With Visions of Sugar-Plums Dancing in My Head

I’m feeling pretty darn good about 2013.  Economic crash be damned.

Just had a barely awake chat with KMO over at the C-Realm Podcast’s special programming called “The Vault.”  I was sleepy, as it was the day after Christmas, and DH and I did a crazy stint of driving, after we put our dino-dog-puppies to bed, then shot over to see my sister and extended family.

It was a great holiday.

The Shopping Gene?

My sister, who has an incredible talent for picking out clothes for me, chose a fantastic hat as my gift.  For those of you who know hats, it is impossible to pick out a hat for someone.  Not for my sister, though.  It looks smashing, if I do say so myself.

Biology did not evenly distribute the shopping gene in my family.  DH was proud of me, as I made my yearly sociological research into the wild mall during the holiday season a week ago.  I didn’t freak out, as I normally do, after an hour and say, panicked “I gutta get out of here.”  Instead, I walked diligently up and down, on both levels, people watching, store merchandise examining, and taking in the mood of the sales clerks.  Ya, folks, we’re in collapse.  At least where I live.

My sister, on the other hand, is an avid shopper, and really could make her living as a professional shopper, if she didn’t have this pesky nursing degree she uses quite well.  She loves the stores, the lights, the colors, the merchandise.  And she can pick out clothes for me I couldn’t imagine wearing.  She leaves me in the dressing room, and brings things into me where I can’t refuse to try it on.  The results always surprise me.  I never would have chosen that.  My daughter, by the way, inherited her shopping gene…

The MS Scare

And shortly before we went to my families for the holidays, I weighed myself for poops and giggles.  I’m not one for “dieting,” but I am invested in my health, and had a scare this past summer that my doctor thought could be MS (it wasn’t).  So thanks to this website, a dear-reader-friend send me this video, and something in me clicked.  I had been researching nutrition a lot this past 6 months anyway, and learning just how hard it is to get all of your nourishment without a lot of careful focus on what you eat.   The biggest problem is the volume you have to eat to get all of the nutrients.  And the variety of foods you have to eat.  And the cooking.

George Mateljan

This guy is a friggin genius.  His website is really fabulous.  I know quite a bit about nutrition, having studied it, and read Nutrition Action Newsletter by the Center for Science in the Public Interests magazine for decades, so I know that Mr. Mateljan has really combined practicality with rigid scientific standards…and of course I just agree with his food philosophy, which helps.  Another nutritionally knowledgeable gal I love to read is Nicole Foss from the Automatic Earth, in her private writings on Facebook.

What’s you ‘food philosophy’?

Do you know what I mean about ‘food philosophy?’

Take eggs.  There was a time when everyone said “Eggs are bad for you.”  I never bought that crappola.  Eggs?  You mean those things that cave people picked up and ate walking along in the springtime?  Those eggs?  Rubbish.  And, of course, after consolidating the egg industry into a few players, the word went out that eggs are excellent for you, now.  A great food.  And all the good stuff is in the yolk.  So to have a deep and complete understanding of food is very complex.  Knowing a little bit can make you dangerous to yourself.

But then, I took Mr. Mateljan’s website, and the simple idea of 9 cups of fruits/veggies a day, kefir grains and raw milk, and a LOT of a secret ingredient I’ll wait to reveal at the end of this post, and, well, I’m a new person.  After a month, the clothes just fit better, so I weighed myself.  I lost 20 lbs.  Now, being a big gal, you may not say “Holy Mackerel  Peak Shrink, you are THIN!” (unless you are delusional), but that’s not the point, or even the best news.

Not only did I lose that weight without trying, I just stopped the meds I take for S.A.D., because, heck, I just felt great.

Not good.  Not okay.  Not “well, it is winter and I have “Seasonal Affective Disorder,”  kind of “okay.” No.

I … FELT… GREAT.

I still do.

So okay, I’ve read how you should eat well.  Who on this green Earth hasn’t?  And I ate pretty well, considering the stuff the average American consumes.  But 9 cups of veggies/fruit?  Nah, I didn’t eat that good.  Or at least, not until now.

And I just cut out the only sugar I had straight up daily, which was in my coffee or tea, and put cinnamon in it instead.  It tastes sweet.

But I’ve noticed a lot of other differences too, like what I’m craving.  I’m doing all the cooking in the house, because while DH is a great cook, he can’t imagine how to cram in 9 cups of veggies a day.  And what I’m craving are the veggies.  I’m really craving them.  You might think I’d get sick of them, but maybe I’m missing some basic nutrient that veggies are meeting.  I could care less about the meat, but give me the extra greens.

But as I said before, you can’t really eat all that food and still have a ton of meat, or grains, or sweets for that matter.  There is literally no room in one’s stomach for it.

