Saturday, June 18, 2011

Book Review by Frank Kaminski

Neither an economist nor a formally trained scholar, Dmitry Orlov is perhaps best described in his own words, as "more of an eyewitness" to the phenomenon on which he writes. He's a Russian émigré who saw the Soviet Union fall firsthand and has been drawing on this experience in warning of the coming U.S. collapse. He came to fame five years ago with a smash-hit Internet article that won him a loyal following and a subsequent book deal. The book, Reinventing Collapse, is now in its second edition—and regardless of how well it holds up to scholarly scrutiny, it's admirable in its wit and prodigious street smarts.

The book's central contention is that the U.S. economy is collapsing, and for the same basic reasons as caused the Soviet collapse: dwindling domestic oil production, a worsening foreign trade deficit, out-of-control military spending and mushrooming foreign debt. (With his usual comic panache, Orlov refers to these factors as ingredients in a "superpower collapse soup"; and he promises that "this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty!") He further argues that America is less prepared for collapse than the U.S.S.R. was, largely because of its obsession with the automobile as a symbol of, and prerequisite for, middle-class membership. And he calls for adaptation rather than reform, the latter being as futile as "you or me wiggling our toes at a tsunami."

A Leningrad-born software engineer, Orlov came to the States in the mid '70s when he was 12. During extended visits back home in the late '80s to mid '90s, he watched his home country disintegrate in time-lapse fashion. He later became convinced that America was fated for a similar crash, but remained a closeted doomer for more than a decade. When he finally came out with his message, he found an eager audience among the fledgling peak oil community. Energy Bulletin published his "Closing the 'Collapse Gap': The USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US" in December 2006, and it quickly became one of the site's most popular articles ever.

Orlov knew that many would reject his comparison of America with the U.S.S.R., but he insists that it's valid and telling. Starting with obvious similarities, he cites the two nations' respective advances in space exploration and weaponry, as well as their competition for the title of world's biggest debtor nation. He also notes their rivalry in the "jails race," "hated evil empire race" and "squandering of natural resources race." And he imagines that one day their two collapses may be relegated to a single textbook chapter, and that children "will like learning about the superpowers just like they like learning about dinosaurs: big, scary monsters–but extinct, and therefore not so frightening."

Besides their lower level of car dependence, the Soviets' edge in collapse preparedness lay in the fact that the state provided for people's needs. No matter how bad the economy was, people never had to worry about homelessness or losing access to medical treatment. Americans enjoy no such security.

Reinventing Collapse is intended to give readers a concrete sense of how they can change their lives to better face the reality ahead. Everyone's starting point, argues Orlov, should be eliminating his or her need for money. He's certain that America will choose to inflate away its debt à la the Soviet Union, making the dollar effectively worthless. Those who divest themselves of exposure to dollar depreciation will be poised not just to survive but to flourish in these trying times. For example, someone with the foresight to stockpile basic supplies like razor blades, medications and soap will be well-positioned to barter for other things.

America's future economy, believes Orlov, will depend on access to physical resources and assets, as well as healthy relationships with others who have resources and assets. He illustrates how this worked in practice during the Soviet collapse, largely at the hands of itinerant merchants known as chelnoki. The chelnoki would travel abroad frequently and bring things back in their luggage. Though they had to bribe officials and were often robbed, they were the Soviets' only source of consumer products for a while. Orlov suggests that post-collapse America may evolve its own version of the chelnoki, with customers hauling away their purchases in pilfered shopping carts (already a common sight across the urban landscape, he notes).

And he predicts that nomadic life will have much to recommend it. Nomads will be extremely valuable for their news of the outside world, assorted spare parts, occasional luxury items, elixirs and technical know-how. They'll also have greater survival savvy because of their highly developed situational awareness and their ability to wring the most out of resources.

Orlov advises staying as far as possible from the U.S. justice system, since it "offers a fine luxury model, but its budget model is manifestly unsafe." Already grossly tipped in favor of the rich, it may drop any pretense of serving justice and become simply a tool for social control. Orlov provides some Soviet examples of this, including the Gulag policy of political imprisonment, and describes America's use of secret jails, torture and indefinite detention as steps in the same direction.

Yet Orlov also foresees a melding of the official economy and the criminal one that would compel increasing numbers of people to engage in criminal activity and thus become targets of persecution by the authorities. He describes how during every economic collapse there emerges another, informal economy based around recycling remnants of the waning one—and many of its occupations involve defacing property (i.e., "asset stripping"), administering violence (aka "private security consulting") and trafficking drugs and alcohol.

