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.

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?


Killer Planet Asteroids and Other Distraction

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

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

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

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

That’s far enough away for me.”

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

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

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

“And then what?”

“It could destroy the Earth!”

and again I repeated “And then what?”

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

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

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

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

Like the killer cost of food worldwide.

And pressing things on my own personal agenda.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Done in by a giant planet-killing potato.



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

I have no comment.

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

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

1. Mess with your sense of agency:

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

“I’m Totally Responsible!”

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

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

“I have no control!”

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

2. Perfect your paranoia:

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

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

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

Make yourself the victim:

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

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

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

Believe nothing positive will result from the experience.

4. Assume you are worthless or incompetent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Don’t allow yourself to feel bad:

Instead, medicate stress

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

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

7. Focus on what other people think of you:

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

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

8. Project future doom:

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

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

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

9. Convince yourself that you are on your own:

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

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

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

10. Be vigilant against change:

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

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

11. Be guided by meaninglessness:

Believe that life has lost all meaning and value.

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

12. Perfect the fine art of blame:

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

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

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

13. Shun social support:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But if you aren’t really into being miserable…

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

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

Something’s in the Air

by Chuck Willis

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

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

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

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

Rising Blood Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heat-Free Bloggin?

Just for the record, I’m not a ‘heat-free blogger.’ I do keep the downstairs of my home 45 degrees at night, that is true, but it usually never dips below 50. It’s also true that DH and I moved down stairs onto a make-shift couch/twin bed in the music room, and shut off the heat upstairs. He braves the cold, showers and dresses up there, but again, it is seldom actually gets down below 48 even when the heat is off.

I’m not that brave. I’ve moved my clothes down here, and grab a shower downstairs as well. But in the daytime, when I feel chilled to the bone, I’ll crank the heat up to 64 from the 58 I leave it at. When it gets dark, it automatically goes up to 64 for another few hours, just so we can get dinner going, and socialize before bed. Then it automatically goes down to 45, but, as I said, it’s never lower than 50, and more often 52 because my house is well insulated with double-pane windows.

I’d call it “refreshing” to travel from an exceptionally warm bed with a down comforter (and a man from Southern Italian roots who’s a blow-torch of heat…) out to the “cold air” to run to the bathroom at night. My feet and legs are also often outside the covers during some periods to “cool off.” I also have two cats and two dogs to join us in bed, if we’re really feeling chilly!

Yes, I’ve developed a different relationship to the cold, than I had last year. Last year I was wimpy, expecting some sort of award for bearing the cold. This year, honestly, it is just ‘life,’ and not a particularly hard one at that. In fact, when the wood furnace is going full-throttle, and it gets hot in this house, I don’t feel very good physically. I’ve learned that I can always get warm, but not so when it’s too hot. My face goes flush, and I feel ill. I’ve come to really appreciate the delight of an intense heat source, like the corn stove I have in my clinical office. Standing in front of it directs a blast of heat: deeply penetrating heat.

A few years ago, when I told a class (in context) that I kept my house below 50 at times, one student expressed genuine concern that it “wasn’t healthy.” This is so relative. In the dead of winter, on my honeymoon years ago, the weather in Boston shot up to the high forties to low fifties, and people began wearing shorts and tee shirts. And how many of us run out to our gardens on the first warm day, delighting in the ‘balmy’ 50 degree weather?

It’s also true that if I’m fighting a cold or flu, I don’t let the temp drop below 64. Fighting a cold gets into your bones, and it’s hard to warm up when you’re feeling ill, in a cold house.

If you aren’t used to keeping a cool house, but want to be, start at night, and wear a soft hat if you need to, for a while. You’ll adjust to not needing one, and eventually prefer it cool. In the daytime, have a sweatshirt with a hoodie, and if you get cold, wear it up around your head. You’ll warm up quickly, and if you don’t, jump in and take a hot shower.

More and more, though, I’m thinking we Americans have got to get over this idea of “central heating/air conditioning,” and instead consider comfort only in the rooms we’re in. Have you seen these neat tables that have a heater attached underneath them with a blower? You put a large blanket over it, your feet (in a kimono is best because the heat shoots up your whole body) under the table, and there you sit and socialize, all cozy warm. They are called kotatsu.

