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A conversation with Dmitry Orlov about Europe

[Première publication sur Orbite.info: Un entretien avec Dmitry Orlov]

I came upon Dmitry Orlov's writings—as with most good things on the Internet—by letting chance and curiosity guide me from link to link. It was one of those moments of clarity when a large number of confusing questions find their answer along with their correct formulation. For example, the existence of fundamental similarities between the Soviet Union and the United States was for me a vague intuition, but I was unable to draw up a detailed list as Dmitry has done. One must have lived in two crumbling empires in order to be able to do that.

I must say that my enthusiasm was not shared by those around me, with whom I have shared my translations. It's only natural: who wants to hear how our world of material comfort, opportunity and unstoppable individual progress is about to collapse under the weight of its own expansion? Certainly not the post-war generation weaned on the exuberant growth of the postwar boom (1945-1973), well established in their lives of average consumers since the 1980s, and willing to enjoy a hedonistic age while remaining convinced that despite the economic tragedies ravaging society around them, their grandchildren will benefit from more or less the same well-padded, industrialized lifestyle. The generation of their children is more receptive to the notion of economic decline—though to varying degrees, depending on the decrease of their purchasing power and how lethally bored they feel at work (if they can find any) .

It would be wrong to shoot the messenger who brings bad news. If you read Dmitry carefully, scrupulously separating the factual bad news, which are beyond his control, from his views on what can be done to survive and live in a post-industrial world, you will find evidence of strong optimism. I hope that in this he is right.

Whatever our views on peak oil and its consequences—or our distate for scary prophecies—we can find in Dmitry Orlov fresh ideas on how to conduct our lives in a degraded economic and political environment, reasons to seek fruitful relations with people you might not normally cherry-pick, or the most effective approach to the frustrating political and media chatter and the honeyed whisper of commercial propaganda (shrug, turn around and go on with your life).

- Tancrède Bastié

Dmitry à Marie GalanteDmitry à Marie Galante

TB: What difference do you see between American and European close future?

DO: European countries are historical entities that still hold vestiges of allegiances beyond the monetized, corporate realm, while the United States was started as a corporate entity, based on a revolution that was essentially a tax revolt and thus has no fall-back. The European population is less transient than in America, with a stronger sense of regional belonging and are more likely to be acquainted with their neighbors and to be able to find a common language and to find solutions to common problems.

Probably the largest difference, and the one most promising for fruitful discussion, is in the area of local politics. European political life may be damaged by money politics and free market liberalism, but unlike in the United States, it does not seem completely brain-dead. At least I hope that it isn't completely dead; the warm air coming out of Brussels is often indistinguishable from the vapor vented by Washington, but better things might happen on the local level. In Europe there is something of a political spectrum left, dissent is not entirely futile, and revolt is not entirely suicidal. In all, the European political landscape may offer many more possibilities for relocalization, for demonitization of human relationships, for devolution to more local institutions and support systems, than the United States.

TB: Will American collapse delay European collapse or accelerate it?

DO: There are many uncertainties to how events might unfold, but Europe is at least twice as able to weather the next, predicted oil shock as the United States. Once petroleum demand in the US collapses following a hard crash, Europe will for a time, perhaps for as long as a decade, have the petroleum resources it needs, before resource depletion catches up with demand.

The relative proximity to Eurasia's large natural gas reserves should also prove to be a major safeguard against disruption, in spite of toxic pipeline politics. The predicted sudden demise of the US dollar will no doubt be economically disruptive, but in the slightly longer term the collapse of the dollar system will stop the hemorrhaging of the world's savings into American risky debt and unaffordable consumption. This should boost the fortunes of Eurozone countries and also give some breathing space to the world's poorer countries.

TB: How does Europe compare to the United States and the former Soviet Union, collapse-wise?

DO: Europe is ahead of the United States in all the key Collapse Gap categories, such as housing, transportation, food, medicine, education and security. In all these areas, there is at least some system of public support and some elements of local resilience. How the subjective experience of collapse will compare to what happened in the Soviet Union is something we will all have to think about after the fact. One major difference is that the collapse of the USSR was followed by a wave of corrupt and even criminal privatization and economic liberalization, which was like having an earthquake followed by arson, whereas I do not see any horrible new economic system on the horizon that is ready to be imposed on Europe the moment it stumbles. On the other hand, the remnants of socialism that were so helpful after the Soviet collapse are far more eroded in Europe thanks to the recent wave of failed experiments of market liberalization.

TB: How does peak oil interact with peak gas and peak coal? Should we care about other peaks?

DO: The various fossil fuels are not interchangeable. Oil provides the vast majority of transport fuels, without which commerce in developed economies comes to a standstill. Coal is important for providing for the base electric load in many countries (not France, which relies on nuclear). Natural gas (methane) provides ammonia fertilizer for industrial agriculture, and also provides thermal energy for domestic heating, cooking and numerous manufacturing processes.

All of these supplies are past their peaks in most countries, and are either past or approaching their peaks globally.

