With increased floods across Western Europe, fires ravaging forests near the Mediterranean Sea and extreme temperature records this summer, we know climate change is happening and it’s happening now. So naturally, people all over the world are scrambling for solutions to mitigate the worst of what’s to come (if you don’t know what “the worst” looks like, brace yourself and read the latest IPCC report). Suggestions so far have included artificially mimicking a volcanic eruption, creating giant snow-blowing cannons and covering buildings in algae – all ridiculous. But there seems to be a new “eco” trend emerging, which might be the worst one yet: rich people asking us not to shower in order to save water.
It’s not the first time Hollywood celebrities have exposed their shocking views on personal hygiene (never forget Sheryl Crow’s suggestion that we should only use one sheet of toilet paper to save trees). But recently, more and more are speaking out against showering. Ashton Kutcher revealed that he only washes his crotch and armpits and “nothing else ever”, while Mila Kunis only washes their kids when they’re “visibly dirty”. Jake Gyllenhaal has also said that “more and more,” he finds bathing “less necessary”. The most distressing revelation came from Kristen Bell, though, who said she waits five or six days between each shower (for herself and her kids) in order to conserve water locally and help the environment. Now, these ideas are filtering down to the masses, with newspaper columnists making claims that we need to “play dirty” to save the planet.
The bleak reality is that in many parts of the world (and especially the Global South), access to clean water is already limited and rationed amongst large populations. Fresh water is a precious resource and a source of conflict in dry countries. In the middle of a deadly pandemic, it’s become even more obvious how vital water is for better public health, especially when it comes to protecting groups working jobs that expose them to all kinds of potentially harmful particles. But can individualistic approaches to climate change, such as not showering, really make that much of a difference in preserving fresh water?
The answer is, not really. Of course, individual showers can reduce the use of fresh water (a five minute power shower uses about 75 litres of water). You can even buy a “low-flow” showerhead to reduce your water usage by up to 60 per cent and have cooler showers to save the energy required to heat the water. But the impact of not showering will be pretty minimal if that’s the only thing you do to try to offset the environmental weight of your existence – especially because there are so many other ways we can be saving fresh water, which doesn’t centre on self-sacrifice – or stinking pits.
We know that approximately 90 per cent of direct water use goes towards the agricultural and industrial sectors, so a lot of our current water usage is indirect and hidden, meaning a humble five minute shower pales in comparison. For example, did you know that it takes between 680 and 1,241 litres to produce a two litre bottle of soda? Or that we need around 8,100 litres of water to grow enough cotton to produce just one pair of regular jeans? Or that a staggering 147,631 litres of water is used to produce an average car?
We also know that the meat industry uses huge amounts of water – almost a third of the water footprint of total agricultural production. Access to clean water and sanitation is a human right, so rest assured that you can save a lot more water if you cut out fast-fashion practices, as well as general overconsumption, and think about changing your diet. You can also adopt water-efficient and water-saving appliances, limit outdoor uses of water, repair leaks and not fund “water-grabbers”.
Yet with fears that water demand is expected to exceed current supply by 40 per cent by 2030, there is so much we have to do collectively. A big part of that is understanding how and where water is used. Not only do we need to maintain pressure on industries to reduce water consumption, but we also need to pressure governmental bodies to make sure this actually happens.
The intentions of not showering may be good (and might make you feel less guilty about that latest ASOS haul), but the neoliberal focus on individual action over systemic change has been one of the biggest challenges when it comes to resolving climate issues. It has the same energy as Boris Johnson’s climate change spokesperson telling us to not rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, to freeze bread and to order shampoo in cardboard packaging. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party continues to support a number of polluting industries, such as aviation, oil and gas and their massive commitments for new road-building are at odds with their net-zero target by 2050.
So look, if you don’t want to shower, that’s a personal choice. We’ll try not to judge you (though we can’t promise we won’t smell you from here). But if you’re doing it to save the planet, without really questioning where else you can make cuts on water use and how to put pressure on corporations and governments to make tangible structural change, how much of a difference are you really making? Our focus and energy are the biggest tools we have, so let’s use them wisely.