Not for Sale: How to Decommodify What's Important to Us

Almost everything revolves around water. We drink it, cook with it, and shower with it. One day at a kiosk in Tokyo, I found different brands of bottled water in rows, vying for attention. They came from Romania, Spain, the United States and Japan, to name a few; the display resembled an international beauty pageantry. Below each bottled water was a price tag. All I wanted to buy was water but quickly felt ashamed for wanting one, given the plastic and the realization that we were commodifying nature. A day of shopping became a day of guilt and reflection. Since when have we commodified resources, and what gives us the sense of entitlement to do so? The more our resources fall victim to commodification, the more we fall victim to climate change.  

Water has long been commodified for survival, convenience, and statusAccording to David Sedlak, author of Water 4.0, the ancient Romans were the first to create “a system of importing water, distributing it to homes and public spaces through a network of pipes, and returning used water to the environment…” (2). Their aqueducts comprised canals or underground pipes and tunnels, which the emperor and private citizens were responsible for maintaining (Sedlak 3). Yet, citizens of Rome could not see the imported water system; only when the water entered the city on elevated structures could they appreciate the city’s investment. But the idea of “importing water” was not limited to ancient Romans and the West, writes Sedlak (3). “Inhabitants of the city of Erbil, in northern Iraq, dug gently sloping horizontal tunnels known as quanats to route groundwater into the city from a distance of approximately twenty kilometers (twenty miles) away.” (Sedlak 1). Regardless of civilizations, people learned to create systems to use and regulate natural resources. By creating systems, cities and countries could show that they were organized and powerful— that they were able to manage their population.

Water was and still is a vital resource for humanity— and the planet. Climate change threatens our planet and the resources we have long commodified— and shouldn’t have. Today, many of us realize that our consumption habits are detrimental to the planet. This change can come from policy revisions and government commitments. Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech at the United Nations Headquarters, climate strikes led by Friday For Future, and the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit call on us to disrupt the current system and challenge the status quo. While policies are in their making, we can make a difference as consumers. The changes can also come from individual consumers. What and how we buy stuff— including resources such as water—matters. “Most importantly from the standpoint of bringing about lasting change, raise awareness within your community about the importance of figuring out the right path for a local version of Water 4.0,” advises Sedlak (280).  Consumption isn’t so simple. Eliminating all plastic in a day could be a Herculean task. We can, however, question our habits from time to time and assess whether they are helpful or harmful to us and the planet. Businesses, too, need not commit to unrealistic goals, although ambition and a sense of urgency are key to combatting climate change. Perhaps a piece of advice from former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in The New York Times could help: “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen much faster than you thought they could.” Incremental changes can make a difference. 

The more we commodify resources, the more we will suffer from the consequences of climate change. Water has been commodified for centuries. Today, water is a treasured resource for the entirety of humanity; yet, we still use it as a marketing tool. Our societies reflect the past as the future will reflect the present. What we learn from previous generations— what resources they used and how they used them, for example— can help us reduce our carbon footprint. Instead of commodifying resources, we should think about how to preserve them, even micromanage them. “The map to our future will be draw collectively by the thousands of small decisions made in our homes, at community meetings, and in the voting booth,” says Sedlak (280). We can’t be neutral in our pursuit of reducing our carbon footprint. A quote from Dante’s Inferno, which was reportedly President Kennedy’s favorite, is a wise warning: “'The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Next time we are tempted to buy products wrapped in plastic or put a price tag on resources, let’s ask ourselves, do we need this? By asking the right questions, we can prevent our planet from becoming hell.


  • Sedlak, David. Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource. Place of Publication Not Identified: Yale UP, 2015. Print. 
  • “Sustainable Development Goals.” UNDP. United Nations Development Programme, 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.