Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Conversation About Europe

I came upon Dmitry Orlov's writings—as with most good things on the Internet—by letting chance and curiosity guide me from link to link. It was one of those moments of clarity when a large number of confusing questions find their answer along with their correct formulation. For example, the existence of fundamental similarities between the Soviet Union and the United States was for me a vague intuition, but I was unable to draw up a detailed list as Dmitry has done. One must have lived in two crumbling empires in order to be able to do that.

I must say that my enthusiasm was not shared by those around me, with whom I have shared my translations. It's only natural: who wants to hear how our world of material comfort, opportunity and unstoppable individual progress is about to collapse under the weight of its own expansion? Certainly not the post-war generation weaned on the exuberant growth of the postwar boom (1945-1973), well established in their lives of average consumers since the 1980s, and willing to enjoy a hedonistic age while remaining convinced that despite the economic tragedies ravaging society around them, their grandchildren will benefit from more or less the same well-padded, industrialized lifestyle. The generation of their children is more receptive to the notion of economic decline—though to varying degrees, depending on the decrease of their purchasing power and how lethally bored they feel at work (if they can find any) .

It would be wrong to shoot the messenger who brings bad news. If you read Dmitry carefully, scrupulously separating the factual bad news, which are beyond his control, from his views on what can be done to survive and live in a post-industrial world, you will find evidence of strong optimism. I hope that in this he is right.

Whatever our views on peak oil and its consequences—or our distate for scary prophecies—we can find in Dmitry Orlov fresh ideas on how to conduct our lives in a degraded economic and political environment, reasons to seek fruitful relations with people you might not normally cherry-pick, or the most effective approach to the frustrating political and media chatter and the honeyed whisper of commercial propaganda (shrug, turn around and go on with your life).

Tancrède Bastié

TB: What difference do you see between American and European close future?

DO: European countries are historical entities that still hold vestiges of allegiances beyond the monetized, corporate realm, while the United States was started as a corporate entity, based on a revolution that was essentially a tax revolt and thus has no fall-back. The European population is less transient than in America, with a stronger sense of regional belonging and are more likely to be acquainted with their neighbors and to be able to find a common language and to find solutions to common problems.

Probably the largest difference, and the one most promising for fruitful discussion, is in the area of local politics. European political life may be damaged by money politics and free market liberalism, but unlike in the United States, it does not seem completely brain-dead. At least I hope that it isn't completely dead; the warm air coming out of Brussels is often indistinguishable from the vapor vented by Washington, but better things might happen on the local level. In Europe there is something of a political spectrum left, dissent is not entirely futile, and revolt is not entirely suicidal. In all, the European political landscape may offer many more possibilities for relocalization, for demonetization of human relationships, for devolution to more local institutions and support systems, than the United States.

TB: Will American collapse delay European collapse or accelerate it?

DO: There are many uncertainties to how events might unfold, but Europe is at least twice as able to weather the next, predicted oil shock as the United States. Once petroleum demand in the US collapses following a hard crash, Europe will for a time, perhaps for as long as a decade, have the petroleum resources it needs, before resource depletion catches up with demand.

The relative proximity to Eurasia's large natural gas reserves should also prove to be a major safeguard against disruption, in spite of toxic pipeline politics. The predicted sudden demise of the US dollar will no doubt be economically disruptive, but in the slightly longer term the collapse of the dollar system will stop the hemorrhaging of the world's savings into American risky debt and unaffordable consumption. This should boost the fortunes of Eurozone countries and also give some breathing space to the world's poorer countries.

TB: How does Europe compare to the United States and the former Soviet Union, collapse-wise?

DO: Europe is ahead of the United States in all the key Collapse Gap categories, such as housing, transportation, food, medicine, education and security. In all these areas, there is at least some system of public support and some elements of local resilience. How the subjective experience of collapse will compare to what happened in the Soviet Union is something we will all have to think about after the fact. One major difference is that the collapse of the USSR was followed by a wave of corrupt and even criminal privatization and economic liberalization, which was like having an earthquake followed by arson, whereas I do not see any horrible new economic system on the horizon that is ready to be imposed on Europe the moment it stumbles. On the other hand, the remnants of socialism that were so helpful after the Soviet collapse are far more eroded in Europe thanks to the recent wave of failed experiments of market liberalization.

