The Psychology of Place in an Emerging Energy Crisis

By wmliu on Flickr

Cognitive Dissonance

n. Psychology. A condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistency between one’s beliefs and one’s actions


On the surface, the definition of ‘cognitive dissonance’ sounds very similar to ‘hypocrisy’. But the difference between the two lies in a matter of consciousness. The hypocrite’s actions, for example, are divorced from self because the hypocrite does not know that his words and thoughts are out of sync with his actions. Often the hypocrite is blissfully ignorant.

Those that experience cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, know about their own hypocrisy and are in a general state of anxiety about it. Actions are out of sync with thoughts, and the self is in conflict with self because of awareness.

Bizarre as it may seem, it was these distinctions in consciousness, or states of being, that got me thinking about the potential effects of an emerging energy crisis on average Americans. As an urban planner, I’m naturally very interested in the built and natural environments, but since it is such an interdisciplinary field I often find myself thinking about the root causes and motivations behind people’s actions, interactions and decisions made with regard to their environments.

Before reading any further, I have a couple of disclaimers:

  1. I must first preface this post by stating that I am an urban planner by education and not a psychologist. Therefore, I do not claim to be an expert but instead merely an appreciator of psychology.
  2. I am not going to debate the topic of resource depletion. There are plenty of resources available for you to come to your own conclusions. This blog assumes this crisis is upon us.

I recently finished reading The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, a book about the impending energy crisis. He gives a perfect example of the oblivious hypocrisy of an educated, liberal family in his neighborhood:

One family in my neighborhood had a sign in their yard that said “War Is Not the Answer”—and had two SUVs parked in the driveway. The American public, including the educated minority, seemed eerily clueless about the connection between their own living arrangements and our problems overseas.

Similarly, I can find no better phrase than “eerily clueless” to describe our collective understanding of just how frail our way of life is when considering how expeditiously we’re exhausting our planet’s energy resources.

But who is too blame for this unconsciousness? It seems too easy a target once again to blame the media and politicians for downplaying or completely omitting the gravity of our predicament. Hell, even Forbes posted this week on the possibility that peak oil has come. But it’s quite surprising given the 24-hour shit show that is the cable and internet news networks’ sensationalism and propensity for hyperbolic drama that they haven’t picked this topic up with more veracity. Then again, maybe it isn’t surprising. Has the president come out and told us that we’re running out of oil? What would be the economic consequences of such an action? What would be the affect on crowd psychology?

Take for example the photo of the Chevy Suburban covered in environmentally conscious bumper stickers at the top of this post. I love bumper stickers for this very reason. Most of the time they unintentionally say far more about our collective cluelessness than working to promote any particular person’s cause (or hypocrisy). Another favorite of mine is the “buy local” stickers affixed to foreign cars, however, in today’s borderless world economy one could argue that their foreign car was made in the U.S. But I digress.

James Howard Kunstler talks briefly in his book about the “yuppie progressive” Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization interested in researching and promoting sustainable practices who in the 1990s was researching the potential of a “hypercar” that would run on alternative energy sources (pg. 33). It seems as though the automobile is so much a part of American culture that even those who are conscious of our energy situation have predicated a successful American future on the reliability of maintaining our auto-centric lifestyles. But is the desire for personal auto-mobility a choice, or is it one forced upon us? A sort of collective brainwashing of what we should expect, of how we should live?

Certainly Americans have a love affair with the automobile. Stories of the automobile saturate our music, film and art. The automobile practically invokes the philosophical spirit of the United States constitution. We’ve heard it all before. Cars are freedom.

But freedom from what? Is it a freedom to go places, or a freedom to escape places? Freedom from drab, monotonous suburbia? Freedom from a decrepit ghetto?

Have you ever traveled someplace you love? Think right now about an urban place that you absolutely love and makes you feel alive. Ever notice that the places you love to be rarely require a vehicle?

Disneyworld by joeshlabotnik on Flickr

I like to give the Disneyworld example. Every spring and summer break, people from all around the world travel to Orlando, Florida by the carload, spending hundreds, if not thousands, on gasoline or plane tickets. But what happens once you get to Disneyland?

