Skirmish at the Old North Bridge in the War Over Bottled Water

I moved from Charlottesville, Virginia to Concord, Massachusetts about nine months ago. Last month, I participated in a 300-plus-year-old tradition that has been called the purest form of democracy: The Town Meeting in Concord. As described in Town Meeting: Traditions and Procedures, “Town Meeting is the legislative branch of Concord government, passing By Laws and policies and approving town expenditures. However, unlike in Congress and the Legislature, where citizens elect representatives to speak and act on their behalf, at Town Meeting every registered voter may speak and vote directly on matters that affect their lives and their livelihood.”

This year’s Town Meeting filled four long evenings and covered a range of issues, some mundane and others hotly debated. Among the more contentious was a successful proposal to prohibit the sale of “non-sparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less.” Earlier that day, the Massachusetts legislature defeated a proposed expansion of the State’s five-cent bottle bill to include disposable water, sports drink, and juice containers. Though other municipalities in the United States have enacted restrictions, Concord is  the first to go so far as to put a ban in place. If approved by the Massachusetts Attorney General, the ban will take effect on January 1, 2013. (For more on the history of this issue in Concord, see Concord Town Meeting passes bylaw banning bottled water sales or Where Thoreau Lived, Crusade Over Bottles.)

As you can imagine, there were strong opinions on both sides. Some saw this as a manifestation of the revolutionary spirit for which Concord is famous; others saw it as a restriction of individual rights characteristic of socialist or communist societies. While I tend to agree with opponents of the ban that legislating consumer behavior in this way may not be an effective means of addressing the issues bound up with products like bottled water, I also tend to agree with proponents that this is an important symbolic gesture. I also found it interesting that many of those advocating for the proposal at the Town Meeting evinced more concern about issues related to the water in the bottles than the PET bottles themselves.

Some observers (and some Concord residents too) undoubtedly view this outcome as further proof of Winston Churchill’s contention that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” But, for my part, I am happy to live in a community that takes democracy seriously and whose citizens are willing to spend an evening debating an issue like the role of bottled water in our society. Viva “think globally, act locally”! Do you think there can be a productive role for such local efforts?

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