Say it isn’t so: Review of J. H. Kunstler’s “Too Much Magic”

James Howard Kunstler describes himself as an “all-purpose writer,” and boy can he write.  His latest book “Too Much Magic:  Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation,” has taken otherwise ‘hard to write clearly about’ subjects such as financial instruments, what’s happening to our environment and shale oil, and made them interesting and useful to the reader, without talking down to, or boring us.

How can we understand the difference between extracting oil from deepwater conventional oil wells and shale oil you ask?  “Think of it as like comparing a fire hose to wringing out a sponge.”

But essentially, the book looks at what prevents the ordinary person (he refuses to call us “consumers”) from recognizing the urgent need for us to “rearrange our manner of living.”

As a psychologist who’s written about these topics, it’s an area that fascinates me. He argues that two central beliefs (when combined) stop people from accepting the notion that there are limitations to growth, increasing economic hardship before us, and calamitous environmental change around us:  “[W]hen you wish upon a star…you’ll get something for nothing!”  He calls this a “toxic psychology…[that] has become baseline normal for the American public.” Kunstler argues that we can’t “sustain the unsustainable,” and we’re got to prepare for “intelligent responses” instead of “solutions.”

And, he adds, the hour is getting very late.

Kunstler calls the conditions of our times a “contraction.”  “The only big remaining questions,” he asks “are whether this sort of compressive contraction can be called collapse and what happens afterward.

Intelligent responses, he argues (in addition his more classic arguments for more rail and working ports), includes “put[ting] us back in touch with elements of human experience that we thoughtlessly discarded in our heedless rush toward a chimerical techno nirvana – working together with people we know, spending time with friends and loved ones, sharing food with people we love, and enacting the other ceremonies of daily and seasonal life in story and song.” Yet these very recommendations seem so banal as to be rejected as no proposal at all. Being human is so…ordinary, and ennui is the symptom of our time. Even airplane travel feels as “boring and tiresome as sitting in the dentist’s waiting room” despite being eight miles up and traveling at 550 miles an hour.  We’re lost an appreciation for the real magic all around us and in us.

Those attending his lectures, he reports, beg for “solutions,” wanting to be fed “rescue remedies” that promise a continuation of an easy life, endless driving, cheap fast food, NASCAR and Disney World.  “Ordinary people already felt hopeless about the things they were conditioned to believe they had control over, such as the idea that gainful employment would find those willing to work,” so when confronted with the harsh realities of Peak Everything and “what is among the gravest problems that the human race has ever faced” (like environmental catastrophe) they tune out.  These issues appear to be “best ignored, with the hope that it would go away, like a case of poison oak.

Climate Change

One thing that isn’t going away is a worsening planet. “[O]ver 40 percent of the entire United States was subject to drought” in 2011. Today, that figure is 56%.  Kunstler tells us that sixty percent of aquifers in India will be in critical condition in fifteen years, and groundwater is being pumped into irrigated farmland faster than rainfall can recharge it.  Yet we spend far less on international climate change financing than we do on “air-conditioning in the various theatres of war.”  Climate change deniers tend to also be Peak Oil deniers, according to Kunstler, movements both heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry.


Anyone who reads him knows how biting Kunstler can be critiquing – Disney Land guests who are “overfed Americans waddling so innocently about in their JC Penney casuals,” and in this book, he doesn’t disappoint. But he also shows us a more tender side. We can feel his outrage at the wasted opportunity, misdirected trillions, and the ticky-tacky bait and switch, that impacted those born at the turn of the last century.  They travel to Disney Land now to relive what they most loved about where they were born– a place of shops and shopkeepers, the safety of walking around and greeting other people, and feeling the neighborliness of small town America. In short, they now pay to see a fake version of “whatever had made their towns worth caring about.”  Even though he acknowledges that most of these same folks worked very hard to advocate for the very changes that eventually destroyed that way of life, he’s put it in context in this book. Like Kunstler, himself claims  “I feel that I am a hostage to this economy.

It is a sentiment that echoes with me as a clinical psychologist. I regularly work with couples who try to find meaning in a life that is filled with moving family members to and from school, work, the mall, and the soccer field.  Many nights, when they’re starving, they stop for a fast food dinner, although they know better.  Kunstler calls this a life devoid of “repose and tranquility, the necessary conditions for reflection.” We now pay people like me for the time to gain a ‘considered life.’ My clients know that something is wrong with this picture, but they blame themselves instead of cultural norms.  Many make a middle or upper-middle class income, and find themselves being too tired to make a decent dinner or to see friends, too exhausted or alienated from each other to have passionate sex or a meaningful conversation, or in too much chaos to create an organized and “homey” home life.  Designer pillows and drapery don’t make “homey.”  The act of tending to and living in a space actually makes it a home.

Kunstler argues that cities “were designed to serve all the most inhuman elements of industrial enterprise: the needs of machines, factories, transport infrastructures and the efficiencies demanded by capital finance…” The more industrial and urban the USA became, the more nostalgic people became for rural and village life.  But “rural” is not “suburban,” as suburbia, according to Kunstler, lacks its rich “associational nature,” and the inability to integrate activities like visiting, eating in a café, or children roaming in woodlands, to later meet friends at a central location.  It is the interweaving of businesses that create civic responsibility, from “Little League to libraries.”  This is something corporate America lacks.

In a paragraph, he beautifully sums up the trials in the migration of Southern agricultural peasants who were displaced by “mechanical cotton pickers” in the late 1940’s, only to be displaced again a few decades later from this same factory and heavy industrial work they came to do.

Psychologist Bruce Alexander traced the emotional impact of displaced Scottish Highlander sheep herders who immigrated to Vancouver, BC. Dr. Alexander argues that it creates deep despair and hopelessness not only for the former way of life, but also for the connectedness and context of their prior community.  Whisky, an integral part of Scottish culture, became an overused or abused “medicine” to treat the meaninglessness of rootlessness they encountered in the New World.  As true of the families of the South migrating North to cities like Detroit or Cleveland, alcohol and drug abuse brought with it family instability, mental illness, and violent crime.  Later in the book, Kunstler targets the “infantile and barbaric” clothing of young men with baggy shorts and oversized shirts giving the appearance of a “human body with very short legs and a large torso, which is exactly how little children are proportioned…designed to advertise that the wearer does not expect to do any physical labor.” Perhaps with linkages to prison dress, these youth represent two or more generations of parents and grandparents who have lived decades as social throw-aways, and part of the chronically unemployed. And tattoos might say “graphically that you have written off your economic future.”  Or it was written off for you before you were born.


Only Kunstler could toss around provocative terms describing Obama voters as “baby boomer intellectual romantics, race-and-gender special pleaders, public employees and transfer payment recipients…” and argue for a generation of “boomers yearning for the moral victory of electing a black president, a kind of coda to the romantic idealism of their youth in the old civil rights marching days.” Instead of idealism and desired “change,” Obama gave us more of the same handouts (“shovel ready public works projects, mostly building highways,” and rescuing General Motors and Chrysler) and more of the same people, put in positions of power to enforce the law, who didn’t.  Republican or Democrat, it used to matter.  Now Kunstler argues, it’s been sold “lock stock and barrel” to corporate interests.

Wall Street

The chapter that most impactful to me was “Going Broke the Hard Way: The End of Wall Street.” It explained the various financial instruments and the funny business that happened with them, in enough detail to be meaningful, while holding my interest.  I learned quite a lot about complicated financial swindling and was left feeling furious when I finished the chapter.  He ends with this paragraph:

The United States became the economic engine of the developed world in the past century not just because of its abundance of mineral wealth…but largely because the rule of law was so firmly established here that people knew where they stood with things they’d worked for all their lives…These rights and responsibilities were enforced with more than the usual rigor found in other parts of the world. They enabled business to be conducted freely and mostly fairly. The confidence that people all over the world felt for the rule of law in American financial matters was expressed in their respect for our money and the moneylike instruments issued by our companies and banks, the stocks and bonds, et cetera. We threw it all away: our honor, our faith in ourselves, our credibility with others, and the legitimacy of our institutions. (P.` 154.)

The Bumpy Ride Down

There are no ‘rescue remedies’ here, and no ubiquitous “happy chapter” that often accompanies a book of this type. We have, according to Kunstler, a “rendezvous with entropy” where “the truth is that circumstances will now determine what happens, not policies or personalities.”

It’s time to get real, and yet: “We can’t face it. We pretend it’s not happening. We’re doing everything possible to defy it as a practical matter.” We can’t go on pretending much longer.

Too Much Magic, like The Long Emergency, is destined to become a Peak Oil classic.

James Howard Kunstler, (2012).  Too Much Magic:  Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation,  Atlantic Monthly Press.

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.