TB: How does peak oil interact with peak gas and peak coal? Should we care about other peaks?

DO: The various fossil fuels are not interchangeable. Oil provides the vast majority of transport fuels, without which commerce in developed economies comes to a standstill. Coal is important for providing for the base electric load in many countries (not France, which relies on nuclear). Natural gas (methane) provides ammonia fertilizer for industrial agriculture, and also provides thermal energy for domestic heating, cooking and numerous manufacturing processes.

All of these supplies are past their peaks in most countries, and are either past or approaching their peaks globally.

About a quarter of all the oil is still being produced from a handful of super-giant oil fields which were discovered several decades ago. The productive lives of these fields have been extended by techniques such as in-fill drilling and water injection. These techniques allow the resource to be depleted more fully and more quickly, resulting in a much steeper decline: the oil turns to water, slowly at first, then all at once. The super-giant Cantarell field in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of such rapid depletion, and Mexico does not have many years left as an oil exporter. Saudi Arabia, the world's second-largest oil producer after Russia, is very secretive about its fields, but it is telltale that they have curtailed oil field development and are investing in solar technology.

Although there is currently an attempt to represent as a break-through the new (in reality, not so new) hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques for producing natural gas from geological formations, such as shale, that were previously considered insufficiently porous, this is, in reality, a financial play. The effort is too expensive in terms of both technical requirements and environmental damage to pay for itself, unless the price of natural gas rises to the point where it starts to cause economic damage, which suppresses demand.

Coal was previously thought to be very abundant, with hundreds of years of supply left at current levels. However, these estimates have been reassessed in recent years, and it would appear that the world's largest coal producer, China, is quite close to its peak. Since it is coal that has directly fueled the recent bout of Chinese economic growth, this implies that Chinese economic growth is at an end, with severe economic, social and political dislocations to follow. The US relies on coal for close to half of its electricity generation, and is likewise unable to increase the use of this resource. Most of the energy-dense anthracite has been depleted in the US, and what is being produced now, through environmentally destructive techniques such as mountaintop removal, is much lower grades of coal. The coal is slowly turning to dirt. At a certain point in time coal will cease to provide an energy gain: digging it up, crushing it and transporting it to a power plant will become a net waste of energy.

It is essential to appreciate the fact that it is oil, and the transport fuels produced from it, that enables all other types of economic activity. Without diesel for locomotives, coal cannot be transported to power plants, the electric grid goes down, and all economic activity stops. It is also essential to understand that even minor shortfalls in the availability of transport fuels have severe economic knock-on effects. These effects are exacerbated by the fact that it is economic growth, not economic décroissance [Fr., "de-growth"] (which seems inevitable, given the factors described above) that forms the basis of all economic and industrial planning. Modern industrial economies, at the financial, political and technological level, are not designed for shrinkage, or even for steady state. Thus, a minor oil crisis (such as the recent steady increase in the price of oil punctuated by severe price spikes) results in a sociopolitical calamity.

Lastly, it bears mentioning that fossil fuels are really only useful in the context of an industrial economy that can make use of them. An industrial economy that is in an advanced state of decay and collapse can neither produce nor make use of the vast quantities of fossil fuels that are currently burned up daily. There is no known method of scaling industry down to boutique size, to serve just the needs of the elite, or to provide life support to social, financial and political institutions that co-evolved with industry in absence of industry. It also bears pointing out that fossil fuel use was very tightly correlated with human population size on the way up, and is likely to remain so on the way down. Thus, it may not be necessary to look too far past the peak in global oil production to see major disruption of global industry, which will make other fossil fuels irrelevant.

TB: How is post-collapse Russia doing ? Ready for its second peak ?

DO: Russia remains the world's largest oil producer. Although it has been unable to grow its conventional oil production, it has recently claimed that it can double its oil endowment by drilling offshore in the melting Arctic. Russia is and remains Europe's second largest energy asset. In spite of toxic pipeline politics (which have recently been remedied somewhat by the construction of the Nordstream gas pipeline across the Baltic) it has historically been the single most reliable European energy supplier, and shows every intention of remaining so into the future.

TB: Is there hope for a safe, harmless European decline, or is any industrial society just bound to collapse at once when fuel runs out?

