Cognitive Dissonance (Why Did I Do It?)

When a seemingly normal fellow hauls 20 yards of soil to the roof of his commercial building and starts to grow vegetables, the questions emerges—why did he do it?


Things aren’t done for one reason, so I won’t try to address this question with one installment.  Rather, we’ll have an ongoing series where I provide reasons (and explanations) for this somewhat eccentric and obsessive project.


The first reason is cognitive dissonance.  I knew about global warming and had been alerted to and had thought through some of its likely consequences long before I started to take any action.  I knew that “unsustainable” means, “we can’t keep doing it like this,” but I kept on doing what I was doing.  I think I even realized, or had begun to, that my generation will have to initiate one of the greatest and far reaching changes in recent history, or at the very least will have it forced upon us.  But for many years, these realizations didn’t create any drastic differences in my daily life.


But the dissonance eventually grew too loud, and at a time when I was able to learn new things and receive a tremendous opportunity all in a short time.  Together they conspired.  The cognitive dissonance was only one part, but still important.  I still have plenty of dissonance—and I’m sure, plenty of denial to boot.  Compared to the changes we are all going to have to make to nearly every aspect of our lives, I’ve barely scratched the surface.  However, starting is hard; but once you get up and start walking, its easier to keep going, and that’s how I feel right now.


This was all started before I was taught about the concept of Peak Oil, which is far more immediate and promises far more economic, social, and political disruption than climate change.  If you are not familiar with the concept of Peak Oil, or if it doesn’t make your blood run cold, I beg of you: read about it, think about it, talk about it.  Please.  Very briefly, Peak Oil is the moment when global production of oil reaches its peak.  Why is this important?  Because up until that point, supply will have always been able to meet demand.  Excepting for small fluctuations in the market, the cost of oil, as well as the demand for it, is determined the cost it takes to extract it.  Imagine what happens when it becomes a precious commodity, when there is not as much oil as the world needs to maintain its current and basic functions.  It may seem innocuous, but let this concept soak in a bit.  Peak Oil will shake our every foundation.


So the rooftop farm feels like a step towards a sustainable future.  Except for all the oil it took to get the soil and haul it to the roof, my vegetables have largely broken their addiction to oil.  Having taken that step, having addressed my cognitive dissonance—taken it in, befriended it, invited it to all my private conversations as well as some public—my outlook on everything has changed.  Most significantly is the way I now am compelled to evaluate so many of my behaviors, routines, and expectations in terms of their dependence on fossil fuels.  It’s difficult to name any aspect of our lives whose particularities don’t depend on cheap and abundant liquid fossil fuel.  I cannot think of anything that would remain the same were the price of crude oil to reach the prices we can expect within the next 10 – 20 years, if not sooner (some geologists believe we may be at Peak Oil right now).  Look how defenseless we were in the face of $4.00/gallon gas and diesel (it should be noteworthy how little discussion there is tying our current economic “downturn” to the spike in fuel prices last year).  These low prices will, I promise you, soon be as quaint as a dime-store.


Let’s not fool ourselves: compact fluorescent lightbulbs and the Toyota Prius are also not   sustainable, at least as we now use them and generally expect to in the future.  Separating our tons of trash into neat, color-coded containers once a week is not a bad thing, but will some day look like bailing water on the Titanic with a drinking glass.  Close your eyes and imagine your life in 20 or 30 years?  Does it look more or less like your current life–or maybe like the life of people who are now 20 or 30 years older than you?  Well here’s the hard news: it won’t because it can’t.  It’s just not possible, any more than it is possible to burn your house down and then crawl into your bed.


So what do you do with this knowledge?  Well here’s where I get a bit preachy.  If you know and understand these impending changes, how can you not make obsessive changes yourself?  How can you not excoriate your every expectation?  How can the end of life as we have come to expect it not be the focus of your life today?  How can you keep on going as though everything is fine and dandy?   What’s the plan here, gang?  How are we going to deal with this?


These aren’t only rhetorical questions.  It’s pretty easy to avoid change and very difficult to make it.  Think of the awful resistance there would be if we were told that our cars could only have 50 h.p. instead of our ridiculously expected 100, 200, even 300?  Think of the riots that would ignite if our governments imposed a realistic tax on fuel (I’m sure we would see some well-meaning progressives within that wild throng)!   Think how we hoity-toity liberals would react if we were told, no more trips to Europe, no more road-trips to the mountains?  Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if such laws were declared, or if such plans became prohibitively expensive?  And big picture, this sort of change doesn’t even scratch the surface.


Personally, I did nothing for a long, long time after I knew something needed to be done, and in most aspects of my life still live entirely unsustainably—I drive, most of my food is still shipped from far away, I aspire to travel to far away places, my wife and I have a 1200 sq. ft. house, we work to make money to buy things rather than work to make things: what here doesn’t depend on cheap and abundant fossil fuels?   If we hope as a culture, a nation, and a planet, to have a soft landing (or rather, one that doesn’t end in a fiery wreck), we’re going to have to initiate perhaps the greatest self-imposed revolution of expectations in the history of our species.   This is not easy.  Who wants to give up, sacrifice, or alter every dream they’ve had, every vision of the future they enjoy?  Cognitive maps are etched.  They can’t just be redrawn.  Only an awesome amount of focused cartography can even get us started.


On the roof, though, as my plants absorb the sunlight, I have good opportunity to absorb some of this—take it in and cushion its impact.  Both are important.  From that vantage point—I’ll infuse some hope here—new expectations can begin to take shape, and they’re not bad, not bad at all.  And if I appear to be muttering to myself up there, I’m really just talking to my cognitive dissonance.


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