Farewell to Wet Cats and Hello to Song and Dance Numbers12344073_s

Now, DH will also tell  you that S.A.D. is a sucky thing for a spouse to have. Imagine  an angry wet cat that you half towel-dried, and you have me most winters.  The meds were the towel.  You could tell when S.A.D. was settling in, because I stopped singing.  No made-up songs, sung passionately to the dogs, no spontaneous lyric- switching tunes.  No quick fast ‘song and dance number,’ while calling the dogs in from outside.  Only, perhaps, an occasional Johnny Cash song that would bring me to tears, that even I knew was silly to cry about.

Now the song and dance numbers are part of my everyday life again.  And the dogs love it.  (DH loves it, too.)

Belly Laughs

But what is really striking is to hear myself on the radio belly-laughing with KMO.  Nothing fake about it.  I was really laughing, having a great time with KMO, and  you can hear it on that show.  And we started a “pre-interview” conversation about sex and sexually explicit videos, which was also interesting, and ended up talking about nutrition and my new diet.  Turns out KMO has a new diet too.  That talk he and I had was BEFORE the interview, but he obviously liked it enough to use it as is, and put the “real” interview on at a later time.

Now how this all relates to Peak Oil, is this:  There is no way I’m going to put up enough kale and spinach and broccoli and cauliflower, never mind strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc to keep even one person in 9 cups a day.  Not where I live, and not with my farming skills.  I take a giant bag of kale or spinach and DH and I eat half of it in one sitting.  Half!  Ya, I could eat the frozen stuff, and will, but could I put up enough for an entire winter?  Perhaps veggie glama-gals Sharon Astyk or Kathy Harrison can, but not me.  And there is talk of a winter CSA in my town, but I don’t know that it’s happening yet.

Kefir

In San Francisco, when I lived there, we pronounced  it “Kee-fur,” but that is so not hip now.  You pronounce it like this. (Can you get over a Youtube video to pronounce a word?)

However you say it, I hate buying yogurt because I resent the plastic it comes in.  So I discovered the Kefir Lady, and she sent me out this huge grain of kefir.  Making kefir is so, OMIGOD…simple.  I can’t believe they have so much literature on it, but, after all, people like to do things “right.”

Here are the Directions:

(1) Put kefir in a glass jar with milk and cover it with cloth to keep the bugs out.  Leave it on your counter.

(2) Taste it the next day and see if you like it.  If you do, drain out the grain, put fruit in it, or just drink it plain. (I happen to know for a fact that DH sneaks Odo’s Oil in my smoothies, to keep the Omega-3’s up…)  If you don’t like the taste, leave it on the counter another 6 hours then taste it again.  OR make a second batch and taste it earlier.

(3) Put the grain in milk and repeat the process.

Okay, you can’t put it in dead milk, which is “ultra-pasteurized.” But it still will grow in pretty crappy milk, just not so fast.  My kefir is fed the best milk, and soon we’ll have people bragging about the milk they feed their kefir, like they do about what they feed their dog.

Real milk, when it “turns,” still is good for you.  Dead milk is putrid and should be tossed.  So kefir is alive, and according to Wiki  is “bacteria and yeasts in a matrix of proteinslipids, and sugars, and this symbiotic matrix forms “grains” that resemble cauliflower.”  If you can’t drink cows milk, it grows in sheep or goats milk, and if you can’t drink milk, you can probably still drink kefir, because the grain eats all the stuff that probably gives you cramps.  (I’m not a medical doctor, so read up on it…)  But if you don’t want to drink milk there is water kefir too.  Or soy milkrice milk, or coconut milk.  And when you just can’t stand the thought of kefir anymore, put it in the refrigerator or freezer, and it will stop growing, or slow down dramatically.

Homemade Kefir is Best (of course)

As I have learned, after falling pretty far down the Rabbit Hole, is that almost anything you make yourself is better for you than the stuff you buy, and “homemade” kefir is no exception.  I can’t give you the numbers, but the homemade stuff has a ton more bacterial and yeast than the store bought stuff, which is, by the way, very expensive considering the three steps to making it I detailed above, and the fact that the kefir grain keeps growing, so you can give it to your friends.  Or sell it back to the Kefir Lady.  Apparently the store kefir has to count how many critters they put in there to be sure there is a respectable amount.  While on your kitchen counter, the critters just grow, not caring whether you measure them or not.

Are they GOOD Critters?

Now for the squeamish reader, these are GOOD critters, that once they hit your intestines, actually work to drive the BAD critters out of your intestines.  I’ve also read they are helpful to those who have ADHD, because apparently leaky gut is common in those with ADHD.  Kefir slows the digestion, so you are actually digesting more of your food.  Again, don’t quote me.

