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The Demise of a Techno-fix Psyche

I would describe myself as a recovering energy engineer. Technology has been an integral part of my life. At one time I had viewed advancing technology as the answer to all of our problems and the only tool necessary in improving our relationship with the natural world. My own personal journey over the last several years has changed that.

That journey began about ten years ago while preparing a speech for a communications class. The topic, chosen somewhat randomly, was ecological in context and addressed population dynamics under resource constraints. Researching material for the speech was a turning point for me and made me begin to question my own techno-fix mentality.

Much soul searching was done as graduation neared and I felt I should accommodate this need to do something positive environmentally while joining the engineering ranks. What resulted was a position in the photovoltaic industry.
Alas, a downsize landed me in graduate school studying fuel cell systems. It was while investigating so many energy schemes I had an epiphany of sorts.

I came to the realization that no combination of alternative energy strategies was the messiah I had long thought. This was an emotional period in my life. This countered a long held belief, one that had been building since a solar powered heater had brought home a blue ribbon from the 7th grade science fair, one that revolved around the idea that if we only persisted in our research efforts new technologies could reconcile nature and a growing human population. That belief took its last breath at the UC-Irvine combustion lab in a cubicle decorated with pictures of snow-capped mountains and inspirational quotes.

This was a new experience for me and it went deep. My personal identity had been intrinsically tied to this mission of "inventing" our way out of the problem. Even with all that reading into population dynamics and resource depletion, I had not until just then made the idea personal enough to crack something at my core. There was some amount of time, on the order of two months, where I was, for lack of a better phrase, "freaked out”. Looking back now I can admit that I was in a scary, unfamiliar place and didn't know what to do.

If ever I was ripe for an identity crisis or nervous breakdown this was the time. I found myself visiting school counselors and talking around the subject afraid of sounding depressed. They were programmed to help me successfully navigate mid-terms; we were not talking the same language. My girlfriend at the time showed even less literacy. Morose poetry became an obsession for a time and I stopped researching anything related to my chosen field of study. I rented a car over the Thanksgiving Day holiday, and with ample insurance coverage, proceeded to drive like a complete maniac for two days on various highways and fire roads in a coastal mountain range. The tally was one dent, one blown tire and many pissed off California motorists. It helped.

Several weeks of mild depression, anxiety, insomnia and general weirdness ended. No amount of technology was going to get us out of the spot we were in and it was time to move on. But move on to what? It was at the end of this period that I started looking outside my somewhat limited prior scope. Free of the sense of obligation towards the writings of the technical community, I discovered Psychology, Biology and Philosophy. Having just managed, however poorly, a personal episode into mental dysfunction, I had a new respect for how the mind views reality, how it can build a perspective exclusive of things that do not fit that reality.

My focus became more human and socially oriented regarding the ramifications of resource scarcity. I had completely lost interest in graduate research of an engineering nature. I returned to the Midwest to a string of odd jobs including part time work at a breeding stable and then a factory. One might think that the two job environments could not be more different but they did have one thing in common: so many factory workers were no less dependent on their regularly scheduled paychecks than the horses were on me as a stable hand, for their sustenance.

Later, I took a job with a renewable energy products wholesaler and that is when Hubbert's Peak came into view. I began reading everything about the topic I could get my hands on. Had I not been emotionally prepared nearly a year earlier, denial would have been a real possibility and may have meant missing information I wasn't ready for.

I have a good friend who has been an engineer working in the photovoltaic industry for many years. She is intelligent, well traveled and generally progressive and open minded. Several years ago I tried to persuade her to go skydiving. I noted the exemplary safety record and the various measures taken by the organization I had recommending in particular. I extolled the adrenaline rush and advertised that the adversity she faced in the "bored" room would pale afterwards.

She joked about the novelty of the idea at first. My persistence was met with mild resistance as she came up with various reasons as to why she couldn't follow through. Time and money were her first lines of defense which were defeated with my proposal to pay for her jump and accommodate her busy schedule. Next would come her citation of fear of heights which I pardoned noting that it was universal to human beings and an instinctual fear to be challenged. I suggested that she would approach various other life obstacles with new vigor post plunge. At this point her tone became noticeably more irritated and defensive and with that I noted that although I thought this was just the thing she needed in her recent wrestling for direction, I valued our friendship and would capitulate. After a hiatus from the topic she surprised me by accepting.

Since then I have introduced her to the idea of Peak Oil. My early approach was data driven as I am familiar with an engineer's need for numbers. Later discussions evolved through possible social, political and ecological events to come. We discussed the End of Suburbia DVD and, after some lobbying, I convinced her to read Powerdown by Richard Heinberg. Last summer I met her at the Solfest gathering in Hopland, California where Heinberg and Michael Ruppert were speaking. She was quite attentive but I could tell she wasn't buying it. Given that she lives in a city that shows obvious signs of bloat my most recent advance some months ago was an economic argument predicated on the current trend in the financial and housing sectors.

I see many similarities between our progression with this topic and our venture into skydiving. There have been many ebb-and-flow periods where I push the issue only to meet with inertia, friction and agitation. Often times any dialogue from me of a Peak Oil nature had been promptly met with news of some emerging technology that would change everything or some breakthrough architectural strategy that would make the current building pattern sustainable. We now seem to be in an amicable hiatus from the topic.

Often times I would ask myself why I was spending so much effort in trying to convince her and only recently did I realize. She is standing where I once stood. She is still holding out for some technological savior.

I feel I am finally letting go of that sense of duty I had felt to doggedly educate friends and family about Peak Oil. If and when people become ready I hope I can be of help. Having to let go of so many ideas and assumptions over the last two years has been something I did not anticipate. I am still learning to let go but with it has come a certain sense of clarity.

The past year and a half has been a shifting of gears so to speak. My reading list has changed as I have moved beyond the "defining the problem" phase towards solutions. I have returned to basics in many ways studying aspects of permanent agriculture and community. Last year I visited an intentional community and have returned several times finding there a sense of people and place I haven’t known since I was a child in the rural Midwest. Last fall I took a chance, quit my job, sold my car and apprenticed on a diversified small-scale farm in upstate New York. My intent was to learn the basics of animal husbandry and get more gardening experience but I may have learned more about myself in the process. After that I was off to another apprenticeship this past spring in Oregon to help an amazing couple work their farm and market-garden with horses. Their level or awareness surprised me and again, the lessons were more personal than anticipated.

I am acutely aware of the tight grip that the techno-fix mentality can have on a person, especially those in science and engineering. In the future we will need the creativity and skill of those in the technical community who have awakened to see energy descent not as another design problem but as an opportunity to follow a path with heart. We are slowly waking up. One more engineer's eyes have opened.

Editorial Notes: UPDATE (Sept 5). In response to queries from several readers, Brandon writes:
I grew up in rural Missouri, joined the Navy and later received a BSEE. I have worked for several energy companies including an electric utility and three PV businesses. Intermixed with engineering and graduate research have been stints as a landscaper, wilderness guide, stable hand, janitor and horse farmer. I have been living without a car for nearly a year; perhaps it is a little ironic then that a recent motor vehicle accident has given me plenty of time to read, write and reflect.

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