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Greed is Good?

Scenography for the 1924 movie Greed
Erich von Stroheim, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Scenography for the 1924 movie Greed

It you are hesitant, as I was, to read The Water Thief because it is a dystopian story, - after all, who needs more depressing thoughts? – let me put your concerns to rest. Yes, it describes a future where lives are short, nasty, and brutish, but it is a world of such bizarre scenarios presented at a fast pace with much humor. Although the title refers to water, it’s about all resources, as this is a world in which absolutely everything is a commodity with a price.

This extreme future society is totally run by capitalism. People sprinkle axioms of “the free hand of the market” and “survival of the fittest”; it is cutthroat competition that rules. What government that exists is subservient to capitalism, especially large corporations that have effectively minimized competition.

We are led into this new world by Charlie Thatcher, a middle management guy working for the biggest, most powerful and therefore most desirable, corporation. Although he has a good position, his is a rough life. He’s barely making ends meet, which is true of most of his colleagues.

Employees pay for everything they use: paper, research, electricity, even their cubicle space (Charlie rents half of his cubbie to an obnoxious co-worker, just to save money). Have news to share with a colleague? You must tip them for it. Information is stolen, when given the opportunity. Charlie works for the Perception Management branch, that spew out reports to spin the latest news. It isn’t reality that matters, only peoples’ perception of events. Workers in Perception earn money when a higher branch uses their reports.

The compensation is relative to the report’s value to the Corporation. If you end up owing more money than you make, you can sell you “futures”, what your value is worth in your remaining work life. If you owe too much to the Corporation, even with your futures sold, your body itself becomes a more valuable commodity. Too bad for you, worker, your organs are to be harvested.

Society has a strict caste system. Workers are referred to as HiCon, MidCon and LoCon, the contract level they have with a corporation. The beautiful shopping, dining and living areas are reserved for HiCons. It’d be way too expensive for the LoCons and MidCons. The income inequality is enormous. There are also the scarry NoCons; those with no contracts. They are the outcast and outlaws.

Charlie enters his quest for the water thief after finding, well stealing really, a report on a legal case. A young woman from a well-off family had chosen to live outside society’s rules. She obtained fresh water through an evaporative still, was caught and convicted of theft. The judge ruled the water belonged to the Corporation that could sell that water. Charlie wrote a perceptions report that spun her into a ringleader of a band of outlaws that threaten Corporations. He was well paid for it. Afterwards he felt his payment was blood money. Would his lies lead to her being sentenced to death? Why did she stand up to the judge, when she had wealth and could easily get out of the charges?

The Water Thief is a thought-provoking story. Inspired as a rebuttal to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, in this novel unrestrained capitalism leads to a world ruled by Gordon Geckos where greed is good. As one HiCon explained to Charlie “Generosity is selfishness.… It makes people soft and lazy.”

The Water Thief takes us into a wild world where the environment is polluted and all resources, including human ones, are exploited for profit.

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Now retired, Susan Stover was Outreach Manager at the Kansas Geological Survey. She worked in water policy, water resource planning and environmental remediation for the State of Kansas for 20 years, before joining the Survey in 2014. Her experience includes working with stakeholders on programs and policies to conserve the High Plains aquifer; organizing conferences on water and on teaching evolution; and hosting field trips for state legislators. She holds an M.S. in geology, University of Kansas, and a B.A. in geology, University of Nebraska. Stover is a Geological Society of America Fellow.