Monday, March 31, 2008

The Collapse Party Platform

My forthcoming book, Reinventing Collapse, has just gone to print, and it is time to publish some excerpts. This being an election year in the US, I thought it fitting to circulate my little wish list of items that the US government could try to accomplish if it suddenly decided to make itself useful.

If the entire country were to embrace the notion that collapse is inevitable and that it must prepare for it, a new political party might be formed: the Collapse Party. If this party were to succeed in upending the two-party monopoly and forming a majority government, this government would then want to implement a crash program to dismantle institutions that have no future, create new ones that are designed to survive collapse and save whatever can be saved. If, further, this crash program somehow succeeded, in spite of constitutional limitations on government action, and in spite of the inevitable lack of financial resources for such an ambitious undertaking, and in spite of the insurmountable bureaucratic complexity, then I for one would be really surprised!

Barring such surprises, it sometimes happens that events spontaneously move us in a desirable direction while governments continue to usher us along toward an unbearably grim but mercifully unlikely future. And so here are some things that I would like to spontaneously happen, in preparation for collapse.

I am particularly concerned about all the radioactive and toxic installations, stockpiles and dumps. Future generations are unlikely to be able to control them, especially if global warming puts them underwater. There is enough of this muck sitting around to kill off most of us. There are abandoned mine sites at which, soon after the bulldozers and the excavators stop running, toxic tailings and the contents of settling ponds will flow into and poison the waters of major rivers, making their flood plains and estuaries uninhabitable for many centuries. Many nuclear power plants have been built near coastlines, for access to ocean water for cooling. These will be at risk of inundation due to extreme weather events and rising sea levels caused by global warming. At many nuclear power stations, spent fuel rods are stored in a pool right at the reactor site, because the search for a more permanent storage place has been mired in politics. There are surely better places to store them than next to population centers and bodies of water. Nuclear reservations — sites that have been permanently contaminated in the process of manufacturing nuclear weapons — should be marked with sufficiently large, durable and frightening obelisks to warn off travelers long after all memory of their builders has faded away.

I am also worried about soldiers getting stranded overseas — abandoning its soldiers is among the most shameful things a country can do. Not only is it an indelible stain on the country’s honor, it is an effective way to create a large underclass of desperate armed men who do not answer to any authority, creating a society where the price of a contract killing is only slightly higher than the price of the ammunition. The United States maintains over a thousand overseas military bases, most of which serve no purpose other than maintaining a megalomaniac fiction of American military superiority. They are often resupplied by private contractors, whose procurement operations rely on the domestic civilian economy. As long as the economy is intact, they can bring three flavors of ice cream to an air-conditioned tent in the middle of a desert, but once the economy collapses, they will collapse with it, and the military may turn out to lack even the resources to truck in water. Overseas military bases should be dismantled and the troops repatriated.

I would like to see the huge prison population whittled away in a controlled manner, ahead of time, instead of in a chaotic general amnesty. Such an amnesty will have to happen as a matter of course, once the resources that sustain the prison system stop flowing. The scenario to avoid is one in which, in the midst of general chaos, the entire population of prisoners is released en masse and, with no other resources available to them, they start plying their various criminal trades. Paroling the non-violent, shortening sentences, decriminalizing drugs, and providing room and board to former inmates, are all reasonable steps to take to prevent a crime wave of staggering proportions once the criminal justice system finally shuts down.

Lastly, I think that this farce with debts that will never be repaid has gone on long enough. Collateralized debt will evaporate once the value of the collateral is too low to secure the debt: if the house has no water, cannot be lit, heated or reached by transportation, its value is effectively zero, and so is the value of the mortgage. Non-collateralized debt, such as credit card debt in the post-bankruptcy-reform era, is secured by the threat of force — be it breaking legs or garnering wages — and even such measures bring diminishing returns in a collapsing economy. Wiping the slate clean ahead of time will give society some time to readjust to the new reality. Perhaps most importantly, by canceling debts before they become unrepayable, it may be possible to prevent the current system — one of indentured servitude based on debt — from evolving into a system of permanent servitude based on force: a new American slavery. I remain optimistic that the forces of chaos will prevent such a system from becoming entrenched; nevertheless, it might be prudent to take some measures to make such an outcome even less likely.

