Coping With a Post-Peak Future
So I first learnt about peak oil back in 2005, when The End of Suburbia was shown at an activist skillshare. And while I didn’t go into denial per se, I didn’t really accept it. It was like if anyone had asked me about it, I would’ve said, “yeah peak oil’s really full on, I don’t know what we’re gonna do about that”. But at the same time, it didn’t impact the way I was living my life, or my strategy for changing the world in any way at all. Of course I already knew all about climate change, supposedly wasn’t in denial of that either, yet was still choosing to work on projects that were largely irrelevant to it.
I mention this because I talk to people all the time now who can agree with me that peak oil/climate change/economic crisis/the bees/drinking water/genetically modified food (pick your crisis!) is full on and an issue that we should be worrying about/doing something about (though they don’t), but somehow can’t agree that it’ll be bad enough that things will really be all that different. Somehow everything will just be fine. That is cognitive dissonance too. It’s not just the climate sceptics who are in denial – they’ve at least come up with an argument they can believe in. I find that most left-wing people are still in denial of peak oil and climate change in this soft kind of way. ‘It’s real and it’s intense, but I’m not going to fully accept it into my life plan and belief system, because that would be an insanely disruptive and upsetting thing to do’. I want to talk here about how to deal with that upset and disruption, because if we don’t talk about it, then most people won’t deal with it. And for people who are dealing with it, hopefully I can offer some useful insights that I’ve learnt along the way.
It wasn’t until 2008 when I’d seen A Crude Awakening for the second time that I really got peak oil. I was thrown into a tailspin, I cried all night. My partner (who’d watched the film with me) didn’t get it and thought I was taking it all way too seriously, which just upset me more. My mind couldn’t stop reeling through the coming potentials for starvation and fascism. While at the same time, I was getting a little excited by the opportunity for social transformation that peak oil would offer up. Then I began obsessively researching, I had to understand it as much as I could. And that continued for a year or two or three. All the while I was depressed, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything useful about the situation, I mostly dropped out of my activism, and even my life in general.
All the way through my depression I was planning what I wanted to do about it, both in terms of changing the world, and also in terms of getting myself prepared to deal with the civilizational collapse I believe we’re facing. So two years on, when my subconscious had done enough processing that I was able to come out of the stupor, I decided to get started on what eventually became Doing It Ourselves – a volunteer group in Melbourne working to raise awareness, create action and lend emotional support around peak oil, economic depression, environmental catastrophes, fascism and all the exciting and practical strategies to change the world (check out www.doingitourselves.org).
I never really managed to get far along in my plans to prepare myself though. My activist work raising alternatives and building alternatives communally always took precedence because there were meetings and events, deadlines that I said I would get things done by, and people to be accountable to and so on. I did start a sharehouse in which we set up lots of vegie beds and compost bays, planted lots of fruit trees, and just recently put in a composting toilet. But compared to my plans for what I intended to do, it was all just a drop in the ocean. Just recently, Vaughan, another member of Doing It Ourselves has been inspiring me to get more prepared and take that side of things seriously.
I should mention that for both of us, we don’t believe that getting prepared will really secure our future – someone could always show up with a gun and kick me out of my house; it’s much more about demonstrating what’s possible so that more people might do the same and then everyone’s future security increases – we’re all in this together! Raising awareness and other activities are just as important as getting prepared personally.
Earlier this year after Nicole Foss (an amazing speaker on collapse – see www.theautomaticearth.org) was in town, Vaughan decided to put together a zine/booklet on all of the issues and how to get yourself prepared for them, and in the process realised he didn’t know much about the latter, so would have to do it for himself first. Ever since, he’s been working from 8-4, every weekday, on doing just that. He’s been collecting tools, books, and knowledge, researching and buying an amazing bike and trailer, a rocket stove, environmentally friendly anti-rusting agent for his tools, renovating his squat to learn how to use his tools, storing food, and so much more. In the seven months or so, he’s worked through roughly half of his list of stuff to get. He did say that as for learning skills he’s only just scratched the surface, but that he’ll probably still think that in 30 years’ time.
So, what are the ingredients for being emotionally resilient enough to deal with collapse? I decided to get some extra perspectives from Vaughan, Luke, Mark, Michael, Helen and Lydia from Doing It Ourselves.
