Peak Oil Advice from an Automotive Engineer

Hi Peak Shrink,

I was interested to see your site. I’m not sure how much it can concretely help, but, it was definitely needed, with all the peak oil stuff out there on the web.

I just went through a sickening peak oil depression, so here’s my story.

It’s strange how often the individual microcosm can reflect the macrocosm of society, isn’t it? If you’re used to being a “green”, or you fear Nuclear war, others often tend to assume that you have a “problem”, and that you’re “projecting” your negative view onto the world. But how much of your “personal” problem is due to issues in society at large? Peak oil to me seems to be an extension of this to it’s absolute limit. I have had zero luck trying to persuade friends, family and work colleagues. Except my father actually, he believes, he agrees, he’s seen it long coming, and he’s just…

The “micro within the macro” is particularly true for me – I am an automotive engineer. For years I have worked and become a specialist in this business, which I always knew was ultimately very stupid. But that’s what pays the bills, and the work is at least interesting, sometimes. I am also a previously-diagnosed depressive, and have experienced Prozac in my 20s, and Effexor more recently (I’m now 35). So you can imagine, when someone like me tries to tell those around him that the world is unsustainable, we have a problem, blah, blah, blah, the message gets met with well-meaning comments about me “getting some help”. Yeah right. I need help, we all do. Real help, from people around us, people who can teach us useful things, not a psychological palliative to “make it all go away”.

Peak oil makes me wish I’d lived my life differently. I made many mistakes, and I have regrets. For example, I’ve spent most of my money just living. I’ve got a few thousands in the bank, and a pension fund which is quite healthy (don’t quite know what to do with it, it certainly won’t be feeding me at age 65).

I spent my life looking for “meaning” to ultimately realise there isn’t much. Peak oil reminds us that survival is the only game in town. You can forget about individual expression, “meaning”, and other meaningless things. I became an expat in a foreign land (Switzerland) and never got onto the property ladder in my native UK – I had girlfriends but nobody I trusted enough to make a joint purchase, and the house prices were just prohibitive for single people.

So now, perhaps I can cash in my pension (If I leave the country) and move to the UK. Buy an allotment of land near to my father’s place, and go back and live with him. Start with his garden. Except as the prodigal son, I don’t think I’m allowed. Or I could stay here, with right to reside in a “safe” country – but how safe, when the international banking industry starts falling apart? Perhaps there will be a boom for engineers in the energy sector….Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…..

But peak oil also makes me realise, that you have to give yourself a break. So much of what happens in life is just luck, and my feeling is that however much you read about the facts of peak oil, a lot of the future will just be an even bigger spin of the roulette wheel. Is it worth buying precious metals? Depends if we have inflationary or deflationary depression….lots of people discuss such issues on blogs but I’m not sure they’re well enough qualified. What if you’re already working on the land in a rural existence, are you “saved” ? I read of peak oil campaigner Michael Ruppert’s failed attempt to escape to Venezuela… basically he arrived in Caracas without any Spanish or any clue what to do next, as I understood it, with predictable consequences, depression, isolation, health problems…

I think we have to be realistic about our goals. I think we have to allow ourselves that we cannot see the future, and much of survival will be pure luck. Steps need to be small ones. Good luck to you if you’ve got the resources and you’re moving somewhere “safe”. But I think most of us are going to have to fight the situation wherever we are, with whatever we’ve got. Some of the people in “safe” places will not be there by virtue, perhaps they will even be those who stayed “home on the farm” with their aging parents, the laziest and least ambitious of the family.

Chances are if you’re reading this you’re in the west. So you were already born pretty lucky, by world standards, by no effort of your own. Perhaps I don’t deserve to live, having not been very sensible about saving and building a solid future in my life generally, and being somewhat nihilistic. I know, and know of personally, so many people who died before their time, people better than me. I know I have been very lucky to experience things in my life and have time and money to do and see things which will quite probably be outside of the experience range of future generations.

