Saying Goodbye to Tomorrow.



Today is the last day on Earth, according to some New Age interpretation of the Mayan calendar.

This belief has caused endless suffering and useless expensive purchases by people trying to “beat the clock” and find somewhere safe to spend their last few hours.  Cheap places have suddenly become outrageously expensive, because someone said “Hang out there!” during your final hours.

This story caused one young woman to take her life.

However, saying “Goodbye to Tomorrow” has a long history that goes beyond this moment in time.  Humans are famous for planning the end of not only their own anticipated deaths, but because that is just too commonplace, they have to anticipate the death of everyone and everything around them.

The End of the World.  Or more modestly put, The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI).

One psychologist got interested in one “Say Goodbye to Tomorrow” group, and actually hung out with them during their “final moments.”  He wanted to know how they cognitively justified it, when the end of the world failed to materialize.

He reported that great anticipation happened during the moments ticking up to “the end.”  Five minutes “after doomsday,” the euphoria of the group changed to anxiety.  After several hours, when the followers began to look doubtfully at their leader, he enthusiastically announced “We’ve done it!

In a twist of mental gymnastics, he proclaimed that given his followers’ prayers and preparations, they had successfully “stopped” the end!  But now he was in a bit of a dilemma:  If the whole raison d’etre of the group was the “end,” he needed another “end,” or what’s the point?

What I’m noticing is a disturbing trend that mimics this same pattern.  Saying “We’re screwed!” is a good start when you are trying to build enthusiasm, but not quite as good as “We’re screwed next Tuesday!”  When next Tuesday comes, and the “screwing” didn’t happen on cue, what do you do to maintain your credibility?

Again and again over the years, I’ve noticed that people have taken dramatic actions in anticipation of this or that “end.”  For some, it is the end of civilization.  For others, it is “goodbye to the global economic system.”  For still others, it is the end of the Earth as a livable planet.  For these intelligent, sincere individuals, their goal, despite their critics, isn’t making a fast buck.  Most of them make no or little money on their predictions.  They really believe in what they are predicting.  So, to live in congruency, they pack up, sell off, and move to some more “sustainable” or “safe” location, and try in earnest to live in keeping with their anticipated tomorrow.  They “do it anyway” as a friend of Sharon Astyk says.

But it causes some of them tremendous social hardship.

Nostalgia for the Present

For some, they start to miss their “old life,” that “yesterday” that they abandoned with conviction.  For most living in this “yesterday,” they weren’t nearly as wastefully as others.  They were already living lean, using a fraction of resources compared to the average person in Western Civilization.  And they, themselves, are products of this Civilization they’ve come to critique.  They are writers, intellectuals, scientists, and professionals. They often leave culturally rich environs to move to remote locations known for, well, known for nothing in particular that most people care very much about.  Let’s call that location “Rural Nowhere.”

Then they wait.  And wait.  And wait.

Rural Nowhere is not noted for great employment opportunities. They’ve often given up their jobs and their incomes as a matter of conviction and necessity.  No matter how long they anticipated their resources to last, as the months and years tick on, they see the bank accounts dwindling.  Some have sold their homes, bought an RV, and drove around believing the “end of oil” is upon us.  (Yes, I know…)

Plus, if they left an intellectually alive place for Rural Nowhere, they get lonely.  They get resentful.  They start to look back at all of their colleagues and neighbors, the “Sheeple,” that continue to rake in decent salaries and take in decent cinema, without driving a few hours.  They feel increasing disdain  and then increasing hostility.

If they confidently provided a timeline, their families begin to stare at them with their own impatient brand of “Sooooo?”  Few of us would move on the promise that “the end of tomorrow” will happen in 50 years.  Most of us drag our feet at dramatic lifestyle change if doom is expected in over 5 years.  So many are stuck with an accelerating Doomline, and a stubbornly “Todaylike” tomorrow.

What happens to your marriage, when you took her out to Rural Nowhere, and you have day after day of Todaylike tomorrows?  What happens when Tomorrow stubbornly refuses to leave?

The pressure is enormous.

As the clock continues to build, not only must Tomorrow be something that is going, it starts to mutate.  Despite the hardship, Today has got to go.

Evil Believers

It is one thing to be a Panglossian, who believes that nothing in the world could possibly go wrong.  Now, however, what about those who continue to believe in Tomorrow?  They are viewed in the worst possible light.  You want children? You’re pregnant?  Those bearing children become “breeders” who should be shunned.  You bought a new car, or iphone?  You are killing off the ecosystem.

3-E Hair Shirts

But caution is in order, because it is really very difficult to live purely, even in Rural Nowhere.  To resolve the hypocrisy, some proclaim “I won’t change, it is the corporations that need to change!” They say their contribution to Demise is hardly significant. So they go on living like they did yesterday, while predicting the end of tomorrow. The rest of us us still secretly driving to buy take-out, and are ashamed of ourselves or embarrassed when we’re “caught.”

We find ourselves lusting for that “really cool” gadget, then hating ourselves.  In an attempt to purify ourselves, no different than the saints who wore hair shirts or whipped themselves into trances to rid themselves of impure thoughts, these modern day Doomers also look for relief.

As if I haven’t created enough enemies in our community at this point, allow me to push forward.

 You either support our movement, or you take your place of shame with the Sheeple and be shunned…

Nudging Along the End of Today

If civilization is going to fall, and isn’t falling fast enough, it should now be nudged along.

The solution is also an old one.

A movement is gaining popularity whereby this nudging has taken on violent overtones.  The narrative is outlined in the starkest terms:  If you love the planet, there is only one recourse to those who are killing it.  You are either with us, or against us.  You either support our movement, or you take your place of shame with the Sheeple and be shunned.

Most often, of course, history has taught us that within these movements, there appears to be two classes of people:  The Leaders and the Followers.  The Leaders are often most valuable for continuing to do what they have been doing all along:  Thinking.  Writing.  Lecturing.  Pontificating.  They are justified in any eco-transgressions because, after all, they are the Leaders, and are attempting to gather more Followers to speed up The End of Tomorrow.

The Followers

The Followers also appear to be remarkably similar over the years.  They are usually much younger than the Leaders.  They have far fewer resources and often live lives much closer to “The End of Tomorrow” than the Leaders do.  They are often directly impacted by the worst parts of today, whether this is the crappy jobs during the rise of the industrial empire, or crippling student loans today.  But whether we are talking about the turn of the century or today, the role of the Followers are the same:  they are the handmaidens, the expendables.   They read the call to action and are ready to act.  They will engage in behaviors that cause them to either die or be put in cages for a very, very long time.


Sometimes we’ve learned, decades later, that the provocateurs were actually agents of the government who were seeking to discredit a popular movement that was gaining power.  They were “plants” who said: “We have to do this!” and yet, when everyone was imprisoned or dead, these “Leaders” safely vanished.  Popular movements become “unpopular” when associated with “senseless” acts violence.

Anyone who carefully studies human history will notice this trend.  And they will notice another mantra:  “Things have never been as bad as they are today.”  And usually they are right.  And dramatic actions are called for when we are talking about the End of the World.

They will also notice how slow the progress of change is, and how unpopular ideas seem to almost overnight, become popular ideas.  And despite how dire things are, no matter how bad today is, compared to all the badness of yesterday, remarkably, “today” continued to seamlessly flow into “tomorrow,” against all the odds.  And those who wrote the Doomline re-write the predictions, and no one seems particularly interested in the miscalculation.

Now I hate to have to be the one to write any of this.  What I’m saying is hardly revolutionary or new.  In fact, what I’m saying is easily what the most conservative endorsers of Today would say in response to social critics.  I’ve hardly been a cheerleader of Today, and don’t imagine Tomorrow will be swell, either.

But I care about young people, and I care about their passion and their enthusiasm.  And while I’m terrified of the future, too, I can’t imagine how violence that will mostly impact the poor and working classes will lead to a healthier planet.  I don’t see how spending decades of your life behind bars (“in a cage”) will somehow make the world a safer place for dying species.

And while most of these Thought Leaders proclaim how delighted they’d be to give their own lives for the future of a healthy planet, they live on.

They prep on.

They pontificate on.

And they tell us over and over that if we don’t “do something,” something increasingly dramatic as their Doomlines creep forward, we won’t have Tomorrow.

So for those who believe that Today is the last day on Earth I say:

”So long, it’s been good to know you.”

For the rest of us, let’s continue to work for change, with the utmost of care, and always anticipate that Tomorrow MIGHT come.

Psychological Self-Defense for the Newly Unemployed

Got a pink-slip?  Are you one of the unlucky ones who had to face the chopping block?  Here are a psychologist’s ten best suggestions for managing emotionally when economic bad times hit your family.

(1) Make a pact that hard times come and go, but your relationship, your family, is here to stay.
Financial pressures destroy bonds between people, if you let them.  When the wolf is at the door, it’s no time to argue about who invited him.  Regularly sit down together for the sole purpose of sharing feelings-frustration, hopelessness, anger, sadness, shame, futility, irritation-without ‘blaming’ another family member.  And don’t forget to look at the moments of happiness and positive feelings, too.  Pull together to fight the circumstances, or you might pull apart.  Say “I love you,” more often and “We’ll pull through this,” even though you have your doubts at the moment.
(2) Find alternatives that can be used to vent frustrations.
Then take a walk or do some other form of exercise.  Keep a daily journal.  Start a blog. Recognize that there are better ways to express your anger than targeting your family members.  Conduct a personal inventory to identify character traits that make undisciplined spending possible, including low self-esteem, need to impress others, loneliness, or depression.
(3) Look squarely at gender roles.
You may say “I’m fine with my wife earning the money,” but take a closer look. Quite often when both people are working, there is a balance of power.  When men become unemployed, it is important to look at not only how the shift in domestic duties may (and should) shift, but also the impact of doing so. The couple’s idea of what “clean” is or what constitutes a “dinner,” or what is a productive way for the unemployed person to spend his/her day, (and whether the other partner should have a say,) can all bring about increased tensions in the relationship.
(4) Don’t dodge the emotional issue of spending cuts.
The loss of a needed job means spending less money or going into (or deeper into) debt. Those are your two options. Getting another job soon may be a goal, a desirable wish, but right now these are your options.  Too often the blow of losing a job is so damaging to one’s sense of self, that trying to maintain the rest of your life “like normal” is tempting. But it is a mistake. Sit down with all of the bills in front of you, and make a list of the ones you are going to pay, the ones you will pay later, and the monthly expenses you are going to stop spending money on.  Each of you take a turn adding a bills to the “spend” column until your income stops. This is a “values clarification” exercise.
(5) This is no time to rehash “perpetual problems”
You may notice that a conversation about cutting expenses can easily turn into an argument about who leaves the lights on, who never used the gym membership, or whether you really need a smart phone with those many minutes to talk to your Aunt Helen.  Put those issues on a separate piece of paper to discuss later. For now, if one thing has to be paid first, which is it?  The rent/mortgage?  Weekly food bill? Heat for the winter? Health Insurance? Yes, I know, they all have to be paid, but what is the most essential right now?  Draw a line where the “buck stops” in terms of steady available income. Then ask yourself if anything below that line is really worth going into debt for.Elizabeth Warren did a fantastic job explaining why families today, living on two incomes and losing one, are more vulnerable than families in the 70’s who had one- earner families. It’s not because they’ve been spending all of their money on clothing, electronics, or gadgets.  They’ve been spending it on fixed costs like mortgage and health insurance.  And while income has gone up 75% over the last 30 years, fixed costs have gone up 400-600%.
(6) Explore what it “means” to your partner that he or she is unemployed.
I was shocked when my husband told me, once things had stabilized for us, that as he was losing his business, he was certain I would leave him.  Had I explored with him what it meant to him to have the business fold, I might have saved him months of fear and insecurity.  What does it emotionally “mean” to you when you lose your job?  What does it mean to your family to not be able to (a) spend on the things you used to; (b) have to rethink the ‘typical’ holiday season; (c) eat differently to cut costs; (d) reduce the amount you spend on your children. Who are you, now that you aren’t working?  What dreams, expectations of what tomorrow will bring, have been violated?  When you are able to explore these questions in a safe environment, they are often accompanied by a lot of deep emotion.  Let it out.  Talk it out.  Then move on.
(7) Find different ways to spend your time.
Everyone in the family may have to find alternative ways to enjoy themselves or relate as a family together.  A teenager might be able to find a job, and he or she could contribute some income to the household budget, or help pay for essential expenses.  The stimulation of a shopping mall or movie theatre is sometimes a tough thing to go without for many people.  What can substitute, that will bring that same level stimulation or one that is equally satisfying?  A hike in the woods?  A pot luck with friends?
(8) Give Back.
Studies show that helping others is more rewarding than being helped.  Now that you are unemployed, use some of that time to volunteer.  A soup kitchen, food pantry, animal shelter, or your child’s school, gets active in community projects are all suggestions.  Work with other unemployed people to set up community labor exchanges.  Damage to self-esteem and depression are common side-effect of being unemployed.  Social engagement is an effective way to combat it.
(9) Talk directly about damaging behaviors
Suicide is a serious risk to the long-term unemployed. So is depression, which isn’t the same as being sad. So are increases in drug and alcohol use.  Talking about suicidal intention doesn’t give someone the thought, if they don’t already have it.  Be direct, and proactive if you hear from a loved one that they want to hurt themselves, or are doing behaviors that are self-destructive.  Get professional help, call a suicide hotline, or talk to a trusted friend or religious leader.  Don’t ignore these feelings.
(10) Be proactive in seeing alternatives
So much of the problem in losing a job for the middle class is their reluctance to be proactive about seeking alternative sources of income or assistance.  Talk to a tax accountant or financial planner.  Speak pro-actively to a bankruptcy attorney while you still have options. Investigate social services that can help you, including your religious institutions.  Accept these actions as potentially humbling experiences, and allow yourself to see the positive side of becoming humbled. You may be out of money, but you are not poor.  You can use your wits to figure out how to find every stop-gap measure to keep your family “boat” afloat.Your period of unemployment will make you more sensitive to others who experience the same thing.  If it has happened to you, and you know of someone else it is currently happening to, reach out. Go out with them and have a heart-to-heart. Share your own experience, and invite them to do the same.  You’ll deepen your friendship with that person, in all likelihood, and lessen their pain.