Dystopian Visions Brought on by Happiness

But all of this leads me to horrible visions of a nation or world who has turned to psychotropic drugs when our kids–who are eating school pizza, soda and hot pockets and calling it food– can’t concentrate, are allergic to everything, are sick constantly, and can’t pay attention.  And are grouchy and irritable, like wet cats.  So we throw a towel on them and call it “science.”  Believe me, in that state, I was grateful for the towel.

But to me, my friends, this is the dystopian world we live in, more frightening than zombies.  And instead of family meals, prepared with real food, 67% of us don’t eat together, and half of the rest have the TV on when we do.  That leaves 17% of a nation eating together in conversation.  I’m ranting now, so I’ll stop.

Final Secret

So, count me happy.  A happy, kefir eating, 9 cups a day-er, with one more secret to share:

Herring.

Okay, I probably pushed you too far, but ya, herring.  It is that little fish that is really plentiful, because all the big fish stocks that used to eat it are depleted. Herring is very high in the long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, and if you ask me, it also induces a hypomanic high, which is psychologist talk for it makes you really happy.

Of course you also want to eat small herring and kippers, to keep your level of toxins to a minimum.  But even if you take 3-4 times the recreational dose of herring, rest assured you’ll have the Omega 3’s fighting the cancerous processes you’ll be digesting.  Some think, like breast milk, the benefits outweigh the risks.  So I eat it almost every day.  For breakfast.

So if you are wondering whether a change in diet might do you some good, as you slug away at your larder all winter, my vote is YES!  Hit the sauerkraut hard,  harvest the kale and Brussels sprouts as late as possible, and freeze those berries.  And if all else fails, go to the market and stock up.

You might be happier you did.

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.

“Brother, Can You Spare the Time?”: Psychotherapists Don’t Reach out to the Unemployed

Our families, friends, and true companionship are thus among consumerism’s principal casualties…We are hollowing out whole areas of life, of individual and social autonomy, of community, and of nature, and, if we don’t soon wake up, we will lose the chance to return, to reclaim ourselves, our neglected society, our battered world, because there will be nothing left to reclaim, nothing left to return to.   -Gus Speth – America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Psychotherapists of all disciplines have long thought of themselves as social advocates.  We’ve been taught that individuals are embedded in families, and in extended families.  These families are embedded in neighborhoods, cities, regions and countries.  Ultimately, climate decimation is teaching us that countries are embedded in a shrinking planet that is seriously hurting.

So I began a research project to answer the questions “How responsive are psychotherapists today to the needs of their local communities?” “How do they reach out to those who are in economic as well as psychological pain?” “To what extent does their advertising suggest that they are well aware that the western world is in the worst economic crisis since the last Great Depression?

I made the task easy for myself.  I chose seven cities that have the worst rates of unemployment and related social problems, then did a Google search.  I had written previously about how unresponsive psychologists were during the last Great Depression, actually appearing to find the topic of world economic hardship  unworthy of study.  Surely in an age of global networking, instantaneous news, and easy mobility, we would see psychotherapists announcing their willingness to help the unemployed, not just those still prosperous “worried well.”  At least acknowledge that these are hard times.

Alas, little has changed.

My research found scant evidence in advertising profiles that psychotherapists in private or group private practices are aware or responsive to the economic crisis that is overwhelming their cities. While they may identify specific stressors that are the result of joblessness, they virtually ignore acknowledging the social, economic, and environmental issues that are dominant worries for many urban Americans today.

Seven Worst-Hit Cities

Below are the seven cities having both high unemployment and related social issues. In the parenthesis are the “official” unemployment statistics for that population:

  • El Centro, CA   (30.3%)
  • Yuma, AZ (28.7%)
  • Rockford, IL (15.7%)
  • Riverside, CA  (15.2%)
  • Detroit, MI  (14.3%)
  • Los Angeles  (12.5%)
  • Cleveland, OH (9.3%)

Those of you who read John Williams’ “Shadow Statistics” knows that you have to add at least 9 points (he says 14 points based on governments own stats) on to those numbers, if you were to take into account discouraged workers, involuntarily part-time workers, and the like.  So counting the truly under- or unemployed we learn that El Centro, CA  as a city with 4-5 of every 10 people without a job, could have twice as many workers unemployed than during the last Great Depression.

In Search for a Listening Ear for the ‘Lost-My-Jobbers’

I put myself in the mindset of an average person who has been laid off.  I want to find someone to talk about it.

I go to the internet, and read through the descriptions found on the first two pages of a Google search – keyword:  “therapist” and then individually add each of the worst hit cities listed above—(e.g. “Therapist” and “Cleveland, OH”).

