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"Reinventing collapse" by Orlov (2008)

Ed. note: A revised and expanded second edition of Reinventing Collapse is in the works, due to be published in the spring of 2011. -KS


There are many books that warn of impending climate change, environmental disasters or other calamities. Peak Oil may be regarded as one of those "other" calamities that could bring our civilization to its knees. Sometimes - rarely - I read about climate scientists and other researchers who privately are approaching the conviction that we’ve come to the end of the road, that regardless of what we do from now on it will be too little, too late, or that it still might be possible to do something effective, but that nothing will happen in time since public support and political will are missing (think Copenhagen).

In case you share those views, you should probably not exhibit them in a public debate, because that would immediately make most people view you as failed, incompetent, idiotic or at least as an oddball. Thus, since no one knows anything for certain about the future and since we all hope for the best, even people who are pessimistic about the future show a (probably somewhat strained) "positive attitude" when speaking publicly:

You see, most people don’t want to be too alarmed, and they don’t want to hear about problems to which there are no ready solutions. So world-savers frequently try to tailor their public statements so that large numbers of people won’t be frightened to the point of despair and paralysis. How many times have I been told, “Keep it positive! Emphasize solutions!” Yet I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down with an activist whose latest policy paper is all about solutions, and in heart-to-heart conversation they reveal that they don’t really think our species has much of a chance of avoiding major catastrophe, maybe even extinction.

Similarly, there are many books that spend lots of efforts to carefully build up and impose realistic (and scary) threats, but then ends with one or more substantially shallower sections about what we should do - preferably immediately - to relatively painlessly "save the world":

"many of the book authors now writing about peak oil, climate change, species extinction and myriad other urgent environmental and resource topics usually end their otherwise grim analyses with [...] "the happy chapter," a chapter with solutions and responses which will supposedly help us to avert catastrophe."

As I have pointed out earlier, it may therefore feel almost refreshing when someone who actually believes that we are moving towards cataclysmic change also describes what the changes will be like.

Dmitry Orlov's book "Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet example and American Prospects" (2008) is such a book. Dmitry Orlov has a background that makes him especially suited to depict collapse dynamics. He is not a scientist nor an "expert", but characterizes himself as an "eyewitness". He lived his first 12 years in the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of the Soviet empire's collapse a decade later, he undertook numerous business and family trips back to his old country. As an ethnic Russian who had lived half his life in the United States, he was located in between two cultures and could easily slip between watching the events "from within" (as a Russian) and "from the outside" (as an American). His unique perspective, his sharp eye, his offbeat analyses and his sardonic sense of humor makes his book a real gem.

The book's message is as actually a real downer, but Orlov’s intelligence, black humor and very Russian naturally indifferent attitude - "to a Russian, 'hard worker' sounded a lot like 'fool'" - makes the book a very pleasant reading experience. The book is full of resigned shrugs regarding the possibility for any individual to prevent the coming societal collapse. We're not talking about saving the world here - the best we can hope for is to save our own skins! Orlov believes, however, that a collapse in no way is the final end:

Civilizations do collapse [but] the process can take many centuries. What tends to collapse rather suddenly […] is the economy. […] There is a part of the population that is most vulnerable: the young, the old and the infirm; the foolish and suicidal. There is another part of the population that can survive indefinitely on insects and tree bark. Most people fall somewhere in between.

Communism coming to an end and the Soviet social system collapsing did not lead to total anarchy overnight. Although violence and insecurity increased, the vast majority of people survived from one day to the next and from one year to the next. Still, the experience of getting through those years was like someone pulling the rug out from under your feet, not just once, but several times, and every time you tried to stand up again, the rules had changed - and usually for the worse. Dmitry calls this process "loss of normalcy".

The fundamental question that Orlov is preoccupied with in his book is: What can we learn from the Soviet Union's collapse and what is to be expected when the U.S. collapses? (NOTE: when the U.S. collapses - at some point during Orlov’s lifetime – not if). The book begins with a comparison between U.S.A ("the U.S.") and the Soviet Union ("the S.U."). Unlike other such comparisons, this one is not about the ways in which the empires are (were) different from each other, but instead about how they are similar in area after area. They both wanted what every superpower strives for - technological development, economic growth, full employment and world domination - they just happened to have some different ideas about the means to achieve these goals.