Canadian Physician with Panglossian Wife

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

Dear Peak Shrink,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Canadian Medical Doctor with Panglossian Wife



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quality” Kid Time

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

Would you?

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

Would you?

Contempt and Taking on the B*tch


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

Taking your wife on sounds like a Herculean task.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contempt is also the single best predictor of divorce.

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

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

Recognizing Contempt:  The Facial Eye-Roll

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one Mother wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck.

Peak Shrink

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 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.


Losing the Loved One You Can Talk to…

Hi Peak Shrink,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

Sail on.


Hi Tally ho,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Emotions

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

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

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


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

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

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

Peak Oil Relationships

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

Gridlocked Problems

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

Grieving Lost Dreams

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

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

Do I Have to Cry Out?

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

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

The “Flawed Spouse’ Syndrome

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

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

Emotions as key Organizers

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

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

Try this during your next conversation:

(1) Notice negative emotion before it escalates.

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

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

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

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

Good luck and thanks for writing.

Honda’s “Racing Against Time:” Running on Empty?

“This post is a contribution to Honda’s “Racing Against Time” thought leadership series.  Peak Oil Blues was selected to provide a unique perspective on how we should approach the discussion of oil as a finite energy source.   During the first week of October 2010, five individuals provide their own thoughts on the subject. These independent contributors were not compensated for their participation and as such their views are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Honda.  Details and links to what others are saying about “Racing Against Time” can be found at


Welcome, Honda Motor visitors.

I’m delighted to participate in this conversation.  I’m a clinical psychologist, got my doctoral degree 22 years ago, and I’ve been reading and answering letters from people who have learned about Peak Oil, started feeling crazy, and needed to talk to somebody who “got it.”  So they write to me.  Feel free to read the letters I’ve received over the past four and a half years.

There is only one reason to consider the terrifying implications of an oil depleted future:  ­­­­­­It gives you more options.  If you could know, with 100% certainty, that you would lose your job in nine months, wouldn’t you want to know?  Of course you would.  You might say “Let’s reconsider taking on more debt” or “Let’s not move.”  You might grab all the overtime you can.  Knowing things ahead of time, even bad things, gives you options, and allows you to make better decisions about how you will live your life today.  That’s the only reason to listen to what I’m about to tell you, and to at least check it out.

Don’t take my word for it. Do your own research.

I’ve learned a lot about what researching this bad news does to people, emotionally—even people who don’t usually get upset easily—like ‘gear heads,’ engineers, oil geologists and scientists. Even ‘techno-fixers.’  These are folks who don’t accept people saying: “there is nothing you can do about it.” That’s not even true.  Of course there is.

But everyone is helpless if they are ignorant.  And trust me, you don’t want to be left in the dark about Peak Oil, because it is going to dramatically change the way you live over the next 10-20 years.  Maybe even five years.  Maybe less than two.

“By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day,” says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.”

The steady flow of affordable oil is the life blood of this culture.  Look around you: 95% of everything you see comes from oil, even things you don’t think about, like food and plastics.


Yep.  Food doesn’t come from a supermarket, it comes from agri-business farms that require fossil fuels for fertilizers, farming equipment, trucks, cold storage, heat and utilities.  Have you noticed that food prices are rising?  That’s just the start of it.  And your commuting costs will rise, too.

I know you have enough to worry about right now, trying to keep your job or find a new one, keep your kids fed and clothed…that kind of thing.  I get it.

I’m a ‘shrink.’ I talk to people every day about the stresses they face, and how overwhelmed they feel.  But if you let this really sink in, you are going to make better decisions about your future. It is really important stuff that will change your life plans.  And this is a dilemma, not a problem.  A  problem has answers, but a dilemma is complex, and any way you move, it causes difficulties–between a rock and a hard place.

First, the good news: eventually, we’ll find ways to adapt.  Life without a steady supply of oil will mean we’ll have to scale down, live more locally, and live more simply.  “One thing” won’t replace oil, because nothing is as energy-dense, or packs the punch of oil.  Just a tank-full of gas gets you, what, 350-400 miles?  That’s powerful stuff.  And it’s so fabulous, so versatile, used for making so many really important things like live-saving medical equipment and even medicine, that we couldn’t even go ten days without it.  If we did, countries would crash and burn spectacularly.

How do I know this?

Empty Highways Barcelona Spain September 2000

Because it happened in September of 2000.  A bunch of angry French fishermen blocked the path oil tankers use to deliver fuel and starved Europe of oil for 9 days.  Only 9 days.  They weren’t terrorists; they were just ticked off about having to pay high oil prices and wanted the French government to lower their fuel taxes.  Countries like Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Poland, and Greece saw widespread protests.  They were playing tennis on the empty streets of Belgium!  One doctor in England planned to visit on horsebackWild stuff!

So governments said: “Please guys, you’re killing our economy.  Stop it,” and they did. The American media ignored the story, because it was such a popular revolt.  Why risk a protest like that spreading in the USA?  Read the full story here.

As gasoline becomes increasingly expensive, and we hit actual periods of shortage here in the US, our gas stations are going to have trouble staying open.  Forget vacation travel, without a reliable supply of fossil fuel, transporting essential commodities by air won’t be possible and relying on “just-in-time delivery,” will be business suicide.

We need a twenty year lead time that we don’t have.  We are going to see big changes much sooner than that.  They’ll be innovations to soften the impact–many things, in fact– but none will “make it all better” or keep us living exactly like we do right now.

When I learned about Peak Oil five years ago, I found it hard to believe.  Looking into it, I found facts and figures on one side that told me this was real, and a lot of wishful thinking on the other side saying it wasn’t.  I looked for credible skeptics, but couldn’t find any.

Later, I read about the US, British, and German military concerns about oil depletion, and I knew these ‘worried warriors’ weren’t “chicken little” types.

A funny thing happened when I really started to get that we aren’t going to be able to have a steady stream of cheap oil indefinitely:  I started to really appreciate how easy I had it, compared to people a hundred years ago.  I could flick a switch and have clean, bright, odorless light.  I could “prepare” for winter by turning on the heat and putting on the snow tires.  I could eat strawberries in January, and keep meat frozen in my freezer for months.

I love my car and not just for practical reasons.  I can go where I want, when I want.  I can get into a beautiful, smooth-riding car and go for a joy ride.  Get it?  A Joy Ride.  Nobody likes commuting, but in my neighborhood, Autumn is when people love to drive around aimlessly gazing at gorgeous foliage.

As a teenager, I adored my boyfriend’s sports car, riding with a group of my friends, blasting our music, and speeding down the highway at full throttle.  I never wanted it to end.  I still don’t.

Many of us like the privacy and isolation of being alone in our cars.  We sing in our cars; we grieve in our cars.  We’re going to have to find a better way to do those things.

I drive around in a two-ton box, where 5% of the gas carries me, and 95% carries the box.

That makes no sense.

I’m looking into a very different future, whether I like it or not.

Wonder why a car company asked me to talk to you?  A psychologist? Because they know they’re in a tough spot and that means we’re in a tough spot.  We love our cars, and they love their business.  But without cheap, available oil, more than just what we drive is going to have to radically change.

Throughout history, we traveled, on average, thirty-minutes from home.  What has changed is how fast we now travel.  Ninety-percent of our daily trips are still just thirty-minutes from home, but we now go 20-30 miles. We’ve given up on public transportation and high-speed rail in this country. We’ve given up on walking and biking.  Kids don’t walk or bike like they used to.  Back in the 1960’s, school children walked a mile to school, but today, only 31% of school children walk that distance.  We need to re-localize our communities, but it will require a lot of time, money, sacrifice, and a lot of fossil fuel.  We’re limited in time, money and oil, and we’ve lost any sense that a willingness to sacrifice is honorable.

We’ll need to revive long-abandoned social virtues, such as “Pietas”–­­­­­­­a duty or devotion to the greater good; “Gravitas”–a dignity and seriousness in pursuit of that duty; and we’ll need governmental, corporate, and community leaders who embody “Dignitas,” a personal reputation, moral standing, and ethical worth which entitles them to our respect.

It’s not just about driving; it’s about driving cultural values.

We were warned that the energy crisis was “the moral equivalent of war.” Back then, the world was consuming 60 million barrels a day.  Now we use 84.  It’s a war for our very survival.  To quote the Talking Heads:

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

It took decades to ramp up the petroleum age and we squandered the decades we needed to ramp back down. We’re in an emergency situation.  A third of a century ago, we refused to engage in serious conversations.  We can’t avoid it anymore. We refused to deal with reality and now reality is dealing with us.

I understand that for over thirty years, nobody has told you how serious Peak Oil is.  But now someone has.  After you recover from the shock, it is time to begin a conversation in your own comm­unity.

Thank you.  Does anybody have any questions?


