Monday, September 24, 2012

Reinventing Collapse

Dmitry Orlov grew up in the Soviet Union (USSR), before it collapsed and was reborn as the Russian Federation.  In the mid-’70s he moved to the US.  On extended visits to his Leningrad home, he directly observed the unpleasant process of a powerful empire collapsing.  On later visits he observed how the Russians had adjusted to living in a post-empire society. 
It’s very clear to him that America is also a rotting powerful empire — socially, politically, economically.  We spend far too much on the military, our debt levels defy the imagination, Peak Cheap Energy is behind us, and big storm clouds are moving in.  America is heading toward collapse, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it, but there’s a lot we can do to prepare for it.
In his book Reinventing Collapse, Orlov provided suggestions and warnings for Americans, based on his ringside experience at the Soviet collapse.  Orlov is not a dark, creepy prophet of doom, but a witty comrade who is amused by the absurdity of our indifference to the huge and obvious dangers we face.  All civilizations collapse; it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  Civilizations can take decades or centuries to decompose, but economies can disintegrate suddenly, with a high human cost.
In its final months, the USSR was limping and wheezing.  Then the price of oil fell sharply, slashing their income from oil exports.  The system could no longer afford to function — crash!  Families began struggling, and the government did little to help them.  Factories shut down, traffic disappeared, and the air became clean and fresh.  There were long lines at the few open gas stations, where sales were limited to ten liters (2.5 gallons), paid for with a bottle of vodka (money was worthless).  Middle class folks discovered rewarding new careers in dumpster diving.  The birth rate fell, and the death rate surged.  Many drank themselves into the next realm.
Despite this, many homes remained heated, all lights stayed on, nobody starved to death, and the trains ran on time.  It turned out that an excellent place to experience a collapse was in a communist land, where the state owned everything.  Nobody received an eviction notice, because there were no private homes.  The Soviets brilliantly decided not to create a car-based transportation system, because that would have been a foolish waste of precious resources.  Gasoline shortages were not a serious problem for a society that was largely car-free.  Importantly, their economy did not depend on imported energy.
Housing projects were always located conveniently close to the excellent mass transit system.  They wisely did not create a nightmare of endless sprawling suburbs.  Instead, Soviets lived in unglamorous, energy-efficient, solidly built, high-rise apartment complexes, many of which provided garden plots for the residents.
The Soviet collapse lasted about ten years, and then the nation got back on its feet.  While Russian oil production had passed its peak, they still had significant reserves of oil and natural gas to sell, and this was their salvation.  It gave them another decade or two to live in the industrial lane.  They were able to bounce back — temporarily.  The US will not be so bouncy.
The American collapse will be harsher, because we live in a market economy, and free markets have zero tolerance for providing free goods and services to the destitute.  The bank that owns your home will foreclose if you can’t pay.  The tax collector will evict you if taxes aren’t paid.  The power, phone, and water will be shut off.  The repo man will snatch your cars.  The food production system will stumble.  Say bye-bye to law enforcement and for-profit health care.  If the railroad system isn’t modernized before the crash, the USA is likely to break apart.
Near the end of the Soviet empire, there was widespread contempt for the system.  Driven by resentment, many highly educated people deliberately shifted to menial work, and sought their pleasure in nature, books, and friends.  When the crash came, they didn’t lose their identity, have an anxiety attack, and submerge into despair.  “The ability to stop and smell the roses — to let it all go, to refuse to harbor regrets or nurture grievances, to confine one’s serious attention only to that which is immediately necessary and not to worry too much about the rest — is perhaps the one most critical to post-collapse survival.”
Air, water, and food are necessary for survival.  Many of us have been brainwashed into believing that life is impossible without flush toilets, automobiles, cell phones, electricity, computers, and on and on.  These are wants, not needs.  Orlov recommends that we begin the process of mental preparation now, so that we can become more flexible, and better able to roll with the punches when the storm arrives.  Simplify your life now, and learn how to be comfortable living without non-essential luxuries and frivolous status trinkets.  Imagine how you will live when money becomes worthless.  Learn practical skills.
The USSR provided its citizens with a place to live, and most people stayed put.  They knew the people around them, which encouraged mutual support.  Americans are highly mobile, moving every five years.  We often feel like space aliens in a world of strangers.  It’s smart to get to know your neighbors, so you can help each other.
When hard times come, be generous with others.  Keep possessions to a bare minimum, so you aren’t attractive to thugs and thieves.  Outwardly, blend in with the herd — dress like them, act like them, and think like them.  Create a wardrobe that’s in harmony with the trendy down-and-out look.  During collapse, being an oddball of any kind will be risky.  Angry mobs have a big appetite for finding folks to blame and punish, and American mobs are very well armed.
Before the revolution of 1918, the Russian people were well fed by a system of small, low-tech peasant farms.  The communist collectivization of agriculture was a disaster.  On the bright side, this inspired big interest in kitchen gardens.  At the time of the Soviet collapse, these gardens comprised ten percent of cropland, and they generated 90 percent of domestic food production.  The average garden was just one-tenth of a hectare (a quarter acre).  The US also blundered into industrial agriculture.  In the coming years, rising energy costs will eventually derail our highly mechanized food production system. 
Reading this book is a sobering and mind-expanding experience.  It gives us a vitally important subject to contemplate.  Readers are served an all-you-can-eat buffet of good old-fashioned common sense — the best antidote there is for magical thinking, denial, and the intense never-ending hallucinations of consumer fantasyland.  It’s a valuable book for people who have “krugozor” (a broad mental horizon that allows outside-the-box thinking).  I read the first edition, published before the crash of 2008.  Following the crash, Orlov published a new and improved second edition. 
Orlov, Dmitry, Reinventing Collapse — The Soviet Example and American Prospects, 1st ed, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2008.

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