Transition Culture

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

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I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

15 Jul 2008

Matt Simmons and the Five Psychological Stage of Grief

This is a wonderful clip. Matt Simmons is the author of ‘Twighlight in the Desert’, is a leading US investment banker, and a long-term advocate of the peak oil argument. When he was asked to go on CNBC’s ‘Fast Money’ to discuss the high oil prices, he clearly stunned the presenters with his forthright analysis of society’s current perilous situation. When asked if $147 a barrel is a ‘wake up call’ he replied “yes, but we’re not having a wake up call, we’re having a witch hunt for who got us here”, a succinct analysis of the current world situation. What was especially fascinating to watch was when he was asked for his prognosis of the near future.

The nub of his argument is that oil is still actually very cheap, and that the biggest danger the world faces at the moment is those people who argue that the current high prices are a blip, a bubble, a speculators spike. When asked for his scenario of the next year or two, he replied that the US would keep dropping its inventories (of oil) and feeling good about it, which would be followed by a shortage, which would, in turn, lead to “a run on the banks so fast your eyes would spin. This is when everyone tops up their tank. We haven’t run out of oil, but we could literally run out of usable diesel and gasoline and then we would have the Great American Disaster, because within a week we’d have run out of food”.

At this point the looks on the faces of the presenters is priceless. Yet Simmons isn’t finished yet. What can we do now, he is asked. We need to retreat from our oil addiction, “start living in villages again, eliminate long distance communiting by liberating the workforce and paying by productivity and growing food locally, and starting to embrace an enormous amount of R&D into things we’re not really doing anything about today, likek ocean energy, geothermal, then within 5-7 we could get ourselves out of a very deep hole, but we have to do it real quick”.

The programme’s oil analyst then quickly goes straight off back into business-as-usual, and the discomfort evident in those in the studio subsides. In Richard Heinberg’s ‘Peak Everything’, he cites Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five psychological stages people go through when told they have a terminal illness, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I am increasingly finding these a useful scale by which to measure where people are at in the peak oil debate. While Simmons appears to have moved, in this piece, to acceptance, the presenters are still in the bargaining phase, as if we can somehow haggle and trade our way out of this.

When I look around at UK society today, we see the denial about peak oil in the tabloids arguing that high oil prices are all the governments fault, and in the conspiracy loons who argue there is still hundreds of years worth of supplies which some mythical ‘they’ are hiding from us, the anger in the striking hauliers and other fuel protesters, the denial in government circles who still argue that oil will cost $67 a barrel in 2020, the bargaining in the debates around the 2p duty on fuel, the depression about it seems to be pretty common in writers on the subject, and then the acceptance, which I guess is what Transition work is trying to do, to look at the practicalities of where to go once people accept what is happening. It is fascinating to see what happens as people move through these stages, and I see lots of people moving through them quite quickly these days!

What is so fascinating about this clip, is that it is somehow a microcosm of what happens when people in denial and in bargaining meet someone from the acceptance stage. Now all we need is for Simmons (and others) to really integrate climate change into his thinking, and then that acceptance would be even more powerful! These exchanges are happening more and more these days, and what is important, I think, is not to take any of these 5 stages as being somehow superior to any of the others, there is no moral high ground here, rather they are all perfectly natural responses to a bewildering situation, although ultimately, the faster we can move towards acceptance, the faster we can actually start in earnest our preparations for life after oil.

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


Mark Forskitt
15 Jul 11:08am

“stop the witch hunt: look for solutions” – sage advice if somewhat belated.

If Matt Simmons is right and speculators have been shorting the oil price, then the prospect is for a real price surge from a short squeeze. If those shorters are wrong and prices continue to rise they will have to meet their short obligations by buying contracs it the market -therby forcing prices even higher. Depending on the total size of short positions a terrific spike in oil prices could ensue.

15 Jul 1:00pm

We humans have an absolutely astonishing ability to stick to “business as usual” – even when reality is staring us in the face, and fully recognized. One of my closest friends had this experience recently-

He was giving a seminar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, in Massachusetts; one of the research centers that has consistently, seriously warned about global warming- and rising sea levels.