When I asked what got you past denial and got you to acceptance of collapse, Michael’s answer was ‘Two words: Nicole Foss’. Incidentally, it was Nicole Foss who really got me moving on starting Doing It Ourselves a year earlier. Sometimes you really need a kick up the butt, a bit of fear to get you going. I’ve stopped obsessively researching the issues now – it’s way too depressing to even follow the situation; I had to force myself to stop reading it all. But every now and then reading or hearing about something really upsetting gives me the motivation (after it knocks me out for a day or two) to knuckle down and work harder. So if you feel like you need a bit of motivation, give it a go, look up whatever upsets you the most, or if you already read that stuff all the time, give it a rest for a while – it can be debilitating.
Even once I had fully taken on the peak oil future, I experienced a lot of self-doubt. I couldn’t know for certain that my understanding of the future is correct, and I think that helped me to stay inactive for a long period of time. Doing something about it would imply fully taking it on. After Nicole finally scared me into actually doing something, I made a text file that I could copy bits of articles into and titled it ‘reread whenever I feel self-doubt’. That’s been really useful.
Helen mentioned having a good cry as being really important. I’d really suggest taking the time to really grieve or get angry, or whatever it is that you need to do to express your emotions about collapse so that you don’t end up letting your emotions control you. I think it took me two years to come out of my depression because I was numbing myself, processing it all so slowly. In my opinion, that’s what depression is, it’s an apathetic avoidance of feeling something that you don’t want to deal with. This year, I’ve started facing the emotions instead, which for me, has meant a lot of crying and a lot of making noise and punching pillows. Amazingly though, every time I have a bit of an episode like that, I feel better afterwards, more ok with where the world is at, and more motivated to act. Since I’ve started actively processing this stuff, I’ve been getting so much more done, and am feeling a lot happier.
It’s not easy to take yourself to where the emotions are most raw though. It’s something we tend to actively avoid instead, which is why cognitive dissonance and depression are such widespread coping mechanisms for being a part of this crazy world. I’ve gotten there usually through either counselling or workshops designed to bring up emotions about the world situation. Those experiences have made it easier for me to be able to take myself there when those feelings start to come and I have that urge to just get drunk.
So, some resources to help get you there:
- If you can find workshops based on ‘the work that reconnects’, ‘despair and empowerment’, ‘deep ecology’, or ‘grief tending rituals’ in your area, go along and check them out, they’re amazing.
- Any kind of psychotherapy-based counselling is good for getting in touch with your emotions, but you need to find a counsellor who won’t think you’re crazy when you talk about collapse. Call or email a bunch of counsellors and ask their opinions on things like peak oil and whether or not they think that mental illness can be caused by the insanity of the world rather than always the insanity of the patient. It’s a great idea to try out a handful of counsellors before picking one you want to work with, even just for personality and style as well. I’d also highly recommend Radix and other body-based forms of psychotherapy, I’ve found them much more effective in helping me get in touch with my emotions than normal talk-based psychotherapy.
- Arrows-Crosses is a new zine that Regan, another Doing It Ourselves member, has made. I found that reading it one night (when I was getting drunk to avoid feeling scared about fascism in Greece) really got me into that raw emotional zone, so that I was able to have a good cry, and I’ll be rereading it now whenever I’m having a bit of a freak out.
And while it’s not something I’ve done, Vaughan and Mark seemed to find acceptance, commitment and mindfulness therapy/cognitive behavioural therapy really useful as well. They both talked a lot about living in the now. Which is kind of the opposite of what I was saying about expressing your feelings about the future now so that they don’t control you. Vaughan told me that while he finds adjusting his model of the future can be quite traumatic, since it involves letting go of things. Once that is done, he just accepts his future model. And since it’s just a model of the future, there’s nothing to be upset about. It may or may not turn out to be reality. Reality is now, he’ll get upset about it when it happens, no point doing that now. I expressed that I wish I could think that way, and his response was ‘you can, just start practicing, right now’… I’ll see how I go.
Probably the most important resource of all is your family and friends. Ideally, they can support you through what could be a really difficult time of coming to terms with our situation. The tricky thing is that so often they reject what you’re going through. Seeing you go through the emotions can make it all the more scary an issue for them and make them more likely to go into denial. Then you can get into arguments about it and their position becomes fixed, totally polarised from yours. That happening can make dealing with your emotions around collapse even more intense because you start to feel like you’re crazy, and because you feel like no one you care about understands, you feel totally alone.
