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Normalcy Bias: What Dirty USPS Trucks Can Teach Us About The Climate Emergency

A recent piece by my colleague Steve covered the disaster that the rollout of USPS trucks has become. I won’t rehash it all here, but I did want to focus on one of the biggest issues: efficiency. Then, I’m going to explain why societies often struggle to prepare for emergencies. Normalcy bias keeps us from wanting to make changes, even in the face of things that require change.

USPS Didn’t Improve Its Environmental Footprint

This tweet really sums it up:

In other words, USPS contracted to purchase new trucks that aren’t much better than the old ones. Absent some sort of hybrid technology, internal combustion engines tend to perform very poorly when doing low-speed stop-and-go driving, so the new trucks will get pretty similar mileage to the old ones, and probably have similar emissions.

Why USPS Did This

As I pointed out in another article, there’s an urgent need to replace the aging USPS delivery fleet. The iconic Grumman LLV was largely based on 1980s Chevrolet S-10 pickups, but with a different body that serves the needs of the Postal Service. The last of these LLVs were built in 1994, so even the newest LLV is 28 years old. In people years, 28 is still young, but in car years, 28 is past the age where most vehicles hit the retirement home (read: the local pick-and-pull).

To really understand the dilemma USPS is in, you have to ask yourself, “How many older Chevy S-10 pickups do I see on the road?” Unless you live next door to an S-10 fanatic, the answer is probably “Not many.”

When a vehicle’s last owner starts to experience too many problems, it almost always ends up in the junkyard. Then, once people stop wanting parts from it, it gets sent to the crusher and melted down for steel. The old car you once loved but gave up decades ago? It very well may be in the rebar for the concrete on a bridge you drive over every day. Sure, with a lot of work, a vehicle with sentimental, collectible, or sporting value can be lovingly restored, but that doesn’t happen to most vehicles. The cost is just too high.

Today’s fleet of postal trucks now lives with one foot in the junkyard and one on the road. Breakdowns are common, but that’s only a minor inconvenience as you can send another truck and tow the other one to the shop. The real problem is that the old LLVs have developed a nasty habit of catching fire. Old wiring, rubber hoses, and gaskets just aren’t holding up despite USPS’ best efforts at maintaining them.

So, yes, USPS didn’t get a truck that’s more environmentally friendly, but it did come up with a way to rapidly get the current fleet replaced with newer trucks at a price it could afford. The new ones won’t fill your neighborhood with smoke and destroy your important mail (but let’s be honest, most of the smoke will be from junk mail). Letter carriers are also going to be quite happy to get air conditioning, better crash safety, and backup cameras, among other things that the old LLVs didn’t come with. So, yes, this will be a worthwhile upgrade if you care about your neighborhood postal worker’s well-being at all.

To replace the fleet with EVs instead of gas vehicles, USPS needs money. There was a bill to give it the needed funds to do that ($6 billion), but that bill didn’t go anywhere. Now, the Biden Administration wants to take the USPS to court and force it to do something more environmentally friendly, but without providing it with the money it would need to actually do it.

Why The US Government Doesn’t Want To Spend The Money (Normalcy Bias)

The lazy explanation is to blame it all on Republicans, Joe Manchin, etc.. If you’re a Democrat who’s left of Manchin, that’s satisfying because it puts the blame on other people and keeps your own camp who would have passed it free of any responsibility. But, being politically satisfying doesn’t solve anything. To be productive on this, we need to look deeper and come up with ways to fix the problem instead of playing the blame game.

Fortunately, the academic literature is full of answers if we know where to look. To look in the right place, we need to first admit that climate change is an emergency. It’s a slow-moving disaster. Researchers have been studying the effects of disaster on individuals, communities, and society as a whole for decades, and there’s a lot of information available from these studies.

Instead of pointing readers to a bunch of dry academic studies, I’ll instead point to a book on my shelf that sums it up for you in a way that’s easy to understand. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why, by Amanda Ripley, does a good enough job of this to be required reading in a master’s degree program in emergency management that I’m getting toward the end of. We can find a more solid answer on the USPS truck starting in Chapter 1.

When facing disaster, many people just don’t want to face that there is actually a disaster. Veteran firefighters frequently see people stand around in burning buildings, frozen in place or doing mental gymnastics to explain what’s going on without admitting that they need to move to survive. People will literally sit in a bar that’s on fire and keep drinking, and tell firemen that “Everything’s OK” when they suggest leaving the burning building. Even in the World Trade Center in September 11, 2001, people took an average of 6 full minutes before they’d leave their desks and start to evacuate.

The problem? Normalcy bias. When you face disaster, normalcy bias tells you that disasters happen to other people, or that this isn’t a disaster. It’s a form of denial that leads people to “mill about” instead of evacuating a dangerous area, or spend time collecting things from desks before leaving. When seconds count, normalcy bias can lead you to spend minutes you don’t have delaying your personal response.

Do you know who didn’t take 6 minutes? The employees at Morgan Stanley. Its Director of Security, seasoned multi-nation veteran Rick Rescorla, thought years in advance that planes would be used against the Twin Towers, probably packed with explosives. The planes ended up being airliners instead of cargo planes, and the explosive was jet fuel, but the effects were largely what Rescorla predicted.

The people he was in charge of protecting did what they had done several times during evacuation drills most companies didn’t bother with, and quickly escaped the building. Rescorla and other security personnel went back into the building to send people working for other companies out, saving hundreds more lives. Unfortunately, they were still doing this when the building collapsed.

The Climate Emergency Has Lots of Normalcy Bias

Even people who know there’s an emergency aren’t taking action. Sure, the climate is negatively affected by inefficient vehicles, but it’s other people who need to make the changes, not them. Funding EVs for the USPS isn’t important enough to interrupt other things we’re doing, just like evacuating the World Trade Center seemed less important than what was going on at people’s desks.

What we really need are more Rick Rescorlas for the climate emergency, especially in public office. Instead of telling us that everything is OK and to keep doing what we’re doing, we need forward-thinking leaders who build up public trust and save political capital for a rainy day. Instead, we have backward-thinking cowards in public office who aren’t willing to lead us down the stairwell to safety. It might cost billions in a country that readily spends trillions, but it’s worth the cost.

Featured image by US Postal Service.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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