Peak Oil, Zombies and Adult development

This is the second part on Peak Oil. In the first part I reviewed Kjell Aleklett’s Peeking at Peak Oil which summarized a decade of research on Peak Oil. That was in Swedish but there are several English introductions e.g. here:

In Peeking at Peak Oil Aleklett writes:

”In recent years while lecturing on Peak Oil there have been many times when I have observed one or more people in the audience experience what we call their “peak moment”. That is the moment when they finally, and usually suddenly, become convinced that Peak Oil is reality. (Often a rather shocked expression spreads over their face and they look very uneasy.)”

Here is my “peak moment”: I had just finished my PhD thesis 2009 and successfully defended it after spending half a year in more or less solitary confinement and single pointed focus, and I started to broaden my view and check the world status, so to say. With a PhD and a habit of using integral models I should be able to get an overview, I thought. For starters, I tried to dig a bit deeper into the economic mayhem created by of the subprime crisis one year earlier, which in turn led me to resource issues. Soon I found my way to a Swedish blog called “Livet efter oljan”, or Life after the oil, which gave a thorough introduction of Peak Oil and its possible and even probable consequences for the future of our civilization.

How did I react to this? I lay awake for several nights with a constant thought running through my head: “I need to get two things: 1. a food supply, and 2. guns to defend it.” Yes, that was pretty drastic. But why did I react that way? And what was I afraid of? Zombies? (What’s with the zombies by the way?)

When you read about the oil’s function in our society you soon learn that our system for food production, from farming to distribution to our tables, is very heavily dependent on oil. Should you remove all of the world’s oil in a blink of an eye it would probably take just a few days before the shelves at the supermarkets are empty. It is sometimes said that we are only 72 hours away from starvation.

As a consequence of insights such as this you can today see a growing subculture of neo-survivalism emerging with people that have become aware of our society’s fragility with a spectrum ranging from the ones storing candles at home for power failures to the ones that actually have a BOB that they can take on their way to their BOL.

In this thought of scenario there will typically be a few that are well prepared, those foresighted with a food supply, and the rest who are not and are surprised that there suddenly is no food to be found, except for at the prepared neighbor. In this sudden collapse scenario all law enforcement and social control have also collapsed, so people are typically returning to their pre-civilized mentality in order to survive. This might sound drastic, but in his excellent book Collapse Jared Diamond actually proposed overpopulation and food shortage to be one of the driving causes to the genocide in Rwanda 1994.

Think of this situation of hungry and desperate neighbors suddenly turning against you and trying to get into your home. If they succeed, they will take your food supply which will make you just as desperate and you will all proceed to the next house. This situation has very much in common with a classic zombie attack. Fortunately there are instructions on how to handle these attacks. 🙂

This tendency in popular culture that can be observed I believe is a sign of a shift in the zeitgeist of the western world from saving the world to pure apocalypse. I think one of the best examples is the movie I am legend starring Will Smith walking around in an abandoned New York City, heavily armed, searching for a cure to the man-made virus that has been released. The virus has killed most of the population (people that has already starved in the collapse scenario), turned almost everyone else into zombie-like mutants (the starving neighbors searching for your food) and the remaining one percent is immune to the virus (you, the survivalist). The loneliness of Will Smith’s character is easy to identify with since no one seems to believe a person with an anxiety that our society might collapse in a near future. He is having conversations with mannequins at the record store he visits in order to keep himself mentally sane.


Nevertheless, regardless how exaggerated my reaction was, it was just as real to me and this reaction is often compared to the reaction of receiving information of having a serious decease. This is a reaction that is also reported by many else. But can we learn anything from this? Can we somehow get some understanding of these types of reactions by employing an adult development perspective? Yes, I believe we can and it is probably a good idea for me to give some examples here. Perhaps that might restore some of my credibility as a sane researcher.

First, one important aspect is perception of time. When we imagine a collapse it is typically within a few days that everything goes to hell, this would be the Hollywood version. Climate change according to Hollywood is just a few days away in The day after tomorrow when we in reality need a 100-year perspective to understand this. Time horizons has by the way been examined by the organizational researcher Elliott Jaques who came to the conclusion that we have a varying of ability of taking long term effects in consideration when decide what to do. Most people lie between thinking two to five years ahead in time, some even shorter and some much longer.

Another aspect is complexity in meaning-making, when you get into a new area and starting to see reality with new eyes, you typically have a very black and white view on it. After some time you are able to see things in a more nuanced way, even if you already are a fairly complex thinker. But this might also vary from person to person. Concluding, Peak Oil means problems in a nearer future than climate issue, but it is still a good idea not to do anything in panic and instead more slowly moving in a healthy direction, trying to decrease unnecessary transports and personal dept is a good start.

Aleklett reports on his frequent battles with economists that claim that oil production is mainly a consequence of the demand after oil and other economic factors, while Aleklett, as a physicist, argues that it is geological factors that set the limits of oil extraction and of course the amount of oil in the ground. This may sound obvious and even ridiculous, but it is a controversy that goes deeper than just being a battle between the faculties. It is an abyss between the two worldviews in that it is either us that are in control of our development, if we decide that it will be business-as-usual then we will have business-as-usual (economic growth forever), or that we are more or less left out to factors beyond our control, such as the limited nature of limited resources and the limited nature of our nature. The first view sounds more life-affirming, of course, whereas the second tend to be more negative and dystopian in a fundamental way. Going from the first to the second view you could swing from a very bright view on what a human being to a very dark, when the structures and systems for social control disappears. Still, they are assumptions on whether a human is inherently good or evil. And we are a bit more complex than that. This swing in value and worldview could mean that you shift from one vMeme to the next according to the Spiral dynamics model, e.g. from orange to green.

What we see from an adult development perspective is that people are neither good or bad, but rather that we relate to social structures in different ways. This is one of the results from the research made by Lawrence Kohlberg and his theory for moral development. To make it simple, we have pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional ways of relating to conventions and social order, where the conventional group is in vast majority, say 75 percent. This means that if we in a thought experiment should gently remove all laws and structures, not too sudden to cause panic, we should expect that for the vast majority of the citizens it would be meaningful to uphold some order and good relations to others rather than deteriorating to anarchy and chaos.

The last aspect relates to complexity. One realization one makes when digging into these questions is that our society is complex, so complex that no one seems to have control over how it works. And no one does. There is no master designer sitting at some office that you can ask when we have some arbitrary problem. Our society has evolved thousands of years to get us here, and so have we. Most people typically have a faith that everything will work in the future, just as we have faith that our body can manage to e.g. digest the food I am eating without me understanding exactly how it works. On the other hand, our oil dependency is sometimes compared to as an addiction.

So, what is the lesson here? That there are psychological mechanisms and that we may freak out, but ultimately there is nothing to worry about? No, I would like to put it this way: We have problems. We know for certain that our societies are not sustainable. For example, we are dependent on fossil fuels such oil, gas and coal, and those are not renewable, which means that they will eventually run out. Not today and not tomorrow. But we are starting to feel the consequences. It’s ok to freak out and it’s ok to have zombie nightmares. But my advice is to try not to get stuck in that mode for too long. It’s not healthy and not very constructive either.

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5 Responses to Peak Oil, Zombies and Adult development

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  5. Excellent post! The focus in integral circles often tends to be “how can we keep climbing the ladder of development,” or “how do I get to that next level?” Aware of the issues you discuss, my question is, what practices can I engage in now that will help me not to lose my head, and will keep me from sliding down a few notches on the developmental scale when the difficult times arrive?