Kathy McMahon, a psychologist who writes the excellent Peak Oil Blues blog (www.peakoilblues.org/blog) gives the advice that trying to get people you’re close to on side by talking to them about how much you’re freaking out, how serious this all is, how they must be in denial if they’re not scared shitless, or trying to accost them with arguments and stats (which is definitely what I did, it’s only natural) won’t generally work with something like peak oil. Instead, it’s best to tell someone that you’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about insert crisis here, that you’re really concerned about your future and, since you care about them and their future as well, that you’d really appreciate it if they would read or watch insert best article/book/film you’ve found on the topic.
If they’re not up for taking it on, don’t waste too much of your energy on them – you’ve got better things to do and they’ll figure it out in time. Often getting prepared, and in so doing starting to live a healthier and happier life, can be a better way of getting them on side in the long run. As Mark said, “I really enjoy permaculture, being in nature. I always wanted this lifestyle all along. It just took the threat of collapse to make me realise that I want to live in a food forest in a mudbrick hut.” I think most people want community, nature and the abundance that can only come from accepting a simple lifestyle. Demonstrating a viable and awesome post-peak lifestyle is, I think, one of the most convincing things you can do. It’s not like most people are really happy with their full-time jobs and mortgages.
Speaking of family and friends, partners, workmates, housemates – the people in your life that can have a big impact on your wellbeing – good communication skills are, in my opinion, one of the most important things you can develop in terms of collapse preparedness; Vaughan mentioned this too. Maybe it’s just a growing up thing, or a life skills thing, but when you are able to deal with conflicts in a healthy way, rather than an avoidant or angry way, you’re so much less likely to get depressed or take on an unhealthy coping mechanism. Two books that I’ve found really, really useful in this area are Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, and The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner.
Likewise, if you’re working too much, drinking too much, eating too much, sleeping too much, shopping too much, watching too much Game of Thrones, playing too much Freecell, or whatever your coping mechanism is, you’re avoiding something. Don’t bother trying AA, dieting, throwing out your TV or chopping up your credit cards; in my experience that kind of stuff doesn’t work. Dealing with the emotions you’re avoiding is what will allow you to let go of your unhelpful coping mechanisms. Counselling is amazing, please do it! I know this might seem irrelevant to collapse preparedness, but if you’re someone who cares about the world, and you’re inhibited by stuff you haven’t dealt with yet, then do something about it. Put your mental health first, and you’ll be so much better able to help the world!
Meditation is another really important one. Dave, a close friend from high school who’s now a physicist, had a big rant to me about it the other day. He’s doing ten minutes every morning, and he’s found that he can now get twice as much done in a day. I’m the same way when I regularly do Qi Gong (it’s a moving meditation like Tai Chi). Vaughan and Mark both meditate regularly as well. Dave was saying how frustrating it is that meditation gets lumped in with spiritual stuff, and not seen for what it is, a way of switching off the conscious brain for a little while so that your subconscious is better able to function. There are plenty of psychological studies on the benefits of meditation, yet most people dismiss it out of hand as something that only hippies are into. Vaughan recommends books and guided audio practices on mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Then there’s your physical health. Everyone talked about preventative methods of looking after your health – getting good sleep, good exercise, eating well and cutting down on drugs and alcohol. All of that can really positively impact on your mental health.
Getting on with doing
Now to the question of how to get things done? About four months ago I decided to take on the Daoist concept of wu-wei, action through non-action. I got rid of all of my lists of things to do, and started doing whatever I felt like doing whenever I felt like doing it. The idea was that when there’s no internal resistance to whatever it is you’re doing, (and once you’ve gotten used to having freedom), you can get a lot more done in the same amount of time, simply because you want to. Two great resources on this way of thinking are Tom Hodgkinson’s book ‘How to be Idle’ and the art of Wu-Wei. Trying this out, I definitely felt a lot more relaxed, the guilt and the stress were gone, I’m not sure I was getting more done, but I definitely wasn’t getting any less done. I was thinking, though, that I might need to reread How to be Idle every 3 months in order to fully let go of the guilt I have socialised into me around having a good work ethic.
