Time To Evolve What It Means To Be Human
June 18, 2010
We’ve known about it for decades. It’s mentioned in the most prestigious of newspapers, such as the The Independent (UK) and The New York Times. It’s occasionally covered on the most heavily trafficked web news sites such as The Drudge Report and CNN.com. Prominent but retired figures like James Schlesinger, former US Secretary of Energy, have publicly expressed their concern about it. Even the most conservative of pro-business organizations, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), have publicly expressed their alarm about what’s happening. Yet, not one prominent corporate leader or politician in America today has been willing to stand up publicly and take a stand about it. I am talking about “peak oil,” the fact that we have recently reached, or are very soon about to reach, peak world production of petroleum.
We’re now forced to go to very inhospitable environments to find more petroleum to feed the world’s voracious appetite. Perhaps the most salient of examples is the horrendous BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, still gushing as I write this (June 2010). We, the people of industrialized countries, are so desperate to find more oil, that we now do things like go to the Artic, and risk severely damaging not just the Gulf of Mexico, but the pristine Artic National Wildlife Refuge as well. It’s peculiar that this doesn’t seem to strike most people as insane. That we are so dependent on petroleum that we would cause what may well be the most severe ecological disaster in America’s history in order to get more of it for our fix, that doesn’t seem to get many people talking about getting off the stuff. If they do talk about it, many people say things that only reinforce our existing dependency, words such as “drill baby drill.”
Meanwhile, those who would offer a fantasy, about how the peak oil conversation is a just a lot of hot air, they are given great prominence and a high pulpit from which to preach their fantasy. Perhaps most prominent of these are the economists who believe in a world without limits, where every resource has a readily-available substitute, and where every problem will be worked out by “the market.” They disparage conservation efforts with fancy theories like Jevons Paradox, which says that it doesn’t matter much if energy efficiency improves, because people will just use more of the fossil fuel involved. We will regret that we made them the high priests of American society. Meanwhile, the loyal and hard working geologists, environmentalists, and contingency planners that have been sounding the alarm about peak oil are largely ignored. For the most part, there’s not even an attempt to refute the statements of these Paul Revere types — they are simply ignored. So what’s really going on here?
We’re up against the power of denial. This stubbornness and unwillingness to deal with reality is actually quite dysfunctional. If you were a passenger driving in a car with a friend, who was under the influence of a few drinks, and he or she seemed to have fallen asleep at the wheel, would you try to wake them up before the car you were both in crashed into something hard and immobile? Or would you just sit there, remaining silent? The analogy is actually quite apt. We — the people in the developed world who are so very dependent on petroleum — are on a crash course with reality.
Unless we start dealing with this reality immediately, and do so quite intensely, we are going to bring on much more serious repercussions than would have been suffered had we told the truth and promptly dealt with the problem. Some of these severely negative effects are probably unavoidable, given that we have ignored the problem for decades. But we make them still worse, the longer we wait to get out of denial. These repercussions include massive unemployment, a crashing stock market, a crashing real estate market, and widespread bankruptcies. I’m talking about shortages and rationing of motor fuel, blackouts of the electrical grid, and the failure of government to do much of anything about it. I’m talking about still more environmental degradation, shortages of other natural resources, and a surging population whose basic needs are not being met. In some places, widespread hunger, and even starvation, is also likely to result. I’m not making this stuff up, just summarizing what we’re clearly headed for.
Many of us humans tend to deny what’s going on when we don’t like it. We fall into this place of being frozen and paralyzed by our fear. I’m not a psychologist, but I would guess it has something to do with the desire to avoid pain. But the pain of confronting the truth is going to be nothing compared to the pain of the collision just ahead on the road.
The task for us all starts with an end to our preoccupation with our self, with a going beyond our selfishness. We need to stop putting our own feelings (discomfort about what the future will bring, looking foolish, being wrong, whatever) ahead of what’s right, ahead of what needs to be done, ahead of what would be respectful of both nature and future generations. We need to start envisioning what life is going to be like for our children, and our children’s children, if we don’t quickly change the direction in which we are speedily traveling. This visioning process has an official name: scenario analysis. To help us with this effort, there is a large body of research and a large body of experience already available in the contingency planning community. But even those people who are not working in the contingency planning field can and should still prepare their own future scenarios.
It’s time that we started modeling a new type of human being, and here I’m talking about someone who is willing to put their petty selfish feelings aside, someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and get down to work doing the work that must now be done. I’m talking about a new type of human being, a more evolved human being, someone who deeply gets that we are all in this together. This human being knows that what we do today (such as driving a SUV long distances to commute to a job) has a significant impact not only on themselves, but also on other human beings, on animals, and on nature.
This new human being will also need to admit that there are no shortcuts, that to create a certain result, such as a new economy that is no longer dependent on petroleum, a great deal of serious work must be done. Denial and stubborn refusal to grapple with the truth does not make it go away. Denial of the truth does not mean that the truth is an illusion, it only means that the individual adopting this strategy is ill-prepared and poorly-adapted to the reality of what’s happening. The part of us that thinks we can deal with something by denying it, that is the part that thinks that we can use shortcuts, thinks that we can get away with cutting-corners. That is magical childish thinking, and it’s time for all adults in the industrialized countries to start thinking like, and acting like, responsible adults.
Denial can be tricky, and it does this in an effort to try to maintain its position of prominence in the consciousness of those who have adopted this dysfunctional position. For example, that part of us that likes denial, also likes to color issues in black-or-white (dualistic) terms. For example, either peak oil is a non-issue that we shouldn’t even to talk about, or else we’re all going to die as a result. If today you believe that it’s a non-issue, then you rationalize that you might as well continue your denial. If instead today you believe that everybody is going to die as a result of peak oil, then you can figure “there’s nothing to be done, so why bother worrying about it?” And so you then are back to denial, with perhaps another mask put over the truth. It’s only in grappling with reality, which will be something in between these two extremes, that we can discover what for us would be a right response to peak oil.
It’s time that we all looked at our own personal process surrounding denial of the reality of peak oil, and for that matter, our denial of peak natural resources as well. What part in each one of us has been selfish and unwilling to broaden our perspective to include our impact on other beings and the planet? What part of us has been thinking that we could get away with shortcuts, when we know darn well that we can’t? What part of us has been engaging in mind games, like dualistic thinking, in order to be able to continue with our denial?
To the extent that we can move through these blocks to encountering the truth, in its full impact and implications, to that extent we can start to evolve into the new type of human being that we all potentially are. And by the way, I’m working on it too. For us all, this will require on-going effort to keep confronting the truth as it is revealed. I hope to see you all, the new human beings, after we get through these turbulent times.
Charles Cresson Wood, MBA, MSE, CISA, CISSP, CISM, is a technology risk management consultant with Post-Petroleum Transportation, in Mendocino, California. His most recent book is “Kicking The Gasoline & Petro-Diesel Habit: A Business Manager’s Blueprint For Action” (see www.kickingthegasoline.com).