Civil Disobedience, Inc.

Last April, the residents of Concord, Massachusetts voted to deny themselves the right to buy bottled water.

The town wrote and enacted a relevant bylaw that went into effect on the first of this year, and retailers within Concord’s town limits have ceased selling plastic containers of H2O ever since.

As you will no doubt be shocked to learn, controversy endures.

Upon the fateful town meeting vote, Concord became the first municipality in the United States to execute such a prohibition, although the initiative’s leaders hope to unleash a national trend.  No other towns or cities have yet followed suit, although dozens of college campuses have.

The motivation for the ban is ecological.  Water bottles are made from material that harms the environment, and so prohibiting their sale will diminish their use and lighten Concord’s carbon footprint.  Specifically, the ban applies to “single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less,” including cases of the same.

The idea, proponents explain, is to nudge consumers into more environmentally-friendly behavior.  In this case, it means drinking water from the tap, carrying around your own bottle or, if you insist, buying it in containers made from more agreeable material.

Since the bylaw has yet been in effect for a scant six weeks, it is a bit early to judge its impact (a point of protocol that the ban’s critics do not seem to agree with).

On the other hand, the Boston Globe ran a report at the end of January that is just too amusing to ignore.

As stipulated in the bylaw’s text, enforcement of the ban has fallen to a “designee” in the person of the town’s public health director, Susan Rask, who spent January checking in on Concord’s various beverage-peddling establishments to ensure they have removed bottled water from their shelves.  At press time, all of them had complied except for one:  The convenience store chain Cumberland Farms.

As Rask soon discovered, this was no oversight.  Unlike a handful of shops that initially misunderstood which types of containers were verboten and then promptly fell into line, Cumberland continued stocking and selling the forbidden fruit on purpose.

The first point to observe here is one of irony.  Here in Concord—the land of Henry David Thoreau, author of “Civil Disobedience”—we find the act of willfully defying local laws to be alive and kicking.

The irony?  Well, when Thoreau refused to pay poll taxes in 1846, it was from principled opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War.  It was an instance of an individual rebelling against the mighty forces of government.

By contrast, the present water ban was affirmed by popular vote at a town meeting—a gathering of individuals—and is now being resisted by a mighty corporation.

Roles reversed.  Fancy that.

Of course, as surely as the nature of the civilly disobedient has changed since the innocent antebellum days, so too has the principle being defended.  Thoreau was defending the right of every man to shape his own destiny.  Cumberland Farms is defending its right to turn a profit.

The dynamic is as follows:  The first time a business is found to violate the bottle ban, it is issued a warning.  For every subsequent violation, the business is fined $50.

Given the facts on the ground, we can see the sneaky calculation at play:  If demand for bottled water remains at its pre-ban levels and Cumberland Farms is the only place supplying it, would it not be worth the occasional $50 fee to keep its monopoly going?

Unless and until the town decides to take further, harsher action against plucky Cumby’s, what reason does it have to cease flouting the law?  It has managed to turn civil disobedience into a smart business decision.  Score one for capitalism.

This is a morally hazardous lesson, to say the least, but such is the nature of many such acts of rebellion.  It is a fascinating story to follow, because of the various expressions of human behavior at work and in conflict with one another—most of which I have utterly failed to mention, but which deserve (and have elsewhere received) our full consideration.

The debate surrounding Concord has only just begun, and water is but the tip of the iceberg.

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