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Not the Future We Ordered

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For well over half a century, since the first credible warnings of petroleum depletion were raised in the 1950s, contemporary industrial civilization has been caught in a remarkable paradox: a culture more focused on problem solving than any other has repeatedly failed to deal with, or even consider, the problem most likely to bring its own history to a full stop. The coming of peak oil-the peaking and irreversible decline of world petroleum production-poses an existential threat to societies in which every sector of the economy depends on petroleum-based transport, and no known energy source can scale up extensively or quickly enough to replace dwindling oil supplies. Resolute action on personal, local, national, and global levels over the decades just passed might have staved off a future of economic contraction, political turmoil, and immense human suffering. Instead, governments and populations of all the world's industrial nations collectively closed their eyes to the impending crisis.Not The Future We Ordered is the first study of the psychological dimensions of that decision and its consequences, as a case study in the social psychology of collective failure, and as an issue with which psychologists and therapists will be confronted repeatedly in the years ahead. At the core of the modern world's inability to come to grips with the challenge of peak oil are a set of beliefs that amount to a civil religion of progress, in which the concept of progress is credited with the invincibility and beneficence other religions assign to their gods. This civil religion of progress lends legitimacy to policies that subordinate all other values to economic growth, place blind faith in untested technologies, and rule out serious consideration of the long-term downsides of today's trends.The religious faith in progress that makes such policies seem sensible, and provides justification for the marginalization of alternative views, has become one of the core factors driving contemporary societies headlong toward a wrenching confrontation with the hard limits of a finite planet. As the gap widens between today's expectations of perpetual progress and tomorrow's experiences, peak oil will become a significant mental health issue across the currently industrialized world. When "the future we ordered" fails to show up on schedule, cognitive dissonance and other psychological impacts common in times of severe cultural dislocation will likely show up as well, driving counterproductive responses on the personal and collective scales. Understanding the psychology that backed industrial civilization into a corner called "peak oil" is a crucial step in dealing with these consequences, and to this, Not The Future We Ordered offers a clear and readable guide

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One: The Unmentionable Crisis

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ONE

The unmentionable crisis

It is a curious and recurring reality in social history that the crises that come to define entire eras are very often those that, until they burst into the forefront of public attention, no one affected by them was willing to discuss at all. Betty Friedan's cogent description of depression and anomie among post-war American women as “the problem that has no name” (Friedan, 1963) could have been applied with equal justice to the symptoms of other imminent crises—for example, the social costs of slavery in the antebellum South. In these and many other cases, a reality that would shortly become the focus of explosive controversy and dramatic social change remained unmentioned and unmentionable among those who were in the closest contact with it.

Central to the process of inattention that kept these issues out of the sphere of public discussion was an act of reframing that transformed a collective crisis into an individual pathology. Physicians in the slave states before the Civil War, for example, argued that people of African origin suffered from a peculiar mental illness called “drapetomania”, an irrational compulsion to run away from home. This convenient theory allowed the efforts of slaves to escape to freedom in the North to be understood, not as a response to the unmentionable social realities of slavery, but, rather, as a personal pathology that could be discussed and treated without reference to its collective context.

 

Two: The Religion of Progress

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TWO

The religion of progress

The mere suggestion that modern industrial civilization has myths of its own risks misunderstanding, if not flat rejection. In current popular usage, the English word “myth” and its cognates in other Western languages have come to mean “a story that is not true”, and a great deal of contemporary thought uses this redefinition to ground a core distinction between modern and pre-modern societies: the latter supposedly based their worldviews on stories that are not true, while we base ours on true narratives revealed by science. One genre of social criticism has gone so far as to point to a supposed pathological lack of myths in modern societies as a cause of social and psychological problems (May, 1991; Rue, 1989).

More than a century ago, Max Muller showed considerably greater insight when he wrote, “Depend on it, there is mythology now as there was in the time of Homer, only we do not perceive it, because we ourselves live in the very shadow of it, and because we all shrink from the full meridian light of truth” (Muller, 1882, p. 353). The two obscuring factors he cited—the overshadowing influence of a living myth on the thought of those who accept it as valid, and the fear of a confrontation with truth unmediated by the familiar forms of the myth—remain as much live issues in our time as they were in his.

