The Endangered Planet & Me

Here is a story Mike Monett sent and requested that I post on POB:

I began this bio on my 56th birthday, March 29th, 2010.

It is not about the events of my life but is the story of how my feelings about the world developed, written to make sense of the psychological struggles I am having in recent years thinking about the coming consequences of climate change and other environmental harm, peak oil, financial collapse, the decline of news media, the disintegration of politics, and the epidemic of denial about all of these…

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Chapter One

My earliest years, the late 1950s and early 1960s, were relatively tranquil I now know, so I don’t remember being afraid about wars or other crises.

I grew up with a brother and three sisters in a safe and nice neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. I had bad allergies, and was very shy through my eight years of Catholic grade school, but I recall my childhood as pleasant and happy. I breezed through both grade school and high school with straight A’s but always lived for the beautiful summers between grades and never really liked being at school very much.

I think from the earliest age I was more attuned to reality and less prone to fantasy and denial than other American kids my age. (I never liked television as a child and preferred being outside.)

Chapter Two

I think my present feelings about the world started in my teens, when I began to experience depression for the first time.

The Vietnam war was like a dark backdrop that wasn’t there in my earlier youth.

Then, I remember a showing, on what I seem to recall was a bright Spring day, when I was about 15 or 16, to the students in my history class, of a black-and white movie. I now know this was the film, “Nazi Concentration Camps” from the 1945 Nuremberg trials, and I now know it changed my life forever.

The link in the previous sentence is to the same film, now easy to view on the Internet.  I know for sure if I were to click that link now, and see it again myself, I would probably cry for a long time, just like forty years ago. I remember having nightmares for days caused by the gruesome scenes and images, and by the terrible new realization of how vicious my fellow humans could be. Until that day, I had never known about the holocaust.

Somehow I connected the dots between this and the temporary fears I had when I was younger when I thought about the stories of Indians driven from where I live in the 19th century. I began thinking deeply and for long periods about things like this for the first time.

At this exact same time, the first Earth Day happened in the Spring of 1970 when I was sixteen.  I got a copy of the popular new paperback book, “The Environmental Handbook” edited by Garrett DeBell, and by the time I was finished reading it at the end of 1970, I knew I was an environmentalist, and would be for the rest of my life.  I next read “The Limits to Growth“, by a group called the Club of Rome which came out in 1972.  It clearly convinced me that the growth of the human race and of its resource consumption were not sustainable, although that word was not commonly used then.

The Limits to Growth made anyone who read it imagine for the first time a year in the future when energy would ‘peak”, although, once again, that word was not yet common.  I distinctly recall being most worried after reading Limits to Growth about oil. And I distinctly remember being convinced the time it would run out would be near the turn of the new millennium.  So, obviously, I was thinking a lot about the time that is now, and imagining the me of the present and his real fears in a year such as 2010.

Before I go on though, I need to point out that my fears now are worse than I imagined in 1972, because climate change was just a vague theory then, so it was not predicted by Limits to Growth to be among my present worries.  And, to continue the significant point that the present moment was consciously imagined in those times in the early 1970s, I want to emphasize that the 18-year-old me immediately became very concerned about the psychology of collapse.  I remember long contemplations of whether humans would respond properly during the thirty to forty years before it occurred.  I was quite pessimistic, and this pessimism set the tone for the rest of my life.

So, I embraced what was then called the “back to the land” movement, and I retained a small amount of hope, because then there was still quite a bit of time to prepare for what I now refer to as “collapse.”  Also, there was not yet an anti-environment political backlash in the 1970s.  There was a lot of distraction and widespread public failure to care enough about the environment, resources, and the future, but politics and the news media seemed to work properly then, unlike now.

Between the ages of eighteen and thirty, or the years 1972 to about 1984, my life was very lonely and stark because I was chronically depressed, and living in rural towns in northwest Ohio that attracted me but where I had no friends, and could not make friends because of the depression. (The depression and the loneliness became a cycle.)  I am still prone to certain types of depression, but before 1984 depression was severe and almost constant, because I had not yet sorted out the link between it and my physical problems (allergies, second-hand smoke in the places I worked, narcolepsy).

During these years in my twenties, my only pleasures were swimming in lakes in the summer and in exploring the back roads of Ohio and Indiana, and in visiting my family in Columbus many times each year.

I tried to build a meaningful life based on my concern for the environment and fears about the distant future, but for those twelve years, avoiding suicide was really my biggest accomplishment.  But considering the physical and mental problems I was battling, I now am impressed at how many useful skills I taught myself during those years:  I got a practical 2-year degree in Mechanical Design, learned how to fix everything on a car, learned everything about construction and every other technology, and so much about geography, and, finally then taught myself the most important thing of all -how to heal myself.