If you don’t know what Peak Oil is, the video below is a quick, easy to understand and funny explanation, from the website for the newly released movie How to Boil a Frog:


Kathy McMahon, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, practices marital and family therapy, and is also a certified sex therapist and educator.  She teaches graduate school, maintains a small clinical and online practice, and supervises doctoral psychology interns in an urban social service agency for the poor. She also raises chickens. Dr. McMahon is active in her local community’s efforts to eradicate hunger and power-down to a low-energy future. Despite being pessimistic about the future of cheap energy she’s very hopeful about the power of small groups of people creating a simpler but more meaningful life together, while simultaneously annoying each other in the process.  She has been quoted as saying “If I can’t dance, I don’t want the Armageddon.” She’s launching a Pacific Northwest speaking tour this week, entitled:

“How to Stay Sane as the World Goes Crazy: Economic Hard Tim­es, Climate Change and the Messy Issues of Oil”

(see right panel for details) and will be visiting many Transition USA locations.

The goal of Peak Oil Blues is to provide a place where people can reflect on the emotional impact of dramatic economic and cultural upheaval in a time of political uncertainty, and to sort out what is “mental preparation” from what is just “acting mental.”  Dr. McMahon educates mental health professionals about common, predictable patterns of stress seen in those becoming aware of these issues and urges normalizing, not pathologizing, these patterns.

She can be reached at Peak Shrink AT Peak Oil Blues DOT com.

Stages of Peak Oil Awareness

It’s 2010, and I’ve been a clinical psychologist for the past 22 years, have worked in a variety of settings, and with people of different ages and a variety of presenting problems, but nothing in my professional background prepared me emotionally to wrap my head around Peak Oil.  Four and a half years ago, I began a research project to figure out what is a “normal” reaction to learning about Peak Oil, and this essay is a summary of what I’ve learned.  If you don’t know what Peak Oil is, here is a quick, easy to understand and funny explanation from the website for the newly released movie: How to Boil a Frog. 1

Intro to Peak Oil

I invited people to write me about their own reactions to learning about Peak Oil, and they did.  They emailed me from all over the world– from remote tropical islands to the Swiss Alps; many  contributed from European countries, as well as Australia, South America, Asia and all over the US.  They were all grateful to have the chance to talk about how stressful it was to learn about Peak Oil, how isolated they feel, and how relieved they were to learn how typical their reactions were.  They weren’t “crazy.”

From this research, I’ve developed a deep respect for how powerful psychology is in framing reality.  Misuse this power, and we begin pathologizing a person’s emotional reactions, when they are perfectly appropriate given the situation or potential threat that presents itself. I call that “Psychological Terrorism.”

Peak Oil is real, it’s not a “theory” or a “belief” any more than the chair you’re sitting on or the device you’re using to read this is a belief.  But as I’ll discuss, it is a tough fact to grasp because it isn’t an easy problem to solve.  In fact, it isn’t even a problem at all, it’ a dilemma.

Panglossian Disorder as way of “Not Knowing”

For years, those of us who were unwilling to face the bad news used a number of defense mechanisms to try to deny the reality of Peak Oil.  To help my readers understand the nature of these defensive structures, I created a mock psychiatric category I call Panglossian Disorders with a host of subcategories. Panglossians, I claimed,  suffer from “the neurotic tendency toward extreme optimism in the face of likely cultural and planetary collapse.”  While I don’t argue with folks embracing the Panglossian defense, I do appreciate that there are life circumstances which make it all too difficult to cope with upsetting news.  So I offer you an invitation to embrace Panglossian subtypes if you are so inclined.  They range from Basic Denial: “This isn’t real.  I’m sure of it,” to denial with McGyveristic Features –  belief that massive planetary problems can be solved with ordinary/common items found readily at hand. (Eg.: “Pig dung will be the next fossil fuel.” or “Coke Cans can be turned into solar panels.”)  For the racing fans, Panglossia with Nascarian Features are sure to please: “People love their automobiles. A solution will have to be found to keep us driving.”  Check here for a complete list to choose from.

You may remember from this Honda video, Robert Bienenfeld, Senior Manager for Honda’s Environmental and Energy Strategy did a partial tumble into Stone Age Panglossia–The Flintstonian: “The stone-age didn’t end because people ran out of stones.” This is a belief that modern innovation is eternal.  Fortunately, he rescued himself in time by adding “and it would be great if we could end the oil age not because we run out of oil, but because we find something better.” A fabulous pull-back to reality from a well-worn Panglossian defense!  Great job, Mr. Bienenfeld!  (Of course the chances of finding “something better” is rather slim, but still…)

Why we all Embrace Panglossian Defenses

We all have our favorite Panglossian defenses, and most of us retreat to them occasionally.  Defenses are unconscious psychological strategies we use to cope with a challenging reality and to maintain our self-image.  These defenses provide a safe retreat from everyday stresses. They lessen nervous tension so we can cope better with our circumstances.  They protect us against overwhelming anxiety or help us fit in more easily with others.

No one wants to be considered a “weirdo” or a “freak” who claims that the end of the world is right around the corner.  But the problem with using Panglossian defenses as a lifestyle is that we end up living in a constant state of denial.  While in denial, we aren’t taking action to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil.  Given what we face, this is a grave danger.

“This Can’t Be Right! Let me Look into it…”

Research, Shock, and Panic

For those who begin to investigate this dilemma, common behavioral and emotional reactions appear.  The first is how people engage in the task of researching, itself.

“I’ve worked in engineering in petrochemical plants for a decade and suddenly understood the reason so much maintenance had been so miserly.  At first I was in shock and desperately began to search for every site/book related to the issue only to find the naysayers had much less legitimacy and poorer math than the proponents.”

“I underwent a period of frantic exploration, tagging sites, half-reading articles, joining groups, meeting up (online) with others and viewing documentaries. Like a ping-pong ball, my state of mind bounced to the tune of whatever the predominant psychological slant of the author was.  And yet . . . what about those advertisements they posted for books and devices that would help you weather the apocalypse? What were the web masters’ vested interests?  I had to weigh up, evaluate and sift through information that was not always impartial. (One site had a link that led to a spiel which urged me to invest in Uranium!)”

The first reaction to learning about Peak Oil is disbelief.  That’s not surprising.  It’s a lot to take in.  As people dig deeper, they realize that there really is something to this.  So the next challenge they take on, is to find the “solution” to the “problem” others have missed.

“The solution has got to be in here somewhere.”

“At first, I tried to disprove the idea. This didn’t work. However, perhaps advanced forms of nuclear energy would be developed, I thought. Perhaps scientific geniuses would find new and unknown sources of energy. Perhaps Martians will land and teach us their secret of universal power. I still hope some way to mitigate the energy and social crisis we face will be found, but I don’t think I should bet my life on it. The conclusion I am forced to come to is that human civilization is facing its most serious threat since the last ice age–and I find this very depressing. I believe it is totally ‘off the scale.’”

Engineers and scientists often have the hardest time in this phase.  As a psychologist, I wouldn’t know a solution that conformed to the laws of physics from one that didn’t.  In contrast, oil geologists, scientists and engineers could spend weeks or months investigating the science, exploring avenues, and checking the facts from the ‘Peak Oil experts.’

“I happened upon some peak-oil literature by accident this past weekend, and I can honestly say that I have not slept well for the past three nights thinking about it.  Usually, when I am worried about something, my mind works on the subject all night long.  In the light of day, I feel better and I begin to stop worrying.  With the subject of Peak Oil, I have yet to find any sense of peace.  I wake up and all day long the only thing I can think about it is “this life is just a dream.” I’m an engineer, so the nature of my profession will not let my mind simply accept fate.  My brain now races through ump-teen possible solutions and what I could do to help implement them.  Yet the realist in me doesn’t see a fix for this problem.  Our economy hasn’t even trended toward a fix, so how could this problem ever possibly be solved in time?  The lead time is far too great for any remotely-possible solutions.”

Peak Oil captures their full attention to such an extent, that they experienced trouble staying focused at work.  They research it every spare moment:

“Fall of 2005 I couldn’t really get it out of my head, and I was scared and trying to learn. I was beginning to have trouble with other research, because I was spending my thinking time, trying to wrap my brain around Peak Oil and what it meant for our society. By then I had 2 kids and a tenure-track job…”

After a while, they describe feeling shocked or numb emotionally.  This numbness allows their minds to process the information cognitively, without being overwhelmed by it emotionally.

Most came to accept the fact that this was a dilemma, a choice between a rock and a hard place, with no easy solutions. They discovered that the issues were a whole lot more complicated than they first considered them to be.  The future was not going to look like the present.  It was a shocking realization for professionals like engineers, whose job it is to find workable answers.

