Last night I had to boil my own drinking water.
It turns out that water doesn’t come straight from the ground ready to drink. I and hundreds of thousands of other Atlanta residents were outraged to learn this last night.
A brief power outage interrupted water treatment processes for most of our county. All of a sudden we had to live without the benefits of the invisible, seemingly automatic processes that make cheap, widely available, and clean drinking water something we can take for granted. The experience is a small taste of the kind of thing that can easily happen in any real natural disaster (Remember the Atlanta Snowpocalypse of 2014? Buford Calloway does.)
it took me ten minutes to boil enough water for only a couple of small applications. What if I needed to treat water for bathing? For washing? For hydrating a family? I can suddenly start to appreciate how much work really goes into basic survival needs – and I still had access to plentiful, running, relatively clean water.
I realize just how pathetic it would be to complain about this one day of interruption, when most of the world has had to do the same for all of human history. At we even have the knowledge of microbes so we can know to boil our water before drinking. If anything, this one small experience has made me more grateful and even wonderstruck at how we get the things we need.
I’m more grateful because a small outage like this is just the thing to heighten your awareness of the fragility – and so the specialness – of our standard of living.
Everything we have that gives us time and speed and freedom and safety and health – our clean drinking water, our cheap food, our internal combustion engines and fossil fuels – were made or processed by people just like us. Those people have the same weaknesses and foibles and latent strengths and challenges as us, but they get up every day to make their work happen. Nothing is automatic, even though it may seem so to us. All of these seemingly simple commodities require huge feats of engineering thought and work to bring within easy reach.
The only reason we Atlantans will have clean drinking water 364 out of 365 days of the year is because a bunch of people just like us wake up in the morning and go to their jobs. The only reason we have treated water is because they each choose to face down every excuse not to work and not to work well which we all come across in our jobs.
The first lesson is this: Whenever you see someone – anyone – doing their job reasonably well, sincerely thank them. If someone decides to go home or do a bad job, everyone in the chain of life and trade is affected. Someone always pays. Experience wonder and gratitude at the fact that people other than you choose to pay their time and effort instead of your health and misfortune.
The second lesson? You may not know how important your own work is. I assure you the people who run Atlanta’s water treatment plans don’t. You do realize the importance of your mundane day-to-day work when it suddenly ceases to yield its benefits. If you want to right you ship before it reaches this point, never forget that all work exists in a chain of divisions of labor – people all doing the jobs they do best and trading the results. In a division of labor, all work becomes connected, and every decision you refuse to make is one chink in the dam holding back chaos from everyone around you.
The choices you make today will take you one step closer to treated water for the world or one step closer to the end of treated water for your city.