So to conclude, my response to peak oil is (1) to finally grow up, and stop looking for the next exciting experience in life (2) keep thinking of and discussing techno-solutions, which are not magic bullets, but can help to alleviate the problem, as oil prices make solar and wind more viable to industrialise on larger scales (3) See if I can find work in said industries, (4) Try to start gardening somewhere in the next months, not that I believe it will save me, but my previous experience is that hard work digging helps a lot psychologically, and at least doing that means working without pushing the ecosystem off a cliff (5) – the biggy – to accept death and suffering as inevitable, and just realise they may be much sooner than I’d vaguely planned for.

Because fear of these things, is in some way worse, than the things themselves. It only takes weeks or hours to starve or freeze to death, but you can worry about it for YEARS.

Good luck to all, especially to those with children. For the first time in my life, I genuinely don’t regret having no children. Another peak oil mindshift…

Automotive Engineer


Dear AA,

Truly the rub is the uncertainty of it all. A few thing we know, however, which is that the more “stuff” you need, the more monthly bills that are attached to any sort of fossil fuel, the more expensive your life will become. This, unfortunately, includes most things in modern society, including food. The more people around you who are facing higher and higher bills, and the greater percentage of them who cannot pay those costs without severe hardship, the more social unrest there will be around you, even if you are doing fine, yourself, financially. There will be more thieves and break-ins. More shoplifting. You’ll watch businesses like expensive restaurants become pubs (if they survive) or dry cleaners close. People may buy “vacations” they can stick in their back yard, like above-ground pools, so the kids can “have a vacation.” Fancy “latte’s” will become carried coffee mugs. We’ll see a lot more brunettes who once went monthly to the shops to be blonds. We’ll see more desperate food pantries asking for donations, maybe a rise of soup kitchens, and people losing their homes they can no longer pay for.

I imagine there will be several “shifts” in “desirable locations.” As petrol continues to rise, those living in rural locations without rail transportation available to them and without a rising income (most of us here in the USA) will experience hardship. Those in the suburbs without rail and with resources will move closer to the city, if they reason that is a financially viable thing to do. And it may be….for a while, anyway. However, they will also be living with that larger group of folks who are stuck in a financial squeeze and are getting angrier about it.

Your best decision, I believe, is to look to simplify your life and rely less on social “handouts,” be they convenient supermarkets being there for you when you need a weekly shopping or the petrol pump, or a bathroom full of toiletries. Many people are happy to move closer to aging parents, even if not for the reasons you state. No decisions you make will be without unexpected consequences, because none of us have a crystal ball into the future. However, the more you can work on forgiving yourself for the past (and future) bad decisions, and get on making more of them, the more you’ll learn about what’s going to be the best spot for you, at least in this phase.

Might I suggest that anyone who can take engines apart and replace them is someone I’d like to live close to. We’d all have been better off to have bought things made to BE repaired, instead of disposed of and replaced. If you do move near Dear Old Dad, may I suggest that you make it known that you’d be willing to fix people’s tools for trade. You might find that a steady small business fixing other people’s small engines keeps you fixed in eggs, cheese, butter, manure, etc, when larger automotive companies have been forced to cut back their workforces.

Micro-solutions aren’t so sexy or dramatic to talk about, but we all need to start thinking small. Thanks for your thoughtful letter, and keep us updated about how your life is going.


“Peak Shrink”

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. Automotive Engineer continues:

    Well, automotive engineer does not a mechanic make. And you made a good point about fixable things, one of Dimitri Orlov’s whose presentation on the web I much admired. On an old Fiat or a Lada, I can get the thing running (badly) with a 13mm spanner and some black tape. And I own a scrappy set of tools from my own car hobby days. But generally I spent too much time in the office in my life being a middle class idiot.

    Really I’ve been stuck in hell. Got some tranquilizers of some kind, they allow me to function a little normally without jumping up and down shouting “we’re all gonna die” every 2 mins.

    I do start to see the options. I spent a long time looking for alternatives, and what it would take to scale them up to a feasible level. (Stratospheric solar balloons etc, but I just kept running out of natural resource numbers to scale any of them up properly, peak aluminum, glass production, helium, etc etc). I think there’s some future in Nuclear and Coal power generation provided that collapse isn’t instant, then that’s where I should be professionally. So my days in this country are running to a close. I am jobhunting, but every time I apply in power gen, I don’t get interviews, just hundreds of auto industry head hunters on my back.

