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Review: Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov

I had already had my world rocked by the implications of the PowerPoint that Dmitry Orlov first created on the topic of collapse here in the US, so was excited to learn that he had expanded his insights to book length in Reinventing Collapse.

While you can get the gist of his message from the PowerPoint [Closing the 'Collapse Gap'], the book fills in details that bring the full implications of his points into broader focus while offering fascinating insights into the cultural underpinnings of both the US and the SU (Soviet Union) as they danced the superpower tango.

This all makes sweet reading for me as a foreigner, living in the US, having long been subjected to the self-important stories fellow citizens have told themselves to keep this whole mirage of greatness afloat, be it the one about intellectual freedom and self-governing democracy (while carefully self censoring themselves), or less often in my circle, cultural superiority and the rightness of world domination. All the while ignoring the major flaws of an overblown infrastructure that would ultimately be the country's undoing.

In comparing the two superpowers as two ideologically different sides of the same flawed empire coin, Orlov confirms the premise that empires fall and the US would fall particularly hard and perhaps quite soon. He takes on the task of breaking it to American readers that the very successes that made them so rich (a few anyway) and so great, will help not at all, and this is where his best jokes are embedded-allowing me to laugh wryly out loud throughout his short book.

Along the way, he reveals pithy insights to explain how the American system works in contrast with the Russian one. For instance the story of the classless society is exemplified by the concept of a middle class — something Americans have proudly espoused — which he points out is held together by the common denominator of everyone owning a car. That's right, not education, not equal opportunity, or equal rights but the one-ton behemoth that we must have to get around the wasteful geography created by suburbia.

We know about this waste from the film The End of Suburbia and James Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere and all the other peak oil fellows, but Orlov points out that because we are so identified with owning a car as part of this American middle class identity we will be hard put to let it go. And when we are forced to (due to diminishing and increasingly expensive gasoline supplies) so will go the myth of the middle class. In turn he explains how the Russians lost faith in the classless worker's paradise because they could clearly see that there was an elite strutting around in cool Armani threads. Meanwhile the lack of consumer goods and trendy fashions meant that a good life for all never became a reality.

And because our ideologically indoctrinated minds are so closed to such deep seated change and so invested in our "can do" innovation, we will, like Napoleon, be unable to retreat from the overextended, oil fueled, debt based economy which is poised to come crashing down, financed as it is by foreign investment that will eventually decide that we are not a good credit risk.

And there was the revealing insight about each country's self-image regarding defense. That the Russians were all about being undefeated while the Americans were all about victory, leading both to overextend themselves in the weapons department. Both can say they won, because the SU did indeed remain undefeated by the US and the US gets to cry "victory" every time it bombs somebody back into the stone age.

While these cultural details make the book a fascinating read just for his pragmatic sociopolitical perspective, Orlov's main goal is to get Americans to understand what it will mean to live without an economy, when cash is virtually useless and most people won't be getting any income anyway because they'll be out of a job. Peak oil gurus already talk about how economic growth will be curtailed by decreasing supplies of energy, but Orlov takes it one step further by adding currency collapse and the collapse of the known economic system into an unknown bartering system. The reader cannot escape his picture of inevitable collapse as he takes pains to explain that the usual channels of activism, politics and private enterprise, if we use them to attempt to mitigate the collapse, will only make things worse because these systems are ideologically driven and incapable of putting into practice what is needed to happen to ensure survival.

Since his book will likely be read chiefly by those already inclined to accept that collapse is inevitable, I don't think we need worry about attempts to mitigate collapse. Indeed the public is only just beginning to be able to hear the news that peak oil is a phenomenon that must be managed. The end result of the collapse of the Soviet Union was to pronounce that it was no longer a country, no longer a controlled political entity under the superpower operating system. So game over.

What I imagine we will get is a whole lot of denial about how collapse won't happen here. Joseph Tainter, in his 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies, after first describing how collapse is inevitable (because of diminishing returns on investment of energy and labor), goes on to give three reasons why collapse is not likely in modern times. 1) Absorption by a larger state or neighbor. 2) Economic support by a dominant power or by an international financing agency. 3) Payment by the support population of overhead costs to keep the society going. He added a telling little aside. Complex societies, he claimed are excellent at solving complex problems and if they fail to, then it is not because they are incapable of it, but because of some psychological underpinning in the society itself. He did not delve further into these underpinnings. The mirror that Orlov holds up shows us that this very psychosis is built into the society that attempts to play the game of empire. Why else would a people believe such delusions about themselves? P.S. Nobody bothered to save Russia, preferring, instead, to loot it.

After offering this futile outlook, he does give some practical tips on what individuals can do to prepare. In this he shows a kindness and compassion for his American reader, much as he did for his Russian countrymen when he returned to visit after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a non-superpower foreigner reading this, it is tempting to use his book as a launching pad to spew forth a backlog of pent up sentiments held back (mainly for lack of scholarly ammunition) after the ideological righteousness became even more unbearable once it was declared that free market capitalism had beat out socialism (thus justifying all that anti-communist sentiment that had driven foreign military intervention all over the world and into my backyard in South East Asia). And held back again (just barely), out of compassion, after 9/11, when the tales used to justify a war against terrorism became even more transparent, given that the US was the only remaining superpower left.

In the face of a people whose very earnestness would have one convinced that a single person/small group of passionate individuals can bring about social change, it is not up to me to take away this last vestige of self determination as those vaguely aware of what the future holds strive to achieve yet another false ideology of high-tech "sustainability".

Some of the consequences of not having an economy, as Orlov describes it from the Russian experience, sound really grim - especially given the uncertainty of how Americans will respond. It makes me want to always have a viable first class plane ticket out of here. Orlov does mention that most immigrants (the ones doing all the skilled and unskilled work around here) are going to go home. At the same time he describes a lot of skills and psychological resiliency that I already possess, making it possible to think of staying (as opposed to the psychologically daunting task of persuading my American partner that we must sell the house, spend all our savings on durable, useful goods and move to a completely foreign land that will, incidentally also suffer in the backwash of American collapse in the urban parts where it has bought into the American lifestyle). At least I will have a model, from my formerly considered backwards, peasant country, of how one can live a viable low tech sustainable existence that has already proven to be collapse proof following the economic collapse of the Asian Tigers. In fact not having America's consumer glory around as an example to strive for will help a lot both for the self-esteem of these peasants and the well-being of the planet.

In the end the picture that emerges is that of a simplified America based on complex interrelationships between people one can trust, hand skills to make things work, an ability to relate up and down the social classes and left and right to different social groups, being able to grow food, being able to downgrade living standards dramatically and manage expectations, being self-sufficient, flexible and adaptable sounds like a big improvement to the hollow, consumer driven, meaningless, success culture we do live in.

In his conclusion, Orlov neither tries to sell cheerful optimism, Al Gore style, or grind you to a pulp Kunstler, Long Emergency style. For that I am grateful, as well as for the experience of having my mind opened to the view while drifting silently to earth wondering what crocodiles will be lurking in the swamps of post-collapse America.

Amanda Kovattana is the author of Diamonds In My Pocket: Tales of a Childhood in Asia, coming out in June.

Editorial Notes: Both Dmitry Orlov and Amanda Kovattana have published in Energy Bulletin. Especially recommended: The five stages of collapse Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US (cited in Amanda's review above) Media theorist Marshall McLuhan was wont to say:
We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish.
In other words, participants in a culture are not the best ones to uncover widely held assumptions. In the same way, writers like Orlov and Kovattana, with a foot in two cultures, are often the best equipped to give us unexpected insights into our society. Reading their comments can be disconcerting, even painful. On the other hand, the insights may have the bracing attribute of reality. FWIW, I'm considerably more optimistic about American prospects once we awake from the trance of the last 30 years. Consider the comment by Andreas Eschbach, author of a peak oil science fiction thriller:
The American mentality, however, recognizes problems faster and tackles them more decisively, while we Europeans are inclined to close our eyes and think that if we don't see an evil, it won't affect us.

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