The following talk was given on February 13, 2009, at Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, to an audience of 550 people. Audio of the talk is available here. Video of the talk is available here.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for showing up. It's certainly nice to travel all the way across the North American continent and have a few people come to see you, even if the occasion isn't a happy one. You are here to listen to me talk about social collapse and the various ways we can avoid screwing that up along with everything else that's gone wrong. I know it's a lot to ask of you, because why wouldn't you instead want to go and eat, drink, and be merry? Well, perhaps there will still be time left for that after my talk.
I would like to thank the Long Now Foundation for inviting me, and I feel very honored to appear in the same venue as many serious, professional people, such as Michael Pollan, who will be here in May, or some of the previous speakers, such as Nassim Taleb, or Brian Eno – some of my favorite people, really. I am just a tourist. I flew over here to give this talk and to take in the sights, and then I'll fly back to Boston and go back to my day job. Well, I am also a blogger. And I also wrote a book. But then everyone has a book, or so it would seem.
You might ask yourself, then, Why on earth did he get invited to speak here tonight? It seems that I am enjoying my moment in the limelight, because I am one of the very few people who several years ago unequivocally predicted the demise of the United States as a global superpower. The idea that the USA will go the way of the USSR seemed preposterous at the time. It doesn't seem so preposterous any more. I take it some of you are still hedging your bets. How is that hedge fund doing, by the way?
I think I prefer remaining just a tourist, because I have learned from experience – luckily, from other people's experience – that being a superpower collapse predictor is not a good career choice. I learned that by observing what happened to the people who successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. Do you know who Andrei Amalrik is? See, my point exactly. He successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. He was off by just half a decade. That was another valuable lesson for me, which is why I will not give you an exact date when USA will turn into FUSA ("F" is for "Former"). But even if someone could choreograph the whole event, it still wouldn't make for much of a career, because once it all starts falling apart, people have far more important things to attend to than marveling at the wonderful predictive abilities of some Cassandra-like person.
I hope that I have made it clear that I am not here in any sort of professional capacity. I consider what I am doing a kind of community service. So, if you don't like my talk, don't worry about me. There are plenty of other things I can do. But I would like my insights to be of help during these difficult and confusing times, for altruistic reasons, mostly, although not entirely. This is because when times get really bad, as they did when the Soviet Union collapsed, lots of people just completely lose it. Men, especially. Successful, middle-aged men, breadwinners, bastions of society, turn out to be especially vulnerable. And when they just completely lose it, they become very tedious company. My hope is that some amount of preparation, psychological and otherwise, can make them a lot less fragile, and a bit more useful, and generally less of a burden.
Women seem much more able to cope. Perhaps it is because they have less of their ego invested in the whole dubious enterprise, or perhaps their sense of personal responsibility is tied to those around them and not some nebulous grand enterprise. In any case, the women always seem far more able to just put on their gardening gloves and go do something useful, while the men tend to sit around groaning about the Empire, or the Republic, or whatever it is that they lost. And when they do that, they become very tedious company. And so, without a bit of mental preparation, the men are all liable to end up very lonely and very drunk. So that's my little intervention.
If there is one thing that I would like to claim as my own, it is the comparative theory of superpower collapse. For now, it remains just a theory, although it is currently being quite thoroughly tested. The theory states that the United States and the Soviet Union will have collapsed for the same reasons, namely: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget, and ballooning foreign debt. I call this particular list of ingredients "The Superpower Collapse Soup." Other factors, such as the inability to provide an acceptable quality of life for its citizens, or a systemically corrupt political system incapable of reform, are certainly not helpful, but they do not automatically lead to collapse, because they do not put the country on a collision course with reality. Please don't be too concerned, though, because, as I mentioned, this is just a theory. My theory.
I've been working on this theory since about 1995, when it occurred to me that the US is retracing the same trajectory as the USSR. As so often is the case, having this realization was largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The two most important methods of solving problems are: 1. by knowing the solution ahead of time, and 2. by guessing it correctly. I learned this in engineering school – from a certain professor. I am not that good at guesswork, but I do sometimes know the answer ahead of time.
I was very well positioned to have this realization because I grew up straddling the two worlds – the USSR and the US. I grew up in Russia, and moved to the US when I was twelve, and so I am fluent in Russian, and I understand Russian history and Russian culture the way only a native Russian can. But I went through high school and university in the US .I had careers in several industries here, I traveled widely around the country, and so I also have a very good understanding of the US with all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. I traveled back to Russia in 1989, when things there still seemed more or less in line with the Soviet norm, and again in 1990, when the economy was at a standstill, and big changes were clearly on the way. I went back there 3 more times in the 1990s, and observed the various stages of Soviet collapse first-hand.
By the mid-1990s I started to see Soviet/American Superpowerdom as a sort of disease that strives for world dominance but in effect eviscerates its host country, eventually leaving behind an empty shell: an impoverished population, an economy in ruins, a legacy of social problems, and a tremendous burden of debt. The symmetries between the two global superpowers were then already too numerous to mention, and they have been growing more obvious ever since.
The superpower symmetries may be of interest to policy wonks and history buffs and various skeptics, but they tell us nothing that would be useful in our daily lives. It is the asymmetries, the differences between the two superpowers, that I believe to be most instructive. When the Soviet system went away, many people lost their jobs, everyone lost their savings, wages and pensions were held back for months, their value was wiped out by hyperinflation, there shortages of food, gasoline, medicine, consumer goods, there was a large increase in crime and violence, and yet Russian society did not collapse. Somehow, the Russians found ways to muddle through. How was that possible? It turns out that many aspects of the Soviet system were paradoxically resilient in the face of system-wide collapse, many institutions continued to function, and the living arrangement was such that people did not lose access to food, shelter or transportation, and could survive even without an income. The Soviet economic system failed to thrive, and the Communist experiment at constructing a worker's paradise on earth was, in the end, a failure. But as a side effect it inadvertently achieved a high level of collapse-preparedness. In comparison, the American system could produce significantly better results, for time, but at the cost of creating and perpetuating a living arrangement that is very fragile, and not at all capable of holding together through the inevitable crash. Even after the Soviet economy evaporated and the government largely shut down, Russians still had plenty left for them to work with. And so there is a wealth of useful information and insight that we can extract from the Russian experience, which we can then turn around and put to good use in helping us improvise a new living arrangement here in the United States – one that is more likely to be survivable.
The mid-1990s did not seem to me as the right time to voice such ideas. The United States was celebrating its so-called Cold War victory, getting over its Vietnam syndrome by bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age, and the foreign policy wonks coined the term "hyperpower" and were jabbering on about full-spectrum dominance. All sorts of silly things were happening. Professor Fukuyama told us that history had ended, and so we were building a brave new world where the Chinese made things out of plastic for us, the Indians provided customer support when these Chinese-made things broke, and we paid for it all just by flipping houses, pretending that they were worth a lot of money whereas they are really just useless bits of ticky-tacky. Alan Greenspan chided us about "irrational exuberance" while consistently low-balling interest rates. It was the "Goldilocks economy" – not to hot, not too cold. Remember that? And now it turns out that it was actually more of a "Tinker-bell" economy, because the last five or so years of economic growth was more or less a hallucination, based on various debt pyramids, the "whole house of cards" as President Bush once referred to it during one of his lucid moments. And now we can look back on all of that with a funny, queasy feeling, or we can look forward and feel nothing but vertigo.
While all of these silly things were going on, I thought it best to keep my comparative theory of superpower collapse to myself. During that time, I was watching the action in the oil industry, because I understood that oil imports are the Achilles' heel of the US economy. In the mid-1990s the all-time peak in global oil production was scheduled for the turn of the century. But then a lot of things happened that delayed it by at least half a decade. Perhaps you’ve noticed this too, there is a sort of refrain here: people who try to predict big historical shifts always turn to be off by about half a decade. Unsuccessful predictions, on the other hand are always spot on as far as timing: the world as we know it failed to end precisely at midnight on January 1, 2000. Perhaps there is a physical principal involved: information spreads at the speed of light, while ignorance is instantaneous at all points in the known universe. So please make a mental note: whenever it seems to you that I am making a specific prediction as to when I think something is likely to happen, just silently add “plus or minus half a decade.”
In any case, about half a decade ago, I finally thought that the time was ripe, and, as it has turned out, I wasn’t too far off. In June of 2005 I published an article on the subject, titled "Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century," which was quite popular, even to the extent that I got paid for it. It is available at various places on the Internet. A little while later I formalized my thinking somewhat into the "Collapse Gap" concept, which I presented at a conference in Manhattan in April of 2006. The slide show from that presentation, titled "Closing the Collapse Gap," was posted on the Internet and has been downloaded a few million times since then. Then, in January of 2008, when it became apparent to me that financial collapse was well underway, and that other stages of collapse were to follow, I published a short article titled “The Five Stages of Collapse,” which I later expanded into a talk I gave at a conference in Michigan in October of 2008. Finally, at the end of 2008, I announced on my blog that I am getting out of the prognosticating business. I have made enough predictions, they all seem very well on track (give or take half a decade, please remember that), collapse is well underway, and now I am just an observer.
But this talk is about something else, something other than making dire predictions and then acting all smug when they come true. You see, there is nothing more useless than predictions, once they have come true. It’s like looking at last year’s amazingly successful stock picks: what are you going to do about them this year? What we need are examples of things that have been shown to work in the strange, unfamiliar, post-collapse environment that we are all likely to have to confront. Stuart Brand proposed the title for the talk – “Social Collapse Best Practices” – and I thought that it was an excellent idea. Although the term “best practices” has been diluted over time to sometimes mean little more than “good ideas,” initially it stood for the process of abstracting useful techniques from examples of what has worked in the past and applying them to new situations, in order to control risk and to increase the chances of securing a positive outcome. It’s a way of skipping a lot of trial and error and deliberation and experimentation, and to just go with what works.
In organizations, especially large organizations, “best practices” also offer a good way to avoid painful episodes of watching colleagues trying to “think outside the box” whenever they are confronted with a new problem. If your colleagues were any good at thinking outside the box, they probably wouldn’t feel so compelled to spend their whole working lives sitting in a box keeping an office chair warm. If they were any good at thinking outside the box, they would have by now thought of a way to escape from that box. So perhaps what would make them feel happy and productive again is if someone came along and gave them a different box inside of which to think – a box better suited to the post-collapse environment.
Here is the key insight: you might think that when collapse happens, nothing works. That’s just not the case. The old ways of doing things don’t work any more, the old assumptions are all invalidated, conventional goals and measures of success become irrelevant. But a different set of goals, techniques, and measures of success can be brought to bear immediately, and the sooner the better. But enough generalities, let’s go through some specifics. We’ll start with some generalities, and, as you will see, it will all become very, very specific rather quickly.