 

Three: The Psychology of the Progress Myth

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THREE

The psychology of the progress myth

Those religions that place their hopes in realms and beings that transcend ordinary human experience have certain advantages that are not shared by the civil religions discussed in the previous chapter. Even if the central hope of Christianity turns out to be wholly misplaced, for example, no Christian has to worry about having to face so daunting a prospect anywhere this side of the grave. The fulfilment of the Christian message, with its promise of redemption from sin and death through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is by most branches of the tradition firmly relegated to the afterlife, where it cannot easily be tested by those who are still among the living.

That same habit of taking refuge in the unverifiable applies equally well to the apocalyptic side of the same faith. While the Second Coming is supposed to happen in the world of everyday experience, Christian churches have shown impressive ingenuity in redefining those scriptural prophecies that appear to date it to no more than a generation or so after the lifetime of Jesus. In this way, the fulfilment of prophecy has been moved off into the indefinite future, where the eye of faith can behold it but that of critical scrutiny cannot.

 

Four: Peak Oil as Deviance

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FOUR

Peak oil as deviance

Despite the social pressures and institutional incentives bolstering the civil religion of progress, not everyone in the modern industrial world is a devout believer in that faith, and even among the believers, as in other religions, there is no shortage of disputes over questions of faith and morals. Postmodern theorists have made the useful point that social mores and values are always contested phenomena, redefined variously by competing voices that always bring agendas of their own into the discussion. Most of these voices claim to speak for God, truth, the majority, or whatever other abstraction traditionally serves to anchor successful truth claims in any given debate—most voices, but not all.

Even among believers in progress, therefore, what counts as progressive in any given case is by no means a straightforward question. The imagery of progress most often found in the cultural mainstream of industrial societies is a pastiche in which technological, economic, moral, and intellectual betterment all blur together, and it is far from uncommon for the ingredients of this melange to be pried apart by competing interests and used to support or assail the claim that any given change represents progress. The ongoing debate between proponents of nuclear energy and adherents of “green energy” technologies such as wind power has this as a frequent theme, with each side in the debate striving to portray its own preferred technology as more progressive and the other side's offerings as outmoded and regressive.

 

Five: The Five Stages of Peak Oil

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FIVE

The five stages of peak oil

All the factors discussed in previous chapters—the psychological power of the myth of progress as the foundation of the most popular civil religion of our time; the psychology of previous investment that makes straightforward discussion of the myth of progress so difficult for most people in the industrial world; the social creation of subcultures of deviance that effectively support the social norms their members believe they are opposing—make it an immense challenge to see past the stereotyped imagery of the future presented by contemporary industrial society and grasp the shape of the world towards which peak oil is driving us. Like the social crises described in the first chapter of this book, peak oil is a “problem that has no name”, a source of extensive and growing difficulties, across a broad spectrum of individual and collective activities, that very few people are willing to trace back to their actual cause.

Throughout the industrial world, since the peaking of world conventional petroleum production in 2005, the boomtimes of the previous decade have given way to intractable economic troubles for which no solutions seem to be forthcoming. Central bankers who boasted of their ability to rein in the business cycle and maintain a favourable environment for economic expansion found their ability to manage turmoil suddenly running into unexpected limits; political authorities have been left flailing as national economies stumble from one crisis to another. Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke spoke for a great many others in authority when he confessed to a US Senate committee in 2008 that tools that central bankers had been using successfully for decades had suddenly stopped working.

 

Six: Facing an Unwelcome Future

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SIX

Facing an unwelcome future

As the industrial world moves further into the unexplored space on the far side of peak oil, and as the gap widens between the future of endless betterment predicted by the myth of progress and the future of economic contraction, social instability, and eventual technological regress that is actually taking shape around us, the conflicts sketched out in the preceding chapters trace out fault lines along which major social ruptures can be expected. At least two critical tasks await therapists, other members of the helping professions, and interested laypersons as this pattern unfolds. The first is to anticipate, at least in outline, the nature of those ruptures and their psychological impacts on vulnerable individuals—a category that, just at the moment, may include most of the population of the industrial world. The second is to prepare meaningful responses to those impacts—a task that presupposes that those who offer such responses have already come to terms with the reality of our collective situation and are not hiding behind evasions of the sort outlined in Chapter One.

 

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