Our office door gives a cheery jingle, and I step out of my dark desk-cave. Even with a deep overhang and dark windows, the reflected outdoor light makes our lobby glow.
It is July 2013. High noon in Central California, the sun glares down; the temperature is already at 105 F and will climb at least another five degrees today. California is two years into a seven-year drought and I am working at ground zero.
Joe has come through the door. A leathery-faced guy in his 60’s, Joe wears a farmer’s armor: a light long-sleeved button shirt, jeans, and worn leather boots. With a sigh, he sets his straw hat on the imitation wood-grain table and sits back to soak up the A/C. I pull his file and our talk turns to the drought.
Joe’s neighbor recently drilled a new well, his old one had dried up and collapsed. Over six figures later and seven hundred feet down, his neighbor has a reliable source of water.
Farmers and communities compete for shrinking water supplies.
I have heard this same story twice already this week. Wells are drying up, surface water is shut off, trees are dying. Before the snows return to the Central Sierras four years from now, several small communities in our area will be trucking in drinking water.
The drought is one of many climate-change-driven impacts people are facing. Farmers and cities square off, each accusing the other of using too much water. No one knows the answer but a piece of the puzzle is conservation.
Today, Joe has come in to sign for money our Federal agency will send to him; cost-share on installing micro-irrigation. I see it as a way to help farmers lessen their impact on the environment. Joe sees it as a way to stretch his irrigation water and expand his production.
Money often makes the problem worse.
What seems like a win-win is suddenly a conflict: our agency is funding conservation, not the expansion of production. Before Joe can get any money, he has to submit a new design that stays within his current crop footprint.
Joe shakes his head at me as I explain this and says, “You know what? We just need to pipe water from the Columbia River, up there in Washington State.”
I laugh. As a Washington-born Conservation Ecologist and Hydrologist, I can’t even take the comment seriously.
Joe says, “No, I’m serious. Can you believe it? They just let all that water run down the river — into the ocean! What a waste.”
Because I like Joe, I pause, take a deep breath, and proceed to gently educate him. His eyes begin to cross after five minutes. My litany includes water rights, endangered species, shipping, and not to mention; It’s Washington’s effing water.
After Joe leaves (chastened but not changed), I slam the file cabinet drawers, muttering, “all that water just running to the ocean!”. Turning to the office in general, I ask, “What else is it supposed to do??!!”
My co-workers barely look away from their screens. I get a couple of head shakes, a chuckle, a shrug. They’ve given up.
Paved with good intentions.
My drive home that evening is a special little hell. As the sweat pours down my back, my broken air conditioning adds to my irritation. Two science degrees, countless hours of agency training, and it’s all useless. I’m not making lasting change; I’m not reaching Joe or the other one-hundred-plus farmers I work with.
Questions tumble through my mind: how do I reach people? How do I get them to stop wasting water, flushing extra nutrients into the groundwater, and destroying the soil?
The even bigger question:
How do I make a difference?
As a co-worker told me;
“Conservation in the Central Valley isn’t conservation, it’s a funding assembly line. Our job isn’t getting conservation on the ground, it’s screwing on lugnuts, getting the money out.”
Tears join the sweat trailing down my cheeks and my chest hollows out as I realize:
The work I am doing is part of the problem.
Facts can make change more difficult.
When I took up my hero’s cape and jumped into environmental conservation, I thought all the farmers in the Central Valley just needed some education. I thought science was my best tool: Facts.
I thought surely if people just had the facts, they would line up for change; they would break into Sondheim-like celebration as they greened the Earth.
Instead, they hold out their hand and increase their footprint. They want to keep going the way they have so they look for more water, drill deeper, scrape the topsoil, and continue flood irrigating.
People like Joe grudgingly make incremental changes, but despite all the facts I give them, if we stopped paying them, the changes would be gone.
Julia Dhar, a behavioral economist, explains this phenomenon when she says that confronting people with facts that contradict their worldview can make it harder for them to change. She recommends a “shared reality” instead.
We share our reality with stories.
Several weeks later, I am standing in a misty field. The cooler fall weather has enticed me outdoors, and I’m chatting with Will. Will is a dairy farmer, and we are discussing fertilizer use and traditional flood irrigation. I’m preparing my lecture on the evils of over-watering and fertilizing when Will says something that stops me in my tracks:
“I used to think the irrigation water was ours, you know? I resented all those Northern California farmers who didn’t want to send the water south to us. Then I visited them, listened to them, and you know what? They thought the water was theirs. After all, it fell to the ground near them. And you know what? They have a point! So I want to do the right thing, and try to work with the water we have.”
After picking my jaw up off the ground, I go to work expanding Will’s conservation plan. I include soil health, chemical management, and pollinator habitat. Just like that — I become a helpful technician rather than a lecturer.
Stories did my job for me.
Will had experienced that “shared reality” with those farmers when he joined them for morning coffee, and it created a big change in him. He asked questions, answered them, went to church with them, walked in their fields, and looked at their irrigation methods. They all shared stories.
Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.― Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
We are emotional, social critters. We may think we are rational, that we treasure science, but art tells stories, and stories are where connection happens. As renowned conservation artist/scientist Paul Nicklen, acknowledges; science is required, but “it takes art to move people.” He uses his photos to tell stories and fund ocean conservation.
Even the agency I worked for was founded in the sense of the dramatic. Hugh Hammond Bennet, the founder of the Soil Conservation Service (now the NRCS), timed his testimony before a Congressional committee to coincide with a huge dust storm that hit Washington D.C. He knew it was coming, and let it tell the story.
Science informs us what needs to happen; story and connection are what make us care.
Seth Godin tells us, “… Art is work that matters… Art adds intent.” In other words, art (in this case, storytelling) does the heavy lifting for us: it powers change.
Science is recognizing that it needs to make connections to have an impact, but shifting from teaching to telling stories is tough. It requires vulnerability.
I had to step out of the intellectual “know-it-all” persona into an unpredictable, messy arena.
Start where you are.
To my delight, I found ways my agency was already using stories. I focused a little less on technical information and more on communication. I wrote newsletter articles, listened to family histories, and even found myself on stage as a “waterdrop” at the local fair.
My job didn’t magically become one joyful conservation fest, but I built deeper relationships. Listening to their stories and adding my own opened doors for me. I was able to move a few of my farmers beyond money for irrigation into mulching and cover crops. In the very practical culture of Central Valley farming, this was huge progress.
Make a difference and build a connection.
We can start right where we are at by listening to stories. This week, take a breath, find a story, and LISTEN.
Don’t look for a moral, don’t look for “who’s right or who’s wrong”, let yourself be in the story, and best of all, look for a connection.
Want to make a difference?
Listen to a story.
Tell a story.
Diana Carson-Walker is a writer, actor, ever-curious nerd. You can read more about her journey away from the mainstream on her blog, or connect on Twitter @carson_walker and Facebook @CarsonWalkerSideways.