Chemistry Doc Climbs Atop the PO Challenge Downunder

Hi Peak Shrink,

After being a long time peak oil convert I finally stumbled across your very informative blog. It is really interesting to see people given a chance to express what it has meant to them as individuals, and also to get some positive feedback on how they are coping with the pressures and demands, and present day contradictions.

I first became clued into the peak oil issue during my honours year at University in subtropical Australia. I was lucky enough to grow up in a semi-rural district by the sea, got to explore the natural environment and had very accommodating parents when I brought home lizards and insects for pets. I also picked up a love of plants and gardening, which has continued to this day. As a teenager I always had the sense something wasn’t quite right about the world, the environmental messages of the day rang true but never seemed to tell the whole story. So in my honours year, in amongst all the stress and pressure, I started reading about peak oil online. This was way back in 2000 so the message wasn’t nearly as strong or as believable, but it seemed plausible to me. It made me wonder about my longer term future in science (I was studying chemistry) but for want of a more obvious alternative I decided to go on and do a PhD, figuring I had plenty of time ahead of me to make a positive contribution to the world.

Through the PhD I kept up with the information and theories around on peak oil. By the time I finished that degree and started my first real job across the country in another city it was becoming evident something was going on. The parallel story with the massive housing bubble market became evident too. Oil started to take off and I realised I didn’t have much time left to make preparations. I looked around for usable land close to where I was working, but the prices were too high, and I figured the last thing I wanted was to get up to my eyeballs in debt, to buy a piece of land, only to spend all my time working in a job to pay it off and leaving no time to actually prepare the land itself. I thought long and hard about my options and decided to take a less obvious path.

I called up my dear parents, now living in the midst of a bustling suburban jungle where it had once been rural idyll. They had always been very conservative sorts, avoiding debt and excess consumption and living simple peaceful lives. I had inherited their habits, saving readily, spending reluctantly, avoiding debt. I had also kept them up to date with my peak oil and housing bubble research, managing to guide them through the process from curiosity, to doubt, to rigorous analysis, to eventual confidence in the idea. Taking them through this whole process made it much easier to get them on board when I suggested that they sell their suburban place (only one meter above sea level as well) and move onto a small fertile bit of land somewhere else. They pretty quickly came around to the idea, and we started looking.

My sister had recently moved back from interstate to the hinterland north of Brisbane. As it turned out it was the best place for making a lifeboat, with the added bonus of instant extended family. This was a big selling point for me, being gay means I wont have any kids of my own, so being able to do something to help the long term prospects of my nieces and nephew made it all seem worthwhile.

I quit my well paid job, moved home and we started preparing for the sale and move. We could have waited out a better final offer but an ideal lot became available up the hinterland, that was selling at a lower price for a quicker sale as well. It was a fertile two acre block, one kilometer from a train line to the city, with a well kept small house and several sheds, in a friendly backwater village. We settled and we then went through six months of moving all my parents stuff to the farm. We built a separate outhouse for me to have my own space- Dad managed to get out all his government retirement fund to go toward a good quality foundation and structure. I quickly set to work putting in a large ornamental garden (mulched a quarter acre) with a view to it being a reserve for emergency conversion to food gardens later on. I also put in a tenth of an acre vegetable garden with a chicken shed, and a half acre orchard. In amongst the orchard I left plenty of room to grow robust staple crops between the tree rows. The last half acre was left to a moldy old horse we inherited with the property, so I contented myself getting Muscovy ducks to help graze the pasture, and plant windbreaks and hedgerows. The emphasis on staple crops has been a special project for me as I think the ability to really grow your own diet means a lot more than providing your own garnishes, important as they are. I figure that while cheap staples will certainly be readily available from the shops for a long time, the ability to source, select, grow, harvest, prepare and eat your own staples is a long and complex one that is difficult to do under emergency conditions. I figure the variety trials, seedbanks and expertise may be a useful resource to share with the community when the time is right. I have tried to collaborate with like minded sorts through the local permaculture group, but I have been frustrated to find that they are only that- like minded. None of them seem that interested in actually getting out in the garden and working. They would rather sit around listening to talks and reading books. I’d rather go outside and do real life experiments with a mind toward a future with restrained inputs. I’m doing my best to remain friendly with them, but in the end my immediate neighbors are proving to be more useful for investing my time and energy in.

