“The shock, the anger, the sense of overwhelm are all understandable,” says psychotherapist Kathy McMahon of the moment when someone first hears about peak oil and gets how scary it can be.
McMahon, who practices therapy in Northhampton, MA as the “Peak Shrink,” thinks that society needs to normalize the anxiety that people feel about ecological overshoot so that more people can find ecological sanity in a crazy world.
You’re not a weirdo for caring about peak oil. What’s crazy is not worrying.
It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world
As a measure of how crazy our society has become — how separated from other people — Americans hang out with friends only a couple times a week or less these days, compared to nearly double that in 1970.
Part of the problem is that we’ve got our faces in screens all day and it’s getting worse all the time. The more time I spend on my iPad and with my Android, the less I want to talk to real people, which just becomes an excuse to spend more time online, and so on in a cycle that I find thoroughly depressing as I type this on my HP laptop screen.
Another measure of our craziness, of course, is just how much we’ve screwed up our own environment. So, in a crazy society, it’s the ecologists who are sane.
So what about the rest of our fellow citizens, who dismiss ecological overshoot and climate change, peak oil or the possible end of economic growth? They suffer from “Panglossian Disorder,” which McMahon coined in honor of Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide, who liked to explain away any problem by repeating Leibniz’s phrase that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.”
Or, as James Howard Kunstler would put it, with great irony, “it’s all good!”
What, me worry?
People who suffer from this pathological optimism, aided and abetted by the American character — which sees a gloomy puss as the surest sign, next to an empty billfold, of a loser — aren’t really apathetic.
Instead, they care too much. Someone who responds to peak oil by saying something like “it won’t be as bad as you think,” “I heard that some company is making gasoline out of pig manure” or “surely, THEY’LL figure something out” is too attached to their own mental map of the world and too stuck in groupthink to face the clear evidence of ecological overshoot.
And what’s the problem with going by our mental maps? McMahon tells a story from wilderness-survival guru Laurence Gonzales with a lesson that we should apply to the rest of our lives:
Six-year old children and younger survive better than children that are seven and older. And the reason for that is that they don’t have a preconceived notion or a cognitive map about the world out there. So when they’re tired they just find a place, say in a tree, and they go to sleep. When they’re hungry or thirsty they look for water. Whereas older children and adults have a cognitive map about the way things should be. So they press on over that mountain because they think that that may be where help will come from. That they don’t trust, for example, a compass. If they think they’re going in one direction and the compass tells them they’re going in a different direction, they’ll actually smash it.
Even when we’re not lost in the woods, because we stubbornly hold onto preconceived notions, we can’t see the evidence right in front of our eyes that our world has changed and that we need to change our ways to survive. When it comes to climate change and peak oil, we may even ignore Cassandra or just kill the pesky messenger.
Yet, 80% of Americans know that the planet is facing severe challenges, while only 14% say there’s no problem, according to McMahon. “People get it,” she says. Now, what to do with it?
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt
It’s not that people don’t know or don’t care. It’s that they are in denial — they just don’t want to face it. The problem of melting ice caps, oil wars and economies crashing are overwhelming. “People feel helpless and we can only do so much,” McMahon says.
The answer? Help people see that this Huge-O-Rama problem can be broken down into a very manageble chunk. “There are 71,000 communities in the US and Canada. All you have to do is worry about one of them that’s yours,” McMahon advises.
Draw a circle around your home with a five- or ten-mile radius. Then, get busy getting to know your neighbors within that circle. Offer them help. Even better, start asking for help. This is tough for middle class people who are used to being self-reliant. But it’s a skill you’ll need to build a community and a little practice will make it less awkward.
Which can all lead to starting a local “favor bank” to exchange help with your radius of neighbors. Then, you can keep track of who plays fair and who’s a freeloader. This will help you go straight to those you can rely on when it really counts.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice