Building lifeboats

March 3, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More

I know that my past few posts have been bleak (see here and here), but now I must temper that sense of despair with some hope.  Things are bad, and will probably get worse, but that’s not to say that they will not get better.

But here’s the trick: we all have to stop relying upon someone else for solutions.  Forgive me if I sound like a politician for just a moment: we must “be the change” we want to see in the world.  I cannot tell you how to solve the peak oil problem, or the unfolding economic collapse, or climate change, or the corruption which has become endemic in our political system– you have to figure it out for yourself.  I’m not selling a prepackaged kit which contains all of the answers, and I would probably distrust anyone who was.

But that’s precisely why I still have hope.  If we are going to make it through the challenges facing us, we must learn to pull together again as a community and actually attempt to create our own solutions.  There can be no more delegation to those in Washington.  We cannot afford to wait for decades as they attempt to muster the political will to combat the flood of money which has so damaged our electoral and political processes.  We simply don’t have time to fix the system that’s been damaged beyond repair.

As Dr. Michael Mills of Loyola put it:

Generally it is healthy to be optimistic.

But optimism can be deadly if it produces a Pollyannaish denial of real problems.   We should not ignore problems by assuming “someone else” will take care of it, or that “the market” or “technological breakthroughs” will always come to the rescue in time.

Those who are learning about Peak Oil for the first time often go through at least a few of the 5 stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), and often begin to see the world in a whole new way.  Katherine McMahon is a clinical psychologist, and she explains how she felt upon learning about Peak Oil:

As I looked around, I began to see the world with a ‘before and after Peak Oil’ view. I would say to myself “We won’t have that around anymore after Peak Oil.” The more I looked around, the more things I realized would go, like plastics or bananas. The more I looked into becoming more self-sufficient, the more awe I felt. How ‘easy I had it.’ I realized how ignorant I was about skills that were commonplace in my grandmother’s era. At times I became overwhelmed at the amount of information I don’t possess. I got dizzy trying to figure out what I needed to know, what I needed to store, and what would continue to be available to me for a long time to come.

I watched myself go through a wide range of emotions. I went through periods of denial, and attempted to find believable critics. My commitment to changing my life would wane. I would work diligently on a permaculture project, and watch my spending carefully, then “forget” and go out to dinner or buy something useless. I’d feel hopeful and elated, followed by feelings of depression and worry. I’d become busy and determined, only to find myself overwhelmed and frozen later in the week.

My actions seemed ‘irrational’ to the pre-Peak Oil mental health professional in me, and looked ‘crazy’ to those who were unaware, disinterested, or rejected the concept of PO. But not to the Peak Oil Shrink in me. I wasn’t insane. I was trying to come to grips with a future cultural transformation that was to be so dramatic, so overwhelming, it disturbed my equilibrium and challenged my very sense of reality.

It was normal for me to want to talk about what I learned to those I cared about. But how? How do you tell those you love that their entire world view will soon be overturned? No one likes to hear bad news, but this news was catastrophic.

I decided that I would talk to them calmly, share only bits of information, and based on their responses, decide whether or not to keep the conversation going. Some friends instantly understood the concept, and were eager to read more about Peak Oil. They were in the minority. Others were willing to be supportive of me, but had no intention of doing anything differently themselves. Still others refused to even discuss the issue with me once I introduced it. The more urgently I wanted to share, the more rejecting they became.

I searched the Peak Oil sites and the internet to find out more about the kind of feelings and reactions I was having. I found people talking about their own individual reactions to learning about Peak Oil. I’d read: “Ya, I know, I went through the same thing when I first heard…” and I’d think, “Yes, I felt that way, too” but none of my colleagues were talking about it. No one was saying “That’s a normal reaction to learning about Peak Oil” because nobody knew what a normal reaction was.

In fact, as a psychologist, I know what my Pre-Peak Oil reaction might have been if a client began to describe ‘the end of the world as we know it’ and all the action they were taking to mitigate the impact. Several diagnostic categories would fit neatly. I’d ask about their family life, and how they were getting along at work. I’d want to learn what led them to this dreary view of their future.