About a quarter of all the oil is still being produced from a handful of super-giant oil fields which were discovered several decades ago. The productive lives of these fields have been extended by techniques such as in-fill drilling and water injection. These techniques allow the resource to be depleted more fully and more quickly, resulting in a much steeper decline: the oil turns to water, slowly at first, then all at once. The super-giant Cantarell field in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of such rapid depletion, and Mexico does not have many years left as an oil exporter. Saudi Arabia, the world's second-largest oil producer after Russia, is very secretive about its fields, but it is telltale that they have curtailed oil field development and are investing in solar technology.

Although there is currently an attempt to represent as a break-through the new (in reality, not so new) hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques for producing natural gas from geological formations, such as shale, that were previously considered insufficiently porous, this is, in reality, a financial play. The effort is too expensive in terms of both technical requirements and environmental damage to pay for itself, unless the price of natural gas rises to the point where it starts to cause economic damage, which suppresses demand.

Coal was previously thought to be very abundant, with hundreds of years of supply left at current levels. However, these estimates have been reassessed in recent years, and it would appear that the world's largest coal producer, China, is quite close to its peak. Since it is coal that has directly fueled the recent bout of Chinese economic growth, this implies that Chinese economic growth is at an end, with severe economic, social and political dislocations to follow. The US relies on coal for close to half of its electricity generation, and is likewise unable to increase the use of this resource. Most of the energy-dense anthracite has been depleted in the US, and what is being produced now, through environmentally destructive techniques such as mountaintop removal, is much lower grades of coal. The coal is slowly turning to dirt. At a certain point in time coal will cease to provide an energy gain: digging it up, crushing it and transporting it to a power plant will become a net waste of energy.

It is essential to appreciate the fact that it is oil, and the transport fuels produced from it, that enables all other types of economic activity. Without diesel for locomotives, coal cannot be transported to power plants, the electric grid goes down, and all economic activity stops. It is also essential to understand that even minor shortfalls in the availability of transport fuels have severe economic knock-on effects. These effects are exacerbated by the fact that it is economic growth, not economic décroissance [Fr., "de-growth"] (which seems inevitable, given the factors described above) that forms the basis of all economic and industrial planning. Modern industrial economies, at the financial, political and technological level, are not designed for shrinkage, or even for steady state. Thus, a minor oil crisis (such as the recent steady increase in the price of oil punctuated by severe price spikes) results in a sociopolitical calamity.

Lastly, it bears mentioning that fossil fuels are really only useful in the context of an industrial economy that can make use of them. An industrial economy that is in an advanced state of decay and collapse can neither produce nor make use of the vast quantities of fossil fuels that are currently burned up daily. There is no known method of scaling industry down to boutique size, to serve just the needs of the elite, or to provide life support to social, financial and political institutions that co-evolved with industry in absence of industry. It also bears pointing out that fossil fuel use was very tightly correlated with human population size on the way up, and is likely to remain so on the way down. Thus, it may not be necessary to look too far past the peak in global oil production to see major disruption of global industry, which will make other fossil fuels irrelevant.

TB: How is post-collapse Russia doing ? Ready for its second peak ?

DO: Russia remains the world's largest oil producer. Although it has been unable to grow its conventional oil production, it has recently claimed that it can double its oil endowment by drilling offshore in the melting Arctic. Russia is and remains Europe's second largest energy asset. In spite of toxic pipeline politics (which have recently been remedied somewhat by the construction of the Nordstream gas pipeline across the Baltic) it has historically been the single most reliable European energy supplier, and shows every intention of remaining so into the future.

TB: Is there hope for a safe, harmless European decline, or is any industrial society just bound to collapse at once when fuel runs out?

DO: The severity of collapse will depend on how quickly societies can scale down their energy use, curtail their reliance on industry, grow their own food, go back to manual methods of production for fulfilling their immediate needs, and so forth. It is to be expected that large cities and industrial centers will depopulate the fastest. On the other hand, remote, land-locked, rural areas will not have the local resources to reboot into a post-industrial mode. But there is hope for small-to-middling towns that are surrounded by arable land and have access to a waterway. To see what will be survivable, one needs to look at ancient and medieval settlement patterns, ignoring places that became overdeveloped during the industrial era. Those are the places to move to, to ride out the coming events.

TB: I remember my grandmother telling me about the German occupation, when urban and suburban dwellers flocked into country towns every Sunday with empty cases, eager too find some food to buy from the local farmers, hoping back in a train the same day. Is there any advantage in living in a city, in a post-collapse era, rather than in the countryside?

DO: Surviving in the countryside requires a different mindset, and different set of skills than surviving in a town or a city. Certainly, most of our contemporaries, who spend their days manipulating symbols, and expect to be fed for doing so, would not survive when left to their own devices in the countryside. On the other hand, even those living in the countryside are currently missing much of the know-how they once had for surviving without industrial supplies, and lack the resources to reconstitute it in a crisis. There could be some fruitful collaboration between them, given sufficient focus and preparation.