Here is what I found:

There were hundreds of listings. Most describe themselves as “compassionate and kind.”  Some offered koans like:  “Each person is different, and we are all alike; or nautical themes like “helping you navigate your way through life’s difficulties…” They promised to help me “reach [my] full potential.”  Some asked the reader probing questions like:  “Are you falling apart?”

None of them mentioned that the planet  is falling apart.

Most talk about “meaningful change” that will help me to discover my “true self.” Does this include economic change that has caused chaos in the lives of so many people?

And when I’m asked whether my “productivity at work”  is off, I imagine I might blame myself if I were unemployed, asking:  “Is that the reason I’m not working?  Was I unproductive?”  Why don’t they mention the massive lay-offs that are happening in their cities?  Why don’t they mention the emotional hardship unemployment brings?

Some agencies clearly state their preference for seeing only the remaining “high- functioning clients” “seeking more fulfillment…and joy in their lives.” They also consult with employers to “uncover ways to reduce cost, [and] enhance employee morale.”

“Employee Morale” is a big problems when you let go a significant portions of your work force.  Often larger corporations hire “motivational speakers” days after the layoffs are announced, to promote a “positive attitude” as the “key to success” for their remaining work staff.  I wrote about this phenomenon in 2010:

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.

No one in Los Angeles, CA mentioned that residence live in one of the most expensive housing market in the country, with a sharp rise in the crime rate.  Nobody in Riverdale, CA mentioned increasing poverty rates or a rising level of pollution that is impacting the children.

In Cleveland, OH, a city with more robberies per 100,000, than any other city in the USA, a psychotherapist proclaims: “Clients deserve to get what they want.

Okay,” I mused, “I have a list for you: I want my job back; and a planet with half the population, a city that is safe and neighborly, and cheap gasoline.”

Sometimes the listing shocked me with the insensitivity shown–like the therapist who worked with parents who argued:  “The cost of services is less than the cost of a child’s funeral…

I Get It.  Times are Hard.”

I wasn’t looking for much.  I just wanted some acknowledgement that the person clients were going to open up to, to reveal their deepest fears to, actually recognized larger scary concerns.

In Detroit, it is great to “shine my light,” but I wanted some indication that the psychotherapist knew that the city’s lights were being shut off.

I found one:

Hello, we live in a very stressful time and things are becoming more difficult for couples, families and children every day. I have over 7 years of clinical experience and I understand many of the societal, family, and interpersonal factors that contribute to the challenges we face today.” Gerald Mc Gee, MSW, LICSW.

Thank you, Mr. Mc Gee.

In Rockford, Il, a city as hard hit as during the Great Depression, David Heuser, a minister, wrote:

Lack of insurance should not be an obstacle to receiving help. If you do not have insurance, if money is tight, I am willing to discuss with you how to deal with the financial arrangements of receiving counseling while dealing with the real issues that are important to you.”  Mr. David Heuser,  Counselor , LCPC , CADC , MSEd, MDiv

Bless you, Reverend.

Of perhaps hundreds of profiles I read in the seven worst cities in the US for unemployment, pollution, or crime, only these two profiles gave any hint that clinicians knew that bad things were happening to good people.

Many of the therapists claimed to be “practical” or “down to earth,” but none had anything to say about the deteriorating condition of  the Earth or the fact that you had to be “practically blind” to not see the obvious: the cities they practiced in were financial war zones.

A Significant Source of Stress

As professions, we know the impact of terrible economic times. Information is out there. Seventy-eight percent of Americans report money as a “significant source of stress” (APA, 2009).  Economists Daniel Sullivan and Till von Wachter estimated “a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for older male workers in the years immediately following a job loss, if they previously had been consistently employed,” as well as a higher risk of suicide, disease and divorce.

And yet, only two psychotherapists gave any indication of the impact of job loss or community degradation in their profiles?

Position Mergers not Work Sharing

Countries like Germany are well aware of the emotional damage caused by unemployment, and have instituted ‘workshares,’ to keeps workers from being laid off.  The German government helps companies keep employees on their payrolls by subsidizing their wages with the money saved on unemployment benefits.  All work fewer hours, but all still work.  In contrast, in the US, managers are merging  two jobs, and increasing  the unemployment rolls.

The Stress of Being Unemployed

food lines in El Centro, CA

Food lines in El Centro, CA.
Modern-Day “Bread Lines”

Not doing productive work does terrible things to a person. According to the APA, the chances of depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, low subjective well-being and poor self-esteem double with unemployment. And those still working often end up with a heavier work load and the constant fear and anxiety that they’ll be next. Parental job loss even increases the incidents of punitive and arbitrary punishment of children.

And unemployment doesn’t only impact individuals, it impacts entire communities.

