Friday, March 5, 2010

Magical thinking

Peak Shrink has an interesting post on The Tyranny of Positive Thinking, a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In it, she expresses the same frustration I've felt when dealing with our cult of positivity.

I believe that I can improve situations by the way that I think about them and how I interpret them. I believe that, by envisioning a positive future that INCLUDES the harsh facts about peak oil and climate change, I can work toward that future by coming to terms with the massive changes that will be occurring and taking steps to prepare for it. A positive vision helps keep me motivated.

However. There is a pathological brand of positive thinking that demands that we be happy at all times, that we neither admit nor experience pain, unhappiness or depression. In order to achieve this type of happiness, the high priests and priestesses of the cult of positive thinking make recommendations like "don't read the news" and "get rid of negative people."

In other words, deny reality, hide from reality, and don't let your friends and family experience any real emotions. You don't want to hear about their difficulties with cancer and death, financial troubles and lost jobs - it'll just bring you down. Without all that negativity, you can float about in a bubble of pretense, your life padded on all sides by smiles and affirmations.

That same cultish positivity goes a step further to promote the idea that "wishing makes it so." While research that I've read seems to back up the effects of positive goal-setting and mental envisioning, these people believe that you can magically conjure up riches and wealth just by imagining it - hard enough. Not imagining and then working towards it - but just by being positive and believing.

The dark side of this is that you can then blame people who are poor, unemployed, sick, injured, or diseased for their own misfortune. Nothing to do with the realities of the physical world, history, biology, or sociology. Nothing to do with the unjust and environmentally harmful systems that are built into our society. It's just that they must not be thinking the right thoughts! Those Negative Nellies are bringing all that cancer/genocide/war/infertility/poverty on themselves! If they'd just get with the program, they'd be healthy, rich and happy.

I have one friend, for instance, who hates it when I talk about problems like oil depletion. "Enough of that doom and gloom!" she cries. "Let's talk about solutions!" Well, excuse me, but until you understand the depth, breadth and scope of the issue, you can't even begin to imagine the magnitude of the changes that are going to have to occur - and which we are going to have to work towards.

Someone who doesn't understand the fundamental facts around peak oil is likely to think that we can just slap a PV solar band-aid, or some electric car Neosporin, on the problem. Someone who does understand the problem knows that we've got serious gangrene in our system and we're looking at radical amputation of our car culture, entitlement thinking, and globalized industrial consumerism.

From what I've read about survival and trauma, one of the keys to dealing with a trauma appears to be avoiding the feeling of helplessness. In that case, in order to deal with the traumas we are experiencing now, and will experience in the near future, we have to believe that we can actually achieve good things by taking action. If positive thinking - looking on the bright side and finding the opportunities - helps you and those around you to prepare for the collapses we are facing - then look on the bright side. It helps me.

But if positive thinking causes you to shun all news and discussion about peak oil, unemployment, bank failures, and environmental catastrophe, then you are only setting yourself up for failure. If positive thinking causes you to avoid your friends and family who want to discuss and prepare for these "depressing" issues, you've shot yourself in the foot. And if positive thinking causes you to think that these problems are all going to go away without any investment or energy on YOUR part, then you really are doomed.

Sticking your head in a hole, no matter how bright and shiny, isn't a long term success strategy. Short term happiness (from oblivious ignorance or denial) is no substitute for long-term happiness (survival, healthy relationships, and peace of mind knowing you have helped preserve our future and a future for our children). Choose wisely.


Mark from Colorado said...

This post is a breath of fresh air, thank you. I really like “just slap a PV solar band-aid, or some electric car Neosporin, on the problem”, quote. As a culture, if one could call it that, has gotten lazy and fat from the abundance of cheap energy, and now almost expect, that if we can imagine it, it is real, instead of real planning and work. I mean, it’s not a big leap from the buy-it-online mentality to wish-it-into-reality mentality.
I have only been reading your blog for a couple of months now, and have read other peak oil blogs like the Arch druid repost for going on two years now. I find your blog more of an on the ground type of blog, that is a compliment. My question is this, how are you dealing, talking with the family members and friends that are not dealing with the issues at hand? No one likes there bubble to burst.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Mark - talking to friends and family is a ticklish issue. I have posted on it in the past; maybe it's time for a re-evaluation and re-post.

Kate said...

Very well said. Thank you. I too have had difficulties discussing these issues with family. I've found that rather than trying to convince them to do anything, I just talk about what I'm doing and why - almost in a joking manner sometimes. The lighthearted mention of "when TSHTF," or "getting packed for Camp TEOTWAWKI" takes a lot of the downer tone out of the conversation that really does (sadly) put many people off. I've found it much more effective over time to just approach it in that way, and show my family my cold frames, my raised asparagus beds, my home cured meats, our energy retrofit work, our root cellar, as well as ask them every so often if they want to split a bulk purchase of beans or rice.

I often feel like they're humoring me. And yet when I look at what they've done (raised beds, a little food storage, and an energy audit for their home) it's very clear that what I'm saying and doing is reaching them on some level, even if they don't really connect the dots in their minds. Or maybe they simply can't confront the full realities yet.

pgrass101 said...

Thanks for posting this, I too have a problem with people refusing to acknowledge the depth of a problem or even that there is a problem. How can you deal with a situation if you deny that the situation exists?

I think that as a society we have been free and safe with abundant resources for so long that we have forgot the hard work that the “Greatest Generation” (my Grandparents) had to do to obtain the prosperity that we currently have.

Steve in Hungary said...

Hi Peak Oil Hausfrau,

What a strong piece that I entirely agree with.

I lost my one remaining grown from seed rhubarb plant the other day and I have to say that one small, tiny failure threw me into a gloomy mood for the entire morning.

Failures are going to happen. I don't see where being happy about them helps. Just dig on through it and go about what we are going about - Peak Oil preparation!


Sharlene T. said...

I totally agree, as well. It's so difficult to discuss energy-saving with my family and friends because they really do feel they are entitled to use all they they want, because they've "earned" it. It's the next generation's job to find the answers.

So, I, too, just keep plugging and doing my thing with the wind turbine, gardens, and solar oven. And, surprisingly, there have been small steps in their own energy-saving that show me something is working.

I've never understood the Pollyanna approach to life, either.

Anonymous said...

Amen !!!

Anonymous said...

Ah, So nice to see someone else who gets "it". The "positive glamor" crowd has been around a long time. I've been there, done that, got the tee-shirt and the commemorative mug. I call it being truly ungrounded.

Disassociating from our issues, whether they are global or personal just puts them out into our future to handle. Not everyone understands that there is no getting away from what you are here to learn. Period.

There will always be those that can find a way to skirt the problems with power of different sorts. (money, clout etc). I think that's what you were seeing in your previous post with the Hummer license plate.

We currently live in a "fat cat" society where the very small percentage appears to have all the power pieces. It works for them for people to check out into positive fluff land. We are so much easier to manipulate that way.

I believe that what I focus on will manifest itself in some form or being super negative doesn't help me. But I believe whole heartedly that you MUST be fully AWARE to use the "power" of directed thinking. Being half-asleep at the wheel in shiny-shiny land leads to disasters and disassociation.

Thank you for your great post.:)

neighbortom said...

Beautifully said...