Here is another key insight: there are very few things that are positives or negatives per se. Just about everything is a matter of context. Now, it just so happens that most things that are positives prior to collapse turn out to be negatives once collapse occurs, and vice versa. For instance, prior to collapse having high inventory in a business is bad, because the businesses have to store it and finance it, so they try to have just-in-time inventory. After collapse, high inventory turns out to be very useful, because they can barter it for the things they need, and they can’t easily get more because they don’t have any credit. Prior to collapse, it’s good for a business to have the right level of staffing and an efficient organization. After collapse, what you want is a gigantic, sluggish bureaucracy that can’t unwind operations or lay people off fast enough through sheer bureaucratic foot-dragging. Prior to collapse, what you want is an effective retail segment and good customer service. After collapse, you regret not having an unreliable retail segment, with shortages and long bread lines, because then people would have been forced to learn to shift for themselves instead of standing around waiting for somebody to come and feed them.
If you notice, none of these things that I mentioned have any bearing on what is commonly understood as “economic health.” Prior to collapse, the overall macroeconomic positive is an expanding economy. After collapse, economic contraction is a given, and the overall macroeconomic positive becomes something of an imponderable, so we are forced to listen to a lot of nonsense. The situation is either slightly better than expected or slightly worse than expected. We are always either months or years away from economic recovery. Business as usual will resume sooner or later, because some television bobble-head said so.
But let’s take it apart. Starting from the very general, what are the current macroeconomic objectives, if you listen to the hot air coming out of Washington at the moment? First: growth, of course! Getting the economy going. We learned nothing from the last huge spike in commodity prices, so let’s just try it again. That calls for economic stimulus, a.k.a. printing money. Let’s see how high the prices go up this time. Maybe this time around we will achieve hyperinflation. Second: Stabilizing financial institutions: getting banks lending – that’s important too. You see, we are just not in enough debt yet, that’s our problem. We need more debt, and quickly! Third: jobs! We need to create jobs. Low-wage jobs, of course, to replace all the high-wage manufacturing jobs we’ve been shedding for decades now, and replacing them with low-wage service sector jobs, mainly ones without any job security or benefits. Right now, a lot of people could slow down the rate at which they are sinking further into debt if they quit their jobs. That is, their job is a net loss for them as individuals as well as for the economy as a whole. But, of course, we need much more of that, and quickly!
So that’s what we have now. The ship is on the rocks, water is rising, and the captain is shouting “Full steam ahead! We are sailing to Afghanistan!” Do you listen to Ahab up on the bridge, or do you desert your post in the engine room and go help deploy the lifeboats? If you thought that the previous episode of uncontrolled debt expansion, globalized Ponzi schemes, and economic hollowing-out was silly, then I predict that you will find this next episode of feckless grasping at macroeconomic straws even sillier. Except that it won’t be funny: what is crashing now is our life support system: all the systems and institutions that are keeping us alive. And so I don’t recommend passively standing around and watching the show – unless you happen to have a death wish.
Right now the Washington economic stimulus team is putting on their Scuba gear and diving down to the engine room to try to invent a way to get a diesel engine to run on seawater. They spoke of change, but in reality they are terrified of change and want to cling with all their might to the status quo. But this game will soon be over, and they don’t have any idea what to do next.
So, what is there for them to do? Forget “growth,” forget “jobs,” forget “financial stability.” What should their realistic new objectives be? Well, here they are: food, shelter, transportation, and security. Their task is to find a way to provide all of these necessities on an emergency basis, in absence of a functioning economy, with commerce at a standstill, with little or no access to imports, and to make them available to a population that is largely penniless. If successful, society will remain largely intact, and will be able to begin a slow and painful process of cultural transition, and eventually develop a new economy, a gradually de-industrializing economy, at a much lower level of resource expenditure, characterized by a quite a lot of austerity and even poverty, but in conditions that are safe, decent, and dignified. If unsuccessful, society will be gradually destroyed in a series of convulsions that will leave a defunct nation composed of many wretched little fiefdoms. Given its largely depleted resource base, a dysfunctional, collapsing infrastructure, and its history of unresolved social conflicts, the territory of the Former United States will undergo a process of steady degeneration punctuated by natural and man-made cataclysms.
Food. Shelter. Transportation. Security. When it comes to supplying these survival necessities, the Soviet example offers many valuable lessons. As I already mentioned, in a collapse many economic negatives become positives, and vice versa. Let us consider each one of these in turn.
The Soviet agricultural sector was plagued by consistent underperformance. In many ways, this was the legacy of the disastrous collectivization experiment carried out in the 1930s, which destroyed many of the more prosperous farming households and herded people into collective farms. Collectivization undermined the ancient village-based agricultural traditions that had made pre-revolutionary Russia a well-fed place that was also the breadbasket of Western Europe. A great deal of further damage was caused by the introduction of industrial agriculture. The heavy farm machinery alternately compacted and tore up the topsoil while dosing it with chemicals, depleting it and killing the biota. Eventually, the Soviet government had to turn to importing grain from countries hostile to its interests – United States and Canada – and eventually expanded this to include other foodstuffs. The USSR experienced a permanent shortage of meat and other high-protein foods, and much of the imported grain was used to raise livestock to try to address this problem.
Although it was generally possible to survive on the foods available at the government stores, the resulting diet would have been rather poor, and so people tried to supplement it with food they gathered, raised, or caught, or purchased at farmers’ markets. Kitchen gardens were always common, and, once the economy collapsed, a lot of families took to growing food in earnest. The kitchen gardens, by themselves, were never sufficient, but they made a huge difference.
The year 1990 was particularly tough when it came to trying to score something edible. I remember one particular joke from that period. Black humor has always been one of Russia’s main psychological coping mechanisms. A man walks into a food store, goes to the meat counter, and he sees that it is completely empty. So he asks the butcher: “Don’t you have any fish?” And the butcher answers: “No, here is where we don’t have any meat. Fish is what they don’t have over at the seafood counter.”
Poor though it was, the Soviet food distribution system never collapsed completely. In particular, the deliveries of bread continued even during the worst of times, partly because has always been such an important part of the Russian diet, and partly because access to bread symbolized the pact between the people and the Communist government, enshrined in oft-repeated revolutionary slogans. Also, it is important to remember that in Russia most people have lived within walking distance of food shops, and used public transportation to get out to their kitchen gardens, which were often located in the countryside immediately surrounding the relatively dense, compact cities. This combination of factors made for some lean times, but very little malnutrition and no starvation.
In the United States, the agricultural system is heavily industrialized, and relies on inputs such as diesel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and, perhaps most importantly, financing. In the current financial climate, the farmers’ access to financing is not at all assured. This agricultural system is efficient, but only if you regard fossil fuel energy as free. In fact, it is a way to transform fossil fuel energy into food with a bit of help from sunlight, to the tune of 10 calories of fossil fuel energy being embodied in each calorie that is consumed as food. The food distribution system makes heavy use of refrigerated diesel trucks, transforming food over hundreds of miles to resupply supermarkets. The food pipeline is long and thin, and it takes only a couple of days of interruptions for supermarket shelves to be stripped bare. Many people live in places that are not within walking distance of stores, not served by public transportation, and will be cut off from food sources once they are no longer able to drive.
Besides the supermarket chains, much of the nation’s nutrition needs are being met by an assortment of fast food joints and convenience stores. In fact, in many of the less fashionable parts of cities and towns, fast food and convenience store food is all that is available. In the near future, this trend is likely to extend to the more prosperous parts of town and the suburbs.
Fast food outfits such as McDonalds have more ways to cut costs, and so may prove a bit more resilient in the face of economic collapse than supermarket chains, but they are no substitute for food security, because they too depend industrial agribusiness. Their food inputs, such as high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified potatoes, various soy-based fillers, factory-farmed beef, pork and chicken, and so forth, are derived from oil, two-thirds of which is imported, as well as fertilizer made from natural gas. They may be able to stay in business longer, supplying food-that-isn’t-really-food, but eventually they will run out of inputs along with the rest of the supply chain. Before they do, they may for a time sell burgers that aren’t really burgers, like the bread that wasn’t really bread that the Soviet government distributed in Leningrad during the Nazi blockade. It was mostly sawdust, with a bit of rye flour added for flavor.
Can we think of any ways to avoid this dismal scenario? The Russian example may give us a clue. Many Russian families could gauge how fast the economy was crashing, and, based on that, decide how many rows of potatoes to plant. Could we perhaps do something similar? There is already a healthy gardening movement in the United States; can it be scaled up? The trick is to make small patches of farmland available for non-mechanical cultivation by individuals and families, in increments as small as 1000 square feet. The ideal spots would be fertile bits of land with access to rivers and streams for irrigation. Provisions would have to be made for campsites and for transportation, allowing people to undertake seasonal migrations out to the land to grow food during the growing season, and haul the produce back to the population centers after taking in the harvest.
An even simpler approach has been successfully used in Cuba: converting urban parking lots and other empty bits of land to raised-bed agriculture. Instead of continually trucking in vegetables and other food, it is much easier to truck in soil, compost, and mulch just once a season. Raised highways can be closed to traffic (since there is unlikely to be much traffic in any case) and used to catch rainwater for irrigation. Rooftops and balconies can be used for hothouses, henhouses, and a variety of other agricultural uses.
How difficult would this be to organize? Well, Cubans were actually helped by their government, but the Russians managed to do it in more or less in spite of the Soviet bureaucrats, and so we might be able to do it in spite of the American ones. The government could theoretically head up such an effort, purely hypothetically speaking, of course, because I see no evidence that such an effort is being considered. For our fearless national leaders, such initiatives are too low-level: if they stimulate the economy and get the banks lending again, the potatoes will simply grow themselves. All they need to do is print some more money, right?
Moving on to shelter. Again, let’s look at how the Russians managed to muddle through. In the Soviet Union, people did not own their place of residence. Everyone was assigned a place to live, which was recorded in a person’s internal passport. People could not be dislodged from their place of residence for as long as they drew oxygen. Since most people in Russia live in cities, the place of residence was usually an apartment, or a room in a communal apartment, with shared bathroom and kitchen. There was a permanent housing shortage, and so people often doubled up, with three generations living together. The apartments were often crowded, sometimes bordering on squalid. If people wanted to move, they had to find somebody else who wanted to move, who would want to exchange rooms or apartments with them. There were always long waiting lists for apartments, and children often grew up, got married, and had children before receiving a place of their own.
These all seem like negatives, but consider the flip side of all this: the high population density made this living arrangement quite affordable. With several generations living together, families were on hand to help each other. Grandparents provided day care, freeing up their children’s time to do other things. The apartment buildings were always built near public transportation, so they did not have to rely on private cars to get around. Apartment buildings are relatively cheap to heat, and municipal services easy to provide and maintain because of the short runs of pipe and cable. Perhaps most importantly, after the economy collapsed, people lost their savings, many people lost their jobs, even those that still had jobs often did not get paid for months, and when they were the value of their wages was destroyed by hyperinflation, but there were no foreclosures, no evictions, municipal services such as heat, water, and sometimes even hot water continued to be provided, and everyone had their families close by. Also, because it was so difficult to relocate, people generally stayed in one place for generations, and so they tended to know all the people around them. After the economic collapse, there was a large spike in the crime rate, which made it very helpful to be surrounded by people who weren’t strangers, and who could keep an eye on things. Lastly, in an interesting twist, the Soviet housing arrangement delivered an amazing final windfall: in the 1990s all of these apartments were privatized, and the people who lived in them suddenly became owners of some very valuable real estate, free and clear.
Switching back to the situation in the US: in recent months, many people here have reconciled themselves to the idea that their house is not an ATM machine, nor is it a nest egg. They already know that they will not be able to comfortably retire by selling it, or get rich by fixing it up and flipping it, and quite a few people have acquiesced to the fact that real estate prices are going to continue heading lower. The question is, How much lower? A lot of people still think that there must be a lower limit, a “realistic” price. This thought is connected to the notion that housing is a necessity. After all, everybody needs a place to live.
Well, it is certainly true that some sort of shelter is a necessity, be it an apartment, or a dorm room, a bunk in a barrack, a boat, a camper, or a tent, a teepee, a wigwam, a shipping container... The list is virtually endless. But there is no reason at all to think that a suburban single-family house is in any sense a requirement. It is little more than a cultural preference, and a very shortsighted one at that. Most suburban houses are expensive to heat and cool, inaccessible by public transportation, expensive to hook up to public utilities because of the long runs of pipe and cable, and require a great deal of additional public expenditure on road, bridge and highway maintenance, school buses, traffic enforcement, and other nonsense. They often take up what was once valuable agricultural land. They promote a car-centric culture that is destructive of urban environments, causing a proliferation of dead downtowns. Many families that live in suburban houses can no longer afford to live in them, and expect others to bail them out.
As this living arrangement becomes unaffordable for all concerned, it will also become unlivable. Municipalities and public utilities will not have the funds to lavish on sewer, water, electricity, road and bridge repair, and police. Without cheap and plentiful gasoline, natural gas, and heating oil, many suburban dwellings will become both inaccessible and unlivable. The inevitable result will be a mass migration of suburban refugees toward the more survivable, more densely settled towns and cities. The luckier ones will find friends or family to stay with; for the rest, it would be very helpful to improvise some solution.
One obvious answer is to repurpose the ever-plentiful vacant office buildings for residential use. Converting offices to dormitories is quite straightforward. Many of them already have kitchens and bathrooms, plenty of partitions and other furniture, and all they are really missing is beds. Putting in beds is just not that difficult. The new, subsistence economy is unlikely to generate the large surpluses that are necessary for sustaining the current large population of office plankton. The businesses that once occupied these offices are not coming back, so we might as well find new and better uses for them.
Another category of real estate that is likely to go unused and that can be repurposed for new communities is college campuses. The American 4-year college is an institution of dubious merit. It exists because American public schools fail to teach in 12 years what Russian public schools manage to teach in 8. As fewer and fewer people become able to afford college, which is likely to happen, because meager career prospects after graduation will make them bad risks for student loans, perhaps this will provide the impetus to do something about the public education system. One idea would be to scrap it, then start small, but eventually build something a bit more on par with world standards.
College campuses make perfect community centers: there are dormitories for newcomers, fraternities and sororities for the more settled residents, and plenty of grand public buildings that can be put to a variety of uses. A college campus normally contains the usual wasteland of mowed turf that can be repurposed to grow food, or, at the very least, hay, and to graze cattle. Perhaps some enlightened administrators, trustees and faculty members will fall upon this idea once they see admissions flat-lining and endowments dropping to zero, without any need for government involvement. So here we have a ray of hope, don’t we.
Moving on to transportation. Here, we need to make sure that people don’t get stranded in places that are not survivable. Then we have to provide for seasonal migrations to places where people can grow, catch, or gather their own food, and then back to places where they can survive the winter without freezing to death or going stir-crazy from cabin fever. Lastly, some amount of freight will have to be moved, to transport food to population centers, as well as enough coal and firewood to keep the pipes from freezing in the remaining habitable dwellings.
All of this is going to be a bit of a challenge, because it all hinges on the availability of transportation fuels, and it seems very probable that transportation fuels will be both too expensive and in short supply before too long. From about 2005 and until the middle of 2008 the global oil has been holding steady, unable to grow materially beyond a level that has been characterized as a “bumpy plateau.” An all-time record was set in 2005, and then, after a period of record-high oil prices, again only in 2008. Then, as the financial collapse gathered speed, oil and other commodity prices crashed, along with oil production. More recently, the oil markets have come to rest on an altogether different “bumpy plateau”: the oil prices are bumping along at around $40 a barrel and can’t seem to go any lower. It would appear that oil production costs have risen to a point where it does not make economic sense to sell oil at below this price.
Now, $40 a barrel is a good price for US consumers at the moment, but there is hyperinflation on the horizon, thanks to the money-printing extravaganza currently underway in Washington, and $40 could easily become $400 and then $4000 a barrel, swiftly pricing US consumers out of the international oil market. On top of that, exporting countries would balk at the idea of trading their oil for an increasingly worthless currency, and would start insisting on payment in kind – in some sort of tangible export commodity, which the US, in its current economic state, would be hard-pressed to provide in any great quantity. Domestic oil production is in permanent decline, and can provide only about a third of current needs. This is still quite a lot of oil, but it will be very difficult to avoid the knock-on effects of widespread oil shortages. There will be widespread hoarding, quite a lot of gasoline will simply evaporate into the atmosphere, vented from various jerricans and improvised storage containers, the rest will disappear into the black market, and much fuel will be wasted driving around looking for someone willing to part with a bit of gas that’s needed for some small but critical mission.
I am quite familiar with this scenario, because I happened to be in Russia during a time of gasoline shortages. On one occasion, I found out by word of mouth that a certain gas station was open and distributing 10 liters apiece. I brought along my uncle’s wife, who at the time was 8 months pregnant, and we tried use her huge belly to convince the gas station attendant to give us an extra 10 liters with which to drive her to the hospital when the time came. No dice. The pat answer was: “Everybody is 8 months pregnant!” How can you argue with that logic? So 10 liters was it for us too, belly or no belly.
So, what can we do to get our little critical missions accomplished in spite of chronic fuel shortages? The most obvious idea, of course, is to not use any fuel. Bicycles, and cargo bikes in particular, are an excellent adaptation. Sailboats are a good idea too: not only do they hold large amounts of cargo, but they can cover huge distances, all without the use of fossil fuels. Of course, they are restricted to the coastlines and the navigable waterways. They will be hampered by the lack of dredging due to the inevitable budget shortfalls, and by bridges that refuse to open, again, due to lack of maintenance funds, but here ancient maritime techniques and improvisations can be brought to bear to solve such problems, all very low-tech and reasonably priced.
Of course, cars and trucks will not disappear entirely. Here, again, some reasonable adaptations can be brought to bear. In my book, I advocated banning the sale of new cars, as was done in the US during World War II. The benefits are numerous. First, older cars are overall more energy-efficient than new cars, because the massive amount of energy that went into manufacturing them is more highly amortized. Second, large energy savings accrue from the shutdown of an entire industry devoted to designing, building, marketing, and financing new cars. Third, older cars require more maintenance, reinvigorating the local economy at the expense of mainly foreign car manufacturers, and helping reduce the trade deficit. Fourth, this will create a shortage of cars, translating automatically into fewer, shorter car trips, higher passenger occupancy per trip, and more bicycling and use of public transportation, saving even more energy. Lastly, this would allow the car to be made obsolete on the about the same time scale as the oil industry that made it possible. We will run out of cars just as we run out of gas.
Here we are, only a year or so later, and I am most heartened to see that the US auto industry has taken my advice and is in the process of shutting down. On the other hand, the government’s actions continue to disappoint. Instead of trying to solve problems, they would rather continue to create boondoggles. The latest one is the idea of subsidizing the sales of new cars. The idea of making cars more efficient by making more efficient cars is sheer folly. I can take any pick-up truck and increase its fuel efficiency one or two thousand percent just by breaking a few laws. First, you pack about a dozen people into the bed, standing shoulder to shoulder like sardines. Second, you drive about 25 mph, down the highway, because going any faster would waste fuel and wouldn’t be safe with so many people in the back. And there you are, per passenger fuel efficiency increased by a factor of 20 or so. I believe the Mexicans have done extensive research in this area, with excellent results.
Another excellent idea pioneered in Cuba is making it illegal not to pick up hitchhikers. Cars with vacant seats are flagged down and matched up with people who need a lift. Yet another idea: since passenger rail service is in such a sad shape, and since it is unlikely that funds will be found to improve it, why not bring back the venerable institution of riding the rails by requiring rail freight companies to provide a few empty box cars for the hobos. The energy cost of the additional weight is negligible, the hobos don’t require stops because they can jump on and off, and only a couple of cars per train would ever be needed, because hobos are almost infinitely compressible, and can even ride on the roof if needed. One final transportation idea: start breeding donkeys. Horses are finicky and expensive, but donkeys can be very cost-effective and make good pack animals. My grandfather had a donkey while he was living in Tashkent in Central Asia during World War II. There was nothing much for the donkey to eat, but, as a member of the Communist Party, my grandfather had a subscription to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, and so that’s what the donkey ate. Apparently, donkeys can digest any kind of cellulose, even when it’s loaded with communist propaganda. If I had a donkey, I would feed it the Wall Street Journal.
And so we come to the subject of security. Post-collapse Russia suffered from a serious crime wave. Ethnic mafias ran rampant, veterans who served in Afghanistan went into business for themselves, there were numerous contract killings, muggings, murders went unsolved left and right, and, in general, the place just wasn’t safe. Russians living in the US would hear that I am heading back there for a visit, and would give me a wide-eyed stare: how could I think of doing such a thing. I came through unscathed, somehow. I made a lot of interesting observations along the way.
One interesting observation is that once collapse occurs it becomes possible to rent a policeman, either for a special occasion, or generally just to follow someone around. It is even possible to hire a soldier or two, armed with AK-47s, to help you run various errands. Not only is it possible to do such things, it’s often a very good idea, especially if you happen to have something valuable that you don’t want to part with. If you can’t afford their services, then you should try to be friends with them, and to be helpful to them in various ways. Although their demands might seem exorbitant at times, it is still a good idea to do all you can to keep them on your side. For instance, they might at some point insist that you and your family move out to the garage so that they can live in your house. This may be upsetting at first, but then is it really such a good idea for you to live in a big house all by yourselves, with so many armed men running around. It may make sense to station some of them right in your house, so that they have a base of operations from which to maintain a watch and patrol the neighborhood.