When Mental Health Becomes an Economic Issue (and what to do about it…)

Crazy for Comfort  

During the last Great Depression, financially desperate people ended up entering convents, seminaries, prisons and mental hospitals, when homeless shelters had no room for them. If the goal was three “hots and a cot,” being admitted to an insane asylum allowed you to eat well, sleep off the streets, and get free medical care. And most of those admitted didn’t have to feign their afflictions…being homeless remains an extremely stressful life circumstance.

Pushed Off the Tightrope, but Ignoring the Net              

Social security “safety nets,” put in place by F.D.R., have changed some of the options available when facing difficult economic times, especially for those with psychological disorders. We now have Social Security Insurance, (SSI) for the truly impoverished and disabled among us, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), an economic survival option for the previously employed working- or middle-classes.

The challenge today is to learn how to identify the need for and to accept help with emotional problems quickly, and to recognize that not doing so could mean taking an economic as well as psychological hit.

You do not need a long history of hospitalizations to qualify for SSDI, and this fact surprises many.  “Extreme” impairment is not a requirement, either.

Mental distress impacts earning potential, and getting help in a timely way is economically as well as emotionally smart. A colleague of mine said she expected most of her clients to improve their earning capacity as a logical outcome of working with her.

Disability Payments You’ve Been Paying For All Your Working Life

But if despite your best efforts, your emotional well-being deteriorates, you need a licensed provider to help you document the type of help you’ve been getting, and the “functional impairment” that requires you to tap into the existing economic insurance policy you’ve been paying 8.4% of your income, (perhaps as much as $9000. a year for…) all of your working life.  That insurance policy is SSDI.

And time is of the essence, because you’ll need financial resources to wait it out.  SSDI payments often kick in 2-4 years after you’ve apply, but the payments back-date from the time of the initial application.  For many, this means getting a check for between $15,000-$20,000, even after all expenses are paid.  That can truly ease the pain of mental distress.  And your benefits will continue until your retirement, as long as your impairment continues to be documented, typically every 3-5 years.

Knowing Your Options

This post is about knowing your options. My readership is a group that by and large values financial independence, and has a deep distrust for all things governmental.  But they also plan for the worst, and are deeply pragmatic.  The “sin qua non” of mental health is often the capacity to sort out reality from illusion, figure out who to trust and who to be suspicious of, and determine ahead of time actions that will help you, from those that can prove more damaging.

So here is information to tuck away in case you ever need it.


I’ll begin by discussing the differences between SSI and SSDI, and the related increase in both unemployment and disability claims.  I’ll go on to describe the professional players (lawyers & psychologists) who usually assist people in filing these mental health insurance claims, and provide an overview the required steps to document a “functional mental impairment.”  Next, I’ll looks at different social and economic attitudes of those applying for SSDI vs. SSI, and the impact it has on their overall financial well-being.  My work in the inner city over the last three years helping clients get SSI will inform this discussion.

I will end by arguing that those in the working- and middle-classes are often the most reluctant to seek psychological care when they develop functional emotional problems that impact their working life.  This is unwise, not only from a social and emotional perspective, but also from a financial one. No one with a work history and financial assets should impoverish themselves before seeking government assistance, because you have directly paid into these funds through FICA contributions, and these funds are designed to buffer you from this very situation.

Unlike the urban poor, who use government monies as a baseline income, the middle classes errs in the opposite direction.  They refuse available resources, and instead spend down their savings and retirement.  Their invisible illness often negatively impacts their professional relationships. Only in desperation, when all other resources are exhausted, do they consider what has been available to them all along.

Had they been more pro-active, and known their options, they might have prevented the catastrophic hit.  I provide a story of one entrepreneurial  family who prevented financial ruin as an example of how this can be done.

What is SSI and SSDI?

Social Security is a federal insurance plan that pays for someone’s “total disability” including mental health impairment. “Disability” under Social Security, is based on your inability to engage in consistent productive work. The difference between SSI and SSDI, is in who pays for it, and whether the applicant has “resources” (e.g. cash, a home, cars, or investment accounts) or not.

Resources and Who Pays

Think of SSDI as ‘Worker’s Disability.’ Paid out of the Social Security trust fund, it is available to those who have worked and paid 4.2%  (or 8.4% for the self-employed) included in FICA taxes, for a required minimum number of years. The amount of SSDI payout, is linked to your employment history, is paid out of workers’ tax contributions. Eligibility does not take into account one’s assets. Owning assets does not affect your eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

SSI, on the other hand, is a need-based program for people with low income and few resources. Individuals can apply for SSI if they aren’t insured for SSDI, or are insured for SSDI but are only eligible to receive a fairly small SSDI monthly benefit. A person may potentially be eligible to receive both SSDI and SSI. This is known as a “concurrent disability claim.”  Currently, the cap on assets for SSI is set at $2,000 (or $3,000 for a couple). But some assets, like the house you live in and the car you drive for basic transportation, aren’t counted toward the cap on assets.

Substantial Gainful Activity
Being “disabled” means being financially, as well as physically or mentally disabled.  “Substantial Gainful Activity” is work that monthly brings in over a certain amount of income.  The amount changes year to year. Make more than that amount per month, and SSA says you “are able to engage in competitive employment in the national economy.”

Disability Rises with Unemployment

Here is a chart that shows REAL unemployment statistics, courtesy of Shadow Statistics:

Now let’s look at the rise in disability:

Rise Seen in Social Security SSID Benefit Lawsuits

Appeals Tell the Tale

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (27 Jul 2012):

“…the latest available data from the federal courts show that in June of this year there were 860 new SSID (not a typo) Title XVI lawsuits filed, most under US Code Title 45 Section 405 which allows for judicial review when Social Security supplemental security income (SSI) benefits are denied. The number of filings for each of the last four months (March through June 2012) is higher than for any other month in the past five years. Overall, the data show these filings are up 19.4 percent from a year ago and up 62.6 percent from levels reported in June 2007.” (emphasis added)

These are tough times.  And how does that compare to pre-2007 numbers?

Social Security claims that “the share of the U.S. population receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) benefits has risen rapidly over the past two decades, from 2.2 percent of adults age 25 to 64 in 1985 to 4.1 percent in 2005.”  

Three in 10 workers between the ages of 18-64 will be disabled, according to SSA.

Why Are Lawyers Involved?

Disability is a steady stream of income for lawyers, who are able to collect up to 25% of all back-payments owed to the filer, starting from the date of first filing, should they win the claim, with a cap of $6000.  That adds up to considerable money, as lawyers can handle quite a few claims at one time.  The lawyer charges nothing up front to the disabled person, so the cost of entry is low.  And attorneys who do nothing but disability cases know how to approach the claim, to maximize the odds that their clients win these claims.  They will usually aim for winning 80-95% of the cases they take, so if they take your case, you probably have a solid chance of getting disability.

Therefore, charting SSID, or law suits arguing for disability clients (SSI), is a quick and accurate feedback mechanism for charting the rise of SSI filings.

What Do Psychologists and Other Mental Health Professionals Do?

In the case of those who are filing for mental impairment, they typically fall into those qualifying for SSI, and those qualifying for SSDI.  In the agency I worked for, we only took SSI cases, because we only accepted publicly funded insurance.

Those aiming for SSDI will typically want to hire a private diagnostician, rather than go to a public mental health clinic (although many public health clinics take all types of insurance).  You want to ask them “How many workman’s comp and SSDI/SSI assessments do you do a year, and do you measure your success rate?”  In my agency, we seldom had a client who was ultimately found ineligible (but that may also be due to the multi-problem families we worked with.)  I believe there was one in the three years I was there, and that case was currently on appeal.

What to Expect from the Psychologist

Psychologists conduct an interview, and perform a diagnostic assessment. This provides the Social Security Administration (SSA) with psychological testing, such as IQ tests, Projective or neuropsychological  instruments, to document the nature and extent of the functional impairment. It is best if the psychologist conducting the evaluation is not the same professional who is treating you on an ongoing basis.  Many psychologists do nothing but these types of assessments to be used in disability cases. They know how to write an effective report that meets SSA requirements.  A comprehensive psychological report, which clarifies the current diagnosis, and documents functional impairment is required to make a clear case determination.

There are nine diagnostic categories that qualify a person for disability because of mental impairment: Organic mental disorders (12.02); schizophrenic, paranoid and other psychotic disorders (12.03); affective disorders (12.04); mental retardation (12.05); anxiety-related disorders (12.06); somatoform disorders (12.07); personality disorders (12.08); substance addiction disorders (12.09); and autistic disorder and other pervasive developmental disorders (12.10). Each of these, with the exception of mental retardation and substance addiction disorders, requires both a statement describing the disorder(s), including a set of medical findings such as those diagnostic tests given by the psychologist, and a set of impairment-related functional limitations.

SSI Recipients in ‘Deep Poverty’

The case I’m presenting below isn’t an actual person, but it is a composite description of hundreds of families very similar to Ms. James’, that I supervised over my three years working in the inner city with those in deep poverty.  We classify families as living in “deep poverty” if they have three elements: (a) severe poverty – an income less than half the median income for poor families; (b) long term poverty – being poor for 5 years or longer; and (c) concentrated poverty – living in a neighborhood in which 30% of families are poor (Wilson, 2005):

Ruby James, (26 years old), has been out of work for 6 years.  She is intelligent, but functionally illiterate and probably has an undiagnosed learning disability. Her children, ages 2, 5 and 7, are all on social security disability (SSI) for various reasons including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, and physical disability. Each child has a different father. The oldest child’s father, Mr. Clarke is drug addicted, and there is a restraining order against him by Ms. James for domestic violence. The whereabouts of her second child’s father is unknown.  The youngest child’s father is in prison.  

Ms. James is currently fighting with her mother over custody of her three children.  Her mother, Ms. Thompson, has charged that her daughter is an “unfit parent,” as she alleges that there is no food in the house, and that her daughter is once again living with her former partner and father of her oldest child, Mr. Clarke.  She further alleges that her daughter sometimes leave the children home at night alone, “to party with friends,” claiming that the 7 year old is left to “babysit.”

Ms. James denies living with Mr. Clarke. She admits that she is clinically depressed, (the basis of her own current disability claim).  She is, according to her own report “a caring and devoted mother.”  Ms. James counter-alleges that her mother is fighting for custody of her children “only to get their benefits.”

Ms. James’ children’s benefits, in addition to her aid to dependent children, food stamps, public health care, and subsidized housing costs, are her only sources of income.

