Reflections on Peak Oil from an “Undeveloped World” Immigrant

This was posted as a comment, but had so many useful thoughts about emotional reactions to Peak Oil, I’ve made it a post of its own.


Emotional Reactions

I learned about Peak Oil (and all the other disasters: financial breakdown, climate change, resource depletion beyond oil – water, food, etc.) about five months ago.

The first weeks I was numb and obsessive: I wanted to read more, know more. I watched videos and talked about the subject incessantly. I became frantic about buying things that we may need, checking things at home and de-cluttering to make space for food and other “survival” things we would need.

For a few weeks, I couldn’t sleep well. I change all my routines and abandoned my studies. Nothing had the same meaning and I started asking about the worth of each decision and step made.

I did many things, from stocking food erratically and without any strategy, to engaging in more volunteering projects. I started taking courses on emergency preparedness and disaster response and bought books on permaculture, disaster preparedness, urban gardening, peak oil and homesteading.

I had already started to make order in our family finances, but now the debt became an obsession again. At the beginning, I was caring for every drop of water we used, and turning lights off around the house. Then I abandoned that a bit, although the use of water and energy was significantly reduced. I adopted “new” ways to deal with some routines:

I built compost and then I bought a compost bin (more practical for our townhouse), also bought a clothing rack and started using it for small clothes (anything but big towels and blankets). I stopped watching TV, reduced the time I spent in the shower, bought a bicycle and started a garden in pots in my townhouse deck (they don’t allow me to do vegetable gardening in the actual soil, much less have chicken).

My emotional reactions seem to be very similar to those of other people in blogs and books. My preparations, at least initially, may be the same, although less radical, in part for lack of family support and in part (mostly) for lack of money…I don’t have the option of moving to a farm or even to a house where I can garden and have livestock. I am too new in Canada and I have a huge debt, acquired just buying this townhouse made of sticks, with plastic pipes that may break in 5 more years, and which garden I pay but can’t use…

Others’ Reactions

People’s reaction and my strategy towards them is also similar: my husband listens but doesn’t take action and is becoming a bit irritated, telling me that if I continue with this monotony I’ll go crazy. Friends listen and tell me not to worry that much or ignore me, and I am scared of bringing up the subject with others…

I am still trying to start a community garden, but have no idea of how many supporters, if any, I will have in this community. Things go really slow and I watch everybody as if I were an alien: that’s how I feel. I find myself thinking: “look at them, how they continue their lives, ignorant of what will happen”; or I read the news and think “they are not telling all the truth, they are trying to continue this facade”; sometimes I feel anger, sometimes fear or even panic, sometimes it just doesn’t matter anymore, and sometimes the paranoia comes back and I start stocking and buying again…

I have abandoned my studies and don’t know whether it makes sense to continue, as they cost money and I’m pretty old (46) . However, I also know that if I want to continue working in my field, I will need a bachelor degree or it will be difficult to find another job when my current contract ends.

New Considerations

But now things have slowed down a bit…I have become more “political” and read other type of news and blogs, however, I have also started to challenge the Peak Oil “movement” with a little of third-world immigrant critical thinking…

Let me explain: I was born in a third-world country-Argentina- that had its own history of ups and downs. My childhood had probably the last “good times”. However, I didn’t have a TV or fancy things. My “gifts” for Christmas were clothes, no toys. My family had a small old car and I was used to public transportation and lots of walking. We used to have many blackouts and I lived in houses where there was no tap water: the water came from a well that we had to pump. Other houses where we lived (we rented and moved a lot) were old, European style and their pipes were always malfunctioning. We never had a drier or a washing machine until I was 10. We always had a vegetable garden of some sort and the grocery store didn’t have many exotic things.


Then a coup d’état sent us to different places. I emigrated as a refugee to another “third world” country, but this time, this was an oil country (Venezuela). There, we had a small TV and a bigger house, we never starved but we had chickens and some vegetables in the backyard. Power outages are very common in Venezuela. You may be more than 24 hours without power and everybody continues their lives: go to work, pay the bills, complain, party, study…Water was scarce as well: we may have a whole week without water: we were used to it and had plastic bins that we usually filled when the water was back, to save for the “dry” days…you become use to it.

I visited Argentina (my home country) when the energy crisis was in its worst moment: cars were abandoned on the streets, nobody would care about thefts: who would steal a car if the gas was so expensive or inexistent? Elevators would work only twice a day for 30-60 minutes each. Grocery stores and shops wouldn’t label the products because prices may go from 10 to 1000 in one hour. The banks froze all the accounts and people couldn’t take their money (they allowed a small amount each month per person). People started to do barter: you exchanged services for goods and vice versa…

I’m not saying that what’s coming is not bad. I’m saying that there are many people out there already living this or with fresh memories of living like this. And they survive.