The author is deeply worried about nuclear waste, the fate of the prison population and the repatriating of overseas military personnel. Nuclear waste poses the gravest threat since it remains radioactive for so incredibly long. Orlov warns that future generations will be unable to deal with it and that its radiation will spread across horrifyingly vast stretches. As for the prison population, he fears that hordes of dangerous criminals will go free in a general amnesty once we lack the resources to keep prisons running. Lastly, with regard to military personnel, Orlov thinks it likely that many of the nation's roughly 1,000 overseas bases will be simply abandoned to their fates once we can no longer maintain them.

The updates in this edition are mostly energy-related. For example, when the first edition came out in 2008, experts still couldn't say the exact year of peak conventional oil production. But they now have enough of a rear view to tell that it happened in 2005, and Orlov notes this in the new book. The past couple of years have also seen an accelerating trend called the land export effect, which is the tendency of oil exporters that are past their peak production rates to cut exports rather than supplies to their domestic populations. Orlov addresses this development as well in the new book, interpreting it as a sign that oil supply shortfalls will be far worse than even the pessimists expect.

One valid criticism that has been leveled against Orlov is that he makes unsupported, unprovable assertions about human behavior. And indeed, his discussions in this book contain some overly facile explanations for why people have mental depression, why revolving doors exist between industry and government and the motives behind news censorship, among other things. Nor does it help that the book lacks notes or references with which to substantiate such statements. If one overlooks these flaws, however, Reinventing Collapse is an eminently practical guide written with welcome comic relief by someone who's been around the block.

[Original available here.]


deskpoet said...

A generally decent review up until the "balance" of the last paragraph. The part about "overly facile explanations" being unsubstantiated rings hollow. Apparently, you needed to provide resumes of the Runners of Things in endnotes to demonstrate what is obviously true to even the most casual observer of the US military-industrial machine. Makes one question if the reviewer really got the book at all.

M said...

Seconded, deskpoet. The last paragraph of the review is a train wreck, jumping the tracks in the first line: the entire book is an observation of human behavior!

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Yes, the last paragraph should be discounted.

Since when did true-seers need to do the academia-game thing? Anyone who's AAPA (awake and paying attention) grasps at once that what the true-seer says rings so true that they can dispense with the usual pedestrian academic method.

There are some things that have become so overwhelmingly obvious to the AAPA mind that they don't demand a lot of careful documentation.

When someone in a crowded place shouts 'Fire!' and actually points us all towards the flames and smoke, do we ask for documentary evidence, or do we just see what they see, and acknowledge that it's true?

And anyway, there are ALWAYS other players of the academic game who can 'prove' just about any thesis that they like, in the same sterile way, even whilst the real-world flames continue to spread regardless.

When you get on the same wavelength as a true-seer, and get what s/he says, be grateful and go with it, without carping.

But in any case true-seers such as Dmitry, John Michael Greer, Mike Ruppert, et al DO in fact demonstrate a masterly command of their subjects, such as most of us can't match. As you follow their work, the many indicators of that reality become unmistakable. They just don't stick to the orthodox academic 'footnotes and references' game plan. Does that make their conclusions any less compelling? Not for me.

James H said...

The last paragraph seems fair to me. Yes, not providing references is shooting yourself in the foot, in this day and age. It does mean the book will never be taken seriously by the elite, and therefore will not get exposure to many beyond the 'converted'.

However there is great precedent for not doing so. The last paragraph immediately reminded me of Philip Whylie and his "Generation of Vipers". To paraphrase him: "If the ideas aren't good enough to stand up on their own without props they aren't good enough". His ideas did stand up, and personally I think many of Orklov's will as well.

1stLt.L.Diablo said...

Look, why can't people take honest criticism? It's so pervasive in the US-- bunch of precocious and effete adolescents who can't take even the slightest critique of their characters, ethics, philosophy, or competence. I just knew that the comments would be full of this kind of complaining.

Grow up-- the real world is full of people who have your number (mine too) and Dimitri is apparently man enough to allow this critique on his own damn site. Plaudits to him for that. The rest of you should re-read the critique and think about where in might be true and begin a damn dialectic; thinking is good/slavish sycophantic blabbering is bad. QED.

