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The Joy and Edward Frieman Environmental Science Center

Water Is Not Just Water: A Zoomcast with Professor Elena Berg

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Professor Elena Berg is a certified water sommelier – trained to discern the flavor subtleties between mineral water varieties and knowledgeable of the specificities of a complex industry. “I never knew a thing like this existed before I got started,” she explains. Though her academic background is in animal behavior – specifically the evolution of cooperation and conflict in social animals – she has become increasingly interested in the environmental impact of bottled water. Most recently, she has collaborated with fellow sommelier Michael Mascha on a nine-part Zoomcast series providing an in-depth look at the industry.

The episodes – varying in length from 20 minutes to an hour – offer in-depth conversations on a wide variety of topics relating to bottled water, from the history and symbolism of water to the epicurean pleasures of mineral water table pairings. “Bottled water is traditionally something that environmentalists are committed against, as it seems to epitomize plastic waste in its purest form,” Berg begins. “But it became clear to me through my research that it’s a more complex and interesting question.” She admits that she had been comfortable taking the environmentalist stance of demonising bottled water for its plastic usage, but, after learning about the wide variety of stakeholders involved, she began to feel that the industry was not so monolithic. “I think the heart of the Zoomcast is what we’re calling ‘small water farmers,’” she explains. “These are smaller, high-end companies who have access to a spring and are protective of the water and its source.” Berg argues that there is potential for these companies to become advocates for sustainability.

The Zoomcast conversations will form the basis for Berg’s future research into sustainability and the bottle water industry: “Normally I do things the other way around!” she says. The public-facing aspect of working in an online, visual medium came at a time when academia is getting to grips with remote teaching and learning more broadly. “I think this switch helps me move out of my academic sphere and learn how to communicate in different ways,” says Berg.

The Zoomcast project also ties in to Berg’s wider work at AUP as Director of the Joy and Edward Frieman Environmental Science Center, which works on outreach relating to environmental issues – both on and off campus. “A big focus of the center has been working with students to make AUP a more carbon neutral campus,” says Berg. “Questions about water and the bottled water industry all tie into my interest in making sustainability more visible.”

You can watch the entire Water Is Not Just Water Zoomcast on YouTube or dive right into Episode 1 below. You can also find Elena on Facebook and Instagram @BergOnWater.