Chapter Three

When this happened, at the age of thirty, in 1984, I had no idea where things stood in regard to my fears about collapse from 1970 to 1972, and I had no understanding of what was going on in politics, because for twelve years all I thought about was myself, because I had so many physical and mood problems, that was all I possibly could think about.

During those twelve years, the luxury of paying attention to politics or US culture would have seemed as distant as becoming suddenly rich, or of dying and waking up in heaven.  But then, at thirty, I did get better, and I entered another twelve year period that was quite different.

From 1984 to 1996, I was healthy most of the time and had the energy to pay attention to the rest of humanity again.  I made friends and developed hobbies and free-time interests like other Americans my age. I read newspapers thoroughly every day and became well-informed about local, national, and world events.  I even continued my engineering education, and continued to learn practical new skills every year.  Although I was still an avid environmentalist, I did not return to a survivalist mentality for two reasons:  First, I thought during this period that politics and the news media worked the way they should, so I had significant amounts of hope that America was a progressive place with citizens who were becoming smarter and wiser each year, and so crises of the next century would be solved intelligently.  Secondly, I thought that the world was not about to run out of oil near the turn of the millennium, but more like sometime well into the new millennium. ( I thought the Limits to Growth was written before we knew how many new discoveries would push back what we now call “peak oil”.)

This third chapter of my life was more like the first chapter (my childhood and early to mid teens) because I had considerable faith and confidence in my country, the media, fellow citizens, leaders, and the world.

Chapter Four

Chapter four started though in 1996, at age 42, when I realized that confidence had started to crumble.  I decided that affluence in America was making it somewhat lazy and selfish, but that it could be put back on the right track if those of us losing faith started “speaking up” and “getting active.”  For the next six years, from late 1996 until late 2002, that is what I did, and my focus was on the unsustainability of suburban sprawl and the wasteful abandonment of our downtowns and core cities and towns.

I started a blog that gained some fame in those years, and in late 1999, I partnered with the Sierra Club for a successful fight against taxpayer subsidies for infrastructure to build a “corporate welfare” mega-mall between Dayton and Cincinnati. And from 1999 to 2002, we opposed other subsidized “private interchanges” along I-75 between the two cities, with meager success.

Chapter Five

But on a cold day in November of 2002, at a public hearing for the last of these proposals, I knew that this fourth chapter of my life was over too.  I knew at that moment I had lost all hope that there was enough will and determination among Americans to counter the enormity of greed and the power of money that I had seen first hand for six years.

So Chapter Five began, defined by my belief that our future would be dictated by these forces, not by an enlightened public making smart decisions.  After realizing my pessimism in others was back to what it was at the end of the second chapter of my life, I needed to assess what this implied.

Recall that I said this about that second chapter:

“…there was not yet an anti-environment political backlash in the 1970s.  There was a lot of distraction and widespread public failure to care enough about the environment, resources, and the future, but politics and the news media seemed to work properly then...”

But I knew in late 2002 that there were strong anti-environmental political forces, and I considered the news media to be ineffective at publicizing our most significant problems, and I was convinced money had corrupted our election processes.  And I also said about the second chapter of my life, “climate change was just a vague theory then, so it was not predicted by Limits to Growth“.

In this new fifth chapter beginning in late 2002, climate change loomed, not just the end of cheap oil, which the Limits to Growth had predicted.  And the final part of my assessment was to research exactly where we stood in regard to this end of cheap oil, because I had not educated myself about energy resources during the third and fourth chapters of my life, (or since the early 1980s).

I immediately discovered ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, on the internet.  I was then convinced that this fifth chapter of my life was defined by the arrival of the predictions of Limits to Growth.  Furthermore, it was obvious to me that several other things seemed to be collapsing simultaneously with cheap oil, among them the effectiveness of politics and news in the US.  Finally, because I was obviously choosing a survivalist style of reacting to these realizations, I also educated myself thoroughly about economic and financial realities, beginning in 2003.

A consistency was obvious in everything I looked at: the looming of collapse.  So it seemed this was ahead for the economy too, with the now familiar failure of the news media to acknowledge it.  And to make matters even more bleak, just at the time I entered this latest chapter in my life, the US embarked on two new futile wars, as well as on a broader absurd war the politicians call the “War on Terror”.

At the beginning of this stage in history, in 2002 and 2003, there were not yet online and intellectual communities of those of us who perceived all of these things clearly.  So, a bizarre loneliness plagued us, and still does, but we are sharing our feelings about this now and that is why I am writing this bio.

The thing that is strangest about the loneliness of we who perceive true reality is that it is a loneliness not caused by physical isolation from others but from a psychological disconnect from them caused by their denial to acknowledge what to us is so clear.  In the seven years that I have been feeling this, I have thought of some analogies to explain better to myself why this is so terrifying.

