Today is World Water Day, an international event to celebrate and highlight freshwater issues. This year’s theme is wastewater – the sullied water that flows down our drains and is flushed from our toilets. In Victoria, the recent decision to provide tertiary treatment of Mr. Floatie before he’s dumped in the ocean is a wastewater win by conventional standards.
I’m an outsider to the Victoria wastewater discussion, but I have connections to the community. And because I lecture on urban water systems and research water decision processes, I’ve followed the discussion with interest. Each side has its science and experts; underlying motivations have been questioned and heated arguments made. Those arguing against tertiary treatment have made valid points about expense and carbon costs; they’ve also adhered to the entrenched perspective that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” By 2014, the outcry at public meetings suggested that NIMBYism was destined to derail a 21st-century sewage treatment plan for one of Canada’s great coastal cities.
Three years later a wastewater treatment plant is set for Esquimalt. The decision is a victory for those who argued that it’s unethical to use nature as a sewage dump. Yet if we’re to learn from this experience, we need to step back from the specific positions and look at this sewage situation from a different perspective. Let’s start with Mr. Floatie.
Mr. Floatie is a life-sized, non-odiferous – I’m assuming – costumed person representing a human poop. He’s magnificent for generating candid photos, punchy headlines and schoolyard jokes. But more deeply, Mr. Floatie represents an undeniable and uncomfortable truth: that we humans are defecating animals. And Mr. Floatie is particularly potent because he operates at two psychological levels: not only does poop remind it us of our “creatureliness”, it also reminds us of disease and death, because we know sewage carries bacteria that can contaminate our food and water.
Recognizing these things means acknowledging our physicality, our vulnerability and, most fundamentally, our mortality. Since the 1990s, social psychology researchers have been testing whether we change our behaviour when we’re made aware of our mortality. They’ve found that our efforts to block or repress conscious and unconscious fears about death produce consistent and predicable responses.
When we’re reminded of our inevitable mortality, we tend to strengthen our existing opinions of what is right or good in the world, increase our efforts to secure social recognition by bolstering our self-esteem (see: Trump), and actively distance ourselves from the animal kingdom by avoiding visceral reminders of creatureliness such as poop.
Evidence suggests that mortality awareness, and our efforts to suppress that awareness, also influences our water decisions.
For example, many people consume bottled water despite it being more environmentally damaging, much more expensive, and often subject to less stringent testing and regulation than tap water. A recent University of Waterloo analysis of bottled-water advertisements showed that consuming bottled water might help alleviate unconscious death fears. Perceived as a product that sustains our health and active lifestyles, bottled water allows us to push death into the future. It simultaneously reinforces our self-esteem and cultural worldviews when advertisements connect it to medical professionals, beautiful people and wealthy celebrities.
As a society, water infrastructure –including dams and urban pipe systems – ensures water supply security and symbolizes our dominance over nature. Our preference for wastewater treatment, which allows us to push away our bodies’ filth, evolved from repeated the cholera epidemics of 1800s Europe, the rise of Germ Theory and improvements in the microscope. Treating our wastewater not only keeps us healthy, it also helps to make our creatureliness invisible, further minimizing our mortality awareness.
So Mr. Floatie gets a wastewater treatment plant and our mortality awareness is suppressed. But climate change’s unprecedented impacts on ecosystems and societies will mean new water challenges for Victoria. Globally and locally, there will be no shortage of potential mortality reminders. Deadly droughts parching agricultural crops, inducing food shortages and hunger; flooded rivers and stormwater overwhelming urban infrastructure and causing life loss; projections of rising sea levels threatening coastal cities and communities; 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, whether people directly experience climate events or just read the media coverage.
These mortality reminders will make the Mr. Floatie debate a story from a gentler, more optimistic age. But as we prepare for that future, it’s time to recognize how our mortality fears and psychological defenses subtly, deeply and persistently influence our decisions and behaviours about water and how we use it.