My contributors realized that every “community” has its lingo, culture, colorful and caring characters, and the Peak Oil community was no different.  They wandered into chat rooms that left them in the depths of despair.  Or to websites that were filled with charts and graphs exploring subtle changes in energy output or refinement capabilities.  They found cyber tea and sympathy offered to “newbies” who were invited to ask for help and guidance, but also faced hostility from people more than willing to flame them for asking “stupid questions.”  The Peak Oil community is full of all sorts of people, just like any other group.

“The problem I have found with raising the topic of PO with friends/family/strangers is that the scale of the problem defeats most imaginations, including mine. But once I grasped the gravity of the situation it was like waking from a dream to find the world is not all as it seems. I am now conscious of the conditioning we have subject[ed] ourselves to, the distractions of modern life, the greater forces at work that have been beyond our control.  Thank you for your web site and the knowledge that others feel as overwhelmed as I do. It has been seven months since I became aware of the peak oil concept, and I am relieved to hear that the initial emotional reactions subside with time.”

“I suppose the best thing to tell people when they learn about peak oil is that the panic will pass.”

Peak Shrink Tips for this Stage:

Eat, Sleep, Hydrate, Repeat.  Know your own tendencies.  How much information is “enough?”  Do you jump into action before you stop and think, or spend so much time thinking, that you don’t move a muscle?  Take breaks from the research, for your own well-being.  It will still be there when you get back.  There are a lot of resources out there, so pace yourself.

“It got so bad that I decided that I had to stop the obsessing. I gave myself a moratorium. I wasn’t allowed to read, speak or think about Peak Oil for six weeks. I was very strict with myself, and when I found my thoughts drifting to the subject, I redirected myself. I was really glad I did it, even if six weeks was a bit long. It gave me a break where I could just live my real life and internally absorb the bad news without piling more and more bad news on top of it.”

The Big Secret

Many contributors felt they had a frightening secret that they couldn’t share:

“I am in my mid-thirties and a science teacher. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to teach science to classes year after year who haven’t the slightest clue what is happening in this world. Most don’t even seem to care.  I have been living a double life for awhile. Knowing the truth and pretending not to know, just to fit in.”

[A fast crash] would free me from ever having to continue with the charade I sometimes feel I’m living with 98% of my people-contacts: I would be sharing a world-view (however high the feeling of crisis) with everyone, rather than me seeing a crisis on the horizon that others don’t see, me consistently wondering and waiting for it to transpire.”

Sharing the Secret: “Cassandra:”  “Help! Help!  We’re Running Out of Oil!”

Others experienced both the pressure to share what they knew about Peak Oil, as well as the rejection they faced when they did.

“When I have time off I find myself writing long essays, the kind I would have written in college about peak oil, trying my best to explain the scope of the problems. I want to send a copy to everyone important in my life. Friends, family, that cute girl I’ve asked out a few times, but I never do, I just waste the whole weekend writing, go to my senseless job for another week, then come back the next weekend to put together another version that will never get delivered. I just find myself thinking “What’s my next move?  How can I get them to understand?”

Cassandra was a character of Greek mythology that could see into the future, but Apollo placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions. Her combination of deep understanding and powerlessness exemplify the tragic human condition.  You may have already guessed that telling people about Peak Oil isn’t the easiest thing to do.

“It is isolating knowing about this stuff because no one wants to believe you…”

“At first, I tried to tell people what I was discovering. I showed the people I worked with charts and evidence. Even though I was worried sick for my friends’ well being, they would say they didn’t want to hear about gloom and doom. Others said they understood what I was talking about, but there was nothing they could do. In fact, so many people indicated to me there was nothing to worry about, that I began to doubt my own sanity. Somebody, I thought, had to be crazy! I often think to myself–if only I were just insane–the doctor could give me a pill, and I would wake up and everything would be OK again.”

Time and again, contributors worked hard to provide information nobody wants to know.  The response they got from family members, friends even spouses who didn’t “get it,” was either disinterest or hostility.  Sometimes, the contributor, themselves reacted with hostility in return.  Alienation resulted.


“NOBODY sees what I see.”

“Before he educated himself about P.O. he was a normal, fun 24 y/o guy. We went out with friends, double dates with our girl friends-the usual stuff recent college grads do. Now, my best friend is the biggest “Debbie Downer”(SNL character) I know. I find myself, taking up for him a lot with our other friends because they usually don’t want him around anymore.  He’s become selfish, preachy and just an overall buzzkill to be around. This is my best friend, like my brother. What can I do to help him? What can I do to understand his state of mind?

“My response–so far–has been to quit my job and isolate myself from my old friends. I have made a decision not to go down with the ship.”

You can’t fight denial.  If you have just learned about Peak Oil, recognize that the way you approach people will have some impact on how you are received.  “Buzzkills” lose friends, and they don’t make “Peak Oil Converts,” no matter how sincere they might be.   Peak Oil brings out the worst in all of us when we first learn about it. If we tend toward mania, we become more manic. If we lean toward paranoia, we become more paranoid. If anger is our fall back, we’re angry all the time. If fear or depression is pronounced in us, we feel these emotions more acutely.  Even the most skilled communicator may well be greeted less than enthusiastically.  This is probably the most difficult part of Peak Oil awareness for most people.  It’s going to take all of us working together to find ways to soften the Peak Oil catastrophe, but so few people appear to “care.”  Research by colleagues has indicated that it isn’t a lack of caring, but an intense sense of caring.  It’s overwhelming.  Most of us can’t handle the stresses we’re currently dealing with.  Now a friend or spouse tells us that things are going to get horribly worse…unless we change everything?  It’s no surprise that people turn off, tune out, and pretend it isn’t so.

Fear, Depression, Retreat

Some imagine a “Mad Max” world where only the most violent or cunning survive.  Movies like “The Road” scare them half to death, because that’s what they imagine we’ll face.  Others fantasize about a pastoral scene, once the chaos settles down, where they can enjoy a life free of debt, office cubicles, and traffic jams.  Still others use their mental energies to figure out how to prepare for more immediate, concerns:

  • How will I reduce my reliance on gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, or electrical costs in the coming years when I’m expecting these costs to climb exorbitantly?
  • What other necessities will I have to cut back on, as food prices continue to climb?  Can I put in a garden? Eat more locally?
  • Rising energy costs will impact governments as well.  Will I be able to pay rising taxes? Should I get active in local government to make sure I have a say in how budget cuts will impact my family and location?
  • Will it still make sense for me to live where I am, and work where I do?   How much will my commuting costs need to increase before I should change jobs or relocate?  What are other viable options?  Who will buy my house if I need to sell because commuter costs have gone too high?
  • Who will have the money to pay for new technological innovation in transportation as economy get worse?   What happens if large numbers of people stop paying on auto loans for cars they can’t afford to drive anymore?
  • If we’re strapped paying higher energy costs for basic necessities, how can we afford new electric cars or other costly alternatives?
  • Will I still have a job as energy prices rise?  Does my job depend on discretionary spending, leisure travel, or cheap energy?  What types of work can I do if I need to find alternative employment?  What are my skills?

As you can see, the average person has plenty to be concerned about without contemplating cannibals.

Fear:  The Upsetting Gift

I first heard about the concept from an acquaintance of mine back in 2004…Since then, I’ve pretty much been paralyzed with fear and I haven’t really spoken to anyone about it. It feels like I’m just crazy for being concerned – for being afraid that I’m going to die. I’m 24 years old and I can’t get my mind off of death.

Fear can be paralyzing, or it can be motivating.  It’s an emotion that tells us danger is looming and we need to pay attention.  Fear doesn’t have to paralyze you, however. You can learn to take control. In the worst of catastrophes, decisions are made. Some of these decisions are good ones, but still don’t alter the course of events. Some choices lead to poor outcomes that might have been avoided if we had thought more about it.  Our best decisions save the lives of people who might otherwise have died.

Preparedness is a choice, and it requires the willingness to create options for yourself.  It means being willing to manage one’s fears, not attempt to eliminate them.

Depression & Other Mental Illness:

“I have been depressed and withdrawn and can’t talk to anybody about it.  Because I feel silly.  My mom was talking to me last night, telling me about all these plans she has for me. I’m going to get married, I’m going to have kids, I’m going to write the Great American Novel…all these wonderful things. And I kept thinking to myself that I’m never going to have that. I can’t have that. I’ve given up, but I don’t want to give up. I want to believe that everything is going to be okay.”

“There is a chance I might make it through this mess! However depression hangs over my head daily. The old world is gone. I feel a great loss, guilty and responsible, but mostly a profound disappointment that my friends are going to let themselves be washed away.”

