New York Times Op-Ed writer Timothy Egan points out the cognitive dissonance regarding human environmental destruction and government in the wake of a mudslide in Washington that has left 25 people dead and 90 missing so far. He points out:

Here’s the “Foretold Again” part, but first, I’d like to re-define the term referred to above as "a bright, shining lie."

"In 1957, Leon Festinger, one of social psychology’s most important theorists … proposed his theory of cognitive dissonance, which describes and predicts how we humans rationalize behavior.

Dissonance occurs whenever a person simultaneously holds two inconsistent cognitions (ideas, beliefs, opinions).

For example, the belief that the world will end on a certain day is dissonant with the awareness, when the day breaks, that the world has not ended.

Festinger maintained that this state of inconsistency is so uncomfortable that people strive to reduce the conflict in the easiest way possible. They will change one or both cognitions so that they will “fit together” better. This is especially true in situations in which a person’s self-esteem is at risk.

In these circumstances, individuals will go to great lengths of distortion, denial, and self-persuasion in order to justify their past behavior. When our self-esteem has been threatened by our own past behavior, we all have a powerful tendency to become rationalizing animals.” ~Anthony R. Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, Age of Propaganda; The Psychology of Everyday Persuasion

So…You say “Oso Washington”?

I say “Love Creek Road” Ben Lomond California in the mountains above Santa Cruz, circa the winter of 1982/83.


The seven (+-) year-long drought had broken and there had been a steady regime of drizzly rain for a week or so… Then the sky opened up pouring rain on the whole Monterey Bay area for a day and more. The ground, friable from years of drought and already waterlogged, began moving downhill into the San Lorenzo River along with small creekside homes and shacks… full size redwood trees, which battered and destroyed 3 of 4 bridges entering Santa Cruz, swamping downtown in some places despite a levee, and partially inundating the smaller town of Soquel, by a ‘creek’ south of the city, and Love Creek Road, overlooking Ben Lomond, came down from the hills as well Just like the terrain overlooking Oso Washington


(A recounting of the disaster and more photos at the Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Today, if you go to the Boulder Creek Brewery north of Ben Lomond in the Santa Cruz mountains and sit in the wood-grained luncheonette type booths, they are separated by etched glass with scenes of old Boulder Creek. Horse-drawn wagons, people in period garb frozen in time, and everywhere tree stumps.

Boulder Creek, indeed most of the Santa Cruz mountains, were stripped of their trees to make the lumber to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Davenport, a small community 10 mile north of Santa Cruz on the Pacific coast, WAS THE BUSIEST shipping port on the West coast at the time moving that lumber up to the city.

70 some-odd years later, the rotten roots from all those trees let go, and Love Creek Road, at least the top, “lost altitude”, killing ten people.

But this IS NOT the ONLY example of human government’s cognitive dissonace when faced with environmental reality. To wit, also in 1983, in the geological run-up to the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989
On May 2, 1983, an earthquake of magnitude 6.5 struck the quiet farming town of Colinga, California. Although the quake caused considerable damage and destruction to the town, there was one positive result: The state of California mandated that all cities and towns assess how local buildings would fare in a large earthquake and begin to take steps to minimize that damage.

In the city of Santa Cruz (where we live), Dave Steeves, a respected engineer, was charged with the task of preparing such an earthquake audit. Steeves identified 175 buildings that would suffer severe damage in a large earthquake, many of which were located in the Pacific Garden Mall area, the picturesque downtown shopping area of Santa Cruz. This area was particularly vulnerable to earthquake damage because many of the buildings were constructed of unreinforced masonry and, in addition, were built on sandy landfill, which tends to magnify the effects of a quake.

What was the reaction of the Santa Cruz city council to Steeves’s report?

A rational response would have been to evaluate carefully what he had to say. Did his arguments about unreinforced masonry and sandy landfill make sense? Did he do a complete inspection of the town? Once satisfied that Steeves’s argument was sound, a rational person would then have turned to a search for solutions—perhaps asking state and federal agencies for aid, alerting citizens to the danger, identifying immediate but low-cost ways of improving safety, marshaling local citizens to help with the situation, and so on. Indeed, Steeves identified at least one such low-cost solution.

But this was not the reaction of the town to Steeves’s news. Instead, his report was dismissed by the city council, which voted unanimously in 1987 to wait for the state of California to clarify the “nature of the state law, its options and their legal circumstances regarding the state law” and to convene a new committee to look at the issue. Steeves was called an alarmist and was charged with threatening the town with financial ruin. Many denied that a large earthquake was imminent or would even come at all. In short, Steeves’s report set off an attempt at collective dissonance reduction among town leaders.

On October 17, 1989, an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 hit Loma Prieta, a mountain area just outside Santa Cruz. Five people were killed and about 2,000 were injured in Santa Cruz County; 300 homes were destroyed and 5,000 more were seriously damaged. The Pacific Garden Mall lay in ruins. If anything, Steeves’s report had erred on the side of optimism.

As further testimony to the powerful need to reduce dissonance, one city official blamed Steeves for the lack of earthquake preparedness because his report “succeeded in having the whole issue put off by scaring people.”
Excerpted from Anthony R. Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, Age of Propaganda; The Psychology of Everyday Persuasion, Ch.4 The Rationalizing Animal. The book, in high-resolution image format, is available at OneBigTorrent. An excellent primer on Public Relations, Disinformaton and Propaganda.