Cross Pollination

Recently, I had breakfast with Kurt Cobb and Bart Anderson, with whom I had in common the topic of peak oil. I was trying to explain to them why I was going to fly halfway across the country to St. Louis to a conference on chronic disorganization. I was learning that very few of the “numbers people” of the Peak Oil community have heard of my profession, that of a professional organizer.

The topic of my conference seemed slightly absurd in light of the ASPO-USA conference the two men had just attended in nearby Sacramento. Given peak oil’s long predicted underlying cause of the now unfolding economic collapse, this community ought to be abuzz with excitement. I was well aware that flying across the country to conferences was made possible by cheap oil, as was the factory farmed food we would eat and the copious amounts of energy consumed to keep our mega hotel running. Indeed I was wondering if this would be my last.

Bart, my editor at the Energy Bulletin, who had scooped me up into this technically oriented largely male community of writers, was telling me of the amazing cross-pollination he felt the ASPO conference had fostered. He also assured me that he had secured nodding approval of the inclusion of my offbeat essays in the peak oil context. For I, too, had stepped out of the official narrative of the American Dream and shared with these writers a similar vision of the declining future, often delivering a message that would undermine everything the population took for granted about how we lived. Or rather how we would no longer live now that the baroque era of energy dense, dead dinosaur-fueled opulence was waning.

This message of an ever more negative economic outlook was not even acceptable for discussion among my entrepreneurial peers who were kept inspired by an endless parade of motivational speakers. As I related the positive-to-the-point-of-delusion attitude of my business colleagues, to my peak oil companions, Kurt, who was himself from a business family, assured me that entrepreneurs must be overly positive because going into business for oneself is one of the craziest things you can do.

“Yeah”, I said thinking fondly of my colleagues, “There’s nothing no-can-do about this group.”

I would simply have to translate the message of peak oil as an economic opportunity. (Thus I have used the more motivational sounding phrase “peak energy” in my title.) I did not find this barrier to be too troublesome. I was confident that, of all the professions that I had aspired to, this was one of the most nimble. We were continually adapting to new circumstances, not only in the ever-changing business climate, but also by learning new techniques to grapple with the circumstances that overwhelmed our clients. I was already the go to person for all things Green especially when it came to recycling.

Techniques for Paradigm Busting

Meanwhile back at my conference of the National Study Group of Chronic Disorganization (an off shoot of the National Association of Professional Organizers), a group of 120 predominantly female colleagues would contemplate one of the most daunting client profiles in the business—that of the compulsive hoarder, a condition recently made famous by jaw-dropping pictures on Oprah. Our speaker, Gail Steketee, Dean at the Boston University School of Social Work, would spend two mornings teaching us the latest treatments for such cases.

Hoarders, she told us, suffered from extremely poor insight, much as an anorexic suffers from a poor assessment of their body image. They do not see that the clutter filling their house is a problem even as they are obliged to move sideways to get around their piles of stuff.

“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “poor insight is a great way to define how out of touch we are with how unsustainably we live, here in the US of A.” Yes, if only we could see ourselves through the eyes of an Indian, a Chinese, or even a European, we too, might look as unreasonable as a hoarder with newspapers piled to the ceiling. The incredible inefficiency we had managed to build into our infrastructure and the standard of living we expected to maintain reeked with waste, bolstered by an assumption that we could carry on like this indefinitely.

I eagerly awaited the treatment that Ms. Steketee would describe.

Although, compulsive hoarding was considered a part of the OCD family (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), she explained, hoarders had not responded to drugs as other OCD cases do. The only treatment that was making any headway at all was cognitive therapy. This paralleled my own experience. One of my clients, who stored plastic bottle caps by size and color in a little hardware chest, just because she might need one someday, could only be budged from any of her hoarding habits after extensive discussion and questioning on my part.

Ms. Steketee role played for us how we should pursue a line of “Socratic questioning”, emphasizing that we should remain neutral and not push, perhaps even play devil’s advocate in order to make sure that the client was motivated out of their own volition. The key was to listen for ambivalence. “On the one hand I want it because…, but on the other hand if I didn’t have it in my house I would be able to invite people over.”

