The behaviourial barriers to going green: Mapping the water crisis


What if this was the last drop?

Humans are made up of over 70% water. Earth is too. On the ‘blue planet’ it’s hard to comprehend that one fifth of the world lives in water-scarce areas. That ¼ of the world’s population face water shortages due to insufficient infrastructure. That over 900 million are without reliable access to water, or that 36 million of those reside in Africa alone.

By 2025 1.8 billion people will face absolute water scarcity; there just won’t be any left. Actually, that’s one of the biggest problems with encouraging pro-environmental behaviours, from basic recycling to restructuring the global outlook on energy. Because of the sheer size of the numbers, the lives at stake, the scope and urgency of the crisis, our minds reel. Behaviouralists call this the neglect of probability, or base-rate fallacy. Our brains have a hard time working it all out, so we tend to ignore it altogether. We fail to appreciate the facts, figures, causes and effects of these global issues in immediate and meaningful ways. Water is the primary way that climate change impacts individuals, economies and our environment. Its effects are shouldered first and foremost by the poor and vulnerable.

As Dan Ariely, among countless others, has noted,

If we searched "the world over for the one problem that would maximize human apathy, it would be global warming."

The crisis of climate and cognition

There are many cognitive biases and behavioural barriers contributing to this. For starters, we’re loss averse. We are far more sensitive to prospective losses than gains. This is particularly when the perceived ‘loss’ - like sacrificing long baths, driving to your neighbourhood store, summers in the Mediterranean or radically changing our consumerist lifestyles – are immediate and felt personally, while the potential gains – such as the sustained survival of our planet – are distant, mostly benefitting others, and uncertain in their extent.

The ambiguity surrounding climate change is another hurdle. There is no set deadline, no frame of reference, no single cause or solution, no clear enemy. It’s amorphous. All of the heuristics that our brain uses to quickly evaluate situations and threats are at a loss. They struggle to see what ‘it’ means to me. While climate change is happening far too rapidly, it is far too slow for our cognition. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to our grey matter as great ‘get-out-of-the-way machines’. We’re incredibly adept at handling immediate threats – like ducking a cricket ball or dodging a punch – but a threat as largescale and ‘slow’ as climate change is almost impossible to grasp.


So, we impose our own rules. This is called confirmation bias. Our thinking is structured in such a way that we tend to seek out information which entrenches our pre-existing beliefs, experiences and prejudices. Even when such ‘confirmations’ are incorrect, occurring at our expense. The availability heuristic also has its part to play. We rely on immediate examples and our own experiences to inform our thinking and acting. There’s a toddler in our temporal lobe telling us that if we can’t see it, it isn’t real.

And, thus, we’re faced with a complex case of cognitive dissonance. We can know that climate change is real, believe with all of our beings in the importance of combatting it, but still at times act, think and feel in direct opposition to this. As humans we tend to have inconsistent attitudes and beliefs, especially when it comes to behavioural change. In fact, risk perception expert Dan Kahan argues that our beliefs on climate change reflect less what we know, than who we are.

Worse still, the same science used to support global warming emphasises our distance from it. Computer calculations projecting centuries in advance, seismic statistics and all of the unknowns (re-)enforce our distance, while emphasising our powerlessness. We struggle to imagine, identify or even empathise with the people who’ll benefit from our pro-environmental behaviours. Like the poor and vulnerable, the not-yet-born, even our future selves. Neurobiologist Janis Dickinson says all of the doomsday talk ends up having the converse effect. Stressing our mortality leads us to deny it. If death, destruction and societal collapse are inevitable, all rules, restraint and pro-environmental, pro-social conscience evaporates into the endless pursuit of immediate gratification.

It’s what ecologist Garett Hardin called the ‘tragedy of the commons’, and what is better known in behavioural science as scarcity effect. When something, like our planet, is held ‘in common’ it is in all of our best interests to conserve and protect it. However, as soon as quantities are on the decline - whether water, shares or concert tickets – their (perceived) value increases and our survival instincts enter overdrive. Our self-interested evolutionary logic tells us to take what we can get, whenever we can get it, whatever the cost. As Tima Bansal says,

“Very few people on this planet want to destroy planet earth. It’s just that our other agendas get in the way”.