Well, that’s my fifty cents on home heating, but really, it’s hardly a hard luck tale of “Psychologist on Ice.” I’ve just come to expect that I’ll wear a tee, a shirt, and a sweater in my house, and if I don’t and claim I’m cold, I need to dress warmer. It’s been a very cold winter here in the hills, with many days hovering around 0-5 degrees. That’s cold. Inside my home, it’s still a warm place to be.

Why You Should Keep Chickens

“You are not keeping them, of course, to make or even to save money. You are not keeping them as pets. You are keeping them for the simple pleasure of their company and the beauty and tastiness of their eggs and their meat. You are raising them because you wish to strike a modest blow for the liberation of the chicken–and indeed, of all living things on earth.”
Charles Daniel & Page Smith

They survive in all kinds of climates. ** They live comfortably in all kinds of shelters. ** A few birds take only a few moments to care for every day. ** You can buy them for a few dollars each. ** The taste of a fresh egg is not comparable to a store-bought one. ** They prepare a garden bed by digging it up and fertilizing it, while feeding themselves. ** Watching them was the first television show. **They are completely sustainable: When they are done laying, you can eat them. ** The cost of their food is ‘chicken feed.’ ** You make good friends when you distribute extra eggs.

In 90 minutes, you can learn all you need to know to get started: Early registration ends this Saturday, May 30th. The course is $29. Learn more and register here.

Chickens 101: A Beginner’s Course in Keeping Chickens

Have you ever thought about keeping chickens but didn’t know where to start? Chickens 101 will help you decide by providing you with all the basic information you’ll need, including:

· Benefits of keeping chickens

· How much time it takes

· Handling fresh eggs

· Choosing the right breed

· Raising and feeding chicks

· Whether you should keep a rooster

· The perfect chicken house

· Children and chickens

Chickens 101 is an introductory course that gives you the facts to help you decide whether chickens are for you and the confidence to pick the perfect hen.

10am PST / 1pm EST
Saturday June 13th, 2009.

Join me then!

DSM Trilogy: Pathological Labeling – Carborexics

In a well-lit office in downtown Manhattan:

Porter Novelli Ad Man (PNAM): Please come in, Mr. Row, take a seat…

Tim: Exactly why am I here?

PNAM: We’ll get to that in just a minute…but first, can I get you a cup of coffee?

Tim: I don’t drink coffee. Do you have herbal tea?

PNAM: Why, yes we do, Helen will you get Mr….

Tim: Here Helen, here’s my cup.
(Look passes between PNAM & Helen)

PNAM: Tim, this is Dr. Vargas. He’s a psychiatrist that would like to ask you a few questions.

Tim: A psychiatrist? You guys dragged me all the way down here to be interviewed by a psychiatrist? Do you know how long it took me to get here?

Dr.: That’s an excellent place to begin, Tim. Exactly how did you get to our office today?

Tim: What? I biked to the train…But it was 8 transfers and it cost me $37.50

Dr.: We’ll reimburse you for that money, Tim. But could you tell us, what did you eat today?

Tim: Usual, it’s spring, so the ramps are up, and I still have left-over rye from the winter, so I heated that up.

Dr.: Did the rye come from a cereal box by one of our sponsors? (lists cereal manufacturers…)

Tim: No, I grew it.

Dr.: And the bike you rode, where did you purchase that?

Tim: I put it together from dump parts.

Dr.: That shirt you are wearing, it is designer, is it not?

Tim: (looking at his shirt) Um, I guess so

Dr: Which store did you purchase that in?

Tim: The second hand one in town.

Dr.: Tim, think back and tell me honestly, when was the last time you went to a major department store or mall?

Tim: I hate those places…

Dr.: Just answer the question, son.

Tim: Let me think…Oh, last November. I needed to get my daughter a birthday gift.

Dr.: Ahh! Excellent! And what did you buy there?

Tim: Buy? I didn’t buy anything. They toss out pallets, and I picked up some to assemble…

Dr.: You didn’t actually go into the store?

