Wednesday, July 11, 2012

peak oil oppositional disorder: neurosis or psychosis?

cluborlov | The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has grown to include 297 disorders, but it seems that there is always room for one more.

Richard Heinberg recently published an article that addresses various recent claims that Peak Oil is no longer a concern. His term for the phenomenon is “peak denial.” It sounds good, and dovetails nicely with Richard's overall theme of “peak everything.” It's a thoughtful piece that does a thorough job of exposing the surreal nature of the optimists' projections, and I have no issues with his argument. I do, however, have an issue with his terminology. First, since denial does not happen to be a nonrenewable resource with a characterizable depletion profile, its peak, should we detect one, is not particularly meaningful, because it could just as easily peak again tomorrow and then again next century. Second, I suspect that “denial” is no longer the right word to describe the social phenomenon we are currently observing. I think that Ugo Bardi pointed us in the right direction: in his article reacting to George Monbiot's assertion that "We were wrong about peak oil, there is enough to fry us all," Ugo characterized Monbiot's approach to Peak Oil using another word: “delusion.”

If you feel that the distinction between denial and delusion is just a minor, innocuous terminological difference—a gratuitous splitting of hairs on my part—then pardon me while I whip out my Sigmund Freud: in The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis [1924] he wrote the following: “Neurosis does not disavow the reality, it ignores it; psychosis disavows it and tries to replace it.” [p. 185] What psychosis replaces reality with is delusion.

Let's take this one step at a time. Denial is where you know something full well (e.g., that there is a finite amount of economically recoverable oil and that we have already burned through about half of it) but refuse to consider it as important. Denial is symptomatic of neurosis. Neurotics are not considered particularly dangerous; they can be quite annoying, and they can sometimes pose a threat to themselves, but they are, in general, not considered to pose a threat to society. They can also be quite charming: Woody Allen parlayed his neuroses into a successful acting/directing career. (In German the title of his film Annie Hall is Stadtneurotiker—“urban neurotic.”)

Delusion, on the other hand, is symptomatic of psychosis. Now, when was the last you ran across a charming, urbane, popular, successful psychotic? Back to Freud: old Sigmund distinguishes two types of thinking: there is secondary process thinking—the good kind—the domain of the well-adjusted, socialized self, grounded in consensual reality, reasonableness, rationality and logic. And then there is primary, or archaic process thinking—the bad kind—the product of obsession, compulsion, hallucination and... here we go... delusion. The path that leads from neurosis to psychosis is a regression toward a more primitive, archaic, infantile self. Take your typical neurotic (refuses to face Peak Oil, spouts gibberish about it when pressed), put that neurotic through a terrible, ego-destroying crisis, and that individual may regress and lapse into psychosis.

What happens to individuals also happens to entire societies. Take a neurotic Peak Oil-denying industrial civilization, put it through a terrible global financial crisis, tell it that economic growth is over forever, and what you get a psychotic, delusional industrial civilization.