If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
you got it, you got it
This was a Pizza Hut
Now it’s all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it
I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
you got it, you got it
And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
you got it, you got it
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
you got it, you got it
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
(Nothing But) Flowers by Talking Heads
Hello Peak Shrink,
I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at a large mid-western US university, a 34 year-old male.
I’m not exactly sure where I learned of Peak Oil. There was definitely no conversion moment. Strauss and Howe’s theory of the cycles of history impressed me greatly, and when their prophecy book 4th Turning came out, I was pretty convinced that the US would be going into perpetual crisis mode around 2005. There book came out in 1997, I seem to have discovered in 2001 (before 9-11). But their theory and book left it pretty ambiguous what the nature of the crisis provoking the political and societal crisis would be, financial? military? new diseases? environmental? Civil war? Government shut-down? What? (Y2K never tempted me). I have a record of an letter were I talk about personal preparation for periods of historical crisis, in very similar language to what I would now use, in 2001, but without mentioning Peak Oil. Heck in grad school once, found out that a nearby carol in the library to mine was occupied by an Iranian grad student specializing in oil, I remember giving a pessimistic scenario to him, and him responding with optimism, and thinking, hmm maybe I’m being too pessimistic about this.
By 2003, at age 30, I was married, and had one kid, and I had learned of Peak Oil and was beginning to think about it, but it’s not clear to me that I appreciated its magnitude. Even in 2004, I talked about Peak Oil as one factor among many in our future, and didn’t really think about it much. Getting a job in philosophy, and going on the market each year, is an extremely psychologically distressing experience, and I half suspect I just didn’t have enough resilience left over to try to think hard about our societies future.
By early 2005 I had begun thinking a little about Peak Oil, and I did a little research that summer, but I was not yet a Peaknik. But fall of 2005 I couldn’t really get it out of my head, and I was scared and trying to learn. I was beginning to have trouble with other research, because I was spending my thinking time, trying to wrap my brain around Peak Oil and what it meant for our society. By then I had 2 kids and a tenure-track job, and we thought we might be able to stay in one place, so we bought our first house. We were definitely thinking about Peak Oil adaptation when we bought it, but I didn’t really understand what was important and what wasn’t. I was comforted by the fact that someone lived here successfully in 1902. If I had it to do over, I might have picked a home a little further out, but still in biking range, but with more gardening space, instead of one within (long) walking distance of my job. I was convinced and scared enough, to give all my students one peak oil lecture in fall of 2005, a habit I have continued to today.
In 2006 I was spending a lot of time on Peak Oil learning and processing information. I was extremely scared, and thinking in terms of civilization collapse, but slowly convinced myself that economic collapse, and lifestyles reminiscent of the early 20th or late 19th century were more likely. I began looking on the bright side of peak oil. My Spring 2006 lecture Powerpoint includes a slide entitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Peak” about the upsides of Peak Oil. I was unaware of anyone else who thought as I did, and that didn’t really trouble me, that’s just how philosophy is. I spent that summer working on research and Wikipedia projects. By fall I would talk Peak Oil with colleagues, but I didn’t think of myself as an expert or Peaknik. By late 2006 my wife is genuinely beginning to grapple with Peak Oil too, not because I have tried to convert her (I didn’t really) but because I seem so convinced. I have wondered if worrying about Peak Oil has taken the mental space that I always used to use for worrying about my employment.
By Spring of 2007 I was becoming disturbed by other people’s lack of fear about peak oil, and their continued worry about minor issues like terrorism. I remember making a chart of terrorist deaths and car accident deaths. My wife and I are beginning to do real adaptations to, and beginning to think of them as preparations for the future, instead of just as things we try to do for morality reasons. In summer of 2007 I thought and wrote about peak oil a lot and discovered the blogosphere and began interacting with other Peakniks for the first time. I quickly became deeply impressed with the thought of Casabaum’s book – AKA Sharon Astyk.
My fear was coming back too. Our society will make it through Peak Oil I’m pretty convinced, but will I or my loved ones? Can I prevent my children from starving to death? From dying in a stupid civil war. But worry, wasn’t really the emotion. Sometimes it would be terror, or helplessness or depression. Sometimes I would begin to grieve for the lifestyle I’ve loved. I often wrote about it and thought about it in terms of the grieving processes. I’m not really a doomer, and have sought hard for equanimity.
Planning doesn’t really help me psychologically much, because I don’t feel like I can plan my way out of the problems I foresee. Its just going to suck and we will all do the best we can. You can divest yourself of dollars too soon, as well as too late. I know the dollar is struggling and is a bad long-term investment, but when exactly is the moment to switch? Likewise, I’ll probably wind up leaving my job, or being fired, or laid off. I toy with the idea of leaving now, rather than later, but I just can’t do it. There are many things we do now that we will eventually have to give up, some we can give up now without much penalty, but for many giving up too soon is as bad as giving up too late.
My wife derives a lot of psychological comfort from knowing that she is doing good, and that she is working on the troubles and that she is trying to help. And I’m impressed by what she has already accomplished and what she is currently working hard on. But it seems like my job is to make money at an already obsolete task, to support my family, so that my wife can do good work, until that dries up and I have to find something else for my whole life to be about. Perhaps I do a little good in the process, maybe. But mostly I’m just trying to get my family by for another year or two.
