Three types of doomers and fantasy collapse

July 6, 2008

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

In previous entries, I poked fun at Panglossians, the merry among us who are content to spin yarns about the magic of technology and pontificate about human ingenuity as the key to saving us all. I’ve engaged in an angry rant about those espousing the “power of positive thinking” in solving the Earth’s serious problems. It is now time for me to turn my attention back to my own world view, and more closely examine the payoffs and foibles of viewing the world through a “Doomer” perspective.

Politically savvy Carolyn Baker* insists: “Don’t call me a Doomer!Chris Martenson, who brilliantly explains in video clips how we got to where we are, prefers the phrase “serious survivalist.” Zachary Nowak is also uncomfortable with the label, but nonetheless believes that it is prudent to err on the side of being overly grim, than being overly optimistic.

I, myself, am affectionately attached to the label, and I suppose, as the pejorative “Dike!” hurled at lesbians, has been reclaimed for use within the lesbian community (dyke), I’ve adopted “Doomer” as a descriptive label among my friends. When it is used by “the other” as an insult, it is usually followed by the chestnut: “Don’t talk about ‘doom and gloom.’” I use it here in the descriptive, not pejorative sense.

A Doomer Manifesto

“Doomer” is a provocative word, meaning one who expects a disastrous destiny. It’s a term that does not appeal to the “mainstream media,” and Doomers seldom craft messages based on “popular appeal.” We live in a commercial world that tells us “if you cannot bring good news than don’t bring any!”

Doomers are accused of being “irresponsible” or “irrelevant,” because we aren’t trying to conform and “reach out” to the masses. We’d argue that conventional thinking itself has brought us to this state, and our message lacks “mass appeal.” Mainstream media is not a source for “factual information,” but actually a barometer for how bad things really are. When the phrase “Peak Oil” finally broke through into popular culture, Doomers knew it was very, very, late in the game.

What’s there to be “doomy” about and why do Doomers expect tomorrow to be worse than today? The very structure of the system, itself, is quite impervious to change. It was aptly put by Dutch economist Maarten Van Mourik: “It may not be profitable to slow decline.” The profit motive fuels the engine of this “runaway train heading for the abyss,” and most of the passengers don’t have a clue what’s happening. The end of this ride will bring “calamitous” results. Massive scale “quick fixes” only serve to shovel more coal into the engine.

With such powerful forces propelling us forward, Doomers anticipate no “Big Daddy” or “Mommy” jumping in at the last minute to “save us,” or the planet we live on. “Growth” in every sense of the word, remains the unquestionable goal for most of our world leaders. The world financial system demands it. The businesses that feed our mainstream media outlets require it. Even modest solutions like “conservation” are commercialized and require still more consumption.

In the USA, Dave Cohen points out that “we are dealing with multiple failures regarding America’s status in the global economy.” Doomers reject the notion that most Americans can absorb skyrocketing oil prices and remain unaffected, or that simple solutions will emerge. Industrialized countries are already greatly affected by rising oil prices and the rest of the world is suffering. In the French revolution, Marie Antoinette purred: “If they’re hungry, let them eat cake!” Here in the industrialized world, politicians offer: “Let them burn biofuels!” Eating, itself, has become subordinated to the industrial need to fuel the world economy. This is crazy.

Therefore, Doomers doubt the likelihood of an intentional change happening on a global level. Is it “impossible” to stop this collapse? Many thoughtful scientists whisper to each other what they can’t address publicly for fear of spreading panic, but what they see is terrifying: hundreds of species dying each day, a vanishing polar icecap, areas of the world, now unrecognizable, are deserts or flood plains. Vast plastic “islands” in our oceans have become “dead zones” or worse. Part of the frustration is the incredible senselessness of it all.

Yet Doomers are the ones that are considered “crazy,” while magical thinking (“We’ll come up with something. I know…let’s trade ‘carbon credits!’ That way, the market will resolve it all!”) passes for a sane and constructive discourse.

“Doomers” of all stripes can agree on the severity of the situation outlined above. But what are the differences between Doomers?

The Fuzzy Sets of Doomer Descriptors

Just as there are many sorts of Panglossians, there are many sorts of Doomers.

These aren’t “hard and fast” categories, but rather “fuzzy sets” that often overlap.

We Doomers observe unfolding events, and respond along a continuum that ranges from malaise to massive action. We also differ in the extent to which we’re interested in the Philosophical/Emotional/Spiritual implications of global collapse. Therefore, we can place ourselves on a intersecting axises where X axis = Action to Inaction and Y axis = Philosophical to Aphilosophical Perspectives.

Action ————————————— Inaction

Here we are talking about adaptive strategies, and not “pathologic typologies.” When we are discussing how to survive what is coming, folks, it makes little sense to talk in terms of pathology. Humanity has never witnessed the enormity of change coming, so how can we define what constitutes a “healthy” attitude towards it?

