Saying Goodbye to Tomorrow.

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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.

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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.

The Psychology of Scientists… Telling the Rest of Us about Our World

If science is going to fully serve its societal mission in the future, we need to both encourage and equip the next generation of scientists to effectively engage with the broader society in which we work and live.

– Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

You know “them” don’t you? “They” are the people who are going to “fix it.” The scientists, technology wizards, engineers, and mathematicians.

They’ve all highly intelligent.  They’ve studied trig, calculus, biology, genetics, physics, cosmology, geology, astronomy, and chemistry. They take courses in thermodynamic, quantum mechanic, biochemistry, bioengineering, nuclear and radio-chemistry. They were the kids, a generation ago, who were called “nerds” in high school, that turned from “ugly duckling” to “swan” in adulthood, at least in social status.

No more.

We’re eager for them to announce “groundbreaking discoveries.”

But  it turns out that biologists and physicists at top research universities, fear that we don’t have the language, the capacity, or the interest to hear them……… and they don’t have the work incentives, the capacity to “keep it simple stupid,” or the time to tell us [1].

Study on Elite Scientists Describes a Complex Social Role

Ten percent of scientific respondents in one study mentioned having technical language barriers in reaching out. The vocabulary that scientists are accustomed to using to describe their work is largely unfamiliar to the layperson.

Take  this course description for a class in micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS). While some of my scientific readers can translate, even the course description doesn’t help most of us understand it:

 It teaches fundamentals of micro- and nanofabrication techniques, including hard and soft lithography techniques, thin-film fabrication, and etching techniques. Other topics include methods and tools for imaging submicron structures and devices. Applications of MEMS technologies and related BioMEMS are discussed. Local students use research fabrication facilities to build simple MEMS structures and to image them.

The general public may have no idea how to build or  ‘image’ “simple MEMS structures,” but they might be confident that anyone who can do it, or  grasp The Planck constant,* ( also called Planck’s constant ), is likely to be able to help solve the mess we’re facing!

As a biology graduate student in this study explained, unfamiliar vocabulary is only part of the problem.  Scientists have to make sure that the way the concept is described is accessible to the audience: “This sounds mean, but you dumb it down a little bit. And I don’t mean to make that sound bad, but necessarily so.

One physicist thought the public’s attitude toward–and acceptance of–science would improve if more individuals in the public (starting in grade school) had the opportunity to simply interact with scientists, but how do you make it understandable, in order to keep a layperson’s interest?

Say you’re a theoretical physicist attempting explain your work to the public.

Part of your work involves String Theory, and to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity, in order to possibly have a contender for a theory of everything (TOE)–which is a self-contained mathematical model that describes all fundamental forces and forms of matter.  How long would it take you to simply spell it out so anyone could get it?  A day?  An hour?

Allan Adams, a theoretical physicist, describes what he does for a living in 30 seconds in the PBS Nova TV series (online):  The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.  Watch it below:

His excitement, his enthusiasm, even his range of knowledge demonstrated in this his 90 second “10 Questions” section are equally infectious. No wonder people are counting on you, Allan, to help us out of this mess!  And to be able to explain what you’re doing, as well!

No Hope for the Rest of Us?

Yet, according to this important study, a quarter of these elite scientists themselves have little hope in being able to stir interest and excitement  in science. [1]  One quarter thought it would be an uphill battle to do outreach to the public. Seventy percent express a perception of public ignorance, while 30 percent blame a disinterest in science.   Others believed that the public views scientists as “snobby intellectuals making a judgment on high.”

Yet that perception might change  when you watch Microbiologist/Professional Wrestler Rachel Collins toss back her green locks and spit green “mist” at you shouting:

“I am your soul’s tormentor!!!!!

(Her work involves bacteria and antibiotics).

During  a Ring of Honor TV taping, she heard the chant ‘we love science!!’ from the crowd.”

Perhaps Rachel is a bit of a special case…

Scientists are  frustrated with a public that doesn’t appreciate “science broadly,” and is detached from academic science in particular.

They see the public as simply apathetic, or even opposed to learning about science and the scientific process. But Gen X’er like Katharine Hayhoe bridges both worlds as both an Evangelical Christian, and a climate change advocate.  She’s one of the “trustables,” that I’ll be talking about in an upcoming post: a person who is believed, because she is known and trusted.

The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers depicts scientists and engineers as real people the public can relate to; real people we or our children might want to grow up to be.  Why isn’t there more of this?

Why do only 5 % of the most active public scientists do half of all outreach to the public? [2]

The Dreaded “Sagan Effect” [3]

I think that people look down on the popularizer, and I think that’s a real big mistake personally. I think that popularizers are important, and being able to explain stuff to the public is really important. And so I don’t think we should, you know, denigrate those people at all [laughs].

The Sagan Effect is the attitude that scientists who spend time publicizing their research to the public, consequently have less time available for rigorous scientific research. Some scientists fear what their colleagues might say about them if they are seen to be mere “popularizers” like Sagan. They may also be concerned about the professional stigma attached to spending too much time translating one’s research to the broader public.

Some respondents view outreach as a misuse of their valuable time (they work 59 hours a week)– time that could be better spent on research. There is a widespread belief that “going public” would be detrimental to career advancement or prestige, so they limit the dissemination of research findings to peer-reviewed journals  They are worried that to “dumbed-down” science will reflect badly on them. They also feel little institutional assistance or approval for outreach programs, and don’t have the knowledge about how to do it, or the time to find out.

About 21 percent of respondents in this same study engage in science outreach efforts that target the general public– activities such as giving public lectures or writing science books for non-specialists. Another 6 percent aim their outreach at another specific group, for example, those in the private investment sector.

Others, want to see the emergence of a new, iconic figurehead, someone who wouldn’t be impacted by collegial criticism and who might lead nationwide scientific outreach efforts. “Someone like a Nobel laureate” as the study quoted one scientist, who is well respected by both the scientific community and the general public.

Tongue-Tied By Science!

Some researchers argue that scientists believe they lack personal communication skills, or confidence in their abilities to do outreach.  Some worry they might actually damage the public’s perception of science if they engage in outreach activities.

Twenty-nine percent of all respondents on one study say that scientists are poor interpersonal communicators (or that non-scientists see them as inept, regardless of their actual abilities.) The study quoted one male biologist as saying:

“I’m not sure you want most of the people that I know here to go out and try to talk to the public. They’re [the public] gonna say ‘stop spending my tax dollars on this person!’”

Yet only two respondents (2 percent of the sample) suggested training scientists how to be better communicators.

What do Scientists Say about Their Lives?

So this extensive study describes these elite scientists as somewhat reluctant and ambivalent communicators to the general public.  In future posts I’ll review the literature that attempts to answer the following questions:

  • What do scientists think about their careers and family lives?
  • What are the psychological burdens of being counted among the elite vanguard advancing scientific knowledge?
  • What do these scientists and engineers think about their work /personal life balance?
  • What are the spousal challenges particular to elite scientists and engineers?
  • And how does having children change the way they decide to engage with the rest of us?

Join me, as I discuss the implications of this fascinating and revealing research project .

 

 

* The  Planck constant is a physical constant reflecting the sizes of energy quanta in quantum mechanics.

[1] Ecklund EH, James SA, Lincoln AE (2012) How Academic Biologists and Physicists View Science Outreach. PLoS ONE 7(5):e36240. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036240

[2] Jensen P, Rouquier JB, Kreimers P, Croissant Y (2008) Scientists connected with society are more active academically. Science and Public Policy 35(7): 527–541.

[3] Shermer MB (2002) The view of science: Stephen Jay Gould as historian of science and scientific historian, popular scientist and scientific popularizer. Social Studies of Science 32: 489–524.

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

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.

Resources:

http://www.save.org/

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

 

 

How to Win Friends and Detain People

The Kubark Interrogation Manual CIA 1963                                         

In 1963, the CIA fielded an Interrogation manual designed to help their agents secure confessions and actionable intelligence from prisoners. It was de-classified in 2004.

From the Kubark Manual:

“The CIA structures its non-coercive interrogations in four main parts, loosely corresponding to each section of Dale Carnegie’s book.  The influence techniques promoted by Dale Carnegie and perfected by the CIA have and upgraded by a wide variety of industries……..

Why did the CIA embrace Dale Carnegie? Simple.  They looked at the contemporary American Industry of 1963 and recognized that professional salesmanship was  incredibly effective.