For example:

  • it can be compared to being in an insane asylum where not only are you the only one that is sane, but the inmates all share the same delusions.
  • Or, I imagine a very neurotic family where severe abuse is occurring but is never discussed and an elaborate facade of phony happiness is constructed instead.
  • I have also thought intensely about and done some reading about, the evolutionary reasons why denial is a built-in part of the psychology of the majority of humans.

But even though these actions have been helpful, the bizarre isolation was still so intense it triggered jarring secondary reactions in my mind that were extremely traumatic.  The most serious was the debilitating anger that Hurricane Katrina triggered in me, in September, 2005.  So much rage and heartbreak erupted as I watched this disaster happen and witnessed the way the government, the media, and the public reacted, that I even took a leave of absence from my job for over two weeks.

Part of this was the timing, because coincidentally I had just been educating myself in the weeks before about the Mississippi River levees, and reading predictions of how bad a Category 5 hurricane would be if it aimed directly at New Orleans. This was because I wanted to start “snow birding” in Louisiana in the winter, and so I was teaching myself as much about the state as I could.  Looking back on the almost five years since, it is now clear though that Katrina had some partly unexplainable significance for many, many others too.

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There is a lot more I could probably think of to say right now about this fifth chapter in my life. But this is a biography, to emphasize how I got here, not the details of what it’s like to be here. Furthermore, I won’t fully understand this fifth chapter unless and until I move into a sixth. Maybe that is already happening but I just don’t realize it yet.

In any case, one thing that has begun is our finding of each other, at least on the internet. This means we are now thinking about collapse and the psychology of it collectively. We are now asking these kinds of questions to each other, but have no good answers yet:

  • Can peak oil be our salvation from climate Armageddon?
  • How many humans will be alive a century from now?
  • Will they still have all the knowledge that was perhaps the only real benefit of the fossil fuel age?
  • How violent and cruel will people be as denial becomes more and more impossible to maintain?

And these are our most important questions:

  • What is the best way I can live from now on to lessen the suffering for as many creatures as possible?
  • Or, is there really nothing I or the rest of us can do that will make any difference because it’s too late?
  • If we can influence the future, do we need to gather in new physical communities to protect and help each other?
  • If so, where will they be and how do we design them?
  • Or can we instead re-create community in the social wastelands that the cities and towns we now live in have become? If those around us change as things get worse this might be possible.

…These questions are part of what occupies my mind now, at the end of this autobiography.

Read the original post here.

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Hi Mike,

I have a few thoughts in response to your post I’d like to share with you.

I think we all need to realize that it wasn’t that “the news media worked the way they should” back then, and now it doesn’t.  It was that a group of wealthy individuals recognized that popular sentiments were exceedingly Leftist in their leanings, and so they successfully sought to change around public opinion.  They paid college tuition to those who they considered of “right mind” and brought them to DC, gave them cheap rent in brand new high rises, and set up television and media studios.  They worked with them to become talented in handling the media.  They bought media time in some areas and protested media in other venues.  While some of us were planting our potatoes, others were constructing what we now think of as a completely ‘bought and sold’ MSM.

Depression is often a “normal” response when faced with a situation where the actions you are taking are not effective.  Some of us have a family history of depression which I think of as part genetic, part social learning.  In a sense, I believe the study that says that those who suffer from depression have removed the more rosy glasses that make the non-depressed more hopeful.  The rub is, the more we believe in the ‘hopelessness’ of it, the less we try the actions that might be rightly framed as “impossible.”  Those who aren’t depressed barrel forth and try these ‘impossible’ things, and are sometimes effective at them!

So, while those suffering depression may be actually seeing things “more correctly” than others, this accurate vision of reality works against them (in addition to making them feel horrible and sometimes suicidal…)  Is Panglossian Disorder the solution?  No, and in a sense, we all suffer some form of Panglossian Disorder anyway, to one degree or another.  The issue is whether it removes us from being able to tolerate some degree of realism.

We can consider depression a social form of a “help!” cry.  When we lived in tight-knit communities, everyone was needed, and no one could spend their lives in a hut and be left alone.  First, we needed them to DO stuff.  Go hunt!  Go gather food!  Go watch the children!  Go gather firewood!  The demand to “Do Something!” got them moving again and “Surprise!” they felt less depressed. If that didn’t work, they saw the person who’s job it was to exorcise them or treat them with food or herbs and this ‘cure’ often worked to get them going.

Imagine a person is walking into a wall, and hurting themselves.  But they believe they have to keep doing it, so they rub their wounds and keep going.  Smack!  Hurt again!  After a while, they get “depressed.”  They have to believe that (1) they should be doing it and (2) that they can somehow accomplish something, that they aren’t succeeding at doing.