If 97% of scientists agree that climate change is real, and happening at an ever-increasing rate, then why do only 69% of the general public? More often than not it is not misinformation or some sinister conspiracy. It’s the curse of our cognition; our inability to understand and act in line with our, and the earth’s, best interests. It’s got a little to do with our over-optimism too. We’re overwhelmingly attuned to optimism, to have an irrational faith in future success. It’s hardwired into our thinking. The connections between our amygdalae – the ‘urgency centres’ of the brain – and our neocortex are a ‘one way street’. While emotional experiences can induce reason and logic, the opposite is almost never true.

Looking local

The water on earth is constant. It cannot be increased or decreased, and it’s hundreds of millions of years old. The same water we drink, swim and bathe in was used by the dinosaurs all those millennia ago. It is also unevenly distributed across space and time. Weather and rainfall patterns have changed throughout the earth’s history. The Sahara, the world’s largest desert covering a third of Africa, was once wet grasslands teeming with wildlife.

Dino bath1
Dino bath1

It’s hard to see the biggest picture, so let’s look a little more local. South Africa is one of the 30 driest countries in the world. We receive, on average, half of the standard rainfall. This means that ordinarily we’re classified as ‘water-stressed’. Now add to this some significant issues with infrastructure and planning. The Department of Water and Sanitation says that 40% of our water infrastructure is in a critical state. Maintenance is over a decade overdue. It’s estimated that we lose 37% of our clean, drinkable water nationally out of leaking pipes and dripping taps. At the best of times, in 115 of our 226 municipalities, 60% of the population do not have access to water on their premises. Coupled with drought, the mismanagement of municipal funds, pollution, rapid population growth, unplanned urbanisation and the destruction of catchment areas, our already ‘stressed’ access to fresh water has been in steady decline. Municipalities around South Africa are starting to run dry, as we saw in Mpumalanga last week.

And, 2016 is far from one of our best. El Niño – a natural phenomenon occurring every 2–7 years for millennia – has been growing increasingly volatile due to manmade climate change. This year is the most powerful since records began. Importantly, this isn’t just a South African problem. ‘Developing’ countries across Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific are facing the same struggle. “From Ethiopia to Haiti to Papua New Guinea, we are seeing the damage from El Niño…To prevent unnecessary deaths and illnesses, governments must invest now in strengthening their preparedness and response efforts.” said Dr Richard Brennan, Director of WHO's Emergency Risk Management & Humanitarian Response Department. Even 60% of European cities in the ‘developed’ world are using groundwater faster than earth can replenish it.

Drought means so much more than no rain. Farmers across South Africa are being crippled by debt and land degradation. There isn’t enough food to be had, locally or for export. Analysts anticipate a food crisis in the country by August this year. While South Africans’ have raised a remarkable R10 million rand for drought relief, according to AgriSA, it’s incomparable to the R16.5 billion needed to stem the crisis. The already embattled South African economy and its people struggle under the weight of rising unemployment, inflation and a shrinking economy.

Hand-in-hand with El Niño is La Nina. But, instead of earth-scouring heat, here come the rains. Great! Not quite… The lack of water is intimately intertwined with its excess. Just as unpredictable, volatile and fierce. When water falls on degraded land it has no chance to soak in, and these short intervals of flooding are rarely enough to return dam levels to normalcy. More often than not they end up breaking river banks and wreaking havoc as we saw in Kwa-Zulu Natal just two weeks ago. ¾ of Africa’s drylands are considered degraded. It’s just a tease, bringing only more social and environmental devastation in its wake.

A rise in water- and vector-borne diseases like cholera, typhoid and malaria; water pollution; further damage to infrastructure; disruptions to health and civil services; mental, emotional and psychosocial ramifications; unemployment and homelessness; wildfires; food insecurity and malnutrition; crime, poverty and social unrest. A lack of dignity, security and opportunity; drought means so, so much more than ‘no water’.

This devastating drought is one of South Africa’s most severe natural disasters in decades. It hasn’t, however, been declared one. Defining the drought as such would necessitate the process of releasing stockpiles of money from the National Disaster Relief Fund, for this very purpose. Or, at least, it should. According to the Medium-term Budget Policy Statement, just over a month ago (31 March) at the end of the financial year, with the drought well underway, all public servants received a 10.1% increase on their salaries. The money, like the water, has run dry.

Without drastic, long-lasting changes to business and individual behaviours, global demand for water will outstrip its supply by 40% in 2030. We’re in the midst of a water crisis. It’s up to our generation to resolve it. It all starts with changing behaviour, with you. In the next post we’ll start to delve into what we can do.

Did you enjoy this post? Sign up for our Being Human Bulletin here.