Not one to shy away from large topics, award-winning journalist and author Charles Fishman will bring a whopper to the Festival of the Arts Boca this month.
Fishman’s talk, which will take place March 9 at the festival as part of the Authors and Ideas programs, focuses on one of his favorite subjects: Water.
“Water has achieved an invisibility in our lives that is only more remarkable given how central it is,” he writes in his 2012 book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. “In the U.S. and the developed world we’ve spent the last 100 years in a kind of aquatic paradise: our water has been abundant, safe and cheap. We could use as much as we wanted, whenever we wanted, for almost no cost.”
But that is changing, he says, and access to water is one of the foremost challenges facing the planet today.
“The biggest questions facing our relationship to water is how much do we use?” Fishman said in an interview. “What do we use it for and what is the cost of that use? The point is that we don’t take water seriously and we live in a thoughtless age about water.”
Although born in Boston, Fishman, 61, grew up in Miami and attended Palmetto High School. He has a natural affinity for the state and says he loves the “non-political part of Florida,” the landscape, the people and the sense of community.
He scored a job at the Washington Post as a reporter immediately after graduating college but left in 1986 to take a position at the Orlando Sentinel, where he began writing features for their Sunday supplement, Florida Magazine, and became an editor.
Initially, Fishman became interested in bottled water. He thought it was “silly and ridiculous,” and decided to examine the industry.
His article for Fast Company magazine, titled “Message in a Bottle,” dissects the multibillion- dollar- per-year industry and the irony that comes with it. For example, he says, in the case of Fiji water, water is being shipped around the world to fill consumer demand, when half the people living in Fiji do not have access to clean, safe, drinking water.
“How is it that I can walk into any CVS, drug or grocery store near my house and get clean water from Fiji?” he asks.
“One out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water,” he writes. “The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to one billion people, while delivering to us an array of water ‘varieties’ from around the globe, not one of which we actually need.”
This discordant note propelled him on a journey to India, Australia and Las Vegas looking at the global state of water.
“It’s time to pay attention,” Fishman says. “For now, water is cheap, safe and unlimited. There is a time coming, however, when these three things won’t be true anymore.”
Unlike gasoline, he says, we don’t manage water use by price. There’s no cost incentive to conserve or to think creatively about its use. He thinks water costs should be higher, and come with incentives to save. As a case in point, when he wrote The Big Thirst a decade ago, he says a typical American family of four uses 1,000 gallons of water each day.
“We have lost track of the value of clean, safe and reliable water and totally take it for granted,” he says. “No one says, ‘I can’t take three baths this week,’ or I can’t make coffee this morning because the water isn’t good.’”
The water disconnect extends to his home state.
“Florida is the craziest water state in the country and has serious water problems – even though there is an abundance of water – because the water is poorly managed.”
Fishman’s other books include One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (2019); A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life (2015, co-written with Hollywood producer Brian Grazer), and The Wal-Mart Effect (2006), in which he visited 100 Walmarts in 23 states to do research.
Fishman is married to journalist Trish Wilson and lives in Washington, D.C. The couple have two children. He is currently at work on his next book, which will look, as Studs Terkel did in the 1970s, at the world of work.
In his March 9 talk, Fishman will attempt to create a sense of urgency around solving our water problems.
“The point of my talk is to say: Hey, you guys, we need you to pay attention,” he says. “What matters is the way water is managed in communities, what we ask our water utilities to do and what we ask our elected officials to do.
“Vote for people who take water problems seriously – fix the water supply, manage storm water and fix the Everglades,” Fishman said.
“We’ve lived in blissful ignorance for 100 years,” he says, “but that ‘golden age of water’ has dried up, so to speak. We need to pay attention. I want to give people a sense of what that means, how they can plug in and pay attention and sound a wakeup call.”
Also appearing at the Authors & Ideas series this month, all held at the Mizner Park Amphitheater at Mizner Park, will be author Lynne Olson, who speaks at 7 p.m. March 6 about her book Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, the true story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, a Frenchwoman and mother of two who became leader of a vast Resistance intelligence organization and spy network in France during World War II.
She will be followed at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, by the author, actress and social commentator Fran Lebowitz.
Fishman’s talk is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9.
Musical events at the festival include a screening of Fantasia, the 1940 Disney cartoon, accompanied by the Festival Orchestra Boca, led by conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos (March 3); the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (March 4); A Night at the Ballet, featuring principal dancers from the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre (March 5); the Future Stars Competition, a live contest featuring young South Florida vocalists and dancers (March 7); jazz vocalist Nicole Henry (March 10); the Festival Orchestra Boca in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and solo performances by Jupiter flutist Kara Ravaschieri and violinist Hina Khuong-Huu (March 11); and a closing concert by the Brazilian jazz-pop legend Sergio Mendes (March 12).
If you go
The 17th Annual Festival of the Arts Boca runs March 3–12 at the Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real. Tickets range from $15 to $150 per person and are available at festivalboca.org or by calling 561-757-4762 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. General admission tickets are $40, and virtual tickets are available for $10. Admission to the Rotary Club Future Stars Competition is free.
For more information, visit festivalboca.org or call 561-571-5270.