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An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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4 Dec 2006

Is Peak Oil Pessimism a Generation of Men Coming to Realise How Useless They Are?

menIn this post I want to discuss an evolving theory I have which may illuminate some and enrage others. I have come to think that part of the reason behind the “die-off” perspective and the mind-set which thinks that Western civilisation is doomed because humanity is basically selfish and foolish, and that it is too late for humanity to do anything on the necessary scale is in fact that a generation of men are coming to realise on some level that they are almost entirely unequipped to face the challenge that peak oil creates.

lawnOne of the main impacts of the Age of Cheap Oil, the great Petroleum Party so rapidly drawing to a close, has been the monumental deskilling that has gone on during that time. A friend of mine recently told me of a friend of his 14 year old son, who had grown up eating sliced bread, and was unable to actually cut a slice of bread from a loaf! How many people now know how to cook, garden, build, repair, mend, pickle, prune or scythe? In the space of two generations, we have lost so much basic knowledge and skills that previous generations learnt by osmosis without even thinking about it.

menOver the last few weeks I have been doing oral history interviews with older people in and around Totnes of their memories of the 30s, 40s and 50s. They remember working with horses on the farms, raising children with gas lamps, candles, home grown vegetables and home made clothes. This is less than 2 generations ago. What emerges is an innate sense, in the generation that made it through World War Two, of what constitutes *enough*, of an instinctive sense of self-reliance and an almost universal ability to turn one’s hand to anything.

A couple of years ago I went to London to a peak oil conference, and the evening before it I went to the pre-event social. I was struck by the fact that everyone there (with one exception) was male, aged 25-40, and, as far as I could tell, worked in IT. They were all very pleasant, intelligent, well read on the whole peak oil issue, and as able as anyone to argue that the peak is imminent and we need to act. There were however, almost no women, no gardeners, no builders, no foresters in the room, nor at the subsequent conference as far as I can tell.

Writers such as Shepherd Bliss and Carolyn Baker have questioned why it is that women are less prominent in the peak oil community. I have a nagging suspicion that it is because what we are seeing is, in part, a generation of men awakening to the fact that they are completely ill-prepared for life beyond oil. Almost all of the peak oil writers, and the vast majority of peak oil website writers and bloggers, are men. When I have organised peak oil-related events, finding female speakers on the subject is very tricky.

menFrom the oral history interviews I have been doing, I have seen how older men are less concerned about “going back” to the kind of lifestyles of the 40s and 50s because they still remember how to do things. They often say “well it’s not a problem, I still know how to do all that stuff”. Something happened around the 1960s and the passing-on of that knowledge just stopped. Perhaps mens’ natural instinct is to protect and to provide, and at a time when we feel on some level the need to be doing so again, we are realising that our education has left us completely incapable of doing either. The oil-based economic system has basically said “don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of that for you” for that last 50 years, but that system is now starting to look very shaky, and we realise we have been taught the wrong skills.

The skills one needs to work in the service industry, in sales, in IT, in the insurance industry, in a call centre, are of very little use when one starts thinking about what might follow that in a more localised near-future. What those of 2 generations ago had that we have lost was a practical attitude. They knew how to use the various tools around them, and had a confidence that they could turn their hands to most things. They had the core skills they would need to get through most challenges. Dig for Victory was possible because most people still knew how to garden.

menI think that panic and woe is a natural first response to peak oil. In my recent interview with Richard Heinberg he discussed the different stages of peak oil awareness. *”Probably the typical stages of grief, denial, anger and all that and very often an obsession with the facts themselves and trying to become knowledgeable about those facts, internalise the information and then verify the information so they can be sure of this. After all, they are probably in the process of reorienting their lives and their priorities and they may be trying to convince their friends and family about this and they need to have better information and get all the facts straight so they can do that”*. I would add to this that what often follows that is a realisation that we have lost the skills to adequately respond. In running the recent Transition Town Totnes Open Space days, I have seen that one of the most powerful things about them is that people get to meet and chat with other people who have the skills they are realising that they need. I came away from the food day with a great sense of hope, there are lots of knowledgable people around here, there are the skills to tap into.

