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Contributing to Drought Management Through Understanding Factors Influencing Human Conservation Behavior

Category: Research
Status:  Current

Contact:  Joanna Endter-Wada
Funding Organization:  Utah State University

Subject:  drought management, water conservation
Category:  Research
Data Type:  Water Quantity

Abstract:  Drought management and the long-term sustainability of expanding populations living in arid regions of the Western United States require that we have a better understanding of the factors influencing human behaviors toward the environment, more generally, and toward water as a critical and limited resource. Promoting water conservation is important not only in urban environments, but is important for addressing ecological, recreation, and aesthetic concerns and the needs of rural communities. Water shortages and water quality issues are global, not simply local. Understanding water conservation behaviors is part of the key to promoting the efficient and equitable allocation of water and the maintenance of water quality.

Scientists focused on understanding human populations (“human scientists,” meaning policy, economic, social, and cultural scientists of various stripes) have attempted to explain “conservation behavior” (or “environmentally-friendly behavior”) in relation to recycling, resource conservation (e.g., conserving water, electricity, and fossil fuels), purchasing “green products,” and interactions with specific aspects of the natural world (e.g., animals, unique landforms, and rare species). Human scientists have looked at a variety of factors, including attitudes, values, knowledge, demographics, motivations (including various internal and external incentives and disincentives, concerns for environmental quality, social pressure, altruism, and convenience), and contextual factors (e.g., “crisis response”) as possible predictors of conservation behavior. None of these factors have been particularly successful at explaining the full range of variability in conservation behaviors. A more complete understanding of conservation behaviors has direct implications for the potential success of programs designed to encourage resource conservation. The potential efficacy of utilizing education, pricing mechanisms, other types of economic incentives, regulatory approaches, and/or combinations of these approaches for encouraging conservation behavior is hotly debated among human scientists and policy makers.

The literature suggests and we are convinced that conservation behavior is the result of a complex mix of factors that can only be understood by addressing the problem in an interdisciplinary fashion. First of all, there is a need for human scientists to synthesize the findings on conservation behavior from their various disciplines. In this regard, two areas of inquiry deserve more attention: investigating the formation of habits whereby conservation becomes instilled and results in longer-term lifestyle changes; and, recognizing and addressing the scale question in human decision-making that greatly influences people’s ability to engage in behaviors consistent with their values, knowledge, motivations, etc. (humans participate in decision-making as individuals, members of households, members of groups, employees in workplaces and institutions, and citizens of communities and larger polities).

Secondly, there is a need for human scientists to work more closely with scientists from the physical, ecological, and engineering sciences to understand conservation behavior. Several interesting and potentially fruitful areas of inquiry into conservation behavior relate specifically to the way in which people’s interaction with and knowledge of the natural environment is meditated by the technology that they use (in one recent article, this is referred to as the “social-technical landscape”) and the role that designers and devices play in the use of everyday items and, therefore, behaviors. A line of inquiry that USU researchers Endter-Wada, Kjelgren, and Neale are pursuing in relation to urban landscape water use is revealing that the irrigation system itself is the biggest predictor of landscape water use. Applying water to urban landscapes is a complex system involving the interaction of soil type, plant ecology, irrigation technology, and human factors that have not been well researched in the past and deserve further attention.

Organizations:   Utah State University