Lastly, I think we should all be in favor of people buttressing their claims with FACTS and SOURCE MATERIAL cuz that shit is what separates the truth from religion. Discursive thinking and writing is harder-- yes; but it's better than sloppy religious stupidity and we should all encourage more rational and provable/demonstrable discourse for its own sake. We all get sloppy at times and just repeat cliches and nonsense "we heard once" from "someone". Dimitri is no different and I'm glad when anyone gets called on that shit. Myself included...

Patrick said...

I respect Dmitry's humor, subtle thinking, and writing. But I will agree with this statement in the review re. one topic Dmitry has touched on: "overly facile explanations for why people have mental depression."

Perhaps, like the reviewer, I have misunderstood Dmitry's writings on this. But I'll say this:

Elements of our alienating, disconnected-from-nature, lack-of-meaningful-work, etc. culture can certainly impact mental health. But depression is complex condition with many different causes and means of treatment. It is not just a matter of mood, it can be a horrible, crippling disease.

Jaume said...

How about Europe?
Where can I have information about it?

Thank you and my aologises for this blog.

From Balearic islands.

kollapsnik said...

I think the criticisms leveled at me in the last paragraph are to be expected; whether or not they are valid seems rather irrelevant to me. My book is an opinion piece, as is the rest of my writing. If you want academic research or journalism, please look elsewhere. Since the "work" I do on collapse is, economically speaking, a complete waste of my time, then at least I should have the freedom to waste it any way I like, unconstrained by the expectations of others. "Serious" people should heed Frank's warning and avoid plugging my work into their "professional" collapse-related boondoggles.

Paul said...

Spot on, Rhisiart Gwilym. The first thing that struck me as I was reading the article was the author's comment that Dmitry was not "a formally-trained scholar". A software engineer but not a formally-trained scholar!
Particularly ironical, since Lt Diablo of this parish seems to consider himself and his pals to possess immeasurably superior intellects to those of, arguably, the fathers of the modern scientific age, Einstein, Planck, Bohr and Godel!

Truly, the simple-mindedness of those Einstein dubbed "naive realists" who prattle on about how rationally and logically they think, in comparison with religious folk, never ceases to amaze me.

Ah, but you didn't study the humanities, Lt Diablo, so you wouldn't know whose in fashion in the field of Shakespearean criticism. And you can't be a formally-trained scholar.

Yes, Mr Eliot was The Man, when I was at university, no-one having considered the impossiblity of someone as pusillanimous as Eliot being able to understand such a magnanimous soul as was evidently possessed by Shakespeare. But we were supposed to read and retail his twaddle.

My brother-in-law expressed it very pithily, in a fluting, pedantic, scholarly voice such as Polonius might have possessed: "Skeat says....".

Before T S Eliot became the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar du jour, i.e. in my school-days in the fifties, we were expected to familiarise ourselves with Skeat's opinions on Shakespeare's plays.

And James H, there are elites, and there are elites. The only genuine intellectual elite tends to be tiny in number, a few "one-off" mavericks, such as Dmitry, Nassim Taleb and Solzhenitzin.

Bibliographies are for pedants. Do your own research. Use your gumption, if the minutiae ring your chimes.

Lukiftian said...

As for prisoners being freed, there is a another possibility, the rise of 'penal units' in the ranks of security contractors. If you have a surplus cadre of rapists and murderers, why not capitalize on the situation and 'hire' them using them as part of their 'parole'? It's what I'd do! It's what the Third Reich did too. Wasn't one of them the 'Kaminski' Brigade?

God Is Red said...

This assertion that one must be an MD of some sort to share observations of human behavior is just plain nonsense. Psychology is a "soft" science to begin with, and most of it revolves around just plain common sense.

Dmitry is not alone in his belief that the food and beverages we consume in this junk food culture are in fact making us insane. Check this one out (sorry about the ad)

Just like the whole issue of peak oil, Dmitry was/is right once again. Also, as the world's reserves are in terminal decline, oil exporting countries will be less wiling to take worthless paper dollars for their exports. This is indeed happening now and why the west suddenly demonized Khaddafy and is trying to oust or kill him, with a probable use of ground forces by September

The only things I have heard or read from Dmitry that I disagree with is when he proposes a return to "classical human virtues". That is the last thing we need to do, as tribal warfare has been the predominant human activity since the beginnings of mankind. The ages of man were named not for some great humanitarian acheivement, but for the weapons he fashioned. Hence the weapons from the "stone age", "bronze age", etc. Rather, I think he meant ideal human virtues, but then it is a matter of simple semantics and the message is still delivered. It would be in our self interests if we all started to share, be more tolerant and cooperation to make the deindustrialization process smoother, in conditions that are safe and dignified.