Tim: I told you, I hate those places.

Dr.: (To PNAM) It’s premature. I haven’t given him the ‘Consumer Imagery Test,’ yet, but I think I can safely provide you with a diagnosis…’Carborexia.’

PNAM: But that will do, Dr. Vargas. Thank you, Mr. Row, please see my secretary, Helen, for your reimbursement check and stipend…

From Word Spy:

carborexic n. A person who is obsessed with minimizing his or her use of carbon. —adj.
—carborexia n.

Carborexia. It was first developed in the “fashion” section of the New York Times, in an inane article by Joanne Kaufman called Completely Unplugged, Fully Green. She was supposed to be interviewing Sharon Astyk for her latest book publication, but instead, it turned into a slam on what Edson Freeman and I call Sharon’s “Brown” lifestyle. But simply attacking Asytk wasn’t enough. She, and her ilk, called “Deep Greens” by the Ad Men at Porter Novelli, made up seven percent of “consumers,” and this group had to be handled. They needed a diagnostic label, to shape readers’s opinions in the mainstream press: This pathetic behavior-refusing to buy things-was sick and had to be stopped.

Read the original NYT’s article, and you’ll learn that the only psychiatrist commenting on ‘carborexia’ was mealy mouthed, giving only general responses of what it would mean if people showed ‘this or that’ behavioral symptom. I won’t beat the point to death, as I did in that earlier article “Spreading Manure over Astroturf: Why Ad Men Hate Brown,” except to say its important to identify and reject such pathologizing whenever you see it. Follow the Money.

That NYT article appeared on October 19th, but within a few days, it was widely quoted, and a pathology was born:

Being environmentally aware is one thing, and being obsessed with it, is another, say US psychiatrists, who warn that extreme environmental awareness may be creating a generation of “carborexics.”

In a new survey, it was found that seven per cent of Americans come into the category of “dark green” — hard core recyclers and carbon footprint worriers.

However, scientists claim that there is a thin line between these behavioural traits qualifying for eco-leadership or bordering on the obsessive-compulsive.

—”Dark-green ‘carborexics’ — the latest generation of extreme green addicts,” Asia News International, October 21, 2008


“Do you feel anxious when you see a television set left on standby? Does the sight of a plastic bottle haphazardly tossed into a paper-only recycling bin make you feel nauseous? Are you consumed with rage when someone has left an empty room and not switched off the light? Have you recently found yourself overcome with a desire to spit on your car-driving friends and family? When a loved one tells you that he is flying off for some winter sun, do you feel like bludgeoning him over the head with a blunt instrument until he appears no longer to be breathing?

If so, don’t worry! You are probably suffering from “carborexia’, Or “energy anorexia'”.

—Bryony Gordon, “Obsessed with saving the planet? There are worse fates,” The Daily Telegraph, October 23, 2008


This concern PNAM have about people not shopping isn’t about their ‘obsession’ with “saving the planet,” folks. The pathologizing is an attempt to save the corporations. If it becomes “fashionable” not to ‘buy,’ that seven percent could grow.

But of course, it is already growing–this group of “not buying” consumers. But now its because of a new pathology: “Poverty” “Credit Cardeous Maxed Outeus.”

Peak Oil Activists Cut off from Adult Daughter

9796482_sI got an interesting email from some of the sweetest people I know. These friends of mine call themselves “ecotherapists” and they devote their lives to helping people reconnect to the natural world and their truer place in it.

The email was a discussion of Elaine Kost’s article in Culture Change entitled: Mother’s Day Wishes During Peak Times. Kost is one of the Raging Grannies, a group of social justice activists, who do a lot of important acts of civil disobedience.

In this article, Kost tells us that she is estranged from her daughter, Jennifer, whom she hasn’t seen in two years. During that time, her daughter got married, and Kost celebrated her 30th wedding anniversary. She tells us: “We have so many memories without her and we don’t understand why.” Quickly, however, we begin to get clues:

She denies that things are as real as we tell her. She won’t begin to discuss the changes she might make to better prepare herself. Instead she would rather occupy her time by watching silly sitcoms, going to NASCAR races and most recently visiting Las Vegas for her one year wedding anniversary, where her My Space showed pictures of her with plastic gorillas.