All-Out War on Black and Hispanic Men

Her boyfriend, Mr. Clarke, is not working, and if he is living with her, he is another drain on an otherwise overtaxed family system.  I was left convinced after my three years working in the inner city, that there is an all-out war against Black and Hispanic men in this country.  The education they get in this city is abysmal, and the pressure to stay safe by joining gangs is enormous.  The availability of decent jobs is negligible. When they could be found, they were often secured by others through nepotism or outright prejudice.  Often, the inner-city applicant lacked even the most basic of job skills.  As a result, the intact family, where the father is present, caring, and not abusive, is exceptionally rare in this clinic population.  Fathers are essentially absent, abusive, or imprisoned.  That is the norm.  And it convinced me that families need two loving parents.

Domestic Violence a “Bad Reason” to Land in Prison

Ongoing domestic violence is also quite possible, as her mother alleges, and witnessing that violence puts her children, as well as Ms. James, at risk.  Women in these communities expect adult men to spend at least some time in prison. Children visit family members in prisons from a young age. Domestic violence, however, is considered a ‘bad reason’ to be there, although it is often tolerated in the relationship. Children also witness violent murders commonly, and attend funerals of loved ones they’ve lost.

It is the traumatic norm.

Ms. James may also be correct that her mother could indeed have complicated reasons, including financial motives, for wanting custody.  She’s raising several other grandchildren, is herself on SSI, and feels she “has the time”  and greater “skill” to raise her daughters’ children.

A Seriously Broken System Turns Children into Economic Assets 

Conservatives rail against this type of social benefit payout, and it has become “politically incorrect” to paint such a dreary portrait of the lives of those living in “deep poverty.”  There is no question in my mind that the system is seriously broken, and serves no one well, including the infrastructure of service providers and state workers that now do home-based services.  It is a multi-generational problem that needs multi-generational intervention. In a down-turning economy, this help is unlikely to be forthcoming. What we see in this “Culture of SSI” is that this insurance becomes seen as a sole avenue for financial stability, and given how meager this allotment is, families fight over children who have SSI, as valuable economic resources.

Be that as it may, in a time of increasing economic turmoil, and rising costs of living, the inner city is becoming a nastier place to live, and a tough place to work for those charged with helping families like the James’.  In my last year at this agency, I saw many more incidents of violence or threats of violence toward clinicians than in any other previous year.

Middle-Class Disability

Regularly, I was asked to review psychological testing reports and co-sign paperwork for those being evaluated for mental health disability.

I have come to realize that in contrast to the “Culture of SSI” as a foundation of economic security among the urban poor, many working-class and middle-class families in trouble have no idea how SSDI works, or that they might be eligible for it. There is larger stigma about seeking out mental health services among the working and middle classes than among those in ‘deep poverty.’  This could be a financial mistake.

Those who actively seek treatment when in distress, even if only periodically, create a ‘paper trail,’ which enables them to easily accumulate all of the necessary documentation, should a ‘marked’ impairment in cognitive or psychological functioning arise.  Those who are more economically successful, better educated, or have a prior history of unbroken prosperity often wait before they get help.

Take this hypothetical case example:

Ralph Albertson, and his wife, have run a small business from their home successfully for many years.  However, during the economic downturn, they were unable to sustain it at a viable level.  The couple began first to live off their savings, and finally their retirement income, hoping the economy would “turn around.”   The impact to his suffering business took a severe toll on Ralph.  He became clinically depressed, and at the urging of his wife, was treated by a psychologist, and referred to a psychiatrist for medication.  Despite these interventions, Ralph never fully recovered his capacity to work.

He filed for SSDI.

In order to qualify, he was referred by his treating psychologist to a colleague, who gave Ralph six common psychological tests. His psychologist helped Ralph get his paperwork in order, and contact a disability attorney.  Ralph  was referred to an attorney, because he was self-employed, and these cases can sometimes be difficult to win.  Ralph was granted SSDI, after a long waiting period, and two appeals.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) denies 65 percent of the initial claims filed, and appeals are the norm. It also can take a long time to go through the system, on average two to four years.

This application and income, although not a large amount to the Albertsons, cleared the way to other benefits, such as state offered health insurance, food stamps (SNAP) and fuel assistance, that the Albertsons might not otherwise have been aware they were eligible for.

What does “residual impairment” mean to Ralph, who works in his own business from home?

While Ralph is able to continue working in his business, even after receiving SSDI, and the couple continues to receive monthly income from it, Ralph is no longer as effective as he used to be.  Once a capable trouble-shooter of customer complaints, for example, Ralph no longer has the “patience” to cope with these calls.  He has had to hire part-time help.  

While he has “good periods” where he is feeling hopeful and effective, these are punctuated  by deeply depressed mood, where he “talks incessantly about economic, environmental, and energy declines that are”, in his words “sweeping the country,” according to his wife.  When he’s better, he’s a tireless worker in his community in the Transition Town movement.  When he’s not doing well, he barely functions. During these dark periods, he works actively to manage suicidal thoughts, with the help of his therapist.

How Long Does SSDI or SSI Last?

Ralph is 47.  At this age, if he continues to be eligible, he will receive SSDI benefits until his retirement.  The Albertsons would prefer to be off of SSDI payments, and have a successful business once again.  But Ralph and his wife have found out what many poor recipients have discovered:  the jump in their income must be quite substantial, if they are to maintain their current ‘subsidized’ lifestyle.  This is no easy task in this economy.

Simple, Sustainable Living

The Albertson’s lifestyle is by no means a lavish one.  Most would not even call it a “comfortable” income, but the Albertsons have paid off their modest  home many years ago, insulated it well in preparation for tough times, cook from scratch, and for environmental reasons, are not avid consumers or intentional tourists. They even have a wood stove,  and harvest their own firewood.

Vacillating Functioning

This modest, lower-stress existence has helped Ralph enormously.  When his mood, concentration, and attention improves, he is able to work effectively at his desk, and accomplish his work.  He will engage easily in meal preparation and housekeeping during these times.

Consistency of Functioning a Key Consideration

These periods of better functioning are not a problem for SSDI, however, because these improvements are not consistent.  Consistency in “residual functional capacity” (RFC) is important, to prevent his depression from impacting his ability to do “substantial gainful activity” (SGA).  Without his wife and part-time help as back-up, the business would not continue to function, and this has been made clear to SSA.

He demonstrates that need for continued assistance by faithfully attending his therapy appointments, despite these emotional ups and downs.  His psychologist is able to give accurate and competent documentation that attests to his need for continued disability payments, when his review comes up every 3-5 years.

“Marked” vs “Extreme” Impairment

Ralph is not a severely impaired individual who is regularly hospitalized for his condition.  Social Security Adminstration is clear that this is not a requirement:

“Where we use “marked” as a standard for measuring the degree of limitation, it means more than moderate but less than extreme. A marked limitation may arise when several activities or functions are impaired, or even when only one is impaired, as long as the degree of limitation is such as to interfere seriously with your ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis. See §§ 404.1520a and 416.920a.”

They continue:

“We do not define “marked” by a specific number of different behaviors in which social functioning is impaired, but by the nature and overall degree of interference with function. For example, if you are highly antagonistic, uncooperative, or hostile but are tolerated by local storekeepers, we may nevertheless find that you have a marked limitation in social functioning because that behavior is not acceptable in other social contexts.”

Stopping the Downward Economic and Psychological Slide

If Ralph’s situation doesn’t sound serious to you, if you feel he is “bilking the system” for benefits, it is likely that your own idea of living in hard economic times is accompanied by an elevated tolerance for depressive symptoms as an “acceptable reality of modern life.”  Clearly there is a correlation between depression and stress, as there is between unemployment and increased alcohol consumption. But clinical depression is not the same as feeling “bummed out” or “blue” about a loss of income.

Stop-Gap Answer for an Ongoing, Deteriorating Economic Climate

The question remains how many of us would be as pro-active as the Albertsons and take the steps necessary to contact a professional and seek help in a similar situation?  And how many psychotherapists would be familiar enough with the SSDI process, or integrate the necessity of economic help, as part of their treatment plan?  In Ralph’s case, that help was not totally successful in alleviating his symptoms, to enable him to return to his previous high-level functioning.  If it did, he might have found other ways to generate income for his family, even in these financially challenging times.

However, his lingering depressive symptoms, which impact his capacity to function in this present hostile economic environment, prompted his psychologist to encourage Ralph to consider SSDI, as a stop-gap measure to alleviate his family’s ongoing and deteriorating economic condition.  And SSDI was successful in helping Ralph to keep his home, as well as his sanity, intact.

The Shame of Reaching Out

Ralph had steadily paid into FICA, 8.4% of his income, once he became self-employed.  Still, it took supportive counseling before Ralph could see that it was the economy, not his entrepreneurial skills, that were failing, and to accept depression as a diagnosable mental disorder, not a personal weakness.

SSDI now serves as a financial support, partially restoring the steady income that both the economy and Ralph’s depression has taken away from him.

Unwillingness to Accept Crippling Emotional Distress

In fact, one might argue that the Albertsons have actually adjusted quite well to their circumstances, by being unwilling to accept Ralph’s depressive symptoms as a “normal” reaction to economic hard times.  And there are many indications of this intelligent adjustment to difficult circumstances:

  • Ralph is still happily married;
  • He’s resisted the lure of abusing drugs or alcohol to cope with his depression, and;
  • He has maintained his community contacts.

He should be applauded for being pro-active.

If we were to ask him what he thought of this experience, he might say something like this:

I wouldn’t recommend depression to anyone.  I felt so terrible, I wanted to die to stop it.  I can’t see anything positive in my life, past or present, including my wife, when I’m depressed, and I used to take it out on her, but I’ve learned how not to.  

She was the one that insisted that I get help. I was resistant because it was the worst possible time to shell out money for something I’d always considered a waste of time and money  I was also ashamed of what I considered a personal failure, and the last thing I wanted to do was talk to someone about it. But now I’m glad I did.  If I hadn’t, I would have continued like that for… I don’t know how long, and eventually our savings would be gone and we’d have to sell our house.  And I’d keep telling myself to “snap out of it,” but I never would.  I couldn’t on my own.

I know it sounds bad, but I have more freedom now to live my life in a more normal way.  I can respond to the pressures more realistically now, and take a break when I need it.  There are some days I sit in the sun or take a long walk, rather than sit in the office, because I that’s all I can do, and I don’t beat myself up over it anymore.  And the chunk of money, over $18,000 when it finally came through, after the lawyer was paid, really came in handy.”

Forward Into the Past

There is a time, and many say it is coming soon, when families like the Albertson’s will have no other recourse but to sell their house and remain as destitute as any family once found roaming the country during the 1930’s in search of work, with their possessions loaded onto their station wagon.

But that time is not now.

If you, or someone you know is suffering… is just not getting through the day without enormous effort, encourage them to get them help, and keep careful records, when they do.  If their functioning is impacted in a marked and prolonged way, consider disability as a financial, as well as a therapeutic option.

The financial life you save might be your own.



Teen Suicide and ‘End of the World’ Anxieties

Isabel Taylor was 16 when she hung herself in her bedroom one afternoon last September.  She was a vegan, a  Buddhist, and had just started studying animal science and management at Wiltshire College in England.  She  ran a guinea pig sanctuary, and was a passionate animal rights campaigner. Isabel was opposed to animal testing,  poor management of livestock and abuses in dairy farming.   She was, according to reports fed up with the ‘complications and injustice’ of [the] advanced world.

Her parents were quoted as saying:  “The simple and perfect world she sought, where all living things would be treated with … equality, was never going to materialize.”  Yet, when British investigators looked into the matter, news reports concluded that she hung herself after reading 15-20 internet pages in 2011, with a friend, on “all different types of things which could make the world end.”

This is the second such story I have heard since starting this blog.  The first, Tasman McGee, from Australia. Tasman had learned about peak oil in 2005, and, according to Brian Kaller, “read Michael Ruppert’s works, and became more and more convinced that everything that lay ahead of him would be a desperate and despairing future in which most people would die. After he had studied peak oil obsessively for a year, he vanished, two years ago today. Only when his parents went through his computer files did they discover his interest in peak oil. His body was found two months later. He was 19.”

It is curious to note that the newspapers didn’t conclude that agribusiness practices, or a deteriorating world environment, or economic collapse impacted Isabel so dramatically, that she had become deeply depressed and despondent to the point of taking her own life.

