Human behavior patterns influence water conservation
"There is a lot of collective action involved in getting individuals and farmers and water districts to come together to reduce water use," said Lubell, who is also Director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at UC Davis.
Lubell, whose research focuses on human behavior and the role of governance institutions in solving environmental collective action problems and facilitating cooperation, is particularly interested in watching the conservation efforts prompted by the California drought unfold. "It is definitely a good lab to study cooperation problems or observe them in action," he said.
The difficulty for California is akin to the classic "tragedy of the commons," in which people behave in their own self-interest even when contrary to the best interests of a whole group.
"People are being asked to make an individual sacrifice, but the costs and benefits are experienced by a lot of other people," Lubell said. "People tend to not do the behaviors that make everybody collectively better off."
The solution, Lubell said, is taking a multifaceted approach to encouraging water conservation, including water prices, penalties for not conserving, and influencing social norms. He said social norms are crucial, but they are not established overnight. And the norms can change again when conditions change.
"There will be some behaviors that stick. Some people might put in some irrigation changes where they won't go back and put lawn back in right away," Lubell said. "But short term changes will unstick once it starts raining again. We know the psychology of water use, and people very quickly forget the drier years."