A follow up to last week’s post on denial and the lizard brain
I last week’s post I wrote that:
…politicians, corporations, and others have weaponized our lizard brains against us. They have done this by taking advantage of our fixation on personal freedom and property rights to portray solutions to societal problems as threats to liberty so that our lizard brain reacts.
The skill set that helps us recognize environmental problems can also help us recognize the denial and reactance in others. We can take steps to offer solution paths with small, achievable, non-threatening first steps that offer people some agency and choice. Solutions have to involve the community.
You can catch up on the full post here:
I promised at the end of last week’s post that I would be testing this idea in a couple of community meetings and that I would be back with an update on how it went. The tl;dr is, it went well; this week not so much; but then it ended on a high note. A drama in three acts.
Act I – the community meetings
For the past few months, I’ve been working with a Public Participation Grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology for outreach on PFAS (“Forever Chemicals”) in the groundwater that we rely on for our drinking water. The culmination of that work was two meetings for affected communities in our county.
As I’ve detailed in a previous post, our state cleanup law, like the federal Superfund law, is based on the principle that the polluter pays for cleanup. If the polluter is unidentified, then there’s no one to pay for cleanup, and crucially, no one to pay for testing that might establish who the polluter is. A true Catch 22. In addition, drinking water funding doesn’t reach private wells or smaller water systems. For a deeper dive check out this post:
In the spirit of offering solution paths for these communities, I spent much of the last few months looking under couch cushions at various state and federal agencies for funding to start the testing process. Some awesome agency staff helped pull together a few sources of funding that might be enough to get the testing process started. Much of that funding is available to what we call Local Health Jurisdictions. In our case, that’s county government. There was some short-term funding available that non-profits could apply for. The non-profit I work with – Whidbey Island Water Systems Assocation – agreed to apply for the initial round of funding, and then help county staff apply for longer term funding. That’s how county sausage gets made.
The communities really appreciated the information we shared, our willingness to listen to their concerns, answer their questions, and offer a path forward through funding opportunities.
Armed with those talking points, the team of agency staff – health communicator, toxicologists, engineer, hydrogeologist – and myself headed out to the communities. The meetings went really well! The communities really appreciated the information we shared, our willingness to listen to their concerns, answer their questions, and offer a path forward through funding opportunities. The meetings were a validation of the idea that we can overcome reactance by offering “…solution paths with small, achievable, non-threatening first steps that offer people some agency and choice.” The team ended the week with hugs and high fives.
Monday this week started with a round of congratulatory emails and excited talk about next steps.
And then came the first dark cloud on the horizon.
Act II – the grant
That Ecology Public Participation Grant was though Whidbey Island Water Systems Association. We had applied for a grant for a further two-year period to continue our outreach work on PFAS. We heard Monday afternoon that we had been turned down.
My initial reaction was one of relief. It’s been a challenge this past few months to fit the agency facing work I’ve needed to do in identifying solutions into the more public facing formula of the grant. The grant’s performance metrics are based on what can be measured. We are driven to care more about the number of meetings than their value. In writing the application for further funding, I wasn’t shy in talking about the barriers we’re facing or the kind of work I’d be doing to overcome them. It wasn’t a complete shock that we didn’t get the grant.
However, without the grant, we wouldn’t be able to fulfil our offer to work with the communities and the county on funding for testing. It turned out to be moot.
Yesterday the team met for a debrief on last week’s community meetings. I’d let them know about the grant status. The mood was a little somber. We talked about next steps. I still hadn’t ruled out exploring ways to help the county apply for funding. Then the county rep shot it all down.
“We can’t test them all. How would we choose? The first 50 to call?”
As a background, Island County has:
293 “Group A” (15 or more connections) water systems serving 69000 people
585 “Group B” (3-14 connections) serving 5000 people
850 two-party (2 connections) systems, serving about 2000 people
8500 private wells serving about 20,000 people
The county feels that’s too many to tackle. “We can’t test them all. How would we choose? The first 50 to call?”
Well, no, we could make a plan based on where PFAS is likely to be found. But we can’t talk about where it is likely to be found because we haven’t done the testing. Catch 22.
That’s a lot of wells, and I totally understand that it’s overwhelming. But it didn’t happen by accident. There have been three main contributing factors:
Back in 1974 the Nixon administration passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. Group B, two party, and private wells were exempt. In Washington, it’s possible to drill a private well, a two party well, or a well for a group B system serving up to six connections – a so-called six-pack – without an Ecology permit or water right. the unintended consequence is that we’ve incentivized the drilling of wells that exclude people from the protections of the safe drinking water act.
Years of anti-tax initiatives have left Washington State’s counties starved of funds. This is impacting all our public infrastructure – public schools, public transit, public health, parks and recreation facilities, even law enforcement and public safety. One of the few remaining sources over which the county has some control is the sale of building permits. Small wonder then that anything that slows that effort down is going to struggle for political support.
A vast majority of those building permits are in areas zoned rural. That means a minimum lot size of five acres. It also means another private well, another septic system, and in many cases more impermeable or less permeable surface in the form of a house, an accessory building or two, a driveway, and a lawn.
Put all these together, and we have created a problem that’s too complex to fix.
I understand that people want their own idyllic piece of this island, many of my friends reading this blog among them! I’m not blaming them. I know that many of you are working hard to manage your land responsibly and minimize any harm you might be doing.
And I’m not blaming Island County staff. This blog grew out of my “infodump” newsletter to a dozen or so current and former county people and has grown into something that’s read in 12 states and 8 countries. They’ve also been kind enough to nominate me for two volunteer awards this year. They know where I’m coming from.
How about the County Commissioners? Should I blame them? It’s tempting. But they’re just dealing with the reality that we’ve co-created. There are few votes in being proactive on a slow burn problem like PFAS, and many more in reacting to the latest crisis or outrage. That’s our collective lizard brain at work.
It looks like I’ve run out of road on the PFAS problem. It’s fair to say that I went to bed last night in a somber mood.
Act III – a sign
I awoke this morning to find this from in my inbox:
John Lovie draws attention to another area where people are not at peace. As an environmental writer from the northwestern U.S. (an island in my home region of the Puget Sound), he works with his neighbors to mitigate the consequences of careless development and rising seas.
Instead of ranting against another political tribe, he encourages us not to be divided and conquered by a small number of people whose narrow interests defy common sense.
It was the sign I needed. Please read ’s post in its entirety as well as ’s. Beth is the other writer that Tara featured today.
A year and a half ago, I was on half a dozen drinking water, Puget Sound recovery, and salmon recovery advisory teams and committees. I quit them all. I was burned out, tired of being the token volunteer, the only one in the room not being paid to be there. I was also losing faith in the idea that we could grant-fund our way out of the environmental messes we’re in. I decided to try to make my mark instead through writing.
For a few months, I was tempted back in by the PFAS work, an area where my skills and background could make a unique and meaningful contribution. I’d like to think they did, if only to frame the scope and nature of the challenge.
So back to writing. I’ll continue to encourage us to support community solutions to problems. I’ll continue to support our public institutions against those who would destroy them in the name of profit. And I’ll continue to point out the messaging that encourages us to react to perceived threats to “freedom” and distract us from the work at hand. As if on cue, here’s this week’s example, nicely debunked by .
I hope you’ll stick around for the ride.