Philosopher Doomers

What is humanity’s place in the world? What is our essential nature? It’s common to ask “can we survive” but “should we survive?” Would our extinction benefit non-human life on Earth? These are the types of questions that engage a Philosopher Doomer, and these aren’t the rarefied debates that happen in undergraduate philosophy class. Their struggles with the meaning of planetary devastation puts them in the throes of a crisis that they can only resolve by intense personal struggle. debate, and self-reflection.

Ecosophic Subtype

Philosopher Doomers can be powerful advocates for environmental and species preservation, once they have asked and answered (for now) profound questions, and have made some sense of what’s going on around them. While the resolution to that struggle may be personal, the actions they choose to take may not be. They can be mighty warriors in the fight to save the Planet. They don’t see the goal as “personal survival,” if the planet itself becomes unlivable. These Ecosophic philosophers among us speak of a respect for non-human species, and possess a fierce critique of conventional scientific and religious thought. They dwell on deep and universal truths, and we do well to reflect on their words, if we are strong enough to bear the message. They help us see our place in the world as only a tiny part of the ecosystem.

Nihilistic Subtype
Others are asking whether life has any inherent meaning. Those new to Peak Oil can often struggle with these themes and we do well to hear them out, rather than jump to reassure them that “everything will work out…You wait and see.” They can disturb our own sense of “what’s normal” to think, and their pain is deep and moving. We might consider this subtype the “Nihilistic” Doomer, and it can either be a stage of awareness or be adopted as a philosophical framework. There are many other subtypes of Philosopher Doomers, and some may reject the “Doomer” label, itself. These include ones we might label “Primitivists,” “Neo-Luddites,” and “Neo-Pagans” to name but a few. What they have in common is an attempt to develop a perspective on life that captures within it the most pressing questions facing all life on Earth.

Deadbeat Doomers

Philosophical Doomers examine the deepest questions of what is the meaning of life here on Earth, and what our place should be in it. Some have faced deep discouragement, and struggle with the senselessness of it all, and have taken the posture of truth-sayers, prophets, advocates, and provocateurs.

Others have reached the decision that nothing can or should be done. This decision may have been reached after varying degrees of thoughtful reflection. Among them, are those who prefer not to think on these things deeply at all, but see the Nihilistic position as an easy way to avoid struggle, or having to motivate themselves to do anything inconvenient at all. “It’s all hopeless!” is an excuse that allows them to avoid changing anything in their lives, and to direct their anger against other people who try. I’ll call these Doomers “Deadbeats.” Deadbeat Doomers, mock and ridicule even the discussion of direct action: “You talk and plan because you are hairless apes and that’s what hairless apes do! Talk on! It’s pointless!” It is “too lame” for a Deadbeat Doomer to ask “what should be done?” because they’ve decided that no action promises guaranteed success. They’ve comfortable with the position that “nothing can be done,” and proudly proclaim “I don’t store food!”

Their inaction is a logical consequence of their hopelessness: “We’re all screwed, so don’t ask anything of me!” A Deadbeat Doomer might happily write about how hopeless everything is, but often they don’t bother. “You all suck anyway, so it isn’t worth my time.” They are the snipers, flaming others in Peak Oil chat rooms. More frightening, they are the folks encouraging those in the grips of nihilistic despair to “Go ahead. Kill yourself! The planet will be better off!”

Not all are hostile, however. Some simply choose to carry on the same way as before their Peak Oil awareness. Why? Despite the “Nihilistic” facade, it comes down to the fact that it’s simply easier that way. Others find the resolution to “hopelessness” in the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. “If it’s all going down anyway, I’m gonna get mine, while it’s still here.”

Feelings of futility and hopelessness are not the sole purview of Nihilistic or Deadbeat Doomers, and neither is using hopelessness as an excuse for inaction. We may all seem like Deadbeats when we first learn about Peak Oil, and are struggling with our place in it all. We often ask not only what “can” be done, but also what “should” be done, if anything. We feel like throwing up our hands and proclaiming “It’s hopeless!” during setbacks. But most of us wear these feelings uncomfortably, and prefer to believe that “doing something” is preferable to “doing nothing.” We can bear the discomfort of being wrong.

While Philosopher Doomers question essential notions of our place in the world, Deadbeat Doomers challenge the utility of action itself. We all have inner nagging doubts about which actions will be the most constructive, and Deadbeat Doomers highlight fears that we may be wasting our time. They can be the provocateurs, the angry dissenters, the nay-sayers of hope. They speak to our deepest fears of hopelessness, and futility and the industrious next type, the “Do More Doomers,” especially, resent them for it.

Do-More Doomers

The final type are the “Do-More Doomers.” In contrast to the concern that adopting a “doom and gloom” outlook will lead to hopelessness and inaction, these Doomers see the serious state of the world as a call to action. To the Do-More Doomer, all is not lost and even if it is, there’s still lots of work to be done!