The ingredients I like to put in my superpower collapse soup are: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget and ballooning foreign debt. The heat and agitation can be provided most efficaciously by a humiliating military defeat and widespread fear of a looming catastrophe. […] It took a couple of decades for the United States to catch up, but now all the ingredients are in the pot and starting to simmer. […] Let us not even try to imagine that this will all just blow over. Make no mistake about it: this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty!

This is followed by a comparison between the Soviet and the U.S. in area after area (accommodation, transportation, food, medicine, education, work, religion etc.). What is interesting is that from a collapse perspective, the U.S. is much worse off than the S.U. in area after area. The reason for this is (somewhat counter-intuitively) that as everything functioned so poorly in the S.U., people were already inadvertently collapse-prepared and they were used to solve many problems by and for themselves. The U.S. is instead like a well-lubricated machine, but this unfortunately means that people and social structures will be more unprepared to face the consequences of a failing society. The very worst scenario, according to Orlov, is a perfectly functioning, growing economy that one day suddenly collapses.

An example of accidental collapse preparation is the fact that many Russians had a little patch where they grew their own food. Although these small kitchen gardens only represented 10% of the agricultural land, they accounted for 90% of domestic food production. When society collapsed, many people already had a habit of taking care of (some of) their own food supplies, and the kitchen gardens saved many lives.

In spite of the monumental failures of Soviet agriculture, the overall structure of Soviet-style food delivery proved to be paradoxially resilient in the face of economic collapse […] there was no starvation and very little malnutrition. But will fate be as kind to the United States?

In the U.S. (and in Sweden), most people are totally dependent on a large and complex system for growing and distributing food and on the fact that the supermarket shelves are replenished every day. On top of that, U.S. citizens also need copious amounts of (affordable) gasoline to refuel their cars so that they can get to the supermarket in the first place.

Orlov points out other equally fascinating paradoxes. Since there was no profit motive in the Soviet Union, there was no incentive for planned obsolescence in the few consumer products that were produced. Instead, they constructed simple, functional and sturdy (but oh-so-ugly) refrigerators that were sufficiently durable and repairable to function long after production of a model was stopped.

This may be compared with my a-few-years-old-but-broken pot rack from swanky Myresjökök (it's in the corner cabinet of my kitchen). To reduce the life expectancy, Myresjökök has chosen to complement the robust stainless steel rack with a few small plastic details that hold the rack in place in the cabinet - and already when the pot rack was brand new, I knew that the plastic parts would be worn out, become brittle and sooner rather than later would break (much sooner than the metal in the rack itself of course). The rack is virtually impossible to repair for a layperson, and if the manufacturer decides to not keep these small plastic details (worth a dollar or so) in stock (with no profit margin), I will have to buy a new rack for more than 400 USD, or learn to do without ... That is how the (over)mature capitalist consumer society works today. My loss, someone else's gain.

Another difference between Russia and the United States is that Russia is a rich country that is (more than) self-sufficient in terms of energy. This made it possible, although not easy, for Russia to "bounce back" after the collapse. The U.S. is instead the world's largest energy importer. Who will be interested in selling energy to the U.S. at a point in time when the mighty U.S. economy is a thing of the past? Thus, on this point as well, the U.S. has a weaker position than Russia when it comes to getting through a collapse safe and sound.

What then is recommended by Orlov and his ilk, who like bloodhounds have an unrivaled sense of smell in regards to detecting and analysing systemic weaknesses? A less laconic person than Orlov who has uncovered many fundamental problems with the "system" writes as follows:

"I have written ad nauseam about the impending financial cataclysm that awaits our nation. I have spent countless hours documenting the unsustainable path of our politicians' financial decisions and lack of courage in addressing the forthcoming tragedy that grows closer by the day. Our political system is so corrupt and dysfunctional that there is absolutely no chance that our path will be altered at the voting booth".

The author is obviously very frustrated, and the reason for his frustration is the expectation that "the system" should work better than it does. Orlov has no such expectations, and his view is therefore very different and strange to us Swedes who essentially have high confidence in politicians and the political system:

"The Soviet Union had a single, entrenched, systemically corrupt political party, which held a monopoly on power, The US has two entrenched, systemically corrupt political parties, whose positions are often indistinguishable and which together hold a monopoly on power. […] It is a tribute to the intelligence of the American people that so few of them bother to vote […] the American version [of democracy] is little more than window-dressing for the real business of politics, which happens behind closed doors and mainly involves the exchange of vast sums of money.”