Kost takes us through her political awakening, from politics, climate change, Peak Oil, and a rejection of media indoctrination. She began to grow her own food, scale down, pay off her mortgage, and, now retired, she lives on one car. She has, she tells us, “discovered a path to happiness, and it doesn’t cost money.” She raised Jennifer in the country, home-schooled her, “taught her what she needed to know,” and provided her “a strong foundation to survive in a world that’s as amazing as troubled.” “They [the children] questioned everything, but trusted our answers…We were honest in what we told her and felt this was our responsibility as parents, no matter what the outcome. I understand now it would have been much easier to tell her what she wanted to hear…As a mom I’ve tried hard not to enable, though at times I know I have.”

In an earlier article by her husband, David, he expresses a frustration familiar to many of us:

When we talk to people about peak oil/peak resources, climate and ecosystems collapsing, collapse of the financial system and our infrastructure, we find people think we’re nuts. Some are aware of these things, but they’re not concerned because they think they won’t be around to see it happen. Others know it but just won’t do anything and are too lazy, and then there are those who are in it for the money (capitalism with a smile).

Elaine’s children weren’t protected from an awareness of hardship. Both of Elaine’s parents lived through the Blitz in London during World War II, and spoke of it in detail to her grandchildren and “tears filled their eyes.” Her daughters, too, have acknowledged that “some of the best times where when we had the least.

Elaine loves her daughter, isn’t reconciled to this cut-off and finds it “hard to accept the relationship that I have with her now.” She states: “I wish there was a book on how to make my daughter talk to me, because I can’t learn from what I don’t know…I’m searching for answers to who my daughter is.” She attributes the cut-off to her candor: “I only hope that someday she will understand the reason for me telling her what I know. I believe we all gain from being armed with knowledge, as the earth will go on with or without us.

I would have loved a book this Mother’s Day on how to prepare our children for a very different future. Maybe if I believed she was happy, I could let her go. But my motherly instincts tell me otherwise.

I have much in common with this couple. I’m about their same age, and have had my daughter only a few years later than they did. We’ve read the same books, watched the same films, and I’m sure we both have bored our daughters to death with our “information.” Hopefully, I can offer this couple something they might find useful in their goal of reaching out and healing the disconnect between themselves and their daughter Jennifer:

Dear Elaine and David,

You’ve tried so hard to do right by your daughter. You’ve loved her, home-schooled her, taught her basic skills in a rural environment, and above all, you’ve been honest with her about the world she is living in, and she’s been touched by it. She’s listened, with tears in her eyes, to the stories of her grandparents hardship during World War II. She sounds like the smart and sensitive woman you’ve raised her to be.

You see her refusal to come around and accept how “real” things are, as the source of your cut-off from her, but I have a different idea I’d like to toss out. I’d like to suggest that, as hard as this is to hear, your own convictions about how things “should be,” and your own investment in wanting Jennifer to live the way you think she should be living, might be closer to the truth.

Elaine, you and I are both in our 50’s, and we’ve lived a life that we believed was going to work best for us. We grew up in a time of social optimism, and hope for a future that appeared full of possibilities. Your daughter is facing a future of dwindling resources, and increasingly limited life choices.

You decided to seek an alternative path in areas of child rearing (David was a “stay at home” Dad) and education (you home schooled). I hope you were able to get the support of your parents in making those decisions, because we all need support during those difficult early years. Jennifer’s living at a time when even deciding to have child(ren) might be seen as an act of selfishness on her part or cruelty to those child(ren.) My heart goes out to this generation, because we helped shaped the world we’re living in, and our generation took the best and biggest slice of the resources, leaving the next a breakdown historic in its proportions. It’s no surprise that they are looking for mindless distractions to relieve the enormous pressure they feel, coming from every angle.