Isabel’s father knew of her concerns about the world ending in 2012. “She would mention it around the dinner table. We would take it on board and say we didn’t think that was going to happen Isabel, and try to make light of it and move conversation onwards.”  Isabel apparently took the hint that “doomsday scenarios” were not appropriate dinner conversation, and stopped sharing her concerns.  Her father concluded that the:  “outwardly happy, bubbly Isabel we knew and loved so well was what she portrayed to us until the end.

I could talk now about the dangers of teenage depression and suicide, and I will in a bit.  But first I want to discuss a different set of facts.

Tasman McGee was never far from my mind, when I first learned about him in September of 2008. I started my website and blog, in May of 2006, but it took a while before members of the Peak Oil community noticed my writing. During that same time, Tasman, unlike Isabel, had again, according to Kaller, “became withdrawn and depressed, making cryptic references to a dark future.  Apparently he made oblique references to his concerns to one of his professors, but the professor was not familiar with peak oil.” Then, in December 2006, he left a suicide note and disappeared into the forest.  I have been haunted by the question of whether Tasman might be alive today if he contributed his story, as so many other college students had to me that year, or read their stories himself.  Perhaps if he had, today he’d be a 25 year old “planet fighter,” young, strong, and fearlessly working for a better future.

A No Tolerance Policy

I Googled the story about Isabel, and was disgusted to see a number of cruel, angry and insensitive comments about her death in various chatrooms.  I’d suggest that as a community, we hold a ‘no tolerance policy’ toward posts that respond to the hopelessness of others with taunts of “Go ahead, kill yourself!”  I consider such behavior bullying and sadistic. Some may call it censorship.  I call it “being humane” to someone in anguish who’s future just got shattered.

To Our Emerging Adults and Parents

I  want to emphasize how important it is for parents to take the concerns of thoughtful, intelligent young people into consideration when they bring up their fears of the future.  If you’re one of those teens or young adults, bring this piece to your parents, an invested caretaker, or the parents of someone you love.  And if you meet any of the profile of suicidal behavior I describe at the end, please, please, get help.  We need you.  Every single one of you.

Things you can do as a parent:

Remain confident that your family will weather whatever happens.

Your family is a tribe, and that feeling of “belonging” is a reason for hanging in, whatever happens.  Relationships keeps people going.  In fact, I would argue, it is what lifts depression, and makes life worth living.  Assure your children that you will do everything you can to keep them safe. If your family isn’t getting along, tell them “this too, shall pass” and the time will come, in the future, when you will be a great source of help and support for each other.  Even if you are at each other’s throats now.

Studies repeatedly show that what is important in modulating children’s anxiety is not the level of danger they face, but the confidence their parents display.  When huddled into a London air raid shelter, with bombs all around them, kids did best when the answer to “Will we die, Mum?” is “No, love, we’re tough, and they can’t kill us!”  Of course these sorts of reassurances were meaningless, but they made a difference.  Families who were much safer in the countryside were more likely to have children with anxiety disorders, if the adults fretted constantly about their safety.

Don’t emphasize one doomsday scenario over another.

Oh, I wouldn’t worry about 2012, honey, the real danger is running out of water and soil.  I’d prefer a quick death over the slow, painful one we’ll be facing...”  Maybe that will make you feel better, but it will do very little to alleviate the concerns your child is expressing and worried about.

Understand your child’s developmental challenges.

Children of different ages have different fears and concerns.  Here is a list of common childhood fears and the ages when they are likely to emerge, from Purdue University.

Show interest and provide more attention.

Ask to see the article that concerns them, or watch the TV show.  Help them to examine all sides.  Help them look more deeply into the science behind it, and explore ways to mitigate the impact.  Hang out with them more during this time, and run errands with them.  Have more good times, too, laughing, being silly, hugging more.  Increase your fun time to decrease their worry time.

Talk about the future.

If you think bad things are coming, take active, positive steps that your child can see and participate in.  Talk to them about what you are doing, and why, as well as the positive feelings you have about doing it.  Lay out a 1, 2, 5, or 10 year plan.  Help them see that you are working toward a more sustainable, resilient future, one that is, for them, worth maturing into.

Start, maintain, or enhance the bedtime ritual.

For Pete’s sake, shut off all the electronic entertainment devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.  The screen light has been shown to disturb the ability to fall asleep.  If you have small children, teach them how to engage in relaxing, calming rituals that lead to feeling sleepy and ready for bed.  When children, and even teens, are alone in their beds, this is often the time when their worst fears surface. Nasty creatures start living under the bed or in the closets.  All the fears of the day start flooding back.

Read fun books, or ones that focus on children or young adults mastering difficult situations.  Everyone loves to be read to, at all ages, if the book is interesting and fun to listen to.  Talk to your child about the message in the story, or some interesting detail, to leave a positive thought or idea.

Teach Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), also called Jacobsonian Relaxation, after the man who invented it.  I used to teach these techniques in a Behavioral Medicine Program, but you don’t need a doctoral degree to learn, teach, or practice them.  You just need 15-20 minutes, and you may find that it becomes a family bedtime ritual you all enjoy.

Help them discover how their minds work.  After PMR, encourage them to conjure up a favorite, safe place they remember from their past, or help them to create one, if they can’t think of one.  Allow that image to be rich in sensory detail,-color, smell, and feel.  This can be the memory they can return to, time and time again, even when you aren’t there to be with them.  Don’t forget a goodnight kiss!

Book about me.

ReadWriteThink has an interesting exercise often done by my pre-doctoral psychology Interns with children in my clinic. Children develop a firmer sense of who they are, and increase their sense of belonging by doing these types of exercises with supportive adults. If they can see how much they’ve developed from earlier years, you can both imagine together how they will look as they grow years from now. Instant future.

If nothing else works…

Don’t be reluctant to involve another adult as a “big brother/sister” or hire a therapist and a mentor.  If the child won’t talk about their fears with you, even when you give them the time and space to do so, they sometimes feel safer to do so with others.  Be sure, if you hire a therapist, that they have experience working with children and managing children’s anxiety and depressive symptoms.


Suicide rates in the United States are highest in the spring, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24, and the fourth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Australia, suicide is second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death for people aged 15–24.  Despite this, even after a year, only 16 percent of teens with suicidal thoughts received services in the US, according to one study, despite having insurance, and relatively small co-pays.

Warning Signs of Suicide

There are many signs of suicide, but an important thing to remember is that people don’t talk about killing themselves, or wanting to die unless they need help.  They often look for ways to hurt themselves, as Isabelle did, by researching how much of a particular drug is fatal.  Listen for talk about feeling hopeless, trapped, in unbearable pain, or having no reason to live.  Teens can become increasingly anxious, agitated, behave recklessly, or with increasing belligerence. They may use drugs or alcohol, sleep too little, or too much, and seem withdrawn, listless, isolated, or rageful.  They may give away, or stop caring for things that they once valued.  They may ask for the telephone numbers or addresses of relatives they haven’t spoken to in a while to “check in” and then say “goodbye” to them.  Take these signs seriously.

Know What to Do

Here are some suggestions from SAVE.  Visit their website for more details:

Stigma associated with mental illnesses can prevent families from getting help. Your willingness to talk about mental or emotional issues and suicide with a friend, family member, or co-worker can be the first step in getting them help and preventing suicide.

If You See the Warning Signs of Suicide…

Begin a dialogue by asking questions. Suicidal thoughts are common with some mental illnesses and your willingness to talk about it in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way can be the help a person needs to seeking professional help. Questions okay to ask:

“Do you ever feel so badly that you think about suicide?”
“Do you have a plan to commit suicide or take your life?”
“Have you thought about when you would do it (today, tomorrow, next week)?”
“Have you thought about what method you would use?”
Asking these questions will help you to determine if your friend or family members is in immediate danger, and get help if needed. A suicidal person should see a doctor or mental health professional immediately. Calling 911 or going to a hospital emergency room are also good options to prevent a tragic suicide attempt or death. Calling the National Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is also a resource for you or the person you care about for help. Remember, always take thoughts of or plans for suicide seriously.

Never keep a plan for suicide a secret. Don’t worry about risking a friendship if you truly feel a life is in danger. You have bigger things to worry about-someone’s life might be in danger! It is better to lose a relationship from violating a confidence than it is to go to a funeral. And most of the time they will come back and thank you for saving their life.

Don’t try to minimize problems, or shame a person into changing their mind. Your opinion of a person’s situation is irrelevant. Trying to convince a person suffering with a mental illness that it’s not that bad, or that they have everything to live for may only increase their feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Reassure them that help is available, that what they are experiencing is treatable, and that suicidal feelings are temporary. Life can get better!

If you feel the person isn’t in immediate danger, acknowledge the pain as legitimate, and offer to work together to get help. Make sure you follow through. This is one instance where you must be tenacious in your follow-up. Help find a doctor or a mental health professional, participate in making the first phone call, or go along to the first appointment. If you’re in a position to help, don’t assume that your persistence is unwanted or intrusive. Risking your feelings to help save a life is a risk worth taking.


In an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).



Ten ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’t’ for New Doomers

(1)    Don’t put storage food, or any doomer supplies on a credit card.

On second thought, don’t put anything on a credit card, if you can help it, and if you can’t, buy less stuff. Get out of debt is still one of the most useful bits of advice any Doomer can offer to another.

(2)   Don’t call yourself a “Doomer” in polite company, and never at the company you work for.

While there are now really cool blogs out there with names like “Canadian Doomer,” and the “Conflicted Doomer” “Doomer” should be a used as an inside term for those you know really well, and who have a sense of humor.  Everyone else will just think you are a weirdo.

(3)   Don’t spend your life on the internet researching doom.

I know, I know…there is so much to learn.  But you also need your sleep, and to spend time with your family and friends.  Clearly spending more than the majority of one week-end online researching, more than four hours a day after the first two weeks, or more than four hours a week by the end of the third month, anxiously online, researching, researching…after you learn about this stuff, should clue you in that it is time to check your assumptions.  If you are still spending an hour or more a day reading the Doomer news and commenting in chat rooms, after year two, try to find something more productive to read or learn about, like horse shoeing or pruning fig trees.  News doesn’t change that quickly, and the time you are spending reading this stuff, you could be spending doing other stuff that is likely to be more helpful to you.

Doomer porn doesn’t count, as most of us consider it relaxation.  Limit the Doomer documentaries to a few movies a week and DON’T force your children or spouse to watch them with you.  You can ask, just don’t insist, or play it so loud that the “doomer message” will creep into their subconscious.  That will just annoy them.

(4)   Don’t make any major life transitions you weren’t going to make anyway, during the first 24 months of learning about the 3 E’s (energy depletion, economic hard times, and environmental problems).  You are likely to do so driven by fear, and not by careful thought.

(5)  Don’t scare your children.

If you’re not sure whether or not to talk about certain subjects with your kids, ask your spouse, and then do so carefully with kids under 14.  You might think they “need to know this” to counterbalance the negative messages they are getting from the media, but they don’t.  You are the parent, and you don’t need doom to restrict their access to mindless electronic entertainment.  Put a kid-positive spin on any bad news.

(6)   Nobody, not even your most favorite writer, knows what is best for you, or what you should do to keep yourself safe. 

That’s because nobody knows the future, even if we Peak Oil writers think we have a good idea.  Every decision you make will have an advantage and a drawback.  You can store hundreds of pounds of wheat, and then learn you are allergic to it (ask me know I know). Take everything more slowly and weigh the pros and cons of your decisions.

(7)   Don’t tic off your extended family.

I know your brother-in-law is an idiot-know-it-all, but that’s just your opinion.  Acting competitive with him, or ignoring him at family gatherings, just alienates yourself.  Do your best to get along with all of your family members, especially the ones who take the most pleasure in telling you how much the economy is improving, or how the fall of the Euro will boost the US dollar.

(8)   Don’t talk about your own spouse or put down other people’s spouses in chat rooms.

Unless of course you want to say how wonderful he or she is, and that will only make other people jealous or think you are a braggart or a liar.  And when it comes to someone else telling the group what a “sheeple” his/her spouse is, remind them of how rude that word is, or just keep silent.  Chiming in with agreement is a no-no.

(9)  When you are absolutely feeling totally isolated, like nobody within a hundred miles ever heard of Peak Oil, don’t get depressed.