A couple of years ago I half-jokingly proposed a political solution to collapse mitigation, and formulated a platform for the so-called Collapse Party. I published it with the caveat that I didn’t think there was much of a chance of my proposals becoming part of the national agenda. Much to my surprise, I turned out to be wrong. For instance, I proposed that we stop making new cars, and, lo and behold, the auto industry shuts down. I also proposed that we start granting amnesties to prisoners, because the US has the world’s largest prison population, and will not be able to afford to keep so many people locked up. It is better to release prisoners gradually, over time, rather than in a single large general amnesty, the way Saddam Hussein did it right before the US invaded. And, lo and behold, many states are starting to implement my proposal. It looks like California in particular will be forced to release some 60 thousand of the 170 thousand people it keeps locked up. That is a good start. I also proposed that we dismantle all overseas military bases (there are over a thousand of them) and repatriate all the troops. And it looks like that is starting to happen as well, except for the currently planned little side-trip to Afghanistan. I also proposed a Biblical jubilee – forgiveness of all debts, public and private. Let’s give that one… half a decade?
But if we look just at the changes that are already occurring, just the simple, predictable lack of funds, as the federal government and the state governments all go broke, will transform American society in rather predictable ways. As municipalities run out of money, police protection will evaporate. But the police still have to eat, and will find ways to use their skills to good use on a freelance basis. Similarly, as military bases around the world are shut down, soldiers will return to a country that will be unable to reintegrate them into civilian life. Paroled prisoners will find themselves in much the same predicament.
And so we will have former soldiers, former police, and former prisoners: a big happy family, with a few bad apples and some violent tendencies. The end result will be a country awash with various categories of armed men, most of them unemployed, and many of them borderline psychotic. The police in the United States are a troubled group. Many of them lose all touch with people who are not "on the force" and most of them develop an us-versus-them mentality. The soldiers returning from a tour of duty often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The paroled prisoners suffer from a variety of psychological ailments as well. All of them will sooner or later realize that their problems are not medical but rather political. This will make it impossible for society to continue to exercise control over them. All of them will be making good use of their weapons training and other professional skills to acquire whatever they need to survive. And the really important point to remember is that they will do these things whether or not anyone thinks it legal for them to do be doing them.
I said it before and I will say it again: very few things are good or bad per se; everything has to be considered within a context. And, in a post-collapse context, not having to worry whether or not something is legal may be a very good thing. In the midst of a collapse, we will not have time to deliberate, legislate, interpret, set precedents and so on. Having to worry about pleasing a complex and expensive legal system is the last thing we should have to worry about.
Some legal impediments are really small and trivial, but they can be quite annoying nevertheless. A homeowners’ association might, say, want give you a ticket or seek a court order against you for not mowing your lawn, or for keeping livestock in your garage, or for that nice windmill you erected on a hill that you don’t own, without first getting a building permit, or some municipal busy-body might try to get you arrested for demolishing a certain derelict bridge because it was interfering with boat traffic – you know, little things like that. Well, if the association is aware that you have a large number of well armed, mentally unstable friends, some of whom still wear military and police uniforms, for old time’s sake, then they probably won’t give you that ticket or seek that court order.
Or suppose you have a great new invention that you want to make and distribute, a new agricultural implement. It's a sort of flail studded with sharp blades. It has a hundred and one uses and is highly cost-effective, and reasonably safe provided you don’t lose your head while using it, although people have taken to calling the “flying guillotine.” You think that this is an acceptable risk, but you are concerned about the issues of consumer safety and liability insurance and possibly even criminal liability. Once again, it is very helpful to have a large number of influential, physically impressive, mildly psychotic friends who, whenever some legal matter comes up, can just can go and see the lawyers, have a friendly chat, demonstrate the proper use of the flying guillotine, and generally do whatever they have to do to settle the matter amicably, without any money changing hands, and without signing any legal documents.
Or, say, the government starts being difficult about moving things and people in and out of the country, or it wants to take too much of a cut from commercial transactions. Or perhaps your state or your town decides to conduct its own foreign policy, and the federal government sees it fit to interfere. Then it may turn out to be a good thing if someone else has the firepower to bring the government, or what remains of it, to its senses, and convince it to be reasonable and to play nice.
Or perhaps you want to start a community health clinic, so that you can provide some relief to people who wouldn’t otherwise have any health care. You don’t dare call yourself a doctor, because these people are suspicious of doctors, because doctors were always trying to rob them of their life’s savings. But suppose you have some medical training that you got in, say, Cuba, and you are quite able to handle a Caesarean or an appendectomy, to suture wounds, to treat infections, to set bones and so on. You also want to be able to distribute opiates that your friends in Afghanistan periodically send you, to ease the pain of hard post-collapse life. Well, going through the various licensing boards and getting the certifications and the permits and the malpractice insurance is all completely unnecessary, provided you can surround yourself with a lot of well-armed, well-trained, mentally unstable friends.
Food. Shelter. Transportation. Security. Security is very important. Maintaining order and public safety requires discipline, and maintaining discipline, for a lot of people, requires the threat of force. This means that people must be ready to come to each other’s defense, take responsibility for each other, and do what’s right. Right now, security is provided by a number of bloated, bureaucratic, ineffectual institutions, which inspire more anger and despondency than discipline, and dispense not so much violence as ill treatment. That is why we have the world’s highest prison population. They are supposedly there to protect people from each other, but in reality their mission is not even to provide security; it is to safeguard property, and those who own it. Once these institutions run out of resources, there will be a period of upheaval, but in the end people will be forced to learn to deal with each other face to face, and Justice will once again become a personal virtue rather than a federal department.
I’ve covered what I think are basics, based on what I saw work and what I think might work reasonably well here. I assume that a lot of you are thinking that this is all quite far into the future, if in fact it ever gets that bad. You should certainly feel free to think that way. The danger there is that you will miss the opportunity to adapt to the new reality ahead of time, and then you will get trapped. As I see it, there is a choice to be made: you can accept the failure of the system now and change your course accordingly, or you can decide that you must try to stay the course, and then you will probably have to accept your own individual failure later.
So how do you prepare? Lately, I’ve been hearing from a lot of high-powered, successful people about their various high-powered, successful associates. Usually, the story goes something like this: “My a. financial advisor, b. investment banker, or c. commanding officer has recently a. put all his money in gold, b. bought a log cabin up in the mountains, or c. built a bunker under his house stocked with six months of food and water. Is this normal?” And I tell them, yes, of course, that’s perfectly harmless. He’s just having a mid-collapse crisis. But that’s not really preparation. That’s just someone being colorful in an offbeat, countercultural sort of way.
So, how do you prepare, really? Let’s go through a list of questions that people typically ask me, and I will try to briefly respond to each of them.
OK, first question: How about all these financial boondoggles? What on earth is going on? People are losing their jobs left and right, and if we calculate unemployment the same way it was done during the Great Depression, instead of looking at the cooked numbers the government is trying to feed us now, then we are heading toward 20% unemployment. And is there any reason to think it’ll stop there? Do you happen to believe that prosperity is around the corner? Not only jobs and housing equity, but retirement savings are also evaporating. The federal government is broke, state governments are broke, some more than others, and the best they can do is print money, which will quickly lose value. So, how can we get the basics if we don’t have any money? How is that done? Good question.
As I briefly mentioned, the basics are food, shelter, transportation, and security. Shelter poses a particularly interesting problem at the moment. It is still very much overpriced, with many people paying mortgages and rents that they can no longer afford while numerous properties stand vacant. The solution, of course, is to cut your losses and stop paying. But then you might soon have to relocate. That is OK, because, as I mentioned, there is no shortage of vacant properties around. Finding a good place to live will become less and less of a problem as people stop paying their rents and mortgages and get foreclosed or evicted, because the number of vacant properties will only increase. The best course of action is to become a property caretaker, legitimately occupying a vacant property rent-free, and keeping an eye on things for the owner. What if you can’t find a position as a property caretaker? Well, then you might have to become a squatter, maintain a list of other vacant properties that you can go to next, and keep your camping gear handy just in case. If you do get tossed out, chances are, the people who tossed you out will then think about hiring a property caretaker, to keep the squatters out. And what do you do if you become property caretaker? Well, you take care of the property, but you also look out for all the squatters, because they are the reason you have a legitimate place to live. A squatter in hand is worth three absentee landlords in the bush. The absentee landlord might eventually cut his losses and go away, but your squatter friends will remain as your neighbors. Having some neighbors is so much better than living in a ghost town.
What if you still have a job? How do you prepare then? The obvious answer is, be prepared to quit or to be laid off or fired at any moment. It really doesn’t matter which one of these it turns out to be; the point is to sustain zero psychological damage in the process. Get your burn rate to as close to zero as you can, by spending as little money as possible, so than when the job goes away, not much has to change. While at work, do as little as possible, because all this economic activity is just a terrible burden on the environment. Just gently ride it down to a stop and jump off.
If you still have a job, or if you still have some savings, what do you do with all the money? The obvious answer is, build up inventory. The money will be worthless, but a box of bronze nails will still be a box of bronze nails. Buy and stockpile useful stuff, especially stuff that can be used to create various kinds of alternative systems for growing food, providing shelter, and providing transportation. If you don’t own a patch of dirt free and clear where you can stockpile stuff, then you can rent a storage container, pay it a few years forward, and just sit on it until reality kicks in again and there is something useful for you to do with it. Some of you may be frightened by the future I just described, and rightly so. There is nothing any of us can do to change the path we are on: it is a huge system with tremendous inertia, and trying to change its path is like trying to change the path of a hurricane. What we can do is prepare ourselves, and each other, mostly by changing our expectations, our preferences, and scaling down our needs. It may mean that you will miss out on some last, uncertain bit of enjoyment. On the other hand, by refashioning yourself into someone who might stand a better chance of adapting to the new circumstances, you will be able to give to yourself, and to others, a great deal of hope that would otherwise not exist.
Thank you again Dmitri! You may riff on a few familiar themes, but you do it the way a jazz virtuoso does it: you make it fresh so we listen anew. Thanks for making the effort! You'll never know how many lives you save but you'd need more than fingers and toes to count them.
OK, silly me - you wrote this, of course. And you did an admirable job. Really. I believe you have a handle on it all, not just because you've experienced what happened in the USSR, er, Russia, but because "it has the ring of truth." I believe the whole system is artificial, rigged, corrupt, etc., ad nauseum.