“…..to induce disorientation, regression, transference and compliance…Specialists in larger businesses like retailing, marketing, and, perhaps, automobile sales have learned to systematize the tools of the hand-to-hand coercer for more effective use. Today,car salesmen work from prepared scripts that are revised and improved based on our increasing resistance to their methodology.  It amounts to a tactical war between America and its automotive industry.  Douglas Rushkoff Coercion

And it was a war that in 1963 the automotive industry was winning.  But why were car salesmen in particular such powerful closers that the CIA would take notice?

“While traveling salesmen and government operatives depend on their own limited experiences and the insights of psychologists, car dealers are the beneficiaries of corporate sponsored research. It’s a big business one that dwarfs mechanical bed salesmen and counter-espionage agents alike.

The millions of us who have been through the car-buying process serve as the massive experimental sample on which the system is refined. If too many of us learn to resist a particular technique, that method is re-worked and then camouflaged into a new one.”  Douglas Rushkoff Coercion

” How to Win Friends and Influence People “ was one of the most influential books of all time. It not only helped salesmen sell cars, it helped Spooks crack detainees without torture.

But if coercion was necessary…..even that process had an oddly humane regime of psychological manipulation.

Kubark Again:

“One subjective reaction often evoked by coercion is a feeling of guilt. Meltzer ( consulting psychologist?) observes:

“In some lengthy interrogations, the interrogator may, by virtue of his role as sole supplier of satisfaction and punishment, assume the stature and importance of a parental figure in the prisoner’s feeling and thinking. Although there may be intense hate for the interrogator, it is not unusual for warm feelings to develop. The ambivalence is the basis for guilt reactions, and the interrogator nourishes these feelings, the guilt may be strong enough to influence the prisoner’s behavior…..guilt makes compliance more likely.'”

Ah…..1963.  It was a great year for hungry car salesmen, humane CIA guilt-tripping  interrogators,……….and a Golden Horde of consulting psychologists.

 

Killer Planet Asteroids and Other Distraction

There are certain fears people hold that I have no interest in worrying about.

My husband told me tonight about two asteroids that are coming at us:  Asteroid 2000-PN9 and Apophis.  The first is expected March 10th.  For Apophis, there is a one in 233 chance it will hit us in 2029, according to NASA.  Either could  be a “planet killer.”

He showed me a space graph showing just how “close” it could come.

I took statistics, and I know about scale.  I asked him how close 2000-PN9 actually is, in a measure I could understand.  He said it was 45 moon distances away.  I know this is talking from complete ignorance, but:

That’s far enough away for me.”

No, I didn’t want to watch the live animation on Youtube.  No, I don’t want you to read me the details, or mark my location compared to where it’s likely to hit. I especially don’t want to listen to the New Age ramblings about it.

And I won’t be outside watching on March 10th.

He was upset at my antagonism and lack of concern.  I asked over and over:

“And then what?”

“It could destroy the Earth!”

and again I repeated “And then what?”

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I’ve read the series of novels where the asteroid hit the moon and knocked it closer to Earth.  I know the novelistic version of that sort of doom.  But given all the problems we have right here, right now, I don’t want to fund an Asteroid Star Wars plan. Or a space ship to launch myself up in, until things calm down.

Sometimes, you just have to say “Uncle” and succumb.

Planet Killer Asteroids will defeat me.  I’m sure of it.

I also don’t worry about alien invasions, abductions, or body snatchings.  I don’t mock people who do, (well, sort of, I do) but it just isn’t ‘close to my heart,’ when there are so many other pressing things on the current world’s agenda.

Like the killer cost of food worldwide.

And pressing things on my own personal agenda.

Like the 5-figure tax bill that comes due in April.

I know it sounds disrespectful to him, but I think his focus is in the wrong place.  Or maybe he has too much time on his hands.

The curious thing is that I know this is the way many spouses feel about their partner’s interest in Peak Oil.  “Why do you care about Peak Oil when you haven’t even fixed the lawn mower yet?” “Why not be as worried about helping our kids “prepare” for college?

This isn’t a long post, because I’m on my way to bed, but I do want to ask:

  • What don’t you worry about, that others do?
  • Do planet killers keep you awake at night?
  • Why is Peak Oil “closer to your heart” than other catastrophic dangers?

He wanted me to show you a picture of the 2029 Asteroid.  Doesn’t it look like a potato that’s still in your basement from last fall??

Earth.

Done in by a giant planet-killing potato.

Poetic.

 

P.S.  DH says I’m being “mean” writing this post because he isn’t “really worried about it,” he’s just “fascinated” by it, in a “healthy way.”

I have no comment.

How to Be Maladaptive: Fourteen Tips for Mental Activities Guaranteed to Enhance your Misery during Bad Times

Those who learn about Peak Oil, climate change, and economic hard times show a series of short-lived symptoms of stress over several months, but these are normal and expected reactions to these stunning findings.  Roughly 50-60% of adults in North America are exposed to traumatic events, but only 5% to 10% develop maladjusted PTSD and related problems.  What sorts of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors promote the development of longer-term traumatic reactions? Read on:

1. Mess with your sense of agency:

Put yourself into double-binds where you are either totally responsible for everything that happens to you or totally helpless to modify the course of events.

“I’m Totally Responsible!”

If you choose this route, you should entertain any and all thoughts that suggest your culpability and negligence or that will intensify your feelings of guilt and shame: “I should never have gotten into so much debt! What could I have been thinking?!? I am such a loser!”

Let others in on your asinine behavior, prepping them with lines such as “wasn’t that really stupid of me?”  Choose people (such as those who hate debt) who will be more than happy to assist you in believing that you are, indeed, a loser, lazy or stupid. Their help will reinforce your thinking, making this a particularly easy option to accomplish.

“I have no control!”

Or, if you prefer to be totally helpless, repeat “I have no control over anything,” whenever you begin to feel a sense of direction, possibility, or purpose. This should be repeated like a mantra.  “I have no control over anything. I have no control over my feelings or thoughts. I have no control over my actions. I have no control over (fill in the blank.)”  Focus on ignoring the basics that are most impactful to people right after a disaster, such as food, water, shelter, coordinating the reunification with loved ones, and health care supplies.  Don’t think out possible outcomes, alternatives, and the like.  Remain as ignorant as possible to the areas of control you do have.

2. Perfect your paranoia:

Don’t let down your guard! Be hyper-vigilant, ruminating, and brooding.

There are two versions of this option you can choose from, depending on your natural bent. The first is the milder form and involves entertaining thinking that goes against countervailing wisdom just BECAUSE it is contrary.  Act counter to expert advice, even in cases when it agrees with your own best evaluation. Then, worry that you aren’t doing anything constructive.  Repeat.
The second version is for the more hard-core. This involves monitoring the “doomer news” multiple times every day and searching for deeper “meanings” or patterns in past and current events that will help you uncover the “why” questions for which there are no satisfactory answers. As an adjunct to this, continually share your most outlandish theories with family, friends, and strangers, especially during times of intense conflict and stress between you. Be sure to talk as fast as possible, as loudly as possible, as insistently as possible, and connect every conversation back to your theories. Be single-minded.
As Churchill reminded us:  A fanatic is someone who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.
Emulate this.
As your family, friends, and acquaintances begin to avoid you, tie this in as evidence of their involvement in the conspiracy or blame it on their utter “sheeple-ness.”  Feel free to share this opinion with them.

3. Focus on the personal “unfairness” of the situation:

Make yourself the victim:

“I’m a walking target!” “Other people have it better than I do. Why is my life so much worse than everybody else’s?” “Why do I have to have problems other people don’t have to have?” “What did I do to deserve this?”  “Why me?”  “Why now?”

Look at others whose situations appear better than yours and envy or blame them. “That jackass! He’s an idiot! What did he do to deserve a doomer retreat in the hills and a Prius while here I am stuck in a crappy suburb driving a gas-guzzling SUV?” You have to be capable of lots of self-deception to do this one well; rationality is your enemy.  If they have no retirement accounts, resent them that they’ve got nothing to lose if the market crashes.  “Ya, sure.  It is easy for them.  They’ve never had anything to lose, so what do they care!”

If you have ever engaged in sports or watched them on TV, you will have incorporated the winners and losers mentality, the competitive drive, which will assist you in this endeavor. Just feel your “Inner Loser;” this will motivate you to feel victimized, because after all, we all want and deserve to be winners.

Believe nothing positive will result from the experience.

