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Water Today Title June 23, 2021

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Update 2019/7/25
Bottled Water


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Happy Water

By Suzanne Forcese

Psychologists understand the intricate relationship between our emotions – whether conscious or unconscious - and our behaviors which often are divorced from rational thought and impervious to logical argument. The study of emotions, and the understanding of how they can side-rail the best laid plans, is not an area that crosses over to other disciplines and certainly not to policy making.

Water Today reached out to Sarah Wolfe, Ph.D., associate director of the undergraduate studies School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS), University of Waterloo. “In the field in which I work - research on the interactions between people, society and water - the role of emotions generally, and of disgust specifically, is largely ignored,” Dr. Wolfe submitted in an email exchange with WT.

“All of us - researchers, policy-makers, corporate leaders and members of the public - should begin to recognize how the presence, intensity and even absence of disgust can critically influence our water decisions,” Dr. Wolfe believes.

Drinking water is a prime example. Our perceptions of ‘contagion’ can elicit the emotion of disgust - something which bottled-water companies successfully exploit. In water-scarce areas, the collection, cleaning and reintroduction of ‘dirty’ water including sewage into water systems is a proven method to safely maximize drinking water. However, thoughtful water management which is backed by good science and implemented through innovative infrastructure can still be rejected by this kind of disgust.

Dr. Wolfe, describes herself as “a water person to the core, being constitutionally incapable of working within disciplinary boundaries.” In her research approach she has stylized these attributes to “gather, translate and combine the insights from geography, psychology, cognitive science, and knowledge- management with findings on water decision-making processes.”

The emotion of disgust can actually become a two-edged sword because it can also be a powerful force for positive change. Certainly, there is the negative aspect when we are repelled by the perceived contagion in the drinking water supply. It is a strong enough motivation to look to bottled water as a source. And yet we know it is environmentally damaging, much more expensive and often subject to less stringent testing and regulation than tap water.

Dr. Wolfe uses an example in Victoria, British Columbia. Victoria’s Mr. Floatie, a life-sized, non-odiferous costumed person created to look like human feces was a gimmicky tactic used by a group who fought for a wastewater treatment plant in Esquimalt. It was a great attention grabber for photo ops, jokes and headlines. But it worked in favor of the group protesting against the unethical dumping of sewage into nature.

Dr. Wolfe says Mr. Floatie reminds us of an “undeniable and uncomfortable truth: that we are defecating animals”. But more importantly the image operates at another psychological level. We are reminded of disease and death, because we know sewage carries bacteria that can contaminate our food and water. Terror Management Theory (TMT) is the foundation from which Dr. Wolfe connects to all other disciplines and approaches. TMT, a theory developed in 1986 based on Ernest Becker’s ideas that “All human action is taken to ignore or avoid the anxiety generated by the inevitability of death.”

Since the 1990’s, social psychology researchers have been testing whether we change our behavior when we’re aware of our mortality.

In a lecture on TMT, Dr. Wolfe states, “Everyone, across all cultures, is susceptible to death anxiety.” Our brains work really hard to actively repress death fears, either consciously minimizing thoughts through denial, distraction and rationalization or unconsciously by bolstering self-esteem building through cultural recognition, hero projects and increased out-group antagonism.

If we are reminded of our inevitable mortality, we tend to strengthen our existing opinions of what is right and good in the world. When clever marketing tactics convince us bottled water sustains good health and an active lifestyle our self-esteem and cultural worldview is reinforced when we see the rich, beautiful and famous imbibing from a plastic bottle.

Likewise the clever campaigning of Mr. Floatie reminded citizens of Victoria of their mortality and the group antagonism worked to get a new wastewater treatment plant “ensuring water supply security and our dominance over nature”. Treating our wastewater minimizes our mortality awareness.

Ironically, invisible contaminants in our drinking water such as synthetic hormones, residual medications and micro-plastics, although feared to an extent, do not seem to garner the same level of disgust as raw sewage. Dr. Wolfe argues “our lack of disgust limits technical, political and social momentum to solve these problems”.

In a paper which Dr. Wolfe co-authored with Dr. Amit Tubi, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, entitled Terror Management Theory and Mortality Awareness: A missing link in climate response studies, they state, “Our starting position has been recognizing the needs of climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. We see TMT as a potential tool to advance climate response research, policy and practice by helping scientists and practitioners recognize and understand when, and under what circumstances, mortality defenses could be triggered, and whether or how these defenses influence climate change adaptation and mitigation decisions.”

Mortality defenses – as understood through TMT - are a missing part of the conventional environmental and water decision-making explanations, according to Dr. Wolfe. Environmental decision-making is complex and inclusive of many diverse actors (transparency, accountability, governance) “but we must recognize that all actors bring their emotions, including fear to discussions and negotiations.” Fear is a powerful motivator which can generate pro-environmental actions but it can also produce undesirable priorities and behaviors. We can elicit a “you only live once” attitude which prompts a reckless, wasteful behavior pattern and selfish exploitation of natural resources as well as a preference for authoritarian leadership. On the positive side fear can also elicit an “eco-guilt” which motivates pro-environmental behavior.

“We need research on how emotions and mortality fears influence water and environmental decisions. We need something stronger than fear to get ahead.” The “necessary but insufficient” explanations used in research, government, and the media for poor or inadequate environmental decisions, in Dr. Wolfe’s opinion, include insufficiencies in funding, technology, public knowledge, and governance.

“This is a really exciting time to be doing the work I’m interested in. People are slowly waking up to the reality that science and facts aren’t enough and that emotions are immensely powerful drivers, not just something shameful or distracting.”

There will be no shortage of potential mortality reminders. Deadly droughts, inducing food shortages; flooding overwhelming urban infrastructure; coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels; expected mass migrations of climate refugees; and social upheaval between those who have and those without. “The increasing range, frequency and intensity of climate change events will generate both conscious and unconscious death thoughts.”

The challenge will be in creating the policies that will turn those mortality reminders into an impetus for positive change.

Human emotions are complicated. “Given the many and multiplying stresses on our drinking-water systems it’s time to stop ignoring how powerful and universal emotions can both help and hinder our water decisions,” Dr. Wolfe concludes.


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