What would I warn others of? The whole panopoly of the grieving process, denial, bargaining, turbulent emotions, etc. My process has been very similar to my understanding of grieving for a lifestyle. I warn others to expect that.
What was helpful to me? Time, philosophy, religion. When I did the numbers enough to convince myself that even the US wasn’t looking at society collapse or 3rd world poverty, just the kind of lifestyles we lived in the early 20th and late 19th that comforted me a lot. I really do think people will be happier in 2027 than 2007 even though they will be poorer (well most of those that survive, especially the younger ones.) And that is a source of comfort. When I discovered the Talking Heads song “Nothing But Flowers” about a 20Cen guy having troubles adapting to a 21cen Agrarian future, that helped too.
Do I talk to others? yeah, lots of reactions. Adults go into denial mostly, or hope for technology fairy to save them. My students mostly get scared and start to think.
How has my life changed? Hmm, lots of ways and many probably aren’t connected to peak oil. Some are. I certainly bike a lot more and drive a lot less, and eat less meat, and eat a lot more locally and seasonally. A number of people this week have asked me if I’m Amish. I’m far more knowledgeable and interested in agriculture than ever before, and I guess I know a lot more economics and banking stuff too. My wife has changed a lot too, we are involved in the local farmer’s market and working to set up a co-op. Probably lots of other things I’m not thinking of. There are others that are constants. I’ve always been gloomy and gothy, and still am just about different things. I’ve always been very anti-consumerist, and bought fairly little myself, now I think of these in different terms.
Well that was probably too long and I hope it helps.
I have had a few further thoughts that might more might not help you, or maybe your well past the gathering stories stage. I have experienced many of your common reactions, but have had 3 reactions you don’t discuss, and perhaps have not encountered yet.
I have certainly experienced disbelief, fascination, anxiety, panic, fear, depression, and compulsivity. I’ve never been a paybacky kind of person. As for rage, well, in 2001-03 as I was learning and processing and thinking about Strauss-Howe theory, I experienced a lot of rage at the Baby Boomers for the ways they have screwed up my world and my generation. In time that mellowed, and turned to pity as I became more adept at seeing things from their viewpoint.
When I learned enough peak oil and related issues, it became simply one more set of fucking ways that past generations had screwed over my generation and later ones, and I couldn’t really work up any rage anymore, more like a sigh and a headshake. But various shades of fear, are really my normal reactions.
Unreality of the Present
Ok the first emotional response I’ve had that you haven’t described yet is a feeling of the unreality of the present. Sometimes it seems only partially there, like a mist or a ghost. Like I spend so much time thinking and caring about the future, that situations in the present that are non-sustainable, seem almost already-gone even while present.
I enter a supermarket and it all seems unreal, like a bizarre dream. I hobnob with jetsetters, and it feels like the ghosts of Pompeii, a little fictional vignette of life before the crash. In fact, Dar William’s song, This Was Pompeii, hits it pretty close emotionally. I’ve only started getting this within the last year, and its pretty rare and occasional. It is a neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant emotion, neither bitter nor sweet. Detached and vaguely confusing with notes of curiosity. Its like, OH do things like that still happen? I wonder how much longer that phenomenon will continue … A related experience is when I encounter a topic, say a philosophical question that I know would have fascinated me a few years ago, but that seems insufficiently pressing now, like re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Its not that it seems wrong or unimportant, just vastly less important than other concerns. The absence of expected care, the subjunctive-care, the feeling that I would care about this if things were otherwise, but I don’t gives it this same kind of half-real feel. My sense is that this emotion is partially caused by temporal awareness, and partly by changing of priorities. The future seems so real to me that the present seems almost like the past, or at least half-past in a way that the present does not usually seem.
Likewise as my personality and priorities change, the remnants of the person I have been, and priorities I have had remains a kind of partial filter on my experience of events. I actually kinda suspect that this is indicating the beginnings of moving from disorganization and despair to the reorganization phases of Bowlby’s model of grief, but hey I could be off base, I mostly just trying to describe.
Nostalgia for the Present
A related by quite emotionally distinct reaction I get sometimes is nostalgia for the present. I’ll be in a situation that seems unsustainable, something that I think will be going away soon, say eating a store bought industrial doughnut. And I’ll get wistful. Ah yes, cheap-ass store-bought industrial doughnuts were one of the things that were nice about cheap-energy lifestyles. They weren’t good for you, but they were yummy in a way that homemade isn’t, probably the industrial flavor additives.
The emotion will be both-pleasant-and-unpleasant, bitter and sweet, but usually far more sweet than bitter. Nostalgic, or wistful. But also bizarre, like double-vision, or cognitive dissonance, because I’m eating the doughnut now, I am in the moment I am nostalgically remembering, while also being nostalgic about it. The present is present, rather than fully gone, but it is half-gone enough to trigger emotional responses as if it were gone.