The other is that some people get sadistic with people on welfare. I think they just are pissed off because they are losing access to these things (healthcare, food as the price is getting high as a prelude to hyperinflation). If everyone had access to food, shelter, and healthcare (as they should) then the resentment would likely wane, but again, this is of minor imporatnce considering the magnitude of the crises we will be facing in the next 1-3 years.

I am seeing the closed down stores, people digging throughn trash cans, the anguish on people's faces, the desperation in their voices, the houses that have been foreclosed upon sitting there, many times homeless people break in and sleep on a mattress with a space heater plugged in, until the cops catch them and throw them out, usually beating them rather than putting them in jail.

It still remains a mantra...if Dmitry says it, you can take it to the bank (until the banks are surrounded by armed guards frokm millions of destitute people who will want to tear them dpwn brick by brick)

michigan native said...

Here is another link sent to my e-mail account that proves that Dmitry was right about peak oil and collapse many years before it is finally starting to trickle onto the internet. The mainstream media are only acknowledging the inevitability of "more pain at the pump" as the oil crooks are worried about the supply, but they are not mentioning the energy crisis we will face or the collapse we are well into, preferring to still refer to it as yet another one of those up and down "recessions".

michigan native said...

michigan native said...

Other articles that I have researched or looked for since I first read the 5 stages of collapse in the fall of 2008 and then both editions of Reinventing Collapse talk about "horizontal drilling and fracture", which is essentially trying to use water to help extract oil from shale. In other words, when Dmitry said they are scraping the bottom of the oil barrel, he was right. This procedure is less cost efficient then grandpa from the Beverly Hillbillies shooting at some food and by chance hitting some ready to grab oil deposit, serving up some "black gold", some "Texas tea". Hollywood and the mainstream media and their denial and wishful thinking aside. Even if Jethro missed and hit a massive solar panel desposit, that would not even begin to replace the efficacy, the energy obtained from fossil fuels.

Now that they have tapped into the nation's reserves, it seems to indicate that they are desperate in their utterly stupid desire to reinflate the old bubbles. When the reserves run dry, which is inevitable and likely sooner than we think, then the beginnings of the energy crisis, the further erosion of the dollar, and the commercial collapse advances as people empty store shelves as prices go up, then when the political system, which was a complete and total joke to begin with, can't restart the joy ride we have been on for several decades crashes, then people finally realize that the political system won't save them and that in fact having minimal, if any government at all, is in fact a good idea. Local politics will matter most, and as Dmitry says "no amount of hot air piped in from Washington" or the amazing powers to be harnessed from gerbil wheels will save us. Green technolgy, as noble of an ideal that it may be, will not begin to scratch the surface and even if they had a clue as to replace oil, "it would take several decades to be up and running....there is NOT enough time" (Dmitry) If you haven't read Reinventing Collapse, it is perhaps the single most important book you will ever read in your life. Here is another link

The media seem to have a black out regarding such troublesome realities such as the decline of the dollar, the corruption of a US government that is bought and sold and have sold not only us but your grandchildren's children down the drain, the hazards of nuclear power and the extent of the recent disaster in Japan, the real reasons for foreign interventionism, but most importantly, peak oil.

That is why the US is likely to get caught off guard, resort to warfare as a last ditch, futile effort to save the empire, because the government, the media, the whole system never had our best interests in mind and they cannot deny the reality of the energy/debt disasters they have created.

In other words, we cannot simply bury reality like a delusioned cat in a sandbox and just ignore something unpleasant and hope it will go away. The old ways are gone and never coming back. Get used to cooperating, consuming less, being more patient and tolerant, and a new, simpler way of life, an agrarian communal one based on much less resource consumption, materialism, and more cooperation. the sooner everyone prepares for the deindustrialization of the US, the better we will be. Again, everyone should read Reinventing Collapse to gain insights that Dmitry has shared for us that are invaluable and the more one focuses on the core aspects of the insights he was gracious enough to share rather than trifle about notions facile assertions about human behavior, which I believe he is very accurate about, the better your chances of mitigating what is now becoming obvious as an inevitable collapse of what will likely become the former USA