    Struggling on. Miss my girlfriend who couldn’t remotely grasp the situation, miss my best mate over here who just wants me to go out motorbiking, drinking and generally spending money with him. Can’t talk to anyone about it, that’s the hardest thing. So I have

    Plan A : Job/Retraining in the UK for Nuclear work
    Plan B : Learn some “living off the land skills”, there are “eco” places which run such things, living in forests etc..

    In either of these scenarios I would at least meet people who can hear where I’m coming from on these issues. And if I end up “alone” then I could imagine a hermit type existence based on skills from (B) until my luck runs out, just like any other animal. I’d like to buy an acre of land or so, start gardening, dig a deep trench and chuck an old shipping container in and bury it. Just trying to get my head round how to do that “secretly” to avoid planning permission. 20 or so of those under a big field would only cost a hundred thousand pounds all in, and you could make an instant eco-village!! After 10 years of hard work and living, the accommodation would be better than what was left of the “normal” housing in terms of heating and security.

    I think you’re pretty lucky in the US. After all the running round and shooting each other abates, you’ve really got affordable, adequate land for the majority to scrape an existence on. In Europe it’s going to have to be genocide of some kind, whatever we end up calling it.

    Anyway, that’s where it’s at now. I expect the IEA report in November will be the watershed. I hope to have changed my circumstances by then.

    I’ll keep reading your site, and if I discover any abiotic crude bubbling up under my house I’ll be sure to let everyone know.

  2. 30 year vet of cars,trucks, and trains says:

    What a sad state of affairs.

    I am also an automotive engineer (for over 30 years) and have never lost my childlike wonder at the capability of any mechanical device. Obviously, the original comments were heartfelt, but a serious dose of reality needs to be applied.

    1. Engineering is about making the least amount of input (meaning: raw materials) give the most amount of output (meaning: making the project conform to requirements laid down) in the least amount of time (meaning: economy of efforts, or “do it right the first time”).

    2. Until an EIT (“Engineer In Training”) gets over the thought that he/she will get a PE licence when he/she completes “training” and realizes that there are always new things to learn and understand, they will simply be just another “warm body”, whether they work for someone else or for themselves.

    3. All the whining in the world about “depression” and “hopelessness” doesn’t mean anything. Anyone saying “oh, that’s ok. It’s just a normal reaction to what is going on around you” is just enabling that whiner to continue shirking and delaying the inevitable-that the person has chosen the wrong career and should get out. Go pick posies.

    It really is disgusting to see such idiocy being pandered to. Just what is a mechanical engineer for if he cannot also be a mechanic? THAT is one of the most important aspects of mechanical engineering-that is the ability to analyse a mechanical device, determine it’s intended purpose, and then determine what is wrong if it does not perform properly.

    Unfortunately, I see this every day….guys that got into this business for the money and crying when the work gets hard. If you have no passion for what you do-GET OUT!! There is no “psychoanalysis” needed here. If this person cannot get on, he needs to go on.

    I keep 8 people gainfully employed in this industry, besides myself, and while there are definate signs of a potential collapse (until it happens, it ain’t a done deal-so all the whiners running around like chicken little can just cackle to themselves here) and it is UP TO THE INDIVIDUAL to make their choices based on information available, judge the veracity, and take action accordingly. If that person becomes frozen with fear-well…too bad. Not my problem, not my responsibility. And Kathy, before you say anything, no I do NOT give a damn about any other adult, not in my family. They are SUPPOSED to be an adult-let them act like it and take responsibility for their own action or inaction.

  3. Suburbanite says:

    Catching what the OP said about how sometimes it is just luck, and also about finding a rural safe place . . .

    I’ve realized the past 2 weeks that my inability to find an affordable place in the hills actually turned out for my benefit. Everything seems to be on fire in Northern California, and where I planned to move, the people there have been given evacuation orders twice in 2 weeks. Meanwhile, I’m ‘stuck’ in the ‘burbs here in town, but I’m near a stream and have a big enough yard to grow a decent sized garden. I’m getting to know the neighbors in order to determine which of them might be open to a swap economy if/when the worst hits, and I’m within walking distance to a college and stores but still in a quiet neighborhood off the busy streets.

    Maybe I’m better off than I had previously thought. Maybe I should just ‘make’ my luck where I am currently situated.

    Good luck to you all.


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