Blaming the Poor Young Consumer

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I have just reviewed a paper from the USA which describes an educational intervention aimed at persuading young people to use less water.   At the end, of what seemed a well thought through empirical study, most young people said they would use less water in their everyday habits.  Well, they would.

Whilst I have no doubt that this study was carried out as effectively as is reported in the paper, I cannot share the authors' optimism about its likely impacts on water shortages.  In many ways, this is a very familiar environmental educational intervention which can be characterised (or caricatured) in this way:

1.  a socio-environmental problem is identified

2.  ignorance is measured

3.  somebody is blamed

4.  an intervention programme is designed, implemented and evaluated

5.  people promise to change

6.  success is celebrated

We have seen this so often down the years that the wonder is how there can be any problems left.  But of course, there are.

In such activities, it is often the case that all the issues and problems in a context are not properly identified.  For example, in this present case, I looked in vain for any data on water use over time by business, agriculture, etc.  This was not included because those involved decided, a priori, that it was only domestic consumers who were important here (ie, were to blame) – hence their intervention.  But is this really the case?  Stories abound across the US of industries and agriculture putting undue and often unchecked pressure on acquifers.  So, it is all very well (and much too easy) to blame individual consumers for this problem. But can they ever make a real difference given all the other (and presumably growing) demands on the watershed?

Whatever the answer, isn't it irresponsible not to ask this question?

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