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Book Review: "Reinventing Collapse"

Book Review

Reinventing Collapse- The Soviet Example and American Prospects
Dmitry Orlov
New Society 2008

When I met Bill Mollison at the International Permaculture Convergence in Croatia three years ago, all he wanted to talk about it seemed was cannibalism. He had traveled in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union and told me that, in Moscow, the joke was, if you go to the provinces, be careful what they serve you up for meat.

There had been widespread hunger and general hardship, resulting in a dramatic decline in life expectancy, an underclass of the homeless and unemployed and those unable to care for themselves, and a loss of hope in the future.

Despite this, things could get much worse in an even more energy dependent USA.

“Reinventing Collapse” is perhaps the most important and disturbing- as well as amusing- peak oil book you will read. A Russian emigre who had the opportunity to observe the collapse of the former Soviet Union from the vantage point of someone living in America, Orlov sees a similar process unfolding in an America all but oblivious to how quickly things may change there. Peak oil will result very soon in the vast nation beginning to fall apart at the seams as the lifeblood of its economy drains away with no backup available. Big systems like agriculture are so energy intensive that they will quickly collapse and there is barely any resilient, self-reliant communities left.

All the ingredients are present: looming oil shortages, severe foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget and ballooning foreign debt. Add to that a humiliating military defeat- Afghanistan for the Soviets, Iraq for America- and fear of crisis- Chernobyl in the East, New Orleans in the West- and collapse does not seem far away.

Written with the satirical wit of modern Voltaire, Orlov goes where few other peak oil writers have dared to go, and his sardonic Russian humor allows a stark look at American prospects through the eyes of someone who has witnessed collapse first hand. Snapshots and stories of what he witnessed in post-Soviet Russia make for colorful reading and help fill in some of the gaps in our imagination in thinking of what may happen as the oil begins to run short.

Dmitry Orlov was born and grew up in Russia before emigrating to the US. He visited the Soviet Union many times and was able to witness both the gradual and sudden changes that occurred there during the collapse of communism. On returning to the US in 1996 he felt he had witnessed enough to see that what had happened in his home country had little to do with the failings of Soviet ideology, but was a result of Superpower overshoot- and that a similar process is likely to occur in the US in the near future:

And so I came back to the United States expecting that the second superpower shoe would be dropping sometime soon, certainly within my lifetime, and the question for me became: How soon?

Dmitri does not answer this question directly, but instead takes on a journey back and forth between the two political Giants, and compares the standing of each one to face collapse: housing, food, money, employment and transportation are some of the areas he looks at.

The prognosis is not good for the United States: in each of these categories, harsh though it was for the Russians, the US appears to stand worse- much worse. While in Russia, the communist system had provided resilient services in terms of housing and transportation, for example, Americans tend to live in sprawling suburbs which depend entirely on almost universal private car ownership to remain viable; as oil gets scarce driving will become less and less feasible and many people will find themselves stranded.

The public transport system in Russia was reliable and few people had cars; for the most part it continued to function; likewise, most people were able to continue to live in their Soviet-issue apartment blocks, while in the US, personal debt is very high and many will have their houses repossessed as the economy tumbles and unemployment rises. This could happen much quicker than it did in the Soviet Union since Private corporations in the US tend to rely on just- in- time inventories and will liquidate their assets quickly; state bodies would be able to hold out at least in some shape or form a little longer.

In Russia, many people had always gardened to provide some of their own food. while local officials considered bread riots to be career-ending and always kept some basic food stocks; in America, a nation grown obese and addicted to fast food will not be in great shape to start fending for itself when the transcontinental trucking service stops rolling.

A lot of people, who just waddle to and from their cars, seem unprepared for what is coming next. If they had to start living like Russians they would blow out their knees. Most of them would not even try, but would simply wait, patiently or impatiently, for someone to come and feed them.

Orlov’s analysis of the different societies brings up some very interesting insights. Of particular interest to me as a teacher is his description of the education systems in Russia, and how it compares in the US. In Russia, he says, students were taught general principles which they were able to apply to any situation, and the college process involved learning how to research and learn what they needed to themselves; his experience in America was much different, where they fail to produce in four years what the Soviet system achieves in two:

They fail to produce graduates who have adequate general knowledge, good command of their native language and the ability to acquire specialist assistance without any further assistance.

So I feel partially vindicated in my approach to teaching permaculture - emphasize the core design principles and encourage people to use them to think for themselves and work out their own solutions to specific problems while using them.

“Reinventing Collapse” differs from most Peak Oil books not so much in its lack of analysis of the peak issue itself- there is an abundance of literature already available on this- but in the kind of advice he gives to mitigate the problems. Most entertainingly is in the satirical idea of the “Boondoggle”- a solution guaranteed to make the problem worse. Examples include corn-based ethanol, energy efficiency, hydrogen as responses to the fuel crisis. This is the kind of solution we should indeed be advocating, Orlov argues, as

The combined weight of all these boondoggles is slowly but surely pushing us all down. if it pushes us down far enough, the economic collapse, when it arrives, will be like falling out of a ground-floor window.

Instead of enjoining us to grow more vegetables, learn home-preserving, form a local powerdown group, and starting a car-pool scheme, Orlov takes a distinctly off-beat view of the kinds of “preparations” we might need to take. Clearly based on his own experiences of human behavior during meltdown, Orlov focuses on survival skills such as being useful and helpful to others while successfully hiding anything you may have of value; of perhaps living in two places while convincing the neighbours at each that your permanent residence is the OTHER place; of adapting the body to hardship and through necessary discomfort:

To eliminate the need for transportation, you need to cover significant distances on foot, carrying loads, until your body adjusts by developing denser bone, thicker cartilage, stronger muscles, and a more powerful cardiovascular system.

Orlov prepares us for a world of shadows, a world where only the wily and most adaptable can survive, where the most important skills will be to find ways to appear as little as possible in competition with others for limited resources.

Orlov brings a dose of reality to the peak oil debate in a world that has left it too late to adapt without turmoil and conflict. In many parts of the world, it has already happened, and as my neighbour who lived in Belfast in the 1970s has told me, the speed with which civil society can break down and everyone becomes someones else’s’ potential meal ticket can leave even the most prepared reeling.

It happened in Russia and it will happen in America and everywhere else as well, to greater or lesser degrees. After reading this book, only the foolish would assume “It can’t happen here”.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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