DO: The severity of collapse will depend on how quickly societies can scale down their energy use, curtail their reliance on industry, grow their own food, go back to manual methods of production for fulfilling their immediate needs, and so forth. It is to be expected that large cities and industrial centers will depopulate the fastest. On the other hand, remote, land-locked, rural areas will not have the local resources to reboot into a post-industrial mode. But there is hope for small-to-middling towns that are surrounded by arable land and have access to a waterway. To see what will be survivable, one needs to look at ancient and medieval settlement patterns, ignoring places that became overdeveloped during the industrial era. Those are the places to move to, to ride out the coming events.

TB: I remember my grandmother telling me about the German occupation, when urban and suburban dwellers flocked into country towns every Sunday with empty cases, eager too find some food to buy from the local farmers, hopping back in a train the same day. Is there any advantage in living in a city, in a post-collapse era, rather than in the countryside?

DO: Surviving in the countryside requires a different mindset, and different set of skills than surviving in a town or a city. Certainly, most of our contemporaries, who spend their days manipulating symbols, and expect to be fed for doing so, would not survive when left to their own devices in the countryside. On the other hand, even those living in the countryside are currently missing much of the know-how they once had for surviving without industrial supplies, and lack the resources to reconstitute it in a crisis. There could be some fruitful collaboration between them, given sufficient focus and preparation.

TB: Can we grow sufficient food with low technology, low energy methods, out of highly exhausted, highly polluted farmland ? It seems we might end up in a worse farming situation than our ancestors just two or three generations ago.

DO: That is certainly true. Add global warming, which is already causing severe soil erosion due to torrential rains and floods, droughts and heat waves in other areas. It is likely that agriculture as it has existed for the past ten thousand years will become ineffective in many areas. However, there are other techniques for growing food, which involve setting up stable ecosystems consisting of many species of plants and animals, including humans, living together synergistically. What will of necessity be left behind is the current system, where fertilizers and pesticides are spread out on tilled dirt (rather than living soil) to kill everything but one organism (a cash crop) which is then mechanically harvested, processed, ingested, excreted, and flushed into the ocean. This system is already encountering a hard limit in the availability of phosphate fertilizer. But it is possible to create closed cycle systems, where nutrients stay on the land and are allowed to build up over time. The key to post-industrial human survival, it turns out, is in making proper use of human excrement and urine.

TB: If cities or big towns survive collapse, what will be their core activities? What do we need cities for?

DO: The size of towns and cities is proportional to the surplus that the countryside is able to produce. This surplus has become gigantic during the period of industrial development, where one or two percent of the population is able to feed the rest. In a post-industrial world, where two-thirds of the population is directly involved in growing or gathering food, there will be many fewer people who will be able to live on agricultural surplus. The activities that are typically centralized are those that have to do with long-range transportation (sail ports) and manufacturing (mills and manufactures powered by waterwheels). Some centers of learning may also remain, although much of contemporary higher education, which involves training young people for occupations which will no longer exist, is sure to fall by the wayside.

TB: Some Americans view peak oil and collapse as another investment opportunity. You already wrote on the fallacies of the faith in money. That leaves a more useful question: what can people do with their savings during or preferably before collapse? What can you buy that is truly useful? I assume the answer vary greatly according to how much money you still have.

DO: This is a very important question. While there is still time, money should be converted to commodity items that will remain useful even after the industrial base disappears. These commodities can be stockpiled in containers and are sure to lose their value more slowly than any paper asset. One example is hand implements for performing manual labor, to provide essential services that are currently performed by mechanized labor. Another is materials that will be needed to bring back essential post-industrial services such as sail-based transportation: materials such as synthetic fibre rope and sail cloth need to be stockpiled beforehand to ease the transition.

TB: You don't mention arable land or housing. Do you think some kind of real property may turn out a valuable post-collapse asset, assuming you can afford them without drowning into debt, or is it too much financial and fiscal liability in our pre-collapse era to be of any use?