I’m a 38 year old male. I know how to grow food. I can build walls, plaster, make compost, plant trees, design, cook, make jam and chutney, make turf roofs and chop wood. I’m hopeless with electrics. I’m not a great carpenter, and I have no clue about fixing machines of any kind. Yet having learnt to do the things I can do, I feel confident that I could turn my hand to most things. Almost as importantly, I am starting to find the people around me who could teach me thing things I need to learn. Although you may disagree with the theory I have set out above, I have found it an interesting way of looking at where the numbing sense of peak oil catastrophism comes from. It is, in the main, a theory most felt and promoted by men.

menMy feeling is that it represents a stage in evolving peak oil awareness, and is rooted in a dawning sense of horror at ones personal inadequacy in terms of skills and personal resources. My hope is that, within and beyond the peak oil movement, this sense of despair and futility can be harnessed by the acquiring of skills and local networking and turned into a catalyst for the relearning of a wide range of skills. In Transition Town Totnes we are doing our part by planning a series of workshops for the next programme called “The Great Reskilling”, which contains, among other things, workshops on sock darning and on edible container gardening. Succumbing to peak oil die-off despair gets us nowhere, unless we can use it as a spur to action and to reskilling.

**Does this resonate with you? Any thoughts or discussion on the above much appreciated, I’d like to hear your thoughts…**

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


11 Apr 9:35pm

I am 36 years old and I feel completely unequipped to deal with a post-carbon future!!!

I’ve never planted a seed, grown a tomatoe, or milked a cow. I’ve never been a DIY kind of person. I’m not a bad person, its just my personality. If i can give some of these dollar bills, which I have plenty of, to fix my car,hot water heater, plumbing or anything else, then I will. I never had or have an interest in such things. Ive never had to wrry about these things……so I didn’t!! As I get older I realize that was probably a mistake of mine. Instead of going out every weekend to the latest and greatest club or party maybe I shouldve been more interested in learning something other than IT. But i wasn’t. Now, you guys are telling me I’m screwed becuase of Peak Oil? I dont think I’ll see doomsday in my lifetime. I’m not that arrogant to think I’m that special. So, I’ll continue my pampered , party driven, sex loving, good time. Besides, if the SHTF, you guys will help me out, right?

john newson
12 Apr 7:00pm

I’m not sure how much help you’ll get – or anyone else for that matter – if (when)the shit hits the fan. (“you guys will help me out, right?”)Food supply is the instant motivator. It’s fine talking about ethics, but the ethics of survival in a refugee-ridden world may well be quite pure: kill to protect your food stash. After all, the ethics of being a refugee are also simple…food at any cost.

For myself, I spring-boarded out of metropolitan life. Apart from delivering a life worth living, rural life also delivers some kind of viscerally recogisable set of values. As well as these factors it appeared to me that the risks of metropolitan life were becoming unacceptable. I should also extend this to the suburbs – equally reliant on complex food supply-chains, politicised and (arguably) diminishing energy supplies, ever-ramping security constraints and a vast array of social disease.

Boys and girls…it’s all or nothing. You either make the leap or continue to be a ‘dancer on the edge of time’.

Ray Hinton
14 May 3:40am

I can’t believe how much that Richard Heinberg quote fit my own situation. It is a perfect description of what I have gone through, to the T; even the inclusion of the word “obsession”. I thought I was the only person who got this bent out of shape about the whole thing! I am certainly going to check this website regularly from now on.

[…] and commerce. It will be a different world, and many people aren’t prepared. Check out this fascinating report about how we’ve lost basic living skills in the last two generations, and how some are retraining […]

Pat Coffey
18 Jun 7:41am

Could it be that women aren’t more prominent in peak oil discussions because an oil-supported technology has given them advantages that previous generations of women didn’t have, and which most women don’t want to even think about having to give up? The gains that recent generations of women have experienced have followed the upward curve of per-capita energy use, and women’s economic and social opportunities, relative to men’s, will probably decline as supplies of oil decline. The same may be true of liberal ideas about social progress in general. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the concomitant growth in energy use and liberal social programs since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution has not been a mere coincidence. If I’m correct in seeing a causal link between the rising social status of women and the proliferation of energy-sucking technology, the failure of energy supplies will entail a shift in the way that men and women think about themselves and each other, and a reassessment of their respective economic and social roles–probably in a more conservative direction than most women born in the last half-century have envisioned.

Succinctly: Peak oil will probably be accompanied by peak opportunities for women, and most women, regardless of their politics, understandably might not want to think or talk about the implications of that probability–until they can no longer put off thinking about it.

