Great Lakes Connections - Rob de Loe

Rob De loe at Great Lakes Water Quality Board

SERS brings together a diverse group of people focused on tackling the profound ecological and social issues confronting humanity. We’re interested in different kinds of problems, but we all seem to like rolling up our sleeves and getting involved. As a result, we often find ourselves working with or alongside the people experiencing the problems we study, or implementing solutions.

For most of the last three decades, I’ve worked on water issues across Canada and around the world. Paradoxically, until the last few years I spent more time on far away regions like the Mackenzie River basin in northern Canada than I did in my own backyard, in the Great Lakes Basin. That changed in 2014, when I accepted an appointment as the Canadian Co-Chair of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

Working for the International Joint Commission (IJC) has been a fabulous way to help protect and restore the waters of the Great Lakes. The IJC’s Water Quality Board brings together 28 people from all walks of life who are dedicated to the lakes. We advise the Commission on its responsibilities under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States, conduct research on current and emerging challenges, and engage the wider basin community on water issues.

My involvement with the IJC builds on a long history of Great Lakes connections in SERS. Faculty and students from SERS and its predecessors have been actively engaged in research and activism in the Great Lakes Basin since the 1970s. For instance, Distinguished Professor Emeritus George Francis, one of the founding members of the forerunner of SERS, and still an active member of our community, worked closely with the IJC and was instrumental in developing and promoting ecosystem-based approaches to protecting and restoring the lakes.

One thing I didn’t expect when I joined the Water Quality Board was the number of other connections to SERS. Twice per year the co-Chairs are required to appear before the Commissioners. In the picture that headlines this story, taken at the recent semi-annual meeting of the IJC in Ottawa, three of the five people have a link to SERS! Here we’re just about to begin our presentation to the Commissioners. Joining the co-Chairs for this presentation are several members of the Board.

On the far left side in the picture is Gayle Wood, who received her BES from SERS’s forerunner the Department of Man-Environment Studies in 1976, and may have taken courses taught by George Francis; Gayle retired recently from a long career in public service, most recently serving as the Chief Administrative Officer for three of Ontario’s conservation authorities. Second from the right is John Jackson, a life-long environmental leader and activist in the basin; John’s connection to SERS is via ERS 317 Waste Management, a course he has taught for the last five years. And in the centre, looking sombre, is me – SERS faculty member since 2008. The other Board members in the picture are Dave Ullrich, the US Co-Chair of the Board (to my left), and Russ Powers, a former Member of Parliament and municipal councillor for Hamilton (to my right). With us that day, but not in the picture, are members Jane Elder (Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters) and Sandra Cooper (Mayor, Town of Collingwood), and Board Secretary Antonette Arvai.

The members of the Water Quality Board are mostly volunteers, who contribute enormous amounts of time and energy to helping make the waters of the Great Lakes Basin swimmable, drinkable and fishable.  Working with these people is a privilege, and an outstanding opportunity to deliver on SERS’s mission of helping to protect, restore, reform and transform social and ecological systems.

More than a playground for ghosts and zombies. Cemeteries, mortablity fears and our landscape prefernces - Sarah WolfeArlington-National-Cemetery-in AutumnMy “official” research work is focused on the social psychological aspects of water decisions.  But as a SERS professor – a job where curiousity is valued – I find that my ‘work brain’ often sees interesting patterns in other places. Happy Halloween!


Living beside a cemetery is never boring and, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t quiet. There are kids taking shortcuts on the walk to school, old married couples strolling and bickering, yappy dogs harassing squirrels, and teenagers – on dark summer nights – daring each other to do silly things.

But what do we hear most often? Humankinds’ desperate attempt to bring meaning to their existence when confronted with their inevitable mortality. In other words, the incessant drone of lawnmowers and weed-eaters. 

Municipalities spend huge amounts of money each year on cemetery upkeep. I speak from experience: I paid my way through university working for an Ontario municipality. While back then we never watered the grass – and lawn fertilizer wasn’t required for obvious reasons— I spent literally hundreds of hours over multiple summers running the mowers and weed-eaters that kept the cemetery tidy for mourners.

Our societal need to maintain cemeteries as pleasant, park-like settings – headstones in neat rows, trees planted, grass trimmed, wilted flowers removed – is understandable. Confronting death makes many of us uncomfortable – we’d rather not think about the unthinkable. And we have well-developed psychological defenses to avoid doing so.

People repress mortality knowledge and make themselves feel better by seeking celebrity, donating to charities, offering countless community volunteer hours, buying expensive toys or having children. Each in our own way, we create legacies that will hopefully extend beyond our biological existence. These legacy efforts help us defend against the in-the-moment prickly awareness that we will die one day.

Which brings us back to the relentless lawnmower.  When reminded of our mortality, humans repress that awareness by distancing themselves from, and seeking control over, nature. Social psychology research has shown that people who are reminded of their mortality are more likely to prefer cultivated landscapes and also try to discipline a ‘wild’ space. For thousands of generations, manipulating a landscape became the way to protect ourselves from an inherently dangerous world.  Most, if not all, human societies have shown themselves particularly adept at dominating their natural environment. For those of us interested in history and the environment, we could ask if mortality awareness is what underlies our relentless acquisition of territory and consumption of resources.

And since there is no more explicit mortality reminder than walking through a cemetery, it makes sense that we want that particular environment to be tamed. If we must think about our mortality then our psychology demands that we gain some sense of control.  But since we don’t actually have much control over when, where or how, we try to make the final resting place of our ancestors – and eventually ourselves – tidy and peaceful.

For more on these issues, see:

Theory: Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Thirty Years of Terror Management Theory: From Genesis to Revelation. In Olson J. M., Zanna M. P. (Eds.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 1-70).

Water Applications: Wolfe, S.E. & Brooks, D. (2016). Mortality awareness and water decisions: A social psychological analysis of supply management, demand management and soft path paradigms. Water International.