The Five Stages Of Collapse, By Dmitry Orlov – Book Review

April 11, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedMany of us who have been researching collapse for a decade or more repeatedly use the word in writing, speaking, and daily conversation, but few of us have the opportunity to define it with such precision or personal experience as one finds in Dmitry Orlov’s forthcoming book Five Stages of Collapse: A Survivor’s Toolkit (New Society Publishers, 281 pages). I first heard of Dmitry when I was writing for From The Wilderness in 2005 after FTW published “Post-Soviet Lessons For A Post-American Century,” one of Orlov’s first articles in the United States naming our predicament and likely outcome.

Since then I have been a huge fan of Dmitry’s work, and I must concur with Richard Heinberg who says, “Even if I believed collapse were impossible I’d still read everything Dmitry Orlov writes: he’s that entertaining.” Incisive articulation of reality tempered with irrepressible humor and sarcasm define his writing style and not only compel us to stay with what some describe as a “dark Russian perspective,” but reveal a man who has found a way to live with what is so and navigate it with buoyant humanity.
The Five Stages of Collapse is nothing less than a definitive textbook for a hypothetical course entitled “The Collapse Of Industrial Civilization 101” or perhaps a bible of sorts for an imaginary “Institute of Collapse Studies.” While to my knowledge no such courses or organizations presently exist, this book would be an essential aspect of any such entity’s credibility.
Early on, Orlov clearly and cogently defines collapse in general then proceeds to demonstrate the five stages or aspects of civilization in which it is almost certain to unfold: Finance, commerce, politics, society, and culture. In addition, he provides a variety of options for how these aspects of collapse might be navigated, attended by an actual case history relevant to each one. His intention in writing the book can best be summarized by a statement made in the book’s Afterword: “There is no agenda here — just the assumption that collapse will happen, the conjecture that it can be analyzed as unfolding in five distinct phases and, based on quite a bit of research, the conclusion that each phase will require a different set of adaptations from those who wish to survive it.”
Prior to launching into the Five Stages, Orlov states that before arguing for imminent collapse, we must be convinced of the finitude of fossil fuels and other resources, and we must understand that as resources become increasingly scarce, the capacity for global industrial growth ultimately vanishes. And while coming to terms with these two realities overwhelmingly advances the certainty of collapse, nothing persuades us like our own personal experience.
Once we have realized the extent of our predicament and the compelling likelihood of the collapse of industrial civilization, we exit exclusively mental territory and enter the psychological realm, for as Orlov says, “the main impediment to grasping its significance is not intellectual but psychological.”
Enter then the Five Stages of Grief as articulated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross or the Five Stages of Peak Oil explained by John Michael Greer in his recent book Not The Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, And The Myth of Progress or the stages outlined by Linda Buzzell and Sarah Edwards in “The Waking Up Syndrome.” However, Orlov makes clear that what he wishes to provide in this book is not another list of emotional stages but a taxonomy or “mental milestones.” In other words, “Rather than tying each phase to a particular emotion, as in the Kübler-Ross model, the proposed taxonomy ties each of the five stages to the breaching of a specific level of trust, or faith, in the status quo.” His intention is to help us gauge our own collapse preparedness by knowing the Five Stages and how they are likely to play out, then acting accordingly.
I believe that Orlov’s taxonomy is essential, and at the same time, I do not believe enough has yet been articulated about the emotional stages of collapse. I have provided an extensive toolkit of emotional and spiritual preparation in my 2011 book Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition, but as collapse unfolds, much more work needs to be done on the emotional stages of it, and two of my forthcoming books Collapsing Consciously:Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times and Love In The Long Emergency will endeavor to offer even more comprehensive insights. I cannot overstate the fact that every stage of collapse is and will be fraught with myriad emotions, and assuming that one can weather them without an enormous commitment to emotional and spiritual preparation is naïve at best and foolhardy at worst.
Financial Collapse
This is a time when “faith in ‘business as usual’ is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.” Essentially, says Orlov, the way in which the financial aspect of collapse has been dealt with is through “extend and pretend” which does not address the root of the problem, usury. Yet, as he does with all of the stages of collapse, Orlov presents options for cashing out and at the end of the section on financial collapse, offers a vignette of his own family weathering the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s as well as a case history related to the financial collapse of Iceland.
Certainly, whether it be in financial markets or the loss of one’s employment or the vanishing of one’s retirement pension, the undermining of trust is ubiquitous. Of this Orlov says:
A cultural flip is needed to change from impersonal, commercial relationships to personal relationships based on trust, and the first hurdle, for many people, is in understanding what trust actually is,because there is no innate human quality called trustworthiness, possessed by some people, lacking in others. Rather, it is more along the lines of a generalization concerning a given individual’s behavior over time, within a given relationship. Trust is transactional: a person needs a reason to trust you, and you need a reason to trust that person. There is, however, such a quality as trustfulness: this is the property of small children, tame animals and, most unfortunately for them, many regular, salt-of-the-earth, mainstream Americans. It is of negative survival value in the context of financial collapse.
Referring to the writing of Russian scientist and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, Orlov emphasizes that humans are social creatures who “thrive through cooperation,” and it seems that the smaller the scale, the more likely that trust will actually function without major conflict.
Ultimately, in financial collapse, decisions must be made about the viability of larger players and who benefits by continually propping them up. According to Orlov, “Iceland’s approach was to let financial companies go bankrupt rather than prop them up with public funds….But a further case can be made that the failure of financial institutions can be a good thing, because it frees up resources for productive activities that benefit the entire society rather than just the rentier class and the über-rich.”
Commercial Collapse
Financial collapse leads to commercial collapse which then leads to political collapse, and the effect of each shock is to make the system as a whole less resilient. In this section Orlov distinguishes the three kinds of commerce that function in the current commercial milieu: trade, barter/tribute, and gift. As financial, commercial, and political collapse exacerbate, Orlov sees trade, the dominant function in industrial societies, being superseded by gift. Whereas “barter involves an external conflict between two conflicting sets of interests that is resolved through negotiation, gift internalizes this conflict in each person. Explicitly and publicly one never gives gifts expecting to get something back. But gift also presupposes a debt of gratitude that is discharged through reciprocity. Nevertheless, with gifts one’s social status is based on one’s generosity and is destroyed by any explicit expectation of reciprocation.”
Orlov’s perspective on gift echoes Charles Eisenstein’s “gift economy” as explained in his groundbreaking book, Sacred Economics. In a videopublished by The Guardian, Eisenstein argues that, “such a model aims to bring about a workforce driven by passion rather than coerced by money and profit, and he highlights certain co-operative schemes already proving the ideal can be made real.” Eisenstein’s work offers one model for how communities and individuals might respond to financial and commercial collapse and provides an opportunity to begin practicing this strategy in current time.
Most importantly in preparing for commercial collapse, according to Orlov, “you can work on reducing your dependence on impersonal relationships and institutions. You can learn to avoid relying on money and monetary equivalents, and instead learn to rely on gifts and the various extensions and generalizations of gifts. You can create new custom and ritual, laying the foundation for a new culture that is right side up.”
Political Collapse
Following on the heels of financial and commercial collapse is political collapse which is a different animal altogether, and leaves the society open to chaos.
Realistically, however, the police, the military, and the bureaucrats will not quietly go away and “allow the people to self-organize, experiment and come together as autonomous new groups adapted to the new environment in their composition and patterns of self-governance.” The greatest fear of the hierarchy, and of the general population who are terrified of anarchy, is the lack of order. And of course, eventually the nation state itself will vanish. According to Orlov:
In its stead will come a myriad of tiny polities, somesquabbling with their neighbors, some living side by side peaceably, but all incapable of launching a single aircraft carrier, never mind starting a world war. But they might be able to build some beautiful cathedrals and opera houses, lavish resources on the arts and on schools of philosophy and use artisanal methods to produce everyday items that will put to shame the mass-produced plastic rubbish of today.
Much of this depends, however, on the issue of scale. The smaller the scale, the greater the likelihood of sustained success. As political collapse exacerbates, state services go away, and we have only to consider some dramatic examples in the United States such as Flint, Michigan, Camden, New Jersey, and Fall River, Massachusetts to see what wider-spread collapse will look like.
What is certain is that law and order will disappear. “Once central authority does collapse,” says Orlov, “an area may lapse into chaos and warlordism for a time, disrupting both licit and illicit trade. Eventually new forms of governance begin to emerge.” Certainly, we can then expect to see mini-mafias proliferate which will opportunistically provide some kind of societal structure and do so with a certain amount of appearance of honesty and fairness without which they could not succeed.
For Orlov, attempting to effect political change in a collapsing society is more than futile. Not only is political collapse unavoidable, but as resources further deplete, the methods of communication on which we have relied for so long will eventually vanish. He suggests that we could make better use of our time by learning some effective ways of communication that do not rely on the Internet. Of this he says: “And so, if you want to achieve a serious political effect, my suggestion is that you sit back Buddha-like, fold your arms, and do some deep breathing exercises. Then you should work on developing someinterpersonal skills that don’t need to be mediated by electronics.”
