Getting to the heart of Peak Oil – a workshop initiative report back

UNplanner wrote some choice words last year in a blog post called the Dime-store Psychology of our Energy Problem:

One of the things that make peak oil/peak energy so difficult to comprehend is the inability of most people to visualize a radically different existence. This is perfectly understandable. Most people visualize their future quite similar to their current existence. The average vision of the future is perhaps a little more expensive and hectic than today with ever larger construction projects. Inevitably most people will expect ever more sophisticated technology. The key point however, is that whatever interpretation of the future one may have is based on past trends and personal experiences. .

Peak energy turns this understanding on its head. For if any given individual takes the time to understand the ideas of depletion and limits to growth and grasp their implications, they will arrive at an unsettling realization: everything they believed would occur was just an illusion or a false promise. This is a very powerful feeling. For many people it is simply too much to handle and thus you see the various coping mechanisms. Only after someone has taken this sucker punch to the psyche and accepted it, can true preparations begin.

The question presents itself, can we create an environment, a circumstance, where people can develop their understanding of Peak Oil – and in a way which leads to positive future visions and actions?

Giving and taking the ‘sucker punch’ among friends

Working on practical preparations – like learning self sufficiency skills, understanding permaculture perspectives, being involved in community projects, and so on – seems to be an excellent way of dealing with some of the emotional pressures of living in these unpredictable and ‘historically interesting’ times. See for instance: Exhibit A – the sunny folks who worked on the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan; and Exhibit B – friendly Melbourne gardening skill share workshop organised by peakniks. It really is difficult to be depressed when you’re learning new skills and working towards solutions. Even if it doesn’t seem much in the face of overwhelming problems, you know you’re at least moving in the right direction.

There’s the potential for this kind of emotional salvation on the other side, but first we’ve got to take the sucker punch, and it’s not an easy punch to take, especially alone.

Unless we feel like we have the emotional stability or support network to really confront the issue of Peak Oil, we’re understandably enough, likely to ignore it or to fall into denial.

The efforts of denial have their own psychological burdens, akin to listening over the din and natterings of distant fear. So fully confronting the issue might come as something of a relief, a revelation even, as long as we can also see how to change, to imagine some practical projects we can embark on.

So is there a way in which we can facilitate that process, in ourselves, and in others?

It’s a problem not unlike the one felt by US Buddhist scholar and deep ecology practitioner Joanna Macy during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war was more distinctly palpable. She believed many people were too overwhelmed by fear to be able to respond effectively.

Macy developed what she now calls ‘despair and empowerment’ work, and it found many applications. Most famously, in the mid-nineties she began working with people in the Russian town of Novozybkov, the closest remaining town to Chernobyl. The suffering felt by townsfolk due to the ongoing cancers, birth defects and lack of access to the surrounding radioactive forests was not the stuff of polite conversation – the pain perhaps, simply too great to be acknowledged.

Macy’s tools are lengthy group workshops involving ritualistic excersises and guided creative processes. For the people of Novozybkov it resulted in an outpouring of anger and suppressed grief.

Macy gives her recollection of explaining the workshops to the town Mayor:

“Mr. Mayor, we do not imagine that we can take away the suffering of your people,” I said. “That would be presumptuous on our part. But what we can do is look together at two main ways we respond to collective suffering. The suffering of a people can bring forth from them new strengths and solidarity. Or it can breed isolation and conflict, turning them against each other. There is always a choice.”

At that the mayor’s demeanor totally changed. Leaning back in his chair, he spread his hands on the table and said, “There is not a single day, nor a single encounter in this office, that does not reveal the anger that stirs just under the surface. Whatever the matter at hand, there is this anger that is barely contained, ready to explode.”

One workshop participant recounted her experience after the second day of the workshop: “I hardly slept. It feels like my heart is breaking open. Maybe it will keep breaking again and again every day, I don’t know. But somehow, I can’t explain, it feels right. This breaking connects me to everything and everyone, as if we were all branches of the same tree.”

The circumstances might not always seem so immediately severe, the emotions might not always be so explosive, but Macy’s techniques have found widespread use across several continents and contexts.

So what relevance might they hold for people confronting Peak Oil?

The small Melbourne, Australia based deep ecology network known as GaiaVic have been experimenting with Macy-inspired techniques for exploring ‘The Heart of Peak Oil’. These are one day workshops in which the despair evoked by Peak Oil, and it’s broad implications, are explored as group in the morning. It feels a bit like a challenge has been made, a deep pit is dug, and the afternoon is devoted to the shared task of climbing out of it by imagining practical ways forward.

I participated in, and also facilitated some sections of the most recent workshop. As someone who recoils from just about anything which sounds like it might involve the word ‘spiritual’ (although I should point out there’s actually no mysticism or pretense of it involved in these workshops) and usually find myself feeling awkward in overly formalised social situations, I found the workshop a bit challenging in places, but then again it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to throw you a bit out of your ‘comfort zone’, to have you do things you might not ordinarily do, to talk and listen in ways you might ordinarily avoid.

By confronting the issues and personal responses to them so directly – and in the company of others – it becomes safe to no longer relegate them to the niggling half-aware areas of our minds. And the despair, in this case at least, came to be balanced by an uplifting and shared sense of solidarity and readiness for the challenges ahead.

