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Walkerton revisited: how our psychological defenses may influence responses to water crises

S. A. Cote, University of Waterloo
H. C. Ross, University of Waterloo
K. David, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, University of Waterloo
S. E. Wolfe, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, University of Waterloo


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When the drinking water in Walkerton, Ontario (2000) was contaminated—sending 65 people to hospital and killing seven people—outrage and recriminations quickly reached the provincial Parliament and Toronto media outlets. But beyond the politics and policy, Walkerton illustrated something more fundamental to the human condition. We used the Walkerton case to examine how the media crisis coverage used negatively charged and fear emotions to engage their readers about the contamination of Walkerton’s water. Using the terror management theory (TMT) framework and content analysis, we analyzed 15 yr of national and local print media coverage of Walkerton’s water contamination. Our analysis provides insight on the presence of mortality fears and considers the possible influence of human responses (e.g., proximal and distal defenses) to water crises on individual and societal decisions. Failure to recognize the intrinsic role of emotions in water decisions and policy could undermine efforts to respond to climatic uncertainties, water demands, and extreme events that will intensify and threaten our water security.

Key words

Canada; media; mortality; terror management theory; Walkerton; water contamination

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087