell me how she learned to make baguettes in a home oven, or how one had to speak very loudly in order to be heard at a French dinner party.
When I had enough material, I would write up a vignette. Julia would read it, correct it, and add new thoughts. She loved this process and was an exacting editor. “This book energizes me!” she’d say.
We worked like this from mid-January to mid-August, 2004, when she passed away in her sleep from kidney failure. She died on August 13th, two days before her 92d birthday. I spent the next year finishing My Life in France, and wishing I could call on her to fill in the gaps.
The final product is a true collaboration, featuring the voices of Julia, Paul, and a bit of me. It is not a scholarly treatise, and in some places, I have blended Paul and Julia’s words. Not only was this practical, but Julia encouraged it, noting that they often signed their letters “PJ,” or “Pulia,” as if they were two halves of one person. I wrote some exposition and transitions, and used her funny words — “Yuck!,” “Plop!,” “Hooray!”
Judith is a legend in her own right, and working with her was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a writer. What is amazing is that she lived in Paris at roughly the same time that Julia did (though they didn’t know each other there), and so when the twice-rejected manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cooking landed on her desk, Judith instantly understood it in a way that no one else did. She was a young editor, but her passionate advocacy for Mastering persuaded the rather skeptical Alfred Knopf to publish it. He didn’t like the title, which Judith had written, and said, “If anyone buys a book with that title, I’ll eat my hat.” She says: “I like to think he’s eaten a lot of hats!”
Judith has a deft and sensitive editorial touch — something any writer can appreciate. Added to that, she worked with Julia for forty years, and her deep understanding of our subject helped this book immeasurably.
What are you currently working on?
My new book is about the perilous state of the world’s fresh water, the people and forces that are defining how we use it, and why water will be the central issue facing the planet this century.
I came to this subject in part through Julia: not only is France the place where bottled water and private water companies got their start, but her niece is married to a globe-trotting hydrogeologist who is full of amazing water stories. It should be a lot of fun.
I think Julia would approve.
The Ripple Effect
I have always had water on the brain — I like to swim, fish, boat, ski, or just stare at the water, and I minored in oceanography in college, so I was predisposed to write about water. The spark for The Ripple Effect was the day I shared a bottle of French mineral water with Julia Child over lunch. She explained how the French enjoy the taste of minerals in their water and consider bottled water a healthy “digestive,” while Americans prefer water stripped of minerals and taste, and think of bottled water as a refreshing “beverage.” Then she told me about the private water companies that began in Napoleonic France, and have since grown into very profitable, and controversial, global businesses. That evening we continued the conversation with her niece’s husband, Bob Moran. He is a hydrogeologist who does water projects around the world, a kind of Indiana Jones of hydrology. Bob explained that water is an “axis resource” — the resource underlying every other one, from electric power to gold to oil and food — and that humans are using it at unsustainable rates. I was both fascinated and horrified by this insight (always a good sign for a reporter) and as soon as I was finished with Julia’s book, I dove into the subject of water.
Oil is an important resource, in limited supply, and it’s fair to say it dominated geopolitics over the last century. But that was an exception. For most of history, water has been the crucial resource for man. We have always built our communities around a reliable supply of potable water. In the 21st century — as the population grows and the climate changes — water will reassert itself as the defining resource. Unlike oil, water is essential. It is life. As the saying has it: “You can live without oil, but not without water.”
Today, there are 6.9 billion people on earth: 1 billion of us don’t have access to clean water, and over 2.6 billion — mostly the very young or old – live in unsanitary conditions, which lead to disease and death. By 2050, the global population is expected to surpass 9 billion people. As nations like China and India rapidly develop and shift to a more meat-centric diet, water use is doubling every 20 years. The UN fears that human demand will outstrip the earth’s supply of accessible, potable water by 2030.
Climate change complicates matters further. Some parts of the world will become hotter and drier, and will suffer increased drought; others will become wetter, and suffer floods. Storms will become more frequent and more intense. The hydrologic cycle will speed up, which will have a whole series of repercussions.
So, the earth’s finite supply of fresh water is under pressure, and like oil, it could become a flashpoint for conflict, maybe even wars, this century.
The main problem is that we don’t value water highly enough: we take it for granted, and that approach is not sustainable. This results in a ripple effect – a series of consequences that are often unintended, and that most of us are unaware of. Some of these ripples include:
– Today, nearly 40 years after the environmental movement of the early 1970s that brought us the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency, we are faced with the astonishing fact that our water quality is actually getting worse, not better. Water pollution seriously impacts human and environmental health.
– We waste water: because water is priced very low or is free, and there is little metering to find out how much we use, there is not much incentive for people to use it efficiently. In places like the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer, we are depleting our water supplies for short-term gain instead of managing it wisely for the long term. This is like running your savings account dry.
– We are not preparing ourselves for climate change, especially the predicted increase in droughts and floods. We manage water today in much the same way we did a century ago, but the world around us is changing. It’s like we’re using the manual for a 1910 Model T to try to repair a 2010 Prius – it makes no sense, and unless we adapt ourselves we will suffer the consequences.