I first experienced this emotion, before I’d ever heard of Peak oil, when I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which created fear and revulsion in females, but also focused on what was good about our present. They watch smuggled copies of Star Wars and try to imagine what life had been like in the bad old days of the free press, when you could have Hindu themes in a movie. I’ve hardly ever experienced this emotion between then and recently, but within the last year I’ve started getting it in my daily life occasionally, usually with mental linking to peak oil. I’m in a situation, I reflect that it is probably almost gone. I wonder if I will ever eat another Krispy Kreme Doughnut or not. Will this be the last time I enter a Wal-Mart? And the situation seems unreal, already half-gone, but it also seems real, sweet, good at some level despite the hidden evil price-tag. And rather than bemused detachment and double-vision, I get bitter and sweet together, I get the emotional whallops. And emotionally it feels nothing at all like the bemused detached half-reality of the present, even if it has roughly the same cognitive basis.
Ok the third reaction you don’t seem to describe is crushing guilt. The mess we are in is largely a result of the bad decisions of previous generations, but I get a share of the blame too, and my small share is almost more than I can bear. I’ve lived many years of high-energy lifestyle, covertly exploiting the third world, stealing from future generations, trashing the planet, and basically enjoying lots of good things without having to pay the real costs of my choices. And some other poor schlub has to pay the staggering costs for my lifestyle as a kid and young adult. In many cases, it is some poor third-worlder that my economic system screws over in my name, to make my luxuries a little cheaper. But hey, our system is built to screw the future almost as much as it screws the third world. Much of the burden for my past luxuries will be my own kids or grandkids, or yours. It’s not like peak oil theory is new, why did I not learn of it sooner? Heck, even since learning the facts I haven’t adapted as quickly or steeply as I should have.
When my children are starving to death in a few years, am I going to think back to that Saturday I recently spent playing video games, wish I had sacrificed harder to prepare and hate myself forever? How will I look them in their starving faces? How will I hold their dying bodies? What about those starving right now in Darfur, because of my video games and hamburgers and economic system. We could feed them right now with the grain we feed instead to cows we slaughter for crappy luxury foods, but there is no economic incentive to feed the starving. And I’m 34 and I have been unable to change this terrible system, and less zealous than I should have been in even trying to change it, so I get the blame too.
You do say (in the mid-life bit) “In the light of Peak Oil, some are shocked to realize that their creative efforts have not served the planet and its inhabitants, and instead benefited only a small elite at the expense of most others.” Well, shock might happen with sudden discovery, my own discovery was more gradual, and in many ways I have known this at least since the age of 18 when I spent the summer in post-collapse Bulgaria, in the summer of 91. But past the shock, you still have to deal with the guilt, and there just isn’t any good technique. Unless perhaps you can avail yourself of supernatural forgiveness via religion, and even that, doesn’t license forgiving yourself, or being forgiven by other humans. When my grandchildren (should I and my kids be so lucky as to survive that long) accuse me and my generation of ruining their world and impoverishing them to have a few luxuries a little longer, I will have no defense except to agree with them and bear my guilt as best I can.
What do ex-Nazi’s say to their grandchildren? I have no idea how people older Americans than me such as the Baby Boomers bear their share of the guilt without going deeply mad. Some seem to be in total denial, and some retreat to a false self-righteousness where they think that their vague liberalism, or vague Capitalist justifications makes them immune to the moral problems. Perhaps they simply never imagine the future making accusations against them. Especially the Monotheists must believe they will face a judgment for their choices.
How the hell do other sane people expect to justify their choices before an honest judge who can see past self-deception, how to they expect to bear the guilt when they face the true costs of their choices? Our system works hard to hide the evil-price-tags of the real costs of our choices to others, so maybe some people really don’t know how much evil they do to others in the course of living their normal American daily lifestyles, but I can’t make that defense. I don’t understand it fully, but I know enough to understand many of the real costs. I am the beneficiary of the tail-end of an age of unimaginable wealth (for the first world) bought a huge cost to the 3rd world and future and ecosystem, and what have we done with our wealth? Some good things, the creation of cinema, and computers, and some decent medical research. But nothing to balance against the staggering costs. Hey, the Nazi’s advanced our understanding of rockets and plastics, but no one remembers to put that in their plus column. What have I accomplished with my life that can balance out the huge evil that I have done to the world simply by living a close-to average American lifestyle for 30 odd years? Nothing. When my sins and just deeds are tallied up, I’m going to envy the moral balance sheet of a humble earthworm, at least it does little harm! And I’m probably doing better than most of the people I know and interactwith and love. We are sooo deeply fucked. How do we sleep when our beds are burning?
Ah, I slip from attempting to discuss emotions into more general ranting, I apologize. Still it remains that struggling to cope with crushing guilt is a big part of my emotional reaction to peak oil at this stage and I am frequently amazed that it does not seem to be for many others, or if perhaps it is and they just aren’t admitting it, this too would be useful information to get out in the open.
Hope I am not straying from the information you are looking for too much, and if I can be of any more help just e-mail.
Have you experienced any of the thoughts and emotions expressed here like unreality of the present, nostalgia for the present, or crushing guilt? Leave your comments here or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to read more stories by readers? Click HERE.