Drought and the Ostrich Syndrome

By Rebecca Lawton, ILCW member (USA)

“The Ostrich Syndrome is a very human tendency,” said environmentalist, author, and philosopher Edward Goldsmith in 1970. Although ostriches are misunderstood—they’ll fight or flee as well as hide—Goldsmith implied that their cartoon personae resembled societal response to deep environmental crises. We lean toward wishful thinking. Or we apply superficial remedies. Ignore it, or slap on a band-aid, and we’re good to go.

Last fall, as a visitor at the University of Alberta, I shared what I knew about the extended drought in California. My colleagues had heard of our lack of rainfall but not how dire the situation had become. They weren’t strangers to dry spells themselves. They, too, have suffered devastating dustbowls. Today their prairies share the severe drought covering much of western North America. Glacier-fed water sources are dwindling as climate patterns change. Canadians know they have thirsty neighbors to the south, too, never an enviable position.

Imagine my surprise to return home after many months away to find water use unchanged and California still stymied: calling advisory group meetings, debating where cuts should be made, discussing who should be metered. Governor Jerry Brown hadn’t yet imposed mandatory restrictions, and now that he has, they don’t touch the biggest users.

Why the delay? Why the inadequacy? California’s response to crisis reeks of Ostrich Syndrome—a long time spent with heads in the sand followed by superficial remedies and, perhaps, wishful thinking. According to one of my neighbors, “We’ve been hoping for a lot of rain and snow to come along and end it.” Others claim political complexity and expediency: if you’re a government official who waits to address a natural disaster like multiyear drought, you might garner more support for grand-scale water-diversion projects you’ve wanted to complete for years. Never mind that there isn’t the water to put into them once they’re built.

It’s not accurate to say no one saw California’s dilemma coming. The current drought began in 2012. The year 2013 was the driest on record since at least 1894, according to Western Regional Climate Center. Since the 1930s, we’ve put in waterworks to rival any built any time or anywhere, using several tiers of public funding—Central Valley Project, State Water Project, Colorado River Aqueduct. We’ve been Herculean in our success moving the 75 percent of our water supply in the north to the 80 percent of our population in the south.
We’ve had no shortage of science. We’ve known California’s fresh water supply varies from 60 to 100 million acre-feet in any given year, posing unique challenges for storage. We’ve studied tree-ring data and understand that shortages can last for decades. We’ve grown accustomed to a status quo in which people use half the available water—20 to 40 percent for agriculture, 10 percent for cities and towns—leaving just half to an environment that once had it all. We’ve seen California’s cities become comfortable using twice the per-capita water that Australian cities use in comparable climates.

We’ve understood that our breadbasket Central Valley farmers, among others, have pumped groundwater to replace the rainfall we’re not getting. We’ve seen agriculture become more efficient with its water use, although we also recognize our convoluted rules force desperate and self-sabotaging behaviors: some users who must exercise or lose their rights sell water south to make up the difference. Net effect: depletion of groundwater under their feet.

In short, we’ve known we have work to do.

Drought is just one of many natural crises of which we aren’t ignorant but that we fail to face with sufficiency. I live on an active fault, part of the San Andreas system, which any day could deliver the next Katrina-sized disaster to my hometown. Citizens of Pompeii before Vesuvius knew their city was prone to devastating seismic shaking likely due to fire in the volcano. But life goes on—for some. Whether we live with drought, earthquakes, tornadoes, unlivable atmospheric CO2, or flooding, we tend to get together our emergency kits (or not) and hope for the best.

The root of the word crisis holds the key to understanding how to react. Often it’s used to mean a difficult or dangerous time, but it comes from the Greek krisis, which means decision. That sense of the word dates from the 17th century: a time at which a difficult or important decision must be made.

When we reach crisis points, when important decisions must be made, barriers block us from moving from talk to action. There are jobs at stake, homes to lose, communities at risk, ways of life to upend. There are privacy issues, property rights to observe, tradition to respect, history to study.

Meeting and conversing take patience and perseverance. There are models through history of how to do it best. In the Quaker tradition, one remains in meeting until consensus, not compromise, is reached. In the Greek tradition of dialogos, discussion is aimed at the issue at hand rather at each other in a debate to win. Facilitated meetings, committee and subcommittees, rules of order, memoranda of understanding—all are part of the fabric of civilized decision making. Without them, we unravel.

Yet meetings must lead to action. Protecting the commons. Saving resources for a (non) rainy day. Monitoring seismicity and translating data to action. Allocating the resources for suitable public works. Acting as if we had a future, for our children and the many generations ahead.

When ostriches hide, they do it in plain sight. They don’t really bury their heads in the sand, although they do collect crop stones in that familiar and much-mocked head-down posture. They lay low when sitting their eggs, flattening their whole bodies to escape notice. They hide when they have to, but as I’ve said, they’re just as prone to take critical action in their best interest.

They’re just as likely to model excellent behavior we’ve not yet grasped.