4. Assume you are worthless or incompetent:

Emphasize how incapable you are of dealing with the new reality and how you can’t rely on yourself for anything. Reiterate over and over that you have no skills and couldn’t, for example, grow a garden if your life depended on it (and when you realize your life does depend on it, go on to Number 5).

Believe that anything you do to try to mitigate the effect of hard times will be inadequate, wrong-headed, and counterproductive.  See yourself as continually vulnerable and dwell on how your inability to cope will bring you and your family to the brink of utter destruction and beyond.

Reject any attempts at goal-setting as fruitless and if you do make a “Goal, Plan, Do, Check” approach, lose the list or don’t follow through with it.

5. Engage in “head in the sand” behavior:

Persistently pine for the days when you were ignorant of what was coming and believe that this ignorance was bliss.

Better yet, refuse to believe any evidence of current financial, cultural, political, or environmental degradation or devolution. When you have to come up for air, be sure to keep your eyes and ears covered; after all, as long as you can’t see or hear it, it is not a reality in your world.  TV is safe to watch, even the nightly news.

6. Don’t allow yourself to feel bad:

Instead, medicate stress

Drugs, alcohol, sleep, or lots of ice cream (or chocolate, if you prefer) and any other avoidant behaviors you can devise. Then, assume that you are overreacting to the stress that everyone else is effectively coping with better than you. Use more drugs, alcohol, sleep, and sweets to keep yourself from feeling bad about that.  You will have bought into a perfect circle of feeling bad, self-medicating, feeling bad, self-medicating…

Ignore relaxation-based interventions such as controlled breathing techniques or mindfulness strategies that have proven to be effective.  Ignore your ‘body wisdom.’

7. Focus on what other people think of you:

Be preoccupied with their opinions of you and be sure to assume the worst.

If there are people in your life who think well of you, you must discount their opinions, cut them short, reject a  complement, look down, and walk away with a scowl. It should be obvious they either don’t know you very well or they aren’t very bright. If they do know you well and they are bright, assume you have hidden the worst from them. Focus on the people in your life who you imagine think badly about you; hyper-focus on them. Then, be angry or rejecting toward them for what you imagine they must be thinking.  As you acquire more evidence for their negative opinions, obsess even more.  And, finally, allow what you imagine they think of you to dictate your behavior, so that you are acting counter to your own intuitions and truths. This will help to divorce you from your internal beacon of what is right or wrong and will  cause you to flounder about in indecision and confusion. It will cause you to distrust yourself. It will also help to deaden you emotionally.

8. Project future doom:

No matter how bad things get, always assume the worst is yet to come.

If you still have a job, imagine joblessness.  If you still have family who love you, imagine their death or abandonment. If you are hungry, imagine starvation will soon kill you. If you are cold, assume you’ll freeze to death.

This is the slippery slope option. Climb up and start on down.  Make no distinction between “then and there” and “here and now.”  Overgeneralize.   Assume an endless state of doom, a huge on-going collapse that will keep you in a permanent state of terror.   See yourself as the father in the movie “The Road” who never reaches the coast. Imagine not only what might happen, but how you will be particularly susceptible, vulnerable, AND helpless to impact it.  Don’t try to rein in your imaginings; really let yourself go.  Share these flights of fantasy with your nearest and dearest, especially those with tender sensitivities. This will hasten your abandonment and bring you evidence that you are right. And it is always nice to be proven correct.

9. Convince yourself that you are on your own:

Assume no one is safe, predictable, or trustworthy, especially those closest to you.

Include your spouse, relatives, and best friends. Better yet, assume that everyone is acting against your best interests. Give no one the benefit of the doubt. Twist something you overheard into a damaging accusation of you. Be courageous in your convictions. If  you can find no bad intentions or untrustworthiness, you can at least  believe that everyone around you is stupid and/or ignorant and makes bad decisions, so that you would be unsafe if you followed their ideas or advice. I mean, chances are excellent that those closest to you are incompetent and worthless, since they are associating with you, so that makes it doubly imperative that you rely on no one but yourself. And, I know there must be some people of your close acquaintance who are moody, volatile, changeable, and just flat out wacky. Assume you must come up with all the answers by yourself, must do all the work yourself, are all alone in the midst of a maelstrom with no anchor.

Ignore those who have survived hard times and don’t listen to their accounts of how they felt and what they did to survive.  Grieve and memorialize in private, assuming no one could possibly help you by engaging in social problem-solving or exploring meaning.

10. Be vigilant against change:

Believe nothing good will come from any attempt to improve any situation.

Counteract any thought that there could be positive benefits from making changes by projecting even worse outcomes for those actions. Be vigilant. Vigilance in this instance implies rigidity. Stand unbending; do not sway in the breeze like a tree. Rigidity means not just rigidity of posture; it means not just rigidity of action; it also means rigidity of thought. Keep your same beliefs, your same opinions, your same values, your same routines, your same activities, your same skills, your same abilities regardless of what changes in your outer world. After all, those changes are always for the worst, aren’t they? You’ve got plenty of evidence for that; just marshal your data and start spouting.  It follows, does it not…that change is a bad idea in ALL instances? Rigidity is the way of the vigilant future warrior who makes war against the future.

11. Be guided by meaninglessness:

Believe that life has lost all meaning and value.

Most of us have some family or cultural history, and some have religious faith to bolster our self-confidence.  Reject these as meaningless to the situation at hand.  Assume your higher power has rejected you. Wallow in depressive “What’s the use?” thoughts while lying on your bed and staring at the mottled ceiling. Count the cobwebs in the corners. When your loved ones try to roust you out of bed, tell them to  leave you alone; fight with them; drive them away. If you are of a studious inclination, read Nietzsche; embrace nihilism; throw out your moral principles; lose faith in everything. Or, alternatively, if you haven’t got the energy to give up, watch TV.  The twin goals of propaganda and distraction will dull you. Embrace shallowness, and allow meaninglessness to permeate your environment and your thinking.

12. Perfect the fine art of blame:

Whenever anything bad happens, don’t waste your time trying to come up with solutions; instead, ask whose fault it is.

Blame others by actively targeting your anger. Whose fault is it? The government’s fault?  The oil companies’? The corporations’?  Your employer’s?  Your in-laws’?  Your spouse’s fault?   You can while away many happy hours in this pursuit. Surround yourself with other people who share your villain, so you can reinforce each other’s beliefs.  “Those g-damn mother-f-king sons a-itches! If it weren’t for them, we’d still have a good life. We’d still have jobs; we’d still have houses; we wouldn’t be living in this tent city waiting for the next measly food hand-out.”

But, in the sad event that you can find no one else to blame, turn your hand around and point your finger at yourself; at least that way, you can feel guilt, shame, and humiliation and won’t lose out entirely. Whatever you do, don’t plan to take any action or cause any trouble.  Just complain.  It’s easier and safer.

13. Shun social support:

When facing crises, deny to others that you are experiencing any negative feelings.   Make up weird excuses as to why you are crying, kicking things, refusing to leave your room. If you get on a weirdness loop and stay on it, you will soon feel really crazy, and then you will act crazier, and then you will feel even crazier and, well, you get the picture. Or, alternatively, blurt out your feelings and thoughts without regard to the setting, picking the most unsupportive people to confide in, thus guaranteeing that they will fail to understand or empathize with you.

Cultivate an air of indifference, criticism, and “you’re an idiot” reactions to others. When they act in like manner to you, use that as evidence that you were correct in your loner stance.

Don’t tell your story about what happened to you and how you felt about it.  Assume you have nothing to learn from others and nothing to offer them.

14. Control every emotion & thought or none of them:

Actively attempt to control all unwanted thoughts either by dissociation, suppression, by engaging in repetitive undoing behaviors, or through magical thinking.  Alternatively, lose it emotionally.

Think positively no matter how negative the situation may seem. Let nothing less than perfect sunshine enter your consciousness. Use addictive substances, if necessary, to paint reality with a rosy glow; stick with your normal routine even though, by any objective standards, it has become irrelevant; continue to believe nothing bad can happen as long as you don’t believe it can.  Assume you are going crazy if you are unable to dissociate, suppress, or otherwise keep at bay these unwanted thoughts. At all costs, refuse to think about the possibility of lack of abundance, discomfort, deprivation, insecurity, pain, disease, or the death of yourself or a loved one.