I am not dumb. I understand that what is coming is bigger as it will impact more people, more deeply, and there will be not come back to “normal” (or they may be, smalls “come backs” each time shorter, until the “normal” doesn’t come back anymore). But I am starting to think that those who decide to abandon everything and buy a farm, creating a “bunker” full of food and strange systems are not stopping to think on what may really happen.

Things are not going to stop suddenly and for good. Systems will start to fail slowly and with hiccups: you may have more blackouts than expected and they will be longer. You may start experiencing scarcity of some goods: exotic foods, certain products, etc. Gas, electricity and water prices may raise and people will struggle. Jobs will become more and more instable and employers will continue (they have already started) taking advantage of immigrants, youth, women and anybody who is in real “need” and may accept a lower salary, no benefits, contracts that end without notice, no vacations, etc.

Things have already started: I work with refugees and immigrants and I can tell: refugees now are not just persecution cases. There are refugees and immigrants who immigrate due to the effects of climate change, exploitation and corruption, wars, financial crises, countries where water, power, food and goods are scarce or too expensive and where human rights are violated because nobody cares.

The “Peak Oil” is already here.

It has been here for years. We are already in transition. It is just that for a part of the world, the party lasted longer and more people though they had earned the “right” to use and abuse of the resources, no matter how they were obtained or who was working so they could have them…

I still remember my sense of wonder when I arrived to Canada: in Spring, in the small city in Ontario, people would through furniture to the street: you walked and could see fridges, stoves, coaches, TVs, tables, toys, clothes…I couldn’t believe it! I used to wonder when visited the grocery store: tons and tons of FOOD, all kinds of exotic beverages and brands…I came from a country where you may not have milk for months or toilet paper for weeks. You can imagine my eyes.

I quickly became part of this new “reality.” We bought a townhouse and a car. We bought furniture and books and beautiful things. We didn’t spend that much as others, but we became indebted as the rest. We rationalized: “we work hard, we studied hard, and we come from countries were things were tough, we ‘deserve’ all this.

Do we?

Two Realities

My challenge now is to put together these two realities and see things in perspective: we are strong and resilient and we shouldn’t panic. After all, we have experienced this before and we survived. We even were happy.

Another difference I feel I have when I read the comments from other people concerned about Peak Oil, is that I feel blessed and happy. These times are special times: humankind developed technologies and discovered things never imagined. We have created and build things; we have “grown” in sciences and humanities, arts and technology. That won’t be taken back. No matter what the future brings, what happened happened. So in a way I am thankful to have been born in these times: to have known Internet, being able to listen to music made before I was born thanks to the magic of a CD or my Ipod, to be able to check a book and have it in my hands in a week, to communicate with friends in Spain and Italy…to have been in an airplane many times, in trains and jeeps and have visited museums and watched great movies and so many other things!

I can’t be angry at humankind because of science and technology or arts. I can’t be angry about music or the fight for human rights, the overcoming of slavery and discrimination and the birth of so many projects and groups. I feel blessed and thankful for having been exposed to both worlds and share what each other feel and think about (each other). This couldn’t have happened without cheap energy and technology.

I am also aware of human history: we have experienced wars and famine, natural disasters and epidemics. Humans were never peaceful, loving and caring. These things develop when all needs are covered and it is easy to care for others than ourselves. I may not be right here, as there are many groups such as some aboriginals from Latin and North America, as well as some Asian cultures that have developed systems of profound caring for Nature and other beings in general. And none of these groups were particularly abundant. However, they were not starving either…

Human beings don’t learn that much: they tend to repeat the same mistakes. The reason for this is that their lives are short and they tend to learn from own experience, not from books or other human beings. This means that no matter how much you teach children about how horrific the Nazis were, they won’t’ “feel” it real, it is just a vicarious feeling and may be challenged and changed…so things that have happened in the past may happen again.

Human beings have another characteristic: they are very varied. You will find so many diverse ways of thinking about the same thing, you’ll find different feelings as well. Look out there and see religions, for example, and you will know there is no hope when a religion convinces people of killing their own daughters or shutting the doors to neighbours just because they don’t believe the same.

Look at what people “want” and what they do when they have money to spend: some want a garden and a small house, but most want cars and clothes and toys and travels and houses and parties.