“I found out about Peak Oil last autumn. It was the worst time imaginable because I already had big problems with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. To some extent I’ve come to terms with Peak Oil, in that I can truly say I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I make it to my 50th birthday (I’m 39 now). Nevertheless I’m permanently depressed because I know that all the hopes and ambitions I once had (make a living as a writer, sort out my unsatisfactory personal life) are going to have to go by the wayside.”

Depression is a 75 pound monkey you are carrying around with you, as you head into difficult times. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is like the uncontrollable urge to run circles with that monkey on your shoulders. These things aren’t adaptive or helpful to anyone in the best of times.

Learn to manage your thoughts and anxieties, put the monkey down, and stop running.  You certainly CAN head into the future with this load and these exhausting, futile behaviors, but you put yourself at a great disadvantage.  Forget Peak Oil: these are the biggest challenges to your future.  If you don’t solve them, you’re handicapping yourself, whatever the future may hold.

Depression is telling you that you are repeatedly walking into a brick wall, and that you need to find another avenue to walk down. It isn’t just “sadness;” it is a “heads up” that what you are doing right now isn’t working, in your own estimation. The problem with being depressed, however, is that it clouds your thinking…that clear thinking…that you need right now to figure out how to contemplate a viable future.

The future is quite unpredictable, but if you think you know exactly what the future holds in store for you; if you are convinced that you have no personal future worth living into, then you aren’t Peak Oil aware, you’re just not thinking straight.  You may have a clinical depression that should be treated.  But in any case, you’re not being a “realist” if you are cognitively or emotionally impaired.

Suicidal thinking is NEVER an appropriate response to Peak Oil.

Fact: the USA has 5% of the world’s population, but consumes two-thirds of the world’s supply of anti-depressants. Depressive illness makes us rigid and more convinced about what the future holds than is warranted.  If you or someone you know is depressed, suicidal, or suffering from a mental illness, get help.  If you have a mental health diagnosis, then you are likely aware that there are people who can teach you ways to manage your anxiety, depression, obsessions, compulsions or what have you. Your goal is to figure out how these patterns of living have held you back in the past, and will prevent you from reacting in a more flexible and adaptive way to the tasks that lay ahead of you.

Social Isolation & Substance Abuse

“I’m a 26-year-old disabled man, confined to a wheelchair since birth with an extremely rare spinal condition. I never made a big deal out of it and always thought that it was a challenge that I could overcome.  That changed when I found out about Peak Oil.  Life became a continuum of nothingness while I read up on the topic and kinda turned into a sleep-and-alcohol-fueled zombie. I felt like I was dead already.  [I am] quite depressed, although not suicidal. I just feel empty and unsatisfied and I think that the thing that’s hampering my motivation is that there isn’t really a long-term goal for my life.  In all seriousness, I don’t see myself surviving peak oil. I depend on oil-derived medical products, and I just don’t see how I will fit into a post-peak world.”

“My anger was omni-directional and pathetically I tried to hide my sorrow for at least seven years with alcohol and drugs, hoping that when I woke up, that some ‘solution’ beyond geology and physics had miraculously appeared, saving me for another bout of revolutionary activity against a newly restored capitalism. In a tragic way, I wanted this way of life to continue so that I could destroy it. [My partner], rightly couldn’t live with this ‘Remote Man’ and left me, which of course made me more hopeless and angry. Hadn’t my daily, weekly, monthly rants been enough? Why couldn’t she understand that this self-pitying character in the living room was the living embodiment of Noah and that I was trying to save her and all those other worthless people who didn’t have my incredible insight!”

It is tempting to manage anxiety with drugs, alcohol and self-pity.  After all, you might argue, aren’t we facing a grim future?

This is a dead end.

Ask yourself if you’re the kind of person you’d want on Noah’s ark.  An angry drunk or drug addict?  An embittered soul?  Not likely.  We need people who can play ball on running water.  We need people who can make lemonade when given lemons…because a boatload of lemons are coming our way.

Accepting Uncertainty

“There is just so much that we don’t know, and can’t know, until things really start to go downhill, and that leaves so much room for doubt. What if, for example, this isn’t peak yet? What if life continues as normal for the next ten years? What if I chose between marriage/a family and security, and it turns out I could have had both? What if I abandoned my life and my friends for a more secure existence, and ten years later, my friends were carrying on without me, weathering the storm just fine?”

“But what’s perhaps hardest for me is not knowing in myself what to wish for. Sometimes I hope for a slow, gradual contraction which allows human communities in some places of the globe to adapt to a more localized, less oil-fueled way of life.   And though I judge myself for it, I find myself at times hoping for a more rapid transition, that over the space of weeks, months, or even a year the oil availability rapidly changes, affecting food markets and goods availability, catching many with their pants down (including myself)”

Cooperative Engagement

”I now think that the friendships and bonds formed now, and from childhood, will form the basis of my personal survival. Ultimately I believe in humanity’s ability to adapt in the present circumstances and that really is the best you can hope for.”

Those of us who are enamored of globalization have tried to convince ourselves that a disconnected “international trans-human” exists, who is no longer rooted in time, place, or cultural identity.  This prototype is first and foremost a “consumer,” rich in stuff, but devoid of spiritual, emotional or affiliative needs.  To disentangle ourselves from this myth, we first have to re-examine what kinship, clan, land and religious bonds truly are.  These bonds aren’t reactionary intrusions from the past, and re-localizing isn’t a regressive romance of days gone by.  Getting in touch with our identity and belonging to a community are two essential elements that make up our basic humanity.  When we are proud of our history and invest in our community, we should not be considered “backward” or parochial.  We should be considered human.

Some of us are great in groups.  We’ve got lots of friends and enjoy getting to know people.  We are “people people.”  Others prefer to keep a few good friends.  Shockingly, over half of us report not having one friend we can confide our troubles to.  While fear may drive us to imagine a safe place far away from the maddening crowd, the smartest survivalist knows that we have to learn to live in cooperative groups, or we won’t live well, if at all.

“I’ve gone from freaking out to working it out. I can say that I do something every day to prep for a lower energy lifestyle and a resource depleted future. In addition to starting our school gardens, I have my own extensive container garden (with 40 different plants) while I search for our next home, with a yard to garden in. I buy and save seed, and take my son to every living history museum, historical site, museum and Renaissance festival in the area. He starts elementary school this year as a kindergartener, and I am endeavoring to give him an actual education in addition to schooling (not a big fan of public education, though I’m grateful it’s there!). Where I used to have panic attacks, I am oddly more calm now that I can see the dim outlines of the train bearing down on us. It is really strange, though, going about daily life burdened with this knowledge. My friends and family think I’m either nuts when I warn them about resource depletion, climate chaos and overpopulation pressure issues, but a few tolerate my Cassandra mongering and are hesitantly and/or reluctantly listening. I do what I can and have concluded that my focus must be on myself – learning, upskilling and making a good future for my child.”

No matter where you live, getting to know the people around you is Job One if you are planning for an energy-depleted future.  Relocalization is where it’s at.  As goods moved by air or truck become increasingly expensive, we’ll need alternatives.  Local food security isn’t a luxury; it becomes a necessity in an increasingly local world.  Why do we ship apples and milk from China while driving local dairies and orchards out of business?  More and more of us will come to realize that paying more to keep a viable local food economy functioning is well worth the price. In cities like Detroit, where entire neighborhoods are being bull-dozed, it might be smart to plant gardens instead of pour concrete.

Peak Shrink Tips for this Stage:  Keep a “Beginner’s Mind”

“I like the American Indian greeting to the day “a good day to die.” Once you have that clear, the rest of the day is a pure gift.”

There’s no way around it, thinking about this stuff is very stressful.  But anxiety can be managed and there are things you can do to lower your stress level, even while you plan for a very different future.  The best way to take control of your mental health is to get to work!  What you do is a personal and local matter, but whether you do–this will either enrich your heart, your mind, and your community or it won’t.  It’s your one shot at being a sane hero in an insane time.

We don’t know the future, we can’t know the future, because we haven’t begun to impact it, yet.  Do the sane thing and get busy.

P.S. If you’re curious about what real live oil shortages looked like after eleven days, read Remember Remember the 5th of September, about the best kept secret in “news stories” of 2000.

1. How to Boil A Frog

The Survival Mindset

“Crisis occurs when our theories about ourselves in relation to the outside world go fundamentally wrong.” It is the dissonance between our expectations and our outcomes that causes the pain—not the outcome alone. Foremost among our expectations is our belief that pain is something to be avoided at all costs; that it is bad for you. Suffering does not fit our theory about what it takes to succeed in life and so we fail to concede that pain is inevitable in each of our lives.” Carol Osborne

Carol Osborne “The Art of Resilience: 100 Paths to Wisdom and Strength in an Uncertain World”

One of the chief focuses of my blog for almost four years now, has been promoting the practice of confronting negative emotions squarely, and working through them in the service of constructive action.

