Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Regularly Scheduled Programming


Horsemen of the Apocalypse
on Parade
Red Suqare, Moscow
Regular readers of this blog must have noticed by now that for the past few weeks we have been off on a bit of a tangent from the usual fare of collapse-related social and economic commentary. There are several reasons for this.

One is that I have recently finished the manuscript for the Five Stages of Collapse, having worked on it more or less continuously for half a year, and editing hasn't started yet. At the moment the topic of collapse has worn some grooves in my brain, making me want to think about something else for a while. And so I devoted a few weeks to an exercise in applied anarchy, which was to define an alternative way of writing English, one that follows the phonological form of the language and replaces spelling (an entirely artificial and useless skill) with elocution (which is quite useful). Several people have pledged their support to this project, which is quite far along already, and is now going to be taking shape at unspell.blogspot.com, so please direct any additional comments you have on it there, not here. A lot of people are in favor of providing a way to read English that is more like listening and less like deciphering oddly garbled strings of symbols that bear minimal relationship to the actual sounds of the language. And a lot of non-native speakers of English would appreciate it if some of the native speakers learned some elocution and became easier to understand. That project will get interesting once the software to do mass conversion of English text is in place and the entire Project Gutenberg is unspelled.

Another reason for my desire to temporarily stay off the topic of collapse is that I am spending the lengthy Russian holiday season with my family in Russia (where Christmas through mid-January is one continuous country-wide federal holiday). Russia is definitely not collapsing; it is getting stronger and richer. If you listen to the paranoid ramblings of Secretary of State Clinton, it is also getting bigger, by absorbing several resource-rich former-Soviet tin pot dictatorships to the south which the Americans erroneously thought might be their cold war prize.

St. Petersburg, where I am spending the winter, is still dark and snowy—it is currently -15ºC (5ºF) and promising to head lower—but it is now also full of luxury cars, swank boutiques, gourmet shops and restaurants (the place has gone sushi-mad). There are now cafés with free WiFi that are open 24/7. Everywhere, even in the government offices, the service is now prompt and courteous. There is simply a ridiculous amount of culture going on—opera, concerts, theater, art exhibits, and so on. It is one thing to keep up a stream of collapse-related commentary from a place that's collapsing; it is quite another to try to do the same from a place that's experiencing a rather remarkable rebirth.

In one sense the rebirth is quite literal: Russian birth rates now exceed death rates and the population is once again growing. The low birth rates were partly the legacy of the Soviet era, where cramped living conditions often limited the size of families, and partly a cultural change that made having just one child socially acceptable. That the trend toward falling birthrates has been reversed is a major feat, accomplished through many different means, among them vastly improved, free prenatal and postnatal care, financial aid to families with young children and a large cash award given to women who have more than one child. All of this has resulted in a baby boom: there are children and baby carriages everywhere and all the better nurseries have waiting lists.

Another transformation taking place is the conversion of Russia from a lawless bandit-state run by oligarchs and the mafia to a law-abiding society. This process began just a dozen years ago and is by no means complete. An overhang of that lawless time, and of the Soviet legacy before that, is Russia's very high prison population. While not as high, per capita, as that of the United States, which is the shame of the world, it is still quite shameful. With Putin's pronouncement, around 2000, of “dictatorship of the law” the emphasis was given to shutting down protection rackets and mopping up all the petty crime that erupted as a result of professional thugs suddenly becoming unemployed. Now the emphasis seems to be shifting to shutting down corruption at higher levels. The recent corruption-related dismissal of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was highly publicized even in the West. A more obscure corruption scandal, but one involving similar amounts of money (around 100 million USD), recently erupted right here in St. Petersburg: Vladislav Petrov, the person in charge of the city's steam mains, is being questioned (St. Petersburg is heated using cooling water discharged from power plants, which is distributed throughout the city via buried pipelines). Petrov oversaw a scheme in which some 600km of large-diameter steam pipe was replaced using substandard, salvaged gas pipe which was purchased from Gazprom. The inspection certificates were forged, and the difference in price was pocketed. This came to light when, with the start of the heating season, geysers of steam erupted in various parts of the city, requiring emergency repairs and shutting down traffic. These are by no means isolated cases: it is impossible to keep corruption entirely under control in a suddenly wealthy, rapidly transforming country that had only recently lived through a bout of almost complete lawlessness.

But what is most stunning is the pace of economic development: Russia seems to be developing into the United States of the 1990s, while the US seems to be developing into a vast wasteland of boarded-up strip malls and suburban slums surrounding abandoned downtowns. That this is not a good development model should be obvious to all and does not bear repeating here. A lot of the new development here is car-centric; Russia has recently surpassed Germany in car sales, with Lexus and Infiniti leading among the newly popular brands. Big box stores are erupting everywhere, and the arrival of the global consumer culture is quickly making Russia just like any other prosperous place on earth, with the same global brands on sale as anywhere else. I can only hope that this trend does not run to completion, as it has in the US, with its deadweight of underwater suburbs, ridiculously overbuilt retail space, and very little else. But from what I have observed, Russia is quite capable of making rapid changes in direction. Also, although private cars and big box stores are all the rage now, they have not shut down public transportation or local shops, so that, when this development model is discovered to be a dead end, there will be a path back.