DO: The laws and customs that govern real property are not helpful or conducive to the right kind of change. As the age of mechanized agriculture comes to an end, we should expect there to be large tracts of fallow land. It won't matter too much who owns them, on paper, since the owner is unlikely to be able to make productive use of large fields without mechanized labor. Other patterns of occupying the landscape will have to emerge, of necessity, such as small plots tended by families, for subsistence. Absentee landlords (those who hold title to land without actually physically residing on it but using it as a financial asset) are likely to be simply run off once the financial and mechanical amplifiers of their feeble physical energies are no longer available to them. I expect several decades more of fruitless efforts to grow cash crops on increasingly depleted land using increasingly unaffordable and unreliable mechanical and chemical farming techniques. These efforts will increasingly lead to failure due to climate disruption, causing food prices to spike and robbing the population of their savings in a downward spiral. The new patterns of subsisting off the land will take time to emerge, but this process can be accelerated by people who pool resources, buy up, lease, or simply occupy small tracts of land, and practice permaculture techniques. Community gardens, guerilla gardening efforts, planting wild edibles using seed balls, seasonal camps for growing and gathering food, and other humble and low-key arrangements can pave the way towards something bigger, allowing some groups of people to avoid the most dismal scenario.

TB: How can people make preparations for collapse or decline without losing connections with their current social environment, friends, relatives, jobs or customers, and everything around them that still function as usual. That is a question about sanity as much as practicality.

DO: This is perhaps the most difficult question. The level of alienation in developed industrial societies, in Europe, North America and elsewhere, is quite staggering. People are only able to form lasting friendships in school, and are unable to become close with people thereafter with the possible exception of romantic involvements, which are often fleeting. By a certain age people become set in their ways, develop manners specific to their class, and their interactions with others become scripted and limited to socially sanctioned, commercial modes. A far-reaching, fundamental transition, such as the one we are discussing, is impossible without the ability to improvise, to be flexible—in effect, to be able to abandon who you have been and to change who you are in favor of what the moment demands. Paradoxically, it is usually the young and the old, who have nothing to lose, who do the best, and it is the successful, productive people between 30 and 60 who do the worst. It takes a certain detachment from all that is abstract and impersonal, and a personal approach to everyone around you, to navigate the new landscape.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Party of Swindlers and Thieves

[Update two days later: Medvedev announces an inquiry into election results.]

[Update a day later: The demonstrations in Moscow and around Russia were well-attended and largely peaceful. Best slogan so far: I didn't vote for these bastards. I voted for the other bastards. Sums it all up adequately. Very few people seem to think that Zyuganov (Communists) or Zhirinovsky (Lib Dems) is a viable alternative to Putin. (The rest of the opposition is comprised of midgets.) This is all about the process of sending a message and making sure it is received and, most importantly, processed adequately. It's this last bit that bears watching (sorry about the bear pun).]

Russia has recently held parliamentary elections, which were, by most accounts, riddled with fraud. In the aftermath of the election, protests have erupted in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other parts of Russia. In the run-up to the elections, Putin's United Russia party was characterized as "Party of Swindlers and Thieves," known for phenomenal levels of corruption and for enshrining a new, untouchable bureaucratic aristocracy, bloated on siphoned-off oil and gas revenues, who refer to the commonplace bribes as "gratitude." In polling prior to the election, United Russia was garnering only some 15% of the vote, behind both the Communists and the Liberal Democrats. But thanks to rampant ballot stuffing, vote miscounting and other types of forgery, often carried out quite openly, it came in with a majority. The number of votes for United Russia was roughly doubled. Now it seems that the fraudulent tallies will be disputed in the courts. The word "revolution" is being bandied about only half-jokingly.

United Russia
Public disillu­sion­ment with Putin was already quite profound before the elections, but the en­su­ing protests are some­thing new in Russia's re­cent po­lit­ical expe­ri­ence: people who were not likely to protest up until this point have decided to turn up. Many of them have clearly decided that enough is enough. But I feel that they are be­ing mis­read, both in Russia and in the West. In Russia, commentators from the official media are eager to paint them orange: they are stooges propped up by operatives and money from the US State Department, which wants to strip Russia of its sovereignty and turn it into another Libya. Western commentators, meanwhile, seem to believe that Russia is, variously, about to revert into the USSR, or to go through another revolution. All of this is pretty much nonsense. Whether their demand is voiced in exactly these terms or not, what will make these protesters go home, and then peacefully show up and vote the next time, is full and immediate enforcement of Chapter 141 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation: "Obstruction of voting rights or work of election commissions: ...punishable by a fine from 200 to 500... [minimum monthly] wages... or correctional labor for a term of one year to two years, or imprisonment for up to six months, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years." The operatives in the field would get a stiff fine, the middle-managers of this election fraud extravaganza would get to cool their heels, and the masterminds and orchestrators of the fraud would get five years in the slammer. This would placate the electorate, and also make a replay highly unlikely.

