S.E. (Sarah) Wolfe, Ph.D.

I am an Associate Professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS, formerly ERS) at the University of Waterloo. My Post Doctoral research was completed in ERS at the University of Waterloo. My PhD (2007) is from the University of Guelph’s Department of Geography, MA from the University of Toronto’s collaborative program in Political Science and Environmental Studies, and a BA from the University of Guelph’s International Development program (Biophysical Environment). As part of my undergraduate program, I studied at the University of Haifa through their English-language program.

Below, you will find the description of my research program as it has evolved over time. There are three key points to keep in mind as you read the academic bumpf:

First, I’m a ‘water person’ to the core. I’ve been fascinated/obsessed by water issues since childhood. My grandfather built wooden sailboats for fun and some of my earliest memories are sailing with him. Even today, if I’m not researching water, I want to be on, in or near water. Second, I’m constitutionally incapable of working within disciplinary boundaries. I’m a pragmatist and willing to poach ideas from any discipline that offers useful insights or methods.  And third, the thing that drives me to research and teach every single day is that I’m worried about the world the children — yours, mine, theirs — will inherit. I talk about ‘hero projects’ in my research: figuring out why we — as individuals and as a society — make the decisions we do about water is my hero project. If we can figure out water — something so essential to our very existence — then maybe, just maybe….


I consider myself to be a highly interdisciplinary, pragmatic scholar with expertise in:

• affective (emotional) drivers of climate change and water resource decisions;
• water, wastewater, and climate communications; and
• the technical, policy and governance dynamics of urban water and wastewater management.

Working from the individual to societal scales, I understand planetary health as arising from well-functioning homeostatic mechanisms (ecological, economic, and social) operating well inside recognized planetary boundaries. I focus on individuals’ psychological/emotional responses to their circumstances, because those responses—expressed through beliefs, values, norms, and powerful worldviews—are inextricably linked to planetary health.

From this position, I draw on insights from social and environmental psychology, sociology, cognitive-affective sciences, communications studies, and water and environmental governance. While I have completed some work on gender, mentorship, and equity issues in water research and policy communities, my primary focus has been on the global crises and local opportunities associated with water.

I argue that because water is essential to our physiological and ecological health, along with our dynamic cultural existence, an ability to address water problems is a key indicator of our capacity to address the larger range of climate-related challenges. Water is thus a test case for how we will grapple with the other climate issues that have such dire implications for our global community’s broader health and well-being.


My new research on awe and water was funded through a two-year SSHRC Insight Development grant (2019) while my ongoing mortality fear and water decisions is supported by a four-year SSHRC Insight grant (2018). Doctoral research on gender, mortality awareness and water technology is supported by the University of Waterloo’s HeforShe Gender Equity Research grant. My previous work on ‘water cognition’ was funded by a SSHRC Insight Development grant (2012) and then a SSHRC Connection (2014) grant.  Earlier research on gender and water careers is supported by a SSHRC Standard Research (2011) grant.

My doctoral research was supported by SSHRC (three-year) doctoral fellowship and the International Development Research Centre (two-year) Window on International Development awards.

With the ink is dry on my tenure letter, my next adventure will be to start fundraising to support a “Centre for Environment and Emotion Research”. True, the name needs work… but the idea and research opportunities are very exciting.


I have published in the academic, industry and general press:

For more details, please refer to my cv and professional profiles at the University of Waterloo, ResearchGate and on Academia.edu.

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I view the water-and-society relationship as a complex interaction over time, space and culture. Water decisions represent how societies and individuals understand these relationships and are also indicative of what societies prioritize and value.  For example, individual and policy decisions around water efficiency reflect economic, ethical and social values as well as engineering history and an anthropogenic perspective on the environment.  Similarly, the inclusion or exclusion of some types of knowledge or some stakeholder groups can reflect power structures, gender and cultural norms, and dominant or diverging worldviews about the nature of science.