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What are the real implications of peak oil in a culture where common sense has been suppressed by consumerism?

A lot of parenting is about common sense. Deep down as parents, we realize that if a child gets showered with gifts, they become unappreciative. If they receive things because they stamp their feet and scream, that behavior will continue because it has been rewarded.

In the last few decades however, common sense seems to be on the decline and its commonality is certainly fading. Let me give you an example. When I was growing up, my parents would have a birthday party for me with perhaps five or six friends at maximum. There would be sandwiches, cake, balloons and a big back yard in which to play. There might be a treasure hunt or a simple game if my mother was feeling energetic. For the large part though, I was instructed to entertain my friends on my own, hardly an onerous task. The end result was an enjoyable afternoon and a few small gifts for me to play with, once everyone else had gone home.

Fast forward a few decades and you see something very different. The birthday party has been organized by an outside company bought in to make the birthday wishes of the ‘Fairy Queen,’ a reality. The house is decorated in an inspired fairyland design and the mothers arrive at the house with their very own princess darlings who clutch enormous presents. You watch the numbers, two, four, six and it just keeps going. “How many are coming?" you ask mom innocently. “The whole class,” she answers, removing her fairy wings before deftly maneuvering a pile of brownies through the door. The party lasts for an insane three hours of…fun, punctuated by the occasional melt down amongst the clearly overwhelmed kids. At last the party goers waddle out the door, stuffed with cake and brownies and clutching a goody bag equal in value to the GDP of Montenegro. The fairy queen instead of extolling the party’s virtues, lies in a heap exhausted, ripping off her wings and yelling “How come I didn’t get the pirate party!”

If this sounds like something only those with big fat purses would think of doing for a child’s birthday, I would urge you to think again. In my experience as a parent educator, this scenario or ones like it are played out all over North America on a daily basis. It’s not that people don’t know good sense, it’s that they can’t seem to put it in to practice.

It’s an abundance of energy that makes possible the kinds of excess that many parents practice with their children. It is also energy that elevates and continuously upgrades our expectations, which then in turn become the new societal norm. Our common sense tells us these expectations as to what is normal, have little basis in reality and in many ways are harmful to our children. So why then do parents that know all the reasons that they shouldn’t do something, do it anyway? Whatever force it is that encourages moms and dad to throw away the parental rulebook must be effective indeed and the only way that rulebook can be ignored, is if a definitive effort has been made to render it obsolete.

Is it possible then that there is a force out there that is purposely trying to render us mentally impotent? A force that makes us unable to distinguish what we need from what we want. If so, what would they have to gain? The answer to that question relates to the pursuit of the almighty dollar. The ability to sell us stuff that we neither need nor really want is the brainchild of the marketing industry. It had its birth in the work of Edward Bernays, Freud’s American nephew, a man often thought of as the father of public relations.

So what is the definition of ‘public relations’ and how does it connect with selling us things we don’t need? Public relations is the business of generating goodwill toward an individual, cause, company or product. Bernays believed that you could persuade the public to do things they would not normally do, by tapping in to their unconscious desires. In the late 1920’s, he illustrated this to his contemporaries while working for the American Tobacco Company. He arranged for a group of young models to walk in a New York City parade and to light Lucky Strike cigarettes at a predetermined time as, ‘Torches of Freedom.’ Photographers who had been warned ahead of time, eagerly snapped photos, which were later printed in the New York Times on April 1, 1928, under the headline of ‘Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom.’ These photographs helped to break the taboo that women were not supposed to smoke in public. Bernays cleverly tied in women's freedom and equality with a product, supplanting ordinary desire for a cigarette with the strong underlying motivator of gender equality.

Bernays’ theories were very successful and corporate America must have felt that its train had arrived. However, it had not counted on the depression or the war years. It was really the post war boom that allowed corporate America to have the blank canvas they’d hoped for. In earlier generations, the masses simply didn’t have enough money to make a difference but after the war and as the years passed, wealth seemed everywhere. Good jobs abounded and prosperity ruled, which was of course, largely a function of the oil age.

Along with the economic boom came the baby boomers, the first generation that threw off the constraints of the past. This was not just on a political level but on a social level too. Suddenly, the parental constraints deemed necessary by parents who had lived through the misery of the depression and the war years, looked old fashioned and completely irrelevant. And at the same time as the baby boomers threw off the cloak of parental rules, they leapt keenly in to a world where it was not only ok but encouraged that they fulfill their most innermost desires.

