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Interdisciplinary research involves variety: on a given day, I may be analyzing the emotional tone of a political speech in the morning, researching urban water systems in the afternoon, and writing about death after dinner. For the last five years, my research team has specifically explored how psychological defenses, triggered by one’s mortality awareness, influence water decisions at different scales and locations. These defensive responses help explain the paradoxical decisions many of us make about water. Most North Americans value clean water but still buy bottled water of lower quality than what comes from our taps. We lament water shortages but still water our lawns during a drought. On a societal level, we continue to be poorly prepared for urban flooding and undertake massive water infrastructure projects without considering all the consequences. Even well-educated water experts tend to support the status quo or doggedly define themselves according to their preferred water ‘hero projects’.

While water science is predictable, the water decisions that people make are full of contradictions. This work has taught me is that it is absolutely essential that researchers get beyond individuals’ fear defenses. Not doing so presents a real risk that those defenses could become entrenched within a person’s sense of self and become ever more intractable. The higher those defences get, the harder it is for our polarized society to resolve the immense local, regional and international water challenges facing us today.

As a researcher, environmentalist, citizen and parent, I know that we cannot lessen peoples’ fear by highlighting doomsday scenarios, nor by minimizing or rationalizing environmental or water problems. Instead, we need something greater than grim statistics and fear. Societies need a ‘powerful something’ to move beyond fear and generate substantive changes to our environmental and water behaviours. I propose that the ‘powerful something’ to change environmental and water behaviours could be awe – an emotion equivalent to, or perhaps even far stronger than, fear. But how do we develop a sense of awe for something as common as water? One way to rekindle mystery and spark awe about the natural world is ritual. My early research suggests that accepted and sustained water rituals could reinforce participants’ environmental identities and inspire bolder action on behalf of the environment.

Time is short. As the recent global Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (2018) report reminds us, new responses to environmental crises are urgently needed. My ongoing research will concurrently identify whether awe could be that ‘powerful something’ to influence water decisions; assess the trans-disciplinary methods and empirical data necessary to test this hypothesis; and critically, connect these insights to the conventional water management community. Meaningful responses to the environment must move beyond academic circles to actual decision makers. By linking conversion theory, ritual studies and awe emotions with water decisions, we hope to answer a pressing question:  How can we motivate people to make better water decisions during a time of growing environmental uncertainty and fears for our shared future?

Further Reading:

Chirico, A. and A. Gaggioli (2018). Awe: “More than a Feeling”. The Humanistic Psychologist. 46(3): 274-280.

Grimes, R.L. (2014). The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018). Global Warming of 1.5 degrees: Summary for Policymakers. Retrieved from: http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf. Accessed October 29, 2018.

Jenkins, W., E. Berry, L.B. Kreider (2018). Religion and Climate Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 43(9): 9-24.

McGrath, A. (2002). The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis. New York, NY: Doubleday Religious Publishing.

Shaw, S. and A. Francis (2008). Chapter 1: Entering sacred space. In: Shaw, S. and A. Francis (Eds). Deep Blue: Critical reflections on nature, religion and water. Equinox Publishing, New York, NY.

USGCRP (2018). Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.