Moody Water: The Problem of Personification in Environmental Writing

Listening to public radio a couple of days ago, I heard Rupa Shenoy’s report on water for The World, which examines the drought in California and the snowstorms in New England and describes the impacts shifting weather patterns have on these regions. I was struck by the language Shenoy uses to describe these shifts and the relationships between water itself and the people affected by it. “Water might as well be a person,” she begins. “It has moods like a person: maybe a running brook when it’s happy; a gentle rain when it’s blue; a storm when it’s angry.” This personification runs throughout the piece: water actively comes and goes places; it “rejected California in favor of the northeast”; it needs to be “allowed to be itself.” Although Shenoy’s piece includes good information about both climate shifts and responses to it, her use of personification is troubling both in general and in the particular way this plays out in the piece.

Personification and anthropomorphism are powerful and potentially dangerous tools. They can be useful and can help create connections between us and the nonhuman entities or creatures we describe this way. Sometimes, personification and anthropomorphism help us see connections and similarities that already exist instead of continually separating ourselves from the nonhuman. But giving water emotions and ascribing intention to its movements is not one of these times. Doing so may not actually lead NPR listeners to think that water can feel and think for itself, but it may indirectly affect the way listeners think about our own role in these movements. Rationally, we may know that water doesn’t choose to abandon California for another region, but using the language of choice and agency may reinforce an emotional sense of the natural world’s agency that isn’t grounded in reality and weaken our sense of our own culpability in climate change. If water is doing this to us, after all, we’re only the victims.

Shenoy does acknowledge humanity’s role in this shift early in her piece:

Water was the powerful one in the relationship, and it hasn’t changed — we have. For the past few hundred years, we’ve asserted ourselves, interfering with the way water’s used to doing things by covering the ground with cement and pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

However, this commentary on humanity’s actions is overshadowed by the language she uses throughout. We have interfered, but it is water’s reaction to this – its movement, its betrayal and rejection – that is at the heart of the piece and that we must adapt to. And, actually, presented in summary, that still sounds not so bad. We do need to adapt to the world and to the logic of climate. But, again, the language presents an emotional narrative that complicates matters.

Shenoy’s use of personification goes even deeper than ascribing agency to water, however. She also presents humans and water as in a troubled relationship:

Field says water will continue to favor New England. And that might be fine for a while. But he says eventually the relationship will turn … unhealthy.

This bit of foreboding is then followed up with commentary on how “water isn’t going to change. So we have to.” In her conclusion, after describing some attempts in Boston to deal with their extra water, Shenoy says,

And when it rains, water’s allowed to be itself and follow its natural path. More alleys like this one might make the difference between a pleasant visit from water and a destructive one. After all, good relationships take work.

This narrative of the relationship between humanity and water sets up water as a problem partner, maybe even an abuser. Water won’t change, we are in an unhealthy relationship, but because we’re in a relationship (and “good relationships take work”), we must work and adapt to accommodate water. This is a confusing approach. Conjuring these images of bad relationships and power imbalances is misleading and prompts unhelpful responses.

If both partners were human and one partner betrayed the other, was moody and unpredictable, and refused to change, this relationship would be identifiable as abusive. That is not a sustainable situation, and allowing the betrayer to continue down this path, allowing that person “to be [him/her]self and follow [his/her] natural path,” would be dangerous. In that situation, the mantra that “good relationships take work” could become a defensive statement, one that hides the fact that abuse is occurring.

But this is a relationship between water and humanity, not between people, so the logic of human relationships doesn’t hold up – not only is it nonsensical to accuse water of abuse, there is no way to sever ties or leave this relationship. Again, therefore, the emotional language of the piece obscures the real issues and shifts responsibility – in perception, not in reality – to the water and away from us. The reality is that this relationship – as it currently stands – isn’t sustainable, but that is not the fault of water.

It’s so tempting to use emotional appeals and techniques like personification to describe environmental issues – they are important, so they should feel important – but this piece serves as a reminder of how crucial it is for us to be careful in the way we do so.