Of the two largest (and related) problems affecting the planet as a whole—national resource depletion, oil and gas in particular, and global warming—Russia seems to be spared. (I tend to discount all of the recent nonsense about fracking; it seems to be a scheme to defraud investors, with gas and oil only figuring as dirty, overpriced byproducts of this process. I also tend to discount the efforts to control climate change; the recent fiasco of a conference at Doha is a case in point.) Russia has 70 years of natural gas left at current production rates from already developed sources, and probably somewhat less oil. There may be much more of each to be found in the rapidly thawing Russian arctic. With regard to global warming, the UN climate change effect maps I have looked at show the US and Europe as major losers with regard to their ability to feed themselves, while Russia appears to be the greatest benefactor, with longer growing seasons and more plentiful rainfall. And while many coastlines in the world are under threat from rising oceans (the Eastern Seaboard in the US a prime example, with the recent damage from Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey just a small taste of things to come) Russia's population centers are mostly inland. St. Petersburg, the second-largest Russian city, is on the water, but is on the far side of the Baltic, does not have tides, has built a dam to shield it from storm surges, and is not forecast to experience significantly higher water levels any time this century.

If there is one thing that Russia should be doing but isn't it's this: Russia should stop helping sanitize US government debt. In this, it should not do it alone but join other countries and stop buying US debt. Currently, when Russia exports products, it then uses a share of the revenues to buy up US debt, in the form of US Treasury paper. That paper then sits at the central bank, accruing approximately 0% interest (always far below inflation, which Americans systematically underestimate) and eventually dwindles to nothing as the USD loses virtually all of its value over time. Why subsidize American defense and other government spending when this money can be invested productively? For instance, it can be distributed as loans to Russian-owned businesses that have a good business plan for replacing imports with domestic production.

In a couple of months I'll be heading back to the US, and back to collapse. The book will be out in May, and I will be traveling and talking about it both before and after that. No doubt people will ask me: “What about Russia?” You see, I have compared the USA to the USSR, showing that the USA is not as well-prepared for its inevitable collapse as the USSR was. I did not compare the USA to Russia. Although some Americans continue to use USSR and Russia as synonyms, they really should make an effort and try to sound a bit more intelligent. The USSR is dead, and modern Russia came after it died. What will come once the USA is also dead is anyone's guess.

30 comments:

John D. Wheeler said...

So will you be doing a book signing at the Age of Limits 2?

Jason Heppenstall said...

Dmitry, if I didn't know you better (through your writings) I'd have assumed you wrote this chained to a concrete block with a pistol at your head.

From my side of the Baltic (Copenhagen) I can confirm that sushi is similarly for sale on every street corner. All this makes me think that Scandinavia may start looking eastwards if things are as good as you report.

22BillionEnergySlaves.blogspot.com

kollapsnik said...

John -

Yes, I'll be there, I'll ship a box of books to Orren beforehand.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

Dmitry, there is one thing I don't understand: if the post-Soviet Russian recovery is genuine (I, for one, am not quite so sure), why continue to bob about on a boat in the doomed Americas? What does it take for a Soviet-born person to get R.F. citizenship, anyway?

Lucas Durand said...

"...they have not shut down public transportation or local shops, so that, when this development model is discovered to be a dead end, there will be a path back."

Kollapsnik,
If this development model runs its course, doesn't it seem likely that many of the features that could provide a "path back" will eventually go away for the same reasons that have caused these features to go away in other countries that have been running the model longer?

kollapsnik said...

Lucas -

Russia is very highly urbanized, and is becoming more so. The cities remain compact because of the need to keep the structures heated throughout much of the year, which is done with steam mains. The trend toward car-centric living seems to be, to some extent, self-limiting, as people spend more and more time stuck and traffic and are able to function less and less, while those who take public transportation (rail and metro) get there faster and get more done. I could be wrong on this, but I don't think that Russia will blunder along too far in this direction.

Stanislav -

Don't take my word for it. Go and find out for yourself. Then you'll be sure. Otherwise you are just spreading FUD.

Ugo Bardi said...

I can confirm Dmitry's report. I was in Russia last month: it is fantastic how things have changed over the past 20 years. Russia is now prosperous and modernized. Full of light, shops, traffic, everything. Absolutely wonderful. I want to move there!

