(UPDATE - transcript now online)

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Peak Moment 199: Peak oil blues - we're all bozos on this bus

pm199_200.jpg“My own reaction seemed so crazy to me,” says psychologist Kathy McMahon of her response to Peak Oil. Wondering if she was the only “wacko”, she started the Peak Oil Blues blog to explore her own and readers’ responses.

As the “Peak Shrink,” Kathy formulated a delightfully tongue-in-cheek “Panglossian Disorder” — an unrealistic optimism about the future. She is about to publish “I Can’t Believe You Actually Think That!” A Couple’s Guide to Finding Common Ground about Peak Oil, Climate Catastrophe, and Economic Hard Times. (peakoilblues.com, feistylife.com)

Listen to Audio. Download video on iTunes.
Read Janaia’s journal “Peak Moment meets Peak Shrink Kathy McMahon” about this conversation.

"Peak Oil Blues: We're all Bozos on this Bus" (Peak Moment episode 199 with Kathy McMahon) - 00:35

Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. My guest today is Kathy McMahon, who calls herself the "Peak Shrink." Now, what is that?

Kathy McMahon: It's a psychologist that works with people who first got a clue about Peak Oil. And they went through a whole lot of emotional reactions to learning about it, and they want to talk with somebody. And they want to find out, are their reactions typical? Are they common? And, what should they expect if they had it? It was a research project I started because I really wanted to find out what was normal. My own reaction seemed so crazy to me.

JD: What was your reaction to hearing the news about Peak Oil?

KM: [laughs] I remember it like it was yesterday, actually. We were putting in a new floor in our bedroom, so I was in a little room. My husband would print out material from the internet and he'd bring it in to me, and he'd say, "Here, read this." And I'd read it and become increasingly shocked, appalled. Then after I was just about finished with that, he'd bring in another piece and say, "Here, read this!" I was completely overwhelmed. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it, and yet I kept looking for credible skeptics that I could believe. And I couldn't find any.

And so I noticed over time I began to go through this emotional process of saying, "Okay, I have to collect food! I went through what I call a salad dressing period. I bought all this salad dressing. And then, a year later, I never used it because I started making my own salad dressing. But at the point, I had to all of a sudden feel I had to accumulate everything in order to be safe.

JD: You were accumulating, hoarding all this stuff, because the world was going to end.

KM: I was expecting something dramatic -- any moment this big drama was going to happen.

JD: I sort of had the same feeling when I learned about Peak Oil. My first thought was, "We're six miles from town. What if we can't afford the gasoline? Should I be growing food?" All that kind of stuff.

KM: Yeah, and you had to do it all yesterday.

JD: Yeah, because it's going to happen right now.

KM: So I started Peak Oil Blues because basically I wanted to see -- did other people act that crazy? I mean, psychologists have a reputation for being kinda whacked anyway. So I wanted to see if I was unique in the population. And then I also really wanted to find out, what did people do differently once they found out? How did their life change? So it's been really fascinating because I've been doing it for four-and-a-half years. I've actually asked people who contributed a year later, and two years later, to write again to say how is your life changed? And it's amazing, that they have really made significant changes in their life that they felt really positive.

So those initial periods...one of the things I say is, "Don't make any major decisions about your life in the first two years after you learn about Peak Oil. Do the things that you want to do, but don't make any major transitional "I've got to move to the woods...." I'll give you an example of that. There was a woman who wrote me from rural England, and it was a very early contributor. And she was describing the same fields that had been there since the middle ages, around her. And the village where all of her family lived. And that little village was all self-sustaining. And when she wrote me, what she said is, "I got to get out. I got to go find someplace safe to live." And I said to her, "No, people go to a place [like] where you live in order to be safe." Her idea was, and I think this is a common reaction, was that she had to run, she had to find someplace safe. Wherever she was, she had to run to someplace different.

JD: I think a lot of people think that.

KM: Absolutely. So that's one of the reasons I say, "Don't make any huge changes. Do the things that you think are important where you are, but don't panic and do something dramatic. Let it sink in."

JD: One of the things that you've done that I've really enjoyed is that you've created your own disorder about peoples' initial responses, at least, to the news that Peak Oil is happening, and we're on a downhill, and not having the same amount...so tell us about the disorder.

KM: I think that one of the most upsetting things to people when they first find out about Peak Oil is the fact that when they tell other people about it, other people are not receptive to it. And they meet them with statements like, "That can't be right," "Maybe it'll be bad, but it won't be as bad as you say it is," and all of these sorts of batting back of the information without even looking into it, without even being curious about it. And so what I decided is, if we have a category of "Debby Downer," if we have a category of "Buzz Kills," as one of the contributors said, why don't we talk about the other extreme, of people who are pathologically positive, in a really fake way, about the future? So I called it "Panglossian Disorder."