But lately I’ve been asking myself a different question. What are the best mental patterns of thinking for surviving tough times? There are a variety of ways to look at this issue, and one is looking at who survives when bad things happen in the wilderness, or in dangerous recreational pursuits and why. I’ve taken some of the ideas outlined by Gonzales and added some of my own here.
The first are seven qualities of mind useful in all aspects of life. The last twelve are the best mental practices in life and death situations. (page numbers refer to Gonzales’s book Deep Survival.

1. “[A]void the “Four Poisons of the Mind”—fear, confusion, hesitation, and surprise.” p. 264.
That last one, surprise, can happen when we’ve gotten so invested in predicting the future and anticipating the next change, that we stop paying attention to what’s actually happening in front of us, because it stops conforming to our mental image of what we’re looking for. The capacity to watch, clearly and calmly, and then act decisively requires bodily control, courtesy, humility, and confidence. Survival instructors use the acronym “STOP” which should be read in the following order: Stop, Observe, Think, Plan and Act.

Regardless of the training you do, a “plan” has to have an alternative (or several), prompting Mike Ruppert to argue for the working toward “alternatives” rather than “plans.” “Rigid people are dangerous people” in survival situations. To survive means to be able to adapt, and to adapt is the capacity to change, but adapting to the actual environment, and not your pre-conceived notions of what “should be happening.”

Sometimes, sticking to a plan is vital. At other times, abandoning the plan, based on the changes to what is happening, is required. Our cognitive orientation is to make a “mental map” of what we see, and attempt to make our perceptions conform to that map, but the ‘map is not the territory.’ We can’t function without some sort of mental map, but this same mental map can (and does) kill us.

Our endocrinology can work for or against us. A flood of elation or panic can cause a person to ignore caution or signs of danger. For even the best survivalist, there is a struggle to find emotional balance and control. Everyone makes mistakes. The ones that survive in dangerous situations can see the error and adapt in a timely way.

2. Know your stuff:
A little knowledge can be a terrible thing. While Gonzales talks about the natural world and its elements, for other people, it involves exploring the social world by allowing for all points of view, not just the opinions or perspectives of those who you agree with. For every belief you hold, welcome the feedback of those who hold the opposite opinion. Attempt to learn from a broad host of sources, and understand (don’t explain away) why these sources are advocating the position they do. Broaden your social networks, and surrender your self-assurance that you know “what’s what.”

3. Get the information:
Ask questions of those whose job it is to have a thorough understanding of the phenomenon you want to learn more about. Ask: “What are the sorts of mistakes that the average person makes when they try to learn more about this topic?” Don’t reject the information from people whose job it is to know, just because they are paid by agencies, corporations, or governmental bodies you reject. Be open to all points of view, especially those who are paid to know.

4. Commune with the Dead:
Here Gonzales talks about reading accident reports in your chosen field of recreation informing you of the mistakes that others have made, and to be on the lookout for similar situations, and avoid them.
Behavioral researcher Wendy Joung participated in a study to determine whether certain types of training programs would be better than others in reducing errors in judgement for firefighters. They found that firefighters who reviewed case histories of fatal errors showed improved judgement, and a higher order of adaptive thinking than firefighters who went through “positive” training, which reviewed case histories of accurate decisions made in a similar situation.
The implications of “communing with the dead” are useful. You may, for example, want to investigate how circumstances such as unemployment, homelessness, or economic collapse, have led to death or disease (mental or physical). How did these conditions impact their family life, marriages, or community life? Who were crushed and who persevered? What were some contrasts in each? I’ve written about the types of social events that happened during the last Great Depression, and how they affect women and minorities. Learn as much as you can.

5. Be Humble:
“The Rambo types are the first to go” a Navy Seal commander told Al Siebert. p. 267. You can be very successful in one arena, but it may not help you in another. There is a danger in success: fantastic victory at one point, can lead to overconfidence in the next. For example, you may have landed a bigger and better job after your last layoff a decade ago, but this is no assurance that THIS job layoff will provide you with that same opportunity now. You are more of a danger to yourself and others when you get some of the basics down and get overly cocky, than you were when you first begin to learn about something. Try to keep a “beginner’s mind.” True experts practice their learning in the basics, as well as the more advanced techniques. “’There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.’ That is true in all hazardous pursuits.” p. 268.

6. When in Doubt, Bail Out:
“Boone Bracket used to say, ‘I’d much rather be on the ground wishing I were in the air than in the air wishing I were on the ground.’” Know in which direction you tend to err. If you often allow your impulses to get the best of you, and throw caution to the wind, slow down and re-examine just how sensible your current plan is, and how open to adaptation it is. If you find yourself ready to run to the other side of the globe, leaving behind your family and all of your support systems, because you are “certain” the world is going to end tomorrow, put your plans on hold and invite more feedback. Have you visited that remote island already? Are you really prepared to leave behind your children for an extended period of time? Have you really provided enough resources to enable them to join you “when they are ready” or are you assuming that you’ll ‘of course’ have that ability when the time comes? Be humble enough to suspend your plans when you begin to doubt that the time, resources, or what have you, are adequate, sound, or sane. If it is a good plan now, it will still be a good plan after you’ve given yourself more time to consider the ramifications, or considered additional input from other people. “[I]t’s better to turn back and get a chance to do it again than to go for it and not come back at all.’ We are a society of high achievers, but in the wilderness, such motivation can be deadly.” p. 269

On the other hand, if you tend to be overly timid or reluctant to make any change whatsoever, put your ‘toe in the water’ and try something different. Be willing to make several small changes to how you are currently living, instead of expecting that only ‘massive change’ will be adequate. Then, reassess.

The overly timid and the ‘full speed ahead’ types tend to marry each other. See if each of you can’t attempt to ‘move toward the middle’ toward making moderate changes that are uncomfortable to both of you—to slow for one, and too fast for the other.

7. When Facing Trouble, Self-pity is a danger, but it is also an opportunity.
“Why me?” is a human question, and swallowing the harsh medicine—“because S*it happens…” as the sometimes correct answer helps you build up your ‘failure muscle.’ Becoming familiar with the “natural pain” of setbacks and failures gives you practice at bailing from untenable situations and pressing on. “Fortitude is necessary, and patience and courtesy and modesty and decorum, and a will, in what may for the moment seem to be the worst of worlds, to do one’s best.” p. 270.

Gonzales distilled his observations down to twelve essential mind-sets that define how survivors think and behave when faced with mortal danger. I’ve adapted them here:

1. Perceive, Believe (look, see, believe)
The philosopher, Gurdijeff, referred to this as acquiring an “observing self.”
From the start of trouble, the survivor continues to perceive and process information. They notice details, and can even find humor and beauty in catastrophic happenings. They believe their senses, even if they find themselves wanting to go into denial. They immediately begin to recognize, acknowledge, and even accept the reality of their situation. “I’ve broken my leg, that’s it. I’m dead.” p. 270.

If they blame outside circumstances, they quickly come to recognize that they are the ones who have to change their circumstances, or they will die. Whatever emotions initially overwhelms them, they get to the point of going inside, calming themselves down, and getting a handle on what they are facing from a realistic perspective.

2. Stay Calm (use humor, use fear to focus)
“In the initial crisis, survivors are making use of fear, not being ruled by it. Their fear often feels like and turns into anger, and that motivates them and makes them feel sharper. They understand at a deep level about being cool and are ever on guard against the mutiny of too much emotion. They keep their sense of humor and therefore keep calm.” Fear and anger are processed in different parts of the neocortex (in contrast to the popular ‘pop psychology’ believe that one lays underneath the other…), and therefore, these survivors will, if Gonzales is right, drop the fear in favor of the emergence of the emotion of anger. Anger is an “approach” emotion, whereas fear is an “avoidance” emotion. Fear, perhaps, ‘wakes them up’ to the seriousness of the situation, and the critical need to focus. Anger may then serve to motivate them to take the needed action.

3. Think/Analyze/Plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks).
Survivors often experience their consciousness as splitting into two people, and they “obey” the rational one. They are capable of seeing how “hopeless” the situation is, at least to an outsider, but they act with the full expectation that they will survive. They quickly get organized, set up routines, and institute discipline. And the leaders that emerge from the group seem like the least likely candidate. These people focus on the immediate needs, like the small children in an earlier post who stop moving when they were tired, or look for warmth when they are cold. “What will we need to survive the next hour” appears to be the focus, but they are able to anticipate needs that are a bit farther out as well.