More from the APA:

Widespread unemployment in neighborhoods reduces resources, which may result in inadequate and low-quality housing, underfunded schools, restricted access to services and public transportation, and limited opportunities for employment, making it more difficult for people to return to work (Brisson, Roll, & East, 2009). Unemployed persons also report less neighborhood belonging than their employed counterparts, a finding with implications for neighborhood safety and community well-being (Steward et al., 2009).

While APA does call for extending the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, it continues to advocate for more research on the psychological impacts of unemployment, and pushes job re-training.  I argue that we know plenty about these impacts, and retraining only works if there are actual jobs to train for.  Often these programs provide good jobs only for the workers who run them.  Those who entered the computer programming field after being “retrained” can attest to the impact of repeated job displacement.

A Call to Action:

In the worst-hit cities, and indeed all over the USA, grass root action is happening, and I would like to invite my colleagues to join it or initiate it in their own communities.  We need to radically transform the way we provide mental health in this country, one psychotherapist at a time.

Our profession has become so tethered to health insurance companies, that we’ve stopped considering those without insurance coverage as “client eligible.”  The unemployed fall into this category.

It is clear that economic and psychological insecurity due to employment displacement is a real psychological issue.  How do you ignore 40% unemployment or underemployment?  How does that not get mentioned as a “specialty” under “problems treated”?  It is not enough to call it a “loss” or “life transition.”

And the silence about the context of psychological suffering in these profiles sends another message implicit:  Silence says that economic hardship, rising crime, deteriorating environmental conditions, and sky-rocketing energy costs aren’t appropriate issues to discuss in psychotherapists’ “safe offices.”  The message is “your pain is not connected to your deteriorating world.”

Reimbursed

Some will argue that those in financial need are served by public mental health clinics, and don’t belong in private psychotherapy offices.  This argument is spurious, at a time when funding to pay for public services are dwindling. The mental health clinic I worked at that served the poor exclusively had a six-month waiting list.

If psychotherapy is truly a ‘calling’ where empathy reigns, I urge my colleagues to find psychologically sound methods of providing these services to those in need, regardless of their financial situation.

And because productive work enhances mental health, “Sliding scales” and hand-outs aren’t the best solutions.

Community Exchange Systems

One way to provide mental health services to the un- or underemployed, a strategy used successfully during the first Great Depression, is Community Exchange Systems (CES).  To again quote my former article:

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.

Bartering?

These systems are not direct bartering. “Bartering” poses ethical dilemmas for therapists and can, for example, muddy the therapeutic relationship.  Instead, trading system “clients” are in no way obligated to the therapist directly.  They instead are obligated to the community, “paying back” their psychotherapy by delivering/selling something to another trader in the community.  It is, in the true sense of the word, a “favor bank.”

Giving to the War Effort

Today, as during World War I, psychotherapists have rallied to help returning veterans and the US Military, and this effort demonstrates how effective Community Exchanges are as applied to psychotherapy. CES organizations like Give An Hour , ask clinical volunteer professionals to give an hour of their time to provide critical mental health services to U.S. troops and their families who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. This organization is proof that such a system can work well for our profession.

Surely the economic ‘War on Workers’ deserves our attention no less.

The Dangers of Psychological Terrorism

I’ve developed a deep respect for how powerfully psychology frames reality. Misuse this power, and we pathologize a person’s emotional reactions, attributing psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression to past traumas, when these reactions are perfectly appropriate given the current situation or potential threat that presents itself. The sorrow over the death of a parent, for example, is not a mental illness, it is an appropriate emotional response to what has happened to you.  Unemployment and the resulting social and economic damage is no different.

When we pathologize predictable responses to life’s difficulties, and disconnect  actual events from common emotion reactions to it, we inflict what I call “Psychological Terrorism.”

When, as a group, we psychotherapists don’t acknowledge economic hardship, energy depletion, or environmental degradation as legitimate concerns for exploration in therapy, we send a powerful message to people implying that these aren’t “real” concerns, or that these are “personal” as opposed to “collective” issues, that require only personal help.  Referring the un- or under employed to movements like UCubed allows them to see themselves as part of the 31 million Americans without work.  It contextualizes their pain.  It promotes collective action.  It enhances mental health.

While mentioning “I know these are hard times” or “I’m sensitive to environmental concerns’ in their advertising will hardly be a revolutionary act, it is an initial step in first and foremost labeling this severe economic depression as “real.”  Imagine if physicians, dentists…all health and allied mental health professionals included in their advertising the phrase “We know you are hurting from this bad economy.  Let us know how we can help you get the help you need.”

This type of advertising says “It’s real.  It is happening to all of us, not just you.” It labels these concerns as legitimate stressors that intensify the need for treatment, as well as being a legitimate topic for treatment.