Although people often bemoan political apathy as if it were a grave social ill, it seems to me that this is just as it should be. Why should essentially powerless people want to engage in a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those who wield the power?"

Orlov’s faith in political solutions can not be any lower than it already is. At one point he writes that "politics has great potential for making a bad situation worse". What Orlov instead praises are people without strong convictions - people who mind their own business and who do what needs to be done, and refrain from being bothered about how others should live their lives.

"The Russian people are exceptionally patient: even in the worst of post-collapse times, they did not riot and […] They coped as best they could. The safest group of people to be with in a crisis is one that does not share strong ideological convictions

The fact that Orlov has little confidence in the possibilities of changing the world politically does not mean that he advocates apathy on a personal level. On the contrary. It is only when we stop listening to politicians and stop caring about what is being said on TV or in the newspapers that we can start to prepare ourselves and change our own lives - although it is extremely difficult to act on knowledge which is contradicted by our everyday experiences and by most of the people around us.

Rather than attempting to […] stop the world and point it in a different direction – it seems far better to turn inward and work to transform yourself into someone who might stand a chance, given the world’s assumed trajectory.

Good ways to prepare include physical changes (keeping fit and in good health), psychological changes and changes in habits (including learning new things).

A recurring argument used by Orlov is that a collapse tends to make (economic) weaknesses into strengths, and vice versa (food production, consumer products etc.). He takes this idea to its logical endpoint where his ideas become completely absurd - or not. It is not easy to decide whether to take his proposal seriously, since his perspective is so unusual and counter-intuitive:

"It is not necessary for the United States to embrace the tenets of command economy and central planning […] We have our own methods that are working almost as well. I call them ”boondoggles.” They are solutions to problems that result in more severe problems than those they attempt to solve. […] The combined weight of all these boondoggles is slowly but surely pushing us all down. If it pushes us down far enough, then economic collapse, when it arrives, will be like falling out of a ground-floor window."

It seems to me that Orlov should judge the 2008-2009 economic crisis and its impact in the U.S. as something Good on the whole. Based on the belief that an economic collapse is inevitable, it seems preferable to the author that "a few at a time" (all the losers of the crisis) get the "opportunity" to cope with a crumbling existence, and the "privilege" as pioneers (on the road that many more soon will wander) to invent creative ways to cope with fewer resources. This should in any case be much better than if all at once have to handle the dire consequences of a collapse, with anarchy and chaos luring around the corner.

I do not think I misinterpret Orlov. Elsewhere in the book he says that the best way to prepare for an economic collapse is to try to live, as far as possible, as if the collapse has already happened. Get by with as little money as possible and make yourself independent of the regular economy ("demonetize"). Grow your own food. Operate in the gray area between the black and the white economy by trading favors and strive towards obtaining robust networks of friends, acquaintances and contacts. Learn to repair things that break and take care of what others throw away. In short, learn to live without a "silver lining".

To Orlov, the poor and those who manage to live on the margins ("conscientious economic underachievers and various categories of the creatively underemployed") are the unsung heroes of our time. We need to draw inspiration from them and from ”Those parts of the population that have recent or continuing experience with circumstances that have forced them to provide for their mutual welfare – recent immigrant groups, minorities and the poor.

The opposite of living on the margin is to tightly connect your destiny to the current economic system. Such a tightly coupled relationship will hurt a lot when the financial system collapses. After the Soviet collapse, it turned out to be the successful middle-aged men who were the most psychologically vulnerable. After their careers ended, their savings evaporated and their properties become worthless, all their self-esteem disappeared. They tended to be overrepresented among those who drank themselves to death and among those who committed suicide.

Although Orlov's book is slim (160 pages), I have had time to highlight only some parts of it. If you want to learn more about what the future might look like and how to prepare yourself, I recommend that you read the entire book. Not only is the book funny and pleasant to read, but there is also value in reading a text with such a strange and thought-provoking perspective!

If you (despite my recommendations) do not want to buy the book, there are some previously written texts on the internet covering parts of the book's content:
- "Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century" (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) (2005)
- "Closing the 'Collapse gap': The USSR was better prepared for collapse than the U.S." (2006)
- Orlov’s blog, Club Orlov, has a very low volume but high quality
- On the site "Creative loafing" there is a text about Orlov’s book and a few related books.
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