1. Introduction and Background
Earth’s ecosystems and human life depend on water, yet freshwater resources are rapidly depleting from unsustainable human activities [1
]. Many regions of the world over-extract groundwater supplies, experience water stress, and have river systems without adequate freshwater flows [1
]. Numerous economic activities, such as energy and food production, require large amounts of freshwater use [2
]. The diminished freshwater supply is further complicated by poverty, conflict, diseases, and water quality issues [3
The security of the freshwater supply in the United States (U.S.) is a growing concern [4
] and is strained both locally and regionally [5
]. Over 300 gallons of water, on average, are consumed per household per day in the U.S. even though daily basic human water needs are estimated to range from 15–25 gallons for one person [6
]. Increasing public engagement in water resource protection behaviors is a challenging but essential task for environmental educators and communicators [8
]. Education campaigns typically provide simple education around water conservation, which does not “move people to action” to conserve water [9
] (p. 109). Thus, minimal environmental behavior changes have resulted from information-only water conservation campaigns in the U.S. [10
]. Improving water conservation in the U.S. by focusing on individual and social factors is one crucial step in addressing the global water crisis [14
During the Reagan administration in the 1980s, viewpoints of environmental protection shifted from a non-partisan issue to one viewed as harmful to the free market and economic growth by Republican leaders [17
]. The political divide over environmental protection has continued to grow in recent decades [19
], including water resource protection. Today, individuals who are politically conservative or belong to the Republican Party are generally not as concerned about the health of the environment as individuals who are politically liberal or belong to the Democratic Party [20
]. According to [22
], public engagement in water conservation behaviors increases when people are targeted with specific and appropriate information. Therefore, political affiliation and ideology may provide environmental communicators with a basepoint for effectively communicating water conservation behaviors with the public.
Conserving water in the household often involves water consumption reduction behaviors, such as turning off taps while brushing teeth and installing low-flow shower heads [23
]. Numerous studies have investigated factors that predict household water consumption, including sociodemographic characteristics [1
], attitudes and values [24
], and water consumption behaviors [27
]. However, previous literature forgoes the effect that an individual’s political affiliation and ideology may have on household water consumption. Environmental communicators need to understand how the public engages with environmental issues in order to effectively communicate about water conservation. Therefore, this study goes beyond past research to determine if individual political affiliation and ideology predicted household water conservation behaviors.
1.1. Theory of Planned Behavior
The theory of planned behavior [28
] (TPB), which has been used previously to study intent to adopt water conservation behaviors [1
], models behavioral decision-making. Three variables are included in the TPB that serve to predict an individual’s intent to engage in a behavior: attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control [28
] (Figure 1
). Attitude is defined as the positive or negative values an individual has about carrying out specific behaviors. Subjective norms are defined as how specific behaviors are viewed by others who are important to an individual and if they expect the behavior to be performed or not. Perceived behavioral control is defined as how an individual’s perception of a behavior is under volitional control [28
]. The strongest predictor of an individual’s behavior change is an intention to engage in that specific behavior [28
The TPB has been successfully applied in numerous fields and studies, including environmental practices [33
] and, more specifically, water conservation behaviors, e.g., [1
]. For example, ref. [16
] examined strategies for encouraging the use of water-saving technologies and practices and found individuals who were highly engaged in water conservation practices also reported high levels of subjective norms, perceived behavioral control, and attitudes towards adopting water-saving technologies. Ref. [37
] examined determinants of green stormwater infrastructure being installed by residents on their properties with TPB and found social norms and perceived control factors determined residents’ decisions to install green stormwater infrastructure. The researchers in [29
] investigated determinants of Bulgarian households’ intention to engage in water conservation with the TPB and found attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control each significantly predicted water conservation intention.
One critique of the TPB for predicting natural resource conservation is that it only encompasses basic variable-effect relationships [23
]. However, extended models of the TPB have been used successfully with natural resource conservation behaviors [32
] and the importance of investigating additional moderating effects for the framework are acknowledged in the literature [39
]. For example, ref. [14
] examined TPB relationships between attitudes, subjective norms, perceived behavioral control, personal norms, demographic factors, and past behaviors on intent to engage in good irrigation practices in Florida and found subjective norms, perceived behavioral control, personal norms, past behaviors, and demographic factors (sex and age) were significant predictors of respondents’ intent to engage.
