Society be Dammed!: A Terror Management Analysis of Water Infrastructure as a Conduit to Immortality
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In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the conventional response to water scarcity was to develop large-scale water infrastructure, which has created wide-ranging social, economic, and ecological implications. I used Terror Management Theory (TMT) to assess whether constructing substantial water infrastructure functions to mitigate mortality salience (MS). In accordance with TMT, participation in culture provides people with a sense of meaning and significance to repress their existential concerns. Since water infrastructure reflects cultural values, I argued that participation in its development provides a way by which individuals can feel like valuable contributors to their worldview, and achieve heroism according to their cultural framework. William Mulholland, the engineer credited with constructing the Los Angeles Aqueduct, served as a case study personality. I analyzed primary historical documents related to his involvement in the project for evidence of terror management indicators, using a combination of Content Analysis (CA) and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). Consistent with TMT, evidence indicated that 1) water crisis threats function as a death prime, 2) Mulholland’s water infrastructure involvement enabled him to repress death-related anxieties, and 3) Mulholland was able to symbolically transcend death by supplying water to Los Angeles. This research has both historical and contemporary implications. Viewing water crisis threats as a death prime is significant considering that water crises are a pervasive and increasing threat to society. This research also shows that TMT can provide insight into the motivational underpinnings of historical water-related decisions, and suggests that it can help predict different responses to water-related challenges. In this light, it may also help inform more rational solutions to water management instead of the conventional approaches, which have resulted in largely adverse consequences.
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