I recently had the privilege, at which my last post might have hinted, of spending some time in California, USA. If like me you’ve spent a lifetime on the more-or-less willing receiving end of a stream of Hollywood movies and TV shows, it’s the kind of image you see below that immediately springs to mind when you hear ‘California’, right?

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Photo: The not-entirely-unpleasant grounds of a hotel in Goleta, CA, USA during September (my picture).

This was indeed somewhere I was fortunate to visit (Goleta, CA). But then again, I’m pretty much always in a ‘Waterstink’ frame-of-mind when I’m out and about, so it wasn’t long before my fascinations turned from such things to taking photos like this one instead:

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Photo: Hotel room notice in Santa Barbara, CA (my picture).

California, as will come as no surprise to most, is in the grip of a sustained, five-year long drought. You don’t have to look far in any Californian hotel to find a notice like the one I’ve shown above. But then this notice got me thinking… ‘OK, what if – being me – I WANT to try to follow some, if not all, of these instructions?’ And then I saw this:

 

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Photo: A shower control in a hotel in Santa Barbara, CA.

Over these past few years I’ve mainly traveled around continental Europe where, most of the time, a shower is a shower, is a shower. I’m rarely stumped as to how to, for instance, turn a shower ON, adjust the water temperature, and regulate water flow. I’m not ashamed to say, it took me some time, and a few uncomfortable moments, to figure out this one above!

I soon realised though that it wasn’t POSSIBLE to regulate the water flow in this case. (The temperature control was also hit or miss.) So I COULD have a shorter shower, but I couldn’t have a shorter, flow-restricted shower. There was ONE flow rate. The installed technology therefore conflicted directly with my intended practice, which was to try to follow the ‘drought notice’ sign to the letter…

This is a fairly established and acknowledged matter in ‘sustainability’ research. Achieving sustainability is not all about individual choices and agency. Even when, as was the case here, an individual has decided they want to act in a sustainable direction, often the ‘system’ (here the technology is part of that) can prevent it.

This having happened, by the time I came across this next sign…

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Photo: A water conservation note in a hotel in Morro Bay, CA (my picture).

…I’d more or less given up on the idea of trying to conserve water in the same way that I do at home. At home – as I’ve posted before – I have a fairly flexible, controllable, up-to-date shower design. It has both flow and temperature controls, and regulators on each that you can bypass with a simple button press. The temperature and flow rates are marked on the controls too.

On top of this problem – of not being able to shower like I shower at home – I then had my time and energy further taken up as soon as we moved further on in the trip. For example, I soon found myself trying to figure out this NEXT shower control design:

morrobay-ca-usa-20160921_075432
Photo: Slight variant shower control in a hotel in Morro Bay, CA (my picture; I also didn’t figure out the plug properly, hence the half-full bath, which actually does demonstrate how high the flow was in this particular hotel! Very hard to save water here, almost by design).

It had no flow control either, but the temperature control was different from the previous ones. Nevertheless, elsewhere I saw some heartening technology in use. For instance, in Morro Bay, CA – the site of my perplexed shower in the above photo – I was impressed to see rainwater harvesting equipment supplying a public toilet:

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Photo: Rainwater harvesting supplying – presumably flushing – water to a public toilet in Morro Bay, CA (my picture; also not pictured is the homeless man pushing a cat in a child’s pushchair just next to where I took this photo…).

I was less impressed by the utter lack of sunshine, and the pervasive low cloud in Morro Bay. It had even obscured nearby Morro Rock, not very far offshore. I naturally let out a little chuckle then, when I saw this T-shirt on sale nearby:

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Photo: A rather optimistic T-shirt in the window of a shop in Morro Bay, CA; it could easily have read, “Love the sun… but go elsewhere to see it!” (my picture).

Shortly afterwards I got a very dramatic reminder of the raw aesthetic power of water-scapes. I traveled up the PCH on towards Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey and beyond. En route I saw this kind of scenery:

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Photo: Looking out at the Pacific from part of the PCH, CA (my picture; wearing my snazzy new ‘fedora’ that garnered more than a few compliments during the rest of my trip!).

After getting back I had to travel again within the UK. I was at it again soon though, with my Waterstink-head on, snapping away at showers. This one is from a hotel outside Reading:

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Here it may LOOK like you can control flow and temperature. You sort of could; the two levers were for amount of cold and amount of hot water. I was again flummoxed for a time… but not as much as during my brief USA trip.

All in all, I hope to do some proper research on this kind of enabling/disabling role of everyday technology in the water sphere. Gazing a little at (some) of the showers of the world is one way to reflect on a very modest scale, and ask, do the bits of kit all around us in daily life serve sustainable ends… or do they, at times, silently stand in the way?

Duncan Thomas

 

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