Ice Bucket Challenge and the California Drought: Living with Inconsistencies

In light of the current drought emergency, many are asking if Californians should find alternatives to dumping clean water on themselves. Users of the #droughtshaming twitter hashtag seem to think so. But shaming also elicits responses like this one

At Grist.com Ask Umbra recommends accepting the challenge and then “atoning” by skipping a shower to offset the wasted water. Officials at the Soil and Water Conservation Society and Environmental Protection Agency, as reported in The California Drought Versus the Ice Bucket Challenge by Shirley Li at The Wire, would prefer to draw attention to other more significant forms of water waste while encouraging those taking the challenge to find creative ways to reuse the water being dumped (e.g., by standing in a drought-starved garden). Li also cites Doug Carlson, California’s Department of Water Resources information officer, who suggests that debates about whether the challenge is wasting California’s scarce water diverts attention from the true causes of the drought and the habits residents need to focus on changing.

Eric Holthaus at Slate and Joseph Stromberg at Vox take a similar tact. Their basic argument is that there are other lifestyle choices and everyday habits that use far more water than an Ice Bucket Challenge dousing or even a year’s worth of bottled water purchases (much of which is bottled in California, according to Holthaus).

Adapted from Eric Holthaus (Slate) by Vox (see “The ice bucket challenge isn’t a waste of water, and this chart proves it”)

There are two problems with the strategy of reducing water use to comparisons of the gallons consumed by various activities. First, numbers do not generally motivate behavior change. More important, the numbers game fails to acknowledge the cultural embeddedness of water in our lives and the the ways that cultural systems are bound up with agricultural, economic, political, and legal systems.

I was asked this morning by a student working on a story about the drought for the University of San Francisco’s student paper, the Foghorn, how the drought has impacted San Francisco. My answer was that the drought has NOT had an impact. People still turn on their taps and water comes out. They still turn on their irrigation systems to water their lawns and the water flows. They shower and flush toilets and there is no interruption in the water supply.

Californians continue to water not only sidewalks...

Californians continue to water not only sidewalks…

…but also dead grass and streets.

…but also dead grass and streets.

I’m not advocating that water be rationed or water services disrupted. I’m just pointing out that there are obstacles to triggering behavior change. Public Service Announcements, like Conan O’Brien’s “Team Coco water saving tips,” might shift water use among a very small percentage of the population. But by and large it takes more than mere awareness raising to shift people’s behaviors. Pricing, for example, is a pretty powerful “nudge” that I wrote about in “How the California Drought Grew Silverware in Our Garden.”

Reducing water usage is a massive collective action/free rider challenge. As long as people look around and see little change in the way others are using water, they are unlikely to make any changes themselves. The perception is that reducing water use requires a sacrifice, and no one wants to make a sacrifice unless there is some guarantee that we’re all making a sacrifice together. The “free rider” aspect of it is that if I perceive that individuals or institutions elsewhere are making significant reductions in water usage, then I might be inclined to believe that the problem is taken care of and thereby decide personal behavior change is unnecessary.

Organizations like the ALS Association (ALSA) deal with a free rider problem of their own. By their very existence such organizations are perceived by many to be sustained by the support of others and therefore not in need of additional assistance. ALSA has an even bigger challenge. ALS is a rare disease. Getting people whose lives have not been impacted by it, which is most of us, to contribute money to the cause is tricky. And yet the Ice Bucket Challenge has been an unprecedented success, raising more than $50 million so far.

Environmentalists and water conservation officials should learn from the campaign’s successful use of social media, mixed with an element of lighthearted peer pressure, to get people to do something uncomfortable (i.e., donate or dump ice cold water on themselves). As Ask Umbra points out, “most, if not all, of the…brand-new donors probably wouldn’t have opened their wallets without the water stunt part of the challenge grabbing so much attention.” The key to the campaign’s success is not that it’s gotten people to care about ALS but rather the creation of a cultural phenomenon that people want to be part of (or fear being judged by choosing not to be part of).

