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Stages Of Peak Oil Awareness

By Kathy McMahon

02 October, 2010
Peak Oil Blues

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.

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.

Courtesy: Energy Bulletin