National Insecurity and the Dress Code

08/03/2010 11:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As a psychiatrist I am keenly aware that personal insecurities may drive us to do things we don't like, and may not even make sense, in order to "fit in". Sometimes we are barely aware of the concessions we are making. But rising discomfort at the costs can bring a break through -- and common sense will triumph over the urge to conform.

It's been nearly 100 degrees in Washington DC for the last several weeks. On every sidewalk and in offices all over the city people can be seen dressed up in suits. One recent day a group of America's "power elite" stood in the Rose Garden under a broiling sun, dressed in suits. The President, whom they were waiting for, emerged from the Oval Office -- also, dressed, of course, in a suit. The moment was somber, General McChrystal had just been fired, but no doubt other thoughts found their into their minds -- like how good it was going to feel to get back into offices air conditioned down to a temperature that would quickly cool them off.

Not long ago a briefing on the national security threats of the climate crisis was held just a few blocks away from the Rose Garden. Risks faced by unstable governments -- from declining agricultural output, water shortages, refugees, diseases, etc. due to climate change, were identified. Warnings that these countries could end up "failed states" -- exposing them to conflict and takeover by groups hostile to America -- were made.

Acknowledging all the dangers, one of the generals on the panel said that the U.S. Army was trying hard to be more energy efficient. But obvious places to be energy smart were often missed. Only recently officials realized that if all the thousands of tents sitting under a blazing sun around the world -- were insulated, a lot of energy that would otherwise be gobbled up by the air conditioners running to keep them cool - could be saved. The lives of soldiers would be saved too -- convoys carrying fuel are among the most vulnerable targets to enemy attack.

A "duh" feeling rippled through the audience. The reaction was not judgmental, but aware -- delays in correcting obvious oversights come, after all, at a cost.

The discussion about insulation was not over.

Outside that day it was hot -- the high eighties. But with the air conditioning up high, it was cold inside. So cold that counting the panel and the first three rows of the audience -- 37 out of 40 people had on suit coats, jackets or sweaters.

This prompted a question about conditions and how insulation is used closer to home:

Why was the air conditioning turned up so high in the meeting room that this many people had to use warm clothes -- as insulation -- against the chill? Why was the energy efficient act of simply turning the air conditioning down so we would be more comfortable -- ignored? Would those who had insulated themselves against the cold now fuss that it was too hot?

Fashion evolves of course, and how we dress is influenced by what everyone else is wearing, what we perceive as being respectful etc. The choices can seem silly, even irrational. Photos of the Victorians, for example, show that they wore long sleeved outfits with leggings to go swimming. Ha ha they looked funny. We certainly wouldn't do that now. And imagine being pressured to submit to other cultural norms -- wearing headscarves --or a Burka!

But what should -- and will -- be said about the choices we are making?

It doesn't require heavy cultural lifting to throw off a few layers of clothing: Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland received an award recently from the National Wildlife Federation for policies that get kids outside. Organizers encouraged him to dress for the weather -- which was hot. He showed up in light khakis and a short-sleeved shirt, dubbing it "sustainable dressing".

We signal our respect by the way we dress -- but is there any doubt that the fashion industry would design apparel with a "finished" look suitable for hot weather in a New York minute if those were the choices we were making?

Dr. Robert Caildini, an expert on what motivates people to be energy efficient, has shown that we are most likely to change to energy saving behaviors when we perceive that others around us are changing their behaviors. Talking about protecting future generations is important - which is what we self-report motivates us -- but though we often disavow it, what influences us even more are the behaviors we see.

With oil spewing in the Gulf, kids barely out of high school fighting wars over oil, a planet dangerously overheating, and threats to our national security - isn't it time for a national "duh" moment -- and adopt dressing for energy efficiency?

To our political leaders -- while we wait (endlessly) for legislation in these days of climate and energy crises -- perhaps we can at least be motivated by what we see you doing. How about, for example, taking that flag pin off you suit and putting it on a nice short-sleeved shirt when it's hot outside? That would make a great campaign photo op.

And would it be too politically incorrect to ask if the thermostat in your offices on Capitol Hill is set where The Department of Energy recommends? Can we assume you stand by, and advocate for, those recommendations? No one would say it's freezing in your offices or would be wearing sweaters and suits there on a hot day, right?

A few weeks ago we celebrated the 4th of July. All of us "sons and daughters" can be worthy progeny with a timely effort and battle cry of our own: "Dress for the weather! Lose the suit on a hot day!" And rather than adding jackets and sweaters and shawls inside when it's too cold -- call maintenance, ask for the manager, or stand up at the meeting -- and declare: "It's about national security ... save some energy. Turn down the air conditioning."

Lise Van Susteren, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice in Washington D.C. She is member of the Board of Directors of the National Wildlife Federation and serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.