After the talk, he was being shown around by one of the Institute’s top “business” managers- who was showing him where they new research facility; state of the art! $millions! was going to be built. Right on the bay.

My friend, in some astonishment, asked- “your own people are saying the ocean is going to rise by at least x amount- and yet you’re going to build this facility here? At current ocean level?”

The manager stared for a moment; choked- then went right on with his sales pitch, about how forward looking they were.

Pretty grim. Those of us who ARE aware, need to get used to that response; I don’t think it’s going to change.

15 Jul 4:35pm

What drops my jaw is how CNBC (and its talking heads) are so consistent about asking how they can make money off every situation. Pulling wealth out of everyone else’s efforts and misfortunes. I shouldn’t be surprised, and I’m not, but it still gooses me now and again.

Eoin O'Callaghan
15 Jul 6:15pm

With regard to Greenpa’s comment on peoples astonishing ability to ignore the reality that is staring them right in the face… something that has come to mind quite frequently for me lately is the account I read, I think in Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, of how many Jewish people in Europe remained completely in denial as to what was happening around them, even as they were being forced onto trains to be sent to concentration camps. I know this is an extreme example, but if people can remain in denial about such extreme circumstances, how will people today ever wake up to the very serious threat that the energy crises presents when governments and the media are telling everybody that everything is still fine. Simmons comment on food supplies disappearing in a week if particular events occur goes straight over the heads of everybody else.

ian taylor
15 Jul 8:09pm

This mass denial in the face of what needs to be done reminds me of some research, a few years ago, on behavioural patterns in a building that was on fire. It found that instead of doing the rational thing and getting out of the room as fast as possible, 98% of people collected their belongings and even tidied the table before trying to leave. For some it was too late. Others took their normal route out of the canteen back to their offices, straight towards the flames! I guess their were some who, as now, argued that this was not a reality and switched off their minds! The problems we face now are being talked down by a great number of people who should know better but have the bucks at the front of their brains instead of logic and common sense. Will somebody please explain how safe waste nuclear material being buried today, will actually be in reality 1000 years from now?

Entropy Brain
16 Jul 6:01pm

I personally have purchaced Peak Oil Grief Cycle buttons here and hand them out to friends and family as I see them go through the cycle:

I say, “welcome to the [Anger] stage of the Kubler Ross Grief cycle” and then hand them the appropriate button.

16 Jul 6:33pm

“Peak Oil: Living on the Banks of Denial”

16 Jul 10:01pm

I think I had the same impression as Rob did when I saw the video: Finally the TV showmen are changing from taking Simmons as an example for ‘one of these crazy guys’ to taking him for serious. They probably can’t avoid it any more.

I liked Richard Heinberg’s reference to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief but I hope that the reaction to the peak supply will be quite a bit different: What we need is one more step which is “ACTION”. We are lost if people just end up in the stage of acceptance or even one step before: depression.
This is exactly the “shock freeze” issue that ian taylor describes in his comment. Recently the same phenomenon had a long article in Time magazine:,8816,1810315,00.html

(or also:,8816,1053663,00.html )

I know this “we can’t stop doom anyway”-attitude well from my German classmates in the 70’s and 80’s concerning environmental pollution.
Fortunately not everyone agreed and there were people who took action.

16 Jul 11:27pm

30 years of being warned this was going to happen
An unshakable belief that greed is good
Unswerving committment to continued growth
A stunning financial career ahead of you…

Getting your End of Suburbia moment caught on You Tube – priceless!

mat noir
16 Jul 11:45pm

Being a misanthrope, I rejoice at the futility of the human intellect in comprehending issues that reach beyond lunch temporally and beyond the urinal spatially.

Being of a tender age, I would give a dollar (no big deal in 2070) to see a world population below 1 billion.

Stephen Lark
17 Jul 12:49am

One of the books in Rob’s next post is about Spiral Dynamics (a theory of human and cultural development). What you are seeing in this clip is (using SD jargon) an orange pathology (greed is good) running smack bang into a beige pathology (we’re going to run out of food). Two overviews of Spiral Dynamics are here and here.

