The five stages of oil grief

In the book “On death and dying”, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross talks about the five stages of grief and tragedy: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.   Categorizing our reactions to traumatic events is a way to understand how the human mind copes and eventually gets beyond the situation.

In the similar way, the reaction of our minds to the decline of the oil era is quite predictable.  Living in North America in the midst of the oil era has given us greater power than an Egyptian pharaoh.  It’s no surprise that we don’t want to give it up. The decline of world oil resources is off the radar of our political leaders. As one of my former bosses used to say: “The general doesn’t tell the soldiers that they are out of bullets.”

What politician in his right mind wants to tell you: “OK, we screwed up, we’ve sent too much of our oil and natural gas south of the border. We’ve allowed poor gas consumption ratings because larger cars are more profitable for car manufacturers. We’re sorry that you can’t afford to heat your home because your job at the factory has closed due to high energy costs that could have been avoided.”

No, the smart politician operates on rules that guarantee we make the wrong choices.

Rule #1 – Never accept blame or admit an error. If an error exists, it must be the previous administration that caused it. Blame them.

Rule #2 – Get new jobs announcements at any cost. Growth is absolutely necessary. Environment concerns are expendable.

Rule # 3 – Think short term. If the problem is more than six months away, it can wait. If it is more than 4 years away, it doesn’t exist and the next government will take the heat.

Our denial of reality takes many forms, such as the technology fix: the urban legend of a carburetor that gives 140 miles a gallon but the oil companies or Ford bought up the patent and it’s in a vault somewhere.  They don’t explain why George Bush wouldn’t love to reduce oil dependence of the US or perhaps they believe he is a tool of the oil industry and on it goes.  There are others who think hydrogen, ethanol, or use of electricity in cars will be the silver bullet.  But we don’t look closely at the mathematics of the proposed solution and the politicians don’t mind spending our money on useless subsidies for fuel and technology that aren’t going to work.

Or the conspiracy theorist, “the oil companies just want you to believe that there is a shortage so that they can benefit from oil prices. There is plenty of oil”.

Fairly soon, perhaps within five years, the second stage of oil grief will hit you.  When oil prices skyrocket, you’ll get a sickening feeling in your stomach and anger that this can’t be happening to you – Every time you fill up your vehicle and it costs $250 or more. Perhaps you’ve just bought a gas-guzzler, a half ton or SUV and it is now virtually worthless. You are locked into car payments that you can’t afford to drive, a house you can’t afford to heat, you live too far from the grocery store to walk, your job is miles away and there is no public transport from your subdivision.

The widespread anger of the public will drive politicians out of office and lead to some forms of anarchy.  Hard on the heels of anger is the “bargaining” phase when truck drivers will shut down the highways in general strikes as they go broke from fuel costs. There will be demands that the cost of fuel be subsidized but the government won’t have the money to comply, as job losses will drive down tax revenue. The government won’t be able to subsidize home heating, the levels of employment insurance benefits along with companies’ demands for help.

Unfortunately, it will be too late to help most people through the hard times that are coming.  The depression stage will hit many people who are stressed beyond their capacity to cope financially and emotionally with the changing reality.

Somewhere between six months and one year after “the event” we can expect that a large number of people will have moved towards the acceptance phase and make the difficult but necessary changes in their lives.  Approximately 3% of the population are presently involved in farming to support everyone else. Back in 1900, the figure was close to 40%.  The question we might want to ask ourselves, given the gradual elimination of fuel from agriculture in the next fifty years, is:

How quickly will this country revert to a higher percentage of farmers and do I like farming as a career choice to provide food for my family?  Secondly, if not, what other valuable contribution can I bring to a totally different sustainable society that will be forced on us by necessity in the coming years.

Some in denial will insist that this can’t be true. According to George Bush, “the American way of life is non-negotiable.”  Here in Canada, the lack of a coherent energy policy, courtesy of Stephen Harper and his predecessors, makes the possibility of a soft transition to a post oil economy less likely than a real tragedy.

Our oil intoxication is about to end but hopefully the withdrawal symptoms won’t be as painful as I fear.  But we may all have to start that garden plot sooner than later. Hey, what about a solar powered electric tiller or one recharged by wind energy?  I just hate using a shovel to turn sod.


One comment

  1. meggie1223 · November 13, 2009


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