I. Cultural Norms: The Psychology of Peak Oil Awareness: Differentiate from Cultural Norms

Most of you, by now, have heard the notion that coping with Peak Oil is mostly psychological. But what does that really mean? I’ve decided to share some of my own thoughts about this, and welcome your input. Instead of my usual very long post, I’ve decided to present it in parts. Right now, it is a six-part series. Here’s part one:

(1) Peak Oil Awareness and “coming out” about Peak Oil requires you to differentiate from the cultural norms you live with.

Here, this means rejecting a number of cultural ‘truisms” such as “growth is good, more growth is better.” An awareness of Peak Oil brings with it the notion that chronic mindless growth and a notion that “bigger is better” is killing our planet, literally. Have a pig or two and use the manure for your garden. Have 100,000 pigs, and suddenly you’ve got a problem with all kinds of pollution—water and air to name a few.

The notion that “bigger is better” is an idea, as Matt Savinar points out, that is linked to our most basic drives. However, biology isn’t destiny. Many men may want unlimited access to sex from a variety of women, but don’t rape. As kids, we want unlimited access to candy but we grow up to recognize that it isn’t “what’s for dinner.” Adult life presents itself with a vast array of options each and every day, and many of them we pass by because we are aware that the costs of having them are too great. We want the expensive car, but we want a cleaner environment more, and want to use the money toward greater energy independence, so we bum rides or take public transportation. We want to get our message across to people all over the world, but we pass up a trip to Alaska, because we can’t justify the cost based on our own value system.

There is a children’s book that has very few words, but it is about a boy who “wants more.” He takes things, one by one, until the reader is presented with a dark page, as he’s taken even the light. It is a teaching tale, of sorts, about the dangers of our individual hungers and desires. (I can’t find the name of it for the life of me. Anyone know it?) There is a psychological position present in the Peak Oil Community that says that we will limit growth only when we are forced to, and that more and more growth is inevitable. That belief is in keeping with the cultural values of the USA. When we believe that “I want more” is a part of human nature, and we are given a careful script to what “more” means—more money, more material goods, more energy expenditures—the need to justify how we live vanishes. It is “normal.” It is “human nature.”

Differentiating from cultural norms means the capacity to be unconcerned about whether your own personal value system is reflected in the dominant cultural norms. It means having a value system that supersedes what the media or governmental agencies or even your friends think is “normal.” Being “normal” is no longer a desired goal. It means stepping away from the dominant belief systems and being willing to “take the hit” for doing so. It is not running “toward” one’s culture and trying to fit in, or standing “against” one’s culture or running “away” from one’s culture. It is constructing one’s own set of beliefs and sharing them with people you love and value and being clear about what you stand for.

This shift is very painful for most people, and the majority don’t choose to risk the very real possibility of at least temporarily standing alone. They will wait until the 100th monkey “believes” in Peak Oil before they begin to “do what other people are doing” to react. This reality doesn’t affect the person who has differentiated from their culture. They aren’t concerned about what “most people” are doing. They aren’t concerned that if they use less fossil fuels, then people in China or India will just “use the rest.” What other people do is irrelevant to them personally, and to the decisions they make.

Once you reject the notion that “more growth is better,” or simply “more is better,” we can begin to ask how this notion affects our lives in practical ways. We look for ways to reduce our dependency on anything that traps us into that mentality. Catherine Austin Fitts talks about the “tapeworm” economy in which we are left craving those very things that harm us. With this recognition—that we can crave the very things that can harm us—we begin to question each and every aspect of how we are living. Do we really “need” the extra car or do we “want” it? If we take that money and save it, how many years will it be until we can get off the grid? If we cut our electricity usage by 25%, can we buy a smaller alternative energy system and obtain it faster?

