From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements
A flight takes off from Kathmandu and miniature bottles of water are distributed to passengers. The contents come from the Aravalli Range in northwest India and the label boasts that the water, now trapped in plastic, had to traverse layers of clay and alluvial sediment to reach underground reservoirs. Worry not, the label requests, if silvery particles appear, as these indicate the presence of the water’s “unique mineral composition.” Instead of a calorie count, the bottle prominently lists 100 micrograms of calcium and 50 micrograms of magnesium per serving. These are meant to add to the “gustatory sensation” (Biro 2019, 15) of the two-gulp serving as it is imbibed thousands of feet above the earth; an act of elemental consumption that connects the soft tissues of the traveller to the nourishing materiality of the land below.
After landing in India’s capital city, I refill the same small bottle in a reverse osmosis water filter mounted above the sink in a friend’s kitchen. This device removes any and all extraneous elements, leaving only a serving of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen—plus or minus the solvents that may remain. At its core, reverse osmosis works upon a fundamental dislike of hard water, the kind that contains nourishing supplies of calcium and magnesium alongside ill-making elements such as lead, iron, radium, and arsenic. After years of public distrust of municipal water supplies, many urban denizens strongly prefer this “RO” water. Its use in Indian homes has grown exponentially since the early 2000s. Along with the perception of improved water quality, RO devices ensure that, without the trace silvery wisps, there will be no residues of hardened and suspect white spots that need to be scrubbed from pots, pans, and faucet drains.
While in New Delhi, an environmental architect I interview brings up the topic of RO water and scoffs at the “unimaginably stupid” technology. Reverse osmosis typically wastes three liters of scarce potable water to produce one liter of mineral-free water. The device then deposits the rejected liters of element-rich liquid back into the ground where it leads to further groundwater hardening. This water is consumed unfiltered, but after boiling, by low-income residents. Yet, since people now equate the heavily processed blandness of RO water with “pure” water, my interlocutor quips that many believe that the mineral-free version is “how water is supposed to taste.” This leads to a hesitation to consume the sweet and mineral-rich water found in public wells. It also deters civic concern for the preservation of those communal infrastructures.
The rise of RO water matters for a country such as India where middle-class women frequently experience lowered bone density as a result of mineral deficiency. This trend propels into existence a surfeit of products that aim to supplement the deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D. Few, however, seem to realize that magnesium is also a cornerstone building block for strong bones and teeth. As the third most prevalent element in the world’s oceans, and as a key ingredient in numerous whole foods, we are beings whose biotic history is awash in magnesium.
In addition to its bone-strengthening attributes, magnesium is notably important for its role as an enabler of neurotransmissions. When it is lacking, the body protests with fatigue, muscle spasms, seizures, and coronary ailments. There is even some indication that magnesium helps to boost the immune system and protect against depression due to its complex enzymatic interactions. Magnesium, it appears, is something of a neurological companion element for humans, much the way that protozoa and bacteria are companion species for our skin and internal organs (Haraway 2003, 32).
Might we, as that bottle of airplane water portends, awaken to the significance of magnesium? In my own purse, I am now rarely without a dose of the element to ward off the threat of headaches, a practice given to me under medical advice. For the aches and pains of a neck contorted from years of air travel and laptop use, on my bedside sits a magnesium gel that, blended with arnica, alleviates muscle tension. In South Asia, the old RO devices in the homes of health-conscious friends in New Delhi are being replaced with newer machines that proclaim—via several well-placed stickers—that calcium and magnesium are added “back in” to the final product. While this does not correct the problems of wasted water or groundwater hardening, the technology’s modification indicates a begrudging acceptance of elemental vitality.
The Anthropocene is most often discussed as an era wherein humans have altered the globe and its environment more than natural cycles would have allowed. In this Anthropocenic world, thinking with magnesium enables insight into how our impulses to manage external ecologies have begun to change our own physiology and hence the balance of our internal ecologies. Through banal efforts to manage water to scientistic standards of quantified purity, many individuals and institutions in South Asia and beyond are removing the elemental agents that propel neurons, pacify muscles, and regularize our beating hearts. The hard matter of those wisps of magnesium, in other words, forces a reconsideration of how the mineral world moves through our beings and nourishes everything from our soft innards to our fortified endoskeletons. It is a symbolic and physical manifestation of the earthen elements pulsing through us.
That we have evolved through internalizing magnesium but must now work to put it back into our systems is a telltale sign that even our bodies have become a kind of “Anthropocene space” (Moore 2016, 41), a point of focus that carries the mark of anthropogenic change. There are consequences to be experienced as a result. Our efforts to treat, to purify, and to control the planet’s resources according to human design threaten to bite back—not in some distant apocalyptical future, but in physiological misfirings affecting our here and our now.
Biro, Andrew. 2019. “Reading a Water Menu: Bottled Water and the Cultivation of Taste.” Journal of Consumer Culture 19, no. 2: 231–51.
Haraway, Donna. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Moore, Amelia. 2016. “Anthropocene Anthropology: Reconceptualizing Contemporary Global Change.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22, no. 1: 27–46.