TB: Can we grow sufficient food with low technology, low energy methods, out of highly exhausted, highly polluted farmland ? It seems we might end up in a worse farming situation than our ancestors just two or three generations ago.

DO: That is certainly true. Add global warming, which is already causing severe soil erosion due to torrential rains and floods, droughts and heat waves in other areas. It is likely that agriculture as it has existed for the past ten thousand years will become ineffective in many areas. However, there are other techniques for growing food, which involve setting up stable ecosystems consisting of many species of plants and animals, including humans, living together synergistically. What will of necessity be left behind is the current system, where fertilizers and pesticides are spread out on tilled dirt (rather than living soil) to kill everything but one organism (a cash crop) which is then mechanically harvested, processed, ingested, excreted, and flushed into the ocean. This system is already encountering a hard limit in the availability of phosphate fertilizer. But it is possible to create closed cycle systems, where nutrients stay on the land and are allowed to build up over time. The key to post-industrial human survival, it turns out, is in making proper use of human excrement and urine.

TB: If cities or big towns survive collapse, what will be their core activities? What do we need cities for?

DO: The size of towns and cities is proportional to the surplus that the countryside is able to produce. This surplus has become gigantic during the period of industrial development, where one or two percent of the population is able to feed the rest. In a post-industrial world, where two-thirds of the population is directly involved in growing or gathering food, there will be many fewer people who will be able to live on agricultural surplus. The activities that are typically centralized are those that have to do with long-range transportation (sail ports) and manufacturing (mills and manufactures powered by waterwheels). Some centers of learning may also remain, although much of contemporary higher education, which involves training young people for occupations which will no longer exist, is sure to fall by the wayside.

TB: Some Americans view peak oil and collapse as another investment opportunity. You already wrote on the fallacies of the faith in money. That leaves a more useful question: what can people do of their savings during or preferably before collapse? What can you buy that is truly useful? I assume the answer vary greatly according to how much money you still have.

DO: This is a very important question. While there is still time, money should be converted to commodity items that will remain useful even after the industrial base disappears. These commodities can be stockpiled in containers and are sure to lose their value more slowly than any paper asset. One example is hand implements for performing manual labor, to provide essential services that are currently performed by mechanized labor. Another is materials that will be needed to bring back essential post-industrial services such as sail-based transportation: materials such as synthetic fibre rope and sail cloth need to be stockpiled beforehand to ease the transition.

TB: You don't mention arable land or housing. Do you think some kind of real property may turn out a valuable post-collapse asset, assuming you can afford them without drowning into debt, or is it too much financial and fiscal liability in our pre-collapse era to be of any use?

DO: The laws and customs that govern real property are not helpful or conducive to the right kind of change. As the age of mechanized agriculture comes to an end, we should expect there to be large tracts of fallow land. It won't matter too much who owns them, on paper, since the owner is unlikely to be able to make productive use of large fields without mechanized labor. Other patterns of occupying the landscape will have to emerge, of necessity, such as small plots tended by families, for subsistence. Absentee landlords (those who hold title to land without actually physically residing on it but using it as a financial asset) are likely to be simply run off once the financial and mechanical amplifiers of their feeble physical energies are no longer available to them. I expect several decades more of fruitless efforts to grow cash crops on increasingly depleted land using increasingly unaffordable and unreliable mechanical and chemical farming techniques. These efforts will increasingly lead to failure due to climate disruption, causing food prices to spike and robbing the population of their savings in a downward spiral. The new patterns of subsisting off the land will take time to emerge, but this process can be accelerated by people who pool resources, buy up, lease, or simply occupy small tracts of land, and practice permaculture techniques. Community gardens, guerilla gardening efforts, planting wild edibles using seed balls, seasonal camps for growing and gathering food, and other humble and low-key arrangements can pave the way towards something bigger, allowing some groups of people to avoid the most dismal scenario.

TB: How can people make preparations for collapse or decline without losing connections with their current social environment, friends, relatives, jobs or customers, and everything around them that still function as usual. That is a question about sanity as much as practicality.

DO: This is perhaps the most difficult question. The level of alienation in developed industrial societies, in Europe, North America and elsewhere, is quite staggering. People are only able to form lasting friendships in school, and are unable to become close with people thereafter with the possible exception of romantic involvements, which are often fleeting. By a certain age people become set in their ways, develop manners specific to their class, and their interactions with others become scripted and limited to socially sanctioned, commercial modes. A far-reaching, fundamental transition, such as the one we are discussing, is impossible without the ability to improvise, to be flexible—in effect, to be able to abandon who you have been and to change who you are in favor of what the moment demands. Paradoxically, it is usually the young and the old, who have nothing to lose, who do the best, and it is the successful, productive people between 30 and 60 who do the worst. It takes a certain detachment from all that is abstract and impersonal, and a personal approach to everyone around you, to navigate the new landscape.

Editorial Notes: A French version of this interview was originally published at Orbite: Un entretien avec Dmitry Orlov. UPDATE (Dec 17). Replaced the second paragraph at Dmitry's request in order to correct a minor mistranslation. -BA

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