Analyzing The Risky Road Ahead

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - July 02, 2008
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My friend said something I never, ever thought she’d say. She’s going to catch TheBus to work.


This is a woman who can talk about cars for hours with my husband (and he memorizes the fine print in all the car mags). This is a woman who had a cute little sports car back when I was riding TheBus. This is a woman who graduated to sleek BMWs and then to an SUV because it was “cool;” who had a boyfriend who owned not one, but several Jaguars; who used to tease me because I couldn’t tell one car from another.

Now she’s planning to take TheBus.

She’s not the only one. People are changing their habits. Anyone doubting that a rail system will be well used should take a hard look at what’s happening here. Gasoline is not going to get cheaper. In the unlikely event we see a dip in prices, it will be short-lived. If you are against rail, you are essentially saying to the thousands of people who need it, want it and would use it - the folks crawling along in rush hour hell every single workday - “tough luck. Your suffering isn’t my problem.”

Oh, but it is. It really is. And the proof is in our behavior. We’re thinking twice about that extra trip to the market just to pick up an item we forgot. We’re taking a closer look at those hybrid cars. We’re seeing ads on TV for low, low prices and no-interest financing on big cars and trucks that dealers are having a hard time moving out of their showrooms. We’re taking “stay-cations” instead of vacations.

I’m reading an interesting book titled The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. One of the things author Amanda Ripley talks about is how we process risk. The experts who study such things have concluded that we are, sadly, not rational creatures. We like to think we are. We like to think that we see risks around us, tally them up and then take appropriate action. But apparently that’s not what we do. According to Paul Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon and a respected researcher of risk behavior, people rely on two systems: the analytical and the intuitive. These systems jockey for dominance and override each other all the time. When we’re in intuitive mode, we rely on emotion and are likely to fall back on behaviors that worked for us in the past. We make snap decisions based on what our gut tells us. When the analytical takes over, we assess the situation, measure the pros and cons, and methodically and logically build to a conclusion.

We need both systems to survive, obviously. But right now we’re looking at a slow-moving potential disaster that should have us leaning toward the analytical. Some of us remember what happened the last time there was a gasoline shortage and prices spiked. Folks panicked. They waited in long lines at gas stations and hoarded gasoline in their backyards and vowed they would change their wasteful ways. Then prices stabilized. Everybody just figured things weren’t as bad as they’d thought and they all went back to their old gas-guzzling ways. “See?” they told each other. “We always end up OK. Everything’s going to be all right, and life goes on as usual. No need to change our lives.”

Since the risk now is to our long-term survival, there will be the temptation to fall back on our emotional, illogical responses. If prices dip, even just a little, we’ll say, “See? Things always work out for the best,” and we’ll go back to our old ways. We’ll lose the will to make painful choices.

This time, we have to resist. This time, we’re going to have to listen to our analytical sides. We’re going to have to look at the evidence, weigh our options, calculate the risks and take appropriate action. That will mean stepping out of our comfort zone and modifying our ideas about what constitutes a “normal” life. If “normal” means having a wind farm on a ridge overlooking prime real estate, we’ll have to get used to it. If “normal” means investing in new technology to fuel our transportation and energy needs, we’ll have to cough up the cash. If “normal” means chucking those inefficient, old-technology incandescent light bulbs for newer, smarter, more responsible options like CFLs or LEDs, then we’ll do it. And if “normal” means taking TheBus or rail to get to work, so be it.

Anyone who doubts that our individual behavior and collective goals have to change has got a serious case of denial. As in all disasters, denial - if it lasts too long - can mean the difference between life and death. We can’t afford such silliness now.

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