I recommend reading Dr. John Coleman's Committee of 300 book and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the US: 1492 to Present in order to understand the extent of the above; then reading Vladimir Megre's Ringing Cedars series of nine books; followed by a good dose of what Tom Brown, Jr. teaches. If you are willing to undergo that regimen, I'd like to hear Part II of your Orlovian hoedown. I do not think it will be much different, really, than what is here, except that the new emphasis may be on, well, I'm not sure - I'll leave that up to you...
Jonathan D. Suss
Dmitry, I was one of those in attendance last evening and really appreciated the way you injected lightheartedness into your presentation, which most found very depressing. You are right - it is hard to make much money speaking about collapse, especially when it is your culture that is collapsing!
I started a discussion on the Shaping Tomorrow Foresight Network (mostly futurists) in December 2007 and included several quotations in my initial post, including one of yours. So it was good to see you in person. I would have talked with you afterward but my friends and I didn't want to wait around and stand in line.
Congratulations on the magnificent turnout by the way. People must FINALLY be willing to look at the possibility, now that it is in their faces.
Many thanks again,
Thank you for the speech to the Long now Foundation. I enjoyed it even more than your book.
Thanks for your talk last night at the Long Now and thanks for posting a copy of it here. Are you familiar with the author Morris Berman? He wrote a book entitled "Dark Ages America: The Final Phase Of Empire" that was published in 2006. Your lecture had similar predictions and themes. Your direct experience with the USSR though brings a powerful new perspective.
My research suggests that the global collapse will occur rapidly: http://www.peakoilassociates.com/POAnalysis.html
I took one room in Central Square, Cambridge, MA off-grid for less than $200 a few years ago and my community garden plot a couple of blocks away provides lots of nice veggies from May to November. Tried twice to tell the landlords that the south-facing porches could easily be converted to sunspaces or greenhouses when they renovated but they weren't interested.
Over the years, I've made it a point to cultivate my relationships with the local growers who come to the farmers' market I helped organize as many of us could see thirty years ago that the American agricultural system was not sustainable for the long-term. Since last summer, a local group has hosted a weatherization barnraising once a month. We could do one a week if we had enough team leaders for the various tasks, the organizers inform me. Thirty years ago, some of us were doing solar barnraisings. Some of those installations are still up and running (http://solarray.blogspot.com/2008/09/old-solar-1980-barnraised-solar-air.html).
For over a decade, I've tried to convince people in the green community that demonstrating energy efficiency and renewable techniques at farmers' markets weekly could change the energy culture in this country in a year and would be worth much more than spending all our time and effort on getting legislation passed. Of course, it might be faster to do energy education by video. I have an outline for a program that focuses on what to do with one south-facing window but nobody's been interested (http://solarray.blogspot.com/2004/12/three-solar-projects.html).
I say Solar IS Civil Defense. You can see exactly what I mean at http://solarray.blogspot.com/2008/05/solar-is-civil-defense-illustrated.html
The combination of a few square inches of solar electric panel and a hand-cranked generator provides a reliable supply of low voltage DC electricity day or night by sunlight or muscle power. My guess is the future is a low energy future and I'm starting with AA batteries and building from there.
We face a liquid fuels crisis.
Independent studies indicate that global crude oil production will now decline from 74 million barrels per day to 50 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time, demand will increase. Oil supplies will be even tighter for the U.S. As oil producing nations consume more and more oil domestically they will export less and less. Because demand is high in China, India, the Middle East, and other oil producing nations, once global oil production begins to decline, demand will always be higher than supply. And since the U.S. represents one fourth of global oil demand, whatever oil we conserve will be consumed elsewhere. Thus, conservation in the U.S. will not slow oil depletion rates significantly.
Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. There is no plan nor capital for a so-called electric economy. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The independent scientists of the Energy Watch Group conclude in a 2007 report titled: “Peak Oil Could Trigger Meltdown of Society:”
"By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame."
With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated building systems.
One thing that is a BIGGY is that the USA is now so multicultural 'unlike the USSR' I think the USA will explode with violence...also the USSR most people didnt own guns.
As a historian I can tell you during bad times multicultural civilizations fail.
Also all your ideas are good but nothing is being done..and wont be done its only wishful thinking.
The USA has 310 million people, of 100 different ethnic group, and 30 differenet races, no infastructor, a modern generation of idiots use to MTV and video games.
Sorry but I left the place 5 years ago and have resettled in an Eastern European nation.
Those who prepare in the USA need to understand your preparations wont help you but maybe 2-3 months more to be better off.
America is facing a collpase that will make the USSR collpase look like a puppet show.
Your comments are very insightful, especially to someone that has been following peak oil for a while.
I would be curious to get your comments on the book "The Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein in relation to these topics. She outlines the influence that the Chicago School of Business and Milton Friedman had on South America, South Africa, Poland and Russia through what she calls "disaster capitalism", as well as the role of the IMF played.
About Naomi Klein's "shock doctrine": it is very mid-twentieth century in its approach. It prefers to dwell on "evil" vs. "goodness" rather than starting from the bigger facts of finiteness, the disastrous idea of continuous "growth", the disaster of overpopulation and the energy catastrophe that is coming. In other words, she dwells on ideology. There is nothing wrong with her analysis, but she is adressing the wrong questions. There are much bigger and fundamental questions, and those relate not to political parties and ideologies but to survival. You could take all the capitalists and bankers, including those in Wall Street, and bury them, and you would still be facing the same fundamental problems.
I would go so far as to say that Klein is a distraction from the fundamental problems. She is a brave woman, she speaks her mind, she writes an attractive paragraph... but ultimately, it's more of the same. We are not in the twentieth century anymore. What we face is a total collapse of everyday life. Ideologies are not the thing today, only action is. And things like the propaganda system have been given a definitive treatment by Herman and Chomsky, for example. It's well understood. Totalitarian control under electoral systems is also very well understood since Huxley, Orwell and many others.
In my opinion, Klein would be well advised to use her tremendous energy to work on helping turn the country local and addressing concrete problems such as food, energy and transportation. How the current (hopeless) system works is perfectly well understood. We need to move on.
I continue to be stunned and amazed by the quality of some of the comments people post to this blog. About Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, I entirely agree that it is simply a distraction. There is one additional way in which it is a distraction: the hidden presupposition that what Americans do actually matters in the world. Her claim is that the US had a lot to do with the Soviet collapse, but that mistakes were made: screwing up is still better psychologically than not mattering at all. Her additional hidden presupposition is that Americans can do better: that the leopard can change its spots. And then there is also the meta-notion that we can gain a useful understanding of a turbulent, confused period in that very complex part of the world just by a reading a book in English, written for the general audience, by someone who is neither a Russian nor a Russian scholar.
Thank you so much for posting the text of your speech as I was unable to make it to the live presentation.
I spent six weeks in the Soviet Union in 1991, as a guest of my penpal Sergei in Irkutsk. When you write of the apartments, the shops, dachas, etc., you powerfully evoke my memories of that time. Sergei also took us on the Trans-Siberian to Moscow and then on to Leningrad/St Petersburg. We left the country on August 19 -- the first day of the coup d'etat attempt.
Also wanted to mention that I am spearheading a Transition Initiative in my town, recognizing that people are all over the map in terms of their readiness/willingness to be awake and aware... and trying to help them all knit more closely together and grow the resilience of our community.
Thanks for your voice of experience and wisdom. Your writings serve as useful navigational markers and as cautionary tales at the same time.
Thank you for sharing this talk with us. It's awful to think that the 'unthinkable' might happen here, but it never hurts to be fairly warned and properly prepared. I'd like to think that the sudden rise in local food production and back yard chickens means that people are paying attention. I've been container gardening for several years- now I need to ramp it up.
I'm sharing your talk with friends on my blog. It's definitely a subject we get into discussing. You should see if you can bring your talk to the Clinton School here in Little Rock- the faculty always appreciates interesting speakers.
Above, another Anonymous said:
"You could take all the capitalists and bankers, including those in Wall Street, and bury them, and you would still be facing the same fundamental problems."
Undoubtedly, but wouldn't the world be just a little bit better off without them?
Cheers Dmitri! I read the presentation last night. Tonight I noticed that John Robb, Bruce Stirling and Boing Boing have mentioned it. I hope you find a very wide audience.
The day after Lehman was allowed to collapse I was reading through some comments on a New York Times blog post about the matter. Someone wrote that it's time to get ready for the next boom. I wrote back that it's time to learn how the Russians managed to feed themselves in the early '90s.
thank you for being honest and real. may we meet as friends.
I've called to my Russian friends yesterday and found out that their food prices almost equal ours. How it can be if you take in consideration that their wages ten times less?
I think they live on basics. And most American wages are spending on to buy waste and garbage. So our economy on 90% produces "garbage" and social collapse is actually in stopping buying and producing unnecessary things.
Good article. I think the comments against Klein are "typically American" however. Just get enough guns and a cabin in the wilderness, when, in fact, as the talk points out neighbors are crucial to survival and not just any neighbors. A neighborhood that is civil.
The Idaho white supremacist secessionists are just colorful examples of an American "type". There are a lot of Americans who fantasize about becoming roving barbarians perhaps because they are little prepared for much else. Me, I want to preserve society ala the book "The Twilight of American Civilization". Monastic communities of learning that preserve knowledge until it is valued and useful again in s sane society.
That doesn't mean I don't want a monastery with thick and high walls, a good well, large granary and firepower. Traditionally, such monasteries have been quite, shall we say, "idealistic".
Haroshya rabota Dmitri. I'm interested in the biological roots of our dilemma, and the paradox between individual biology and community ecology. I wrote an essay on this subject which is posted at www.methownaturalist.com for those interested in this perspective, The title is Ecology & History, on the right when the page opens.
Off to plant potatoes now,
Who would have thought that those experiences I had as an anarchist squatter in the 1980's were teaching me valuable life skills? :)
A grim outlook, but a very realistic one. I hope science will provide at least some answers to the problems we are facing. But then again: there is no denying Global Change (forget about global warming...), predicted since the seventies (Club of Rome, Limits to Growth).
D. Orlov's depiction of USA as a nationwide version of Deliverance sounds very realistic and the paralell with Russia should be continued. It was the discrete armed gangs that made fortunes for Abramovich and gave the country to Putin, who freely executes rogue agents and journalists. Everything was up for grabs and the guys with the muscle took it- so you can already see how that turns out.
Call me old-fashioned if I strongly resist the materialization of this scenario.
The collapse of the USSR also didn't prepare the society for a more logic way of handling things because in less than 10 years Russians were already going around in Hummers. In a sense Russia is more dependent on oil than ever- it has none of the redemptive social qualities of before nor a disciplined and large army- basically if Europeans stop warming their showers with natural gas the huge country implodes- I'm sorry, Gazprom does- in 2 months.