Refuse to come to terms with any aspect of reality; this might lead to living in the here and now and enjoying the time you have, which is certainly not maladaptive behavior and, therefore, cannot be allowed.

If you can’t control all of your thoughts and emotions, try to control none of them.  Model emotional dis-regulation.  Laugh hysterically; then, cry pitifully.  Demand attention for no real reason. Make a nuisance out of yourself by taxing everyone’s patience and then crying out “Everybody’s mad at me!” Freak out under pressure, lose it over the slightest difficulty. (“We’re all going to DIE!)  Refuse to accept what is right in front of you and show little tolerance for things not being perfect.  Focus on the past or the future, but don’t focus on what is immediately in front of you.  When things begin to calm down, stir them up again by doing dangerous or thrill-seeking or sensation-seeking actions because “nothing matters anyway…”

But if you aren’t really into being miserable…

In a real crisis, survivors keep their heads while other people are losing theirs.  They set important personal goals and take incremental, purposeful actions to achieve them.  They not only offer help to other people, but they seek help themselves when they need it.  They engage in acts of kindness, connect with others, and don’t reject help.  They tell themselves they can get through it, while acknowledging full well that they may not make it.  They believe in themselves.  They see all experience as offering them something they can learn from.  They aren’t afraid to look at awful feelings, the worst in themselves, and still believe in the best they have to offer.  They actively prepare themselves for what they can realistically do, and prepare to the best of their abilities, incrementally.  They aren’t afraid of change, because they accept that it it inevitable.  They savor daily pleasures that they never knew were valuable before the disaster.  They see the disaster as having unexpected benefits like bringing people closer, accepting responsibility for other people, recognizing their personal limitations, and how things could have been worse than they turned out to be.  What is important to them changes.  They see new possibilities and goals to work on.  They learn about strengths they never knew they had, and chose life instead of death.  They don’t see themselves as ‘victims,’ and they don’t expect other people to rescue them.  They see their survival as having a purpose, and accept the responsibility to keep alive the memories and stories of those who did not make it.  They don’t see themselves as heroes or villains even when they did heroic or less than positive things.  They can put to words or in some other form of expression what happened to them without minimizing or hiding important parts.  They have learned how to be compassionate with themselves as well as others.  Their religious beliefs have been strengthened, not weakened, and they appreciate their lives more than ever before.

Footnote:  Donald Meichenbaum, professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, wrote a great article  on resilience in children and adults facing traumatic situations.  This post owes major credit from his section “A Constructive Narrative Perspective of Persistent PTSD.”

Gulf of Mexico: Oily Affairs

The Gulf of Mexico (GOM) is a Mediterranean-type sea, and the eleventh largest body of water in the world.  It’s about as large as the area between New York City and Birmingham, Alabama.  It would take you 14.3 hours to drive end to end, at 65 miles per hour, if it were a land body.  The oil pumped out of the GOM (and captured) sucks out the gasoline to drive a car that distance in less than a tiny fraction of a second. In fact, you could drive to the equator on the amount of gas you’d get from the GOM in 3.9 seconds.

Birds, fish, turtles, and other marine mammals are referred to as “motile resources,”  to those who study the area for the U.S. gov’t.  The more we look into the deepest part of the GOM, the more fascination we have with what we find.  This octopus is equally interested in the equipment we use to study life down there.  Expansive deepwater coral habitats have only recently been discovered and studied in the GOM.

It is also a focus of archeological research into Paleo-Indian remains.

We have divided the “deep water” areas of the GOM into 21 sections, and outlined, in the sections we know about, which areas have to be left alone, and which can be drilled.  Oil and gas rigs are  huge floating platform structures on the water that form “the largest de facto artificial reef system in the world.” That’s because when oil companies are finished with these huge structures, they sink them.  Drainage into the Gulf of Mexico is extensive, and includes 20 major river systems covering over 3.8 million square kilometers of the continental United States (Moody, 1967). Annual freshwater inflow to the Gulf is approximately 10.6×1011 m3 per year (280 trillion gallons). 85% of this flow comes from the United States, with 64% originating from the Mississippi River alone.  You can also call it the largest garbage dump in America. Even before the recent Deepwater crisis,  agricultural waste is flowing in from the Mississippi River at such an alarming rate that it continues to create “dead zones.”  “The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,” and all of that.

Water enters the Gulf through the Yucatan Strait, circulates as the Loop Current, and exits through the Florida Strait eventually forming the Gulf Stream. Portions of the Loop Current often break away forming eddies or ‘gyres’ which affect regional current patterns.  Think of the GOM as a Jacuzzi, that has a deeper center.  We tend to think about the deepest parts of the seas like a desert, but in fact, it has a broader array of fauna than the shallower parts.  They’ve learned how to adjust to living without light.  The deepest sections also collect carbon garbage that could well impact things like animal mating seasons that are controlled by seasonal carbon levels.  In the old days, when ships were made of wood and sank, scavengers and wood borers made quick work out of eating them at very deep levels.  Don’t ask me what the new “sunking ships” are made of because they aren’t “ships” at all, but oil and gas rig “platforms” and we’re sinking them on purpose when we’re finished with them.  “Artificial reef systems,” indeed.

There are nearly 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the GOM.

The largest, Petronius, measures 64 meters (210 ft) by 43 meters (141 ft) or 29,626 sq. ft for each of its 2 decks, or approximately 24 multi-storied McMansions.  For all that nature stuff, the GOM is really a natural gas and oil field disguised as an ocean.

While scientists tell us that oil “seeps” exist, and can actually be larger than any man-made disaster,  it appears to happen slowly enough so that oil-eating fauna grow up around the cracks in the ocean floor and consume it.  What remains of the seepage is initially the methane and hydrocarbons that float and evaporate into the air, and the remaining residual sinks to the ocean’s bottom.

Man-made spills take a long time to disappear.  There are many theories why, but, for example, the Exxon Valdez Oil disaster is still hanging around 20 years later.  One theory is that micro-organisms may need other nutrients to be able to consume the oil and may not be getting enough nitrogen, phosphorus or oxygen in order to do that. Or, perhaps, a layer or sort of “skin” may have developed around the oil patches, making them impenetrable by the micro-organisms. It might also be the cold climate.  And the oil today  “…is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.”

When we really poison our ecosystem massively, we create “massive mortalities,” but there are also “sub-lethal effects” that are harder to blame on one toxic polluter.  For the 75,000 dolphins that live in the GOM, we’re arguing about whether that oil dumping is killing them quickly or slowly, or if its the oil killing them at all.  The six dead dolphins that showed up on the shore could be “unrelated” to the oil spill, because dead dolphin show up there this time of year. 
Kill “Flipper” and you have a major media fiasco on top of a major media fiasco on your hands.  People, unfortunately for BP, don’t usually get headaches this time of year, so they can blame the headaches on the oil smells.

And can we really believe that only now have scientists just thought to look under the water for signs of oil?

Framing this disaster as only impacting tourism and fisheries is as crazy as any of the following:

  • To family who’s dog has died:  “Sorry to hear about that, Jill, especially after you just wasted $25 buying that 30 lb bag of dog food.”
  • To husband who’s wife just died:  “Geepers, Frank, I guess if you want sex anytime soon, you’ll have to hit the bars like the rest of us.”
  • To Tsunami survivors:  “Look at it this way, Ploy, you won’t have to worry about washing your rugs now.”
  • To tornado survivors:  “Hey, it might be a blessing in disguise.  What about that town that lost everything, and is now building “green?”

And we are so desperate for good news, that a story in the Wall Street Journal, reported by some “unidentified person” about the success of some “tube insertion” is being widely circulated.  Even BP wouldn’t verified that one, given that top hats and shredded tennis balls didn’t work.

We’re dropping dispersant called Corexit 9500 and Corexit EC9527A, also known as deodorized kerosene.  But wait!  Isn’t kerosene made from hydrocarbons?  Fight fire with fire!!!

With respect to marine toxicity and potential human health risks, studies of kerosene exposures strongly indicate potential health risks to volunteers, workers, sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles and all species which need to surface for air exchanges, as well as birds and all other mammals.