The Communists
But just how far gone is Putin's government? The evidence so far is that they are still feeling invincible, and are willing to resort to repression in order to make the election results stick. But the Russian people want to express themselves; they want to be heard; they want those who hear them to make the required changes in response. Immediately after the election Medvedev was quick to start talking about coalition-building, but then the inertia of the party apparatus took over. Everybody wants to keep their seat, votes be damned. And now arrests are being made, troop carriers are rolling in and helicopters are circling overhead: these are not the right moves for opening a dialog and offering to make amends. Tomorrow, 10 of December, is likely to see large demonstrations. Perhaps it will turn out to be a date for the history books. Or perhaps the government will come to their senses in time, and start clawing back the legitimacy they have so foolishly squandered.

Liberal Democrats
If they fail to do so, they would be setting the stage for, if not a rev­olution, then at least a rebellion. The out­raged but well-meaning and peaceful crowds of protesters of today would, over a pe­riod of months or years, morph into a surly, implaca­ble, vicious mob ready to drown the govern­ment in their own blood. In due course, their instinct for self-preservation will become suppressed, as other, opportunistic, idealistic or heroic motivations move to the forefront. The progression is the same everywhere: first the people ask, then they demand, then they come and they take. For now, talk of revolution is restricted to those, both in the West and in Russia, who use it to justify their budgets for fermenting or suppressing revolt, respectively. They are, in both cases, a waste of public money.

The Future is Ours!
But if this dynamic were allowed to develop, then much more would be lost. Under Putin, Russia has become more stable and more prosperous. The cities have become more vibrant, and life has become better for many people, not just the ones at the very top. In striking contrast to the USA or the European Union, Russia is solvent rather than bankrupt. Putin gets the credit for these achievements. The slogan of his "United Russia"—"The future is ours"—is overweening and pompous (and, inadvertently, reminiscent of the Third Reich!) but, in some part thanks to his efforts, Russia does have a discernible future in a way that the US and the EU do not.

The Future is... Oops!
Giv­en that this is the case, one would expect the more thoughtful people in the US and in Eu­rope to simply stand back and watch, hop­ing to learn some­thing. Yet mindsets are slow to change, and some of them are still op­erating with their illu­sions of impe­rial power intact. Some of them are seeing orange, and thinking that there might be an opening to smuggle a neocon like Gary Kasparov into the Kremlin. But to a great many Russians their ruse of promoting "freedom and democracy" is already transparent: what they want to do is to destroy Russia's sovereignty. They almost succeeded in destroying it in the 1990s; they won't get that chance again. Now is not their time to try to influence Russian politics; now is their time to shrivel up.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Occupy the Million Dollar View

Now that the current phase of the Occupation movement—one that involved camping out in public places—is drawing to a close, thoughts turn to other, even more effective venues and exploits. Occupying the front lawns of mansions owned by the 1% would certainly send a message, although a very brief one, since trespassing happens to be illegal.

And then it hit me: it just so happens that the 1% own, roughly speaking, 99% of the really desirable beachfront properties, while the 99% have to make do with the 1% or so of the coastline that is reserved for public use. The 1%ers really like that “million-dollar view,” and the seaside mansion is one of their ultimate status symbols. Try to approach them from land, and you will quickly get spotted by vigilant local police and private security and won't make it very far—well shy of making any sort of statement, or even getting on the 1%er's radar.

But it just so happens that, according to US Federal law, they can only own property down to the low water line. In absence of specific regulations (marine sanctuary, public beach, municipal harbor, shipping lane, military reservation and so on) everything below the low water line is considered public anchorage. (It is everything below the high water line in Canada, which means that you can even occupy the beach at low tide and still not be trespassing.) Any vessel can anchor within a few meters of the 1%ers property, entirely spoiling their precious view with gigantic protest signs hanging from the mast, but if the boat is manned and is legal, then there is not a thing that they can do about it. On a calm evening, you can sail up, anchor, raft up, put up a big sail to use as a screen, and project a movie onto it. Eat the Rich, anyone? Then film their reaction, and project that next, with subtitles.

You might think that getting a sailboat flotilla together takes a lot of money. The boats that 1%ers such as Senator John Kerry prefer certainly are super-pricy, but then there are also many boats that can be had for free or for $1 (provided you agree to sail it away), or for a very small sum. For most people, sailboats are luxury items, and in these hard times many owners can't afford to keep them. They would like to get what they think their boats are worth, but since they can't, and since the boats are costing them money they don't have just sitting there, they are often willing to part with them for very little money. The trick is to make a ridiculously low offer sound non-insulting.

If a sailboat is engineless or has an outboard engine of 9.9 horsepower or less (which doesn't count as a real engine) then it is automatically grandfathered in and doesn't even need to be registered: just paint a name and a port of call on the transom, and it is legal. If it has an inboard diesel that runs, pull it out and sell it, and use the proceeds to finance the purchase of the boat itself, sometimes with money left to spare.

Would you like a more permanent occupation? Rotate vessels through the anchorage, going on an overnight cruise to nowhere every fortnight or so, keep all of the boats occupied at all times, and you are still legal. To establish a permanent base of operations that doesn't move, buy a mooring (a stationary mushroom anchor with a buoy chained to it) and use it to park a habitable but non-seaworthy vessel such as a houseboat.

There are some safety requirements, but they are minimal: life jackets and life preservers, sanitation (a composting toilet works well), functioning navigation lights, fire extinguishers and flares (unexpired ones), and an anchor. Land cops can't touch you. It helps to have a marine VHF radio. When hailed, you have to know radio protocol and marine terminology, and use it. If boarded, you have to cooperate. Some things are stricter than on land: get caught with any drugs, and the vessel gets arrested (as well as you). Neglect boat maintenance in a serious way, and it will be declared “manifestly unsafe” and scuttled, and you will be set ashore. But the water is generally free of riffraff as well as police brutality. Everyone tends to be polite, safety-conscious and just does their job.

You might have some issues with private security, who might not be particularly interested in following the law. But then sailors in pirate-infested waters have found a neat trick that really works: shooting skeet. It's quite challenging to hit a clay pigeon from a boat, so you will need to bring plenty of shotgun shells. It is good sport, and also a peaceful yet effective show of force that works on pirates, and will certainly make the private Mickey Mouse cops think twice about challenging you further.

For something more to do, why not join a yacht race? Yacht races are organized for and by some of the wealthiest 1%ers, who like to show off before each other. Join them just for the downwind leg (their fancy racing sloops are all about tacking upwind and actually don't do that well downwind) and unfurl a gigantic square sail with a protest sign painted on it. You might even win (that leg).

And so I hope that come next summer there will be Occupy flotillas floating up to crash swank exclusive seaside gatherings by planting themselves directly in the middle of the million dollar view and doing what Occupy already does very well: trolling the 1%ers really, really hard, 100% legally, and giving the 99%ers a chance to start thinking about getting out of that tired old pantomime sheep costume and into something a bit more fashionable.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Million Gardens

[Stan has graciously agreed to let me share this article with you. The solution he proposes is one that should be put into practice immediately: unlike other post-collapse solutions that will only become competitive after collapse has largely run its course, opting out of industrial agriculture is something that doesn't have to wait.] 

I love OWS and the Slogan “99%”

It is a great slogan that puts in bold relief the immense power of the one percent of humanity that exists parasitically on the rest.  “We are the 99%.”  It is a declaration that in some significant way, people are more awake to their circumstances than they were.  Around this slogan, we have seen courageous and principled people take to the streets in a great shout of “No!” at the powers and principalities of late neoliberalism; and we have seen that this outburst resonates with far more people than the ruling layer of society expected.  We have seen the protestors demonstrate with their bodies that under their façade of civility, this ruling layer relies in the last instance on truncheons, teargas, guns and jails.  This unmasking is more important in many ways than what will come afterward, because without it, we accommodate – and we all accommodate in one way or another, even those protesting – without any clarity.  Let these thousand flowers bloom.

Still, the 99% are not actually protesting.  99% of the 99% are just doing what they do to get by in the world the best they know how, far from the demonstrations.  We know this is true, and we know the reasons are as numerous as the people who do not protest in the street.  And so we are required to acknowledge that the movement, such as it is, is representative of its claim, not the number 99’s actualization.  And therein is one seed of mischief.

