Are you ‘positive’ you want to conserve water?

By: Brad Buck

PLANT CITY, Fla. — As Americans collectively use billions of gallons of water each day, social scientists are taking a holistic approach to figure out what motivates people to save this precious commodity. 

For example, UF/IFAS assistant professor John Diaz is exploring people’s sense of self: Are they happy, content, a little down or somewhere in between?

After conducting a national online survey of 1,809 people, Diaz and his team found that people who perceive themselves as having high levels of personal well-being are more likely to conserve water when they landscape. Conversely, if they view themselves as having low levels of well-being, they’re less likely to make water conservation a priority.

In other words, the study shows a direct relationship between higher levels of perceived well-being and current and future water conservation behavior, said Diaz, the study’s leader and a UF/IFAS assistant professor of agricultural education and communication.

“I think the biggest public takeaway is understanding how the pressures of life may influence change that is needed,” said Diaz, who’s also a UF/IFAS Extension specialist. “We all know that conserving water is paramount to address our basic needs.”

Water conservation remains critical because Americans use more than 355 billion gallons of water per day, just for public use nationwide, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. About 50% to 70% of that goes to lawn and landscape irrigation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Diaz’ based his survey on a concept known as the Personal Well-Being Index (PWI), developed in 2005. The index tries to answer a universal question: How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?

Each of the eight items in the adult PWI scale corresponds to an aspect about our quality of life: standard of living, health, life achievement, personal relationships, personal safety, community-connectedness, future security and spirituality-religion. 

Findings in the new paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Management, highlight the importance of social and psychological measures as you try to get homeowners and businesspeople to conserve water, Diaz said. 

In developing the framework for the study, Diaz cites psychologist Abraham Maslow, who in 1943, published a hierarchy of needs. In it, Maslow asserts that people must meet basic biological and physical needs before moving on to others. Home landscaping would not make it very high on the list, and that’s important to consider as policy makers try to get people to conserve water, Diaz said.

Though Maslow’s hierarchy is not new, “It has been overlooked in the context of conservation education. Maslow’s framework, along with my research, calls for looking at and approaching conservation more holistically, understanding how it connects with an individuals’ broader sets of needs” Diaz said.