California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
University of California
California Institute for Water Resources

A social ecological perspective on water issues

Adoption of home water reuse technologies can contribute to multi-scale environmental sustainability efforts. Photo by Jennifer C./Flickr Creative Commons license.

Dan Stokols is Chancellor's Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in environmental psychology, social ecology, team science, and transdisciplinary public health.

You've got a new book out on social ecology. Can you tell us more about social ecological approaches?

My new book Social Ecology in the Digital Age identifies core principles of social ecological research and traces the history of research in biological, human, and social ecology. I apply the core principles to the challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century with chapters on promoting personal and public health, resolving complex social problems, managing global environmental change, and designing resilient and sustainable communities. There's also a chapter devoted to educational strategies for training the next generation of social ecologists, organized around the “4Ts” of contemporary research: transdisciplinary, team-based, translational, and transcultural approaches.

I have tried in my book to bring together several different “schools” or traditions of ecological research and to identify shared, over-arching assumptions. In the past, alternative perspectives on ecology have remained siloed and isolated from each other, so one of my goals in writing the book was to offer a more unified and integrated conception of the field.

My book explicitly emphasizes a new sphere of environmental influence on human health, behavior, and sustainability—namely, the cybersphere, or mélange of digital technologies that includes everything from the Internet to smart phones to cryptocurrencies. The rapid proliferation of these technologies since the 1980s onward have reshaped the ways in which people relate to their environment. So my book takes a close look at the interdependencies between our natural, social, built, and virtual surroundings and the myriad ways they jointly influence our day-to-day activities.

The history of social ecology

The term ecology was coined by German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel, in the mid-1800s. He defined ecology as the study of organisms' relationships with their environments. Haeckel conducted field observations of how plants and animals adapt to the immediate surroundings of their habitat or biome. His pioneering research was extended in important new directions by his contemporary, Charles Darwin, who proposed a theory of natural selection explaining how plants and animals that are best able to adapt to environmental constraints are more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass along their traits to future generations.

In the early 1920s, a group of sociologists at the University of Chicago began to apply Darwin's ideas about natural selection and the struggle for existence to their analyses of human communities. They studied the distribution of behavioral and health disorders across different spatial zones and neighborhoods in the city of Chicago. The “Chicago School” of human ecologists, as they came to be known, saw the economic system as the arena in which humans compete for scarce resources like social status and material wealth. Their research was rooted primarily in the fields of biology, geography, sociology and economics, but gave less attention to other disciplines concerned with human-environment relationships such as psychology, architecture, urban planning, public policy, philosophy, ethics, and law.

Efforts to develop broader understandings of people's transactions with their everyday environments spawned new lines of ecological inquiry under the banner of social ecology. Social ecologists began to tackle issues that had been neglected by the Chicago School Human Ecologists—for instance, the importance of regulatory policies as a basis for curbing unhealthful patterns of resource consumption and for countering societal problems like environmental injustice, economic inequality, racial prejudice, inter-group conflict, and threats to the biosphere posed by pollution, climate change, and destruction of the earth's ozone layer.

An important goal of my research in social ecology is to connect different levels of environmental influence on our behavior and well-being, including our interactions with local settings such as homes, workplaces, and neighborhoods as well as the impact of macro-scale events at community, regional, national, and global levels. This multi-scale approach to social ecology means that the complex problems we're facing in the 21st Century, like promoting a more sustainable future and protecting our biosphere, will depend on how well we're able to combine multi-level initiatives aimed at resolving these challenges.

For instance, individuals' adoption of sustainable behaviors and lifestyles can be encouraged by environmental stewardship and educational programs within schools and neighborhoods that nurture sustainability values. At household and organizational levels, residents and business managers can be encouraged to install solar energy systems at home and at work, and municipalities can allocate funding to support neighborhood recycling programs.

At the state level, California law now requires that solar energy systems be installed in all new housing. That's an example of how a state-wide initiative can compensate for the fact that a lot of climate change action previously supported by the U.S. government has now been halted by Environmental Protection Agency and other branches of the current administration. And even though the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, most other members of the United Nations are continuing to participate in this important international treaty. When multi-scale initiatives are combined across local to global levels, substantial progress toward achieving sustainability goals is more likely to be achieved.

What kind of unique insights might a social ecology perspective give us about the management of water resources in California?