Jason Cole
27 Nov 1:06am

CM wrote:

“I think we will see a lot of ‘women only’ villages spring up after PO – a consequence of women having learned they don’t need men”

Great – keep all of those fascist lesbians together! Out of sight, out of mind, a win-win scenario for everyone.

“Men, get a vasectomy NOW – because you won’t have much of a sex life post PO without one.”

If that’s the case, we wouldn’t need vasectomies, would we? I hope you conjure some suitable organic sex toys after we’ve passed “peak Rabbit vibrators” 😛

David WaRR
27 Nov 12:35pm

It is now hard to find the tools my father used such as a brace and bit and the hand tools ~ in the so-called “hand tools” section of the hardware outlets are nearly all, battery operated.
So If I merely wanted to drill a small hole in a bit of wood, I would have to fork out a small fortune for a power tool, instead of the little hand drill my dad had.
Luckily for me, I still kept the family tools and keep them sharp and oiled ~ particularily when not using them.
Using hand tools requires both care and habit. There is no mystery only necessity being the mother of the twins – Invention and KnowHow.

Vilhelm Black
3 Apr 12:38am

This is the dopiest blog I’ve ever seen. Smart men like me will solve the energy problem (via technology) just as smart men have solved every other problem that our species has faced.

All you dummies who can’t plant a seed or turn a screw driver will simply have to turn to us (and probably serve us) which is how it should be. The dumb have always served the smart.

4 May 1:48pm

Interesting blog with lots of good insights, however there could be other factors involved. Perhaps 25-40yr old IT workers are the only ones with the surplus money and corresponding leisure time to attend these conferences.

I would love to attend one but as a non wage earning homemaker I don’t have the resources or the time to do so. Plus, my garden needs watering!

Mel Riser
4 May 5:29pm

Well the good thing about what’s coming is DARWIN.

any of the fat asses who can’t grow, survive and thrive will die….

We have kept a lot of stupid people alive too long because we make it easy for them to eat.

The intelligent and hard working will SurThrive….

no worries…

got preps?
got seeds?
no how to grow?


Sheila Newman
5 May 3:00pm

I have blogged, corresponded and theorised extensively about oil depletion and I co-edited McKillop & Newman, The Final Energy Crisis, Pluto, UK, 2005 and am the sole editor of Newman (ed) The Final Energy Crisis, 2nd Edition, Pluto UK, 2008, due out in September. (Ten new articles, ten authors, of which only two are women.)

I am currently writing a book of the history of British capitalism (based on rise of fossil fuels) and of French democracy.

As well as where I write articles about issues related to overshoot, I have my thesis (which compares the response to the first oil shock of France and Australia) at

I was also interviewed by Kellia Ramares twice on the subject of Peak Oil.

I have filmed Mike Stasse, Australian Running on Empty Oz list owner, viewable here:

I think that oil depletion is a sexy issue due to its enormous importance and the need to understand some basic thermodymanics to grasp it. I have noticed that a lot of men like to be identified as peak oilers because it gives them a sense of importance to be able to warn people about the future; they can imagine saving people, or trying to save them and failing – being leaders. It also offers engagement and peer discussion. I think also, whilst it is entirely real, it also serves as a powerful metaphor for death and as such is unconsciously used as a way of coming to terms with one’s own mortality.

Because it is a ‘sexy’ area, there is a lot of competition from men to be heard in it, and that tends to put women off. Most women will not compete with men where there is real jostling for the podium.

In my own case, the many issues surrounding oil (and other fossil fuel depletion) are too fascinating to leave me much time for heroic blogging.

I have a number of other ideas, but just wanted to let you know that I exist and that I am a Woman. 🙂


Sheila Newman
Energy, Population, Environment, Land-use Planning and Housing sociologist.

Renee the Neo HIppy
6 May 7:10pm

Great article! I am a 27 year old and see myself as an outcast among peers. The 20 and 30 somethings today are so bound by consumerism they have forgotten to think!

I value the adaptability and hard work ethics of my grandparents and their parents generation as well. When we, as a country, start slipping down the steep hill our values will get a shake up that’s been a long time coming! The coolest shoes or what money can buy will no longer judge a persons worth. Living harmoniously within your local environment is going to prove far more valuable than having the latest Dolce & Gabbana handbag.