It is clear that you’ve had a profound impact on your childrens’ lives, but now it is time to relax a bit and trust that whatever direction your adult children take, ultimately, they will never be separated from that loving education you provided. Because of that great dedication to that fundamental shift in your understanding of the world, (a vision I share with you, by the way), I can tell you, without reservations, that you are blowing it now. Perhaps I’m projecting my experience onto yours, so let me tell you about some of the mistakes I made with my own daughter, and see if any of it rings true.

One of the most difficult questions for social activist parents to ask their adult children is: “Do you want my opinion?” For a long time, I didn’t want to ask my daughter that question, because I knew what the answer was.

She didn’t.

She already knew what I thought, thank you very much, because I told her so often. I used to try and “sneak in” education by promising to “only play this tape for 10 minutes” or “only talk for 15 minutes” before I’d agree to change the subject (this worked best when she was in the car and couldn’t escape!). I knew she was listening with half an ear, and I knew she was resentful about it, too, but I told myself that this was “for her own good.”

She knew, however, what I refused to acknowledge: She had a right to her own opinion, even if she WAS my daughter.

I “woke up” when it got so bad, that I one day bribed her by offering to take her to dinner, on the condition that she’d listen to me “talk to her” (lecture at her) for some set period of time. She agreed, sullenly (…she wanted the meal out) but as I talked, I began to notice, really notice, the pained look on her face. Suddenly, deep in my gut, I realized that I had been a fool. What was I doing holding my daughter captive under the lure of a meal out? How effective did I believe I would be under this sort of “forced brainwashing?” Was this really the way to “win friends and influence people?” Of course not.

So I did an “about face.” I stopped my “educational seminar” short, and promised her that I’d never speak to her about any of it, again, unless she was willing to listen. I was losing “valuable learning opportunities,” but I solidified a different sort of relationship with my daughter, based upon more mutual respect.

Later on, a funny thing happened: She started hinting to me that she was following the doomer news. She’d be updating me about what was happening, and I could see she took great pride in “stumping the Peak Shrink.” She could see the delight I took in her, as well, but I still kept my mouth shut, unless she asked me. Later still, she told me that, despite her living in the city, and not “preparing” in any way, she fully expected that I would “keep a place” for her, at my house, should TSHTF. So THAT was her plan!

She totaled her car recently, and asked my opinion about what she should do, because she couldn’t afford to buy another one. Remember, she ASKED me, so I told her. She fought with me when I answered, and I reminded her that ultimately, it was her decision. She knew what I thought, but would have to make up her own mind, because it was her life.

She’s amazed herself by remaining car-free.

Later, she’s suggested some TV programs she thought I’d like, and you know what? She was right. They were enjoyable, (and yes, they were silly) and I told her so. Silly is sometimes good.

Elaine, trust yourself, and re-focus your attention on your relationship with your daughter, is my advice to you. The only way to know who your daughter truly is, is to ask questions, and be genuinely interested in the answers. Not the “Don’t you think you’d be better off…” kind of questions. Leave your judgments at the door.

In my opinion, nothing, including the “Big Bozo Carbon Footprint” (BBCF) Jennifer is leaving, is worth losing her warm connection to you and your husband. You had your chance to make your impression on her, during all of the years when you raised her, and now you have to trust that you succeeded, despite the “fossil fuel fiesta” she’s having now. I’m sure she “gets it.” I’m sure she “knows what you think,” and this might be a big part of the problem.

She knows you don’t respect her, Elaine, no matter how much you may love her. You’ve publicly ridiculed her, calling her interests “silly,” and despite the social approval you got for doing so, by people like me, who agree with you, you’ve also paid a tremendous price for your convictions. It isn’t a price anyone should have to pay. What kind of price?

You weren’t there to stand by her, and promise to support the couple when she married. She needed you to be part of her team, to knock down the door if you had to, and you didn’t. She needed you to congratulate her on surviving that first trying year of being married, and to laugh at, instead of mock that ridiculous gorilla picture. And she’ll need you a lot more, if she decides to contribute to our overpopulation problem in the future.