Our hoarding clients had to weigh the pleasure they got from feeling prepared for that someday when they might need said item, while considering the potential gains of having better use of their space. Grieving might be involved as they gave up the parts of their identity tied to those items. An attraction to irrelevant details, i.e., colorful bottle caps, that were unappreciated by others, also distracted them.

Transcending A Dualistic World

I was captured by the phrase “Socratic Questioning”. How it required an engagement of the intellect. I felt hopeful. If we could indeed affect change in the most recalcitrant of our clients, by merely pursuing a logical line of questioning, then we should also be able to affect change in the American lifestyle by exploring the discrepancies between our day-to-day choices and the assumption that these unsustainable habits could continue.

Already, in light of global warming, the public was feeling ambivalent about the impact of the American lifestyle on the planet. On the one hand the consumer way of life was convenient, easy and fast. On the other hand it was wasteful, expensive and filled our lives with garbage. All we needed was a push to explore these ambivalences, detail by detail, until we understood why we should go to the trouble of changing our habits.

The problem, as peak oil writer, John Michael Greer, describes in his book The Long Descent, is that we as a culture are given only two narratives. For the optimist it is the Myth of Progress, in which everyone acts rationally to further their own interests. And because necessity (and market opportunity) is the mother of invention, better technology would save the world or at least our consumer lifestyle. The shadow narrative is the Myth of the Apocalypse, which says that we did live a golden age of harmony with each other and the planet, but we took a wrong turn and it’s been one blind alley of misguided depravity after another and now we’re doomed so what can we possibly do anyway?

Between fear and hope the nation did not seem to have a narrative of prudence and cooperation. We do not tell stories about reigning in our consumption so that we might gain back our sanity (and live within ecological limits). Or cooperate with each other when a project overwhelms us. The two narratives of Progress or Apocalypse implied that when push comes to shove, nations and society would dissolve into an every-man-for-himself contest of violence and mob rule.

The good news, as I read in the book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes And Why, is that, in an actual disaster i.e.: fire, plane crash, falling twin towers, people are willing collaborators bonded by the sudden fate befallen them. It also helped a lot if you had leadership skills and had prepared your community.

Perhaps our collaborative community story had been largely ignored by society because we take it for granted. As Sharon Astyk, one of the rare women peak oil writers, explains in her book Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front, the work that mostly women and sometimes children, do in the informal economy, such as canning home grown vegetables, mending clothes or doing the dishes, isn’t accounted for or valued because no money exchanges hands.

Not accounted for. An account not told, I mused. Maybe that’s why the cooperation and coping of everyday life is not a part of our cultural narrative. I do the dishes so no Apocalypse today thank you very much. Or I do the dishes so no Progress today, no new inventions, no saving the world, just keeping it all orderly (which is, incidentally, what professional organizers help people do).

Sharon Astyk was making the point that we should not underestimate this work that we are doing on the home front, just because it is not unaccounted for. This is the work that will ultimately see us through the unraveling of the formal economy. How we manage and cope day to day would come down to the strength of family leadership and skills of self-reliance. (Here is where I kick in my motivational speech as I point out the opportunities my colleagues will have in helping people cope and learn these skills. This is, after all, what we have been doing all along.)

At a break during my conference, I got to talking to an organizer living in Birmingham, Alabama who startled me by telling me about the gas shortages there. Sometimes gas stations were out of just one kind of gas and sometimes the stations would be closed altogether.

“So what are people doing?” I asked.

“The moms call each other up on their cell phones, as they’re driving by, to tell each other which stations are closed and which have gas, ” she told me.

“Well that’s a collaboration of sorts,” I said, “Maybe eventually they’ll form a carpooling network.” I am ever hopeful. I will uncover everywhere an underlying story of cooperation.

A week later, I had the opportunity to tell a shared story of community, for the 20th anniversary celebration of my local chapter of NAPO (200 members strong). Playing for comedy, I filled the retelling with exaggerated dramatic moments of Progress countered by intense moments of crisis, but the predominant theme that emerged from the telling was that at every juncture of internal conflict or near Apocalyptic collapse, the members of this volunteer run organization would find a way to work together to rethink the new problem and overcome the crisis in a collaborative way for the good of all. It was a magical story to tell. I couldn’t sleep for reliving the success of it. I suddenly saw the overarching importance of belonging to such a group and working so hard to make sure we kept this story of collaboration going. It could only improve our lives especially for the long haul.