Offer to run a movie series at your local library for free. Even if one person shows up, show the movie anyway.  That person is the start of your community. The End of Suburbia is always a good choice.  Leave time for people to talk to one another, and make sure it is a “series” so people get more than one shot at coming.

(10) Talk about your feelings, not just the facts, when broaching this subject with your life partner.

And take long pauses to breath, and see if they have anything to say in response.  If you find yourself providing college lectures, instead of discussions, complete with quizzes, maybe you aren’t really communicating.  Feelings can and should be met with sympathy and support.  Facts can be debated.  With you life partner, you need the support, more than the intellectual challenge, at least initially.  And give some sympathy back, if you see a frightened person starring back at you, wondering who has taken over your mind.

What about you?  Do you have any tips for the New Doomer you’d like to add or would you like to take exception to anything I’ve warned about?


Canadian Physician with Panglossian Wife

“Contempt is also the single best predictor of divorce. A husband’s contempt predicts the number of infectious illnesses his wife will experience in the next four years. ”  

Dear Peak Shrink,

I’m a family physician in Ontario, Canada, and I’m married with four children all under the age of 8.  I first heard the words “peak oil” in 2007, and began to realise the full implications (peak money, peak food, peak population etc) in 2008.  I’ve been preparing in a low key way ever since (more about what I’ve been doing below).  But my main problem from the start has been that my wife is absolutely not on the same page with this, to the extent that we are both now starting to be concerned about our marriage.

My wife is somewhat anxious, obsessive and perfectionist and has strong views on many things which makes her difficult to argue with.  She tends to dismiss me on medical things, for example, even though I’m a family physician (I don’t claim infallibility, but I do know a little bit about this stuff). If our views conflict, she tends to express her own view fairly forcefully and expect that to be the view that goes forward, rather than exploring why I take a slightly different view.

I tried to involve her at an early stage in discussions about peak oil and what we should do about it, strategies for saving for retirement and so on, but she has made it clear on every occasion when I have tried to raise the subject that she does not want to discuss it or even think about it, or look at the evidence.  She deflects all attempts at discussion with responses like “You’re just catastrophising” (is that even a real word?), “What makes you think you’ve got some special insight that other people don’t?” “Pensions are always safe”, “There’s nothing we can do about the economy so there’s no point worrying about it”, “Civilization has got along just fine for the last 300 years so it’s not going to change now,” etc.

Her unwillingness to grasp PO etc isn’t due to any lack of intelligence or education.  I think it probably has its roots in a general insecurity which causes her to need to believe that the world tomorrow will be much the same as it is today, except maybe slightly better, and there won’t be any unexpected or frightening changes.

I’ve looked at other forums discussing the psychological effects of peak oil, and there seems to be a consensus that you can’t tell people about peak oil until they are ready to hear it, and you can’t show people the evidence until they are ready to see it.  So every few months I make a tentative attempt to raise the subject again, I get rebuffed again, so I leave it alone for a few more months.

In the meantime I have been making what preparations I can.  We moved house last year to a 2-acre lot in the countryside surrounded by farms, which is a pretty safe place to be in the event of a fast crash, although I didn’t tell her my main reasons for wanting to be there.  I’m diverting small amounts of cash each month to peak oil preps like buying small quantities of silver, photovoltaic panels when they are on sale, and materials for making raised beds.  I’ve got the kids enthusiastic about planting seeds and growing food, although my wife needless to say is rather dismissive (“You know those watermelon plants are not going to produce any watermelons and the kids are just going to be disappointed, don’t you?”).  We’ll see about that.  And I’ve been networking with like minded people, particularly in my local area.

If she was “on board” with PO, the main change I would like to see is for both of us to work less hard and less long hours, earn less money and spend more time on leisure activities and with the children.  We both work full time plus, although she is cutting back her hours slightly from about 125%, to just full time.  We  juggle our time frantically 24/7 with some outsourcing to school, day care and babysitters.  I would like to spend half an hour a day in the garden showing the kids how to grow flowers and vegetables in raised beds, but I am lucky if I manage half an hour a week.

The reason we work these ridiculous hours is mainly because she is anxious about money.  I can see the sense in doing it until we have paid off the mortgage, and I have told her that after we have paid off the mortgage (in less than 5 years) I want to start running a bit less fast on the hamster wheel, but she is convinced that I need to continue working at this pace until I retire  so that we can build up our retirement nest egg.  I secretly agree with Dmitry Orlov’s thoughts about the retirement nest egg – it’s likely to be more like a retirement dried pea by the time we’re done – and I resent working so hard in order to (probably) see it evaporate away in recession and inflation.  I’ve tried to gently tell her that I have my doubts about this, but she absolutely will not listen.

We recently had a new kitchen installed, with a granite countertop.  That was her idea.  I was quite happy with the old kitchen.  The new kitchen and granite countertop look nice, it was what she really wanted, I don’t begrudge it to her and we haven’t argued about it.  I just think that the price of the new kitchen isn’t measured just in dollars, it’s the 200 or so hours that I spent earning the money, and maybe that time would have been better invested in going on long country walks, or teaching the kids to fly kites, or dipping for dragonfly larvae in the pond.  This is such a different perspective to hers, though, that it’s very difficult to convey it to her.

But I am starting to feel that time may be running out, both for peak oil and maybe my marriage.  The crude oil price is creeping up month by month and I’m anticipating a return to the oil prices of summer ’08 at some point not too far away.  My wife is complaining that I’m quieter that I used to be, I don’t talk to her as much, but it’s difficult to talk to someone who doesn’t want to hear what you have to say, even though there’s a lot we should be talking about and it’s very important.  We are sinking substantial sums of money into our traditional tax efficient retirement savings plans, and if she is expecting disappointment in the watermelon department, I think that will be nothing compared to her disappointment in the pension fund department in the long run.

I don’t expect remote control marriage guidance counselling, but any suggestions (from anyone) would be appreciated.



Canadian Medical Doctor with Panglossian Wife



I have to tell you that your letter stands out for its unusual themes.

Perhaps things are better economically where you live, and your family is financially well off.  Most of my readers struggle for energy and food independence, and if they are in debt, to pay it off.  They are wanting to build a more sustainable community and get to know their neighbors.  It sounds like these issues aren’t ones you share.

As far as your wife goes, I believe there are two kinds of people: those who don’t get it and those who don’t WANT to get it.  I think you put your wife in the second category.  ScienceDaily on Nov. 21, 2011 had an article that quoted new research published by the American Psychological Association that stated that the less people know about important complex issues such as the economy, energy consumption and the environment, the more they want to avoid becoming well-informed:

 Participants who felt unknowledgeable about oil supplies not only avoided negative information about the issue, they became even more reluctant to know more when the issue was urgent, as in an imminent oil shortage in the United States, according the authors.   link

You are showing a tremendous amount of patience for what you think of as basically neurotic anxiety.  Your wife insists that each of you work a lot of hours to save for retirement, and then decides to spend a considerable amount of money on a luxury kitchen.  You ask that both of you spend more time with the children, but if falls on deaf ears.

What’s more, with your kids being under 8, the next 10 years are their childhoods and teen years, so if you wait until then to start spending time with them, they won’t appreciate it, I assure you.  They’ll wish you were still working, and would stop “bothering” them.  Someone else will have raised them already.  I’m not a believer that “quality time” is enough.  Kids are all “belly-to-belly” creatures.

You have shared a tremendous amount in your email, and your candor deserves the same from me.

“Quality” Kid Time

You are ultimately responsible for the way you spend your time during your children’s earliest years. They won’t accept “your mother made me do it.”

Would you?

You are ultimately responsible for how well you prepare your children (and the rest of the family) for the future you believe in your heart is coming.  They won’t accept “your mother didn’t believe me, so I didn’t do what I needed to do.”

Would you?

Contempt and Taking on the B*tch


“…the frequency of contemptuous exchanges among happy couples is nearly zero.”

Taking your wife on sounds like a Herculean task.

You’re a physician for heaven’s sake and she won’t take your advice about medicine!

Nevertheless, to do anything less is forcing you to sacrifice something precious to all of us:  an expectation of being treated with respect.

I spend a lot of time talking about contempt in my (hopefully) soon to be available book ‘I Can’t Believe You Think That!

Contempt is THE most damaging emotional expression in intimate relationships, and one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that indicates a breakdown in a relationship.   (The other three are criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.)

From your email, it appears that your wife is demonstrating several seriously corrosive marital interactions, the foremost of which is contempt.

Statements like: “You’re just catastrophising” and “What makes you think you’ve got some special insight that other people don’t?” are all indications.

Contempt is also the single best predictor of divorce.

A husband’s contempt predicts the number of infectious illnesses his wife will experience in the next four years.  Contempt is also a direct attack on the value and worth of another human being, and frequently brings on depression.

It is also interesting to note that the frequency of contemptuous exchanges among happy couples is nearly zero.

Recognizing Contempt:  The Facial Eye-Roll

What is contempt?  Eye-rolling is one facial display.  Gottman defines it this way:

Contempt is typically a statement made to put one’s partner down by taking a superior higher plane than one’s partner, like maintaining the high moral ground. It usually arises from sense that one is better than one’s partner on any dimension, such as neatness or punctuality. People are very creative with contempt and snobbery; the usual method is an insult or calling one’s partner an unflattering name (for example, “you’re a jerk”). One of my favorites is interrupting to correct someone’s grammar when that person is angry with you.

Ekman and Friesen have identified a cross-culturally universal facial expression of contempt called “the dimpler,” which results from the unilateral action of the left buccinator muscle that pulls the left lip corner aside laterally and creates an unflattering dimple on the left side of the face. Contempt may be accompanied by belligerence, which is a provocative form of anger.


Contempt:  Spouse’s Angry Reactions to Peak Oiler’s Sadness and Despair

In couple’s work, we see the expressions of contempt as a response of reactive anger to the emotions of sadness and despair.  We see the display of contempt as creating distance to manage their own intense anxiety that one partner feels in the face of the other partner’s direct request for support, comfort, and nurturance.  It effectively kills trusting feelings, stifles dependency, and reduces the level of commitment and trust.

The message from the contemptuous spouse is “I know you need reassurance of my commitment and caring right now, but I can’t handle that pressure.  I’m going to distance from you.”  Each time  you say “I want to buy a small quantities of silver” or “I want to invest in photovoltaic panels,” and you express your worries and anxieties, she expresses indifference, disrespect, or contempt.  You are asking for  support, nurturance and caring, and she’s responding with criticism, belittlement, and sarcasm.  It is clearly the most corrosive form of relational problems.

We call the style of attachment ‘anxious’ when a partner, faced with sadness or despair, reacts first with anxiety that intensifies into anger.  How could your wife not see your sadness or despair?  Of course she sees it.  But in response, instead of responding to it by supporting you and exploring your concerns with you, she  responds to this sadness or despair with contempt, disgust, or domineering behavior.  She is escalating the negativity in your relationship in dangerous ways, and you are responding by understandable withdrawal.  In your case, a bit too “understanding.”  You do her no favors.

Why do partners react in such a negative way?  Why are partners who are suppose to be loving, act in a condescending distant or neglectful way?  What we have learned through research is that beneath this contempt lies deep feelings of anxious (as opposed to “secure” or “avoidant”) attachment.  For many, this contemptuous spouse is feeling hopeless about ever being truly loved, so they default to “spoiling” the attachment.

 She is exquisitely aware of your withdrawal, even through your “nice guy” presentation, and, most likely, she hates you for it.

The “as if I agree with you” attitude on your part has caused her to have given up trying to connect, really connect, to you.  She is  angry at being asked to be supportive and nurturing of your worries when she, herself, feels you are only giving ‘lip service’ to her deepest fears. She feels abused, tricked into loving a man who only ‘tolerates’ her, instead of deeply, passionately desiring and respecting her. Her hostility says “I won’t be fooled again.  Why should I value you?  You have disappointed me so!  I tried to reach you, (perhaps earlier in the marriage) but it was hopeless!  If I open up to you, you’ll just shut me down later, so the heck with you!”

This is hard for the “caring, patient husband” to really understand.  Why, despite his “endless tolerance” for her “irrationality;” his “acceptance” of her “blind adherence to conventional beliefs,” does she still fly off the handle and respond to him so negatively?  Why does she act so spiteful and belittling to his carefully and rationally delivered, carefully researched facts?