Early on in the move I managed to get a job with my old PhD lab for three days a week, along with tutoring work a half hour drive away. I quickly gave up the tutoring to work another day a week as it was a better use of my time. The divided life between the city and country is about perfect for this time in history I suspect. It also stops me overdoing the farm work and wearing my body out, but the long weekends also stop me getting stressed by information overload. I get to walk back and forth to the train once each week, to my lodging place in the city (where I helped put in another veggie garden), then walk/ride to work each day. I don’t kid myself that I am “petroleum free” but the time not wasted driving is certainly a bonus. When I do have to drive I have to remind myself I know how.

The job I have is underpaid for my level of training, but low stress and flexible, and I know I should make an effort to find something better, but given how precarious the world banking/debt/currency situation seems it is hard to justify the effort of starting in a new field. Ive been spending a lot of time thinking about what would be a more secure work environment, but my Dad nearly had a fit when I said I was going to become a bus driver.

I’ve been feeling a lot of regret about doing my PhD, but on the upside I paid off my student government loans last week. I was earning more interest with the money in the bank but for some reason I just didn’t trust having that debt hanging over me. I was going to do a teaching degree for one year but the extra debt and costs, coupled with the likelihood I would hate the job (as every other teacher I have talked to does) didn’t make it stack up. The public service is pretty bloated here so I wouldn’t feel secure as a last in (therefore first out) employee. I have to weigh up the likelihood of finding something better that fits my demands for a four day working week as three days a week is the minimum to keep the farm moving forward. It seems like everywhere you look the axe is poised to fall. Ideally I would love to work to help others start food gardens once I have the right approach for the region down pat.

Emotionally it is sometimes tough to face up to what is probably coming in our future. My personal outlook is that a prolonged crash is unavoidable but there is a good chance I will live to see renewable energy just start to bring back some normalcy before I die. When I look around at everyone else’s situation I know I am miles ahead- no debt, physically fit, understanding parents (siblings less so), capacity to grow my own food (already at 30% of my entire diet, about to increase ten-twenty fold to cover the family as needed). I look at my professor boss, workaholic, falling apart physically, stressed constantly, traveling around the world alone half the time, and with barely the time or resources to eat a healthy lunch, and despite him earning six times as much as me I feel like I am the richer one. The hardest part is how I relate to my friends about it. Up until a few months ago I did my best to weave it into conversations in a subtle way, point out current news events, and people were occasionally interested but most of the time just stopped talking until somehow the subject was changed. Actually watching people go through cognitive dissonance right in front of you is an amazingly scary thing. But since things started getting really bad in the last six months I don’t even bother bringing it up anymore. I have friends who are physical wrecks, up to their eyeballs in debt, working in discretionary spending dependent jobs……and all I can think is that it is too late. And as much as I know it wasn’t my job to save them or anything, it still really hurts to imagine what might be coming for them. It is even more frustrating seeing peak oil aware friends on acreage fail to find the time to maintain their food gardens as well.

The other hard bit is being gay, like I didn’t have a hard enough time before just being a gay nerd who would rather sit at home and read or cook than go out clubbing or shopping (or worse). I’m resolved to keeping my eyes open, but I am pretty much on top of the idea that I probably won’t find anyone significant to share my life with. Ive had this weird cycle lately where I am spending my days out working in the garden and it is so phenomenally beautiful, and the work so gentle and satisfying, I just wish I had someone to share it with. Then that makes it a bit sad and bittersweet and lonely. But then when friends in the area come to visit they are so clueless to what is going on in the world that I find it becomes a big charade, and I am relieved when they go so I can get back to the garden. I worry too that if people do start showing more of an interest in me down the track as things fall apart (self sufficiency collaborators or potential partners) that I will resent them waiting until the last minute to expect my help. I do often remind myself how I would feel if I was still living in another state for that job- I wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing what was coming and with only numbers in a bank account as my insurance policy.

I guess what I have learned from all this is that everyone has a limit to how quickly they can adapt to fundamental changes in their world view. If you push other people too hard to catch up with you something inside snaps and you lose any connection. If you really want people to come along with you on this ride you have to do it over a long time, little by little, but the chance to do so may be well and truly past already. Reality will push people along on its own soon enough.

I keep thinking of that safety instruction you always see in planes- “Please attach your own breathing mask before assisting others”. Focusing on doing what is within your power is the key to feeling you have any control.