Only one point of disagreement with this post: I am not sure that climate change will actually benefit Russia. Surely it will be less damaging for Russia than for, say, Italy or Holland. But think of the recent fires in Siberia - or of the collapse of everything built on permafrost. Not so good....

kollapsnik said...

Ugo -

You are absolutely right about the melting permafrost. Between 70 and 80% of all oil and gas resources are in permafrost regions, where all the infrastructure was built without taking global warming into account. Already there are infrastructure failures on the order of 30-40 THOUSAND a year (pipeline breaks and other structural failures). The Hydrological Institute in St. Petersburg has been looking into this, and you are right, it doesn't look good. This is an engineering problem of simply staggering proportions.

However, what I was getting at is the ability to grow food. Russia was never an easy place to grow food, and never will be, but based on the data I've seen I would venture a tentative guess that global warming will in fact make it easier.

Silenus said...

Hi kollapsnik,

Do you think that in ten years, Russian guys will be buying mail-order American brides? Or would they not want the trouble?

Silenus

Theodore Wirth said...

Ah, my Tuesday mind fix. Club Orlov is indeed a special place. Thank you.

staticwarp said...

I've been enjoying the break from direct talk of collapse. It's all been said for the most part, by you or others. Now we're just watching the show and doing our best to prepare and cope. It's been enjoyable to see you presenting applied anarchy and talking about sailing, mutual aid, and other topics that are relevant to the collapse narrative, yet different. it's been quite refreshing, and I look forward to more!

Guy McPherson said...

It appears we're headed for human extinction in the not-too-distant future. Whether food can be grown in Russia at that point doesn't seem particularly relevant to me.

Jeff Z said...

While I'd love to visit Russia now to see what it's like, I'm skeptical that they won't eventually meet the suburbanized and transit-less fate of US cities, given enough time.

Minneapolis-St.Paul is fairly similar in climate and culture to a Russian city, and once had an extensive streetcar system. At least one (St. Paul)still uses steam pipes to heat the entire downtown core, with heat generated by burning diseased trees in a central incinerator.

What is it like now? Rings and rings of suburbs, with dead malls aplenty and hour-long commutes for many.

The boom times of the 1950's and 60's were probably much like Russia is experiencing now. I'm happy for Russia that it has recovered from the collapse of the 90's, but wealth brings its own diseases.

Nicholas Colloff said...

A mite rosy description of Russia, getting out of St Petersburg and Moscow might help provide a corrective but it is certainly a great improvement on the 90s but a long way to go before Russia is a genuinely comfortable place to be, and a well-ordered society.

Ugo Bardi said...

About Russia, you may be interested in this recent post of mine on "Cassandra's legacy"

http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2012/12/russian-oil-and-future-of-catalytic.html

ruskamg said...

I visited Russia last summer first time after I left Soviet Union over 20 years ago. The change is stunning. My hometown Novorossiysk on the Black Sea (near Sochi, a host town of the next winter Olympics) has changed beyond recognition: wide clean avenues and alleys, beautiful sculptures, monuments, parks… Several huge open air markets offer you everything from homegrown fruits and vegetables to household supplies to furniture… Fantastic vibrant festive atmosphere. I visited several small towns along the cost and saw the same picture everywhere. What amazed me most is The Shore Promenade in Novorossiysk. It’s very wide and long and was the city’s gift to the public. Any time during the day or night there are people walking, rollerblading, biking, strolling, and sitting on the benches. What a contrast to let’s say a lakeshore in Toronto where the entire coastline was sold to condo developers. I am looking forward to repeated visits to Russia. I already have a long list of my Canadian husband’s relatives begging me to bring them along!

Martel said...

Silenus:
Greetings from Finland. Having visited both countries (the USA and Russia) many times, I can state there is a huge qualitative difference, and it is Russia's favor.

Collapse or not, I don't see the U.S. as capable of delivering an acceptable product of this range, in the next 30 years. Wide-spread obesity and Feminism are the two major issues ruining your product. At this point, you can not export them, and must try to find some use for them in your own country.

Sorry.

Phil Espin said...

I was in St Petersburg in October and was very impressed with the material state of the place. As Putin hails from here is it a coincidence the place has boomed? The Putinhof was certainly interesting from the outside!

You mention Russia is urbanising and our local guide was emphatic that just a couple of hundred miles south one would encounter impoverished communities focused on vodka dependency. Do you have any plans to make an excursion to such a place, if so a first hand account would be fascinating. As a result of my visit I've been reading Tolstoy and Turgenev which makes clear how important agriculture was to Russian culture in the 19th century. Do you see any scope/evidence for a locally based agrarian boom in Russia, given climate change?

Ralfyman said...

I recall Russia affected by major droughts. Also, I am not certain if natural gas will be enough to maintain the type of economic development described. At the very least, it should allow inhabitants to deal with extreme weather conditions, esp. winter.

anchyo123 said...