Giving people an opportunity to have fun while doing “good” is far more effective than asking people to make a sacrifice for an abstract notion of the common good. If water agencies throughout the state could come up with a water conservation equivalent of the Ice Bucket Challenge the results could be pretty powerful. But all the discussion about whether leaky faucets or the Ice Bucket Challenge wastes more water is missing the point, not to mention causing people who are trying to do good to become defensive when their good deeds are criticized.

Both the #droughtshaming hasthag and all the infographics and numbers being tossed around comparing amounts of water required for various activities fail for opposite reasons. The former assumes behavior to be shaped by emotions while the latter assumes rational thinking. People are obviously both emotional and rational decision makers. But the shaming and numbers approaches also fail for the same reason: they assume that emotions and/or reason occur in a vacuum when they actually occur in, and are shaped by, a complicated set of interrelated systems.

When, where, why, and how water is used is a function of how these systems create cultural aesthetics and norms, produce our food, locate our jobs and homes, encourage forms of recreation, and so on. We have to find ways to talk about the cultural and structural forces shaping water use without people feeling defensive. Even just pointing out to a roommate or family member the wastefulness of letting the water run while brushing teeth can be awkward. People get defensive and parry the perceived attack by pointing out the inconsistencies in the behavior of the “accuser.” Or they make the “drop in the bucket” argument which reveals in subtle ways a person’s understanding of their own embeddedness within various systems and their perceived powerlessness to alter these systems.

A systems perspective can defuse these tensions and also be more empowering. Such a perspective allows us to acknowledge that we may be compelled into certain water-using habits by the personal hygiene expectations placed on us by our cultural system. A systems perspective can also acknowledge that the water required to meet our cultural system’s expectations flows to us easily and cheaply because of economic and political systems that have built a water infrastructure allowing us to take the  for granted the availability of water. Frequent showering and lush green lawns emerged as normalized cultural practices within these systems. It’s no surprise, then, that the complexity of these systems produces inconsistencies in our behaviors not unlike the leather-wearing vegetarian. For example, a household might install solar panels to meet its energy needs yet be so bound by the cultural expectation of an immaculate lawn, especially in wealthier suburbs, as to insist on growing grass in a desert.

Thanks for producing renewable energy! But does your lawn know that California is in a drought?

Thanks for producing renewable energy! But does your lawn know that California is in a drought?

Humor can defuse some of these tensions. As a side note, my colleague Marilyn DeLaure has an outstanding piece called “Environmental Comedy: No Impact Man and the Performance of Green Identity” (PDF), which argues that Colin Beavan’s year of “No Impact” living employed comedy as a rhetorical tool that opened up space for us “to see ourselves not as helpless victims in a tragic doomsday scenario, but as imperfect actors who are both guilty contributors to the problem and agents responsible for its amelioration.” In other words, Beavan uses humor to pull back the veil of individualism, revealing that we’re embedded within complex systems that make living with “no impact” impossible. The question of vital importance is how to move from this revelation to meaningful action. Where do we put pressure on the system(s) to begin redirecting them?

However we go about it, we need to get people talking about the drought in new ways. It’s too easy to focus on the immediate urgency of the drought, as if hunkering down now will get us through until things return to “normal.” All the while, climate scientists and meteorologists are suggesting that this might, in fact, be “the new normal,” a world in which human-produced CO2 in the atmosphere is causing disruptions to historically stable climatic and weather patterns. Adaptation to a permanently water-scarce California will require profound system change. What will this mean for agriculture? For how and what we eat? For how we capture and store water? For how we pay for water? For summer traditions like taking kids to water parks? How will we adapt culturally to arrive at new definitions of what constitutes essential and non-essential uses of water?

These are the questions we should be asking and the conversations we should be having if we want to understand how our cultural, agricultural, economic, political, legal and other systems interrelate. And we urgently need to understand this if we intend to transition to a water-scarce future. But it’s hard to initiate these conversations when water still flows uninterrupted from the tap.

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