I found this talk fascinating, informative and alarming. Penny subtitled her talk “An overview of behaviour change campaigns related to water conservation and water quality in North Queensland and the great Barrier Reef” which gave the first impression that we were going to cover a lot of ground, physically and ecologically. However, Penny then focussed on her years of work as part of a team aiming to change the behaviour of Townsville residents as it impacted on the environment; particularly on their use of water as it affected their lifestyle. She described several problems the town faced because of its situation, the variable rainfall and climate and the entrenched water use habit. This is engendered by a lax water use policy combined with inadequate water storage for the city based on the Ross River Dam, primarily designed for flood mitigation. At the other end of the cycle where the water goes next affects the river, the wetlands and then the sea water quality. Townsville contributes as much polluted water to the reef, from runoff from roads and overwatering of lawns, as does Abbot Point dredging.
In Townsville, public education in the environment and its needs were a focus and these covered the schools, stalls at community events and so on. It was clear that many had no experience of any environment outside the town nor what lived there and how it impacted on them, for example the reason for stinky fish kills at times of low water flows. Research showed that the major water use was lawn watering (70% of the total household use) as the social expectation was that everyone would have a green lawn… green lawns are good and show your social standing and commitment. This use, particularly in the winter dry season, when the lawns are not grow-ing, leads to increased nitrogen loads from dog poo and lawn clippings dumped in the stormwater system and so on to the wetlands and reef. One of the mantras invoked by those in power is; if people understand and love a place they will change their behaviour to protect it - but it is a myth.
Penny gave an example of the behaviours that have to be understood before the target people can be persuaded to adopt behaviour that addresses a problem. In the US a public park, which is home to a herd of rare deer, was a favourite walking spot for dogs off the leash. These then chased the deer. Neither notices asking for dogs to be kept on the leash, fines for having dogs off leash or even bans on dogs worked. When asked, the dog owners said the dogs deserve to be off the leash and that was their owners’ priority in coming there. So, the signs were changed to warn that dogs off leash sometimes never returned - and that worked.
So, in Townsville they researched how to modify the use of water on lawns. This was achieved by finding more effective watering systems on the hard clay soils, promoting the use of grass species more suitable to the climate (for example Zoysia, a grass native to Australia and eastern Asia). This was done by painstaking research to identify what people knew and what were the myths they subscribed to and then painstaking education to demonstrate how they could change their behaviour to the advantage of all. It all went well until resistance, by a vocal minority, grew to a Council plan to reduce the allowed water allocation in tandem with the voluntary adoption measures that were reducing water use. Now Townsville is on level 3 water restrictions (100 litres a day, two days a week, before 9.00am after 4.00pm) with on-the-spot fines of $365 a day for non-compliance.
In conclusion Penny pointed out that behaviour change techniques are powerful and are being used for all sorts of purposes around the world. These are not necessarily for the good of the target population but as a way of controlling and, in some cases, shifting blame back to the population, when the political will to implement change becomes too hard. Doesn’t that sound familiar!
(Report by Michael Jefferies)