Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Peak Oil Vs. "Pathological Optimism"

RADIO STATIONS: end music is a clip from "End of the Age of Oil" by Dan Rovics.

Here are the extra file links for this program:

Your listeners can download Kathy McMahon's 80 full speech (in two parts) here:

Part 1, 38 min

Part 2 39 min

And this 20 minute interview of Karen McMahon by Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock.

Also: Radio Ecoshock is available to Radio Stations as two 29 minute segments, allowing you time for Station ID and announcements. Write me (radio [at] for details.


- Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock - on "the Peak Shrink", Kathy McMahon.

You know the Peak Oil three-step? First you find out our oil-based civilization has a nasty best-before date. Second, your own emotions and worries begin to surface. Then your friends and relatives start avoiding your "Doomer" talk.

As a clinical psychologist. Kathy McMahon has heard it all, through her blog Peak Oil Blues. She's been called "the Peak Shrink." Kathy has some ways to help you - and to fend off what she calls "pathological optimism" all around us.

Now, "The Peak Shrink" is on the road, with a series of speeches in the Pacific Northwest. I recorded the full speech, and an interview with McMahon, for Radio Ecoshock. You can listen in, with links at the bottom of this article.

Meeting Kathy is a relief. We are not crazy. The facade of the dying oil civilization is definitely crazy. Millions of people around the world are waking up to this fact, and sharing solutions.

Here is a quick summary of some points in Kathy McMahon's speech in Vancouver, Canada on October 18, 2010. - topics she explain so well in the audio.

Kathy began with the difference between "problems" (which humans enjoy solving) and "dilemmas" (which we loath). The dilemma has no good solution. We get more problems whatever we try, all options stink.

Peak Oil, amid our totally oil-dependent civilization, is a dilemma. Should we hope for a quick end to oil, to save the Planet's climate? Doesn't that mean a messy, possibly violent collapse, with widespread starvation? We don't know what to wish for.

McMahon reminds us the original Cassandra was the ancient Greek woman given the power to see the future. But the God Zeus adds the kicker - she will never be believed.

One Cassandra candidate in recent American history was 1970's President Jimmy Carter. McMahon reminds us of his correct predictions in a famous energy speech. The people chose Reagan instead.

But Kathy's real gift is to gather new understanding of our reaction to learning about Peak Oil (or climate change, and the crumbling economy). These come from the many letters, sent in from all over the world, to McMahon's blog "Peak Oil Blues" (

Students are upset to find the promised future disappearing. Housewives who can't convince their husbands to re-evaluate what they may need, to survive wrenching economic and energy changes.

In the Q and A session after Kathy's speech in Vancouver, I was surprised to find the number of women frustrated with husbands unwilling to even look at the facts about oil dependence, shrinking demands, and world competition for the last supplies. The wife is surreptitiously doubling up on long-lasting supplies ("to save money, dear") while hubby clings to a corporate job, and a brand new gas guzzler.

But what about those who take Peak Oil seriously? Kathy says we start out in shock, and then become mini-librarians crossed with a private investigator. Just the facts Mam.

What follows can be isolation from friends and family, who go into strong denial. "I don't want to hear about it" becomes a wall that can lead to loneliness.

Others go into supermarkets, see all the fruit flown in from around the world, but see it gone in the future, as the oil slips away. Ditto the imagined scenes of abandoned cars and vandalized monster houses. We may even reach a state of nostalgia for the present, remembering the good old days, while we live them.

Cases of outright depression can develop, and very rare cases of suicide have been reported. The Peak Oiler, now sure of the facts, goes through a state of shame and guilt, having participated in the gonzo waste of oil that was late 1900's civilization in the West.

Kathy McMahon admits she became a gambler, like all the rest of us. She had a family business selling new appliances into the construction industry, for new homes. As early as 2005, her reading revealed the suburban boom couldn't last. Should she sell the business, or try to get just one more good year out of it?

We all gamble, trying to say in the fossil system, as long as we have a job.

But the real target of the night, reversing labels like "Doomers" for those who dug up the oily facts - are the deniers who McMahon says cling to "pathological optimism".

You'll have to listen to the speech, or visit her blog at, to get this funny but true look, at the psychological labels we could give all those folks who say it will all be fine, despite the facts of Peak Oil.

There are 50 ways to deny Peak Oil, beyond those who just close their ears and refuse to hear about it. For example, in Frank Zappaism, otherwise educated people believe in magic. A new unknown technology will fix the problem, they say, so we don't need to worry about anything.

As a clinical psychologist, who works with couples, and sex therapy, when not online with Peak Oil Blues folks - Kathy McMahon sees several trends which make us even more unprepared for energy truth.

For example, new psychological studies are finding children who spend more than two years in front of a screen - any screen from TV's, to gaming, to I Phones - fail to develop in some ways. They are much more likely to suffer from mental illness later in life.

When Kathy visits a family, they must turn off all their electronic gadgets a half hour before the session. Even then, kids are whining to get back online, or gaming. They are addicted, and suffer "Nature Deficit Disorder". All this clouds the judgment needed to respond to Peak Oil, and a civilization under dire threats.

But all of us, Kathy says, have "cognitive maps" built in. These are the expectations the we think necessary to function. She gives the example in one startling statistic: when lost, children six or under are more likely to either return or be found, while older children create untrue ideas about their situation, perhaps from things they have seen on TV.

Likewise, our whole adult culture has many preconceived cognitive maps - that don't include dwindling energy supplies, or the realities of severe climate disruption. We make up new stories, rather than change our preconceptions.

Dr. McMahon has developed common-sense prescriptions for what ails us. We need to get grounded, and relearn how to make local friendships and community.

And - you'll like this - "we need to party more". Partying has dropped off drastically since the 1970's, even taking into account different age groups.

Others may want to form intentional communities, even mildly religious ones. We have to revive those skills.

In a funny part of the speech, McMahon reminds us that some people are annoying. That can't be a reason to quit, and go back to our bunkers. Humanity has always managed to adapt to annoying people.

We get examples of past and present community building efforts, mixed with scary statistics like:

Did you know a poll found that 40% of American women said they would get a divorce, if their husband lost his job?!

Or did you know psychologists and child-care workers are finding kids don't how to play? They can text, but they don't know how to invent things to do, outside.

There are a lot of personal answers in this 80 minute speech, delivered in Vancouver on October 18th, as part of a Pacific Northwest tour by Kathy McMahon. She lives in the country, in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts, along with some chickens, gardens, and pigs.

You can download Kathy McMahon's 80 full speech (in two parts) here:

Part 1, 38 min

Part 2 39 min

And this 20 minute interview of Karen McMahon by Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock.

If you have ever been discouraged by the dilemma of Peak Oil, or frustrated with friends and family who shut you down, take heart from Kathy McMahon, and the millions of people all over the world, who do know what is happening. Find them at

Alex Smith
Radio Ecoshock

No comments: