Katie Kish

Workshop attendee Katie Kish (above) has written today’s blog post about the event

On August 10th and 11th, top scholars in the fields of Terror Management Theory (TMT), water research, and governance gathered to discuss the relevance of emotions in water governance and decision making, and how this might apply to future research. Overall, participants recognized the need for a new approach to water governance that looks beyond the traditional scope of rational change making, instead appealing to more basic and ingrained human conditions related to deep emotions and response to threat. This was a Social Science and Humanities Research Council funded workshop at the Brairhurst Institute in Fergus, ON.

Day One of the workshop focused on the question: “what do we know?”

Thomas Homer-Dixon started the conversation by providing a brief contextual framing of local climate change issues and challenges for the future. Sheldon Solomon and Janis Dickinson set the foundations for the rest of the conversation, both presenting on ‘terror management theory’ (TMT).

Solomon’s argument centred on the idea that the framing of any broad theory of humanity should be grounded in evolutionary terms. He connects this to TMT by reframing Ernest Becker’s work in the Denial of Death with Darwinian evolution. To paraphrase: Living things “like” to stay alive, and as humans we have great physiology and an exceptional brain that allows us to anticipate the future. We are smart enough to appreciate life, and thus, also smart enough for existential angst about that life ending. However, if we dwell on that angst, we become paralysed by ‘terror’. A primary function of culture mitigates these anxieties by giving each person a sense that they are valuable in the universe. Culture becomes a blueprint of reality and, in some cases, a promise of immorality (I.e.: literally in religion or symbolically in a hero project such as a child) distilling fear of death.

Dickinson put this into environmental terms by arguing that climate change is a death prime, triggering both proximal (denying, delaying impacts) and distal (worldview defence, outgroup antagonism) defences. Any future environmental advocacy should avoid triggering these defences. Anne Wilson argued that we can do that by making people feel closer to the future, to help motivate their actions by making environmental issues have more immediate certainty and outcomes.

The discussion that followed immediately turned to ‘positive’ and benign projects that individuals and groups could participate in that are environmentally ‘friendly’, and may also fulfill the individual’s need for belonging and purpose (I.e.: community gardens). However, it was noted that for the past twenty years these projects have been very common. Instead, what change makers may be looking for is a planetary ideological revolution.

What goes into the production of environmental ideology, and what might be the barriers?

Bob Gifford discussed the psychological barriers that limit an individual’s and community’s ability to adapt and respond to environmental issues. These barriers include: a) limited cognition, b) existing ideologies, c) perceived risk, d) costs, e) discredence, f) social comparison, and g) limited behaviour.

Stephen Quilley challenged this by suggesting that these barriers only exist within a commitment to a particular liberal political economy. He argued that we are more constrained by our culture and language. The culture consumed by rational deliberation no longer works as it continues the pattern set in the industrial revolution – strip mining ontological frameworks. There is nothing that pulls people together, no community or theology, and all that is left is “stuff”.  Quilley argued that we could tap into the psychological arguments presented in TMT to make change by bringing back ritual. Rituals can change patterns of thought and behaviour. However, introducing ritual into a rationalised world presents obvious and difficult challenges.

This line of reasoning opened up a number of questions, such as: what kinds of emotions should we illicit? Who decides on the emotions? Who should be deciding? How do you convince people that emotions and ritual are valid? How do you avoid triggering too many negative emotions and creating resistant participants? Is it possible to regulate emotions? How do you avoid the negative implications of ritualistic behaviour while still instilling ritual? While water triggers emotions, Wolfe (with agreement from others) hypothesizes that fear arising from death anxiety is a key emotion with important influences, and also that water threat could have implications for death anxiety.

After presentations on the inaction of water governance, there was a growing consensus that emotions and appealing to deeper aspects of human psychology are necessary for the future – that researchers need to go beyond rational explanations normally used. When applied to water, since the industrial revolution citizens were stripped of their access and relationship to water. Water became another highly mechanised and state-controlled resource. From here, a possible point for further research is in the ‘re-enchantment’ of water and the ‘giving back’ of water to people.

This draws out the tension between governance of water and the desires and needs of individuals – there seems to be a disconnect. Identity is a core component of agency, which helps create meaningful actors, however governance systems tend not to operate on a level suitable for individual identity and agency. Scaling down raised concern for how to preserve the modern liberal project in a time of resource constrains, which, in the past, has led to authoritarian tendencies.

There is a clear relationship between issues of ontology, identity, agency, and action, and also an agreement that water is special enough to be a point of departure among that relationship. Water possesses aesthetic, psychological, and biological power. It is a powerful emotional trigger and one of the most fundamental necessities of life. It also became clear that threats towards water are a great equalizer – threatening urban communities in Vancouver, wild-west Albertans, and community oriented Elora folks. The struggle for, and attention on, water is sure to rapidly increase in all cases – it was agreed that this made the work important and should be highlighted in applications and writing for future work.

On Day 2, the attendees broke off into smaller groups with varied disciplines and stages of work/career. Their task was to consider ‘how we can use what the group knows to structure a compelling, interdisciplinary research program’. Groups were asked to think about what would be an interesting research project based on the previous day’s outcomes and discussions. In five broad categories, the following outlines the outcomes from the group discussions:

  1. Social Contexts

The role of various social categories within the context of water, emotion, and cognition, i.e.: gender, activists. How do various groups regulate emotions in ways that are, or are not, helpful. Researchers may find that these groups are motivated by emotion, but can’t compete with data.

  1. Worldviews

How do different worldviews consider the issues and ideas discussed on Day 1. For instance, when people are all in a room together, they may have heightened and individual worldviews. It would be interesting to explore the kinds of social and cultural norms that exist around emotional expression.

  1. Group Decision Making and Scaling Up

How might mortality salience influence larger group decision making? How do the experiences of an individual influence the mortality salience of someone around them? Participants also thought it would be interesting to explore whether mortality salience and the effects of TMT are just for individuals or if they can be explored by scaling up to an organizational level. Achieving this may include exploring mission statements, company practices, and the potential correlation between authority and exhibiting less emotion and using emotions for decision making.

  1. Lab Testing

Lab testing will demonstrate more quantitative data around responses to squandered water, and dire water situation, and also estimating water quality at different threat levels. Further research on the outcomes of the lab testing may prompt potential options for promoting positive behaviour change. Lab testing could further explore issues by change the framing of water issues such as water as life giving vs. death association or simply as a resource.

  1. The Specialness of Water

The focus on water as a special part of humanity could be explored. Researchers could demonstrate the emotionality of water and how people respond to water issues versus different kinds of disasters. Outcomes might show that water issues such as drought initiative illicit more mortality salience than a technological or economic disaster.