Thank you Dmitry for excellent post.

A couple of things I question are:
*The 70 years of gas at current rates sound very optimistic to me, where does this number come from ?
For oil, Jeffrey Brown showed that with rising internal demand and declining production, Russian oil exports will stop by 2025, so no wealth from oil will come to Russia anymore then.

*Global warming being benefitial for Russia: the impact and extreme weather events for 4 or 5 degrees warmer will be very different than for just 1 degree now. The droughts and fire and permafrost melting that we see now are just minor compared to what is to come. at 5 degrees more in 2080 we are talking about three quarters of our planet being a big desert ... yes, relatively Russia might be a bit better off than other places, but who knows with such drastic climate changes.

By that analysis, I hope Russia does Not have 70 years of natural gas and decades of oil to burn.

Anyone interested in living really sustainably without carbon emissions in Russia ?

Ugo Bardi said...

Dmitry; it is not obvious at all that Russian agriculture will benefit from climate change. We can say that it will suffer less than in other places, but there are both positive (more CO2, longer growing season..) and negative factors (drought, soil loss....). From what I read I understand that we can't really quantify the balance; but my impression is that eventually Russian agriculture will suffer very hard times.

There is an interesting discussion aon this point at this link

http://www.climateadaptation.eu/russia/en#agriculture-and-horticulture

Kevin said...

Thanks for a most interesting report on what's happening in Russia (or at any rate in St. Petersburg). I wish I spoke Russian and could move there - though as a lifelong Californian over fifty I'm afraid I'd probably respond to the climate in the way that Descartes responded to Stockholm's (where he promptly died of pneumonia).

I'm not looking forward to the collapse of the USA, particularly as John Michael Greer argues much too cogently for my comfort that California will wind up as another Somalia.

Maybe a nice cabin or a boat on the Black Sea might suit me. I hope they need lots of artists there.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I see a lot of optimistic forecasts about the beneficial effects of global warming for agriculture in such places as Russia and Canada.

But overall increase in temperatures is only one part of being able to grow things successfully. The other issues are water and soil.

An increase in global temperatures is not merely a matter of increase of turning up the thermostat. It brings with it a more chaotic pattern of precipitation: including droughts, floods, storms, and decreased snowpack which is needed for steady release of water to rivers during the summer months.

The heartland of America drew on a soil account established by prairie grasses for millions of years that developed deep and fertile soils, black loams many feet deep that have almost been destroyed and depleted in less than 150 years, so that oil based fertilizers (not to mention pesticides) are needed to maintain productivity at a grand scale.

The Amazon is warmer than Canada or Russia will ever be, yet the soils of the Amazon rain forest are very poor and not suited for extensive agriculture, no matter the warm temperatures. The taiga forest soils and permafrost areas of Russia and Canada are not rich and productive soils for agricultural purposes, and are thin and rocky, and drainage is a problem.

Andreas Walsh said...

Like a few people have mentioned - the age-old Russian problem is that wealth and progress are centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the rest of the country tends to be a mess of poverty and drunkenness. What do you think Dmitry? True or not?

pansceptic said...

Andreas, my Moscow-born girlfriend agrees with you: every time I try to tell her how great Russia's future looks on paper, she tells me that I really can't imagine the level of learned helplessness and alcohol dependency that exists outside the big cities.

On the other hand, the United States in the late 1700s was a largly rural nation with a lot of resources but a huge drinking problem. American women eventually got tired of the ubiquitous drunkeness and lobbied hard for 100 years to get society to its present state of more-or-less sobriety.

Finally, Dmitry, you are SO right! Just editing this little post to correct my spelling gaffs (as a 55-years English reader) is a pain in the posterior : (

galacticsurfer said...

As an alternative for my kids as Russian speakers with the potential to get apassport due to their mother Russia may be interesting. Perhaps as my Russian improves I could mover there with my wife after the kids are grown or something like that. Moscow and St. Petersburg are probably very expensive and working conditions could be pretty hard. I recall business contacts who related long hours for all muscovites and not much job protection, like we have in Germany, so many weeks vacation and so on, so it is more like in USA, dog eat dog and if you are young and talented, good for you but otherwise...

Shadowfax said...

These days with thoughts of collapse I get nervous leaving the boat and it's self/sufficiency.
I always figure it will happen when I am across country or worse in another country stuck in some hotel room without food and water.
Meanwhile my boat is being ransacked for it's supplies by the golden hordes.

BrandFeelsGood said...

Merry Christmas Orlov, thanks for all the words!

das monde said...

Soviet birth rates were quite ok, I thought. There was a significant birth rate and life expectancy drop after the Soviet collapse, was it not ?

smalltownlib said...

The permafrost melting in Russia could bring more than problems with oil/gas industry infrastructure. How does anyone farm in a methane swamp?