Monthly Archives: August 2007

Water propaganda

So, I went on this trip to Melbourne, which is a city I used to live in, and I’ve been back a couple weeks, and I am mostly recovered from the jet lag, which, I must say, was absolutely horrendous coming home, although not so bad going there. There are tons of things I wanted to write about, and I have been procrastinating, with the excuse that I was trying to think of a good order to discuss them in, but having thought about it for at least a week, and not having come up with a plan, I have to admit that it was a lame ploy.

So, I’ll just dive right in and talk about the water propaganda.

I lived in Melbourne for a really long time, but I hadn’t been there for about 6 years, so one of the things I did, constantly, was compare my memories of it with what it is like now. It’s kind of a funny experience, because of course, part of what I am nostalgic for is being 10 years younger. Lots of things hadn’t changed significantly, like Brunswick St was essentially the same – the people walking down the street might have been different people, but they were totally interchangeable with the ones who were there 10 years ago, and most of the cafes I like were still there.

We spent a lot of time in cafes, including Trotters, where the owner said to Stepladder, “hey, you used to come here when you were a tiny baby!” which was totally cool. I mean, admittedly, we used to eat there a couple times a week, but you don’t tend to think that your regular cafe remembers you after a 6-year absence.

On the other hand, the upper end of Lygon St has changed out of all recognition. When we first moved in together, many years ago, Feckless and I lived in a tiny unheated worker’s cottage next to a paint factory, courtesy of our landlord, Peter the Wanker, a peculiar guy who used to brag at the time that he owned more houses than wineglasses. Anyway, the house was cheap because it was in a seedy neighbourhood, as well as being tiny and in poor repair. The businesses in Lygon St, around the corner, tended to dusty unused shopfronts, and weird cafes with old Italian guys who drank coffee and played cards all day. There was a place run by two Lebanese guys who clearly saw it as their mission to feed starving students – their food was cheap and good, and mostly vegetarian. Feckless’ mother, when she came to visit us for the first time, decided we lived in a bad neighbourhood on account of the giant jars of bright red pickled vegetable (maybe it was turnip?) in the window of the Lebanese food kitchen.

We bought most of our kitchen ware from the dusty dollar store which had a handwritten “Closing Soon – For Sale” sign in the window for the 3 or 4 years we lived there. Across the road from the dollar store was the pub, an unremarkable establishment, except for the postman’s bicycle, which tended to be propped up outside the pub entrance for hours each day. If you ever wrote us a letter, and we claimed we didn’t get it, this is why.

Despite the privation and the smell of paint, I think we were fairly happy there, in a Bohemian, we had way too many cats, kind of way.

It was quite disconcerting to drive up the street and find that every second shopfront had turned into a trendy cafe or furnishing store. The one nice restaurant is still there, but there are Japanese and Thai places, and upmarket bistros. The old dollar store is now a really popular cafe; I hope the little old couple who spent all those years trying to sell the business got a decent price.

These are understandable changes, I guess. I mean, every city has inner suburban areas going through a process of trendification and renewal. I might not have predicted the speed and extent of the yuppification, but I could get my head around it.

(So, that was diving right in to the water thing. No, really.)

The thing that boggled me was the water propaganda. Like most people who don’t live in the country but who occasionally read the news, I understand there has been a drought for a number of years. Before I left, my grouchy officemate plonked a bottle of water on my desk and said “Here, I think you are going to need this, because they have no water where you are going.” I had some idea about water restrictions, and I had heard from my friend Leaf about how little she had managed to grow in her previously awesome vegetable garden because of the lack of water. I just wasn’t prepared for the whole 1984 propaganda thing.

What I mean by this is the ubiquitous presence of Melbourne Water, which, when you look at their website seems pretty much like a metropolitan water board in any large city. There’s no overt statement of their propaganda agenda. However, walk around anywhere in the city of Melbourne for an hour – through a park, in the downtown area, in a suburban street where people have front yards with plants in them, past anywhere there might once have been a fountain – and you will see a sign with the Melbourne Water logo on, it, or a reference to Melbourne Water.

These signs say things like “This fountain has been turned into a sculpture because we are saving water! Isn’t art wonderful!” or “This great big tree has this special weird-ass barrel next to it so that it won’t die! And the barrel has been approved by Melbourne Water! Isn’t that great!” Even all those cafes I spent time in had water propaganda notices: “Help yourself to a glass of water! But only if you are really thirsty! Because otherwise, that would be a waste of water!” The one at the swimming pool, suggesting that patrons limit their post-swim showers to 2 minutes (2 minutes? To get cholorine out of your hair? You are joking, right?) was similarly cheerful – “We know you want to help to conserve water, so here is our suggested strategy!” When you look at institutional signs, you expect to see happy compliance with the state’s public policy -“We need to save water, but we can be cheerful about it!” – but the signs were uniformly cheerful, even in private. It’s the upbeat part that really gave me the heebie-jeebies. The measures themselves seemed sensible enough – okay, not the 2 minute shower thing, but the others – made sense, and really it was more the tone that was the issue. Well, that, and the underlying fear that occasionally leaked through. “We have a sign, so people won’t get mad at us!” Sometimes this defensiveness actually made it onto the sign, like in the Botanical Gardens at Cranbourne – “Our fountain is still running! But we don’t use mains water! And we recycle! Isn’t that cool? So don’t hate us, or report us!”

Now, you might think that some of these signs, particularly in the withered gardens of formerly houseproud soccer moms, might be expressing sentiments not entirely positive about the whole water privation experience, but you would be wrong. It rained a lot while we were there, and every single person who commented on it said “It’s good that it is raining, but of course a little bit of rain will not really cure the problem.” And then they would mention the percentage capacity of the water storage, and perhaps also allude to whether or not they had a rainwater tank. Yes, everyone is putting in rainwater tanks, even, ironically in suburban backyards where they got rid of rainwater tanks as unsightly and unneccessary in the 60s and 70s.

All of which is creepy enough, but the thing that really got to me was the matter-of-fact conversations I had about people who were reported by their neighbours for violating water restrictions – whether they had or not – and that the consequences of such reports were punitive restrictions on water pressure. Perhaps living in North America has made me more sensitive to ideas about personal freedom, because none of the people who talked to me about these things (and that was all of the people I talked to; water figures very largely as a topic in casual conversation) seemed to have the slightest uneasiness about the propaganda exercise. When I started referring to it as “water propaganda,” they half-laughed uneasily, and then corrected me earnestly: “It is really important to save water, though.” Only Henry the Philosopher conceded that really, they could reduce residential water use to zero, and it still wouldn’t make much of a difference because of the amount of water being used by agriculture and industry.

I don’t think saving water is a bad thing. I am not against it, or anything, and in fact, I am often horrified about the profligacy of water usage in the city where I now live. An interesting side effect of all this water consciousness seems to be an overall heightened environmental consciousness, too – again, no bad thing. I guess my discomfort was really more about the way the discussion (and that’s not the right word, because really, there is one opinion, not a variety) is framed. It made me wonder if I had spent years living in a place where I accepted propaganda without realising it, or if something radical had changed since I left.