Although discouraged at the global level, Do-More Doomers can be optimistic about the capacity of a small group to create meaning in their lives, and promote sustainable communities, often called “lifeboats.” They may vary in the degree to which they believe such efforts will bring about meaningful community change, but nevertheless, put effort toward that goal. They are founders and volunteers of local sustainability groups. They write books and ebooks that help frame the nature of the problem, and encourage all to lead more self-sufficient lives. They try to create a new focus, a “decentralization team” that favors all the diversity, variety, contrasts, and struggles that such a notion suggests. They want less “stuff” in their lives, however, as we will learn, “Do-More Doomers” are the Peak Oil “shoppers.” They can be easily overwhelmed by the scope of the task, become impractical when assessing what are “essential” skills, and admire those who have constructed elaborate plans to change the entire world, and become easily frustrated when the world fails to cooperate. They are vulnerable to feelings ranging from expansive grandiosity to a profound fear of inadequacy.

Most of us like to imagine ourselves as “useful” and “industrious.” We hope to scare away the horror that we deeply fear, by putting up enough wheat, planting a big enough garden, or motivating our community toward constructive actions.

Do-More Doomers can often times escape into “doing” in order to avoid “feeling” the overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness that the Nihilistic Doomers are well acquainted with.

Andy of Mayberry Disasters: Kunstler Style

Hard to imagine for some, but when hopelessness and helplessness overcome us, sometimes the charm of a Doomer novel often lifts the spirits! We feel a bit brighter when we read Fantasy Collapse novels. Despite knowing its a fiction, we are nonetheless irrationally reassured that we are on the right track! Ones we favor, however, may reflect our deepest wishes or the “shadow,” unacceptable parts of ourselves.

J.H. Kunstler has written a novel sure to become a Deadbeat Doomer classic: World Made By Hand. Some of us prefer to think that once the “collapse” finally happens, we’ll all be freed of daily drudgery, and will be able to hang out with our friends in fields of pot and clover. This novel promises just that. Yes, there will be hardship, and hunger, but at least we’ll get to dodge all of this meaningless, boring work we have to do today, to keep our daily lives going. The credit card and mortgage bills will stop coming. We’ll finally be “out from under.”

Kunstler’s slacker hero gets to sleep until the sun wakes him up, take leisurely strolls, fishes with his best buddy, and even gets to go on an exciting journey to fight bad guys with Mennonite Ninja troops. The Mennonite Ninjas are clearly the Do-More Doomers and thank goodness they came to town!

It is a sort of Andy of Mayberry Post-Collapse, except even better, because, in the end, he got the young Babette, not just Aunt Bee. Plus, he gets to tell the Babette “Don’t move my stuff.” And she smiles and doesn’t. No nagging Babette. Now that’s a collapse men can only dream about!

Image Removed

In contrast, Deadbeat Doomers will hate the real collapse, if it doesn’t happen quickly enough, because the reality will be one continuous hassle. The Babette you’ll be living with had your three kids 10 years ago, and they didn’t die of anything. She’s furious that you still haven’t found a job, and won’t be so understanding when you are leaving all your stuff everywhere. You can’t go fishing, because you can’t afford the permit or the gas to get there, even if you did believe the fish wasn’t contaminated. And your best buddy would definitely have an issue with you sleeping with his wife, Dude, even if he can’t “get it up” anymore. So would Babette.

It’ll be that sucky kind of collapse where the electric bill just gets bigger and the commute to work gets more expensive month-by-month, if you even get to keep your job. The raises will stop, along with the bonuses, but the credit card bills won’t. The supermarket will have less variety, but everything will cost a great deal more. “Mr. Necessity”, as Chuck Willis says, is just a big drag, and he’s hanging around us more and more, suggesting we skip the organic for the store brand labels, and buy the cheaper tires. Talk about a drag. And no Ninja Mennonites to point the way and provide inspiration and timely fire-power!

Do-More Doomer Novels

In contrast to the relaxed world of the Deadbeat Doomer, Do-More Doomers, will find comfort in “Patriots” by James Wesley, Rawles. There are no Deadbeat Doomers in “Patriots.” Instead, we learn that these exceptionally insightful college co-eds decided that collapse was inevitable and put themselves on a survivalist regime that continued religiously for almost a decade. These physically fit, gun-savvy men and women have done their homework and their preparations pay off. They don’t spend their time in chatrooms and writing blog entries. They don’t announce their preparations, to others, either. They carry out their normal lives (interspersed with week-end Boot Camp) until the final moments of “Collapse.” Then, like Clark Kent, running for the telephone booth, they G.O.O.D. (Get Out Of Dodge) and head back to the retreat location where one of their clan has been maintaining the spot. They aren’t “Prepar-asites”, or “Doomer Tumors” (someone you are responsible for, but contributes nothing towards their own survival). Over the years, they bought their own equipment and freeze-dried food, and stored it away in secured lockers until they needed it. Boy!