Community Spirit Lives

Community Exchange Systems (CES), Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), Mutual Credit trading systems or Time Banks are trading systems that are truly workable in communities decimated by a crumbling economy. When psychotherapists join them, participate in them, it tells our communities that we are aware of what is happening, and we are active participants in healing the suffering.  We put our own labor on par with that of other community workers and we are willing to exchange that labor to those who are willing to work for others.  Our very participation in such CES organizations are bolstering the care we provide, by providing the opportunity to work.

We Live in Historically Significant Times

My colleagues, let us not be judged harshly by history yet again. Eighty years ago, we responded, as a group, to the war effort, while ignoring the unemployed:

“When the United States entered the First World War, psychologists,

We are used to these pictures. Women and children weren’t allowed in these lines. They were taken around back, when they showed up for food.

as an associated group, volunteered their professional services. Their contribution was considerable, both to the conduct of the War and to psychology.

When the United States entered the big world depression, psychologists did nothing and, as a group, have so far done nothing.

For nearly 10 years we have suffered through a national social and economic crisis; yet, from an examination of our professional journals and the programs of our professional meetings, one might conclude that psychologists were oblivious of the fact that our social institutions are rattling about our ears.

In fact, the world at large is as ignorant of the possible contributions of psychologists as psychologists appear to be about the world.”

From:  The psychologist’s understanding of social issues. Gundlach, R. H.; Vol 37(8), Oct, 1940. pp. 613-620

Will history repeat itself?

Unemployment Line in Missouri

We can take action, as a profession, developing psychologically savvy and effective ways to empower those now ravaged by the second Greater Depression.  We can add our voices to the growing choirs that say “growth is a dead end on a finite planet” and that a “debt-based economy harms people.”  We can tell our clients “It isn’t you.  You are living in a time of great social upheaval. Don’t blame yourself.”

We can refuse to participate in Psychological Terrorism.

We know and teach that relationships, not material possessions bring us happiness.  Now we must model that conviction in our work, by interweaving our efforts into our wounded communities, giving and receiving services, not only money.

By our actions, we demonstrate our motivation to change our world for the better and earn the label “healers.”

 ********

Dr. Kathy McMahon, “The Peak Shrink,” is a clinical psychologist who chides herself, as well as her colleagues, for not pushing harder to find better ways to reach the un- and under-employed in her community.  She’s learned something about unemployment when her husband lost his business and was un- or under employed for 18 months. She’s learned about “job merging” when her “promotion” was withdrawn and “combined into” another existing higher-up position.  You can critique her own professional profile by entering in “Psychologist” and “Cummington, MA,” or just Google Kathy McMahon.

She welcomes your comments.

 

 

 

 

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

Crazy for Comfort  

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

Pushed Off the Tightrope, but Ignoring the Net              

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing Your Options

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

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

Overview

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

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

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

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

What is SSI and SSDI?

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

Resources and Who Pays

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

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

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

Disability Rises with Unemployment

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

Now let’s look at the rise in disability:

Rise Seen in Social Security SSID Benefit Lawsuits

Appeals Tell the Tale

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

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

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

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

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

Why Are Lawyers Involved?

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

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

What Do Psychologists and Other Mental Health Professionals Do?

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

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

What to Expect from the Psychologist

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

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

SSI Recipients in ‘Deep Poverty’

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

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

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

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

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

All-Out War on Black and Hispanic Men

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

Domestic Violence a “Bad Reason” to Land in Prison

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

It is the traumatic norm.

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

A Seriously Broken System Turns Children into Economic Assets 

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

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

Middle-Class Disability

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

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

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

Take this hypothetical case example:

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

He filed for SSDI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Long Does SSDI or SSI Last?

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

Simple, Sustainable Living

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

Vacillating Functioning

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

Consistency of Functioning a Key Consideration

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

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

“Marked” vs “Extreme” Impairment

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

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

They continue:

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

Stopping the Downward Economic and Psychological Slide

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

Stop-Gap Answer for an Ongoing, Deteriorating Economic Climate

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

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

The Shame of Reaching Out

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

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

Unwillingness to Accept Crippling Emotional Distress

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

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

He should be applauded for being pro-active.

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

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

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

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

Forward Into the Past

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

But that time is not now.

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

The financial life you save might be your own.

 

 

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).

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(5)  Don’t scare your children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy

Canadian Physician with Panglossian Wife

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

Dear Peak Shrink,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Regards,

Canadian Medical Doctor with Panglossian Wife

*******

Dear CMDPW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quality” Kid Time

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

Would you?

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

Would you?

Contempt and Taking on the B*tch

 

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

Taking your wife on sounds like a Herculean task.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contempt is also the single best predictor of divorce.

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

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

Recognizing Contempt:  The Facial Eye-Roll

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one Mother wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck.