To start with, there is the obvious point: we humans are made up of about 71 percent water, so the state of the earth's water has a lot to do with our health and happiness.
But the larger answer is that the planet contains the same amount of water today that it always has had – about 332.5 million cubic miles of H2O. It sounds like a lot, but that number is misleading. Most of the earth’s water is too salty or frozen to use. In fact, only 3/10ths of one percent of the earth’s water is clean enough, and accessible enough, for human use. In the meantime, the number of people using this finite supply, how they use it, and where and why they use it has changed dramatically.
We are depleting our supplies – many of our biggest rivers, like the Colorado river, no longer reach the sea.
And historically dry places, like Atlanta Georgia, or Australia, are suddenly faced with unprecedented floods. Meanwhile, historically wet places, like Seattle, are facing unexpected dry periods or drought. This is the new hydrologic reality, and we have no choice but to adapt to it – the sooner, the better.
– What is in our water?
– How secure is our water supply — from both natural and man-made disasters?
– Are we running out of water, or do we have too much of it?
- Should water be a right — as free as the air we breathe — or is it a commodity, like oil, that should be sold at market rates? Who makes this decision. In other words, who controls the tap?
– As demand for water increases this century, how should we allocate finite supplies – to generate electricity, drill for natural gas, plant corn for ethanol, build new communities, mine precious metals, or sustain fisheries? And what about leaving some water in the environment, for the rest of the ecosystem, on which we depend?
These are difficult questions, without easy answers.
Part I is about quality: what’s in our water? I look at pollutants – from manure and industrial waste to so-called emerging contaminants, such as synthetic estrogen, that are causing “intersex” and leading to disease and death in fish. I also look at some surprising new approaches to pollution control, such as using toxic water for medical research or turning human sewage into drinking supplies.
Part II is about drought: where and why certain parts of the country are becoming drier, how people are adapting (or not), and what the consequences are likely to be.
Part III is about flooding: how America’s hydro-infrastructure, such as dams and levees, is aging and underfunded and insufficient for a future of more frequent and violent storms. Hurricane Katrina was a very serious warning, yet we have not really learned its lessons and are not preparing ourselves for the even greater deluges that have been predicted.
Part IV is about how we use water today and will use it in the future. Here I discuss privatization, bottled water, “resource wars,” and the likelihood of violence over water, but also how we are developing new strategies and technologies – such as desalination, weather modification, efficient irrigation, and Soft Path engineering – to adapt to what the UN calls “the looming water crisis.” What’s interesting here is that we already have many of the answers in hand, we just haven’t implemented them very well yet.
Water is a very large, constantly evolving subject, so it took me a while to wrap my arms around it. I worked on this book for about three-and-a-half years and interviewed at least 60 or 70 people for it. In the course of reporting, I went across the country — 600 feet underground into New York City’s massive new Water Tunnel No. 3, up to the aquifers around Poland Springs, Maine, down to the dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay, the levees that failed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, out to Hoover Dam and the desert around Las Vegas, an Intel chip plant outside of Phoenix, up to the giant pumps in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, and way out onto the Alaskan Peninsula, where I discovered a “resource war” between salmon and copper miners.
Along the way, I met a fascinating cast of characters – people of all stripes who are obsessed with water. It turns out that water, which seems so simple, is actually a complex and highly charged subject. It’s anything but “dry.” Writing this book was a fascinating, grueling, enlightening adventure.
In terms of pollution, I’d argue New York City is the most endangered: it is the most densely populated place in the country, yet its sewer system is ancient and discharges thousands of gallons of rain and untreated sewage into local waters every year (though things are slowly improving). That’s bad enough, but my hometown also features one of the largest oil spills in history, right in the heart of the city. Along Newtown Creek, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 17 to 30 million gallons of oil and other toxic chemicals, covering 55 acres, has been leaking into the water and soil for over a century. Cleanup has been minimal, and few people understood the scope of the problem until recently. There is anecdotal evidence that the pollutants have contributed to serious health problems, such as clusters of rare bone cancer, in certain neighborhoods — though, of course, it’s impossible to directly connect the seeping oil with any specific disease. I was able to meet some of the people who believe they were affected, and their stories are shocking.
Luckily, the EPA has just named Newtown Creek a Superfund cleanup site, and class action suits have been filed against the companies allegedly responsible for its pollution. It’s a remarkable story, and I was shocked to find it practically in my own backyard.
In terms of drought, you could call Los Angeles, or Phoenix, or Dallas “the most threatened city,” but I’d wager that Las Vegas is in the most serious trouble. It’s already the driest city in the nation – it gets only 4 inches of rain a year now, and is in the bull’s-eye for climate change in coming years – and it takes 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, which is in its twelfth year of drought. The river and the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, are at historically low levels. Yet Las Vegas continues to grow and spread into the desert, and it uses significant amounts of water. The water authority pays people to remove their lawns and has a controversial plan to pipe water from rural ranches 300 miles north, near the Utah border, but that idea has faced legal challenges and its future is uncertain. So Las Vegas is spending nearly a billion dollars to bore out a new water tunnel that goes deeper into Lake Mead than the existing two. They are very concerned about drought.