As consumerism gained a strong foothold, it suppressed parents’ natural ability to say ‘no’ because parents felt that if they denied their children they would be judged by societal norms as an ‘improper’ parent. As a result, children began to lack the boundaries necessary to grow in to well-rounded adults. With every generation now, the broken chain gets harder to re-forge because the constraints that once occupied the parenting landscape are no longer present, at least for the time being. The reason for them has become more and more obscure, and has finally faded from our society’s collective memory.

I wish I could say that this kind of manipulation occurs only on a commercial level and the limit of it’s power is whether or not we buy a pair of jeans. Instead, it pervades every aspect of our modern lives, including our political processes. The latter is an area where Bernays' theories found equally fertile ground. He believed that the manipulation of the masses was an important element of democracy. He saw that by fulfilling the unconscious desires of people, a society could then be manipulated and saved from itself and the dangerous ‘herd like’ impulses that lurk beneath the surface of the human mind. It is in this way that the government and the corporate sector have become complicit in using mind manipulation to achieve their various and frequently similar aims.

So will peak oil change this scenario and allow us to throw off all that impedes common sense? Will we refuse to be manipulated? Will the economic troubles ahead allow all of us to make the right choices that will no doubt determine our long-term survivability? One of my readers posed that very question, asking whether adults who have been kept in a state of dependency will be able to adapt successfully in a rapidly changing society?

I think acceptance of our new reality, is key. Because peak oil is not a temporary setback, I suspect people will behave in one of two basic ways, neither of which immediately lead to the acceptance necessary for an orderly transition. The first route is one where I have a feeling that the ‘petulance’ that my reader suggested, won’t even begin to describe the feelings of your average American, Canadian or for that fact, European. Let’s face it, will the Cadillac Escalade owner now faced with the reality that his dream machine is a worth a fraction of it’s former value, react in outrage or be so dumbstruck as to not know what to do? Whatever the reaction, the net result is that the victim is ripe for manipulation. Consequently, whatever ‘Messiah’ comes along is likely to find fertile ground.

When the masses find out that their consumerist dreams are an empty promise and that their democracy is a shell, their disillusionment will turn to anger. I believe this is the moment when ‘adults’ will ‘grow up.’ It will be this point when the state of dependency and adolescence will begin its death throes and I have a feeling that the result will not be pretty. Inequities, which before were barely noticed will become glaring. The gated communities will still be gated but this time perhaps with razor wire on top and a mob outside, fended off by armed guards. When the prospect of consumer bliss is no longer achievable, what will be used to keep the masses in line? I don’t know entirely but I suspect it will be something altogether repressive. No doubt we will end up with an angry population that is revolutionary in nature. Whether or not they are successful, is entirely an open question.

Route two, follows the path of least resistance and follows what happens to societies that are inflicted with ‘shock therapy.’ According to Naomi Klein, author of the recent book, ‘The Shock Doctrine’, societies that receive the kind of economic shock we’re talking about often go through a period of a sort of collective paralysis. Although peak oil is not an economic doctrine that is imposed by one group upon another, it shares many of the same facets. If the rate of change is rapid, people do not have time to adapt. The paralysis delays the beginnings of adaptation in the very same way that rebellion does and cruelly prevents action when it is most needed and when it would prevent the worst hardship. The Government may also exhibit the same paralysis, confounding matters. In the end, acceptance comes to the occupiers of both routes and probably at much the same time. Route one’s chaos would be unpleasant to live through but would no doubt lead to a rapid equalization of resources, perhaps at the point of a gun. Route two, would quite conceivably give those that are already in positions of power, time to render a population completely under their control to the point that we may end up the equivalent of medieval serfs.

Our only hope as a society is that the right political leadership will emerge. Just as a parent should provide direction, so must our governments. I would like to believe that our capacity for change is a function of knowing what we’re faced with and the truth of our future predicament. In other words, we can manage what we know but we can’t manage what we don’t know. From my work with parents, I can tell you that people are remarkably adaptable once they are presented with the root cause of their problems and the necessity for change. Our adaptability then, will be determined by our ability to elect enlightened political leaders and re-learn and transfer long forgotten skills.

We are approaching the cusp. On balance, our long-term survivability will be largely a function of whether we shake off the manipulations that so cleverly direct us. We must acknowledge that our abilities and energy are best expended on acceptance of reality rather than on resentment and revenge. We must stave off collective paralysis and act together. As for leadership, who’s to say whether America will rise to the challenge or that Canada will find the kind of leadership it needs. If we do, we have a hope. If not…I think I’ll need a stiff gin and tonic...while it’s still available.

Editorial Notes: For more on Edward Bernays and the growth of PR see Century of the Self-SO

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