There are no Peak Shrinks in Rawles’ fantasy, either, because they don’t need them. In the worst of the depressing times, when one freedom fighter speaks harshly to another, our hero gently and lovingly guides them into another room for a quiet talk and a moment of prayer. Each has their role and area of specialization developed over time-the medic, the gun expert, etc, with diligence and fortitude. Their nerves are as solid as their stomach muscles.

Anyone who said “Scrub the Armageddon, let’s play ‘Beer Pong’!” never makes it to the retreat in Idaho, and neither should they. This “how to” book disguised as a novel, is the perfect Do-More Doomers dream, and we take copious notes.

‘Shop Til We Drop’ While We Still Can

Sometimes we attempt to find relief from our overwhelming feelings of inadequacy by buying stuff. Do-More Doomers are at the forefront of this. All those ads in the survival blogs are counting on us loading up on books (my favorite) and freeze-dried food. We are overwhelming the tiny “survivalist’ food stores by suddenly getting into the swing of Do-More Doomer Shopping (no ‘financial collapse’ happening there!) There are tons of lists on the internet we can refer to on what to buy. Nothing quells the anxieties of the average American like shopping and collecting things. We get to imagine just what kind of cool stuff we’ll need when TSHTF.

Even our Doomer shopping, however, reflects our hopes and fantasies. We’ll be really popular in our collapse communities because we’ve been clever enough to put up a decent whiskey (or vodka, if we fancy the Soviet collapse). With enough liquor in our basements, we can even bounce back and forth between Do-More Doomerism and Deadbeat Doomerism. If we are feeling hopeless, or in a slacker mood, we can drink that decent whiskey conveniently stored in our basement. There is nothing sexy about storing lousy whiskey. And you can’t drink white cotton socks.

Mainstream Media Doom

It took me by surprise when the mainstream media began to report its own version of personal collapse, (devoid of any real context, naturally). There are a lot of boring details in the real collapse, of course, that won’t make it to TV docudramas. There are the days or weeks when the month stretches on, after our paychecks are gone. There are the canceled vacations and pitiful milestone birthday parties. There are all the extra hours we waste working menial jobs, just to pay the utilities.

No one would write a news report on The Joneses’ eating more chicken wings instead of chicken breasts, or serving meatless pasta several times a week. Instead, we like to watch Mrs. Jones, with her carefully groomed nails, dumpster diving. These stories are becoming increasingly common in the mainstream media. Here we watch as Mrs. Jones climbs into her SUV (she can’t “afford” to sell,) and drives 25 minutes to dumpster dive for half-eaten Snowballs and expired yogurt. Does she still have cable TV? Buy Frito’s and Diet Coke? Why is she still driving anything at all if she can’t afford to eat? These aren’t questions we are encouraged to ask. This is “bread and circuses” for those of us who are not quite that bad. Yet. It’s mainstream media Doomer sensationalism, and we’re all silently reminded that we could be next.

A Formula for Hopelessness

Hopelessness may be more common in people who are required to change a major portion of the way they are living, and less common in those that have already made (or didn’t need to make) huge life transitions. Here’s a formula I’m playing with:

Hopelessness = Uncertainty + A Belief in the Need for Overwhelming Lifestyle Shifts + No Social Supports

If you live on a thriving farm in an area with a huge group of active PO community members with lots of practical skills, you’ll feel more “can do” than if you live in a suburban locale and know only other techies that are planning their in-ground swimming pools, and you, yourself, have never seen a cabbage grow.

PeakShrink’s Doomsday Dream…

I, myself, would not make it as a character in James Wesley, Rawles novel, but I enjoy reading him, nevertheless. I often retreat into a more manageable fantasy I label “Little House on the Prairie Meets Martha Stewart.” I like the image of whipping up a loaf of crunchy peasant bread, after grinding a few wheat berries on my pedal-powered bike/grinder. I’ll then add a pat of local butter and the leavening saved from previous batches. Brushing the flour from my ruddy cheeks, I then pick a sprig of rosemary to grace the top of the loaf, on my way to my backyard solar oven. The real pre-collapse version isn’t half as fun or pretty. I’m allergic to wheat, and have never made a loaf of bread from scratch. And I hear a little voice screaming out from my subconscious saying “Kathy, you are no Sharon Astyk!”

But then, again, The Little House was a children’s story and Martha, herself, ended up in The Big House.


* Links are not to be interpreted as my attempt to diagnose or label the individuals or categorize them in any way. It is our personal prerogative to adopt or reject any label or to reject the entire notion of labels as useful constructs.

Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television. 

Tags: Culture & Behavior