Why Does Joe Rogan Love Texas Traffic?

How the "shifting baseline syndrome" obscures environmental destruction and causes the "Californication" of the Western U.S.

Joe Rogan, the famous and highly paid podcaster, has lots of opinions about traffic, population growth, and overcrowding. When he very publicly moved out of Los Angeles last year, it was after a few tirades against LA’s famous congestion and traffic.

In this clip from his podcast Joe rails against L.A.’s overcrowding and traffic:

In another clip from his podcast, he rails against overpopulation in Los Angeles:

And then Joe famously moved to Austin, Texas, where he had a very different view of traffic. As soon as he got to Austin, he started responding to local Austinites’ statements about the traffic being bad in Austin.

In this very recent interview with Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in which Adler was describing Austin as one of the most traffic-congested cities in the U.S., Joe said, "Traffic here is literally a joke... You guys don't have traffic".

More specifically, the interaction with Austin’s Mayor was covered by a local reporter who wrote:

“Oh, sweet summer child. When Adler mentioned that Austin reportedly has some of the worst congestion in the country, Rogan immediately pushed back, "Traffic here is literally a joke... You guys don't have traffic." Remember, this is a guy who moved to Texas during the pandemic, so he hasn't experienced the hell that is either of Austin's highways at 3 p.m. 

When I was a lowly newspaper intern in Austin, it regularly took me 35 minutes or more to get to my home only 3 miles away, and that was the faster route that avoided I-35. No traffic? I have to laugh.” 

So what’s going on with people’s perception of traffic?

There’s actually a real social-science explanation for why people view traffic — and environmental degradation in general — differently based on their exposure to traffic and degradation over time. Called the “Shifting Baseline Syndrome”, Earth.org defines it as:

“Shifting Baseline Syndrome is ‘a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition’. In this sense, what we consider to be a healthy environment now, past generations would consider to be degraded, and what we judge to be degraded now, the next generation will consider to be healthy or ‘normal’.”

I experience this all the time here in Colorado. I moved to Colorado in 1986 when there were two-and-a-half million less people in the state. There were also likely a million less cars in 1986, and thus my initial Colorado experience was vastly different than today. In 1986, there was very little traffic in Colorado, except for short rush-hour bursts in certain intersections in Denver.

Now in 2021, the traffic in Colorado is dramatically worse, with rush-hour traffic up and down the Front Range from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, and sometimes all-day and all-weekend traffic jams in many parts of the sprawling Denver metropolis. Try driving to the mountains on I-70 now on a busy ski weekend in the winter and you can experience epic 2-hour traffic jams.

Juxtapose my experience with that of a newcomer to Colorado recently arrived from Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area (or New York City or Chicago). Newcomers see and feel less traffic than they left behind in California, and less crowding and congestion. Like Joe Rogan’s experience in Austin, newcomers to Colorado from California have a “California Baseline” whereas I have a “1986 Colorado Baseline”. What they see as an improvement (in traffic and environmental conditions in general) versus the California they left behind, I see as severe and ever-increasing environmental decay and degradation.

In the scientific literature, “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” is discussed so often it goes by the acronym “SBS” and is described as a “fundamental obstacle to addressing a wide range of today's global environmental issues.” Further, social scientists say there is an “urgent need to dedicate considerable effort to preventing and ultimately reversing SBS.”

SBS is true for all types of environmental impacts including air pollution, river health, sprawl on the landscape, the pave-over of farms, congestion at hiking trailheads, and even wait-times at ski lifts.

The congested, polluted, crowded “California Baseline” is an extremely dangerous and severe threat to the environment all across the Western U.S. where Californians are moving to. Sometimes called “Californication”, this phenomenon creates a new normal for human perception of environmental health, a new normal that increasingly degrades the environment all around us and our life in it.