That’s a quote from a lawyer representing the United Fishermen’s Association and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), among others (because dolphins don’t write checks).  He continues: “Additionally, I have considered marine species which surface for atmospheric inhalation such as sea turtles, dolphins and other species which are especially vulnerable to aspiration toxicity of Corexit 9500 into the lung while surfacing.”  He just said that because Flipper died.  But hey, the good news is that the oil “spill” didn’t kill them.
Besides, you guys, Corexit is made by Nalco, and they were once jointly owned by Exxon and BP, so you know it has to be good. The CEO’s have even strongly endorsed their product over a less harmful alternative by claiming emphatically it’s “pretty effective.” It was made by oil companies for oil companies, which is more than you can say for the competition. Dispersit is half as toxic, but when it’s produced by some no-name U.S. Polychemical Corp, how can you be sure you are doing the right thing when you are dumping 60,000 gallons a day? Okay, so cleanup workers suffered health problems afterward, including blood in their urine and assorted kidney and liver disorders, but that was the old formula. Hey guys, when are you going to learn to trust? Now, Nalco is owned by Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, the international water treatment specialist, providing “pay as you drink” water services in over 100 countries. They not only can pollute the water, they can clean it too. They are the second largest manager of municipal systems in the United States.

If tube inserts don’t work, nuke the pipe (and everything in the GOM).  Hey, it worked for the Russians, didn’t it?  Meanwhile, President O. scares us all when he threatens: “I will not tolerate more finger pointing or irresponsibility.” That should snap BP execs to their senses.  Are TPTB losing it, or not?  As the excellent, soon to be released comedy “How to Boil A Frog” has said, “It’s a war against nature because nature does not care!”

Yes, we’ll keep drilling down there, and anywhere else we can find a drop of the black stuff, and yes, we’ll continue to have major messes that will never make headline news if it isn’t in wealthier (for now) countries where we take things like eating fish and seafood and vacationing on pristine beaches very seriously.  But, because oil companies are going to have to conjure up crisis-cost containment, not to mention funding a PR miracle, they will make sure we’ll be paying a lot more for it.

Perhaps the best any of us can do is say NIMBY again and again to drilling, and to tons of tankers floating by us carrying crude, or any other effort to frame what just happened in the GOM as “unfortunate but unavoidable.”  Car-pool, if you have to, but bring out your boats, schooners, mini-yahts (you too, D.O.) and row-boats and float along shouting “We love the oil in our tanks, but on the sea it’s wicked RANK!”  I’ll be there, in British Columbia, shouting on a schooner, you can betcha, because I love shellfish, beaches, and Flipper too.

Something’s in the Air

by Chuck Willis

Okay, I know it is spring, but just humor me for a bit.

Several weeks ago, my sister-in-law sent my wife some soap she bought at a craft fair and my wife remarked how unique it smelled and handed it to me to take a sniff. Immediately I recognized that it was a smell from my childhood, but couldn’t quite identify what it was. After several days it came to me that the smell was a particular brand of cold cream that my mother used.

I then thought about when it is the first chilly night of fall, and we get a whiff of smoke in the house, I step outside and find that a neighbor has started his first fire of October in the fireplace, a familiar smell that I haven’t experienced for 6 or 7 months, but certainly identifiable. Several years ago, we had a whiff of smoke in the house in November, and I did my ritual of stepping outside, only this time the smoke wasn’t one that I had smelled before. Its origin was a fire somewhere, but what and where? It turned out that a store about 2 blocks over from us was in the process of burning to the ground. I had smelled smoke from all kinds of fires in my lifetime, but that time was different.

So what does my sense of smell have to do with the Peak Oil Blues site? Well I “smell” something different in the air this spring, a “smell” I should have experienced before with all the economic recessions I have lived (and sweated) through over the last 6 decades. That I “smell” something different in the air now, in and of itself, is not all that important. What is important is that I am hearing from people all over the country who are perplexed, saying this recession is not like any they have ever experienced, they “smell” something is different. There seems to be a underlying unease when I interact with the folks these days. I think in psychology it is called a free floating anxiety.

Rising Blood Pressure

Three weeks ago, my wife went to our family physician because her blood pressure was all over the chart. The blood pressure medication she had taken for nearly 35 years didn’t seem to be working anymore. He prescribed a different medication, which seems to be working. He made a casual comment at the end of her appointment that caught my attention. He said that she wasn’t alone in having her blood pressure medication quit being effective. He continued by saying that not only were they seeing a dramatic increase of patients having the same problem locally, there were many articles appearing in the medical publications saying there had been a dramatic increase in people who had their blood pressure medication suddenly stop working during the past 3-4 months. As he went out the door he was wondering what common stress factor was causing so many people to have this reaction.

I think those of us who have been researching the peak oil issue for more than a month or two have a pretty good idea what is making this recession different from all the rest. The populations around the world seem to have a sense of foreboding, along with us, that this time something is different. There seems to be a general stress in peoples’ voices, mannerisms and behaviors.

Now we are picking up a stress in the official pronouncements coming from the government over the last week. First it was the admission that we may have some oil supply issues over the next several years because of the lack of sufficient economic investment in the exploration for fossil fuels. Then two days later, the President suddenly reversed his stand on offshore drilling, and actively encouraged quick exploration. Are the leaders in government starting to realize that they “smell” something unfamiliar in this recession too, and that something may be oil, or the lack thereof?

What happens when the population begins to make the connection between the lack of fossil fuels in the future and the recession of today? All investment is based on a future expectation that the investment over time will have grown larger.

What does this do to your emotional well being when you start to realize that the question is not how large will your investments and retirement grow, but how low will they shrink? When your employer realizes that the question isn’t how big we can become, but how small we have to become to be sustainable, what will that mean to you?

I don’t have the answers to any of these issues, and I wrestle with them several times a week. What I do know, is that we can share our experiences and thoughts on this site as we grapple with these issues. We can gain some insight as to how to make each of us and our families more sustainable going forward, encouraging one another in the process.

Many who eventually realize what makes this recession “smell” so different will try to wrestle this alligator by themselves, and can be severely mauled in the process. By sharing your thoughts and insights on this website and others, each of us can be more capable in handling peak oil and all its ramifications. The old saying “you are either a part of the solution or a part of the problem” is still very true. There will not be a spectator section in the stands on peak oil; all of us will be on the field.

There is something in the air, and it isn’t familiar. Even the main stream media seem to be perplexed as to what all the unease is about. At some point the obvious can’t be ignored. Prepare yourself; lots of charlatans (and politicians) will be selling some form of peak oil repellent and deodorizer to the masses. Know the facts, share your experiences, and be willing to lead, in short, be a part of the solution.

Chuck Willis has spent over thirty years as a contingency planner for a major multinational corporation. He is now retired and a regular contributor to POB.

Hidden History of Cooperation in America

Fewer and fewer people are happily employed, according to Derek Bok, former President of Harvard, in his latest book. The only thing Americans hate more than working is commuting, but when he considers how we can get happier, he suggests doing less of neither. Being an unhappy worker seems to be a normal, natural condition, but is it? Our hidden history of working together says it is not.

Part of the puzzle in figuring out why income alone doesn’t make people jolly can be resolved by examining the active protests that happened when Americans moved from being self-employed to becoming employees. The revolt is part of the hidden history of cooperatives and communialism in America, written in a riveting book by John Curl called “For All the People.” This book goes a long way to answer the question of what people did during times of trouble.

A funny thing happens on the way down the limited resources slide: People get increasingly greedy or people become more cooperative, collective and communal.

Think of it this way: we’d have pretty dumb genes if, in a group of 100 people, we were all looking to be ‘top dog.’ What we truly despise is being ‘bottom dog.’

Wage Slaves
Today, few people understand the meaning of my tee-shirt that reads: “Work is the blackmail of survival.” Today, we understand that “work” means “employment.” This would not have been so two hundred years ago.

For the American living before 1800, a ‘wage slave’ was a mere step removed from an actual slave. To be an employee was one step above indentured servitude. You did it when necessity demanded, but only for as short a period of time as possible, and then returned to become more independent—your own boss.

The story of how we became ‘wage slaves,’ and the multiple revolts against this station, is a fascinating one, and part of our ‘untold history.’

In 1800, few worked as wage-earners. By 1870, over half the workforce were employees; by 1940, over 80% worked for someone else and in 2007, 92% accepted a salary. If increasing wages don’t satisfy us, it is, perhaps, because deep within our souls we recognize the fact that ‘wage slave’ is a ‘low dog’ position, a vulnerable and dependent state.

A wage slave is “someone who feels compelled to work in return for wages in order to survive.” The notion that wage work is coerced by social conditions, and is actually a form of slavery, is a notion that arose early in the transformation of wage-earning, 1836, as women in Lowell became millworkers.