I think the main piece of advice that comes out of that way of thinking is summed up in what Lydia said, ‘We have this idea of failing ourselves. Our culture is full of shaming, and ‘shoulds’ and guilt. You should only do what you have energy for, when you feel like it, prioritise time with friends and family, and take it easy and put your mental health first’. Following this kind of advice, I socialise nearly every day, I let myself take a nap when I need one (though the guilt is always there), and always take time out, no matter how busy I am, to plan difficult conversations with people I care about or deal with emotions that come up. Otherwise I just get consumed by the emotions and I don’t get anything done anyway.
Back to preparedness now, one of the trickiest questions I get asked at my talks is ‘what is the number one thing I should do?’ There’s just so much to do, and most of it isn’t much more important than any other thing. Learning to grow food is probably the closest non-meta answer I could give, but then isn’t figuring out how to cope emotionally even more important than that? What about getting your money out of the system (if you’ve got any)? What about getting to know your neighbours? Or starting a community project? So what I generally tell people is to make a plan. We can’t just change lightbulbs, we have to change our entire lives.
And when we make plans, we have to make plans in a smart way, because let me tell you I’ve done them the wrong way before! My old preparedness plan was split up into different categories for food, community, health and so on. Each one was a list of things to do in itself, and none of those lists were prioritised. So whenever I looked at this document, all I felt was the magnitude of everything I needed to do and no idea where to start. It overwhelmed me and depressed me more than reading about the crises did. And eventually I just stopped looking at it.
Until Vaughan said something recently about there not being any point having a list unless it’s prioritised. So last week I re-made a new preparedness list into one big list, and I came up with an order of importance for the stuff on the list as a whole. Like I said earlier, it’s pretty impossible to prioritise this stuff when it’s all so important. But Vaughan was saying it doesn’t matter, just put it in an order, any order, and then you can get started on it.
I even started thinking maybe I could set myself times of day when I could work on this stuff like he does. I couldn’t do 8-4, but maybe 10-4? I became extremely excited about my new plan, this was finally something that was going to work. I often get caught up in new plans and become overly optimistic about them, and they’re usually one extreme of planning or anti-planning. Lydia pointed out that I was doing this. Turns out she and I have both in the past tried making ourselves heavily regimented timetables to try to get stuff done. That was a fail for both of us. Somehow Vaughan manages. Everyone is different though. Helen talked about how processes won’t work unless you have emotional and interpersonal resilience. She says ‘do the least amount of work possible, protect your wellbeing and make sure you’re not gonna burn out. It can take years to recover, and you don’t have years, or even a month.’
So I’ve decided that I’m going to try to work with a balance of planning and anti-planning. I’ll have my prioritised list and I’ll have some time set aside in the mornings when I don’t make plans to be anywhere so I can do stuff off the list. If I need to do something else for myself though I will, and if I want to work on something other than what’s right at the top of the list, I will. And otherwise I’ll be free to do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it. I always forget, but balance between any extremes is pretty much always the answer.
So, once you’ve got your emotional resilience and how to get stuff done under control (lol), there’s the issue of what to do with yourself. Luke talked about it being confused as to what to make of his life. Accepting a future of collapse does mean that your career, your plans for travel, for owning your own home, and so on may not make sense anymore, and might all need to change quite drastically. This can be really disconcerting, and I think it’s what most people are avoiding with cognitive dissonance. It requires giving up your current way of life which you may be quite attached to.
Winston Churchill once said “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential”. The important thing is to figure out what your needs are, and to make it holistic. Vaughan has four different lists, ones for self care, interpersonal relations, skills, and stuff to get. I would add one for activism as well. The categories of my preparedness list are food, water, shelter, health, community, transport, organisation, communications, money, security and luxuries. Figure out your own categories and fill in your needs. Vaughan says “the most important thing I’ve done was sitting down and figuring out what I actually want to do, what’s important, what I need, and what the people I know and care about need; then spending time organising that into a manageable, easily comprehensible form and trying to organise it in some way. The most important thing was just to do it and then start working through it. I can optimise the system as I go. It’s totally different to how it was when i started a year or so ago.”
I hope hearing about my story and some of the things that I and the other Doing It Ourself-ers have been thinking about has been useful to you and your process. Good luck with life!