[Reinventing Collapse, p. 110-113]

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Grandpa Orlov's Vodka Recipe

Sharon Astyk is running a month-long series on food storage, and, as it is an excellent idea to start learning how to grow and preserve your own food, I highly recommend that you get with her program. Even if you do not grow your own food, buying it in bulk, when it is in season, and preserving it yourself, will save you money and allow you to take a step in the direction of self-sufficiency.

Now, "Man doth not live by bread alone..." [Deut. viii. 3] This becomes especially apparent at the onset of cocktail hour, and, in circumstances both dire and not-so-dire, having a source of home-made "spiritual sustenance" can often spell the difference between miserable company and amiable companionship.

When it comes to food, waste is a fact of life. Almost always, there is fruit left rotting on the vine or on the ground, and it usually goes straight into the compost. But there is something more useful that can be done with it: it can be made into alcohol. Anything that has sugar in it can be fermented and distilled.

For years, my father made vodka in our kitchen in an apartment in Leningrad, using the technique I am about to describe. This made him a popular man: he would pour it into brand-name bottles and bring them to parties. Most people probably just wondered how he managed to get his hands on such fancy imported booze. Due to certain official restrictions, the fact that it was moonshine was communicated on a need-to-know basis. And since the substance in question was effectively identical to the brand-name substance (alcohol is alcohol) plausible deniability was maintained.

Store-bought alcohol, with the possible exception of certain low-grade products, is made from high-quality inputs: grains, grapes, and so forth. But here is the shocking good news: you can make excellent quality vodka, something you can proudly serve in a martini glass, out of stuff that would otherwise go into compost. The key fact is that vodka is just alcohol diluted with water; the better the vodka, the more pure the alcohol. Its good taste does not come from the ingredients that were used to make it but from the complete lack thereof in the final product.

To make it, whatever it is you can get your hands on (rotting apples, pears, grapes, berries, and so forth) is mashed and soaked in hot (but not boiling) water to dissolve out the sugars. The result is strained, to get rid of the solids, then boiled to kill everything in it and poured into a large bucket with a tight-fitting lid. After it cools to luke-warm, yeast is "pitched" into it and an airlock (bubbler) is placed on top. Any book on making wine or beer will tell you how to measure and adjust specific gravity, to make sure that wild yeast (which can cause runaway frothing) is kept out, and that fermentation has a chance to runs to completion before the yeast gets too drunk to do its work.

After the bucket is allowed to sit for some weeks in a warm place, the result can be distilled. Distillation requires some equipment, such as a pressure cooker fitted with some sort cooling apparatus (glass or metal tubing submerged in cold water) to turn alcohol vapor into condensate before it escapes. Again, there are plenty of resources, on the web and in the library, on how to do this.

Now, here is the magic step that turns cloudy, stinky, low-grade moonshine into something that is indistinguishable from Stolichnaya, Finlandia, Absolut, or any other high-quality commercial vodka. Sprinkle in potassium permanganate crystals (available in bulk from pool supply stores) and agitate until the liquid turns slightly pink. Label it "Poison!" to make sure nobody drinks it, and let it stand overnight. (It's won't kill you if you drink it, but it will wipe out your intestinal fauna and give you really bad diarrhea, so it's important to make sure that nobody drinks it at this stage. If some fool does drink it, just feed him some yogurt or acidophilus tablets, plus something for the fierce hangover.)

A day or so later, the solution will no longer be pink (or toxic), but it will be cloudy, and there will be some dark precipitate at the bottom. Take a funnel, pack it with cotton, lay down a layer of charcoal (either commercially available activated charcoal or wood charcoal knocked off a partially burned log), and pack it down tight. Drip the distillate through the filter, changing the stuffing every gallon or so. The result will be clear and have no taste or smell other than the taste and smell of alcohol. Add water to bring it to 80 or 100 proof, and consume responsibly.