When we also feel responsible for doing something that helps other people, and we can’t do it, we also get physically ill.  It is the plight of the “Executive Monkey” and bosses from all over the world are now suffering ulcers and heart disease and emotional disorders as well because they are forced to lay off or fire people when they’d rather find a way of keeping them working.  It gets worse when these same Executive Monkeys know that there are no jobs for these real people with real names and real families to go find.

Ambivalence or having simultaneous, conflicting feelings can also sicken us.  Do we want the end of cheap oil to slow the environmental destruction?  But if we have that, we’re going to see horrible things happen to people and their cultures.  But if we preserve the culture and the economy, we cause environmental destruction that kills people anyway.  What should we be rooting for?  Hoping for?  Wanting?

We can begin this cognitive loop that can freeze us in place, because either way we move, we’re “wrong.”  It is horrible to feel, and destructive to our wellbeing.

Loneliness, isolation, and depression increase in proportion to the amount of time we spend on the internet (except reading emails) as well, according to a 2005 Stanford University study.  It ramps up faster when we live alone and the more time we spend, the more lonely and isolated we feel.  Even television doesn’t isolate us as much, according to this study.  And you can imagine the loop it forms:  we feel lonely so we go on to chat rooms for companionship and comradeship.  We have virtual friends, but few belly-to-belly buddies.  And the more time they spend online, the less time they spend interacting with real people.  But our internet time leaves us feeling more lonely, so we go on even more.  Our internet use is going up, and our time spent with friends and family is going down.  More shocking, the US gov’t is telling us that we spend even more time online and other leisure pursuits than we spend reading or playing with our children–the main source where we develop human socialization skills.

Feb 2009 study by Forrester, tapping 40,000 people, found that teenagers spend an average of 31 hours a week online.   A third study (IDC) found that Americans  spend 32.7 hours/week on the internet, about twice as much time as they spend watching television (16.4 hours).  I think in some weird way, many of us become convinced that if we READ alternative news we are somehow DOING something.

My final three comment to  your thoughtful post is that we need to keep the notion of  time, location and specificity front and center when we are discussing all of this stuff.  As things change over time, it causes effects.  These (sometimes cataclysmic) effects offer opportunities to impact other sorts of change.

In addition, different locations will be impacted in different ways.  It is up to each of us to carefully assess the future viability of our location, and, if we have children, to project this viability out for several generations.

You are quite right that it is quite difficult to shift public opinion on a massive scale.  We don’t have the cash to buy media time like multi-national corporations.  But we can decide to live in a place we assess has a future, and we can begin to network with people in that same location to strengthen the long-term viability of the place.

Specificity means that in any group, you will have 5% who are “sociopathic,” (a much higher number if those “people” are corporations, because they are sociopathic by design…)  This means, if you study your history, that without the capacity for empathy, these sociopathic individuals can and will attempt to sway people to gain power, control and wealth.  They are often charismatic and their appeals are emotionally based.  They lie as easily as you and I take a breath.  When we don’t sort out those sociopaths (who when highly intelligent, do a great deal of damage) from the rest of us, we begin to talk about “human nature” in global and horrific ways.

Rage, intense sadness, hopelessness, and terror are all natural reactions to what we are facing, Mike.  These are feelings that make us human and tell us we are still alive and paying attention.  But so are feelings of joy, passion, curiosity and playfulness.  The key questions to ask ourselves is not “can we do the tremendous work we need to do to change things around?” but “do we love that ‘patch of land’ we are living on, and those annoying people around us that are living on it to, to try?”

It’s too late to be hopeless.  Things are much too dire and serious to ‘give up.’

Thanks for sending this thought-provoking piece.

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. I don’t really have anything more profound to add to Mike’s story than: “me too”.

    Thanks for sharing, Mike.

    If anyone in NSW, Australia answered yes to Mike’s question – “do we need to gather in new physical communities to protect and help each other?” – then please follow the link to my blog and drop me a line.

    We’re working as hard and as fast as we can (with very limited financial resources) to implement the kind of ideas Kathy talks about. Like-minded individuals are more than welcome to join us – at least for a visit, to talk and mull over ideas (with some fresh-baked sourdough bread as “food-for-thought”).

  2. Micheal says:

    Mike says, “At the beginning of this stage in history, in 2002 and 2003, there were not yet online and intellectual communities of those of us who perceived all of these things clearly. So, a bizarre loneliness plagued us, and still does, but we are sharing our feelings about this now and that is why I am writing this bio.”

    It makes me a little sad that Mike apparently was unaware of the Yahoo, peak oil discussion groups that were available even before 2002. They were for me bright spots for information and conceptual development.

    ~mep~

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