All these characteristics that allowed for survival are meaningless because they are now completely gone (even despised) and replaced by a society that is just as or more explosive, unbalanced and wasteful as the USA, with even greater class friction.
"I also proposed a Biblical jubilee – forgiveness of all debts, public and private. Let’s give that one… half a decade?"
Do you really think this one will happen? If all debts can be wiped out, that means all current and future bond investments and credit card companies, and most of the banks, will be wiped out as well.
Those of us who have no debt will become ... annoyed ... at those who spent and borrowed beyond their means and now have, free and clear, houses with lots of land to grow food while we are still renting, living within our means.
Call me heartless but if this happens once, with no consequences for those whose debts are erased, what's to stop the whole big bubble from happening again with the *expectation* of another Jubilee? I'd rather see consequences for stupid actions to stop people from repeating them.
Did the USSR have a Jubilee? If so, what were the results?
Actually, the jubilee makes a lot of sense. Debts that will never be repaid should be written off. Everybody starts from zero. But how will the government write off its own debt, since it owes to many debt-holders from all over the world?
The US government would have to repudiate its debt, thus sinking the dollar completely,dissolve the entire credit regime at home (burn down the credit report agencies, or financial Gestapo, and bury the ashes deep), etc. etc. Now, there goes a non-negotiable lifestyle!
It would also have to dissolve its military apparatus (at least abroad) and stop importing most of what it imports, since it would be prohibitive.
This is an interesting scenario but the psychological implications are vast, in fact unimaginable for ordinary folks.
What is power, ultimately? Tell people used to boast of "best country in the world" that they're going to be pariahs and see where that gets you. The prospect is scary. In such situations, messianic types usually appear. Very scary.
I came to Dmitri via the urbansurvival site, which I recommend highly -- it's the place where I also discovered a book some years ago called "Only in America" by John Soltez which nailed the scenario of American societal breakdown. Like another poster said, now it's we who have to look at unrest on our own soil.
We used to laugh at the planned Soviet economy, now look what we're getting with the banking bailouts! Maybe it's time we look at replacing the career pols in our Duma-- er uh Congress huh? I may try looking at what gmoke described, a room off the grid. Thanks for bringing up this most timely of topics.
"We used to laugh at the planned Soviet economy, now look what we're getting with the banking bailouts!"
This is worse, it's not even planned!
By the way, economist Michael Hudson has a brutal article on the bailouts:
Re US National debt and Jubilee:
We could eliminate the mational debt without repudiating it.
At about $10 trillion, the US debt about equals the $10 trillion of our existing money supply, which is 97% "credit money" - debt issued by banks.
If, rather than the banks issuing our money by making bank loans, as now, the Government itself issued about $10 trillion of new Greenbacks, carrying no interest, that money could be used to pay off all outstanding national debt. The U.S. would just call the debt in, retire it, in exchange for interest-free Greenbacks. No repudiation needed.
This, by itself, would double the money supply and inflate the dollar by about 2:1, high indeed, but not hyperinflation by a long shot. (It would equal about 14 years of "normal" inflation of 5% per year.)
But even that 2:1 inflation could be avoided by raising bank reserve requirements as the Greenbacks were issued - many of which would be deposited with the banks, contributing to the needed increased reserves. (Some Greenbacks could also be lent by the U.S. directly to banks so they did not have to call outstanding loans due to inadequate reserves.)
No inflation, because the total money supply would remain at about $10 trillion, but now all as US Treasury Greenbacks rather than bank "credit money".
This would still leave the economy stalled under a mountain of unpayable debt. The kind of breakdown Dmitri describes can be avoided only by doing the above plus reducing that debt.
The needed debt reduction would require some combination of deliberate inflation, very steep progressive taxation plus redistribution, and/or widespread debt forgiveness - Jubilee.
By the time these needed steps become apparent to the Republicrats in power, it may well be too late: the dark days described by Dmitri could be inevitable.
We will then reduce debt in the fourth way available to do so: widespread repudiation of debts, concomitant to the complete social breakdown Dmitri so graphically describes.
Enjoyed your speech
Please come and visit if you are ever in Australia
We, unlike Russia, will have racial wars on top of all other problems
The article speculates that it is better for prisoners to be released gradually rather than to be released en masse. However, if the laws are defunct and taxes are not flowing, it is possible that the prison guards would simply lock down the prisons for three days with no water, resulting in mass execution by thirst.
If the problem were compounded by law-and-order hysteria and racial conflict, such prison scenarios might even devolve into less concealed violence, e.g. guards shooting prisoners dead.
That's a very good article, and a refreshing change from those survivalists who believe a log cabin in the woods is their best bet. As someone who also has lived through the whole Soviet collapse, I do agree that surviving a collapse is much more of a social thing, and you are much better off in a city — or, better yet, a medium-sized town.
I'd also like to add a few thoughts of my own. First, the author has left out the question of currency. People will still need some sort of currency — it is much easier to get people to do favours for you if you can give them something of value. And, at least in the collapse of USSR, the Soviet rouble completely lost its value — so you could not possibly save them up. However, foreign currency was very valuable, especially — surprisingly enough — US dollars. In fact, for a long time, US dollars were the unofficial currency for buying anything of value. Of course, US dollars will not be of much value in a collapsing US economy, so may I suggest, say, Euros? If Europe survives the current crisis better, then Euro might as well become what US dollar was in the former USSR.
Another thing that is sure to pop up is some sort of unofficial local "currency" — some sort of commodity that is so widely accepted and used that it easily can serve as a quasi-currency. And, at least in post-Soviet times, that currency was vodka. A bottle of vodka could get you lots of favours — say, your tractor-driving neighbour could plough your field for a bottle, or a friend with a truck could bring you a truckload of firewood for a bottle, or it could even bribe someone. As Dmitri correctly points out, respectable men are prone to start drinking once their lives collapse. Therefore, there was always demand for vodka, and even people who didn't drink would willingly accept it, knowing they could trade it for things they need.
Second, there is another important basic element that hasn't been fully covered: heating. It somewhat goes together with shelter, but, as I am typing this, it is snowing outside, so I am very thankful that I don't have to live in just any sort of shelter — I can heat it and I can cook myself a hot meal. This, of course, depends on the climate, but overall, it is extremely important — spending a winter in an unheated shelter is a horrifying ordeal indeed. Back in post-Soviet times, whole blocks of apartment buildings installed small wood-burning stoves (your local welder could make one of these for — you guessed it — a few bottles). It looked ugly, with all the metal chimneys sticking out of the building, but it got the job done.
But, of course, these are just minor corrections. All in all, the article really makes a good point — if you are to survive a crisis — and even prosper — you have to depend on others. There is no way how you can pull through alone.
Could you one day please comment on the return of what you call "classical values." In my opinion I think this is an upside to our predictament. Does this mean the 2 opposites: extreme individualism and radical egalitarianism will fade away?
Thanks so much,
Dmitri, this is an EXCEEDINGLY useful essay. I hope you can do something to ensure its wide and rapid propagation. One idea might be to put it, loudly and ostentatiously, under one of the copyleft licenses, such as a Creative Commons license. (I myself use the the "GNU Free Documentation License", as you can see from
But I notice that lots of people are now using Creative Commons licenses.)
Once your work is duly copylefted, no upright, dutiful, wanna-be-legal cybercitizens will retain any inhibitions about copying it to other servers, or in other ways publishing it, and yet it will be clear to such upright people that Dmitri Orlov continues to have to get credit for Dmitri Orlov's writing.
In thinking of what parts of your work I liked the VERY most, I ask myself, "At what point did I actually laugh out loud," and the answer to this is: "At the point at which you discuss Tashkent donkey-feeding."
I'd like to finish by telling my own small Soviet anecdote, which you may or may not have heard from me before. (I have certainly told it endlessly, and here I quite shamelessly recycle a writeup that I have already used elsewhere on the Web.)
My late maternal grandmother,
Ekaterina Ranne, born in Estonia in
1892, was as a young wife brought
in the most immediate and physical
sense face to face with one of the
first great terrors of our time. The
year was, I suspect, 1918 or 1919 or
1920. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, having
assumed power in the Petrograd putsch
of 1917 November 6, was now seeking to
consolidate his Bolshevik despotism
through civil war. Grandma was at
the time in a village in Ukraine with
her young husband, seeking to escape
For a while, her village of
temporary refuge was in the hands of
Mensheviks. Then something happened - I
presume that some guys fired guns at
some other bunch of guys - and the
village changed hands. A soldier, one
of the incoming Bolsheviks, who must
by now have become accustomed to the
idea of shooting people for politics,
banged on Grandma's door. "Woman,"
he said, "our army is feeding. Give
us spoons." To this Grandma said,
"Spoons? What do you mean, spoons? The
only spoons we have in this house are
silver coffee spoons, and we are not
handing those out to Bolsheviks." The
gun-toter apologized, as of course he
had to apologize, and he went on to
the next house.
The point of the "anekdoot" is that in collapse, it can sometimes be quite USEFUL and LOVING and LIFE-AFFIRMING to be obstinately bourgeois. Of course one does have to decide just how bourgeois to be, and how long to keep it up, and how to ahem-ahem modulate the performance, and Grandma (she lived to be 99 and a half years of age) was both supremely loving and supremely skilled. :-) :-)
Toomas (Tom) Karmo
verbum at interlog dot com
It should be borne in mind that man is not born helpless or "needy". That is a social construct. Man is born with everything he needs. I think people might be missing a point in Orlov's writings, namely, that they are essentially life-affirming. He is pointing out potentialities that always exist but that do not manifest themselves in a cocooned life or when there is an illusion of "security" or "stability".
In reality, security does not exist, life offers no assurance of anything. This latter point is lost on many Americans. That may be why the US reacted in such a ridiculous and self-defeating (and ruinous) way to the 9-11 attacks. You don't go berserk because a mosquito bites you. But those attacks shook the illusion of security. It turned out to be an important illusion, psychologically.
Likewise, the illusion of the middle-class life, a life of comfort, is very potent. It is almost considered a right. This has no basis in reality.
The more rigid the mental structures, the worse the crisis will be for people. And I hope people like Orlov can at least loosen up something in the public and promote the flexibility that will be essential in these times.
My fear is that the extreme selfishness that goes with the security blanket wish will lead to explosions of violence, possibly racial violence or violence against immigrants, for example. Or random violence, which also has a history in this country.
Obama has made a mistake in not putting his cards on the table, preaching real humility and, above all, telling the truth and acting in consequence. His statement about preserving the lifestyle is actually scary. So is his intention of intensifying the war. There is no humility there.
Welcome to hard times.
To read you advocate a Biblical debt jubliee made me smile from ear-to-ear:
Chronicles Of Depression 2.0: #431: Acceleration
Chronicles Of Depression 2.0: #441: Nash V. Smith
Chronicles Of Depression 2.0: #427: 777
And others are ringing that bell now too:
777: Universal Debt Erasure
How long and how loud will it have to ring before people acknowledge it?