Bon appetit!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Two-Step to Empire

ClubOrlov officially endorses Richard Cheney as the candidate for US Emperor. Dick is superbly suited to serve as the imperial figurehead for the few months or years that he and/or the US Empire will continue to exist. Thanks to the efforts of the Bush/Cheney administration, the constitution of the United States has been reduced to a largely inconsequential historical document, and this should make the transition from Republican to imperial administration an even simpler matter than it was in Rome under Julius Caesar. Since Cheney has already pronounced the Office of the Vice President to be a new, fourth branch of government, all that remains is for him to to rename it Office of the Emperor, and to prune back some of the other branches.

Such evolutionary measures would be timely. Many American commentators have pointed out that a new cold war and an arms race should be starting up between the United States and Russia. That the Russians remain largely unimpressed by America's hostile overtures towards them is a clear indication of how ineffectual American pseudo-democracy has become. In comparison, Russian pseudo-democracy appears to be evolving by leaps and bounds. Just a few days ago, a new Russian President was elected, with a minimum of fuss and zero uncertainty as to the outcome of the election. The successor was appointed by his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, and the electorate cheerfully ratified his decision. His choice of successor is most felicitous: the new president's name is Dmitry, as is mine, he is about my age, about my height, from my home town (St. Petersburg), and from a similar family background (academic). Clearly, he is a swell fellow, and only an enemy of ClubOrlov could dislike him.

In comparison, the menagerie of American presidential candidates leaves much to be desired. We have an Eva Perón sort of candidate: not unexpected, since having the wife of the president run the country is a great American tradition (Latin American, until now, but that distinction is fast fading into insignificance). Whatever happens, don't cry for her, Argent... um... América... del Norte! We also have a tempestuous geriatric, who would like to bomb-bomb-bomb Iran. He believes that the lack of military success in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan is due to civilian meddling in military affairs, and has nothing to do with the idiotic choice of missions, such as his idea of attacking Iran. Last but not least, we have the son of an anthropologist, an empath with a special ability to create a powerful psychological suction. The vacuum he creates sucks in his followers' hopes, whatever they may be. He might do for us is what Jane Goodall did for the chimps: hand out bananas and watch the chimps fight over them. Some of us chimps have the audacity to hope that your bananas will become ours.

All of this playing at politics is completely unnecessary. Democracy is for those capable of self-governance. Americans are not interested in governing themselves, but in watching television, and the political spectacle does not make for particularly compelling television viewing. To make it more interesting, I would like to propose a process of political reform which I call "Two-Step to Empire." Step 1: McCain chooses Cheney as his running mate and, come November, Diebold comes up with some numbers to show that they have won; Step 2: Cheney renames "Office of the Vice President" to "Office of the Emperor" while McCain gratefully fades from view, his mission completed.

As Emperor, Cheney would be able to drive to completion some of the projects he has championed as Vice President. He would reorganize the Secret Service and the military into a single large, for-profit institution called, say, the Praetorian Guard. He would streamline the federal bureaucracy along imperial lines, eliminating such redundancies as congressional oversight and an independent judiciary. And he would be able to directly charge into battle against all enemies foreign and domestic, real and imagined, directly leading his troops. This last endeavor is not without risk, and may cause Dick to end up like the Roman Emperor Valerian, who was captured, killed, and had his corpse stuffed with straw, mounted, and put on permanent exhibit at a Mesopotamian temple, in perpetual ignominy. Or the Praetorian Guard, finding these numerous conflicts dangerous and unprofitable, might arrange for their fearless leader's untimely demise and replace him with his named successor: Empress Condoleezza.

In due course, US Empire would become ungovernable as a unit and be forced to split into two, just as the Roman Empire did. Empress Condoleezza would remain as Empress of the East, while Emperor Arnold would ascend to the throne as Emperor of the West. While Emperor Arnold can very well drive his own chariot at the Coliseum, mashing terrorist captives into a bloody pulp under the wheels of his speeding chariot, Empress Condoleezza would need to appoint a body-double, to avoid frightening the horses. Naomi Campbell might be suitable.

I believe that this imperial approach would make for much more compelling and riveting television viewing than the current tawdry and meaningless electoral spectacle.