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Exploring emotional reactions to peak oil

The first blog post is usually the toughest, especially when you are trying to write about something that has no existing ‘experts.’

I’m a psychologist, I’m not a geologist, financial expert, political analyst or economist.

Yet, my world was dramatically changed when I learned about Peak Oil and began to read about all the related issues. Before learning about PO, my specialization was sex and couples therapy. I saw the world through the eyes of a middle-class US citizen. Electricity came from light switches. Oil was brought by a truck or pumped from a service station. I bought my food at the supermarket, albeit an organic food market, and my water was from my tap or in bottles. The value of my house kept going up, as did the taxes. I felt secure with a middle-class income, a home, and a healthy daughter that just finished college and was happy in a new job.

Then I learned about PO.

After that, I could no longer see the world in the same way. I realized that psychotherapy, while helpful to people in a ‘normal’ world, could easily become destructive to those with a PO view of the world. I call it “psychological terrorism.”

I realized how electricity was intimately linked to (in my case) gas or other fuels. As the price of gasoline began to rise, I was well aware of why and what it meant. I could see how food in the supermarket required fossil fuels for fertilizers, farming equipment, trucks, cold storage, heat and utilities. I began to worry about chemical companies buying up seed companies and taking out patents on common food seed. I learned how agribusiness treats animals that enables us to eat so cheaply and at what cost. I learned about the water shortage and water itself became a more precious commodity to me. I saw debt, any debt including my mortgage, as a threat to my future financial independence. I saw my spending habits and lifestyle for what it was: wasteful, thoughtless, excessive and leaving a huge environmental ‘footprint.’

As I looked around, I began to see the world with a ‘before and after PO’ view. I would say to myself “We won’t have that around anymore after PO.” The more I looked around, the more things I realized would go, like plastics or kiwi fruit. The more I looked into becoming more self-sufficient, the more awe I had at how ‘easy I had it.’ I realized how insulated I was from skills that were commonplace in my grandmother’s era. At times I became overwhelmed (and still do) at the amount of information I don’t possess. I would get dizzy trying to figure out what I needed to know from 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 shifting denial, and an attempt to find believable critics. I would work diligently on a permaculture project, and watch my spending carefully, then “forget” and go out to dinner or another unnecessary expense. I’d feel hopeful and elated, depressed and worried, busy and determined, overwhelmed and frozen. All the while, the stock market continued to ’soar’ and everything looked ‘normal’ in the culture around me.

My actions seemed ‘irrational’ to those who couldn’t accept the concept of PO. I had to make decisions about how I could talk to them and based on their responses, whether I should keep up the conversation. Some friends instantly understood the concept. Others were willing to be supportive, but had no intention of doing anything differently themselves. Still others refused to even discuss the issue with me.

I searched the PO 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 PO. I’d hear people on sites say “Ya, I know, I went through the same thing when I first heard” and I’d think, “Yes, I did too,” but none of my colleagues were talking about it. In fact, as a psychologist, I know what my 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, and I was ignorant of PO. Several diagnostic categories would fit neatly.

But reactions to PO aren’t ‘diagnostic indicators.’ I now believe that there is a way to begin to understand the emotional impact of PO and to share that knowledge with others to help them move forward. I believe that there are different reactions depending on your age and circumstances. A twenty year old in college in an urban area who just found out about peak oil is going to react differently than a 60 year old farmer in the Mid-West who has been expecting it for some time. Someone making minimum wage is going to react differently than the professional with a substancial 401k and a large house in the suburbs. I believe there are ‘fuzzy sets’ that aren’t rigid categories saying “If you are in this situation, you will react this way” but nevertheless, there are generalizations that can be made about people at different:

  • stages of Peak Oil awareness,
  • life stages,
  • economic circumstances,
  • gender,
  • professions,
  • living environments,
  • parental status

… to name a few.

I wrote a story for a contest about the future without fossil fuels that was published at www.beyondpeak.com, and won second place. You can read it here:

www.beyondpeak.com/scenarios/grandnana.html.

The point of my story was to suggest that there were constructive actions that could be taken today to put oneself in the best circumstances to weather the upcoming ’storm.’ These actions required community building and using the skills each of us have toward mutually beneficial action. This blog, and www.peakoilblues.com is my contribution.

I’ve tried to gather up people who I feel are eloquent speakers of their own experiences and invited them to share their own thoughts, opinions, reactions, and emotions as they live in these ‘interesting times.’ If you also have something to contribute, join us. Together, we can help each other move forward toward a future we want to live in.

Kathy McMahon


Kathy McMahon, Psy.D. is an adjunct professor, a clinical psychologist, certified sex therapist, trainer, and a newbie chicken farmer in Massachusetts.

Believing that the 'personal IS political,' she thinks a lot about the elements of emotionally preparing for a post-fossil fuel age. 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." Read her at www.peakoilblues.com and reach her at peakshrink AT peakoilblues DOT com.

Editorial Notes: Recommended by EB contributor, Shepherd Bliss. Since starting the blog last May, Kathy McMahon has perservered with it, publishing many writings by herself and others. UPDATE (Aug 31): Kathy notifies us that she is collected jokes related to peak oil, especially from old-timers in the peak oil movement. -BA

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