Your grandchildren will need their Grannie to show them how to raise crops, jump in puddles without caring, and keep their BBFP small. They’ll listen with complete rapture to your stories, and even tears, without ever judging you. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the chance to spend long vacations with them, to give the young couple a break from their parenting responsibilities, and everyone will have a blast–kids, grandparents, and (alone at last!) parents.

But before any of that happens, Elaine, you have to learn to bend real low, for a higher cause. You’ve made the greatest and most common mistake all parents of adult children make: You needed to be right, rather than to be happy.

Despite the fact that you are sure that your daughter is not happy, (and how could she be, estranged from her mother?) Elaine, you aren’t happy either. How could you be? Despite your clear and un-ambivalent declarations of love, I kept reading a stronger subtext of emotion: Pride.

“I only hope that someday she will understand the reason for me telling her what I know. I believe we all gain from being armed with knowledge…” In other words: “I did it for her own good (whether she likes it or not!”) You are certain of your rightness and that pride and certainty is hurting you, Elaine, and alienating you from your own daughter. Don’t let it block you from reaching out and taking a new tact.

Admit that you are a Bozo (we are ALL Bozos on this bus), and make plans to mend your ways. Look for areas where you can stretch and reach out to her. Leave long, apologetic messages on Jennifer’s line, telling her what a jerk you’ve been and telling her how much you miss her and want to make up. Maybe you’ll promise to go to NASCAR with her, drink lots of beer and digest hot dogs with nitrates. (Okay, that would be a lot to ask, I admit…) Get your sense of humor back, and ask your daughter to suggest the funniest sit com on television and watch it over a friend’s house, if you don’t own a television. If she won’t talk to you, ask your other daughter to find out what shows she enjoys. Leave her weekly messages about what parts you thought were the funniest. Tell her you were “lame.” Tell her that you love her more than you need her to save the planet. Tell her that you only have one planet to live on, and you’d rather live on it with her in your life. Tell her you’ll keep a place for her and her hubbie, even if you won’t ‘keep the light on’ for them. Chances are, you and your husband have more time and resources than Jennifer and her husband do anyway. You are part of the Boomer generation, and we’ve been deeply blessed. It might be helpful to acknowledge to her just how lucky we’ve been, and just how screwed that has left her.

Believe me, her “BBFP” isn’t going to bring the planet tumbling down, all by itself, but your “Bozo Pride” will bring your mother-daughter bond to a painful low. Don’t let it. Swallow your pride, make the connection now, and go see her, if the 3 dozen messages don’t work.

This is my belated Mothers’ Day present to you, both, and I hope you find it helpful. If you decide to try it, let me know what happens.

Fond regards from a fellow Boomer Doomer,

Dr. Kathy

Pathways to Community Collapse: Can We Intervene?


As communities are facing high unemployment, economic hardship and deteriorating infrastructure, they will be left even more vulnerable when fossil fuel once again rises in price. In the early stages of distress, appeals to the “common good” or “cooperative engagement” may be met warmly and enthusiastically by townspeople.

However, there are predictable changes as hardship, deprivation and even violence escalates, which impacts on this spirit of altruism. One size does not fit all when working within a community setting. It is a skill to recognize the level of community functioning, or at what stage of collapse the system is functioning, and to artfully navigate within these circumstances. Is an important skill for concerned citizens and community activists alike.

In this first of a multi-part series, I will outline the ways in which researchers have dissected the elements of community deterioration, and outlined the ways in which this cooperative effort between external forces, leadership, and individuals, contributes to its escalating violence trajectory. In later writings, I’ll look at the way researchers have actually worked with communities experiencing high levels of violence and social deterioration, both in the US and in other countries.


Community deterioration is a cooperative endeavor between the larger “mega-forces,” individuals living in that community and the leadership they elect. In a fascinating article that looks at altruism, Stuart W. Twemlow, M.D. of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas (Twemlow, 2001) and his colleagues outlines the systemic spiraling cycle of deterioration within a community that contributes to its further demise. These cycles can be seen, for example, in economic job loss, which intensifies the demand for chemical distractions, which promotes drug trafficking, which increases the incidents of violent crime. Crime increases fear, which increases isolation and detachment, out of concerns that one will be victimized. Trauma and stress shrinks the mindset to our most immediate concerns, and broader perspectives such as community cohesion and compassion, become viewed as too distant to contemplate. Self-concerns and those of one’s own immediate family become sole priority.