From that point onward, “early American workers planned to accomplish their liberation from wage slavery by substituting for it a system based on cooperative work and by constructing parallel institutions that would supersede the institutions of the wage system.” Curl p.3

By the 1880’s the population had reached 50 million, and by 1886, 1 in 12 wage-earners over 15 years old (1 million) were members of the Knights of Labor. Their goal was not simply to improve working conditions and wages, but “to raise members out of wage slavery entirely.” Opposition to wages took the form of protective and mutual –aid organizations, including unions, cooperatives, and parties.

Farmers Revolt
Farmers were an essential aspect of this movement. After the Civil War, many small farmers:

“…effectively became financial captives to the railroads, middlemen and bankers, with most of their land in mortgage. To fight back the greatest farmer associations of the 19th century—the National Grange in the 1870’s and the Farmers’ Alliance in the late 1880’s—also organized extensive cooperative networks that today would be considered counter-institutional.”

The Farmer’s alliance had “over three million members, opened the first of an extensive network of cooperatives that they planned as the agricultural backbone of a newly structured cooperative economic system.” They were, in the words of historian Michael Schwartz, “the most ambitious counter-institutions ever undertaken by an American protest movement.” Curl, p. 5.

Self-Help Movements
When the Great Depression fell upon the American public, Self-Help organizations sprang up as a “spontaneous mass movement” and became a part of daily life for many people. By the end of 1932, there were self-help organizations in over 37 states with 300,000 members (equivalent to 2.1 million people today). Their work involved direct exchanges of goods and services (partially in cash), cooperative production for sale or trade. The largest group, in Seattle, WA, the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) had twenty-two local commissaries around the city where food and firewood was available for exchange for every type of service and commodity from home repairs to doctors bills. Local farmers gave unmarketable fruits and vegetables over to their members to pick and people gained the right to cut firewood on scrub timberland.

In Pennsylvania, not a jury in the state was willing to convict the 20,000 unemployed miners who formed cooperative teams and trucked out and sold coal on company property. Company police attempting to stop them were met with force.

Today
Today, over 120 million people in the US are members of 48,000 cooperatives, about 40% of the population. Yet, remarkably, there are only 300 worker cooperative businesses.

We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity. The elites have successfully convinced us that we no longer have the capacity to understand the revealed truths presented before us or to fight back against the chaos caused by economic and environmental catastrophe. As long as the mass of bewildered and frightened people, fed images that permit them to perpetually hallucinate, exist in this state of barbarism, they may periodically strike out with a blind fury against increased state repression, widespread poverty and food shortages. But they will lack the ability and self-confidence to challenge in big and small ways the structures of control. The fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that – a fantasy. Chris Hedges

“Worker cooperatives offer a way for people to get out of the boss system entirely, and to reorganize their lives on a different basis. They still offer this today. They proffer group self-employment to people without the resources to start a business alone. They empower their members through internal democracy and increased job security in place of the typical hierarchical command. Cooperatives provide innumerable goods and services at cost. Beyond the benefits to the lives of the individual members, worker cooperatives–and all cooperatives–offer numerous other benefits to community and society.” Curl

Is the rarity of worker cooperatives a natural outcome of global capitalism or was it destroyed by a coordinated effort by those in opposition to this form of business? Read For All People for one answer. One thing is sure: as the price of oil continues to rise, we’ll have decisions to make about how we want to spend our time and provide for our needs.

As we consider the possibilities, we can take heart that we have a long history of rejecting or reluctantly accepting the role of “employee”.

Our Daily Bread
Unable to secure Hollywood-studio backing for his Depression-era agrarian drama Our Daily Bread, director King Vidor financed the picture himself, with the eleventh-hour assistance of Charles Chaplin. It demonstrated this spirit in a fictional rendition called “Our Daily Bread.” This film clip will give you a flavor for the kind of spirit that captured the cooperative movement during the Great Depression here or the entire film here.

If you enjoy that movie, you may want to purchase the film which also contains numerous other shorts about actual cooperatives and environmental damage that contributed to the Great Depression.

Here’s a link.

The revolution has not been televised or written in our history books. It will not be televised or written about in the future, unless we do so. If you want to see change, you have to join others who are collectively making it.
For your own selfish reasons.
For your own collective ends.

*********

My next post questions the notion of the “Selfish Gene.” Are we biologically selfish, or is this a misunderstanding of Dawin’s work on sexual selection? Stay tuned.

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

Abstract:
Could it be that “thinking positively” is contributing to our blindness and inaction around energy issues, environmental degradation and economic devastation? I’ve hammered this point home in a number of posts, the most widely read being “Do You Have a Panglossian Disorder?.” Now, a trenchant social observer provides a clear outline of how that may well be so, elaborating on the ‘dangers of positive thinking.’

Americans are “positive” people.”

So goes the first line of Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

(Metropolitan Books, 2009). This book points out the dark side of optimism. While Americans have crafted and embraced “happiness” ideology, arguing that a positive outlook can lengthen lives and improve health, Ehrenreich examines this “research” and finds its evidence flimsy and motivated more by financial success than scholarly rigor. What function does the evolution of “positive ideology” play in a nation that, even in prosperous times, ranks 23rd in self-reported worldwide happiness? Why do we embrace the ‘happy face’ while swallowing two-thirds of the global market’s supply of antidepressants, making them the most widely prescribed drug in the United States? Are we depressed because we aren’t happy or does the constant demand for happiness lead to depression? To address these questions, the author begins by defining her terms:

Elements of Positive Thinking

While we American citizens believe that an optimistic “can do” attitude is part of our national character, Ehrenreich concludes that being “positive” and maintaining a “positive outlook” is an ideological mandate. She defines “positive thinking” as having two elements:

“One is the generic content of positive thinking—that is, the positive thought itself—which can be summarized as: Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better.” While often confused with hope, optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice, while hope is an emotion, a yearning, and not entirely within our control.

The second meaning of “positive thinking” is the practice, or discipline of trying to think in a positive way. The author points out that researchers on positive thinking aren’t content to argue that positive thoughts lead to happy feelings. Why isn’t it enough to simply “feel happy?” No, the act of “accentuating the positive” must actually lead to happy outcomes. Optimism promises to improve health, heighten personal efficacy, boost confidence, and intensify resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. If you expect things to get better, the argument goes, they will.

While psychologists have attempted to prove this is so, through research, a far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. The explanations may vary, but the message is the same: whether by “reading the relevant books, attending seminars and speeches that offer the appropriate training or just doing the solitary work of concentrating on desired outcomes—a better job, an attractive mate, or world peace” can be ours if we put the effort into learning how to think positively.

A History of Positive Thinking and Modern Links to Consumer Capitalism

Ehrenreich traces the history of positive thinking, from the mavericks that inspired Mary Baker Eddy onto modern day ‘mega-church’ preachers. Dale Carnegie published the first great text on how to act in a positive way in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, and still in print. Born “Carnagey” he changed his name to “Carnegie,” apparently to match that of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie’s book did not assume that his readers would feel happy if they took his advice, but that they could manipulate others to their own advantage by putting on a successful happy act. It was no accident that books like “How to Win Friends” and Napoleon Hill’s book, “Think and Grow Rich” were written and heavily promoted during the last Great Depression, because there was a lot of propaganda about the importance of having a “positive attitude,” a “pleasing personality.” The “right attitude” could overcome the massive structural and economic problems the USA was facing. Then, like now, what’s now thought of as “consumer confidence” would pull the country out of its morass once people “believed” that “prosperity was right around the corner.” We now call the anticipation of this prosperity “green shoots.”

While the early “positive thinkers” were reacting to the harsh judgmentalism of Calvinist thought about sin and damnation, modern day “positive thought police” maintain many of these same rigid features. Ehrenreich still sees the preservation of Calvinism’s more “toxic features—the same harsh judgmentalism, echoing the old religion’s condemnation of sin, and an insistence on the constant interior labor of self-examination.

The American alternative to Calvinism was not to be hedonism or even just an emphasis on emotional spontaneity. To achieve positive thinking, emotions must remain suspect, and one’s inner life subject to relentless monitoring. While the Calvinist searched for signs of laxness, sin and self-indulgence…the positive thinker is ever on the lookout for “negative thoughts” charged with anxiety or doubt.” Such efforts are, according to Ehrenreich, “a form of ‘secular salvation.’”

