Many of my classmates have discussed how their experiences abroad this summer are putting things in perspective for them. I’d add that reading about their experiences is putting things in perspective for me across a wide range of situations and cultures. One thing that particularly struck me was reading about the severe lack of basic drinking water in the Tanzanian village where Fernando is working. People in his village sometimes have to walk for a full day in search of water, and there have been multiple deaths from dehydration and exhaustion. I’m so impressed with his recent efforts working with the community to fund, design, and build a rainwater cistern (and this is outside of his normal work).
In comparison, even after a decade-long drought here in arid Australia, towns and cities in the Murray-Darling Basin still had access to water for what they call “critical human need.” Some towns were very close to running out, but the rains came just in time. The debate here rages at a very different level-- how much water to allow for agriculture and industry versus the environment. Drinking water is rarely mentioned, though it has been highlighted increasingly in past years since fears were heightened among local government officials during the drought.
Many Australians I’ve met have said that they are raised to think they live in The Lucky Country, full of natural resources, natural beauty, and peaceful, content people. Although they are a rather dry continent, Australia is the widely-acknowledged leader in arid zone water resource management.
However, many factors are contributing to rural decline in Australia, as around the world. While rural communities here may have their basic needs provided for and a functional welfare system to pick up the slack, people are still dying. In addition to major youth outmigration and crippling household debt, increasing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, nutritional issues, and inadequate mental health care are also weakening rural communities. For those reliant on agriculture and facing additional water cuts under the latest round of water reforms, these health and wellness factors are at an all-time high. From the perspective of the village in Tanzania, access to water alone would be cause for celebration. In rural Australia it is a given and so most resident’s sense of fulfillment has been built on a more complex system of expectations related to farm infrastructure, tertiary educational opportunities, quality health care and education, good harvest years, and access to technology, among others. These expectations are currently being dashed and people have few avenues for coping mentally. Several people have described the process as similar to grieving.
I feel like I’m looking into the future. In a country or world where development has been capped, what is the fallout for those who have built their identities and will to live around expectations of achieving a certain standard of living that is no longer possible? I’m curious about the psychological impacts that rural Australian communities are experiencing and whether that provides a glimpse into the way other developed countries might react to the necessary end of growth. The reality is that water is a finite resource. Efficiencies can be developed to some extent, but each level of efficiency is increasingly more expensive and difficult to attain. What happens in your head when your community, once thriving and successful and ever hopeful for a brighter, more prosperous future, reaches the end? Is it possible to avoid the suicide and depression by changing one’s attitude, or will it take generations for humanity to come to terms with a new way of looking at the world, one that doesn’t rely on constant development and more money to attain happiness? My question is specifically targeted at the US: will it be possible to cut back our ingrained expectations about what constitutes the good life and be content with alternative ways of being? Do we have a looming mental health crisis on our hands? I’ve never quite thought of it this way before.
Ultimately, though, this idea gives me hope. It’s easy for people of my generation to despair—we’ve been handed a really messy planet. But a new question has been sparked in my mind—despite the realities, can changes in attitude and mindset help us get to a better psychological place to handle an uncertain future? Rather than seeing the end of growth as something scary, what if we viewed it as an opportunity and actually helped it along? What if we could reframe the message about the future? What if the end of growth meant that families became closer, people regained a sense of appreciation for the natural world, soccer clubs thrived, nutrition improved, and crime decreased?