Foreshocks of the mind

John Michael Greer, whose powerful new book explores the psychological and social consequences of the peak oil crisis (Not the Future We Ordered) reflects on how signs of catastrophic upheaval often firstly manifest in the minds of individuals.

The human psyche is not simply a cultural construct. Neither is the universe in which the individual and society alike are embedded. Both have their own reality, their own powerful drives and hard limits. Sanity has as much to do with confronting those implacable facts as it does with conforming to social norms.

Now and then, the gap between the collective imagination of society and the realities of psychological or physical existence widens to a breaking point, and the facts that matter most are precisely those for which a culture’s definitions of sanity can find no room at all. When this happens, some of that culture’s cherished assumptions about the world are about to give way, with consequences that usually end up in big type in the history books.

There’s at least one way to catch the foreshocks of such a transformation, and that’s to pay close attention to changes in psychological patterns on the individual level.

Consider ‘housewife syndrome’, a common but poorly-defined neurotic condition of married women in the suburban middle classes of postwar Britain and America. Presenting symptoms included anomie, depression, substance abuse, and a galaxy of poorly specified psychosomatic complaints. The medical authorities who pronounced upon it consistently blamed it on the supposed psychological or moral inadequacies of the women who suffered from it, and the standard treatment involved daily doses of tranquillisers such as Newtown.

Very few people noticed at the time that those authorities making the diagnoses and handing out the tranquillisers were almost exclusively male, and that their breezy certainty disguised a deliberate lack of attention to the fact that many women in the stifling conformity and isolation of postwar suburbia might have very good reasons to feel unhappy with their lives. Not many years later, this unmentionable reality became a massive social force, as second-wave feminism burst onto the scene, blind-siding scores of pundits and social critics (again, most of them male) who had convinced themselves that since women had won the right to vote, they were contented with their still bitterly unequal lot.

The emergence of ‘housewife syndrome’ marked the first round of foreshocks of a coming social earthquake. Even in the relatively short history of medical psychology, other cases of the same kind can readily be found. The redefinition of political dissidence as ‘insanity’, practised by the Soviet Union in its last decades, is only one of the crasser examples. To those who like to insist that everything is well in paradise, pathologising the symptoms of approaching social change is always an appealing option. In retrospect, the self-imposed blindness brought about by such manoeuvres is itself a psychological dysfunction, and always a highly destructive one at that.

John Michael Greer
Author of Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress.