Do Worry. Be Happy.

SUBHEAD:Get in fighting shape for the coming storms psychologically, economically & environmentally.
By Lisa Chase on 16 April 2009 in ELLE [Editor's note: This is the opening of a long article available through the link above.] Fifteen of us were gathered in the TV room of a house in Larchmont, our New York City suburb, where we were about to watch a documentary about the imminent, anarchic demise of the suburbs. "I assume you’re prepared to be hated by everyone in the room," my boyfriend said as I headed out the door to the screening one bitterly cold night in February. "People do not like to be told that their way of life is coming to an end." image: Aerial photo of Levittown on Long Island, NY circa 1950. The birth of suburbia. From He had a point. For four years, I have been quietly freaking out at the e-mails that arrive daily in my inbox, most of which don’t bode well for civilization. One news report that recently showed up said that as the arctic permafrost melts, it releases not only CO2 into the atmosphere, but also methane, which is 25 times more potent, so that we are, in the words of one scientist, "looking now at a future climate that’s beyond anything we’ve considered seriously in climate model simulations." Back in 2005, the documentary The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream sent me into the abyss about global warming and energy depletion. Lately, however, the movie has plucked me out again, because it turns out to be central to a new movement that proposes an eyes-wide-open yet fun (yes, fun) path forward for mainstreamers like me who know we have a serious environmental problem but aren’t willing or able to ditch life in "the great megalopolis smudge," as one grim End of Suburbia wonk describes my living arrangement. What attracted me to Transition, as the movement is called, was the word resilience, with its implications of being skilled, being ready, being confident, and therefore being optimistic about The Day After Tomorrow. The word is all over Transition’s literature, all over its YouTube clips. It seemed such a superior word to green and sustainable and eco—once hot, now almost clich├ęs, and subject to corruption by the market. But resilience, you can’t fake. A resilient person is who I want to be. And if I’m not inherently resilient, can I learn to be? Transition was founded by Rob Hopkins, an adorable-looking English academic with jug ears and a growing mob of admirers. According to the foreword of Hopkins’ engaging new Transition Handbook, he has "found a way for people worried about an environmental collapse to invest their efforts in ongoing collective action that ends up looking more like a party than a protest march." Transition began for Hopkins when he showed his students The End of Suburbia and they all got supremely depressed, before resiliently bouncing back to found Transition! In short, the film is about how in 1956, a geologist named M. King Hubbert, using a bell curve to chart the world’s petroleum reserves, predicted that global oil production would peak sometime around the year 2000 and then decline rapidly. Energy companies, government officials, academics, and environmentalists disagree on whether the peak has happened, or whether it’s five, 10, or 20 years down the pike. It’s impossible to know a precise date, because between half and two thirds of the world’s oil is in the Middle East, and those nations treat information about their reserves as if they were state secrets. However, since 2005, world oil production has not increased, even though global demand continued to rise (until the recession). The descending slope of Hubbert’s bell curve is pretty damn steep, so if oil sources are depleting, the stuff will stop flowing faster than we can kick our addiction. Given that our electricity, our transportation, and most of our goods depend on oil, we’re pretty screwed. This is where Transition taps in. The movement offers a framework for planning an orderly and even a "prosperous way down" the curve, to quote a book well known among Peak Oilers, to a world with less oil. Transition is about communities—in particular "relocalizing" them, and this you probably know something about: eating local and buying local, but also manufacturing local. It’s also about "reskilling"—learning to do the things our great-grandparents knew how to do, such as growing food and building things. Most importantly, Transition is about resiliency, or, as Hopkins says in his book, "a culture based on its ability to function indefinitely and to live within its limits, and to be able to thrive for having done so." What’s a nice girl in the suburban smudge doing in a neurotic place like this? I’m a positive person and I believe in starting things rather than waiting for others to start them for me. But back in 2005, I was a new mother, not working, swimming in a soup of sleep deprivation, vulnerability, a little too much Internet time on my hands, and a growing sense that I should leave behind a planet for my infant son that resembled the one I’d grown up on. The End of Suburbia, and the theory of Peak Oil, made sense to me. Since 1859, when the first well in Pennsylvania pumped oil, we have burned through one trillion barrels of the world’s supply as more countries industrialize and globalization increases international trade. At this rate, how long can it be until we come up dry? Everywhere I looked I began to see oil—in my computer, lipstick, stockings, buttons, pens, mattress, coffee pot, telephone, camera, cotton swabs, Frisbee, Scotch tape, guitar strings, refrigerator shelves, photographs, vitamins, rugs, DVDs, running shoes, sunscreen, eyeglasses. I got a little desperate. I became obsessed with trying to take my house, in the middle of the biggest energy- and oil-dependent matrix in America, off the grid. I briefly considered making bumper stickers that said i ♥ saudi oil and sneaking out after the baby was asleep to stick them on my neighbors’ Explorers and Tacomas. Post–Hurricane Katrina, I’d lost faith that my government would protect me in the event the oil ran out, the food stopped arriving at the store, and the lights went off (as they did in most of the Northeast on August 14, 2003). Convinced that the blackout had been a dress rehearsal for the real thing, I resolved to become a survivalist in the suburbs, a dark manifestation of my positive can-doer. I would grow food in the front yard, dig a geothermal well in the back, buy a wood-burning stove to heat the house, string a clothesline. For a couple of years, I tried to make my home resilient, and was thwarted every step of the way, by economics ($50,000 for the geothermal well) and my boyfriend (vetoed anything but grass in the front yard and the wood stove as "romantic retro low technology"). Even the town was against me: Larchmonters frown upon clotheslines. "Doesn’t anyone understand what’s happening?" I wailed. One day, when I was excitedly explaining Hubbert’s Peak to my friend Stephen, he asked, "Are you becoming one of those people?" Maybe. "The first thing we do to get a Transition initiative going in a town is show The End of Suburbia," said Michael Brownlee, an early U.S. Transition "trainer" and a founder of Transition Boulder County in Colorado. "Two things usually happen. Some people get very upset and say, ‘How could you create all this fear?’ And others say, ‘Thank you, thank you so much!’ " The thank-yous are the definition of resilient: They’re usually intelligent, social, often optimistic, and can hold complex and contrasting ideas in their heads, such as, Global warming and peak oil create an opportunity to build something better. "Resilient people are emotionally nimble—they don’t worry in advance, they let go of emotional baggage quickly. That fact alone leaves them unburdened by mental and emotional preoccupations that can impede action," said Barbara L. Fredrickson, author of the new book Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. It’s probably not a coincidence that psychological resilience and ecological resilience both began to take hold as academic disciplines in the 1970s, during the last big energy and economic crisis. Now that we’re in another one, resilience is on the resurgence. There’s a National Resilience Resource Center at the University of Minnesota that exists to teach psychological resilience and a Resilience Alliance of respected scientists in cross disciplines devoted to studying the resiliency of systems. One of those systems is the financial one, and a Googling of the phrase financial resilience yielded 2,460,000 results. Before my movie screening, Fredrickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, sent me the Block and Kremen Ego-Resiliency Scale, a short survey rating answers to statements like, "I like to take different paths to familiar places" and "I get over my anger at someone reasonably quickly." I’d given it to the moviegoers, whom I’d picked because they are, in the words of Transition, "precontemplatives"—people who are worried about the environment already and most easily persuaded to do something about it. Julia and her husband, Greg, own a solar-powered house. Clay is building a house out of environmentally friendly materials. Clarence runs an investment firm that focuses on alternative energy. Lynne took Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth training seminar in Tennessee. Carol cofounded our town environment committee. Gloria and Mike owned the first Prius on my block. Still, none of them was likely getting the kinds of e-mail I get every day. So I packed more wine into my bag. Perhaps it was better to get everyone potted before the lights went down. The problem was, and is, that environmentalism had become a big bummer. In 2004, two young activists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, published a paper called "The Death of Environmentalism" that asserted just that. The resulting howls from indignant American environmentalists made me think the boys had hit a nerve. The movement, desperate to get us, any of us, focused on global warming, has relied too much on guilt and scare tactics to get us to change. This hasn’t worked well; our carbon emissions continue to rise every year. When Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times, " ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ resonated with me. I was once an environmental groupie…but I’m now skeptical of the movement’s ‘I Have a Nightmare’ speeches," I realized I had started giving "I Have a Nightmare" speeches. And nobody in my vicinity was scared except me. So I stopped trying to get off the grid and stopped talking about global warming, much to the relief of my family and friends. The immensity of inaction around me, coupled with the idea of having to fight this alone, was too much. Meanwhile, I volunteered at the nursery school and signed my kid up for soccer. I found a job at this magazine and sat in meetings at work for our environmental issue, in which we debated which celebrities were "green" and considered countless "sustainable" products, all promising we could have chic and rejuvenating eco-living with no real sacrifices. I thought, They have no idea what’s coming. It was very depressing, and lonely. We were a country of individualists to begin with, but the Internet has made us even more so, to the detriment of another American idea: community. I don’t buy the argument that Facebook (which I do get pleasure from) brings me closer to my friends. Instead I’m "tagged" and "poked" by people I used to call on the phone or meet for a drink. When I try to conjure the times that New York has felt communal to me in the 16 years I’ve lived here, I can think of three. The first was during the weeks after 9/11. The second was during the 2003 blackout, when people fired up their grills and invited their neighbors over to eat candlelit feasts of all the food that was going bad in their refrigerators. The third time was November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected and New Yorkers spilled into the streets cheering and hugging and honking their horns in impromptu parades. It took seismic events to bring us out of our houses and actually act like neighbors. In that sense, I guess I am optimistic that global warming and Peak Oil probably will push us into one another’s arms. It turns out that community, resilience, and optimism are all bound up together, Fredrickson said. "To be doing really well in life is to be handling the hard stuff well and with clear eyes and to find the ability to have positive emotions. What I’ve concluded is that positive emotions are the fuel in a way, the active ingredient that allows people to be resilient and optimistic." Even given global warming and Peak Oil? "People have this solidified view of the way things should be," Fredrickson said, "because of a lack of flexibility or creativity about, ‘So what would we do if we’ve hit Peak Oil and we’re on the downside of that?’ " We would hope that we are optimistic, resilient Thank you, thank you so much! people. But according to her research, shockingly few of us are. "Flourishing mental health is about as rare as depression in this country," she said, estimating that only 20 percent of American adults are flourishing, meaning "feeling good and doing good, making a contribution to society, really feeling integrated with [their] community. There are really good metrics on this, that this has decayed in the last 50 years," she continued. "People used to have vital relationships outside of the family, and now we don’t." If 20 percent of us are flourishing and 20 percent will have a depressive episode in our adult lives, that leaves 60 percent of us "who are just getting by, in between, not really thriving." This is where Transition seems different from environmental movements that have come before: in striking a psycho-eco balance, putting emphasis on the power of relationships and small-scale pragmatic action, rather than on making policy or protests. In some ways we’ve become a culture of what psychologists call "learned helplessness," and as we wait for others to solve our problems, the problems get harder to solve. But resilient people don’t wait; they think that their actions make a difference in the world...

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