4. Take Correct, Decisive Action (be bold and cautious while carrying out tasks).
Survivors aren’t ‘thinkers’ alone. They think and then act. They take calculated risks to save themselves and others. They break down large jobs to small tasks, setting attainable goals and develop short-term plans to reach them. “They do these tasks meticulously, and do what is within their power from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. They leave the rest behind.” p. 271

5. Celebrate your Successes (take joy in completing tasks).
Celebrate even small successes to maintain motivation and stave off hopelessness. Celebrations also “provide relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation.” p. 272

6. Count your Blessings (be grateful—your alive.)
I’ve mentioned the importance of doing for others, as more essential to mental health than doing for oneself. Gonzales also points to this when he states that survivors always find “someone they are helping more than themselves, even if that someone is not present.” Sometimes it is a family member who is counting on them returning.

7. Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your head).

Survivors can entertain themselves, and can both stimulate and calm themselves as needed. If they are frantic, they can count, recite poetry, a mantra, or even allow movement to be a dance. One survivor counted each step by one hundred, and dedicated each group to a person he cared about. Gonzales stresses the importance of developing a repertoire of images or experiences of art, music, poetry, literature, philosophy, mathematics and so on, as a resource to fall back on.

Trivia evaporates and “with care you can make deep excursions into past recollections…Verses were horded and gone over each day…[T]he person who came into this experience with reams of already memorized poetry was the bearer of great gifts.” p. 272. They cling to talismans, and search for meaning. Crisis itself becomes almost a game, and “they discover the flow of the expert performer.” They balance careful action with joyful decisiveness, and the playfulness leads to invention of new techniques, strategies, or a piece of equipment that might save them.

8. See the Beauty (remember: it’s a vision quest).
One’s capacity to see beauty dilates the pupils, relieves stress, and allows you to take in new information more effectively. Awe opens the senses.

9. Believe That You Will Succeed (develop a deep conviction that you’ll live).
Survivors rally their resources, admonish themselves to avoid mistakes, exercise meticulous caution, and do their very best. These beliefs convince them that if they are successful in these tasks, they will prevail. They consolidate their personalities and fix their determination.

10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying: “put away the pain.”)
Survivors can hold the belief that they would probably die, but aren’t preoccupied with fear, or prevented from acting regardless. This point can be quite confusing to grasp to those who insist that allowing any possibility for doubt spells certain disaster. Survivors “store away” information (“my arm is broken”) and accept resignation without giving up. They surrender, and this surrender facilitates their capacity to survive.

11. Do Whatever is Necessary (be determined; have the will and the skill).
“Survivors don’t expect or even hope to be rescued. They are coldly rational about using the world, obtaining what they need, doing what they have to do.” They try things that they know seem “impossible,” while at the same time have a meta-knowledge of their abilities—neither over, nor underestimating them. They believe that anything is possible and act from that knowledge.

12. Never Give Up (let nothing break your spirit).
Survivors aren’t easily frustrated or discouraged by setbacks. They try the whole thing over again, when they fail the first time, but they know the difference between ‘going forth boldly and going forth blindly.’ They know that situations are constantly changing and if they hang on long enough “The king might die, I might die, or the horse may talk.”

They have a rich fantasy life they can use to escape into when times are intolerable. They find thoughts, memories, and ideas that can keep them occupied. They see opportunities in their situation, and embrace the world they find themselves in. And once out of the survival situation, they learn from, and are grateful for, the experiences they’ve had.

True survival is a balancing act of apparent paradoxes—one must have both caution and courage, both realism and the capacity for delusion, a willingness to over-train but the freshness of a beginner’s mind; be both deeply in touch with one’s emotions, while able to compartmentalize them as needed. They don’t ignore the very real likelihood that they will die, but neither do they let that awareness hinder them. They focus on doing the tiniest thing well, while keeping in mind the larger picture. They do for themselves, while always focusing their intention on the welfare of others who are present or not. They fix their determination on a goal, but easily redirect when they need to. They doggedly persevere again and again when they face repeated failure, but respond to the situation as it presents itself, and can change direction quickly.

As Vilhjalmur Stefansson was quoted as saying: “A good hunter , like a good detective, should leave nothing out of consideration.”

“We’d rather focus on the abundance of the universe. On prosperity. Thinking positively, we work to build life structures so big and powerful that it would take an army tank of disappointment to break through. Or we simplify ourselves to the point where there’s nothing left to lose…” The focus is on mastering success to avoid pain, rather than learning to face the pain and rebound from it. We attempt to push through fear and negative feelings to achieve our goals, but we learn nothing about “how to suffer gracefully and productively when we are up against forces we cannot control.” p. 4 Osborn

We are facing personal and collective circumstances that are frighteningly inhospitable on multiple fronts. Our ability to confront and endure misfortune will center on our ability to acquire habits of mind that will pull us through.

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

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

Americans are “positive” people.”

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

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

Elements of Positive Thinking

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

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

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

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

A History of Positive Thinking and Modern Links to Consumer Capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play-Acting Happiness to Happiness as a Predisposition

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

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

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

Happiness: From State to Trait

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

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

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

Read this advice from a ‘management expert:’

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

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

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

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

The Business of Being Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ehenreich continues her brutal critique:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starvation. It’s a bummer, man.

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

Giving the Universe a Boost of Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a horrible message for a difficult time.

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

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

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

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

She ends her introduction stating her wish for:

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

Thank you, Barbara, for being MY Peak Shrink.

Ordinary Fears/Extraordinary Times: Fifty-Five (real) Things to Worry About (if you must…)

We have other things to worry about right now...

We have other things to worry about right now...

This is an updated post.

Peak Oil, Climate change and the Greater Depression will pose many challenges to our way of life but let’s get real, for a moment: Golden Hordes aren’t one of them. At least not now. Economic depression brings with it a host of serious problems, and I think you can say quite confidently, without being a chicken little, that most of the world is in a Greater Depression. But still, we’ve got a few years to go before we can say that the USA is no longer a viable culture, when no one wants to live in Paris or London, when potatoes no longer grow in Poland, and before donkey’s begin pulling our rusted-out cars. Bikers with shotguns; weaving socks from milk thistle; crashing waves drowning our cities; evacuating your house on a moments notice to house troops; the government coming to confiscate your precious metals; a mass exodus of cities as the violence and mayhem escalates to untolerable levelsall of these things should not be on the top of the list of what to prepared for.

So what should be?

1. Job loss is up there.

2. We’ve already seen retirement accounts deteriorate, leaving us less money to live on in our aging years.

3. Our elderly today, like that 93 year-old who froze to death in his kitchen, will face real challenges in keeping themselves medicated, warm and fed. It may be time to get concerned about the old folks who live on your street, and start having tea with them on alternating days.

4. The rising price of everything from food to fuel is likely to be a serious problem for a lot of us.

5. Food pantries won’t be able to feed all of the people who need resources from them, and people who used to give generously to those same pantries, might now be lining up for help.

6. Managing depression–emotional depression, that is, should be up there.

7. We’ll also have to deal with the harmful side-affects of worry and fear, not brought on by the FBI tapping our telephones, but because we have no clue where the money’s going to come from to pay off our credit cards.

8. Domestic violence will be on the rise. So will alcoholism, drug abuse and out-of-control gambling.

9. Our towns, cities, regions, and states will continue to face serious problems. They will increasingly have trouble funding basic services like police, fire, education, sanitation collection and health services.

10. The evaporation of the housing bubble will mean fewer property taxes really soon. They will need more tax dollars, and yes, those who live within their jurisdiction will be the ones they’ll tap. You’ll also be asked to contribute more money toward things that used to be paid for by your governments. They may not confiscate your fire arms, but they will tax you for each and every one of them, as yet another source of income.

11. Rising taxes will mean less household money for food, fuel, etc.

12. Higher taxes will mean fewer dollars in your pocket and less support for local businesses.

13. More failing businesses will mean less tax revenues for basic services. Repeat bullets 10, 11 and 12 above.

14. What we really have to fear is desperate towns and cities selling off basic services, like fire protection services and water rights, to multinationals, in an effort to raise short term cash. That’s something to be afraid of. When that happens, you’ll see escalating prices for basic utilities more frightening than UFO’s hovering over your town hall.

15. More sick people doesn’t mean a sudden massive die-off, but it does mean more of those killer colds and flu’s that wipe out a great number of little kids and grandmothers.

16. Given how many people work for some branch, or are funded by the US Government, fewer tax dollars means more governmental workers losing their jobs.

17. Yes, there will be protests and some riots. Yes, some city residents, already suffering from years of unemployment and poverty, will rage at being unable to make ends meet on the social programs that use to be barely adequate.

18. I’m not saying don’t worry about global warming causing a new ice age that will leave one mile-thick ice throughout North America and much of Europe. I’m just saying it should be lower on your priority list than the greater chance that your basement is going to flood more often and that your insurance company is no longer going to cover it or tell you so until it happens and you need it.

19. Yes, keep several 50-gallon rain buckets, but not so you can live another week when Yellow Stone’s volcano erupts, wiping out life as we know it in the US, but so you can water your garden as you get less rainfall each year.

20. Crime will increase. But you won’t have 40 inner-city youth with oozies ransacking your living room. The kid who lives down the street, the one that couldn’t get a summer job, he’ll be the one stealing your stuff. Keep teens busy. We’ll need them even more as time goes on.

21. Grocery stores will get “tough on crime” as our “voleurs par faim” (thieves by reason of hunger), who might have been generally tolerated in the past, will now grow to intolerable numbers.

22. Dreams will die: the dream of an exotic vacation, a college or private school education, career advancement, or a comfortable retirement.

23. Marriages and relationships will end, because they’ve never known hard times, and when one or both turn away from the other, in response to the troubles, instead of growing closer because of them.

24. Small businesses will close, taking all the owner’s sweat equity and all the better-paid, long-time employees with them.

25. Closing local business means we’ll have to travel longer distances to shop, or pay the shipping costs for things that we used to be able to get in our neighborhoods. Gasoline will become, for many items, more expensive than the stuff we are buying. Shipping costs will also make online shopping more expensive .

26. We will suffer the greatest pains over lost dreams where we’ve imagined that we’ve failed our children or grandchildren. As H.S. Sullivan (who started his professional life during the Great Depression) has written:

“Marked economic disturbances usually have either general or specific reasons, and have very marked effects on the course of personality development. Parents almost always aim their children at something, which the children either seek or avoid at all costs, but big economic change may lead to tragic revision of the parental ambitions with corresponding effects on the childrens’ goals and so on, and may leave permanent marks.”

27. The age of your children will impact the effect the change will have on them. If they are under age 8, the parental utterances they hear around your home, will be most impactful. The family establishes the worldview, and sets the tone. Like a light mist surrounding the child, they either uplift or cover your child with despair.

28. Unlike during the Great Depression, however, when employers were willing to hire children at slave wages, and children were therefore able to help out financially in real tangible ways, our children–even our teenagers–won’t have jobs. No, this will not be your grandmother’s Great Depression.

29. Instead of trying to explain why your children have to become cobblers, practice saying things like: “No, Tommy/Jane, I won’t be buying you that this year, because we are all needing to cut back on our spending. I know you are disappointed or angry. I can understand that. I wish it were different, but it isn’t. You’ll always have what you need, but that item isn’t a necessity, and we can’t afford to buy it for you.”

30. If your children or grandchildren are near college-aged, these plans for higher educational may be dashed. Many of us will have already tapped out our home equity line of credit, or if we haven’t, the banks won’t lend to us anyway. Even IF we have great credit scores.

31. If our children or grandchildren are active in a profession, and manage to keep their jobs, they may find themselves having to financially support a larger social network. They’ll take in their parents and grandparents, cousins, friends. We’ll have to learn the value of NOT expressing ourselves–our frustrations, our dislikes, our annoyances and fight with our spouses in private–as we all live in cramped quarters.

32. And things will start to look older and shabbier: Cars that we drive, clothes that we wear, homes that we live in. We’ll understand the word “decaying” in a whole new way, when we can’t afford to replace our roofs, or repair our driveways.

33. We’ll stay home a heck of a lot more, especially when the car breaks down, and we don’t have the cash to fix it.

34. Most of us will continue to find the cash to watch cable television, while we eat crappier food, and we’ll hear a repetitive message that while some people are suffering, everything is still dandy. They’ll imply our suffering is our own fault.

35. Our military budget will continue to increase, while our domestic budget will continue to decrease.

There are more immediate concerns...

There are more immediate concerns...

36. Wars will increase, no matter who is President. We will fear for our young people, more of whom will find the military the only option for a “secure” job. They’ll fight over oil. They’ll fight over land. They’ll be deployed in states that they don’t call home, where they will be charged with “crowd control”. These crowds will be composed of somebody else’s family and friends.

37. More of us will wait in absurd traffic lines to be “checked,” without knowing or caring what we are being “checked” for.

38. Fancier electronic ways will be developed by governments to separate us from our money–automatically.

39. We’ll find ourselves with less time and more work hours to pay for a lifestyle that’s barely equivalent.

40. We’ll spend more of our week-ends or vacation time doing chores and repair work we used to pay someone else to do.

41. Our children will see more of us, as we will cut corners to cut daycare costs, but there’ll be less of us to see.

42. Despite our best intentions, our emotional and physical fatigue will leave us with little spare energy for the kinds of religious, social, or charitable work we’d assumed we’d continue to do. Our grandparents– a significantly more religious and social group than we are– dropped out of their community involvements in huge numbers during the Great Depression. So will we. We’ll learn how valuable our “free time” was, when we stop having very much of it.

43. We’ll learn the lesson so many African nations have learned, that mal-nutrition impacts our ability to process information cognitively, produce healthy children, and fight injustice. We should be fearful that people who need food stamps and school breakfasts and lunches will stop getting them. If we’re smart, we’ll target our priorities with a laser focus, stick to the basics, and keep our priorities straight. Full bellies make better neighbors.

44. We will find ourselves with a lot less energy to pretend we’re someone we aren’t, and a lot less money to keep up that illusion.

45. Those times we told other people that we ‘just couldn’t live without X,Y, or Z’– we’ll learn that we can. Some of us will be surprised to find out that we don’t miss the things we were so sure we couldn’t live without.

46. The longer we keep trying to convince ourselves that everything is the same, that nothing has changed, the more battered our souls will feel. After a period of loud protestation, beating of the chest, cries proclaiming how unfair it all is, and how this can’t be happening to us, we’ll quiet down.

47. We’ll have to swallow the news that most people who don’t live in the “developed” world already got: “we aren’t automatically entitled to be wealthy, have an easy life, be constantly amused,” and for some, that fact will make life absolutely miserable. For others, it will be a great liberation.
Take a quote from Studs Terkel’s book on the Great Depression:

“I never liked the idea of living on scallions in the left bank garret. I liked writing in comfort. So I went into business, a classmate and I. I thought I’d retire in a year or two. And a thing called Collapse, bango! socked everything out. 1929. All I had left was a pencil…There was nothing else to do. I was doing light verse at the time, writing a poem here and there for ten bucks a crack. It was an era when kids at college were interested in light verse and ballads and sonnets. This is the early Thirties. I was relieved when the Crash came. I was released. Being in business was something I detested. When I found that I could sell a song or a poem, I became me, I became alive. Other people didn’t see it that way. They were throwing themselves out of windows.Someone who lost money found that his life was gone. When I lost my possessions, I found my creativity. I felt I was being born for the first time. So for me, the world became beautiful.With the Crash, I realized that the greatest fantasy of all was business. The only realistic way of making a life was versifying. Living off your imagination.”

48. We’ll start doing what we want, (as long as it’s free) because we won’t have the opportunity to do much else.

49. Some of us will be forced to move to poorer neighborhoods and will be surprised to find out them filled with decent people. We’ll find ourselves delighted to have working-class neighors who can actually fix the plumbing, repair the toilet, or get your truck running–and won’t charge us a dime. Some will keep our neighborhoods intact, while others will watch them be bulldozed.

50. We’ll learn to eat ‘Soul Food’–all the parts of the animal Black folks learned to cook with, because White folks wouldn’t touch that type of meat. And it will taste good, and we’ll be grateful to have it.

51. And no, of course not, it won’t be this way for all of us: Some of us will have to hide our excessive purchases in our closets or in plain paper bags.

52. Some of us will put on less elaborate cocktail parties.

53. Some of us will trade our newly-bankrupted husband for a wealthier one.

54. Some of us will watch the worst of this Greater Depression from the comfort of our “still working lives,” and will retain much of what we need to get by, in a comfort that we now appreciate a great deal more.

55. Some of us will learn the comfort of prayer or group worship. We will “get it” that there exists something greater than ourselves-whether it be G-d, community or family. The concept of who makes up our family, will grow for some of us and shrink for others.

But if there is anything at all we need to be afraid of, it is our sense of hubris that won’t admit to ourselves that this “everyday dreariness” is the worst of it or the best of it. It will be our desire to cling to a group or a leader who promises to restore our former glory. What will give us inspiration will be our capacity to see the great gifts delivered to us in these “every-day tragedies,” the blessing inside every misfortune, the spirit inside every hardship that will pull us through. The gift will be in our capacity to recognize that the “hard times” we are living with, right now, ARE real, and that our struggles are shared by millions of other people world-wide. And, while most of us are unlikely to end up in some governmental concentration camp, any time soon, we might easily end up in a hell of our own making, if we don’t accept how ordinary and ‘just like today only worse’ it will all be tomorrow, making today ‘just like tomorrow, only better.’