PhD/Chemist in Australia

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Hi POCiA,

I just LOVED your letter, and you make such an important point about people actually DOING THINGS rather than just reading about it or talking about it. Yes, feeling and processing what’s going in IS important, but it just isn’t enough. Working and making money to pay bills is important, but so is keeping up the garden and continuing to learn how to produce crops you can actually LIVE on. So is learning how to put these foodstuffs up for the off-season.

I hope that people will take comfort in your efforts toward a balanced life, and one that is proactive. You show a great deal of heart-felt sympathy for your friends that simply can’t or won’t get it, and this I truly appreciate as well. So many of us feel angry, not sorrowful, about those who think they “know better.” You are truly fortunate in countless ways.

I applaud you, and am sure that there are many souls who would want to be the companion of such a thoughtful gentle individual. I wish you great luck.

Kathy

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Hi Kathy

Thanks for the reply- it was really helpful to get all of that off my chest and get some encouragement. Even my parents, who have made the move with me, have lingering doubts over whether we are heading in the right direction, especially over passing up the opportunity to pursue my long and costly training into an appropriate field. But the area has been drying up for years with the opportunities shrinking as the demands on the individual continue to grow. Working in a lab makes it really apparent how utterly paralyzed research could become when the dozens of ingredients and plastic disposables shipped from around the world become unaffordable or unavailable. Every basic job takes multiple components, and pulling out any one stops the progress. I have tried discussing how the lab would manage rising inflation and no-one seems the slightest bit interested.

But I am very conscious of the danger of placing all your bets on one color. The problems from peak oil could take a lot longer to work through the system than anyone expects, and there may well be some miracle technofix waiting in the wings, or a war or pandemic that changes all the rules of the game. I think people like to fantasize about an overnight total collapse of society as it is easier to get your head around. Mundane apocalypses- unemployment, price increases, feeling bored and lonely and powerless- that is the reality that even the doomers can’t face up to most of the time. And in the mean time we still need to keep working, paying bills, but try to gently side step the usual acceptance that a paid job should eat your waking life, leading to a lack of opportunities to make arrangements for a different future. I guess I kind of have to master my own cognitive dissonance to be able to dedicate myself enough to my office job half the week in order to keep it viable, even though I don’t imagine it has much of a future in the longer run, and to keep working on the farm, despite food still being so cheap by some measures.

To clarify- my PhD is in chemistry but with a biochemical slant to it. And I am male, just about to turn 31. I’ll keep doing my best to remain hopeful on the romantic front, but I have had a reasonable quota of romances and intrigue so I can’t be too bitter. Voluntarily taking a hit to your apparent social standing by passing up money and prestige definitely comes at a cost in the dating game. Ultimately we all have to learn to feel comfortable just in our own skin. Maybe we feel the need to love others when we can’t figure out how to love ourselves.

Thanks again for your wonderful website- Ill be reading through the archives over the next few weeks.

Phd/Chemistry in Australia

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Yes! The balancing game. Remaining active in the world, because none of us can foresee the future and know how many slow, painful stops will happen on the elevator ride down. You’ve put it very well.
I would like you to consider, though, how your education can come in handy in a less technological sense. How can a chemist help? What do you know that others will not? How can this be applied constructively to your community? If you are a Chemist and a Farmer, how will the Chemist help others?

Thank you, again, for your contribution.

Kathy
“Peak Shrink”

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Do you have a profession that will morph as we head down the energy descent? A dating life that headed south when your interests turned from popular culture and to agriculture? Write us at peakshrink@peakoilblues.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

Special welcome to our Asian readers in Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand, as well as our frequent contributors in Oz and New Zealand. We join with you in your concerns about Peak Oil!

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.

Comments

  1. Hi POS and all

    I find this site a great antidote for my others sites which are stark and real and on the doom side of the flipped coin (and its a a double tailed coin.)

    However I feel like most of your readers where i went into a mild panic when all the dots sterted to make some sort of a picture.

    So your all of your reader stories stike a cord on some sort of level.

    I live up the road from PhDiA (1200 klm up the road)and I know his area reasonably well and think its a great region.

    My comment on his supposed wasted schooling is of course its not. An educated farmer! how good is that, he will be part of food solutions of the future he just might not see it yet. People like him may also raise the low value profile farmers seem to have in the community.

    I hate the low profile farmers seem to have. The most important people on the planet with not a lot of kudos.

    As for love it will arrive when least expected.

    D just up the road

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