It is no surprise that “think and grow rich” should blend the notion of positive thought with the accumulation of material wealth. Hundreds of self-help books since the start of positive thinking have talked about how the right thoughts can “attract” money. They’ve also framed practical problems such as world-wide unemployment, low wages, or medical bills as “excuses.” If you can free your mind of the “real” obstacle to wealth—such as the harboring subconscious revulsion for “filthy lucre” or deep resentment/jealousy of the rich, you can have it all. It is not social class or larger institutional structures that limit the average person’s success but “negative self-talk” that impede your progress toward wealth accumulation.

Consumer capitalism is, according to Ehrenreich, “congenial to positive thinking.” It promises that we deserve more, and can have it, if we really want it, and if we are only willing to make the effort to get it. While she agrees that the notion of perpetual growth is absurd, a belief in positive thinking makes ‘having it all’ seem, “possible, if not ordained.” p.8. Think –the right way–and growing rich is yours.

Play-Acting Happiness to Happiness as a Predisposition

Happy shoppers, according to Les Slater, spend up to 20% more, and therefore one avenue to making customer’s happy is to have happy salespeople.

During the last Great Depression, workers were expected to ‘fake it ‘til they make it.’ Today, it is no longer enough to simply act happy. Employers now expect their workers to be happy. A reader of Ehrenreich’s work wrote to her about her experience working at a call center for Home Depot:

“I worked there for about a month when my boss pulled me into a small room and told me I “obviously wasn’t happy enough to be there.” Sure, I was sleep deprived from working five other jobs to pay for private health insurance that topped $300 a month and student loans that kicked in at $410 a month, but I can’t recall saying anything to anyone outside the line of “I’m happy to have a job.” Plus, I didn’t realize anyone had to be happy to work in a call center. My friend…refers to [simulating happiness] as the kind of feeling you might get from getting a hand job when your soul is dying.” p. 54.

Happiness: From State to Trait

“You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy,” says Jay, “So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches.”

“GET RID OF NEGATIVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE. Negative People SUCK! Avoid them at all cost. If you have to cut ties with people you’ve known for a long time because they’re actually a negative drain on you, then so be it. Trust me, you’re better off without them…”

The message is clear: go with the flow, or prepare to be ostracized or fired.”

Read this advice from a ‘management expert:’

“We knew what to do about increasing sales and cutting losses, but the morale problem had us stumped. We decided we really didn’t know what “morale” meant, or why the employees seemed down in the dumps. In true Machiavellian fashion, we had made the needed personnel cuts early and all at once. The deadwood was gone. The people remaining were the survivors, in for the long haul. They knew that. They should have been happy they still had jobs. Not everyone was unhappy, though. There was a solid core group of people who were up-beat and supportive. … [so] we decided to watch those positive, upbeat individuals more closely to see if we could get a handle on what made them that way.
After a couple of weeks… the answer hit us: The individuals in our upbeat group were just plain happy people, on or off the job. They had stable, fulfilling family lives, they had interests outside of work, they were confident in their abilities. Ups and downs were a part of their lives too, but in general they liked themselves. It was just that simple. [W]e had a disproportionately large share of basically unhappy people who were dragging the company down. Morale, being a group dynamic, was low because of all those unhappy people…Our solution was to hire happy people…
The [previous research study’s] assumption was that morale is determined by the conditions of the workplace–the “work environment” The reports of such studies routinely and dutifully concluded with suggestions to employers about what they could change in the workplace to increase the general level of job satisfaction. Implicit in such admonitions was, first of all, that job satisfaction actually needed changing, and second, that making the specified changes would indeed have the effect of raising morale. We now have reason to believe that, for any given person, job satisfaction is …accounted for by what is in, as opposed to what is around, the person.”(emphasis added)

In other words, people are not made happy by decent working conditions, fair wages, or good benefits. Happy people are hired. Happy people are happy regardless of how miserable their jobs are, and as early as the teen years, “cheerful” adolescents, as rated by their guidance counselors, have job satisfaction 30 years later, regardless of their type of work.

The message is clear: ‘hire the happy’ and rid your company (and your life) of “negative people.”

But what about that “downer” auto executive who questions the company’s overinvestment in SUV’s and trucks? Or that worry-wart financial officer who says the bank is overexposed in subprime mortgages? Get rid of them! In a world of positive thinking, “if you cannot bring good news than don’t bring any.” Reality checks or negative predictions of any kind become evidence that someone is ‘unwilling’ to be nourishing, full of praise, or affirming and therefore is a downer and must go.

The Business of Being Happy

Clearly if the reader walks away with one unfaltering message from Ehrenreich’s book, it is that positive thinking is big business. After laying off “deadwood,” most large companies are still faced with the task of shaping the thoughts of its remaining workers in a positive direction. In 1994, the same day that AT&T announced it would lay off fifteen thousand workers, it sent its San Francisco staff to a big-tent motivational lecture by Zig Ziglar who told the crowd:

“It’s your own fault, don’t blame the system; don’t blame the boss—work harder and pray more” p. 115.

Businesses were willing to pay big bucks to the “power of positive thinking professionals” who promised to emotionally prepare the remaining workers who were facing increased pay cuts, fewer benefits, longer work hours, heightened work loads, and decreasing job security. Corporations could boost a book to the best-seller list by purchasing tens of thousands of copies to be distributed to their remaining workforce.

This “happiness” industry produces an “endless flow” of books, DVDs, and other products and provides corporate employers with tens of thousands of “life coaches,” “executive coaches,” and motivational speakers” as well as the cadre of psychology profession willing to train them.

Quantum Flapdoodle
Positive thinking had now become so ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged, that it became the stuff of runaway best sellers like the 2006 book The Secret. What’s the secret? It has an unmistakable resemblance to traditional folk magic—that like attract like. Like a fetish or a talisman, the ‘thought’ brings about some desired outcome. But no one in this industry would be happy to be linked with the word “magic.” They prefer to link their efforts to “real” science such as quantum physics. In Bright-sided, Ehrenreich goes on to list a series of assertions about how this “scientific” principle works; theories Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle.”

Happiness Academy
Fortunately, for this industry, the lure of lucre has motivated even the crabby halls of mainstream academia, to entered the fray, with courses in “positive psychology” designed to help students “pump up their optimism and nurture their positive feelings”–no doubt as an antidote to their soon-to-be-faced dismal job prospects and inescapable student loan debts.

Ehrenreich is perhaps, particularly hard on my own profession, psychology, because she sees it as having sold out true research in favor of fad and fashion. Arguing that while insurance companies have gutted incomes for clinical psychologists, the corporate role of “positive thought coach” and “trainer” offers a new avenue to financial stability.

She quotes from a 2007 article in the New York Times, describing the course “Happiness 101.” It has “the sect-like feel of positive psychology” and suggests that “the publicity about the field has gotten ahead of the science, which may be no good [science] anyway.” “Poor science” worries its leading advocate, Martin Seligman, also, according to this same article: “I have the same worry they do,” states Seligman. “That’s what I do at 4 in the morning.”

Ehenreich continues her brutal critique:

“At a late afternoon plenary session on “The Future of Positive Psychology,” featuring the patriarchs of the discipline, Martin Seligman and Ed Diener, Seligman got the audience’s attention by starting off with the statement “I’ve decided my theory of positive psychology is completely wrong.” Why? Because it’s about happiness, which is “scientifically unwieldy.” Somehow, this problem could be corrected by throwing in the notions of “success” and “accomplishment”—which I couldn’t help noting would put the positive psychologists on the same terrain as Norman Vincent Peale and any number of success gurus.”

Seligman suggested a new name, –“positive social science” capturing a ‘plural theory’ embracing anthropology, political science, and economics,” but this statement “created understandable consternation within the audience of several hundred positive psychologists, graduate students and coaches.” Changing the name was a mistake, argued Diener, because “positive psychology is a brand.” Besides, he argued, he ‘hates’ the idea of ‘positive social science,’ since social science includes sociology and sociology is “weak” and notoriously underfunded.”

The gathering agreed that despite the fact that the science wasn’t “keeping up with the applied work like coaching,” it was “meeting a need.” “Application,” it was argued, “sometimes gets ahead of science, and science later follows.” Despite the weak research supporting the field, ‘people want happiness’ argued Seligman and Diener (and apparently ‘positive thinking psychologists want income…)

While attempting to differentiate themselves from the motivational industry, Ehrenreich argues that “positive psychologists” are still attempting to corner a market in the corporate world. “The subject [positive psychology] she argues ‘seemed to have veered away from science to naked opportunism…When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology “applied behavioral economics,” because “it’s popular in business schools and goes with high salaries,” nobody laughed.”