There is no “hope.” Nobody will “save” us. We just exist, as animals and plants do. And each wants food and shelter and love or power and energy to continue living…human beings won’t change because of the long emergency. The world will change as it has always changed before. Trees won’t care, even if they die, as they have (apparently) no conscience. Dogs may care, cats won’t, they will just feel uncomfortable and may move to a better house, or may come back to hunting.

So even when I love Nature profoundly, even when I love life and people and this world, I peacefully acknowledge that I don’t necessarily live in a time different from others, nor I have to panic about how bad things will turn out. I just happened to live 46 years of relative peace and abundance, and now things (as always have done) will change again. I may die in the struggle, I may starve. Or I may thrive and be able to help others to do so. But we will all dissolve and become again part of the trees and the soil and the animals, and the cycle will continue and evolve as usual, to who knows what new “being” or “thing”…

Nobody really knows what we are. Not even those who swear they do: they just repeat as zombies what has been written centuries ago in their books by somebody smart or mischievous. There may be a plan or we merely may exist as a wonderful accident. Or we may be Nature’s conscience… nobody really knows. What is real is that we are part of this planet and depend on it and its systems to survive.

We can prepare and learn as much as we can (and I will continue doing it and helping others do it), however, something is certain: no matter how prepared and stocked you are, if during an earthquake you are hit in the head by your roof, you may die. No emergency kit will save you. So prepare, yes, but also accept life and its cycles as they are.

“Undeveloped World” Immigrant


Dear UWI,

Many of the reactions you discussed are common to many of my contributors:

  • Shock
  • Numbness
  • Panic
  • Sleep problems
  • Incessant Research
  • Fear-based buying
  • Dramatic  changes in priorities
  • Adopting new anxiety-driven interests

You have lived without many things growing up that many in the “developed world” would consider essentials:  electricity, running water, toys, TV’s, cell phones, cheap oil.  And you were happy.

You are aware that by “pre-fossil fuel” standards, the life you had as a child was still luxurious:  you had manufactured clothes you could afford to buy, food choices from a market, etc.  Still, you suspect that it is possible, if you physically survive, that you can find pleasure in living your life even as things worsen.

You argue for one of two common scenarios:  A slow collapse.  Others believe a fast collapse is possible, and in some ways preferable.  But clearly we will more than likely have many years of the type of deterioration you mention- what I’ve called, in 2008, the “sucky kind of collapse:”

It’ll be that sucky kind of collapse where the electric bill just gets bigger and the commute to work gets more expensive month-by-month, if you even get to keep your job. The raises will stop, along with the bonuses, but the credit card bills won’t. The supermarket will have less variety, but everything will cost a great deal more. “Mr. Necessity,” as Chuck Willis says, is just a big drag, and he’s hanging around us more and more, suggesting we skip the organic for the store brand labels, and buy the cheaper tires. Talk about a drag. 

The article talks about a fantasy collapse and three types of “doomer” reactions.  And I’d definitely call you a “Do More Doomer.”

And you have another trait of a true survivor:  Gratitude.  You are grateful for the things you have been giving in this bountiful time.  Peak Oil has left you marveling at all of the fabulous things you can access:  books you can buy and have delivered in a few days, electronics, flights to visit friends thousands of miles away, a telephone call to most anywhere.

You don’t expect a quick fix, a magic cure, and you don’t have to “hope” for something different.  You’ve started your community garden, and cross your fingers for a neighborly response.  And you acknowledge that even if you work hard to prepare yourself in sensible ways, your best made plans can be dashed.

That’s a lot of processing you’ve done in 5 months.  Most people take several years to work through that process you’ve described.  Maybe the world you came from wasn’t quite so “undeveloped” after all!

Thank you for your thoughtful detailed comments.

P.S.  In today’s years, you aren’t so “old”

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. Jayne Anne says:

    This was absolutely beautiful. “Undeveloped World” Immigrant, your writing affected me very deeply – on an emotional and even spiritual level as well. Thank you. Thank you to KM for posting this, too.

  2. It really was. Kathy

  3. Nicolas Costa says:

    Good to know I’m not the only Argentinian Peak Oil aware. I’m certainly younger than UWI, having being born after the last dictatorship, but many of the things she has experienced are happening again, but in this case is because of political decisions, one example of this is the complete block of imports that is affecting very sensitive areas like Health. People with type I diabetes are starting to worry about the lack of insulin and the other tools in their survival kit. But this wouldn’t be happening if the government party, which in on it’s third term, and already stinking of corruption and ineptitude since their first, would have done things right instead of encouraging consumption to fuel growth, which is something that has stopped since 09 because of the bad economic politics of this same government.


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