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Humankind’s Love-Hate Attraction to Water

Two days ago, I posted a story about a community on the Bolivar Peninsula that Hurricane Ike totally destroyed. Owners have virtually rebuilt it. This isn’t a unique story. Around the world, around the county, on coast after coast and river after river, similar stories abound. FEMA calls floods the most common form of natural disaster. The Agency says Americans have a 26 percent chance of experiencing a flood during the life of a 30-year mortgage, compared to a four percent chance of fire. So people obviously love water views despite the risk. They even pay a premium for them. Why is there such an attraction to water?

Pragmatic Attractions

Historically, oceans were our earliest highways and busiest trade routes.

Water attracts us for other logical reasons, too. We need water for drinking, cooking and bathing. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each person in the United States uses eighty to one hundred gallons of water every day for what we consider our “basic needs.” The United Nations declared, “Safe and clean drinking water is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life.” We can’t live without it. But given modern technology and our ability to pump water over long distances, pragmatic considerations alone cannot explain our attraction to it.

Oceans and rivers also provide abundant protein year round. Wallace Nichols, author of the Blue Mind, wrote in Salon.com that, “The number of food and material resources provided in or near the water often trumped what could be found on land. The supply of plant-based and animal food sources may vanish in the winter, Eriksen observed, but our ancestors could fish or harvest shellfish year-round. And because the nature of water is to move and flow, instead of having to travel miles to forage, our ancestors could walk along a shore or riverbank and see what water had brought to them or what came to the water’s edge.”*

Biological Attractions

Nichols, also notes that, “Our innate relationship to water goes far deeper than economics, food, or proximity, however. Our ancient ancestors came out of the water and evolved from swimming to crawling to walking. Human fetuses still have “gill-slit” structures in their early stages of development, and we spend our first nine months of life immersed in the “watery” environment of our mother’s womb.”

“When we’re born, our bodies are approximately 78 percent water. As we age, that number drops to below 60 percent — but the brain continues to be made of 80 percent water. The human body as a whole is almost the same density as water, which allows us to float. In its mineral composition, the water in our cells is comparable to that found in the sea. Science writer Loren Eiseley once described human beings as “a way that water has of going about, beyond the reach of rivers.”

Psychological Attractions

Nichols cites the story of researchers at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom. In 2010, they asked forty adults to rate more than one hundred pictures of different natural and urban environments. Respondents gave higher ratings for positive mood, preference, and perceived restorativeness to any picture containing water, whether it was in a natural landscape or an urban setting, as opposed to those photos without water.

One of my close friends and photographic mentors is Gary Faye. Faye is one of America’s greatest living landscape photographers. His images exude serenity and often mystery…as in this shot of a swing in the Salton Sea. At a root level, it says, “This doesn’t belong here.” Much like the homes once destroyed by Ike, rebuilt just feet from the Gulf of Mexico on a dwindling spit of sand barely five feet above sea level.

“Swingset, Salton Sea” (c) 2019 Gary Faye. Used with artist’s permission. All rights reserved.

Years ago, Faye told me that his images showing water outsold his other work by a considerable margin. He has since refined his explanation. “It’s not just the presence of water in the image,” he says. “It’s the sense of peacefulness and serenity that it communicates.”

Indi Maxon writing in Basmati agrees. “Spending time near natural bodies of water instills a feeling of calmness and ease of mind.”

Population Distribution Reflects Attraction to Water

Regardless of the reason, you can see people’s preference for living near water in the world’s population distribution. Recent studies have shown that the overwhelming bulk of humanity is concentrated along or near coasts on just 10% of the earth’s land surface.

In the United States, counties directly on the shoreline constitute less than 10 percent of the total land area (not including Alaska), but account for 39 percent of the total population. From 1970 to 2010, the population of these counties increased by almost 40% and are projected to increase by an additional 10 million people or 8% by 2020. Coastal areas are substantially more crowded than the U.S. as a whole, and population density in coastal areas will continue to increase in the future. In fact, says NOAA…

The population density of coastal shoreline counties is over six times greater than the corresponding inland counties.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s official population estimates, Between 1960 and 2008, the population in coastline counties along the Gulf of Mexico soared by 150 percent, more than double the rate of increase of the nation’s population as a whole.

Eight of the top ten largest cities in the world are located by coastlines.

As of 1998, over half the population of the planet — about 3.2 billion people — lives and works in a coastal strip just 200 kilometers wide (120 miles), while a full two-thirds, 4 billion, are found within 400 kilometers of a coast.

Living and Dying with the Water Paradox

So are people who build homes mere feet from the shoreline crazy? Or are others crazy for thinking they are crazy? It would seem that:

  • Proximity to water is hardwired into our DNA
  • Living near water, which has both benefits and dangers, is the norm.

I call this attraction to living in a danger zone the Water Paradox. What to do about it? You can’t fight it. Maybe we just need to plan and build better. Personally, I’m still searching for answers.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/4/2019

705 Days since Hurricane Harvey

*Excerpted from “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do” by Wallace J. Nichols. Copyright © 2014 by Wallace J. Nichols. Publisher: Little, Brown. All rights reserved.

Gary Faye teaches at Camera West in Palm Springs, California and photographs throughout the West.