Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Seductive Thrill of the Horror Movie & the Hell-fire Sermon

I came across an interesting thought posted by Nate Hagens on The Oil Drum. “In writing this post, it dawned on me that much of the work we do in raising peak oil awareness is received by readers as kind of an interesting horror movie. Yes - tell me more scary facts and I will sit at my computer and read them. But its the rational brain that is receiving this information. And its not budging behaviour much.”

I think many people feel the same way when presented with the concept of Peak Oil at a meeting such as we had the other night. I felt like a fire-and-brimstone preacher: “Repent, ye sinners! The wrath of the Lord is terrible indeed, and all those who do not believe shall burn in everlasting hellfire!”

In certain perhaps not particularly edifying but all-too-human ways, we love a hell-fire sermon for the same reason we love horror films. We can get a big fright without confronting any real immediate danger. And additionally we can go away in the smug knowledge that we know something the ignorant do not. We are “insiders”. But what can we actually do with the things we have learned? I think after a meeting such as we had the other night, a lot of people on sober reflection would say “Not much”. Why is this so?

The changes threatened by a paradigm altering event such as the end of cheap oil would seem to undermine many of the plans and assumptions we have made about our lives. We feel trapped and relatively powerless to respond in a thoroughgoing way. And so we change things at the periphery. We cut down our consumption of plastic bags, we think about buying a Toyota Prius instead of a Landcruiser. But we feel our choices are limited.

This is because we have a lot of prior investment in the situation as it is. It might be our career, where we live, our relationships, our business. We don’t see ourselves as having much freedom of movement. We are very aware of what economists call ”sunk costs”, irrecoverable investments of time, money or intellectual or emotional energy we have made to get where we are. They may not fit the new reality with which we’ve been presented, but we have extreme reluctance in giving them up as a dead loss. And this is a perfectly rational response.

Major change not only trashes our prior investments but it also comes at a big psychological cost. We are much more likely to become ill or have an accident when we go through a major change. And what constitutes major change? Well, in no particular order or ranking, going to school, finishing school, getting a job, having a baby or a last child leaving home, losing a job, getting married or divorced, starting a business, having a nervous breakdown, moving house, going broke, death of friends or family, serious illness. Hopefully not all these things will happen and not too close together, thank you very much. We are naturally averse to big changes because they are costly and hard.

So the paradox is that usually our only chance to make basic changes to our life is during one of these great cataclysms. And our choices at these times then determine our fate for the next epoch of our life. The choices we make are determined at least partly by our world-view at the time and the information swirling about us. This is where the value of these big-picture events like the Peak Oil information evening can really kick in. And when we’re up against it and the situation is in flux, we can often find unexpected strength, wisdom and courage.

“To be thrown upon one's own resources, is to be cast into the very lap of fortune; for our faculties then undergo a development and display an energy of which they were previously unsusceptible.”—Benjamin Franklin

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”— Samuel Johnson, "The Life of Samuel Johnson" (1791)

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