In this post I want to discuss an evolving theory I have which may illuminate some and enrage others. I have come to think that part of the reason behind the “die-off” perspective and the mind-set which thinks that Western civilisation is doomed because humanity is basically selfish and foolish, and that it is too late for humanity to do anything on the necessary scale is in fact that a generation of men are coming to realise on some level that they are almost entirely unequipped to face the challenge that peak oil creates.
One of the main impacts of the Age of Cheap Oil, the great Petroleum Party so rapidly drawing to a close, has been the monumental deskilling that has gone on during that time. A friend of mine recently told me of a friend of his 14 year old son, who had grown up eating sliced bread, and was unable to actually cut a slice of bread from a loaf! How many people now know how to cook, garden, build, repair, mend, pickle, prune or scythe? In the space of two generations, we have lost so much basic knowledge and skills that previous generations learnt by osmosis without even thinking about it.
Over the last few weeks I have been doing oral history interviews with older people in and around Totnes of their memories of the 30s, 40s and 50s. They remember working with horses on the farms, raising children with gas lamps, candles, home grown vegetables and home made clothes. This is less than 2 generations ago. What emerges is an innate sense, in the generation that made it through World War Two, of what constitutes enough, of an instinctive sense of self-reliance and an almost universal ability to turn one’s hand to anything.
A couple of years ago I went to London to a peak oil conference, and the evening before it I went to the pre-event social. I was struck by the fact that everyone there (with one exception) was male, aged 25-40, and, as far as I could tell, worked in IT. They were all very pleasant, intelligent, well read on the whole peak oil issue, and as able as anyone to argue that the peak is imminent and we need to act. There were however, almost no women, no gardeners, no builders, no foresters in the room, nor at the subsequent conference as far as I can tell.
Writers such as Shepherd Bliss and Carolyn Baker have questioned why it is that women are less prominent in the peak oil community. I have a nagging suspicion that it is because what we are seeing is, in part, a generation of men awakening to the fact that they are completely ill-prepared for life beyond oil. Almost all of the peak oil writers, and the vast majority of peak oil website writers and bloggers, are men. When I have organised peak oil-related events, finding female speakers on the subject is very tricky.
From the oral history interviews I have been doing, I have seen how older men are less concerned about “going back” to the kind of lifestyles of the 40s and 50s because they still remember how to do things. They often say “well it’s not a problem, I still know how to do all that stuff”. Something happened around the 1960s and the passing-on of that knowledge just stopped. Perhaps mens’ natural instinct is to protect and to provide, and at a time when we feel on some level the need to be doing so again, we are realising that our education has left us completely incapable of doing either. The oil-based economic system has basically said “don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of that for you” for that last 50 years, but that system is now starting to look very shaky, and we realise we have been taught the wrong skills.
The skills one needs to work in the service industry, in sales, in IT, in the insurance industry, in a call centre, are of very little use when one starts thinking about what might follow that in a more localised near-future. What those of 2 generations ago had that we have lost was a practical attitude. They knew how to use the various tools around them, and had a confidence that they could turn their hands to most things. They had the core skills they would need to get through most challenges. Dig for Victory was possible because most people still knew how to garden.
I think that panic and woe is a natural first response to peak oil. In my recent interview with Richard Heinberg he discussed the different stages of peak oil awareness. “Probably the typical stages of grief, denial, anger and all that and very often an obsession with the facts themselves and trying to become knowledgeable about those facts, internalise the information and then verify the information so they can be sure of this. After all, they are probably in the process of reorienting their lives and their priorities and they may be trying to convince their friends and family about this and they need to have better information and get all the facts straight so they can do that”. I would add to this that what often follows that is a realisation that we have lost the skills to adequately respond. In running the recent Transition Town Totnes Open Space days, I have seen that one of the most powerful things about them is that people get to meet and chat with other people who have the skills they are realising that they need. I came away from the food day with a great sense of hope, there are lots of knowledgable people around here, there are the skills to tap into.
I’m a 38 year old male. I know how to grow food. I can build walls, plaster, make compost, plant trees, design, cook, make jam and chutney, make turf roofs and chop wood. I’m hopeless with electrics. I’m not a great carpenter, and I have no clue about fixing machines of any kind. Yet having learnt to do the things I can do, I feel confident that I could turn my hand to most things. Almost as importantly, I am starting to find the people around me who could teach me thing things I need to learn. Although you may disagree with the theory I have set out above, I have found it an interesting way of looking at where the numbing sense of peak oil catastrophism comes from. It is, in the main, a theory most felt and promoted by men.
My feeling is that it represents a stage in evolving peak oil awareness, and is rooted in a dawning sense of horror at ones personal inadequacy in terms of skills and personal resources. My hope is that, within and beyond the peak oil movement, this sense of despair and futility can be harnessed by the acquiring of skills and local networking and turned into a catalyst for the relearning of a wide range of skills. In Transition Town Totnes we are doing our part by planning a series of workshops for the next programme called “The Great Reskilling”, which contains, among other things, workshops on sock darning and on edible container gardening. Succumbing to peak oil die-off despair gets us nowhere, unless we can use it as a spur to action and to reskilling.
Does this resonate with you? Any thoughts or discussion on the above much appreciated, I’d like to hear your thoughts…