Monday, November 05, 2007

Hitting the Nail on the Head With the Hammer...of Fear

"Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Dr. Samuel Johnson

Richard Heinberg's gift for making hammer meet nail is evident again today in his analysis of the implications of Carbon Equity's recent report "The Big Melt" (discussed here at length last month) in light of the problem of depletion. I strongly recommend that all my readers consider his analysis.

Heinberg aptly describes the predicament we're in - the solutions to climate change and peak oil for the world as a whole involve the richest nations and their populations making enormous, voluntary transformations of their way of life, and quite rapidly. It means the overturning of our entire economy, the end of everything we have taken to be religious doctrine about the value of growth capitalism, a new commitment in a selfish society to creating justice for the poor, and an absolute sea change in everything from the way we get around to the way we do our laundry. There is no evidence whatsoever at this point than any world government can be reconciled to that change, or that the people of any nation would accept it if their leaders proposed it.

The other option is some variation on collapse - waiting until fossil fuel shortages, economic crisis and increasing environmental disasters reduce our energy consumption dramatically, and drive us, as Heinberg describes, to a society with much less inequity, but without the good parts of less inequity - that is, we'll see our collective wealth destroyed by disaster after disaster, flushed down the toilet rather than shared with anyone else.

I doubt that there are many people who read this blog who believe that we're better off waiting for things to fall apart (more). That is, we a huge amount of work to do - personally, as a nation, as world. But how do we get past the big, big, big bump of convincing leaders by convincing people that we would choose the rough but more equitable path, either because it is the right thing to do, or because it is better for us (both are true here)?

To imagine us having any success at addressing climate change and peak oil, we must imagine a society willing to make presently unimaginable sacrifices. We have seen that up to a point, people are willing and able to make sacrifices, particularly when they are scared to death. Thus, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, most people were willing to give in to Roosevelt's calls for sacrifice, while before he faced considerable political opposition. And thus, since 2001, most Americans have been willing to more or less silently acquiesce to the stripping of the Constitution, torture and war crimes, because, we're told, it is keeping Akron safe from the terrorists salivating to blow up its gas stations.

I'm occasionally accused of fear mongering, of not being "positive" enough. And while I think there are positive things about the post-peak future, mostly I think that peak oil and climate change are very bad things for our society, and that it would be the most errant nonsense to tell everyone that their lives are going to get warmer and fuzzier during the transition. I think we do need to talk about the good things about this - the social pleasures, the better food, the physical benefits, the quality of life issues. Those are real and sincere positives. But they are not sufficient to offset the fact that even if we did this right, it would be enormously difficult and painful for most of us. Yes, walking more and biking more will improve our health - but not having a car will also mean less time with distant family, longer transit times, more blisters, staying home, less travel, less exposure to knew ideas and the world. I don't think we serve anyone by lying on that score, and pretending that the benefits exist in isolation. It would be lovely if we were still at the point where we had the option of addressing this within our comfort level. We don't. And we all need to get over that quite rapidly.

The simple fact is this - we have ample evidence that fear moves mountains. If we are to avoid collapse, it must rapdily become politically feasible to make enormous and painful changes very quickly. History suggests one of two things. You can make up strawmen to fear (Jews, Terrorists, whatever...) or you can direct people's attentions to the real problems, with real and penetrating explanations of what they are and what you must do to prevent them. But telling people about the health benefits or the fact that they'd be happier if they did this can only get people so far - we've been telling people about the benefits of a healthy diet for decades, and yet, we eat worse every year. We have millions of avid sportspeople to tell the benefits of exercise, and yet more millions are happier sitting around on their asses. The positives have not moved us the way negatives have.

I have strong personal reasons as a Jew to loathe and fear the idea that we would direct our terror towards a person, or group of persons. Every Jew knows how that goes, and it usually means getting on a boat again. So my own personal preference would be to direct it towards an event - that is, my suspicion is that we are now presently waiting for the next great disaster. It will come, probably in the next few years. And the hope for peak oil and climate change is to take control from the beginning of the meaning of this event - to do what we failed to do with Hurricane Katrina, what we failed to do with 9/11, and explain to the world, "We must make this sacrifice, or have it happen again and again and again to you and your family..." I get told all the time that I'm too scary, but let's be honest - I'm a piker. Bin Laden in your laundry room, that's scary. Nazis around the corner, that's scary. Now we just have to figure out how to make Climate Change coming for your grandkids just as scary. The only good part is that we get to tell the truth.



Anonymous said...

Emotion can do funny things. I worry about fear as a motivator. Fear can provoke flight or fight. I know, for myself, that over the past month or so I've felt very depressed and overwhelmed by all of this bad news -- which just makes me want to retreat into a hole. I think we want to think about how to provoke fighting not fleeing. Perhap it would be useful to consider the value of anger.


jewishfarmer said...

Christine, I'm not that wild about the machiavellian nature of my conclusion above, I'm just not sure that we have enough other tools in our box remaining. Anger is probably another, as is positive energy. But I suspect the prime mover will have to be fear. I don't like it - but I like the alternative, in which we do not respond, even less.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for alerting us to Heinberg's thorough and incisive article/links.

Yes, we in the rich Western world are morally obliged to lead the paradigm shift for sustainable living. No use blaming China or India when all the catastrophic Climate Change we've seen so far has been due to Western Civilization. Most of China's increased carbon emissions are due to the junk produced for Western markets, particularly goods consumed in the U.S., as all of us know.

A typical American consumes 70 times that of a typical person from Bangladesh. If we multiply 300 Million (U.S. population) times 70, the U.S. population is equivalent to 21 billion people.

Reducing world population is important, but reducing consumption in our country is even more important. According to George Monbiot, "A citizen of China produces, on average, 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide a year. A citizen of the United Kingdom emits 9.5, and of the United States, 20.0."

On the theme of fear, anger, and anxiety regarding our awareness of the coming catastrophies induced by Climate Change, Peak Oil, economic collapse, possibility of nuclear war, you might want to view the two-hour thought-provoking film "What a Way to Go." Many interesting experts are interviewed, including Derrick Jensen, Richard Heinberg and others.

Be green!

~Vegan/Leaving So.FL

Anonymous said...

My personal trouble with fear is that it motivates me inwards: it makes we want to protect me and mine, and if I have to chose between writing to Joe Congresscritter or planting another row of greens, I plant another row of greens.


BoysMom said...

Question for the readers here:

One of our ongoing projects is to help the folks back at the ancestral village. So far, this has mostly taken the place of medical and educational aid. Most of my husband's generation is living in a big port city a couple hundred kilometers from the village. We'd like to encourage them to move back to the land sooner rather than later, rising water will make the move inevitable. (The rest of his generation has left the country, it's only the elderly still in the village--they'd be middle aged in the US. 45 is the average life expectancy in the country)
There's nothing modern at the village now: we're talking mud huts, water hauled from the nearby stream, and so on. Those living there farm cocoa by hand for a cash crop. It's easy to see why the younger folks don't want to live there now.
What would you suggest in terms of long term sustainable improvements, both to help the current residents and lure the younger generations back? We're thinking of starting with a well.

Alan said...

Dear Boysmom,

Plant trees!

Build solar ovens and teach everyone how to do it.

Bring in some of the modern high efficiency wood stove designs which can stretch firewood supplies immensely and reduce exposure to smoke.

(The well is a great idea.)

There are several organizations which help third-world communities develop using "appropriate technology". Their websites will provide many ideas and plans.

The knowledge of what to do and how to do it is widely available.

Amelia said...


While I agree with planting trees, I'd suggest something like AIDG's biodigester rather than a wood stove: it deals with the issue of animal and human waste while capturing methane gas that can be used for powering a converted propane stove, as well as sterilized organic fertilizer. No moving parts, nothing to break down in a few years' time.

Maeve said...

The state of Tabasco, Mexico, being inundated with a horrific flood, is terrible. Hundreds of thousands of people are hungry and have no clean water, and their homes are under polluted water.

I don't know enough about all of this to know how much climate change is to blame for it. But it probably isn't helping any.

BoysMom said...

Oh, they've got trees, Alan, and I suspect my uncle-in-law would cuss me out if I suggested he plant more! It's almost all (thousands of acres) jungle. Trees are more part of the problem at this point: it's a lot of backbreaking labor to keep them out of the fields, only about .02% of the total. The tribe practices a sort of crop rotation: the land is cleared and farmed for a few years, then left to return to jungle for a generation. We did have an arguement a couple years back with some relatives who wanted to clearcut so as to get some quick cash, but our side won, in part because all those who still live on the land did not want it cut.

Alan, do you have any links to those groups? Particularly any that would have instructions, such as for the solar oven, in French? We talked at one point with WWF . . . what we are trying to do isn't quite in their line.

Amelia, thanks for the link. The hydro power and the water purification are particularly interesting in this situation and we will be going over them carefully. The biodigester offers an option for dealing with sewage rather than letting it back into the river.

Anonymous said...

Boysmom, solar ovens work well (see:

We used one exclusively for a week in the aftermath of hurricane Wilma in FL when we had no electricity. We also used a hand pump to get water from our well. Everyone around us was using gas generators (loud and smelly!), while we did well with our sustainable equipment.

