Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Apollo 11 and Indoor Plumbing

When your parents or grandparents were growing up in the 1940s, 45% of the United States population lived in homes without complete indoor plumbing.  In the 1950s - - approximately 30% still lacked indoor facilities.  We take this fact for granted daily.

President Kennedy provided the nation with a goal in the 60s - - get to the moon by the end of the decade.  This was a huge technological achievement for the country and humankind.  But remember one clear fact - - in 1960, 83% of the houses in the U.S. had indoor plumbing, and 87% and TVs.  In 1970, as we were landing men on the moon, 93% of the homes had indoor facilities and 95% had TVs. 

In 2011, we have come to take both the TV and toilet for granted.  This is especially true of the toilet (we are a flushing nation - - 5.7 billion gallons per day of water just for our residential flushes) and the supporting infrastructure of the toilet.  On just the input side of the toilet (the side where we can store and pump water from hundreds of miles away, treat it to drinking water standards, and then pee into it) - - it takes about $29 billion a year in the U.S. just to keep the supporting infrastructure from falling apart (pipes and water treatment plants).  The average American family spends about $34 a month on its water utility bill - - $408 a year (compare that to your bits and bytes bill - - phone, cable, and Internet service charges).  But the water system - - the pipes, pumps, and treatment plants - - needs $260 per family per year in capital spending just to prevent the things from corroding and aging into uselessness.

The ledger book from above doesn't even begin to cover the future - - improving the quality of water, the cost of increasing demand, the cost of grappling with water scarcity, and the cost of climate change.  The next time you pay your residential information technology bill (cable+land phone+cell phone+Internet access+mobile access+equipment+HP printer ink+a host of things I forgot), compare it to the water bill.  The cost of no water is hard to imagine or measure in advance, but crippling in real time.  Water has always been a part of the "Rule of Threes" - - three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food - - all make our collective limits.  Some how the smart phone has become a member of the threes club.

Keep an eye on the TV to toilet ratio in the rest of the world - - going to the Moon is great, but that ratio tells us more about civilization that most other indicators.

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