So if you were shocked by learning about Peak Oil, or if you are still in the “denial” phase, know that you are not alone.  Others have been there before you, and many more will come after you as the collapse becomes increasingly apparent.

Even in the movie Collapse, which is undoubtedly one of the darkest movies I’ve ever seen, there are glimmers of hope.  At one point in the movie, Mike Ruppert, the star of the documentary, says that he wishes everyone could see what we [those who are aware of Peak Oil] see.  The opportunity presented by Peak Oil is amazing, and it’s  already bringing out the very best in people.   Peak Oil devotees are creating a world with more social justice, with more environmental responsibility, with more community and local support– and they are having fun along the way.

New movements are finding momentum in the midst of the collapse.  “Transition towns” are popping up around the country, seeking to create communities which are truly sustainable.  The open-source movement is not just for software anymore– “Open Source Ecology” is a movement “dedicated to the collaborative development of tools for replicable, open source, modern off-grid “resilient communities.'”  There are websites with detailed preparedness and planning information, there are books and  e-books dedicated to the subject, as well as online forums for discussing and commiserating about the problems and opportunities facing us.

Whether motivated by concerns about the environment, awareness of Peak Oil, or due to economic constraints imposed by being one of the new “permanently unemployed”, many are finding that frugality and a return to traditional skills is extremely rewarding.  Blogger Dave Eriqat calls it being “reborn”:

Planning for the “collapse” these past five years has utterly changed my life, for the better. It has weaned me off the consumerist model of living, taught me what’s important in life and what is not, learned me what is good and what mistakes to avoid, such as getting into debt. It has forced me to embrace austerity and scale down my expectations, which has taught me how to live a good life without consuming and spending. In a sense I feel as if I have been reborn, but with the wisdom and experience to “start over” and build a better life. I wish everyone could enjoy a similar awakening and renaissance in the coming years, although I know the sad reality is that most people will probably face an arduous struggle for which they are unprepared.

I second his emotions, and also want to express how deeply rewarding and satisfying it can be to take responsibility for one’s own life in new ways.  Many people are finding that a simpler life with a focus on quality (of experience) over quantity (of consumer goods) naturally gives them a more complete life, with an increased sense of their place in a community.  Several months ago, I responded to a survey on the topic of lifestyle changes in response to climate change/Peak oil.  Those results were released this week, and there is much to be hopeful about. While acknowledging that there are some barriers to change, there are tremendous benefits which also accrue:

The good news is that it hasn’t been all hard times for these lifestyle leaders. Many changes have made their lives better, like adopting a low-energy and local diet, gardening (which was frequently described as “fun”) and walking and bicycling more. More than three-quarters of respondents reported greater happiness satisfaction or personal growth since embracing new ways of living.

An amazing 68% of respondents had begun a garden in order to produce their own food, a statistic I’m extraordinarily happy to be a part of.

A farmer's market in Chattanooga, TN. Image via Wikipedia (commons)

A farmer's market in Chattanooga, TN. Image via Wikipedia (commons)

The joy of having spaghetti in the dead of a frigid Midwestern winter made from sauce that my wife and I personally canned, made from tomatoes that we personally grew, is rewarding and fulfilling in a way that a jar of grocery store sauce never could be, especially when I see headlines like these:

The farmers that I have come to know as I’ve become more involved in the local foods movement are genuinely great people.  Their enthusiasm for the quality of their products is infectious, and I never have to worry as I see recall after recall of factory foods announced.

Given that the problems facing us are so intertwined, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the solutions are heavily interconnected as well.  Consider some of the benefits of adapting oneself to the reality of Peak Oil:

  • Keeps money in the local economy
  • creates local  jobs
  • you know you should be eating more fruits and vegetables anyway, why not make sure they’re delicious, organic, and safe too?
  • diminished carbon footprint
  • increased sense of community
  • decreased consumerism
  • increased self-esteem

There are many more benefits, and I’m realizing new ones all the time.  Our new insistence on eating healthy and local foods has led to us cooking more meals at home.  We can easily double the recipe, and then we have food to take to work for lunch, saving even more money.  All this money saved has enabled us to choose only premium ingredients, which have an unbelievable impact on the quality of the meal.  I may be biased, but I believe the quality of the meals that my wife and I make rivals that of the finest restaurants.  Well, maybe not the finest restaurants in the world, but certainly the finest in Omaha!  So turn off your TV, start a garden, learn to cook, ride your bike to work, or take any of hundreds of steps which will serve you well whether Peak Oil is truly here or not.  You may just find that you develop a new appreciation for the “quality life.”


