Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Drought anxiety

"California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?" This was the *slightly* provocative title of an LA Times op-ed written by Jay Famiglietti, a UC Irvine hydrologist currently at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. He has since said that the title was not accurate, asking that people read the article itself.* Unfortunately, judging from a lot of my conversations, it was hard for many to read past the fold.

Today, Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a pretty irreverent (as is his style -- big fan) article on what he is calling "California Water Anxiety Syndrome:"
that sinking feeling to trump all sinking feelings, that sour knot in the pit of the collective stomach, unnerving and strange and, let’s just admit, unutterably depressing.
Needing new terminology for these changing times hearkens to the beautiful article from Robert Macfarlane on "rewilding our language of landscape," and is something I deeply appreciate. At the same time, I can't actually fully read the Morford article because he goes on to give many scary bits of knowledge, all culminating in relating California drought to the apocalyptic end of an ancient people. While he is expressing something very real about the general sort of anxiety about the drought, which has been even more deeply triggered by the LA Times headline, reading it necessitates horror-movie style covered eyes.

I recently wrote an article about the psychology of waiting based on the research of UC Riverside psychology professor Kate Sweeny. Her work on waiting for uncertain outcomes (particularly difficult medical diagnoses) is relevant to understanding how anxiety comes into play as we "wait for rain." For example, she and her colleagues have found that, in general, people tend switch between optimism and pessimism in order to prepare for uncertain outcomes. She referred to work indicating that some people are "strategic optimists" while others are "defensive pessimists." All of this leads to very different styles in what resonates with people -- some may be motivated by fear, others... not so much.

No doubt articles like both Famiglietti's and Morford's come from a place of deep care for the world. Yet, they may lead to the opposite of their hoped-for actions with some segments of the population.

The kind of work Sweeny does is important because it leads the way toward understanding how psychology impacts our interactions around natural resource issues. My hope that in trying times we can choose to communicate about complex environmental issues with a deeper psychological awareness. While inducing anxiety is one way to start a conversation, it's not the only option.

*Update (3/20/15): The LA Times has a new headline out: "No, California won't run out of water in a year." Seriously, some of the coverage of California drought would make for a pretty fascinating science communication thesis.

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1 comment:

  1. Whatever the task might be. For me it's a feeling of needing it to be here now so that I can tick it off the list and move on to the next irrational fear. natural