As one Mother wrote:

  • If I’m frustrated with a non-response, as I’m wiping the counters, I roll my eyes.
  • If I’m angry at an overreaction, as I’m walking away to do laundry, I roll my eyes.
  • If I’m tired of all the fighting in my car, as I’m driving along, I roll my eyes.

Marriages and families operate at a certain level of equilibrium normally.  A dance develops where the harder we try to change our partner, the more resistant they become to that change.  The more certain we are of our “rightness,” the more contemptuous they act toward our deeply held convictions.  There are families where one spouse isn’t allowed to even talk about some strongly held beliefs in front of the other, their friends, or their kids.  Those topics are ‘off limits.’  But these silenced partners are hardly helpless victims.  They are carrying out a “demon dance” that is bringing nothing but unhappiness to both of them.

When contempt is exchanged between couples, (or “contempt” and “long-suffering silence”), they have to decide whether to get help, or let it die a slow (or not so slow) relationship death.

While in this marriage, Dr.,  you appear to be more “understanding” of your wife’s spending on things you see as a waste of your earning hours, I’m sure that she has picked up on your attitudes.  The “nice guy” is seldom seen as “fully supportive” by the “b*tch wife.”  Marriage has a way of unwrapping even the thickest social “face” of the dutiful spouse.

Just because your perspective may be “correct” from my point of view, “giving up” to “keep peace” is seldom a useful marital strategy for keeping harmony, in the bedroom or in the kitchen.

Seek out someone who knows what they are doing in the marital therapy world and made TRUE peace, not this distancing stance you’ve adopted.

Good luck.

Peak Shrink

Where Will the Grandkids Live?

For several months I have pondered the above question. As we age we become more reflective than when we were young, and the hustle and bustle of life filled every waking minute. No, I am not talking about the geographic location of their future life, but the time period in which they will live, and what their way of life may be.

My study and research over the past 6 years have led myself and many others to believe that we are about to embark upon a very unique time in the history of mankind on this planet. I believe we are about to witness time running backward with the decline of the oil age. I’m not talking about the hands of your clock moving in reverse, but the achievements that we have come to embrace and depend upon gradually ceasing to exist in a useable form, for those living at that time. It will be living as if we were at the back of the history book, and reading forward to the front as the passage of time moves ahead.

Skills, materials, processes, and techniques crucial to our lives today will gradually be replaced by less sophisticated and less efficient skills, materials, processes, and techniques similar to those of a bygone era. James Kuntsler has written extensively about this process in several of his books. Many have read his works and pushed them aside as being a very imaginative work of fiction that surely never could happen. After all, the great works of fiction written in the past, such as those of Jules Verne, have suggested forward growth to the time period we are familiar with today. Not so fast though. Has there been a historical precedent when the very process of regression actually did occur?

Because of the diligent work of historians and archeologists in the last several decades, we have a view of a significant period of time in which such a regression indeed has occurred. Many techniques and technologies from this prior period were lost to humanity, for hundreds or even thousands of years, only to be “re-discovered” in the last two centuries. That period of time existed from around the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD forward. With its demise, many skills and technologies were lost. Hydraulic setting cement, which is an extensive component used to build our modern seaports, bridges, navigation channels, and dams, was lost with the fall of the Roman Empire, and not re-discovered until 1300 years later.

Modern brain surgery dating from around 1935, actually had its origins as far back as 7000 BC, but that skill also disappeared during the fall of the Roman Empire, only to be re-discovered 78 years ago.

The Antikythera Mechanism, a very sophisticated analog scientific computer, comprised of many intricate gears and dials, was in use during the first century BC, but its use was lost around the fall of Roman Empire, only to be re-discovered in the mid 1800’s. Not until the late 1800’s could precise gears be made to replicate some of the functions found in the earlier device from 1900 years previous.

History reveals that we have had massive society regression on a large scale in the past. To think ourselves immune to that today is faulty societal thinking. My belief is that we will begin to experience this process at a gradually accelerating pace sometime within the next five years. The decline of the oil age, and depletion of other natural resources will begin to remove the familiar from our lives at an ever increasing pace. All are now familiar with the predicted demise of the fossil fueled private transportation, and commercial air travel. What other goods and services also will begin a slow disappearing act? Just about anything depending on a supply of fossil fuel in its manufacture, transportation or content can be expected to decline in availability. Modern medicine, modern electronics, abundant affordable food, clothing, plastics, glues, building materials, school supplies, sports equipment, and just about anything your else your eyes see today.

So where do I think my grandchildren will live when they are 40 (ages today 10, 14, and 21)? I think they will live in a world very similar to the first decade of the last century. There will be some electricity available, mostly in the cities I think, but it will be intermittent. Those who are lucky enough still to have a land line will maintain some communication ability. There will be limited use of airplanes, but not for air travel. Medicine and medical supplies will be limited and not available in the variety that we have today. Anything plastic will be a curiosity, and not currently available. Radio, TV and Internet will become “things of the past” . Media, and the internet to some extent, exist only for one purpose, to advertise goods and services for you to buy. At some point the amount and variety of available goods will decline to a level that will no longer sustain the operational expense of any of those venues.

We seem to be building a better mouse trap for ourselves worldwide. The written word and pictures are now converting to an all electronic format. Book store closings abound. What will result when the lack of energy and fossil fuel chemicals make the devices displaying that media unavailable? A great amount of collective and personal history, along with “how to” will vanish. We will still have libraries with “hands on” physical books, but new material will be slow to obtain.

The hardest reality that my grandchildren will experience, will be the memory of a time when many more conveniences and goods were commonplace and available. If you were able to go back and ask people living at the beginning of the last century about the quality of their lives, they would likely tell you that life was pretty good for them. Quality of life would appear to them to be far better than that experienced by their ancestors.

I think that many generations may pass before the world, its people, and its resources will regain some form of sustainable equilibrium.

Where do you think your grandchildren will live?


Losing the Loved One You Can Talk to…

Hi Peak Shrink,

I just commented on your latest blog entry and as I clicked the submit button I felt a great loss.

I can talk about my fears with my husband, but only to a certain extent. He is totally into all our simplifying and gardening and tinkering with sustainability, but out of principle (not to take what you don’t need, not to waste, to be responsible for future generations, etc.). He does not “believe” in Peak Oil, and Climate Change will be very slow, and the economic recession will soon lift.

He is an optimist: whatever problems will arise, technology and science will save us.

I wish I could be like him, rather carefree yet still doing everything to live more lightly on the earth. Sometimes I think his motivations for living so carefully are purer than mine, because my motivation is largely fear. I’m a pessimist, a Doomer, I guess, of the Do More kind, and of the kind who always smiles, you know? Forge on and tally-ho and all that!

The one time I wailed to my husband, at that terrible beginning of the “awakening”, he understood (not the awakening, but my distress) and he immediately followed on our new path. But on most days I am combative and resourceful and there’s no time or inclination for wailing. And I find that on those days I can’t talk to him about what underlies my actions, my preparations, and it’s like he has forgotten, or can no longer believe it. Stocking up on water? Peak Oil? I don’t believe in that nonsense.

Do I *have* to cry out in order to be heard?

My other dialogue is a monologue, really, to the largely anonymous and somewhat mysterious (i.e., unresponsive) audience on my blog. But there it is the same: I talk about the actions, and only once in a while about the motivations, and only very rarely about the despair.

So my last resort was a family friend whom I trusted and looked up to.  A good listener and concerned friend. I’ll never forget my first talk with him about this, when I was suddenly inspired (or rather, so hard pressed) to just lay it on the table, the raw fear in just a few words and not too many tears, and how he got it, how concerned he was, that I should live with this, and how did I, really, live with this, and please take care, take heart…

Several weeks ago he was at our house with his family and we had just installed our rain barrels. Besides the obvious opportunities for the garden I also touted our plan to do some sort of rain water purification. Why? he asked.  In case the water supply fails, I said.

He rolled his eyes.

Not only do we live with the crippling fear of nothing less than the destruction of our children; we live also with the daily belittling of it by our loved ones. As long as there’s no wailing, no physical, unmistakable, forceful expression of our utterly wrecked hope… how serious could it be? How easily can it be ignored, denied?

On my resourceful days I often find myself amazed at the contradiction between my behavior and calmness on the one hand and the knowledge (or belief) I carry inside. There are many reasons for it – I can do more here with my daughter than in a psychiatric ward or drugged on prozac – but isn’t it something? What, I don’t know. I like to think of it as a feat of strength, though sometimes I suspect it is a belittling itself, even a drugging, like that strange “becalming” you speak of…

Well, this turned out longer than I had planned, but one thing is clear to me at the end of it: that you should know how important *you* are as the only active and respectful and concerned listener available to some or even most of us.

Sail on.


Hi Tally ho,

Thank you for your kind words.  I really appreciate you for acknowledging the hard work I do, and it helps me feel connected to you.

You need that same acknowledgement, but not just from me.

Being emotionally ‘strong’ is great in most situations, but not defensively so in our most intimate relationships.

Your letter expresses the feelings of many of my readers. I hear your words echoed in the consultations I do, as clients express pain about the way they are treated by close friends or intimates.

Some of my readers will consider you a lucky woman to have a spouse who at least cooperates with your preps.  But none of us want to be married to a willing “hired hand.”  We want and need our intimate relationships to be much, much more.  We need to be known to those we love.  We need to feel heard by them.  We need to feel understood, trusting, and safe to be ourselves when we are with them.

It is painful when, in our most important relationships, we feel discounted, mocked, or trivialized.  It is a daily wound that does not heal, and it leaves us insecure and uncertain.  We withdraw, become depressed or feel chronically angry and embittered.  We stop being responsive in sex with our intimates, and stop having fun with our ridiculing friends.  We live like strangers in our own homes, or with our buddies, needing to hide our deepest fears, and keep our opinions to ourselves, instead of turning to our loved ones for relief, comfort, and reassurance (or even lively debates!)

We are creatures of attachment, and we attach profoundly to only a couple of important people in our lives.  The way (or style) of attachment we form have deep roots in the attachments we learned early on, but these aren’t childish needs.  Strong attachments make us able adults.  Psychologists have learned that with strong attachments, adults do better in the outside world.  When our home base is secure, we feel more powerful, and are more resilient and effective in our interactions with others and in our working lives.

Basic Emotions

All over the world people experience and display at least seven basic emotions (anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, fear, interest, and happiness). They are deeply ‘hard wired’ into us, and extend back to our primate ancestors.  You’ll notice love isn’t among these emotions, because it is too powerful and complex a set of feelings.  Intimates do a “dance” in the way they interact and use emotions to securely attach to another.  They want to answer for themselves the following types of questions:

    • Do you love me?
    • Are you a safe person to love?
    • Is your love conditional?
    • Can I depend on you when I need you?
    • Will you place me above others in your life?  Do I matter?
    • Will you be there for me if I show you this weak and fragile person that I hide from other people?

Maintaining a long-term relationship depends on your partners’ feeling and expressing respect, admiration, and gratitude to you (and the reverse is also true).  Commitment and intimacy flourish in a climate of trust, appreciation, friendship and forgiveness.  These are not just “nice ideas.” They are backed by solid longitudinal research which have studied both successful and divorcing couples over several decades.


In this safe environment, couples build a vision of their partner’s inner world, hopes and dreams.  They don’t only know WHAT they hope for by WHY they want it- the underlying meaning.  I can’t stress enough how important this is.  Gottman calls them “love maps.”  They are a roadmap you create in your mind of your partner’s inner psychological world.

It is the most basic level of friendship… It’s about feeling like your partner is interested in knowing you, and your partner feeling that you are interested in knowing her or him. What are your partner’s worries and stresses at the moment? Do you know? What are some of your partner’s hopes and aspirations? What are some of his or her dreams, values, and goals? What is your partner’s mission statement in life? The fundamental process in making a love map is asking questions and remembering the answers—keeping them in working memory. These should be open-ended questions that you want to know the answer to, not closed questions like “Did the plumber come?” People rarely ask questions. But when they do, it’s an invitation, as opposed to a statement, which is like “take that.” Again, there are three parts to love maps: (1) ask questions you’re interested in, (2) remember the answers, and (3) keep asking new questions.

Trust evolves as a relationship matures.  Attributions are made about the partner, who is seen as reliable, dependable, and concerned with providing expected rewards to the partner; and trust implies “a willingness to put oneself at risk, be it through intimate disclosure, reliance on another’s promises, sacrificing present rewards for future gains, and so on.