1.2. Political Affiliation and Ideology
Historically, political affiliation and ideology were strong indicators of environmental protection efforts [21
]. For the purpose of this study, a “political party identification” [20
] (p. 354) is defined as an individual’s political affiliation. There are two major political affiliations within the U.S.: Democratic (31% of the public) and Republican (26% of the public) parties. In addition, 38% of the U.S. public is registered as Independent voters, who are non-affiliated but often lean towards Democrat or Republican political stances [40
]. Members of the Democratic Party are generally concerned about environmental protection and their political agenda includes environmental issues [20
]. According to [21
], “the Democratic Party has made significant efforts to preserve and protect the environment and emphasizes that understanding the importance of America’s natural resources […] is imperative for future generations” (p. 55). Conversely, members of the Republican Party are not usually as concerned with environmental protection as the Democratic party and think too much money has been spent by the government on environmental issues [21
Political ideology is defined as the shared principals, beliefs, and values that people use to view the world around them [20
]. In the U.S., political ideology groups the public into conservatives, moderates, and liberals. Individuals who identify as liberal are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behavior than those who identify as conservative [43
]. Typically, liberals are associated with the Democratic Party and conservatives are associated with the Republican Party [20
]. However, political affiliation should be examined separately from political ideology [44
] because the ability of political affiliation to predict environmental concern is conflicting, e.g., [45
]. Liberalism, on the other hand, consistently predicts a positive and significant relationship with environmental concern, e.g., [46
The TPB has been evaluated in conjunction with numerous demographic variables (e.g., age, gender, household size, household income, and education), but little is known about the influence of political affiliation and ideology on intent to engage in water conservation behavior (Figure 2
). The researchers in [21
] evaluated the effect of political affiliation on water conservation behaviors and interest in water-based education programs and found political affiliation did not influence water conservation behavior but Democrats were more interested in water-based education programs than Republicans. They [21
] acknowledged several limitations of the study, namely only exploring political affiliation and recommended including political ideology in future studies.
There is an urgent need to develop new communication and education techniques to spread information about water conservation practices as the freshwater supply rapidly depletes [51
]. The TPB offers data to environmental communicators that can be applied in campaigns/programs targeting behavior change [52
]. Therefore, environmental communicators must determine the most effective way to disseminate information about water conservation to the public and political affiliation and ideology may provide a basepoint.
The purpose of this study was to determine if political affiliation, political ideology, and TPB variables predict water conservation intention. The following objectives guided the study:
Describe respondents’ political affiliation, political ideology, attitude towards water conservation, subjective norms around water conservation, perceived behavioral control towards water conservation, and self-reported intent to engage in water conservation behaviors; and
Determine if political affiliation, political ideology, attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control predicted self-reported intent to engage in water conservation behaviors.
4. Discussion and Recommendations
This study added to the literature by determining if political affiliation, political ideology, and TPB variables related to water conservation predicted intent to engage in water conservation so that water conservation messaging can be further tailored to specific audiences. Several limitations of this study should be acknowledged prior to the interpretation of the results; including the measurement of political affiliation and ideology. The geographic location of respondents may have altered how political ideology and affiliation were reported. For example, the principals, beliefs, and values of a liberal-minded individual may differ in the state of California as compared to the state of Georgia. In addition, respondents may be apolitical or not have the capability to critically evaluate the sources they use to inform their political stance. Another limitation was the unknown influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on the respondents participating in the survey given the pandemic was present at the time of data collection. The COVID-19 pandemic may also exacerbate the limitations of online surveys because only residents with internet access at home or work (if they were able to go to work) had the ability to participate in the study [59
]. In addition, the survey items were directed at water conservation behavior in the home rather than water conservation behavior of a political nature (i.e., voting on water policy), which may account for the discrepancy between the present study and recent literature [44
Despite these limitations, the results do have implications for environmental communicators trying to effectively disseminate information concerning water conservation. The results indicated political affiliation, political ideology, attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control predicted respondents’ self-reported intent to engage in water conservation behavior. Similar findings were reported by [29
] that found attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control had a positive effect on intent to engage in water conservation. In addition, these results are in line with [14
] that demonstrated additional variables (e.g., personal norms and demographic factors) used in conjunction with TPB variables increased the ability to predict respondents’ intent to engage in water-saving irrigation practices. Thus, similar to previous studies, the TPB variables with additional predictors were effective at predicting intended behavior.