Seeing this process deliberately facilitated with these innovative tools, and the way people rose to the occasion, was deeply impressive.

Below, fellow participant in the last workshop, Andrew Walker-Morison, offers some of his reflections on the process.


The Heart of Peak Oil

EB readers will be interested to hear about a new peak oil workshop initiative recently started in Melbourne. Early signs indicate it has broader relevance and excellent potential for effective communication, project initiation and community building.

’The Heart of Peak Oil’ (THOPO) workshop is an initiative of Gaia Vic, a part of the international Gaia network that describes itself as being committed to sustainability through ‘personal growth, community building and service to the earth’. The Victorian branch was established after a one month Joanna Macy facilitated retreat called ‘Seeds for the Future’ in January 2005. The first THOPO workshop was subsequently run in December with 25 participants, largely experienced activists. A second workshop for a general audience was trialled on Feb 25, with the next planned for March 25.

‘The Heart of Peak Oil’ format has the ambitious aim of “investigat(ing) the issue in a way that allows you to explore your feelings about peak oil..learn about ways we can respond powerfully and creatively.. enable you to discover your vision for ways to be proactive about Peak Oil (and) leave you empowered to act.” The flyer commences with the question ‘worried about what peak oil will mean… energy depletion may also present us with some unprecedented opportunities, but first we need to acknowledge our fears and work past any emotional barriers towards inspired, creative responses’. While effective and empowering responses to peak oil are necessary, the question to this author on reading the invitation was whether what sounded to this author like ‘hippy navel gazing’ had the potential to deliver it!

Many of the methods and activities used in the workshop were directly inspired by Joanna Macy’s work. Her ‘despair work’.

In fact Macy’s ‘experiential’ techniques including her ‘The Work That Reconnects’ has garnered an international following over more than 30 years, and been used with many thousands of participants. My personal interested in ‘experiential’ approaches was piqued after seeing in another context apparently simple techniques generate a depth of engagement and outcomes rare with traditional listen-and-learn approaches. The question was would Macy’s techniques translate, and would they lead to practical outcomes, or leave participants disempowered or worse still depressed. I was fascinated to find out more.

The workshop was intended to be small, and was attended by 10 participants, plus three facilitators for different stages. None of the participants had a profound knowledge of the issues, and most could be fairly described as concerned citizens. Gender balance was approximately even, age range was from 30 to 65. The workshop ran from 9:30 to 5, and was held at the delightful Garden of Eden yoga room at the Albert Park light rail station.

Workshop Activities

Milling is a Macy technique intended to get participants physically active, consciously connect body and mind, bring present the ways we often inhabit contemporary life – rushing, haste and urgency – before then creating a space of calm. This was followed by introductions, and a brief but thorough review of some of the key ‘evidence based assumptions’ regarding peak oil. This section overviewed key data, local and global responses (or lack thereof), but did not seek to dwell on the likely effects of these challenges. This was, crucially, undertaken individually in the next session where participants proceeded to a process called Open Sentences, exploring how people felt about the information just received, and its implications. This was followed by breaking up into smaller groups for discussion on specific topics before reforming to discuss. This approach allowed participants to explore the implications of peak oil scenarios rationally (a ‘left brain’ possible and probable future) and emotionally (a ‘right brain’ how do I feel about this?). By lunchtime after this process all present were very aware of the challenges ahead, and had each had personally reflected on probable impacts on our own lives. Facilitators then advised that after lunch the agenda would move to empowering solutions – which made lunch an enjoyable, hopeful sharing event rather than a tempting opportunity to throw ourselves under the adjacent tram tracks!

The afternoon session kicked off with a process called Double Circles, which was a personal highlight. To find out what is involved readers will simply have to come along: suffice it to say it was an extraordinarily powerful mechanism that generated a personal and inspiring roadmap to a preferred future, as well as setting the scene for the next section; a review of existing ‘solutions’ based actions and case studies and, crucially, identifying areas where the Peak Oil can be viewed as an opportunity for reform. By the end of this session, with its inspiring examples at different scales, the workshop was buzzing with energy and barely restrained excitement. People were hungry for action! The following break-out sessions were an opportunity to start to put these ideas for personal and community responses down on paper, and start planning.

Outcomes from the workshop

Outcomes from the workshop broadly fell into three areas. Firstly, the identification of a range of practical actions identified by participants. Many of these were personal, some were societal, and many were local. At least one new project was generated out of the workshop, and a number of activities and projects people had already embarked upon were modified to integrate learnings from the workshop. Second was the creation through the workshop of a new Peak Oil-aware community in its own right. There prove to be something very powerful and effective about the reflective and sharing exercises developed by Macy in generating a rapid and powerful sense of community, connection, and capability. From my point of view this was the most powerful lesson from the day. Lastly, the workshop proved its own premise – that the approach was of value to non-specialist participants and was well worth repeating – and generated a general desire to bring the workshop to a broader audience.

So… what are you waiting for? If that sounds inspiring and you want to be part of the solution and build a local community working towards a better world and spread the world, book in now!

About the authors

Andrew Walker-Morison is a Melbourne based architect, sustainability researcher and lecturer who has written and presented widely on sustainable design and construction issues.
Email: andrew (dot) walkermorison (at) gmail (dot) com

Adam Fenderson is an editor of Energy Bulletin.