Thanks for your wit, Dmitry. This is about all the collapse literature I can stand to read, and you make it livable.
I can't stand to read 99% of the rest, because I'm doing my best to maintain a positive outlook, build the chicken and bee houses, and learn lost skills.
Why does the 'survival' literature simply keep hashing how bad it is and how badder it is going to get? What do they have to prove?
I am concentrating on skills, learning, and finding allies and friends. There's really no time for much else.
"I can't stand to read 99% of the rest, because I'm doing my best to maintain a positive outlook, build the chicken and bee houses, and learn lost skills."
And, especially, stay away from the many conspiracy theories that mushroom during times of collapse. Those guys will drive you nuts. Follow your nose, do what you need to do, enlist others, but don't waste time thinking about bad evil forces. If they exist, you likely can do nothing about them. And if they don't exist and the collapse is due to just incompetence based on bad ideas, you have also wasted your time.
Your main and first duty is to put bread on the table, your first obligation is to your family -- an old Buddhist teaching, actually!
Theories of everything, especially about Evil, are rarely helpful. First, to clean one's own house.
Good luck with the chickens and everything else you're working on.
Bravo! Thanks for opening our eyes to the social collapse scenario. Born and raised in an era of prosperity and stability we are just too oblivious to the risk of decline and collapse that has happened regularly in the history.
May I also suggest Buddhism to be a remedy of the pain in such world? Buddhism teaches us that earthy possessions are only delusion and we should dissociate ourselves from such desire. Looking at our stock holdings and equities and all those hedge fund fraud it seems this 2000 year old wisdom is as true as ever.
Excellent as always Dmitri - here in NZ we've been a bit quiet since $150 oil and the obvious consequences. Great to hear you keeping it real!
Steve McKinlay - PowerLess NZ.
Here is an interesting article about the biofuels boondoggle:
I did notice that Tommy Friedman of the NYT had been promoting the Brazil biofuel miracle, and I also knew that he was lying or being totally naive. This article lays out some facts.
The establishment will do anything to preserve agribusiness, anything.
Weaning the US off agribusiness and back into agriculture may be one of the toughest reeducation tasks ever undertaken, and it will have to be done.
Here is the Orwell problem again: how do you convince the population that bad food is terrible for them, even though, intellectually, they know it's bad and they also know it's bad for them? I mean, anybody who has planted some tomatoes on his own and then tasted them can tell the difference. Or anybody who has baked bread with just flour, yeast and water can tell that what they're being sold typically is crap.
One would imagine that food is pretty central to people's lives.
Many people mentioned in the comments, that during the collapse of the USSR there were no racial problems. That is not quite true. Many russians were forced to leave the asian ex-soviet republics and the national republics (subjects of the Russian Federation) in the Caucasus. Than there was that war in Chechnya (our friends from the Pentagon and CIA really did their best). Now that "evil Putin" restored whole sectors of the economy including the high-tech industries, the national problem is the most serious one facing the society. Nationalistic and skinhead movements are widespread.
European and american cities have a shortcoming that russian cities never had, though. Ghettoes.The level of life there is not this high already, but in the light of the possible economic collapse, ghettoes are going to become America's worst nightmare.
office plankton! omg, in two words you've described my entire adult career.
All good information.
Here's what I've planned:
I've found a spot, made friends
on the Pacific coast in a benign
(in all ways) clime far from the
cities. One friend there offered
a large lot next to his restaurant,
meters from the ocean,
for me to park a trailer on, supplying me water and the lot all at no cost. I will be fishing with
a cast net, a common practice there.
The area is full of orchards and
fields of all kinds of fruits and
veggies. I will be planting my own on that lot. Food and shelter will
not be a problem. I'm familiar with
the local language and culture as
they are to some degree with mine.
We are compatible with little effort.
I suggest some of you should look
into such a move very soon.
Brilliant! I live near a downtown area in a neighborhood that, once desirable, has become rather shoddy and crime ridden. Some neighbors and I have started a neighborhood association, petitioned the city to give us the vacant lots that pepper the area and are now putting in *edible parks*. We have also begged local plant nurseries for fruit bearing trees and shrubs, which several have donated in return for their names on a sign! Several neighbors raise chickens, so a steady supply of eggs is insured here. Everyone sees what's coming (it seems) EXCEPT the politicos that continue to make soothing comments to assuage the voters.
You said, "I suggest some of you should look into such a move very soon."
I'll do you one better. I sold my house last summer, took the profits, bought a 5th wheel, and am parking it on a friends property. Her house (one acre, gardens, just outside Portland, OR) will be in foreclosure soon because she can't get ahold of the bank to work out a refinance on her A.R.M. They're too busy foreclosing on other properties and sorting thru the mess to pick up the phone or answer emails. She's simply going to stop making payments when the interest rate jumps 6 points on her loan, wait till the sheriff shows up, then move back in with her folks. Her guess is this may take up to a year. Until then, we're welcome to park the rig, give her $350/month for her troubles, and everybody's happy. She may move out sooner than that, in which case we're welcome to stay as long as we like.
I suppose we'll be squatters at that point. When the bank sends us letters to leave, we'll offer to stay and caretake the property, or simply ignore the letters. Depends on our mood at the time.
Before we decided to move in with our friend we put an ad on Craiglsist looking for a similar arrangement and got many interesting offers. Lots of people out there with land in need of a few extra bucks.
We have a 5,000 sq/ft garden at another friends backyard. All she asks in return is some tomatoes and the occasional dozen eggs from our chickens.
I teach middle school kids for a living and have had my pay reduced once this year and the state legislature is talking about shutting the doors of all schools early to save a few bucks. For the first time in my life I'm not sweating a cut in pay. Kind of looking forward to the extra days off actually. My colleagues are panicked about not being able to pay the mortgage and are taking in renters, selling cars, and moving overseas to teach.
My wife and three kids (all under age 8) love living in the RV (we got rid of 90% of our junk) and we're kicking ourselves for not doing this sooner.
Glad to hear there are others out there doing this.
My wife wants to ignore the student loan bills. I'm leaning that way now that we're unplugged from suburbia and mortgages. Anybody have thoughts on that one? Currently we are deferring while the interest accrues.
Enjoy the ride,
i like how you weave that humor in there, black as it may be.
Thank you Dmitri!
Wonderful speech. Wish I could have seen it in person.
One of the situations I find most difficult is that the vast majority of Americans are still oblivious to the fact that dramatic changes are inevitable in our not too distant future. I find it very painful that my family thinks I am crazy because I want to prepare for these changes and refuse to do anything for themselves to prepare for the changes. I hate to say it but I almost wish we would start the changes already so people would stop thinking I am insane when I talk about it (which is rarely.) I kind of feel like it must be what waiting surgery to remove a tumor is like. The waiting is torture.
Dmitry, your Power point presentation comparing the similarities between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US collapse was so compelling that I read and now continue to re-read, and even study, various sections of Reinventing Collapse. It clearly articulates in a concise fashion some of the many ways that America is really in a worse situation than the Soviet Union. However of all of the critical areas that you have discussed, I find that security is the most critical. Let me be blunt, there are a lot of people living in America, who when impacted to the point of losing their jobs, homes, retirements etc., will be looking for someone to blame. On the other hand there will also be those who will welcome this as opportunity to add to the insanity during this free for all. Crime in large cities will go through the roof. I think the security risk though touched upon understates this problem in this ethnically diverse population with its history of unresolved racial baggage. I personally believe that people will perceive that they have legitimate grievances and fueled by existing levels of anger and contempt will more likely to blame someone other than someone who looks like them for their collective misery. This path of least resistance will be taken rather than the path which seeks to understand the real culprits in our government and in corporations. This includes a long list of people who had it and lost it all and those who never had anything and who see other people as the reason for that as well. Their will be others who will act and prey on people because they be perceived as part of the oppressor group. All groups have their own ideologies as to how things came to be, and I am sure racial tension will increase. So if as you say there tends to be more violence in the collapse of societies where there is more racial diversity, then reading between the lines we are talking about anything from unpretentious self imposed or imposed segregation which is sort of what many place have now, to race riots to ethnic cleansing.
The shame of it all is that even during collapse no one will step in and set the record straight, and the blame game will be the direct result of having a populace that on one hand doesn’t know or understand the true history of America’s rise, and on the other who simply doesn’t care. And that’s just on the domestic front. Like many countries America’s story is not the fairytale that many believe it to be. For hundreds of years now this knowledge gap just continued to get filled in with spin and rhetoric. In a nut shell the result is a people who don’t realize that everything that we took from others can in fact be taken from us. It is just a matter of what process is used. Today, economics rather than warfare is the preferred process.
To sum it up, uninformed with regard to both history and the contributing structural problems regarding our economy such as globalization, central banking, fiat money, fractional reserved lending, derivatives, and so on, the American Dream was subsidized and artificially created by asymmetrical trade policies and unsound monetary practices. As this dream collapses, many Americans won’t realize that it’s not that their cheese has been moved, it’s that the cow has been killed. Coping with this will not be easy for anyone.
RELOCATION, RELOCATION, RELOCATION, that is what I specialize in. clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com
Thanks for the good ideas and book recommendations, commenters. I think I'll make use of Craigslist, too.
[Anonymous, Feb 15]: "You could take all the capitalists and bankers, including those in Wall Street, and bury them, and you would still be facing the same fundamental problems."
But the speed and the scale of those fundamental problems could had been entirely different. The Ryan-Friedman post-Darwinian free-market ideology pushed basically all the people into maximally destructive and irresponsible behavior. People just don't imagine other alternatives how to live their lives! Greed is the only sure thing to believe; selfishness is the only duty to follow...
The greed rationality should really be shaken. It is too simplistic to say that people were always that greedy and mean, even worse in the past. My hypothesis is that the Chicago school "freedom for greed" ideology is a wild experiment that has to end relatively soon. (Naomi Klein actually gives a good account of how radical the Friedmanian influence was.) Such a greed experiment was not the first one in the humanity history, almost surely. The pattern must had been the same: a burst of greed discovery, a merry boom, and then... Rather optimistically, I suspect eventually a long period of moral boredom again ;-)
If you really look at the Nature, the greed rationale can be questioned soon. The Nature is not a "Monopoly" game with few winners; tragedy of commons situations are selected out long ago. Little boom-and-bust cycles are under control of recurring patterns. And a jungle is more of a rich provider to anyone living there than a brutal killer.
The human nature might be not be that unabatedly greedy as the rational "positivist" theories proclaim. But many people can be fooled with some capital utopias and "invisible hand" fables. How else do you call a situation when so many people were confident of the way to build riches, get a housing and retirement, but won't get any of that?