Peak Oil Relationships

An awakening to the realities of the 3 E’s during an ongoing marriage have a profound impact on intimate relationships and close friendships, because they tear away that shared future vision, and replace it with something dramatically altered and often frighteningly grim or anxiously uncertain.  For the spouse, I ask the Peak Oil aware person to imagine their plans to move with their family to a lovely house in delightful surroundings.  Then I ask them to imagine that without discussion, your partner has sunk your money and your future into a falling-down shack in a dangerous ghetto. The experience is disorienting and confusing.  How could I know so little about them?  How could they change our plans so dramatically?

Gridlocked Problems

When gridlock happens in a relationship, the presenting ‘issue’ is seldom the whole story (even if it is TEOTWAWKI). Lurking beneath the “presenting issue” is something deeply meaningful, something core to that person’s belief system, needs, history, or personality. It could be a strongly held value or a dream not yet lived.  No one compromises on such a strongly held issue.  Compromise is impossible and feels like a ‘sell-out.’ Only when partners feel safe with one another can they talk about these issues, and express interest in knowing about them.

Grieving Lost Dreams

Sometimes we, in the Peak Oil community are so insistent on arguing for what we know to be true, that we, as you describe, aren’t grieving for all our own lost dreams that we believe are impossible.  We have to be able to open up and talk about both our fears and the lost dreams we felt forced to set aside in face of a “new normal.”  We have to communicate that we really care to know about the underlying meaning of the other partner’s position. This isn’t the time for persuasive arguments or problem solving. The goal is for each partner to understand the other’s dreams behind their position on the issue.

Your emotions drove you to dare to reach out to your husband and share some of your fears.  You dared to ask him for comfort, acceptance, and love, to move into that future with you.  In response, he was reassuring and cooperative, but you suspect that he hardly understands why you changed your fundamental beliefs so drastically.  I suspect you are right.  And there is part of you that wants him to understand you totally, but might be fearful about exploring it yourself.  Living constantly with fear is exhausting and wears us down.  You already live with your fear of the future.  However, you also live with the fear of showing your most vulnerable self, the part of you that is motivated by fear, reactivity, and probably, at times, a puzzle even to yourself .

Do I Have to Cry Out?

Now you ask “Do I *have* to cry out in order to be heard?”   I hear that “crying out” is hardly something you want to have to do.  It sounds like you frame your fear, your sadness, your despair as vulnerabilities that are better hidden away from him.  Maybe it seems easier to show him the “strong, certain” side.  But is it?

You imagine that your partner is somehow better than you, for his cheerful optimism and willingness to do things “just because.”  Your fear keeps you weak in comparison.  Do you imagine that he sees it as his responsibility to help you become a better person?  Is he ‘humoring you’ by doing these preps, so you don’t show to him the same vulnerability you did during your awakening?

The “Flawed Spouse’ Syndrome

For many of the couples I work with, one partner acts as if they believe that the problem in the relationship is because they ended up with a flawed spouse.  It goes both ways, with those of us in the Peak Oil community feeling like we ended up with someone foolish enough to believe TPTB, and our ‘resolute mate’ who believe that their intimate partner ‘went off the deep end.’ In either case, the view is that we’re with someone who isn’t as perfect as we are. We try to point out the idiocy of their beliefs, opinions, or actions, but they just don’t listen.  We’re showing them how they can be better, but they insist on being the way they are.  Therefore, it is our job to point out their mistakes, and we expect them to be grateful for all of our efforts to improve them.  When they aren’t, or they actually get hostile towards us for being critical, we are righteously annoyed. It’s our right to be, we claim.  After all, if our partner would just ‘come to their senses,’ they’d see that we are right.  Even worse, they’d see how miserable they are making us for being so ____ (stubborn, ignorant, arrogant, gullible, etc).

These are legitimate fears, Tally ho, because you feel them deeply.  But you are afraid of having these attachments and needing him the way that you do.  You are frightened that if you really open up, he will mock you, dismiss you, trivialize your concerns as “crazy”or “groundless.”

Emotions as key Organizers

Emotions are a key organizer of our inner experience and in love relationships.  Emotion, we’ve come to learn, aren’t erratic intrusions into our otherwise calm relationships.  Emotions shape our attachments.  They have the power to move our partners and evoke new responses, just as your expression of distress did during your “awakening.”  And, as my readers will no doubt notice, your husband responded to that distress.  While he may not have agreed with why you were upset, for him, the pain you voiced was enough to change his behavior.  You two have a strong foundation.

And over the years of living together, couples develop a “dance,” that repeats around emotional communication.  In the face of emotional expression, partner’s begin to respond in predictable ways.  The response is a form of communication, and a cycle develops where emotions, and the dance itself become the organizing force.

Try this during your next conversation:

(1) Notice negative emotion before it escalates.

(2) See the emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy.

(3) Validate or empathize with the emotions your husband expresses.

(4)  Help your husband give verbal labels to all emotions that he is feeling.

It is interesting to note that Gottman’s research showed that dads who follow the above strategies, called ’emotional coaching’ were better dads and better husbands. Their children felt closer to them, and moms appreciated them more. During conflict with their wives, emotion-coaching dads were respectful,  not contemptuous. They knew their wives well and communicated a lot of affection and admiration to them in the oral history interview. Apparently, good marriages and good parenting are made of the same stuff.  And both are vital in hard times…

Good luck and thanks for writing.

The Snow Globe Crystal Ball

Every year about this time, little snow globes with winter scenes, snowmen and Santa appear on store shelves. As long as they are not disturbed the “snow” stays at the bottom of the globe. Shake the snow globe, and you have an instant blizzard. Fortune tellers, on the other hand, have frequently employed crystal balls to foresee the future. So what happens when you combine the two globes?

You get a situation that gives a glimpse of the future from current events that occurred during an intense snow storm. On Oct 29, the Northeastern part of the US was blanketed by a very heavy snow storm, unusual for its intensity this early in the winter season. The trees, still having their fall foliage, acted like giant strainers, catching and trapping much of the heavy wet snow. Predictably, the snow laden branches came crashing down on power lines all over the Northeast, blacking out large areas. The state of Connecticut was especially hard hit, the second time in as many months.

At first the inconveniences of the power outage were endured for a few days. Not only were residences affected, but the business sector was also powerless from the effects of this intense storm. After three or four days, people were becoming impatient, especially in hard hit Connecticut. After about a week of being without power, the public was getting very upset with the pace of power restoration, complaining loudly and frequently to their government officials and the utility. What made them even more distressed were the daily pronouncements from the utility and government officials that the power will all be restored “tomorrow”. Tomorrow came and went, in the dark. Even today, some 15 days after the initial snow fell, there are isolated places in Connecticut without electricity.

Being without electricity is very distressing. I know from experience. In 2005, we had an ice storm in early January that knocked out power in our neighborhood for 9 days. It was an eye-opener to see how dependent we had become on the genie in the wall outlet.

Peering into this combo snow globe-crystal ball of the Oct 29 storm, what can we foresee? Well, I think we can see what the public reaction will be when we start having energy shortages in the fossil fuel sectors. First, there may be annoyed resignation over the service stations being out of fuel. After three or four days pass and still no fuel, annoyance may turn to anger. After seven or eight days, anger may give way to rage. The public won’t have the visual reminders that a snow storm has left behind. Instead, there won’t be any fuel energy, and the sky may be sunny, and the birds are chirping. The culprit for their discomfort won’t be anywhere in sight. Public and private leadership will be passing the same information, “Tomorrow, everything will be restored”.

We in the peak oil community keep wondering when someone in leadership, either in the government, or in industry will own up to the dilemmas of peak oil. The truth is, they never will utter the words “peak oil”. To do so would beg the questions of “Exactly what did you know, and when did you first learn of it?” and “Why have you done nothing to prepare for this situation?”

What comes after rage? It all depends on the individual, and their circumstances in life. You may have rage turn to action, such as the Occupy movement. That will probably not be as effective or visible, because the fuel won’t be as available for them to travel to a point of protest. I believe rage will morph into fear. As the realization that a “normal” tomorrow isn’t likely a part of our future, the fear will encroach on everyone’s lives. People with great fear are prone to making all sorts of bad decisions, even those in top levels of government.

I feel we will see much of our remaining resources squandered, both individually and collectively, in an effort to re-establish some kind of familiar normal. The only way I know to prevent this type of activity personally, and calm some of the butterflies in our stomach, is to do a little something every day, every week, every month to prepare you for the inevitable decline in our energy futures.

We know in the peak oil community, that the day of permanent loss of personal fossil energy is drawing close. By preparing now for this future, we are letting the “snow” in our personal snow globe settle out, so we can see our choices for the future clearly. Most, unfortunately, will be trapped by the “snow” in a physical, mental, and emotional blizzard within their personal snow globes and therefore see no future. Our society is in for great turmoil, the likes of which we have never seen.

Take a sheet of paper. Write one thing you have done in the last 30 days to prepare for the future. If the page is blank, then my crystal ball sees a blizzard in your personal snow globe.

A snow shovel won’t help!


Sustaining Our Better Angels

Walk with Angels by Amy White*

William E. Rees, FRSC is a man worthy of respect. He put forth the notion of an “Ecological Footprint” in 1992.  I had the pleasure of meeting him at a small dinner party when I spoke in Vancouver last year as part of my lecture tour. I read his latest piece: The Human Nature of Unsustainability, posted on Energy Bulletin with keen interest.

Planet Killers

In this article, Rees discusses how the scientific community has gone on record to tell us we are killing the planet.  He presents us with a dilemma:  If we know that what we are doing is bad for us, why do we keep doing it?  His emphasis in this article is to look at human nature, itself, to find an essential part of the answer.

According to Dr. Rees, humans are “K-strategists:”

“K” stands for the long-term carrying capacity of an ecosystem; K-strategists are species that tend to have relatively stable populations approaching that carrying capacity…Their individual survival and overall evolutionary success depend on competitive superiority at high population densities when resources are scarce.

Growth Memes

He points out the powerful impact that our collectively shared beliefs have on economic growth:

The entire world today is in the thrall of a particularly powerful “meme complex” whose effect is to reinforce humanity’s K-selected expansionist tendencies….This growth-oriented mythic construct has shaped the lives of more people than any other cultural narrative in all of history.

As an influential memetic construct, the growth imperative is actually just two generations old. Only in the 1950s did economic growth emerge from nowhere to become the “supreme overriding objective of policy” in many countries around the world.

In this discourse, the damage done to the planet by “Homo Economicus,” becomes a description of Homo Sapiens as a collective whole, and we humans are allegedly, a competitive, destructive bunch:

…we habituate to any level of consumption (once a given level is attained, satisfaction diminishes) so the tendency to accumulate ratchets up. This is particularly so if we perceive that another social group—or country—is “getting ahead” faster than we are.

In making his argument, Rees moves from genetics to evolutionary biology, neurobiology and cultural memes seamlessly, linking concepts of emotionality, competitiveness, irrationality and human selfishness as defining human traits we need to overcome.

From a systems perspective, we might say that our current “unsustainability” is a product of the natural system…

There are certain behavioral adaptations that helped our distant ancestors survive—and thus those predilections were passed on to us. But those same (now ingrained) behaviors today are decidedly not helpful in solving our sustainability crisis—they have become maladaptive.

According to Rees: We…cannot assume that global society will necessarily deal rationally with the data documenting accelerating global ecological change,” and, he reminds us, as we are all too familiar: “passion will trump reason in shaping one’s responses to emotionally charged or life-threatening encounters.”  Quoting neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, he argues that to survive as a species, we need to rise above our innate proclivities and employ:

…supra-instinctual survival strategies that have developed in society, are transmitted by culture, and require for their application consciousness, reasoned deliberation and willpower.

While he’s careful to add that “[T]his perspective is not rooted in genetic determinism;” and doesn’t deny that “other factors contribute to humanity’s sustainability dilemma,” he nonetheless argues that “unless we factor in the bioevolutionary contribution, our understanding of the modern human predicament will remain unintelligibly incomplete and any “solutions” hopelessly ineffective.”

He writes:

Humans like to think that we have arrived at the free-will end of this spectrum, but much of modern cognitive science suggests that this is largely illusion. Psychologist Robert Povine argues from the available evidence that the starting assumption in behavioral psychology should be “that consciousness doesn’t play a role in human behaviour. This is the conservative position that makes the fewest assumptions.”