JD: Panglossian. What does it mean?

KM: Right. It is an unrealistic optimism about the future in the face of likely planetary and cultural collapse. So what I did is create a whole bunch of subcategories in a tongue-in-cheek way, to help my contributors identify what they're going to face. Things like, "Oh, we'll take pig dung and we'll make fossil fuel out of it." Or, The Flintstonian: "We didn't move out of the Stone Age because we ran out of stones." So you hear a lot of these really crazy responses, and

JD: "They'll figure something out. Alternatives will be made." Part of what you're talking about here, going back, is not just Peak Oil. You just mentioned planetary collapse. Part of the thing that a lot of people think is that this is a problem, and they'll figure something. Isn't that one of the biggest...?

KM: You will find people who are anti-establishment, who don't believe in corporations or big government, and they'll say things like, "They will figure it out." And you'll say, "Well, who are They?" They didn't go that far. They just assumed, if I don't want to think about it, somebody else has to take care of it. The big They.

So I think it's not just optimism. Because people can be optimistic, and they can be pro-social, they can do positive things. But when I talk about Panglossian Disorder, I'm talking about it as a defense. They're acting like they're positive, but it's only as a defense against really contemplating negative things that they can't handle, because they're overwhelmed. I have a friend who's written about it. Her take is that they actually care too much, that they have such a profound emotional reaction to learning about these things that they have to put up this Panglossian defense, because otherwise it would just be too painful for them to actually process that on an intellectual level.

The research studies have said that 80% of people believe that our planet is facing severe challenges, and that it has catastrophic outcomes. Only 14% of the public surveyed say it's not a problem. So people get it.

JD: That's a big percentage. That's bigger than I expected.

KM: It is! People get it. But I think the question is, then what do you do with it? And that question is what causes the Panglossian disorder. That's what I see.

JD: Seems to me that a lot of people just want to keep going on with their lives, because this is big. We expect the government will solve it. Businesses aren't just going to let themselves stop because we run out of it [oil]. What is it back to? That we feel we're helpless, that we can only take care of this much, and we've got something that's going to affect the whole planet?

KM: Here's the thing. I say, along with Catherine Austin Fitts, that you have 71,000 communities in the United States and Canada. All you have to do is worry about one of them, which is yours. And you have to take your house, and you have to draw a 5-mile or 10-mile radius -- your choice -- and you have to say, those people within that circle, they're my neighbor. And really have some meaning to the word "neighbor." The old meaning of the word neighbor is, when they needed something, you were there to give it to them. When you needed something, you called on them. There was a give and a take situation.

And I think in this culture, we're really reluctant to ask for help, because we know instinctively that the power position is offering help. That is a very healing position, the people who actually offer help are mentally healthier than the people who receive help. And when people are confused about that, I say "Think about nursing homes. If you don't give a person a chance to give back, and you keep helping them, you debilitate them." So one of the real challenges, I think, for a lot of middle-class folks that have always been able to function independently, is to get comfortable enough to ask. Even if they don't necessarily need it -- to begin to ask other people to create a favor bank. Where I do for you. You do for me. I do for you. You do for me.

And it begins to have that bouncing ball [effect]. And through that work we can figure out if we are trustworthy or not. When I help you, do you help me in the same way or do you shirk your responsibilities? That's where the word "gossip" got a bad reputation. It's not really bad at all. Gossip is a wave going through our community where we tell each other the worth of the people around us.

JD: Interesting. Yes, sure, like "This person will be slow in giving it back to you, but they'll do it" -- that's what gossip would say.

KM: Or, they always show up for the potluck and never bring anything. It's basically a check and a balance. Because in every community there has to be, at least traditionally, there has to be some payback, that somebody's trying to freeload off the community. And gossip is the way to add clarification to freeloaders.

JD: You mentioned earlier that there's some danger in trying to figure out what's going to happen in the future. Some problem if people are trying to figure out what it's going to be like without oil, or far less oil, or an economic crash. Talk to us a bit about the future and the present. How do people be with such hard news of something we aren't going to solve?

KM: It comes from some research that Gonzales did, about wilderness survival. One of the things he said that was really curious is that six-year-old children, and younger, survived better when they get lost in the wilderness, than children that are seven and older. The reason for that is they don't have a preconceived notion, or a cognitive map, about the world out there. So that when they're tired, say, they just find a place in a tree and they go to sleep. When they're hungry and thirsty, they go looking for water. Whereas older children and adults have a cognitive map about the way things should be. So they press on over that mountain because they think that may be where help will come from. That they don't trust, for example, a compass. If they think they're going in one direction, and the compass tells them they're going in a different direction, they'll actually smash the compass!

