The Peak Shrink

In a small liberal town in Massachusetts' Berkshires, Kathy McMahon makes her living spicing up people's sex lives. But arguably her most prescient work is not as a couple's therapist; it's as an online advice columnist for people who are freaked out about the coming peak-oil crisis.

More than three years ago, peak oil -- the idea that we have exceeded or are fast approaching the earth's maximum capacity for oil extraction -- rocked this middle-class, middle-aged clinical psychologist's mind-set. In May 2006, shortly after her peak oil "awakening," McMahon started Peak Oil Blues, a "Dear Abby"–like online column about waning fossils fuels, in part to deal with her own growing unease over the scarcity of oil. "My world was dramatically changed when I learned about peak oil," McMahon's introductory post reads. "The more I looked around, the more things I realized would go, like plastics or kiwi fruit."

Although there is little disagreement that the oil supply is limited, a debate exists between those who believe that we hit peak-oil production several years ago and others who predict it's still decades away. Some folks are a bit more concerned than others. Peak-oil doomers, as they're prone to call themselves, believe life as we know it -- convenient, cheap, plentiful (and with kiwi!) -- is coming to an end, and very soon. Although McMahon's not one for proclaiming the apocalypse is near, she doesn't want people asleep at the wheel, either.

Many people have "this idea of the fantasy collapse," McMahon told me when I met her in her hometown of Cummington last August. They imagine "waking up one day and the earth has dramatically changed and there are people in the street in Golden Hordes invading our neighborhoods and stealing our stuff. People don't want to see collapse as slower and slower every day, but that is a much more likely scenario." This "slow burn" is already happening, McMahon says. "People need to wake up."

Most of McMahon's readers are wide awake. Day after day, she counsels these environmentalists-in-despair on the benefits of being prepared. One advice-seeker, "Bigfoot," pleads for guidance on dealing with his friends who don't understand his peak-oil panic. "My response so far has been to quit my job and isolate myself from my old friends," he writes. "I am researching ways to move to a sustainable piece of land located away from the city." Other posters are preparing themselves for the everyday issues of a post-peak-oil world. One reader waffles over the decision to buy or rent in a world short on fuel, while another searches for the perfect "PO Mate" -- a date with a fellow true believer. For some, McMahon's Web site is less a source of counseling than a place for them to toot their post-awakening horn. "Simply mom" brags about her family's new rain barrels, composters, and flock of laying hens.

When crude oil prices hit a record high of $147 a barrel last July, peak oil was all anyone was talking about, and McMahon's traffic was higher than ever. These days, with oil at the bargain-basement price of $50 a barrel, there's been a dip in the number of letters she receives. "Concern about peak oil rises and falls with the price of gas," she says. But, her site has a regular community of commenters -- the hard-core doomers -- who are still tuned in.

And they're not the only ones fretting about the world's diminishing fuel supply. Economist James Hamilton, in a working paper he penned for the Brookings Institution in March, discusses how our recession was egged on by the '07/'08 oil shocks, which he claims were caused by our "strong demand" and "stagnating world production." At the beginning of this year, even the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based energy-advising organization, said "peak oil" could hit as early as 2010. "Transition towns," part of a sustainability movement founded in England to prepare communities for peak oil, are sprouting up all over the United States. Last year's spike in the price of oil was a wake-up call for many -- and some are even broaching the subject with their shrink. McMahon's got some competition.

McMahon may dispense her advice for free and online rather than in $80-a-pop private sessions, but plenty of other therapists are awakening to the market potential in what some are calling "eco anxiety." Linda Buzzell-Saltzman, the founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy, a virtual network of clinicians, students, and educators, says some 600 therapists are tuned in to this relatively new phenomenon but warns that the number of patients struggling with these anxieties is hard to quantify. "If you're saying how many people are coming in the door saying, 'I have eco-anxiety,' then it's a smaller number of people, but if you're talking about during my sessions when I ask people, 'How do you feel about the world we're leaving our children?', it's almost everybody," Buzzell-Saltzman says.

So what are the eco-anxious to do? Many therapists, including McMahon, recommend getting involved in local community action. When I sat down with McMahon last summer, several members of her town's informal sustainability committee joined us. This group of do-it-yourself enthusiasts host "101s" -- workshops on everything from how to sew a grocery sack from old plastic soil bags to raising your own chickens. Our hosts for the afternoon, Leni Fried and Mike Augspurger, decorate their home in recycled materials. Augspurger runs a successful business peddling all-terrain hand bikes out of a three-story barn that the couple remodeled themselves (using sustainable materials, of course). As they chatted knowledgeably about stockpiled goods, end-of-harvest exchanges, and solar-heating configurations, I found myself thinking, "If shit does hit the fan, I want to be on their team."

Although it's far too easy to poke fun at the doom and gloom of many peak-oil believers, the movement's underlying goal of sustainability is more important now than ever -- and their cause more mainstream than their mockers will admit. Let's face it: The world's resources do feel pretty fragile these days, and many of us think we should probably do something about it. It's just that most of us don't lie awake, paralyzed by post-oil fears.

"If it's not oil," McMahon said to me that afternoon, "it's top soil, or water, or clean air. We just can't keep living this way." The earth's oil may be finite, but anxiety is in limitless supply.