In terms of flooding, Sacramento, California, is the most vulnerable – even more so than New Orleans. Sacramento is sited at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, and adjacent to the San Francisco Bay-Delta, which is ringed by old, leaky levees. Californians have been fighting over what to do about the Delta since the 1980s, and the result is gridlock. In the meantime, scientists predict a major earthquake or Pacific storm will hit the region, which could liquidate the earthen levees, unleash massive flooding, contaminate the fresh water supply to 25 million Californians and some of the richest farmland in the country. If this were to happen, it would seriously impact California – now the eighth largest economy in the world – hobble the nation, and send shockwaves through global markets. It would be a catastrophe that would dwarf Hurricane Katrina.
I was shocked to learn about the poor state of American water in the 21st century. Our waters are becoming more, not less, polluted; and although an increase in droughts and floods has been predicted with a great deal of certainty, we are dithering and not making serious changes to how we manage water.
Having said that, I was also inspired by the many improvements we’ve made, often out of the public eye – for example, the US is using water more efficiently than ever now (though we can do a lot better), which gives me hope that we can make significant strides if we put our minds to it.
So, this mix of concern and inspiration made me think that this was a good time to take the pulse, as it were, of American water.
First, while there are many books on water out there, most of them are about a single topic – drought, say, or bottled water. I set out to write a book for the general public that covers most of the major water stories of our time without being encyclopedic. If people are curious about water – the resource that will define this century — then I’ve tried to provide a single source of information for them to turn to.
Second, most water books are written by scientists or academics, or someone with an agenda, and while those books are invariably filled with interesting facts, not many of them are told in a narrative, journalistic way. People like stories, regardless of the subject matter, and they care about other people. I am not a hydrologist, but I am a storyteller. I set out to write a topical, entertaining book about the key issues around water, and to tell it in a way that would appeal to a broad audience. I hope it educates, entertains, and provokes people.
Today, 1 billion people don’t have access to clean water, and more than twice that number don’t have adequate sanitation. The population is growing exponentially. If we don’t figure out how to use water more efficiently and sustainably, the UN worries we could tip into a global water crisis – not enough to drink, not enough to eat, disease and death, mass exoduses, perhaps even wars over water.
In the US, we need to value water more highly, learn to respect its destructive power and use it more sustainably. We need to be willing to invest in our dams, aqueducts, levees, and sewage treatment plants, because if we don’t we will face a general collapse. We need to enforce the regulations we have and write new laws to adapt to new conditions. We need to rationalize the Byzantine system of water governance – Eastern and Western water laws are completely different, and about 20 federal agencies have jurisdiction over water, which causes all sorts of problems. We should develop a comprehensive water plan for the nation, perhaps even appoint a “water czar” or water board to oversee the nation’s supply in a holistic way – as Singapore has done.
Bottled water isn’t evil, but it is a luxury good that can cost 2,900 times more than tap water. In the US we have some of the best tap water in the world, and we get it practically for free – at any temperature, volume, or time of day we want. In fact, 40 % of bottled water is simply tap water in a plastic bottle.
I think we should devote more money to our municipal water systems and spend less on plastic bottles of water transported here from Fiji or the Alps.
– Bottled water labels are misleading and incomplete when they should be accurate and helpful
– The EPA does a good job of monitoring the quality of municipal water systems, but the FDA doesn’t monitor bottled water quality as carefully. This should change.
– Bottled water has a large environmental “footprint.” Water is heavy: it weighs about 8.33 pounds per gallon, so moving it great distances is energy and labor-intensive. The plastic bottles used are environmentally unsound and are not recycled at anywhere near the rate they should be. Companies should do more to reduce the amount of oil and energy used to produce, bottle, and move bottled water, and the government should institute a much more aggressive plastic recycling program.
Writing this book has changed my water use in many ways, large and small. It comes down to being aware of water and how our use impacts it and therefore using it more mindfully.
I am extremely careful about what I pour down the drain or spray on my lawn – even antibacterial soap can harm fish and other aquatic life. I drink much more tap than bottled water. I don’t flush the toilet as often as I used to. I turn off lights (power requires lots of water), and never leave the tap running when I brush my teeth. I love a long hot shower, but try to limit that indulgence. And I have come to really appreciate a tall glass of clean, clear, cold water on a hot day.
The book’s title comes from my observation that every time we use water – even for something as mundane as washing our hands, spraying the lawn, or generating power for light – it sets off deep and wide ripple effects, with consequences that most of us are unaware of. But today we don’t have the luxury of ignorance: we must understand how our actions impact the earth’s limited supply of fresh water and value water more highly. In fact, we should treat water for what it really is: the most essential resource on earth.
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Alex, your Q&A was cogent and speaks to an important subject. Thanks for the work you put in on it.
As another author, I understand the hard, yet rewarding, work you do.