October 02, 2014

Social Interaction and Drought Shaming

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

There is currently a severe drought in California, and this summer new rules went into effect to conserve water. For instance, a water feature (like a fountain) must re-circulate the same water. You cannot hose down the sidewalk, nor can you wash your car with a hose that doesn’t have a shutoff nozzle. Your lawn cannot be watered between 9 am and 5 pm (to limit evaporation). A violation of these new rules could result in a $500 ticket.

Authorities can’t possibly police every violation, so they are hoping that the public helps by complying and asking neighbors to comply. In response, a Twitter hashtag #droughtshaming has emerged to embarrass people caught needlessly wasting water. Tweets range from photos of neighbors overwatering their lawns to puddles in parking lots and public fountains. Perhaps the biggest example of drought shaming was the backlash to the recent “ice bucket challenge,” where people challenged others to dump a bucket of ice over their heads and post a video or photo to raise awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Critics argued that this was a waste of water, albeit for a good cause.

Drought shaming—or any kind of shaming, for that matter— is a good example of an attempt at informal social control. Formal rules or laws, such as the new laws about water mentioned above, can be hard to enforce. Informal social control shapes our behavior through interactions with people around us. For instance, someone might follow the rules about watering their lawn only during 5 pm and 9 am to avoid the disapproval of others. Trinity-Lake-drought-04Feb2014

Source: http://ca.water.usgs.gov/data/drought/images/carousel/Trinity-Lake-drought-04Feb2014.jpg

Attempts at direct drought shaming can backfire if people feel directly criticized; they might dig in their heels and refuse to change their behavior. By the same token, confronting a water violator can feel confrontational.

While walking in my neighborhood recently, I saw a gardener hosing down a sidewalk to clean up leaves and blossoms that fell from nearby trees. Should I say something, I thought? Do I take a picture and “drought shame” him? I thought that since it wasn’t his property (there was a landscaping truck he was clearly taking equipment from rather than a garage), he may not have chosen to water down the sidewalk, but was told to do so by an employer and didn’t want to jeopardize the income by refusing. I’m not big on confrontation so I walked away; one of the limitations of informal social control can be politeness, when we don’t want to be rude so we ignore a violation of a formal or informal rule.

There are alternatives, such as contacting the local Department of Water and Power (which happens to have a facility a block away from my home) and letting them know when and where violations occur. Before issuing a citation they typically leave a written warning for people, reminding them  about the new rules.

Drought shaming and other attempts at informal social control rely on social interaction, specifically our desire to seek the approval of others. If we don’t particularly care if others like us or approve of us we might not alter our behavior.

Many people might claim that they are independent and don’t care what others think of them. This might be true if the people are strangers and their interactions aren’t face to face. Some of the #droughtshaming Twitter posts are downright nasty, including language that many people might not use in an in-person conversation. The internet provides a layer of anonymity that inhibits informal social control, and thus might make #droughtshaming less effective.

But if close friends or family members suggest that we change our water use behavior, those tips on how to better conserve water might be better received. (For instance, we let water run into a bucket as it heats up in the shower, from which we water our plants. We’ve shared this idea with neighbors and gotten their ideas as well.)

How effective do you think #droughtshaming might be? It helps to raise awareness about the new rules and provides examples of what not to do for others. I’m not sure if the “shamed” have changed their behavior though.

How else might informal social control help people conserve water?


$500 fines are brutal for people living paycheck to paycheck and simply annoying for the well-off. It would be worth seeing if there is a disparity in how fines are administered.

#droughtshaming encourages people to mind each other's business in ways that bring out the worst in everyone involved. Further, how much water can #droughtshaming conserve compared to other methods of educating the public? Are there other methods of strengthening communal bonds and communal identity that would foster compliance with water-use regulations?

I think droughtshaming goes a little overboard. It reminds me of Nazi Germany when good people took on the huge responsibility of hiding Jews that they had known forever. They were risking their lives to save people. And one person who maybe heard of someone doing this would tell the authorities and all heck would break loose. Of course I am using an extreme example, but when the drought continues, violations will get more expensive and there will be larger fines to pay. I’m not saying that these people who are watering their concrete shouldn’t stop, but what I am saying is that we have to stop looking at what others do and just look in our own backyard to see what we can do to save water.
I think it’s terrible for neighbors to tell on each other. Why can’t we just put restrictions on ourselves and not others? Can’t we talk our neighbors and let them know another way instead of telling on our neighbors? Why can’t we try this first?

Godwin's Law acheived in two comments. Impressive.

Southern Utah faces many of the same drought problems as Southern California. What the state can’t afford to do, however, is to follow California’s misguided solutions.

how to gain followers on twitter

this will protect misuse of water

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