As the community becomes less cohesive, pride in living on that “patch of ground” sinks, and we see more defacing, pollution, litter, careless home maintenance, broken windows and the like. Residents begin badmouthing their community, and morale continues to deteriorate. As community pride drops, civic and charitable organizations also cease to function as effectively, “with an envious and greedy spoiling of the cultural context of the community’s knowledge, traditions, and attitudes,” according to the researchers. Money remains the only ruling value.

As deterioration continues, community tradition and pride are eroded deliberately and senselessly, and new rules are enforced that benefit few people, or the ruling elite. Ruthless businesspeople flourish, and all demonstrate less courtesy, and more thoughtlessness in day-to-day interactions.

Flagships of Community Deterioration

In the home, it is the “pair of socks on the living room floor” that begins to communicate to the residents, however unconsciously, that “no order need reign here.” In the community, we might see broken street lights, potholes that aren’t repaired, or litter blight. In the early stages, symbols or celebrations that were once symbolically significant are stopped. The yearly town cookout is canceled for “lack of funds.” As deterioration escalates, we see politicians calling for the abandonment or bulldozing of entire neighborhoods, as a cost-savings measure.

Religious attendance and political involvement drops off. Drinking and domestic violence begin to increase. Local police are more aggressive during traffic stop violations, and the drivers are more arrogant. More and more, people don’t see a “point” in working together for a common good or community socializing as the cultural context of the group gets lost.

Twemlow and his colleague, Frank Sacco observed stages and key elements of collapse in their research, and these attributes contribute to violent communities where a “tough-minded, unforgiving violent mindset of its leaders and members has severely damaged the cohesiveness of the community.”

Here are the key elements:

Artistic pursuits, music as a worthy goal, community discussion and other “genteel traditions” are rejected in favor of the hard sciences or “mindless entertainment.” (Rome’s fall can be seen in the busts of the Emperors over time: As the collapse continued, the artwork became crude and generic.) Anything requiring introspection or careful planning is scorned. Damaged communities increasingly reject the value of carefully thought out future plans. Town meetings spend less time on reflection and discussion, in favor of an action-oriented, stop-gap or short-term focus. Energy is wasted on solving minor problems, and “much to do about nothing” results in extreme measures involving the use of force, the purchase of new weaponry, or restrictive new measures of control.

Personal Power Comes from Violence

Altruism is seen as a “weakness,” to be ridiculed and avoided. Competition becomes a way of separating out the “winners” from the “losers.” The scorn felt by the losers produces resentment, anger, and retaliation. (Mr. Wong, the “Binghamton Shooter,” felt “disrespected” and killed 13 innocent people, after being harassed and belittled.) Caring about one’s fellow citizens becomes a vaguely religious virtue, not a cornerstone of civic responsibility. Citizens increasingly protect themselves from each other, put up gates, hire security or organized crime. Those representing law and order often become corrupted by the situation, and begin to pick and choose who they will “protect and serve.”

Immediate versus Delayed Gratification
Violent communities aren’t pretty. Repairs are shoddy, and new buildings are cheap and ugly. When a business closes, the windows are boarded up carelessly and graffiti results. There is extreme pressure to solve problems quickly, without attention paid to the consequences. These communities become a less desirable place to live, so real estate prices drop off and investment in new business evaporates.

Lack of Stable Political and Family Systems

Leaders may be feared, but not respected. People believe, in general, that “all leaders are corrupt” and “the situation is hopeless.” Family systems deteriorate, feelings of security, stability and belonging, falter, and the demands to “exist in this rat race” intensify exhaustion, burnout, rattle nerves, and test patience. Children are left without the reassuring structures that support them, and they bring this fear, anxiety, hostility or violence into the school setting with them. Consequently, there are increases in school violence, bullying and harassment.