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Category: Community, Consumerism, Quality of Life, Simple living

About the Author ()

is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (2)

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  1. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Although it was released too late for me to incorporate it with this blog post, Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute has released a newsletter today which hits on many of the same themes:

    As early as 1998, Campbell, Laherrère, and others were discussing a Peak Oil impact scenario that went like this. Sometime around the year 2010, they theorized, stagnant or falling oil supplies would lead to soaring and more volatile petroleum prices, which would precipitate a global economic crash. This rapid economic contraction would in turn lead to sharply curtailed energy demand, so oil prices would then fall; but as soon as the economy regained strength, demand for oil would recover, prices would again soar, and the economy would relapse. This cycle would continue, with each recovery phase being shorter and weaker, and each crash deeper and harder, until the economy was in ruins. Meanwhile, volatile oil prices would frustrate investments in energy alternatives: one year, oil would be so expensive that almost any other energy source would look cheap by comparison; the next year, the price of oil would have fallen so far that energy users would be flocking back to it, with investments in other energy sources looking foolish. Investment capital would be in short supply in any case because the banks would be insolvent due to the crash, and governments would be broke due to declining tax revenues. Meanwhile, international competition for dwindling oil supplies might lead to wars between petroleum importing nations, between importers and exporters, and between rival factions within exporting nations.

    Then in 2008, the Peak Oil scenario became all too real. Global oil production had been stagnant since 2005 and petroleum prices had been soaring upward. In July, 2008, the per-barrel price shot up nearly to $150—half again higher (in inflation-adjusted terms) than the price spikes of the 1970s that had triggered the worst recession since World War II.

    In the aftermath of that global financial near-death experience, both the Peak Oil impact scenario proposed a decade earlier and the Limits to Growth standard-run scenario of 1972 seemed to be confirmed with uncanny and frightening accuracy. Global trade was falling. The world’s largest auto companies were on life support. The U.S. airline industry had shrunk by almost a third. Food riots were erupting in poor nations around the world. Lingering wars in Iraq (the nation with the world’s second-largest crude oil reserves) and Afghanistan (the site of disputed oil and gas pipeline projects) continued to bleed the coffers of the world’s foremost oil-importing nation.

    The world has entered a new era. The project of awakening and warning policy makers and the general public was worthy of the investment of all the effort we could muster. In fact, it would have been negligent of the Limits to Growth authors, Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrère, and thousands of climate and environmental scientists and activists (myself included) not to give it our best shot. But it is now too late to avert a collapse of the existing system. The collapse has begun.

    It is time for a different strategy.

    By saying this, I am not suggesting that we should all simply give up and accept an inevitable, awful fate. Even though the collapse of the world’s financial and industrial systems has started, effort now at minimizing further dire consequences is essential. Collapse does not mean extinction. A new way of life will almost certainly emerge from the wreckage of the fossil-fueled growth era. It is up to those of us who have some understanding of what is happening, and why, to help design that new way of life so that it will be sustainable, equitable, and fulfilling for all concerned. We all need practical strategies and tools to weather the collapse and to build the foundation of whatever is to come after.

  2. Brynn,

    I think you are emphasizing a really important point that more and more people are talking about, which is that we're going to have to make changes, big changes, but this isn't the same as death and dying. If we refuse to change, or wait for someone else to save us, we really will be doomed, personally. If we wake up, tune in, and face into the needed changes, we find out a remarkable thing about being human: we can be happy in any number of ways. In fact, I'd argue that the more we simplify, focus on our families and communities, live a quality life of homegrown food, passionate attachments, learning valuable skills, and keeping a low-carbon footprint in greater harmony with the world, we'll ask ourselves: Why haven't I done this before? The only regret I have, since corresponding with people managing the stress the dawning awareness of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse brings, is that I didn't get hip sooner. Live and learn.

    Great Post.


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