The final regression model that examined how political affiliation, political ideology, attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control predicted self-reported intent to engage in water conservation explained the largest degree of variance. While the findings indicated political affiliation predicted self-reported intent to engage in water conservation behavior, they do not align with the literature which has revealed Democrats are more likely to engage in water conservation behaviors than Republicans (Pew Research 2013). It is possible that the year the study was conducted or additional demographic variables moderated the relationship with political affiliation, which has been found in previous studies on environmental concern [44
]. Considering the politically contentious nature of events in 2020 [62
], future studies may benefit from including political affiliation and ideology in their analysis to determine if the relationship shifts. The findings support the historical assertation that liberalism is consistently a positive and significant predictor of concern for the environment [44
]. Future studies will benefit from determining reasons why members of each political affiliation and ideology did not have the same levels of intent to engage in water conservation behaviors as Very Liberal individuals did [21
]. Perhaps focus groups should be conducted to determine barriers to water conservation among individuals who identify as liberal, moderate, or conservative and also Democrat, Republican, and Independent to broaden the literature base in this area.
Although the final regression model that examined how political affiliation, political ideology, attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control predicted self-reported intent to engage in water conservation explained 27.5% of variance in the outcome measure, the increased variance accounted for was attributed to TPB variables. Thus, future studies should determine additional predictors for respondents’ intent to engage in water conservation behaviors. Environmental communicators should work with individuals regardless of political affiliation and ideology to increase intent to engage in water conservation behaviors because the mean intent to engage in water conservation behaviors score can be improved. Volunteer opportunities that benefit water resource protection, such as stream or wetland cleanups, engage individuals in the natural environment while also providing educational opportunities [63
]. It is important that volunteer events incorporate educational opportunities for participants to increase awareness of current issues and maximize positive environmental outcomes. In addition, volunteer opportunities offer experiences that may increase an individual’s subjective norms around water conservation as volunteers meet new people and work with friends who are also engaged in the environment [63
]. Moreover, emphasis on economic impacts from utilizing water saving behaviors via basic communication may need to be addressed across all political affiliations and ideologies to promote water conservation behaviors [21
The mean attitude and perceived behavioral control exhibited by respondents indicated agreement; thus, communicators need to focus on presenting information that increases subjective norms because there is more room for growth. Perhaps subjective norms may be influenced by opinion leaders who “tend to have more influence on peoples’ opinions, actions, and behaviors than traditional forms of media” [34
] (p. 1109). Environmental communicators should work with opinion leaders to target subjective norms towards water conservation by initiating conversations, ultimately playing a role in an individual’s intent to engage in water conservation behaviors [64
]. Another way to increase subjective norms is to encourage these opinion leaders to engage in mentor/mentee relationships where they, as individuals who participate in water conservation programs or have knowledge about water conservation practices, mentor individuals who do not typically engage in water conservation behaviors. Environmental communicators may want to target individuals who have a Very Liberal political ideology by training them as an opinion leader so they are prepared to engage in relationships to foster subjective norms towards water conservation behaviors [65
In addition, environmental communicators should work with homeowners’ associations (HOA) to influence subjective norms by increasing signage or enacting programs about water conservation behaviors [3
]. For example, a homeowner within an HOA that abides by a certain number of best management practices that conserve water would receive a sign they can put in their yard that indicates they are water conscious or water friendly. Neighbors would see this sign and make them more aware of their own behaviors. The reciprocal effect could create a large amount of change. Future research could examine how different types of signs or verbiage influence the intensity with which a subjective norms campaign obtains traction within a community.