Powerlessness, Despair, and Anomie

As violence and deterioration increase, feelings of powerlessness, apathy, and lack of purpose intensify. There is less time, money, and interest in community centers, civic duties, boys and girls clubs, charitable organizations, community service groups, and religious attendance. Those volunteering for leadership positions are seen as “saps” to be dumped on or blamed. “Whatever!” replaces a genuine sentiment of investment and concern.

Escapism as a Response to Helplessness

As healthier forms of creative escape, such as sports teams, drama clubs, and other recreational activities drop away, they are replaced with more destructive substitutes. Vice and drug/alcohol abuse increase. Parents and teenagers alike appear to show lack of interest in other forms of entertainment or healthier forms of stress management.

The Bully-Victim-Bystander Relationship Dominates

Bullying, sexual harassment, or weapons found in schools and in the work place escalate as the quality of community deteriorates. Bullies, whether they are children, coworkers or bosses, provoke, insult or assault while bystanders either applaud, or remain in fear or are cowered into silence. As the culture coarsens, both children and adults fear ‘causing waves,’ or ‘being next’ should they object to what they see happening in front of them.

Denial of Violence

Denial and projection is often a feature of the coercive power dynamic. One particular group, neighborhood or “the other” is accused of causing the problem and scapegoated for it. Denial may take the form of oversimplification, such as promoting “mandatory jail sentencing” or “stricter gun control,” as a universal solution. When force doesn’t work to control crime, more force is recommended. Stereotyped and over-generalized responses to problems are promoted, and military solutions are instituted to resolve civilian unrest.

Disconnection and Corruption of the Police

“The police in violent communities are very often under fire and become more and more alienated from those whom they are suppose to protect. Community policing efforts become trivialized or nominal, and thus, unsuccessful. Police corruption increases with the populace calling police derogatory names like “pig” (USA) or “animal” (Jamaica)”(Twemlow, 2001). Police consider the citizenship ignorant, selfish, and unresponsive. Crime increases as community/police cooperation unravels.

Population Increase and Redistribution

Shantytowns emerge, squatters take up residence, tent cities pop up and the homeless are more visible on every city street.

In the USA, we see older cities, some of whom have lost half of their population over the past decades, now being essentially “re-designed,” mostly by demolishing hundreds of abandoned homes. While the focus is on the “problem” of empty neighborhoods, few wonder where these long-time residents have gone, and how many more will be driven out of these small cities because of increasing unemployment.

As these empty lots are turning into parks, recreational facilities and gardens, those returning are not the working-class residents who left. News reports tell of upscale architects, and high-tech worker who are only too happy to gut large buildings and turn them into comfortable upscale work/dwellings.

Lack of Social Welfare Programs

The weak and poor become viewed as “lazy freeloaders.” Assistance is cut, or co-payments are raised. Issues such as minimum wage or workers rights are ignored. The ‘social contract’ is broken. Those advocating for the needy are seen as “bleeding hearts” and “unrealistic.”

Criminal Enterprises

Organized crime increases. Governmental authority is vague or non-existent in any meaningful sense.

Abuse and Rejection of the Vulnerable

Socialized care of the young, the old, and the disabled becomes less tolerated, and those who can’t work to earn money are rejected or devalued. The lowest status jobs involve caring for the vulnerable, and a wider sense of social and cooperative responsibility is rejected.

Gender, Ethnic, and Religious Insensitivities

Violent communities are intolerant of difference, and power is a mediating arbiter. Rape increases. Hate groups emerge and are tolerated.


Many of us can see these elements in our own communities, today. However, researchers suggests that four systems: public safety, education, health and social services, and spirituality can be strengthened to catalyze dramatic change. They have successfully instituted such change in their community consulting work. I will review these systems in my next blog entry.


Twemlow, S. (2001, October). Modifying violent communities by enhancing altruism: A vision of possibilities. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 3(4), p. 431-462.

Twemlow, S. & Sacco, F. (1999). A Multi-level conceptual framework for understanding the violent community. In H.V. Hall & L.C. Whitaker (Eds). Collective Violence: Effective strategies for assessing and intervening in fatal group and institutional aggression. Chapter 19 (p.566-599). New York: CRC Press.