…To reestablish cognitive consonance between ingrained perceptions and new environmental realities requires that affected parties engage in the willful restructuring of their belief systems and associated neural pathways. These efforts require conscious effort and will not always be successful: “There are indeed potions in our own bodies and brains capable of forcing on us behaviours that we may or may not be able to suppress by strong resolution.” Even when people accept that such a change in their beliefs and their thinking is necessary, the process can be lengthy, difficult, and unpredictable.

International Global Solution?

He ends the piece on quite a different note, arguing that while “[m]odern society has been paralyzed by cognitive dissonance, collective denial, and political inertia in dealing with the sustainability conundrum” his hope is that with “international agreement on the nature of the problem, a global solution is at least theoretically possible.”  His dreams are for a global centralized solution where by the force of “unprecedented political will,” and “creative engagement of modern communication technologies” the entire “world community” will develop a “commitment to a collective solution.”  The exclamation point at the end of this sentence implies that he, himself, sees little hope of that happening.  Yet, according to Rees,  “[t]hese are the minimal cultural tools needed to socially reengineer ourselves, and to educate the next generation from scratch, in a whole new sociocultural paradigm for survival. (emphasis added)

Will the Real Human Please Stand Up?

I suggest, however, that we must pause again to ask ourselves: “Which humans are we talking about?

For Rees, “Homo Economicus,” so involved as he is in world domination, is Homo Sapien. The hegemony of global capitalism is subsumed into “the expanding human enterprise itself.”  But does our understanding of the economic and sociopolitical dominance of “Homo Economicus,” inform all we need to know about human nature to motivate behavior change?

Consciousness Doesn’t Count?

In this argument, Rees puts front and center a quite powerful meme in its own right. The implication is that cognitive psychology is itself a “hard science” able to say anything as concretely as the absurd post-modern notion that human “consciousness doesn’t play a role in human behaviour.

As a clinical psychologist who maintains an interest in social, cognitive and evolutionary psychology, I’ve become increasingly hesitant to agree that rescuing the future survival of a livable planet rests so soundly on acknowledging the limits of free will.  While I often get a kick out of  the inventive conclusions my colleagues reach, based on the severely limited social science research they conduct, my amusement ends when these same conclusions are used to generalize these findings to all of humanity.

We Are the World, We are THE Humans…

As Steven J. HeineProfessor of Psychology, University of British Columbia points out, the field of psychology itself is a very narrow, ethnocentric place:

…both the people conducting the research and the people who are the targets of the research largely come from a select few cultural backgrounds. Here are some indicators of the narrowness of the field: A review of international scientific productivity found that American-based psychologists accounted for 70% of the citations in psychology, a proportion higher than any of the other sciences reviewed (and approximately twice the proportion of chemistry). The next biggest contributing nations are all English-speaking ones: the UK, Canada, and Australia, respectively.

Likewise, my colleagues, Joe Henrich, Ara Norenzayan, and I, have calculated that a randomly selected American college student is more than 4000 times more likely to end up as a participant in a psychology study than is a randomly selected person living outside of the West. These nonrepresentative samples wouldn’t be such a problem if people everywhere thought in the same ways, but the available evidence shows that in many key ways they do not.

Unlike chemistry, where the object of study is independent of the researcher’s political or cultural perspective, psychologists study people. They often get the inspiration for their ideas by their own introspections and by observing those around them. A narrow range of perspectives isn’t a problem if one hopes to explain just those people who share those perspectives. But often psychologists purport to be studying human nature, and when the field only attracts those with a limited range of political and cultural perspectives, they may produce an incomplete and misleading caricature of that nature. (emphasis added)

If we, then, recognize this cultural bias, what is the meme that goes along with First World culture?

Pragmatic Altruism vs. Violent Mindset

As Stuart Twemlow, M.D. points out, we in the US are exposed to an”endless deluge of unmitigated violence, in the media, on the Internet, and in print, which subtly and gradually helps to shape a defensive “violent mindset” that reflects in the way we treat each other.”  In this violent mindset, people attempt to “spend much time trying to win at any cost” and “gauge personal success by economic and material gain.”  Despite the overwhelming evidence of the harmful and shaping effects of exposure to violence and its cancerous effects on communities, a “debate” about the impact of violence on the psyche continues.  Dr. Twemlow compares the “debate” about these facts as similar to the lengthy antique “debate” about cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

The violent mindset vs. what he calls the “pragmatic altruistic” mindset impacts the collective community consciousness in areas of creativity, thought patterns, ruthlessness, economic prosperity, inner peace, outer peace, power struggles, greed, envy, contempt, materialism and narcissism.  This violent meme has so totally dominated the discourse in the USA, that inevitably, our habits and unconscious assumptions about what is “human nature” are debased.  Our children are taught through the media that “winning isn’t everything, its the only thing.”

For more than 30 million years, as Twemlow points out, we have another equally powerful and “evolutionarily based” nature:  altruism.  The notion of “pragmatic altruism” is ridiculed as soft-headed and idealistic, and hardly a shaping factor of human evolution.  It therefore seldom considered as  a viable pathway to resolve the problems we face.

Monkeys and apes engage in reconciliation and forgiveness.  And even our complete understanding of “dominance” as one that benefits reproduction among the great apes has to be questioned when females apes sneak away with less dominant males.  Alpha male apes are often under greater physical and psychological stress, and have much higher levels of glucocorticoid stress hormones in their blood, which can result in impaired immune systems.  Dominance has its costs.

This powerful meme too often misreads the “selfish gene” as the “selfish human.” As I have argued elsewhere, “[t]here is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative.”  Herbert Spenser altered Darwin’s biological theories to fit his own philosophical economic notions in 1864.  It turns out that this narrative of a nasty, competitive selfish world, is only based on partial recollections of the data, and not only doesn’t it tell the whole story,  it presents a political (power) explanation for oppression using biology as a justification: “Nature is selfish so I can be selfish.” It is a narrative of genetic classism. It is also a narrative of domination and imperialism.

In emphasizing, as he does in this article, the competitive, destructive, self-focused and unconscious, irrational elements of an elite group of wealthy humans, Rees not only duplicates this same error, but leaves the reader feeling hopeless as to any clear pathway out of this horror.

Hardly idealistic ramblings of social scientist dreamers, Twemlow, Sacco and their colleagues point to concrete ways to alter this dreary outlook on the future.  The solutions are local, not global.  According to these researchers, communities deteriorate in predictable ways, but they can also be healed systematically when the will to do so is present. “Comfort,” “belonging” and “protection” are features that all humans crave, and therefore there is no need for “supra-instinctual survival strategies.”

The values of Homo Economicus are deadly to the planet.  But it is dangerous to confuse the dysfunction of humans impacted by global free market capitalism, with the norms of human psychology or psycho-evolutionary biology.  Unipolar depressive disorders is the leading causes of disability worldwide.  Is this a normal human state?

Are Fragmented Communities Killing the Planet?

As Bruce Alexander, Ph.D. points out, we live in a civilization that has become psychologically fragmented. Free market capitalism, now the dominant ideological economic system, has systematically displaced people, fragmenting Third World attachment to the land, a sense of:

“..identity that comes from secure families, stable communities, and a predictable future; we lack the sense of meaning that comes from shared values and religious beliefs; and we lack the confidence that comes from being part of a nation, a civilization, or an economic system that warrants our deep respect. More and more people are finding that addiction and other destructive lifestyles the most effective ways they can find to fill the social void and control the anxiety. Addictions, whether they center a person’s life on drugs or anything else provide some kind of a substitute for real identity, meaning, and confidence. Having found a substitute for what they lack in their inner core, people cling to it for all they are worth – addictively.” link

Among these addictions are compulsive shopping and other forms of consumption.  When basic human needs for belonging are met, attachment happens not only between people, but to the land they live on, as well.

As Chief Seattle wrote of the invaders:

Your dead forget you and the country of their birth as soon as they go beyond the grave and walk among the stars. They are quickly forgotten and they never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth. It is their mother. They always remember and love her rivers, her great mountains, her valleys. They long for the living, who are lonely too and who long for the dead. And their spirits often return to visit and console us.”

Similar ecoes are expressed in Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie MacLean’s 1988 lyrics in Solid Ground:

It’s the Land. It is our wisdom
It’s the Land. It shines us through
It’s the Land. It feeds our children
It’s the Land. You cannot own the Land. The Land owns you.

Alexander points out that the highlands of Northwestern Scotland provide an Anglo example of the dislocating effects of free markets on traditional society.

Until the second half of the 18th century, highlands society was little touched by free markets. The local economy was a network of traditional obligations among people living in stable families and occupying well-defined social strata…. Although highland society suffered from famine in poor years, it offered psychosocial integration to even the very poorest, and emigration was uncommon.  After the last major armed uprising against British rule was defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government began the systematic destruction of highland society.  The traditional bearing of arms was prohibited, as was traditional dress, including plaid, tartan, and kilt.

Group identity is maintained through “threads” of shared traditions and cultural characteristics of dress, celebrations, and customs.  Quoting songwriter Neil Young, I call this phenomenon becoming a “patch of ground people.”

Drs. Twemlow and Frank Sacco use of “pragmatic altruism” and “community stabilization systems” is transformative in a relatively brief period of time.  In a few years, a violent and degraded school in Jamaica, where truancy exceeded 70% and knife fights and rape were commonplace, became a peaceful place where former schoolyard bullies assumed a “non-bullying role, and even became “community helpers.” Montego Bay’s police force, once considered “animals” by the citizenry, were increasingly regarded as benevolent helpers and keepers of the peace.  These sorts of cultural shifts do not require neurological reprogramming, but instead, a consistent message of common purpose, community spirit, and what they call “mentalizing.”

With stunning examples of social change in dire communities drenched in violence, and with very little outside monetary input,  these people embraced and held onto their best selves.

We have a long history of attachment to each other, even in the “Me! Me!” USA, as I’ve outlined here.  This “hidden history of cooperatives and communialism,” is outlined in a riveting book by John Curl called “For All the People.”  But this long history didn’t simply disappear:

It was deliberately written out of history books, and now a powerful meme seeks to write it out of our conception of human “nature.”

While Dr. Rees maintains that the “influential memetic construct” of pursing  unrestrained economic growth as a matter of policy emerged in the 1950s “from nowhere,” I would argue that “nowhere” has never been a reliable source of ideas.**

As Alexander wrote:

“England successfully dominated the 19th century world, and English free market economics, with its intrinsic destruction of traditional culture, spread across the map of western Europe…Because free market society now dominates the world, the destruction of traditional culture has become ubiquitous. In an ultimate irony, tens of thousands of Latin American peasants, some of whom grew coca on their tiny farms, are currently being dislocated in the interest of preventing addiction through the War on Drugs.”

His point is that this very dislocation causes the very “addiction” the War on Drugs aims to eliminate.

The Better Angels of Human Nature

As Abraham Lincoln said in his first Inaugural Address, “the mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better Angels of our nature.”

We have no choice but to deal with these troubling times with either our best, or our worse selves.  I find it disturbing when brilliant thinkers suggest that our only hope lies with a dramatic change of heart among global elites who have, at this point, consistently demonstrated no interest in curbing their own rapacious appetites.  They have consistently used their influence in the media, government and the funding of social science research to not only shape the nature of the discourse, but to shape our collective values.

Our hope doesn’t lie with our leaders, Dr. Rees, or in looking to a few elites who can provide the needed “supra-instinctual survival strategies.”  As people living in the wealthiest of nations, we may have, as Dr. Rees suggests, sunk to our lowest selves, become lost and destructive, plundering the planet while drowning in our sea of “stuff.”  But this is simply a perverse and pervasive cultural meme promulgated by a powerful and influential oligarchy.

It is now time for careful thinkers to propose an alternative view of what it means to be fully human.  We may need to look outside The First World for new insights and broader understandings.

What we need are constant reminders in every media, school, and community throughout the world of another way of being.  Bullying and the acceptance of violence as a “natural human state” cannot be tolerated.  We have within us, the very innate altruistic qualities needed to work our way back to that simpler, communally-focused way of life– the 75% reduction that Dr. Rees said was possible–that will bring us back to our senses.  It is happening already.

Locally.  Methodically.  Little by little.  Step-by-step.


*Amy White’s artwork can be found at

**Richard Heinberg has done an excellent job of charting the pathways of growth in his book: The End of Growth