Thinking Your Way to Health
Positive Thinking as the new American theology is also now a ‘medical prescription’ for life-threatening illness. It reframes what is life-threatening, as a “gift,” that clarifies priorities, strengthens family ties and heightens spiritual connection. What a positive way of framing a disease that has a lifetime prevalence of 1 in every 2 men (killing 1 in 4) and 1 in every 3 women (killing 1 in 5).

As a result of treating her own breast cancer, Ehrenreich became intimately familiar with a culture that “had little tolerance for the expression of anger, discussion of environmental causes, or the fact that much of the immediate illness and pain was induced by the treatment.” She quotes Cindy Cherry in an article published in the Washington post who stated:

If I had it to do over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely. I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not…

“Cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason” p. 31. “Never a complaint about lost time, shattered sexual confidence, or the long-term weakening of the arms caused by lymph nodes dissection and radiation. What does not destroy you, to paraphrase Nietzsche, makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.” “If that’s not enough to make you want to go out and get an injection of live cancer cells..[another cancer survivor insists] “

Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say it again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine” p. 28-29.

Positive thinking in cancer support groups were once thought to lead participants to cure, but this previous compelling evidence no longer stands up to scrutiny. In May 2007, in an issue of Psychology Bulletin, James Coyne and two coauthors systematically reviewed all the literature on the supposed effects of psychotherapy on cancer and found it full of “endemic problems.” A few months later, David Spiegel, an early researcher on support groups and cancer survival rates, reported in the journal Cancer that support groups conferred no survival advantages after all. “It might improve ones mood, but they did nothing to overcome cancer.” There are emotional and social benefits “but they should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives” p. 37.

Nevertheless the bias favoring a link between emotions and cancer survival persists. When asked why, Coyne believed that it was because cancer-related grants to behavioral scientists were riding on it. Skeptics, like himself, tended to be marginalized. “It’s much easier for me to get speaking gigs in Europe” he told Ehrenreich.

With regards to her own struggles with breast cancer, happening a decade before writing this book, Ehrenreich reflects:

What [cancer] gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame ourselves for our fate.”


“He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.”

Some would argue that political and business leaders set the tone for what attitudes and beliefs are acceptable to hold. Among American Presidents, while it has always been “Morning in America,” this mantra reached a “manic crescendo” of optimism at the turn of the twenty-first century initiated by Bill Clinton, and later George W. Bush who “took his presidency as an opportunity to inspire confidence, dispel doubt and pump up the national spirit of self-congratulation.” For George W., the key adjective was “optimistic,” and this demand for positive thinking shaped his advisers profoundly. According to Condoleezza Rice “the president almost demanded optimism. He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.”

Bosses Drank the Kool-Aid
This same “Yes we can!” attitude led to delusional optimism and a demand for “bright thinking” on the part of bankers and a large part of the investment industry. After demanding that their work force digest positive thinking, the CEO’s themselves “drank the Kool-Aid,” with disastrous economic consequences. The image of a CEO changed from being a capable administrator to a leader—a motivating, flamboyant leader”—very much like a motivational speaker, in fact. Many business leaders, “developed a monomaniacal conviction that there is one right way of doing things, and believe they possess an almost divine insight into reality…they are charismatic visionaries rather than people in suits.” “Corporations are full of mystics,” a 1996 business self-help book declared. “If you want to find a genuine mystic, you are more likely to find one in a boardroom than in a monastery or cathedral” p. 112.

Both on a political and corporate level, this “reckless optimism” pervaded every aspect of American life, from the invasion of Iraq, to the mortgage and banking industry, as well as the delusional capacity to “dismiss disturbing news” about the levees breaking in New Orleans. While the tragedy of September 11 was blamed on a “failure of imagination,” Ehrenreich argues that there was, instead, plenty of imagination, but the type that imagined “an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy—there was simply no ability or inclination to image the worst.”

Avoiding the Misery
What’s the best trick to staying happy according to Happiness Gurus: don’t read or watch the news. Why is the news such a bummer? According to one theorist:

“The great majority of the population of this world does not live life from the space of a positive attitude. In fact, I believe the majority of the population of this world lives from a place of pain, and that people who live from pain only know how to spread more negativity and pain. For me, this explains many of the atrocities of our world and the reason why we are bombarded with negativity all the time.” p. 58-59

Starvation. It’s a bummer, man.

Ehrenreich argues that this fear of taking in bad news stems from a deep believe in one’s own helplessness, which she believes is at the core of this positive thinking: “It causes you sadness and you can’t do anything about it.”

Giving the Universe a Boost of Optimism

If things are truly always getting better, if we live in the best of all possible worlds and if the arc of the universe slants toward happiness and abundance, why are we required to put forth the effort to maintain a positive outlook? Because, apparently, we don’t believe that the universe can truly function on its own without our help. And this egocentric perspective leads us to believe that we are, truly, the center of the universe, G-d’s ‘special creatures’ and that therefore the universe, and the little planet we operate from, will remain a forever giving ‘Mother Earth,’ because of our positive thinking.

When we are confronted with so much contradictory evidence like the polar ice caps won’t stay frozen “because we say so,” or oil depletion continues unabated, our anxiety demands that we pump up our thinking. We run for the help of therapy, workshops, tapes and self-help books, given by the preachers, gurus and seminar leaders more skilled than we at “self-hypnosis,” “mind control,” and “thought control” who can instruct us. How else can we hope to maintain the constant effort required to repress or block out so many “unpleasant possibilities” and “negative” thoughts?

Those who are truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts” she argues. “It has become an American obsession because we are a terribly insecure nation.”

Massive Empathy Deficit
And just as “purely positive thinking” can allow us to deny the environmental, economic, and energy calamity happening all around us, it encourages us to reject and distance from the very same people who are most likely to call our attention to the plight that befalls us.

“Negative people have to go, even, presumably, the ones that you live with: “Identify the situation or person who is a downer in your life. Remove yourself from that situation or association. If it’s family, choose to be around them less.”

Keep away from victims and “Debbie Downers!” Their fate will become yours, as if by magic, should you allow yourself to be influenced by them.

Those that cannot help but be impacted to the core by deep fears of rain forests destroyed, species extinctions, or the dramatic impact of a fossil fuel-free future feel the depression and despair. They panic or are filled with immobilizing anxiety. They refuse or are unable to “put on a happy face” and their sensitivity is rewarded by job rejection for not being optimistic.

By logical extension, why should we tolerate the “whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager?” How could we put up with the depression of our unemployed husbands or the chronic pain vocalized by our dying parent? Rather than promote tolerance of the challenge, present in any family or group, to empathetically read and respond to the moods and messages of others, “accommodate to their insights and offer comfort when needed,” we are told to dump them and seek out the winners. Instead of becoming more closely connected to our bodies and to our emotions, we face the stress and emotional depletion when forced to remain ever cheerful and insensitive to the environment that surrounds us.

This is a horrible message for a difficult time.

But perhaps Ehrenreich gets at the heart of the matter when she says that:

“If the power of the mind were truly “infinite,” one would not have to eliminate negative people from one’s life; one could, for example, simply choose to interpret their behavior in a positive way—maybe he’s criticizing me for my own good, maybe she’s being sullen because she likes me so much and I haven’t been attentive, and so on. The advice you must change your environment—for example, by eliminating negative people and the news—in an admission that there may in fact be a “real world” out there that is utterly unaffected by our wishes. In the face of this terrifying possibility, the only “positive” response is to withdraw into one’s own carefully constructed world of constant approval and affirmation, nice news, and smiling people” p. 59.

And so, as we achieve success at positive thinking, achieved through discipline, we tolerate no possibility for planetary collapse, job loss, energy depletion or business failure that we cannot control. Refuse to let in such negative thinking, or the failure will be your fault. You are the world, and your thoughts require you to take full personal responsibility and to exert the necessary power of will to not allow the possibility of failure. If you should fail, only the “whiners” or the “losers” are disappointed, resentful, or downcast.

“Winners” make cancer a gift and a dead ocean a “unique opportunity.”

She ends her introduction stating her wish for:

more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and better yet, joy…but we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking….Why should one be so inwardly preoccupied at all? Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding?…Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?

Thank you, Barbara, for being MY Peak Shrink.