When it comes to water, people's acceptance of conservation strategies—like using gray water in municipal water distribution systems--is key. These are attitudinal and cultural issues that will need to shift if we're going to progress toward a more sustainable future. Using negative emotional messages like fear or shame to persuade people to conserve water can work to a point, but they often have boomerang effects and people end up reacting negative ways, like becoming passive or resentful. Social psychological studies of fear-arousing communications suggest that the effectiveness of persuasive messages depends on the level of fear induced and whether individuals are given practical recommendations for reducing their fear. In the public health field, when trying to get people to make appointments for cancer screenings, some messages use moderate levels of fear combined with very specific instructions about where to go to get a screening exam. That type of messaging can be successful, but needs to be applied carefully.

There are a number of other communication strategies that have been found to be effective. For example, research has shown that framing climate change issues in terms of their human health impacts enables people to see the links between environmental changes and their own well-being. Making social norms salient to people also can be a very effective communication strategy. One study looked at hotel room towel reuse and compared a few different messages that were printed on cards attached to towel racks in the restroom. One message urged guests to re-use their towels during their hotel stay to help conserve energy and protect the environment. Another stated that reusing towels would enable the hotel to make a contribution to a water conservation fund. And one of the messages simply shared the information that 75 percent of customers who had stayed in that room had reused their towels while they were at the hotel. That last one had nothing to do with the norm of environmental protection, but it increased guests' awareness of a “socially descriptive norm” – i.e., information about what other guests had done in the same situation. And it turned out to be the most effective because it informed people about where they stood relative to others like themselves.

Your book has a big focus on the digital age. How does that come into play?

Almost 20 years ago I wrote a piece on how the Internet was affecting psychological development and social behavior. I've also done studies on what I call the “environmental psychology of the Internet”, like the impacts of information overload on people's health and the influence of social media on their interpersonal relationships. So many benefits and conveniences are provided to us by our digitally connected world, but our increasing reliance on cyber technologies is placing new demands on us--like fragmenting our attention while we try to cope with an onslaught of digital communications, and reducing our opportunities to engage in deep contemplation for extended periods off-line.

The profound impacts of the cybersphere on the natural environment is something I learned more about as I worked on my book over the past few years. People are often unaware of the relationships between their virtual and the natural surroundings, but they're very intimately linked. The cybersphere - which includes numerous technologies like the Internet of Things “cloud” servers, and pluggable devices such as computers and smart phones – is consuming huge amounts of electrical energy for things like cooling and powering immense data centers. Currencies like Bitcoin are soaking up more and more of that energy use. According to some estimates, cyber technologies will account for more than 50 percent of the Earth's energy use and nearly 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Those are staggering estimates and although we may not see the connection between cyber technologies, resource conservation, and environmental quality, it's having a tremendous and growing impact on the quality of our lives and our prospects for achieving a more sustainable future at local and global levels.

What do you find most exciting about your current work?

I've been committed to interdisciplinary and social ecological ways of viewing the world because I think they're an antidote to the bias and negative behaviors that come about when people don't think broadly across disciplinary, cultural, and national boundaries. Different disciplines and communities see problems differently and being open to diverse knowledge cultures is valuable. And, it's not only being interdisciplinary, it's also being trans-epistemic, meaning scholars and community partners combine their academic and non-academic perspectives as they work together to solve complex societal and global problems.

For example, I worked with academic and community colleagues in studying a Hispanic-majority community in Los Angeles located near one of the largest waste disposal sites in the U.S.. The LA Regional Planning Department told the residents that they shouldn't worry about environmental contaminants from the waste dump, because environmental testing showed that they were under the threshold for carcinogens according to public health mandated standards. But the residents have been living with foul odors from the waste site for several years and they've had high rates of respiratory and asthma problems.

So it's not just cancer risks, they're experiencing all kinds of other health problems and they're worried about their kids' health as well. On top of that, there are a lot of governmental agency messages and legal rulings that are released from time to time about their community, and many of those have only been available in English, which is a distinct disadvantage of non-English speaking Hispanic residents. If environmental quality assays focus narrowly on the health effects of single pollutant, they might erroneously conclude that community residents are safe. But that type of environmental testing ignores the interactive health effects of multiple pollutants, including the contaminants emitted by the waste disposal site, the air pollution generated by nearby freeways, and oil drilling sites located near the community, which not only affect cancer endpoints but also a lot of other mental and physical health problems. Those interactive effects of environmental pollutants are missed if broad-gauged, multidisciplinary and community perspectives are not taken into account.

Overall, I feel strongly social ecological thinking is a valuable antidote to narrowly biased and incomplete analyses of our most vexing societal dilemmas. What I try to do in the book is distill core principles of social ecology so that they can be a counterpoint to the narrow, polarized thinking that we're falling into about the environment, and a lot of other topics, these days.

Posted on Monday, July 23, 2018 at 5:44 PM

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