You park your vehicle in the largest surface parking lot you’ve ever seen in your life, you walk half a mile to a monorail which takes you into an automobile-less world where everybody walks around the faux Disneyworld downtown, complete with shops, eateries, you name it. It’s completely fabricated, but people eat it up. Even if it’s inauthentic, people naturally are attracted to it. How is it that so many people who love their automobiles also love these quaint environments that the automobile killed?

But what can we say of those who are consciously aware of our predicament? What about those who talk the talk about living a more sustainable lifestyle, but when it comes down to it they just don’t walk the walk?

I certainly feel guilty about this. There are many actions I could take that would be much more sustainable, but for one reason or another (usually convenience) I opt for an easier alternative. I advocate for tightly knit, walkable-bikeable neighborhoods, and good, decent public transit. Yet I do not ride my bicycle as much as I should. I still use my vehicle way more than necessary.

The reality is that many of us educated, earth-conscious people have never really known what true hardship is. I grew up in a poor family with a single mother who struggled, but in comparison to much of the world, I lived in the lap of luxury. We rarely worried about food, I had a decent dwelling all of my life, and I always had clothes. I had a wonderful education. But I have never been forced to grow my own food or trade labor for clothing or make too many sacrifices to simply provide me with a suitable standard of living. All of this ease of living was based upon the ease of access to cheap fossil fuels. And we’ve built our way of life around this ease of access, many of us whom have never given it a second thought.

I bring this up, not to make anyone feel guilty for our privileges or the actions that we take that may be unsustainable. I bring it up to highlight that we have all become accustomed to the availability of these privileges and ease of unsustainable action, for convenience or otherwise. We are creatures of habit. We know that our actions or choices may be unsustainable, we make these decisions anyway, and this may cause an undercurrent of guilt in our lives.

A Street Car (Media, PA by Sandy Sorlien)

I experience this guilt on a weekly basis. I have made some lifestyle decisions that have greatly reduced my carbon footprint, such as living within 1.5 miles of my work. I can hop a bus or ride my bike if necessary. But when Monday morning comes too quickly and I hit the snooze button one too many times, it’s too easy for me to hop in my car instead of riding my bike. I have ready access  to a farmers’ market where I can purchase locally grown food much of the year, but I know I can fulfill much of my produce needs at the local supermarket for probably half the price.

I feel guilty about these decisions when I knowingly make unsustainable choices. But I also know that I’m better suited to handle an energy crisis simply because of where I have chosen to live and work. I never know the price of fuel at any given moment because it’s just not a large enough factor in my budget. But if fuel prices skyrocket tomorrow, what other ways will that affect my life? The availability and affordability of food may become a very real concern of mine, for starters. In what ways would an energy crisis affect your life if it happened tomorrow? Do you believe it could happen (blissfully ignorant)? If so, are you struggling to do anything about it?

I believe we are heading toward an extreme collective cognitive dissonance over our actions versus our beliefs if we continue to create a habitat that does not provide us with enough opportunity to make sustainable living an easy decision. And if we do find ourselves in the midst of a huge energy crisis, what will that do to us psychologically knowing that we didn’t do anything about it, or felt as though we had no control over the direction of our lives? Worse yet, what if we lived out our lives on the promise of alternative energy sources fueling our far-flung suburban and exurban lifestyles only to find ourselves collectively up shit creek without a paddle?

Philadelphia (Sandy Sorlien,

I think it’s worth mentioning that if the U.S. doesn’t collapse in on itself in the early years of an energy crisis that there’s huge potential for positive outcomes to forced sustainability. Kunstler touches on some of these potential outcomes in his chapter titled “Living in the Long Emergency” What stands out to me are the possibilities for tighter knit communities, enhanced and diversified local economies, and a thriving and lively built environment. What’s holding us back from developing and enhancing those types of environments? Do most people not prefer them already? Studies have shown that they do.

I will anecdotally state that denser, walkable communities put people and neighbors in contact with each other more often than suburban communities, strengthening the community fabric.The simple act of walking to the corner store to buy a gallon of milk provides infinite possibilities for social interaction that might not generally occur going from garage to grocery supercenter to garage again.  It builds a sense of a shared public realm and perhaps the motivation to strengthen what is mutually vested. Hell, those three dollars you spent on a gallon of milk may actually have a chance at recirculating through the local economy. The added foot traffic in a diverse, mixed-use, walkable neighborhood may keep crime to a minimum, make the neighborhood feel alive with energy, and add to its sense of place.