~Vegan/Leaving FL

Anonymous said...

"Particularly any that would have instructions, such as for the solar oven, in French?"

Not sure how well different designs work, but just googling "four solaire" or "four solaire construire" yields lots of different plans.

Alan said...

Here's a link to an outfit called Trees, Water & People which promotes a simple, very efficient wood cookstove:

And here's a link to the Solar Oven Society which has a program to introduce solar ovens in developing countries:

I would contact these organizations directly to see about getting their information in French (or any other language).

jewishfarmer said...

Hi MEA - I think that's a real issue. But as we've seen, fear also shapes voting patterns, and our political landscape. So it has to work in a public sense to some degree.

BoysMom, what a wonderful project. If you want to attract members of the younger generation back, perhaps some kind of economic project? That is, solar ovens and wells seem like a huge plus, but jobs help too - is there something artisanal that could be sold here and provide a decent living?

You might google Joe Bageant and email him a question. He's living part time in Belize and is working on raising the standard of living in the village he lives in.


Anonymous said...


That is a great project! The well is a great idea. If you want people voluntarily to move to a remote area, you need to help them obtain what they have come to view as basic services. In addition to clean water, sustainable sewage disposal, cooking, etc. [all good ideas], you might consider electricity, lighting, communications, etc. Can they put in a solar panel to run a 12V light, so the kids can read in the evening? Will they have a source of news and information? Can you get them Internet access or phone service so they can communicate with the outside world? (If they don't have TV, they're probably better off without it.)

Then there are services like education and health care. Is there a school? Does it teach as much as your relatives want their kids to grow up knowing? Do you need to start from scratch, put up a little building and find someone who can teach in it? If there is a local teacher, would he welcome books and educational materials? How is the local healthcare? If a kid gets severely ill or injured, how far away is the nearest clinic? Is there a road that will be passable in any season? Improving roads is controversial among environmentalists, not entirely without reason, but people who now live where they can walk to a hospital are not likely to move their kids to a place where they can't get to one in time of need.

Finally, how will they feed their families there? If they will farm, is land available, and do they have the skills to be successful? If they have lost those traditional skills, perhaps you can help them to rebuild that knowledge first. If they will practice skilled trades or crafts, will that work there? Will they be welcomed by the current residents? Help them to address that sort of social question too. Good luck!


Wendy said...

What an awesome discussion! Here I was going to comment on how fear has motivated me to make all of these changes in my life - good changes. I stopped in the middle of typing and started reading the comments, and WOW! You guys are incredible. What a readership you have, Sharon!

See, THIS is the future I see every time I contemplate the "aftermath" of Peak Oil. I see people reaching out and touching their neighbors.

Sharon, please keep up the discussion. Fear is an incredibly motivating factor, and it can lead to positive change.

P.S. I printed out your 100 Things to Do, and am looking forward to the next 100 ;).

BoysMom said...

Thanks so much you guys!
The nearest town with schools and health clinics is about a hundred kilometers away by very bad road (six hours).
However, the river is navigable all the way through to the big port city and its international airport, and one thing we hope to do is put in a dock and get a boat, if we can find one that would run off of biodiesel.
Much of the family has gotten some education: I'd guess about half have a college degree, that's what we've been investing in the last few years, and what my inlaws have been putting every spare penny towards for the last generation. So the trained people are out there, the teachers, nurses, archetects, lawyers and all, they just aren't in the village.
It looks right now (without getting a site survey done) as if solar options are probably out due to the rainy season.
With a school and medical clinic and a dock, the village could become a regional center for comerce for the other villages in the area.

Anonymous said...

Have we forgotten about Love as a motivator? "The only thing to fear is fear itself." Fear may be a great motivator, but a society living in fear of the coming climate change/economic collapse could easily become, when things get hard, a society of people living in fear of each other.

I think it is important to make a conscious decision to Love.

It doesn't matter how hard or easy this coming transition is, one thing is certain: if we are committed to loving each other, helping each other, caring for each other, being more concerned about what we can offer to others that what we are getting for ourselves, then we have a chance of living through this thing with joy, and even abundance.

I also prefer Love to fear as a motivator for my own lifestyle changes. If I love Nature, and my own child, and every other human being, born and unborn, AND I am aware of how my own actions impact other living things, then I am loathe to cause any more suffering than necessary, and in fact my own joy increases the more I am able to live simply and harmoniously within the community of life.


Anonymous said...

Just remembered something a solider friend of mine used to say -- when you have them by the balls, the hearts and minds will follow.


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