New value systems become clear when old ones are rejected. Suddenly, we find ourselves wanting “more time” to pursue our own interests, and these interests free up our need to make money. We turn our garage into a barn and begin to raise our own food. We transform our lawn into a relatively self-sustaining forest garden. We no longer ask what’s the “maximum” amount of food we can grow per square foot. Instead, we begin to realize that the blueberry bush won’t produce as many berries when it is half-shaded by the apple tree, but it does produce some, and we get both apples AND berries from the same spot. We don’t leave the lights on or heat the chicken house 24/7, so we get fewer eggs in the winter, but this is a trade-off we are willing to make. We find out that the “most productive” layers don’t survive the cold, so we buy less “productive” dual-purpose birds that we eat when they no longer lay. We buy what we need from our neighbors and friends, even though we pay more than we would at Wal-super-duper, because “getting the most” from our cash is no longer our primary goal. We start to cut the number of hours we work away from home and have more time to ‘cook from scratch’ and find that the food is cheaper, tastier, and we feel the cravings to go out to eat less often. We want more taste to our home-cooked meals, so we plant an herb garden, and we want those herbs to be available to us in the winter, so we learn to dry and store them. “Losing” productive work-time has given us “more.” Using less energy has given us “more.” These “mores” however are less tangible and more difficult to measure. What is making pleasurable love to your spouse “worth?” What is spending a muddy game of soccer with your kids “worth”? What is having a viable community of independent merchants “worth?” Growing your own food…what’s that “worth?”

The more we are outside, in our forest gardens, the less we crave going “out for entertainment.” We spend hours in enjoyable physical labor and we don’t need a gym. We start to lose weight, get healthier, and learn that we can control our hypertension with plants we can grow and it “works.” Was it the hemlock or the weight loss or the exercise or the nutritious food that made the difference? These questions are no longer urgent to answer because we no longer need to know what’s “most” productive to our health. We don’t need a magic bullet.

Next Section:  (2)    Peak Oil awareness means reconnecting with one’s true basic dependencies.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. Brandon Rhodes says:

    I’ve experienced this a lot, lately, and I’ve been study PO for I think three years now. I used to tell everyone I know about it, but then got so tired of depressing everyone and being “that guy” (I think SNL has a skit like that called “Debbie Downer”), that I now am in a place where I avoid telling anyone about it. It can be really socially stigmatizing. Why am I not building a financial nest-egg for retirement? Peak oil. Why do I not plan on buying an automobile? Peak oil. … it does impact a lot of choices that sometimes are even beyond the realm of “we should do this stuff anyway”, and at that point it’s frustrating to have to just drop it all on someone’s lap.

    But the past three years have made me spiritually ponder it quite a bit (hence, my blog’s subject), and I am now able to share it with somewhat less doomer hysteria.

    Thanks for writing this. :)

  2. For those who haven’t seen the site: http://www.OrganicJesus.org it is a unique place that explores fascinating issues of those devoted Christians who have come to grips with Peak Oil, and he does it with wit and style. Issues like: What will happen when we no longer can practice “Ringtone Christianity” and the “Commuter Church” (both coined by Brandon). In other words, when we are forced to worship with the people closests to us, whether they conform to our most comfortable or deeply-held belief systems or not. I’ll discuss a related issue in IV of the installment ‘saga’ of the Psychology of Peak Oil Awareness, so stay tuned.

    Other posts discuss how various choices about where to live during times of trouble are or are not in keeping in varying degrees with Christ’s teachings. If you are both serious about Peak Oil and about your Christian beliefs, check it out.

  3. Lesa Dixon-Gray says:

    Hhmmm, my experiences are so much different that what I’ve read here. Yes, among my friends I’ve become known as “The Peak Oil Girl” (and it’s been decades since I’ve been a “Girl” – I rather enjoy it). But there’s been a great deal of respect that comes with that slightly derogatory title. While there hasn’t been much behavior change, most of those around me have begun reading (and giving me) Peak Oil articles. I’m no longer the one that has to bring the issue up at work and in meetings – others do it for me. The concept (but not the behaviors) is becoming mainstream. It’s a beginning, albeit slow. However, I’m so encouraged to know that among my work and social cohort, I am no longer the only “Peak Oil expert”. Behavior change takes longer – we may not have the time to wait – but education and realization come first. And from where I sit, that’s happening.

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