Working for a state housing authority, I’ve seen my fair share of programs that try to put Band Aids on our hollowed out central cities. We and others have poured billions into rehabilitating central city housing. Although I wasn’t alive while the housing projects of the 60s and 70s were being built and tore apart neighborhoods and helped to concentrate poverty. But I can tell there’s been a psychological shift and so has shifted the dialog and philosophies around around affordable housing. The younger groups coming into the community development world are much more likely to get behind sustainability, the green economy, and creating vibrant communities. And my colleagues have evolved their thinking as well to include affordable housing as just one aspect of diverse, mixed use, mixed tenure, and mixed income environments. Yet for as much money as we put into central cities, they still fail to thrive. There are glimmers of hope here in the post-industrial Midwest, but people still enjoy their suburban enclaves. Even the poor aspire toward them.

The difference I’m seeing today is that the younger crowds that I know, even those with children, are choosing to live in downtowns and closer to work. They’re choosing iPhones instead of wasting money on cars, gasoline and insurance. They’re choosing more personal time over hour-long commutes.

Will this class of people, these new urban dwellers, become tomorrow’s well positioned elite? Will the poor be pushed out to the disconnected suburbs? Are the suburbs the slums of tomorrow, even worse off than their urban counterparts of the past (right now)?

The boomers that are retiring? Half of them are still moving to Arizona and Florida, hell bent on pursuing that collective dream of individualism, and a house on a hill–no less than one half acre apart from the next, identical house. But the other half, free from their children at last, are moving out of the suburbs and into downtowns.

Where are we headed? As we enter the energy crisis in the 21st Century, we are in for a huge clash. As our unsustainable choices become harder to make, it will force people into our urban cores and along transit corridors, and those who are already well positioned to make less drastic changes to their lifestyles will thrive. There will be undeniable hardship, with some positive changes to our built environment. Cognitive dissonance in this class will give way to real concern and change. Those that are ignorant or deny the possibility of an energy crisis’ ability to threaten their current way of life may be split into two categories: those who have the means to make lifestyle changes after the fact, and those who don’t.

As a housing and community development professional, I have no doubt that in a few decades, in the late years of my career, the vast majority of my attention and all of my  energy will focus on those disadvantaged individuals who were unable to adapt to a  changing flow of resources as well as those who denied that an energy crisis would ever come, and who found themselves unprepared. My job will likely be retrofitting suburbia for density and transit as well as making sure our urban cores have enough affordable housing as prices drive sky high with demand.

In order to avert catastrophe, how do we prepare our citizens to drastically change how they perceive and relate to place?

-Bryan Robb

This entry was posted in Bicycling, book reviews, climate change, environment. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Psychology of Place in an Emerging Energy Crisis

  1. Kirk says:

    Great post, Bryan. I hope it’s widely read and appreciated. Looking forward to more.


  2. Simon says:

    Great article. I think “eerily clueless” sums up our current situation nicely 🙂
    I also love the idea of more densely arranged (I actively avoid the word “packed”) urban areas that promote social cohesion, higher quality of life and sustainable, enjoyable living.

    Unfortunately the way most towns and cities have evolved (at least in the UK) means that in practice most high population density urban areas are just densely packed without much thought to the social implications of the “design”. This means they’re either low-rent areas with high crime rates and other social problems or ultra-expensive and socially “in-cohesive” (ie nobody know’s their neighbours).

    My own view is that we should be totally re-thinking urban planning around these issues as you’ve highlighted. But also that we need to be able to *massively* scale up our ability to manufacture such environments. “Social Housing” should be somewhere that people *really* want to live for the quality of lifestyle you can have, not borderline slums as seems to be the current standard.

    Achieving this reality is easier said than done of course, but I think (to cut a long story short) the solution is automated building of urban environments using a combination of robotic construction techniques and factory based mass production.


    • Bryan says:

      Thanks, Simon. Great to hear a perspective from the U.K., particularly your feelings on density. I think I should point out that we’re not suffering from density overkill here in the U.S. We greatly need the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction of sprawl. And I’d agree with Kunstler that ultra high rise development isn’t what’s we’re going for, either, because that isn’t sustainable. But medium density developments done at a human scale and a mix of uses would go a long way to revitalizing many American cities and towns, and toward a more sustainable future. Thanks for reading!


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