So this cognitive map that we have about the way that the world should be becomes so strong that we actually stop seeing the changing world in front of us, and we ignore it and say, "It doesn't meet my cognitive map. It doesn't meet what I was expecting to see, so therefore it doesn't really exist." And that's, I think, the danger of being able to say, okay let's predict, let's get an image, our image of what the future should look like. Then we'll backcast it and we'll make that happen. That certainly has some value, but the limitation is that when the world is changing so quickly, when it begins changing, we have that image in our head -- maybe as our community, which is group think -- really dangerous, as a group we say, it's going to be like this. And if that doesn't meet it, that isn't really existing, that isn't really happening.

JD: What you're talking about dealing with what the situation is, rather than our pictures of it. But we're a culture of people full of pictures. We've been fed pictures -- movie, theatre, all of it -- and we figure it's either going to be a Mad Max scene, or dystopia of some sort. I think we don't imagine there could be some good things that come out of this collapse.

KM: Again, we don't admit how crazy the culture is right now. We live in a very insane culture. We don't socialize as often with our friends as we used to. We don't sit and have dinner with our families the way that we used to -- and I'm talking about dramatic differences between how often we used to socialize say in in 1970, how often we used to have dinners together as a family from 1970 to the present. Dramatic shifts. So that as a result of that... clinically, I work with children who don't know how to play. They know how to play video games. But they don't know how to use their imagination in a fantasy-like play. If you send them out with other children without a video game, they don't know how to interact. And these are going to be major, major problems.

So I think one of the advantages of a future that has less fossil fuel is that we will be required to be more human. But part of the challenge is we'll have to start getting comfortable being around flawed human beings. So one of the things I talk about is, we're all bozos on this bus. Let's get away from the idea that we have to be some high-level, perfect leader, high-level visionary, and let's accept the fact that people are annoying. And that's not a problem that people are annoying. The problem is that we expect they shouldn't be.

JD: But Kathy, we're watching [television] shows in which everything gets resolved in an hour or in movies, in two hours. [

KM: That's right.] And these polished veneers of what people are like -- we've come to see that's what we should be like, I guess. But that's not the way human beings are.

KM: But the problem is, the longer we spend in front of the computer, the longer the time we spend in front of any entertainment device...a study from Stanford says we become more socially isolated, and we become more depressed. So it becomes this loop where we get depressed and socially isolated, so we spend more time in front of our electronic devices and entertainment devices, and so we become more socially isolated. The only cure for any of that is to start interacting with people and learning the social skills that we've lost over time.

JD: And lost quickly. I'm just aghast at how quickly...

KM: Yes, the average family in 1970 had dinner together five times a week. The average family today has two to three times at dinner for a week. And in the 1970s we used to socialize 14 to 15 times a month, and by 1990 -- and I'm sure it's even less now -- it dropped down to 8 times a month. So we're not talking about a small shift socially. It's really dramatic.

JD: It's sort of gone in parallel with that electronic increase. We got computers...

KM: ...and we stopped talking to other people.

JD: It reminds me that some of the folks working on peak oil, working in their communities like you're talking about, that there aren't very many in the generation you're talking about. They aren't used to working in groups.

KM: Are you talking about younger people?

JD: Yes, I'm talking about younger people.

KM: I think there's a couple things operating. One is -- I get letters from twenty-year-olds, and I think a lot of middle-aged boomers don't understand is that twenty-year-olds are living it. We're thinking about it, but they're already living it. They can't buy houses, they have to live in communal groups. So in many, many ways they're already socializing in a very dramatically different way. They're living without cars, so they have to know what the bus system is like. So despite the fact that we see them more removed in some ways, and more isolated, I think that the economic times are such that they're really being pressured to connect and to socialize.

JD: That's true. We taped a wonderful show with two households of twenty-somethings, and they had taken the fence down between them. They were growing gardens and doing shared projects. They were already living in community right where they were, renting those houses, with one car amongst twelve people! I see what you're saying.

KM: It is a paradox but I think it's true...when twenty-somethings write me, what they say is, "I read your site, and a lot of people writing seem to be older. They're talking about getting solar panels, about insulating. All those are good ideas, except that I don't own a house. I have $60,000 in student loan debt. I'm just trying to figure out what I can do without having those resources. And they can't even see their youth as an advantage, which is what I try to remind them of. To this day, I could tell you a handful of middle-aged people who have property who would love to have young people living with them, to bring life to the place again. Because you're aging. You don't have the enthusiasm and energy level that you had in your twenties, and you really see the value of youth, and their very different way.

JD: I think we're going to see a lot of that. We have about five minutes left. What haven't we covered?