When it come to adaptation, the speed and scale of "fundamental" problems matters a lot.
"...I almost wish we would start the changes already..."
Direct action. Just find out about land that's not being used. It may help if the owner is unknown. Land use is a huge deal. Reclaim it for public domain. Begin cultivating unused areas with permaculture principles. Anybody giving you a hard time for cultivating a city like my hometown Detroit is gonna look like a total bonehead.
Re: Chicago Boys, etc. Agreed on the Chile experiment. However, you can't really blame Milton Friedman for what elected representatives decide to do and actually do. The blame is not the theoretician's. The former Soviet Union could blame Marx, but to what avail? Marx did nothing, they did.
Yet another brutal article by economist Michael Hudson about what is going on with "rescuing the banking system". Warning: this might be a bit hard on an empty stomach.
Even if it was elected officials who decided to do shock therapy and other Chicago prescriptions, the not-subtle pressure was from Chicagoan institutions. What were the 1990's governments in Bolivia, Poland, South Africa to do when the only "expert" advise was from IMF and Chicago luminaries? They could hardly know anything better than woefully accept the "real capitalism" rules told by confident Friedman's guys.
As for Marx, he could claim crucial influence not only on Bolsheviks, but on classical social-democracy as well. That is nothing to be embarrassed of.
Dmitri's comparison with the Soviet collapse is great. But was it really economic reasons that did the Soviet Union in? The Perestroika reforms were rather started from a perceived crisis, and then the disintegration happened in some 6 years as a train. The system hardly showed any wish of survival; even the August coup was the lousiest possible. Doesn't the Soviet collapse look like just a case of a willful "pro-market" break up of the social network?
I listened to this on podcast this morning and could not stop laughing at all the jokes interspersed with the very serious social and economic observations. My favourite was feeding the WSJ to the donkey. Bravo and thank you for speaking up. Denise
"I listened to this on podcast this morning and could not stop laughing at all the jokes interspersed with the very serious social and economic observations. My favourite was feeding the WSJ to the donkey. Bravo and thank you for speaking up. Denise"
Burros are incredible animals. Talk about making the transportation industry more efficient... it doesn't get much more efficient than a donkey, especially in mountainous villages with tortuous streets.
It took me about a week to really read this. I've stumbled across these things, my wife and I use Mad Max as a verb for fertilizer through an electric shredder.
But this is truly an amazing read.
My green thumb will prove valuable. Good to know.
I'm wondering where the best places to hunker down would be. I know the west is going to have water problems.
If the internet survives, I'll try to keep posting to my organic gardening blog so people can grow their own food. Save seeds!
Very interesting ... !!!
Do you think it will be this dramatic? My prediction since 1981 has been that we would slouch toward the Latin American situation, i.e., get poorer and more insolvent yearly, but not go to this apocalyptic scenario. Now I have to study you more closely to figure out why it will be more like the Russian collapse ... do you have any quick words as to why we won't just join, say, the current Peru in terms of poverty levels?
Great talk, Dmitry. I've enjoyed a lot of your writings, but one thing I've seen you mention but only casually is the possibility of large-scale ethnic strife during a collapse scenario. There's a lot of literature about this kind of thing out there, mostly from white nationalist authors, and of mixed quality (well, mostly poor quality), as well as some comments from recognized military experts and historians, but I haven't seen you go into it in any real depth. I don't know if you do requests, but could you write something about what you see as far as the potential of ethnic warfare and ethnic balkanization during a collapse scenario? Obviously very important for collapse preparation. Thanks.
Great speech Dmitry! I now realize that I have been preparing for this eminent collapse within the wrong pretenses and forethought. The Establishment expects the remaining citizens and undesirables to eliminate each other; however, you have shown how we can take their "Plan" and shove it up their asses. I live in a remote region of Virginia and have 2 acres of farmable valley land. My collective neighbors feel that they will have to pick-off the Mexican (or other) intruders to maintain their safety. However, you have pointed-out an option that none of us considered... to embrace this onslaught of intruders and have them work with us for a common-good. Absolutely effen brilliant! No one wants to die, and everyone (even illegal’s) wants to survive the coming economic demise of America, as well as the World of people whom will be thrown into an environment of chaos.
Wow, I tell people this stuff and they just stare for a while and move on, I don't think it's that they think I'm nut's (yes they do) Most people can't handle the truth. They don't care, if they don't look at it- it will go away' as if it were a bad dream.
About the speech, you are depended on people keeping their heads and creating these crappy little survival units. That's not going to happen! This Gov't loves it's power way to much to let that happen. If you love your God given FREEDOM you will perpare to stand up for it!! even fight for it only after that will what you talked about in your speech come into play. Realize that to get there from the colapse that you speak of will be bloody. And FREEDOM will hang in the balance.
Truly sorry all to be even more of a downer. But if we can stand up for Freedom at the begining of all this craziness what we will have on the side will be the solid building blocks of a still free society. Thank you and regards, Dan Enright
Hi Dmitri, I tend to agree with most of your theses. However, the past is not a recipe for the future. I.e., modern Russia, having gotten the taste of its scavenger bazaar version of "capitalism" and having progressed through to a sort of neo-feudal stage (with medieval religious beliefs, nationalism, and superstitions on the rise) will respond differently to the new crisis.
Also, the Obama administration is clever enough (I think) to "boil the crab" slowly by raising the temperature 1 degree at a time, so the crab does not jump out of the pot. Of course, this does not change the fundamentals of the impending national bankruptcy but it can stretch it out and disguise it.
Every strata of the community will respond somewhat differently to the crisis, depending on its psychology, material and political means at its disposal, and the international situation (such as a potential state of war).
Reading through forums like this, we may get a wrong idea of how most people think and act. The Chinese, for example, are responding to the crisis by using their surplus of dollars to buy up resources to fuel their next stage of growth (military and industrial). Will oil get onto another hyper-inflationary spiral, together with the essential commodities like food? Not sure about that one.
Dmitry: After reading The New Age of Sail, I've decided to sell my house and buy/build a Bolger AS29 and live aboard. I and my seasick cat will feel cheated if society does not collapse.
Having never sailed, much less lived aboard, I'm planning to have a boat in the water some time in 2010, and use the interim time to learn.
Any comments or thoughts?
Hello Bolger AS29 fan. Please contact me off-line if you want to discuss the ins and outs of what you are proposing. Not a bad plan, overall, but there are... um... issues.
Dmitry: How do I contact you off-line?
- Bolger AS29 fan
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In the comparative theory of superpower collapse, currently being quite thoroughly tested, the US and the Soviet Union will have collapsed for the same reasons, namely: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget, and ballooning foreign debt
Hi Add Banners,
What you say is true, but the USSR alos suffered from nationalistic and ethnic centrifugal forces that pulled it apart.
The US economic collapse will result differently, with most of the population dying (this will happen in most nations as well):
Richard Heinberg appears to forecast this collapse between now and 2030.
I guesstimate the collapse will occur before or about 2020. After this, things will get "challenging."
We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, irrigation, water and waste water treatment, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.
This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed: http://www.peakoilassociates.com/POAnalysis.html
In June I took a trip to Albany to talk to 3 audiences on Peak Oil impacts. In the group that invited me, the Capital Regional Energy Forum CREF), is a physicist who teaches solar energy at a major university, and who had served in the Peace Corps.
He has solar powered just about everything, including a solar powered canoe which we went for long ride in on a lake in the Adirondacks, and a PV solar powered house and pump for his well. He repairs about everything on his house himself and he heats much with passive solar. So the guy knows his stuff. He is no ivory tower academic.
We talked for hours about survival in the northeast after the last power blackout.
It looks "challenging."
Eventually batteries and even the solar panels deteriorate. He thinks that he could store dry batteries with the liquid stored in glass and thus make "new batteries" after they conk out. But eventually the batteries and solar panels give out.
Cutting and moving wood without trucks, horses, and wagons will be a major effort and very time consuming. There are not many horses around and it will take decades to breed enough horses to go around. Horses require food, care, vets, and medicine. No one is making wagons these days locally.
Wood stoves break, just like everything else. You could keep one or 2 extras, but eventually you have none and can't get more, because there is no transportation on the highways.
Asphalt roof shingles need to be replaced, and houses need to be painted and maintained.
Food must be grown in with a short growing season, and all of the farm stuff that used to be in a 1890 Sears catalog is no longer available. Last summer I took a tour of a farm and saw how dependent farming is on oil -- transportation and manufacture of plastic feeding bowls, containers to store grains/feeds, straw, roofs for animals and storage areas, wire, rope, wood boards, cement, fencing, antibiotics for animals, asphalt shingles etc. Seed and hardware used to be available at the local hardware store, no more.
Then there is clothing which is manufactured and transported from afar. Making cloth is a major operation from growing cotton to making cloth. I have studied the textile mills of Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, MA for years, as I used it as an example of the confluence of capital, technology, and labor for a course I taught on Global Urban Politics at the University of New Hampshire. I know that the parts in those factories were manufactured in many places with a vast transportation network. After the last power blackout, those factories will not be built again. And there are not many sheep around, nor animals for making leather clothes. Eventually down coats and comforters wear out, as do blankets. It sounds like just keeping warm will be a major problem.
Potable water is another problem, and sanitation also.
And there will be no modern pharmacies or hospitals.
Mendur, you are a liability to society because you have swallowed the right-wing propaganda, whole.
It is not the debts of the poor that are wicked, scandalous and unfair to prudent people like yourself. The unprincipled villains are those rich people who have set up the system to deprive the poor of a living wage, preferring to extending credit to them, incrementally, as it has transpired, more usurious.
They know poorer people are unworldly, and in fact encouraged them to think that money grows on trees, in the sure knowledge that they would eventually default on their debts, they could the seize their assets, and if they themselves eventually went bankrupt, why they'd pillage the public purse via bail-outs.
I expect you also think that most of the unemployment is due to laziness, idle, shirking so-called welfare queens. Wise up.
Social collapse means the putrescence of a society's cell and disability of its function. Can be avoided with a strong social structure. I see social collapse as avoidable, but not in all places.
We live well away from a major city. Our backyard has been converted from a useless expanse of grass to an intensively managed garden and orchard, and I have a nice sized flock of chickens tucked away in it as well. Most of my neighbors are set up similarly. I welcome everyone to head to the city, to live as a squatter, grubbing about for their next meal and a place to sleep. As for me, and those around me, we'll stick to our out of the way spot, where we can support ourselves. As for those "armed men roaming about"... well, around here, we're the heavily armed, more than mildly psychotic ones. :)
As great an idea as it is, dissolution of debt will never occur; the goal of the banks is to CONTROL debt in an area. They want everyone to be indebted to them so that they can control policy and the populous at large.
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