This contention also reinforces mine, namely that emotional preparation/inner work/communication skills are every bit as urgent as the logistical preparations we are making in terms of food, water, shelter, security, and health maintenance.
Social Collapse
For Orlov, in social collapse: “Faith that ‘your people will take care of you’ is lost, as local social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.” For this reason, community organizing is futile because “the central problem with community organizing is that the sort of community that stands a chance post-collapse is simply unacceptable pre-collapse: it is illegal, it is uncomfortable and it is unsafe. No reasonable person would want any part of it.”
The old rules must be supplanted by new ones. There will be no time or resources for the rules by which society currently operates to be changed through lobbying, deliberation, legislation, and litigation. Again, one can anticipate obstacles from the vested interests:
By default, the procedure for those who wish to survive will be to universally disregard the old rules and to make up new rules as they go along, but this is bound to cause mayhem and much loss of life. The best-case scenario is that the old rules are consigned to oblivion quickly and decisively. The public at large will not be the major impediment to making the necessary changes. Rather, it will be the vested interests at every level — the political class, the financial elite, professional associations, property and business owners and, last but not least, the lawyers — who will try to block them at every turn. They will not release their grip on society voluntarily, so it is best to make plans to forestall and thwart their efforts….The old rules will not work, but the new ones might, depending on what they are. You might want to give the new rules some thought ahead of time, perhaps even test themout under the guise of emergency preparation training.
Here Orlov reminds us that as jobs and services go away, people will have much more time on their hands, and people will begin engaging with others who are in a similar situation so that the spontaneous regeneration of the community will automatically be engendered by the construction of new rules made by ordinary people who are no longer invested in the consumeristic system.
Some help can come from religious groups or communities and charitable organizations (many of which are religious). Historically, many of them have weathered extremely troubled times and have ensured the survival of their own and surrounding communities. In a disintegrating, corrupt, and unreformable political system, why fight battles that have already been won? Working with religious institutions or communities could prove extremely useful in making new rules and regenerating communities.
Like Orlov, I believe that collapse will not unfold in a monolithic, standardized manner. I am fond of saying that it will play out in a “lumpy” fashion with some regions looking very different from others. In some communities, people will come together and cooperate, and in other communities they will not.
Cultural Collapse
Orlov defines cultural collapse in this way: “Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for ‘kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity.’ Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes ‘May you die today so that I can die tomorrow’.”
He suggests that we must consciously widen our circle of trust by beginning to trust people outside it in small ways and then deepening that trust when they prove trustworthy. To accomplish this, we need to swim upstream against the culture’s prevailing attitude of not recognizing or not seeing others. Let other know that you see them, and begin trusting in small ways.
Additionally, we must also preserve the knowledge we deem worth preserving by speaking it orally to each other and to our children. This is especially important in a collapsing world where electronic information, libraries, and many forms of written information may disappear. The second-best means of preserving this knowledge is by writing it down and teaching it to children.
In societal collapse, the family will become increasingly important. Orlov argues that “the family can be viewed as a microcosm of society — or society as a meta-family. This line of reasoning leads to a radical conclusion: that family is society, while larger groups are illusory. At the rock bottom of human survival, there is no individual and there is no state; there is only the family, or, if there isn’t, there is something that’s not quite human — or there is nothing at all.”
Orlov ends the book with an invitation to his readers to allow their absorption of collapse information to give them a “secret post-collapse identity” that will profoundly alter how they live their lives. Eventually, the reader will meet others who have adapted their own post-collapse identities, and very rich conversations might ensue. But of course, that will be all about trust, and trust, as Orlov reminds us, is built on actions, not words. Moreover, he cautions the reader not even to trust him “just because,” but rather he asserts, “you should think for yourself, act on your thoughts and, if that works for you, learn to trust yourself. All I want to do is give you a gentle nudge in that direction.”
Most importantly, Dmitry Orlov leaves us with perhaps the most profound and pivotal sentence of the book: “Collapse is not a nightmare scenario to be avoided at all costs but part of the normal, unalterable ebb and flow of human history, and the widespread tendency to block it out of our worldview is, to put it very mildly, maladaptive.” The Five Stages of Collapse, I believe, is required reading for long-term, strategic collapse preparation.

Carolyn Baker

Carolyn's forthcoming book is Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times. She is available for life coaching and for workshops locally. She may be contacted at

Her website is


Tags: collapse, resilience, Soviet Union collapse