In California, a new season of drought brings a new season of drought shaming – or, for those using YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or the “community-minded” app VizSafe, #droughtshaming . Call it tech-savvy snitching for the opulence-sick and environmentally conscious.
But this year #droughtshaming – the act of naming-and-shaming water-wasters on social media – has taken on a new, class-conscious, anti-corporate life of its own.
Targets in the past few weeks have included Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, for maintaining obscenely green, lush lawns, visible from the air; Walmart, for sourcing its bottled water from the drought-stricken state at enormous profit; rich Beverly Hills residents, for filling up their pools; and even a local Ritz hotel that was “water misting” its too-rich-to-be-hot patrons.
“When we are in crisis, everyone blames everyone else,” said Jon Christensen, an environmental historian at the University of California, Los Angeles. “People say: ‘I’m doing enough, but my neighbours aren’t.’”
In the past, passing the buck for water shortage has had northern California blaming southern California, cities blaming suburban development and water bottlers blaming agriculture.
“What is new is the class warfare that has now come into it,” Christensen said. “There is a lot of focus on the fact that the rich and famous use more water than others.”
Drought shaming took off last summer and was initially state-sanctioned. California lawmakers passed a law in July to hand water-wasters fines of up to $500 a day. Offenders included anyone watering their lawns to the extent where the pavement became flooded, washing cars with nozzle-less hoses, and hosing down driveways and sidewalks.
Furious Californians were only too happy to help. Eco-vigilantes told on neighbours through official means, helping local governments issue fines and warnings, but also patrolled streets and used social media to shame people into changing their ways. Many tweets and uploaded videos include street addresses .
The stakes are higher this year. As California enters its fourth year of drought, and after its governor, Jerry Brown, called for the reduction of water usage in urban areas by 25% and fines of up to $10,000 for wasting water, attention has started to shift towards some of the most obscene versions of water wastage and offensive water profiteering. These point to another California ill: vast economic inequality.
In Los Angeles, one of the most unequal cities in America, while lawns in poorer parts of town have mostly gone brown – because residents do not want to risk fines, because they do not want to pay higher bills anyway, because they may have less immediate incentive to worry about property value – lawns in hyper-wealthy places like Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Pacific Palisades are still reportedly overwhelmingly green.
One Twitter user, Gail Becker, threatened Rancho Mirage’s Ritz-Carlton, a hotel where room prices start at $549 a night, with #droughshaming for its “constant misting”.
On Thursday, Southern California Public Radio aired an interview in which the Nestlé Waters North America chief executive, Tim Brown, said he would not be moving his company’s bottling operations out of California, as other companies have done. Rather he said, if he could increase it, he would.
“The class differences are very real,” Christensen said. “There are people in very poor neighbourhoods who do not use much water anyway and who cannot decrease their water much more.
“The correlation with wealthier people here is very simple: they have bigger yards.”
Newly implemented rules in California have tried to adapt to such socio-economic differences by imposing water reductions on a scale from -8% to -36%. Residents in areas already working to reduce water use in theory face lower demands than those in water-extravagant ones.
Christensen, however, warned about the limits of a culture of blame and shame, saying it was not conducive to providing creative solutions in resolving the problem of living harmoniously through the drought, and thinking about what California’s way of life will look like in the long term.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015