Peak Shrink

Where Will the Grandkids Live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do you think your grandchildren will live?

Chuck

Ants, Angels and Armor: Further Conversations on Human Nature

“The big system can be pretty overwhelming. We know that we can’t beat them by competing with them. What we can do is build small systems where we live and work that serve our needs as we define us and not as they‘re defined for us. The big boys in their shining armor are up there on castle walls hurling their thunderbolts. We’re the ants patiently carrying sand a grain at a time from under the castle wall. We work from the bottom up. The knights up there don’t see the ants and don’t know what we’re doing. They’ll figure it out only when the wall begins to fall. It takes time and quiet persistence. Always remember this: They fight with money and we resist with time, and they’re going to run out of money before we run out of time”
― Utah Phillips

 

Graphic Source

Six Walton family members on the Forbes 400 had a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans.  Source

After I posted “Sustaining Our Better Angels,” Bill Rees and I got into an email conversation, drawing into the dialogue, other wonderful thinkers, including Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace International, who decided to pull from this conversation and write an article for the Watershed Sentinel.

I would like to make a few brief comments before you read this article.

The first is what I believe are the dangers of discussing a human’s “animal nature” that require “supra-instinctual survival strategies” to overcome.  My question is:  Who is capable of “supra-instinctual survival strategies”?  Our leaders?  A few elites who can overcome their ‘baser’ instincts and see beyond their immediate needs? To quote my early post: “As people living in the wealthiest of nations, we may have, as Dr. Rees suggests, sunk to our lowest selves, become lost and destructive, plundering the planet while drowning in our sea of “stuff.” But this is simply a perverse and pervasive cultural meme promulgated by a powerful and influential oligarchy.”

 

It is a common strategy to dilute blame.  This strategy says “We are all to blame, not just the rich and powerful.”  This is horse manure.  As Utah Phillips has said:

 “The Earth is not dying – it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses.”

We don’t need new institutions, trans-national powers, or powerful elites- hundreds of people making decisions for the rest of us.  We don’t need to step out of our “animal nature” or be washed of the original sin of our biopsychological heritage.

Our “better angels” are not above us.  They are within us, ready to be called forth.


From:  Watershed Sentinel 25  November-December 2011 Environmental News from British Columbia and the World 

 

In 2010, UBC professor and “Ecological Footprint” originator, Dr. William Rees, wrote “The Human Nature of Unsustainability”  for the Post Carbon Reader, explaining evolutionary/genetic reasons that our “reasonably intelligent species” appears unable to recognize its ecological crisis or respond accordingly. Rees explains that most species share two traits that aid survival but risk overconsumption of resources:

  1. To expand to occupy all accessible habitats, and
  2. To use all available resources.

Humans are what biologists call “K-strategists.” The “K” stands for a habitat’s carrying capacity, which large mammals tend to fill, resulting in evolutionary pressure to gratify individual desires for food, sex, etc. These tendencies – to expand, consume, and satisfy short-term desires – have survival value until the species overshoots its habitat capacity. Thereafter, without a predator or other force to check growth, such species can obliterate a habitat as reindeer did on St. Matthews Island and as humans are doing on Earth as a whole.

“Certain behavioural adaptations helped our distant ancestors survive,” writes Rees, “but those same (now ingrained) behaviours today … have become maladaptive.”

Better Angels

Fair enough, thought clinical psychologist Dr. Kathy McMahon, but what about our “better angels?” Do we not, “have within us, the very innate altruistic qualities needed to work our way back to that simpler, communally-focused way of life …that will bring us back to our senses? It is happening already.”

McMahon, who posts stories of environmental trauma on her PeakOilBlues.org website, knows full well, “We’re bombarded with alarming headlines on a daily basis. How do we find the sane space between Doom and Denial?

In a response, McMahon asks,

Does our understanding of the economic and socio-political dominance of ‘Homo Economicus’ inform all we need to know about human nature to motivate behaviour change?” She writes, “We must pause again to ask ourselves: ‘Which humans are we talking about?’ We may need to look outside The First World for insights and broader understandings.

This post led to an enlivened email dialogue between Rees and McMahon, a model discussion that our world needs, between two engaged thinkers. Here are some excerpts:

 

Rees: Kathy, thanks for your detailed and sensitive dissection …Humanity is a conflicted species … [torn] between what reason and moral judgment say we should do, and … what pure emotion and baser instincts command us to do. In “What’s Blocking Sustainability,” I suggest a way out, not far removed from your own analysis:

 We have reached a crucial juncture in human evolutionary history … genes and ideology that urge ‘every man for himself!’ might well mean destruction for all. Long term selective advantage may well have shifted to genes and memes that reinforce cooperative behaviour. Emotions such as compassion, empathy, love and altruism are key components of the human behavioral repertoire. The central question is whether we can muster the… political will … [to] reinforce these natural ‘other regarding’ feelings.