KM: One of the things I really felt was important was to talk to mental health professionals. I really don't want mental health professionals to pathologize people who first learn about Peak Oil. I mean, we may have maladaptive ways of reacting to it. But the fact is, it's psychological terrorism to say to somebody, "You are reacting in a pathological way" when the way they're reacting is perfectly appropriate, given the severity of the threat or the actual circumstances that are happening to them.

So I'm a really big advocate of not pathologizing. I don't use "Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder" when I describe that reaction. I don't want anyone to say that the reaction to Peak Oil is itself a pathology. Because it isn't. The emotional distress that people are feeling, the shock, the anger, the sense of overwhelm -- all of these things are completely understandable. And we need to start normalizing them. Because, paradoxically, the more we actually normalize those upsetting reactions, we then begin to calm down. It's like the Bob Dylan song that says, "I froze to the bone in New York town, and then I heard it was the coldest winter in 27 years, and I didn't feel so cold then." So we have to begin to say, "Oh yeah you felt shocked. Did you have problems sleeping? Me too. And then did you start doing all this crazy stuff? Yeah, that's typical."

JD: That will help a lot, for people to be assured that we all go through that.

KM: We do.

JD: It's like when you realize the world is not going to be at all like...

KM: The next twenty years are not going to be anything like the last twenty. Absolutely, as Chris Martenson says.

JD: And we don't know exactly what it's going to look like, but we just know we need to be paying attention, and you're not crazy for feeling panicky at times.

KM: And we have to manage our anxiety. Anxiety is not a problem. We have to live and get comfortable. Because we're going to feel enormously anxious, and our job is to figure out how do we manage it, instead of how do we get rid of it. Because we're a culture that has little tolerance for sadness: we call it depression. We have a little anger and we call it rage. And we have very little tolerance for anxiety, we want to treat it psycho-pharmacologically. And we're not going to be able to do that in the future. We're going to have to say to ourselves, "Yeah I feel anxious. So what are my options? How do I manage it?"

JD: How do we be with what we're feeling? Our culture has been not doing that.

KM: Just sitting with it. A lot of it is just sitting with it. And being able to talk with people about it. And recognize that we're all bozos, so not being so defensive, and say to ourselves, "Oh I can't share that with anybody because they'll think I'm a bozo." Well, you know what, you are a bozo, so don't worry about them thinking that!

JD: That's really reassuring. You don't have to be the expert, and you don't have to have the answers.

KM: No you don't! You just have to be human. A flawed human, like us all.

JD: And get used to being with other flawed humans...

KM: That's right, and being annoyed by them. Just enjoying that all of us are flawed, and we can get annoying. And yet we still live within that five- or ten-mile radius, so we're neighbors. We have to get along. We have to learn how to get along.

JD: We have a neighbor who people would call a redneck. He has lived in those woods a long time. He hunts every fall -- we don't do hunting. But I know that if we had some challenge that we needed, he would be there for us.

KM: Strange bedfellows, I say. I have a neighbor and he says, "I don't believe in the global warming." And I say, "You don't believe in it?" and he goes, "No." And I say "Why?" And he says, "I'm not using less electricity, I don't care what you say." And I say, "What's your electric bill?" He says, "Twelve dollars." This guy is so cheap -- now we'd call him sustainable today, green, that he won't use any answering machine because he doesn't want to waste the electricity.

JD: He's already there!

KM: He's a strange bedfellow, do you see what I'm saying? But he's not the problem! He's not the problem. But he's my neighbor, and I am going to have a relationship with him and I do.

JD: And he's going to teach you stuff.

KM: Well, he goes out and picks greens, and he makes a tonic in the spring.

JD: Strange bedfellows, bozos... KM: We're all bozos on this bus. We'll be bumping in and having strange bedfellows on this ride.

JD: Thanks for assuring us that we're not crazy, that our responses -- that we'll go through phases.

KM: Or we may need to be a little more comfortable being the crazy we are.

JD: Kathy, that's great! I'll join you! We'll be crazy together.

KM: Crazy in a fun way.

JD: Tell us your website.

KM: www.peakoilblues.com.

JD: Peak Oil Blues with the Peak Shrink. Kathy McMahon, thank you for joining me.

KM: Hey, it's wonderful being here.

JD: [to viewer] You're watching Peak Moment, and no, you're not crazy, and no, you're not alone. Join us next time.
Editorial Notes: Janaia Donaldson blogs about the interview: http://www.transitionus.org/blog/peak-moment-meets-peak-shrink-kathy-mcmahon Video also appears at Peak Moment site: http://www.peakmoment.tv/conversations/?p=457 and at Blip TV http://blip.tv/peak-moment-tv/peak-oil-blues-we-re-all-bozos-on-this-bus-5466242 UPDATE (August 15): Added transcript. The book is not yet published, but will be soon. Changed the text to reflect this at the author's request. -BA

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