Ancient societies tended to view water with sacred respect. Water was revered as a source of life, generative power, and new creation. A common emotional response to these mysteries was awe, as seen in the use of water in early religious rites and ceremonies. Fear and trembling were just as common. Seas were unpredictable and treacherous towards sailors. Many religions give accounts of a great worldwide flood. Water was both reviled and revered, but it was almost never taken for granted.
The Scientific Revolution and subsequent Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed our societies’ ideas about water. Suddenly nature was separated from culture, and this split shifted the value of nature and our responses to it. No longer was nature indicative of a powerful Divine; it was merely the raw materials for human consumption. Water lost its lustre and mystery when simply a component part in complex industrial processes.
As scientific advances continued, our views of water became even more secular. The microscope allowed us to see the life that exists within water (e.g., bacteria) which led to Germ Theory and evolutionary discussions. Powerful new water-based technologies such as steam trains and water-wheels spread across Europe, North America, Western Asia, and India. Our articulation of the hydrological cycle helped to explain natural processes such as temperature, weather, plant growth, and water movement. Weather and water were now ‘mechanized’ processes understood through scientific techniques rather than spiritual forces.
The Industrial Revolution also triggered major social upheavals and unprecedented human migrations. Farm labour became increasingly mechanized, decreasing peoples’ abilities to stay on their agricultural land. With rapid urbanization, city residents became less connected to nature, but had a growing expectation of reliable water services such as taps and toilets at home. Urban water and wastewater infrastructure struggled to meet this fast-growing demand. The unfortunate consequence was massive disease outbreaks, such as cholera pandemics in the 1850s. In response, governments began large-scale public works to fulfill their water and wastewater responsibilities. Throughout these developments, the tone of our relationship with water was one of human control and mastery.
While even ancient societies, such as the Roman Empire, sought to control water, what changed in the modern age was the disconnect of Divine from nature; the speed and scale of interventions; and the geographic extent of water control efforts. By the late 1800s, controlling the water cycle – in all of its stages – for human benefit became the dominant paradigm. Gone were the days of sacred respect towards water and the associated emotions of reverence, fear, and awe.
Once severed from the Divine, societies’ contemporary water relationship has been predictable. Research from sociology, geography, political science, hydrology, and civil engineering all show that human societies dominate, consume, and pollute their water supplies. Until the 1970s environmental movement, the fundamental norms of a dysfunctional and inequitable relationship between humans and nature/water went largely unquestioned.
At the same time, hints of a desire to uphold water reverence remain. Millions of Catholics visit Lourdes annually, dipping in spring-fed pools. Hindu purification festivals and funerals take place on the Ganges River. Many Muslims and Jews practice daily or monthly ablutions with water. These religious practices represent a scholarly blind spot in water research, especially when it comes to understanding how people change their water interactions and habits. We have ample evidence to show that attempts to change people’s water behaviours that rely exclusively on facts and logic fail to be persuasive. We also have broad documentation about the ways that religion or spirituality influences our fundamental relationships with nature. But these two puzzle pieces have not been snapped together.
Water decisions are still being made from the dominant paradigm of the industrial revolution: human mastery and domination. To move beyond this paradigm for the good of the global ecosystem, we need to uncover the real motivators of human behavior. The connections between water, spirituality and behaviour go largely ignored – and untapped – in conventional water policy and research discussions. I am not suggesting that societies rewind to the pre-scientific era. But if we could somehow renew our reverence for water, would that change water behaviours in ways that are pro-environmental? Would a greater sense of awe be more effective in scaling up our global response to water problems?
These questions are typically ruled out in water management discussions. Exploring how reverence for water could be regenerated or empirical measurements of awe seem well beyond the horizon of ‘acceptable’ water scholarship. This assumption should be challenged. If hard facts alone do not change human behaviour towards the environment, we should also explore the role of culture, religion and emotions. Further research about reverence and awe may yield new insights that fundamentally change the trajectory of future water policies. If the current paradigm isn’t working, perhaps it’s time to reawaken awe.
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Strang, V. (2004). The Meaning of Water. New York: Berg Publishers.
Strang, V. (2015). Water: Nature and Culture. Reaktion Books
Tvedt, T. and E. Jakobsson (2006). Introduction: Water History is World History. In: T. Tvedt and E. Jakobsson (Eds). A History of Water: Water Control and River Biographies. I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd. New York.
Tvedt, T. and Østigård, T. (Eds) (2010). Nature deconstructed – a history of the ideas of water. In Ideas of water: From ancient societies to the modern world, vol. I, History of Water, Series II. London: IB Tauris/New York: MacMillan.