17 Jul 7:59am

“Stop the witch hunt” = “I am guilty”

[…] Matt Simmons and the Five Psychological Stage of Grief What is so fascinating about this clip, is that it is somehow a microcosm of what happens when people in denial and in bargaining meet someone from the acceptance stage. […]

18 Jul 4:38am

I’m currently moving from the depression stage into the beginnings of acceptance. I find the process very painful. I am forced to admit a strong possibility that some aspects of human civilization and human knowledge will be lost during the coming bad times. I don’t think there is any serious prospect of humans being totally wiped out, but the minority who survive and breed are clearly going to have to live with less of everything.

I agree with driller that some kind of action phase has to be added to the cycle here. The possibility of improving the long-term outcome differs from the Kubler-Ross description, in that there is a possibility that action could partially mitigate the deadly consequences of oil depletion and climate change.

Unfortunately, right now the nature and timing of any possible action phase is so unclear that I sometimes lapse into thinking nothing significant can be done. This seems to be to be due to certain social limitations of our species.

But the coming “long emergency” should strongly select for those who can cooperate and respond constructively in dangerous circumstances.

[…] Hopkins from Transition Culture passed this along, and it’s a good one. We highly recommend reading Rob’s article about […]

19 Jul 8:54am


Sorry to burden you with yet more books to read, but…

“Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World”, by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown (New Society Publishers, 1998)is a good, practical book that analyses and addresses denial and despair in the face of ecocatastrophe, with many suggestions for work with groups.

It’s a rewrite of an earlier book by Macy, “Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age”, which was published (again by New Society) in the depth of the Cold War in 1983, and is in some ways more relevant to our times because it’s much starker in its acknowledgement of dread at the prospects for our common future.

Macy and Brown identify apathy, an indifference born of fear in the face of impending disaster, and which is characterised by “the deadening of mind and heart”, as the greatest psychological block to action. To free ourselves from it we need to acknowledge our pain for the world (“despair work”); in doing so we will unblock our energy and will emerge stronger and more able to engage in the “Great Turning” towards an sustainable society.

This approach seems more relevant to motivating concerned but depressed people (like me) than to winning over people who are hostile or indifferent to problems of climate change, resource depletion, mass extinction &c.

George Marshall’s excellent “Climate Denial” blog has a good article on the psychology of climate change denial at, drawing on the work of sociologist Stanley Cohen.

Also interesting in this connection is an essay from Primo Levi’s “The Drowned and the Saved” which Marshall refers to, and which can be found at
Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, addresses the question of why more European Jews – and others threatened by the Nazis – didn’t do more to flee the coming disaster, and links this to our passivity in the face of the threat of nuclear war (he too was writing in the Cold War era).

Keep up the good work


[…] Current State of Oil Prices Filed under: homesteading — Derek the Ænglican @ 11:05 am Check out this post: watch the clip, read the […]

big guy
28 Jul 7:49pm

I love the looks on CNBC twits’ faces. I have never seen a clip that so aptly catches the predicament yet. And then, rather than acknowledge anything Simmons says, it’s right back to trading. It pretty much sums up the failure of Wall St. and the media. Those folks don’t have the slightest clue what Simmons is talking about and they actually get paid. No wonder we’re in the blank we’re in.

The Electric Gypsy
19 Jan 11:18pm

Great Post! I’ve placed a link to this post upon my own blog site so that my visitors, viewers and followers can see that I’m not a lone and isolated human being who somehow is not seeing things quite straight! I gave my house back to the mortgage company in Oct 2008 and declared bankruptcy. I went through many, many months of bereavement and as a trained and qualified psychotherapist can honestly say I visited the dark side more than once! My blog site is both about zero oil, surviving the transition and my own transition into wholeness as a man, human being and fellow earth dweller! Well done to the author and commenter’s for taking a stand so courageously! I’ll check back again soon… Yours in Acceptance… The Electric Gypsy 😉