There is no doubt that offering “hope,” is a great deal more politically successful than trying to peddle the notion of a painfully grim future. But there is a predictable political arc.
First, we are inspired to sign onto a vision of an abundant future, filled with social programs, fresh faces, and corruption reform. Later, after we’ve elected these public officials, a sudden shift occurs. Concrete assurances evaporate. Frightening problems, once trivialized, take on new urgency. The ‘same old same olds,’ are now the “wise establishment” that will help us “hit the ground running.”
A bleaker future, filled with concepts of “responsibility” and “restraint,” eclipses celebratory success. When the reality is no longer possible to deny, we are reminded of the nobility of sacrifice. We are gently chided for our previous excesses, in mildly admonishing language. Quickly following, we are called to remember our forefather’s sacrifices, the limitations of material wealth, and the spiritual goodness of coming together in unity. There is a seamless shift from a hopeful vision of a promising future, into one stressing the need for greater personal sacrifice and sobriety. We are both soothed and flattered to hear that we are up to the task.
It’s a bait and switch, pure and simple, and the reasons for these tactics are numerous: Chestnuts like “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” apply. Our goals are more noble, and our new leaders more wise…the ends will justify the means…it is impossible to coax cooperation and participation from the masses any other way…frightened people are dangerous people…hopeful people are productive citizens…inconvenient emotions, such as sadness, depression, anger and rage have little political utility…everything’s different now, so get with the program. Maybe more important:
Ignore the man behind the curtain.
Within this hokey pokey of shifting political promises and diminishing expectations, we are left dazed. On the one hand, we yearn for a future that doesn’t frighten us beyond our capacity to confront it. We want to believe that a wise leader will bring us the continued wealth and prosperity that we’ve come to consider as our birthright. We want to remain hapless children, soothed by stories, while the thunder booms outside our bedroom window. We say “take it all away, it frightens us.” We choose to continue to delight in our capacity to “dream of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’”
Our politicians and news outlets are reluctant to spell it out, simply and directly, preferring instead a policy of “never is heard a discouraging word.” They are afraid of the outrage that will follow, and they should be. The losses are frightening. The equity in your home is gone. Your pension funds are decimated. Your hopes of career advancement are now replaced by fears of job loss. You can’t afford to send your kids to college, anymore, and nobody wants to loan you money for your small business. Oh, and P.S.: The cost of oil is going up later this year.
The economic ground under your feet is collapsing, and instead of facing it, we want you to put your feet up and watch TV. It’s Miller time. Forget about what you can’t do anything about. Get some perspective. Look on the sunny side. “This too shall pass.”
Pop psychology is used to reassure us that ‘the art of laughing and forgetting’ is the only sane move. Psychotropic drugs clip the highs of good feeling, but save us from the pain of our emotional lows. We are offered memes that inspire and uplift us. We are given “handy tips” to assist us in finding scarce jobs. We are told, just like our Depression-Era ancestors, that a pleasing personality is our best shot at success, and eternal optimism our most endearing friend.
All of this has happened before, the last time financial recklessness devastated our nation. They hid the bad news, while we hummed along to songs like “We’re in the Money.” As despair increased, so did the din of manic optimism. The cognitive dissonance between this constant stream of cheerful lies, and the crushing hardship of the Great Depression sent more Americans to insane asylums than at any other time in US history.
We, here in the US, are told to look upon anxiety or anything anxiety-provoking, as the enemy of the good. We are offered numerous avenues and elixirs to escape our panic, our boredom, our sadness and our anger. While other countries see the inequity and take to the streets in protest or riots, we fear being pathologized or ridiculed for our rage. We’re called “Chicken Little” or “Debbie Downer,” for drawing attention to terrifying events we choose to face, rather than to resort to the escapism that surrounds us. Why bother to struggle and look squarely at what we may face, and thoughtfully consider the consequences? It makes for depressing dinner conversation. Even those who stand as our closest allies in facing the truth, tell us that realism, in a media-filled landscape, only works well in horror flicks. When it comes to real life, let us dream. We have no way to calm ourselves down, we believe, and only in a birthday party atmosphere can we be encouraged to actually do something for ourselves.
Do you believe it? Can you imagine that we have an inherent ability to modulate our own anxiety? Do you think we can recognize and advocate for our own interests?
Yes, we can.
I’ve come to develop a great respect for the people who write to me at Peak Oil Blues. They have demonstrated that they can go into that “dark night of the soul,” and emerge as different people. Peak Oil has forced them to re-examine everything they once thought about their world, and about their future. I have learned that their capacity to stay with this examination, without defaulting into hopelessness, denial, or groundless optimism, has left them stronger, but fundamentally changed. They are grateful that I refuse to trivialize, pathologize, or mock their emotional reactions or the solutions they try on. I have endeavored always, to speak to the best part of them, the person they aspire to be, and to remind them that all of their reactions are vital in helping them to understand their unique situation and struggle. I haven’t sugar-coated the future, and they haven’t crumbled underneath these truths.
I call myself a “Doomer,” a term I affectionately use as a reaction to what I see is rampant Panglossia. A “Panglossian” view of life insists that we live in the best of all possible worlds. The term Doomer acknowledges that while we might all prefer to live in a world where we are freed from the “dreamblocker” emotions of fear, cynicism, anger and disbelief, we lose some of our humanity when we do. Only by facing into these emotions do we develop a depth of character. Only by accepting life in all of its complexities are we able to “hold our own reality lightly” or “play ball on running water.”
The Transition Initiative (TI) movement has focused a great deal on the emotional realities of Peak Oil and Climate Change. It has been inspiring to see the success they have had, to date.
Over the next few days, I would like to share with you some of my concerns, as this movement rapidly expands in the US and is digested by American popular culture. It is not my intention to be damning, or to insult any of the hard work that has gone into TI so far. It is my hope, instead, that my cautions will serve to strengthen the effectiveness of this movement, while helping it to deepen and to create even greater resilience.
End of Part I