To reduce the human eco-footprint, the emphasis in free-market capitalist societies on individualism, greed, and accumulation must be replaced by a renewed sense of community, cooperative relationships, generosity, and a sense of sufficiency.… We must self-consciously create the cultural framing required for the brighter colours to shine.

McMahon: Bill, thank you. We aren’t far off in spirit. I was most disturbed by no mention of corporate advertisers when you discuss the power of memes to shape thought.  I substituted the word “corporation” in your article for “human” and I found the result a running, raging polemic. Here’s a sample:

Given the availability of cheap energy, regulatory relaxation, technological innovation and social manipulation, corporations became a dominant force in the human endeavor worldwide…. The size and scale of corporate growth and influence is unprecedented…. The expansionist myth is a central tenet of corporations.

The violent mindset … impacts the collective community consciousness in areas of creativity, ruthlessness, economic prosperity, inner peace, outer peace, power struggles, greed, envy, materialism and narcissism.  This violent meme has so dominated discourse in the USA, that our unconscious assumptions about what is “human nature” are debased.

We have another equally powerful and “evolutionarily based” nature: altruism.

Rees: The corporate sector …spends billions of dollars to create advertising ‘memes’ that play to peoples unconscious fears, desires and insecurities… turning people into consuming cogs in the capitalist machine. In other writings, I have condemned the role of corporate advertising:

“Consumption … has become the meaning of life … the criterion of existence, the mystery before which one bows (Ellul 1975) … the consumer society was actually a deliberate social construct … a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is still dedicated  to making people unhappy with whatever they have … Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life …” (From “Toward Sustainability with Justice” in Colin Soskolne’s Sustaining Life on Earth).

The same general pattern applies to the … anti-science narrative sweeping the US and elsewhere today. We have entered a “new age of unreason.” Powerful corporations and individuals (e.g., the Koch family) fund think-tanks designed specifically to mis-inform the public … [A] perverted individualism abhors laws and regulations, diminishes community and generally undermines … the public good.

In “What’s Blocking Sustainability,” I mention that repeated exposure to ideological assertions “actually help[s] to imprint the individual’s synaptic circuitry in neural images of those experiences … People tend to seek out experiences that reinforce their pre-set neural circuitry and to select information from their environment that matches these structures.”Conversely, “when faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information,” (Wexler 2006, p. 180).

This is why it is so difficult to induce social change. The neoconservative right-wing has so skillfully exploited this dimension of human biology, that vast numbers of Americans and Canadians are persuaded to vote against their own interests. The entire manipulation is oriented toward protecting the interests of the owners of capital, the corporate sector and their acolytes.

There is no hope for change if we mis-define the problem and fail to understand the deep bio-psychological roots of cultural inertia. By contrast, the opposition are doing everything imaginable to entrench that inertia. If enough people come to understand… that they are being manipulated, there may be a groundswell of resistance before it is too late to turn things around.

McMahon: You’re correct that the values of Homo Economicus are deadly to the planet. But it is dangerous to confuse the dysfunction of humans impacted by global free market capitalism, with the norms of human psychology. Unipolar depressive disorders are the leading causes of disability worldwide. Is this a normal human state?

The solutions are local, not global… communities deteriorate in predictable ways, but they can also be healed systematically. “Comfort,” “belonging” and “protection” are features that all humans crave, and therefore there is no need for “supra-instinctual survival strategies.” We live in an insane culture.

Rather than marginalize the cries for reform, we need to normalize the pain. Protest and concern are healthy reactions to loss and grief … We should study those who aren’t suffering these symptoms. Those who can’t or don’t feel the loss or who don’t know why they are drinking and drugging themselves, that is the true tragedy.”

**********************

The key difference between Dr. Rees and I remains the emphasis we place on our better angels.  Evil exists.  However, I don’t see greed, selfishness or aggression as any more dominant than altruistic instincts.  Phrases such as ‘supra-instinctual survival strategies‘ make me nervous because they suggest an elitist top-down approach to the dilemmas of depleting energy reserves, degraded environment conditions and economic hard times.  Personally, I remain deeply suspicious of solutions that require thunderbolts from on high.   And, you’ll see a lot of proposals out there that argue that centralized solutions are our only hope, suggesting we turn over the control to those who know better. The danger we face is not our nature, but the ease of which we see only the “knights” and miss the “ants.”  The ‘shiny armor’ is the media, which shapes the discourse.  The ants are all around us now, seemingly insignificant, camping out in parks, singing a new Handel hymnal about corporate greed, and paying off the K-mart holiday lay-a-way bills of complete strangers all across the USA.

I’d rather cast my lot with the ants.