Cognitive Dissonance

Perhaps a child has told us what the deal is.

I have long been mystified about why folks around here behave as they do about the water issues we are facing in Central Texas. For many years, an array of interest groups have been asserting “I’m for the Hill Country, are you?”, that they are dedicated to opposing wastewater discharges into Hill Country creeks, and to moving us toward sustainable water management there. Lately, the flavor-of-the-month with those folks has been the “One Water” idea, that all the water that flows through our communities is a resource to be husbanded, rather than much of it being addressed as if it were a nuisance, to be made to go to that magical place we call “away”. I trust that anyone who has read much of this blog will recognize that is exactly what has been urged upon society here.

But it does not seem that these folks behave in concert with their declarations of how “important” all this is to “saving the Hill Country”, as they have so far not engaged in any real advocacy for the move toward sustainable water. I have often exhorted them to do so, and that always seems to be interpreted, as one of those folks once put it, that I’m “being mean to good people trying to do good things.” So why, I’ve often wondered, do they so often not really act in accord with what they espouse, why do they not actually advocate for the actions that can put what we need to be doing about all that on the ground?

Just as an aside, before we proceed, there is of course the possibility that they just don’t believe that my “prescriptions” for our water issues are “correct”. If so, then I’d challenge them to read this blog and say exactly what they disagree with. And I’d also note that, on occasion when these folks do get at all explicit about what needs to be done, they generally espouse essentially what has been set forth in this blog, that we do indeed need to transform our water resources infrastructure model, to put it generically – again, the “One Water” model. So onward …

A few weeks ago, I happened to watch the PBS Newshour interview of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist who has been heard from in several quarters lately, perhaps most famously her address to the United Nations. In the course of that interview she said when asked why the climate crisis does not seem to be taken seriously even though people seem to be agreeing there is a problem, “They say one thing and then do another thing. … Cognitive dissonance.”

She went on, “I think it is because humans are social animals. We follow the stream, and since no one else is behaving like this is a crisis, we see that and then think, I should probably behave as they do.” When asked why she doesn’t “follow the stream” herself, she offered, “For me, I’m on the autism spectrum, and I don’t usually follow social coding, so therefore I go my own way, and I think that is a very strong reason why people just continue, because they don’t see anyone else reacting to this.”

So maybe it’s as simple as that. Cognitive dissonance. Folks say they don’t want “bad things” happening in the Hill Country, but when it is set before them what are the ways of proceeding that would blunt all that, they simply cannot seem to bring themselves to actually, explicitly advocate for those ways of proceeding. Perhaps that is because they look around, see that the entire mainstream is behaving as if “business as usual” is the way we “should” approach it – the very mental model that this blog has been dedicated to combating – and they pick up on the social queues and determine that bucking the apparent consensus, that appearing to not be “in the tribe”, would not be a “proper” way to act.

So perhaps I also am somewhere on the autism spectrum, because I also don’t “follow social coding”, as Thunberg put it, and go my own way in the water resources arena. Perhaps I cannot see that “social coding” says one does not so directly challenge the mainstream as I do, and one certainly does not question the behavior of those who assert they are in concert with what I am advocating but then do not act in concert with those assertions. And so each attempt to “enlist” them, to get them to act in concert with their own assertions is simply taken as one more instance of me “being mean to good people trying to do good things.”

Okay, so maybe that is an “explanation” for why nothing that’s been set forth about all this, such as in this blog, has been rallied around by the very folks who have asserted they want to attain the ends that I’ve been asserting those actions would attain. But if that really is the case, isn’t that rather disturbing? Isn’t the logical conclusion here that these people have chosen to be “sheep”, that it is more important to them to “fit in” than to act in accord to their asserted beliefs and aims? How can we accept that all of the “thought leaders” in all of the organizations that have set forth their desires for the how the Hill Country will fare as development occurs there could prioritize not looking like they are not “in the tribe” above attaining the ends they assert they want to attain?

But what is the choice? It is very clear that these folks do not actually advocate for the actions that will lead to attaining the ends they espouse. One very straightforward example is the “waste” water system in Wimberley. Over a decade ago I started advocating that they consider a 21st century infrastructure plan as they considered how to implement an “organized” wastewater system there. Much of that is reviewed here. And five years ago, I laid out rather explicitly for the city management the sort of system concept that might essentially be called a “One Water” adaptation of the conventionally organized system they were pursuing. I did everything but draw them a picture. Yet despite broad dissatisfaction among all the “water activist” types around there with how the city was then planning to proceed, hardly anyone said a word about this option, and certainly no one put forth an iota of effort to press the city to actually examine it. So it was ignored, and the city proceeded with a conventional 19th century infrastructure model, which has since come apart for various reasons. Fast forward – right now these same folks are reported to be scrambling to try to get what has been generally described as exactly the sort of approach I laid out 5 years ago before the City Council commits to hooking the city center up to a conventional centralized system in the adjacent town of Woodcreek. So if these folks were not failing to stand up for a sustainable water approach back then so as to avoid appearing to not be part of the tribe, what was their “reasoning”?

But we should hope there is a way forward. In response to question, “Why do you have hope that we will, as a global society, react?”, Thunberg said, “I think that people are good, people are not evil, at least not everyone, most people, so I think people are just simply unaware of the situation, and people are not feeling the urgency. I think once we would start treating this crisis as an emergency, people will be able to grasp the situation more.” Which would indicate that, here also in regard to our water resources issues, it may just be that these folks are simply not “aware enough” of the situation, that they still need to have their consciousness raised before they will galvanize and act. Again, that runs counter to their own narrative – they already loudly decry the threats to the Hill Country and their “dedication” to blunting them.

So, while it’s an unsettling conclusion, it does appear that there has been no groundswell of advocacy for the sustainable water strategies, such as have been advocated in this blog, due to this cognitive dissonance. I continue to hope that folks will take that under consideration, and evaluate their actual dedication to “saving the Hill Country” in the water resources sphere. Perhaps a real, effective program of advocacy for transforming the water infrastructure model will be embraced when these folks “start treating this crisis as an emergency.” Thank you, Greta.


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