In Latin, it was once said, perversio optima quae est pessima.  The perversion of the best is the worst.  Some protesters will come to believe they are representative of those they do not know.  Some will try and formalize that representation as power.  Many are already spinning out programs (God, save us from parties and programs!) that purport to represent the 99%, though they are mostly utopian projections cobbled together by handfuls of people who still believe something called the “future” can be subordinated to human management schemes.  Some will begin to articulate what it means to be an “authentic” representative; and the divisions will begin.  Nothing stays the same, and this won’t either.  Lord, have mercy.

I am one of the 99% of the 99% this time around.  I had my day in the sun as a protestor; and if I’d have stayed a day longer, I would have taken up more room than one person should, because movements privilege clever talkers and angry writers more than they ought to.  Now I am one of the 99% of the 99% who is restricted in my movements by personal duties and obligations, the lack of money, and the lack of time.  I am far from any urban center, far from the big schools, far from the cohorts and committees, far from those places where people debate social theory and movement strategies.  And I love it out here in the sticks.

I love the Occupy movement, too.  I repost everything I see on Facebook that is not downright offensive (thickheaded sexism in this movement is alive and well, sorry to say).  I promoted the movement in my church with a supportive article in the bulletin, which generated a whiff of controversy that promises a dialogue about this thing we have named “economic inequality.”  I attended a rally in Lansing, though the mayor there agreed with the protest, so we didn’t generate any hostility from the police.  Sherry sports bumper stickers that say “OWS” and “99%.”  This is what we can do right now, so we are glad the demonstrators (I like the Spanish term “manifestantes” better) are out there keepin’ on.  In so may ways, you are speaking for us.  I get a little giddy at how long it has already lasted.

I love the movement’s sense of satire.  My favorite video was a bullfighting spoof around the Wall Street bull statue, with two capering clowns and a matador who mounted a police car and snapped his cape at the 7,100 pound bronze bovine.

I love the energy, and the courage, and the general understanding that the power of the movement is pacific.  Movements succeed when they inspire violence, but only when they inspire the violence of the oppressor that accomplishes this unmasking.

Whether the vandalism and violence of a few protestors is from fools or police provocateurs (probably a measure of both), it has been thankfully minimal.  Those youngsters who got pepper sprayed at UC Davis were more morally effective in their non-resistance than 10,000 macho-boys throwing rocks and setting fires.

I love the way OWS stays unpredictable.  That is absolutely this occupy-thing’s greatest strength.

I have questions, and ideas, however, about what happens next, about follow-up, about what the 99% of the 99% can do and, more importantly, should do.  I’m not proposing, as many leftists will, that the movement “get itself organized,” select leaders, develop a strategy, etc.  In fact, I vigorously oppose strategies on principle, because I believe most of them are simply designed to put a few people in charge of a lot of people who are then charged to carry out the strategy.  More on that further along.

Before I can explain myself, I need to at least describe the premise for these ideas.


The premise begins that all the changes that are implied in the demands – such as they are – of the movement are not applicable to all people in all places at all times.  The greatest value of this movement is not in its ability to expose certain sufferings and change certain policies, but in its ability to expose – with no unified intention to do so – all the reasons we need to abandon the entire system of which “policy” is only one essential working component.

This is an argument that is not won in this movement yet, because many people who are supportive of OWS et al still maintain the sincere and good-willing belief that governments and other policy-making institutions are somehow independent of their actual actions, like machines, and they can be taken over – like exchanging a bad driver for a good one in an automobile.
I respect that belief insofar as it is a belief people cleave to out of genuine good will.  These people are not collaborators or sheep; and those who characterize them that way are both wrong and mean.  I love the people who want to change the policies, because I am convinced that they want to do it out of a genuine sense of care about others.

My argument:  Even machines cannot be made independent of their makers and users.  The problem with the system is not the driver.  It is the car.
This is my premise.  If I am wrong, then ignore everything hereafter.

Failure of the Future

I think this car that is breaking down might be named “The Future.”
The deeply-parasitic infrastructure of society is coming apart, not temporarily, but in the face of some real trends that put real limits not only on the autocratic futurism of the right, but the “progressive” futurism of the left, too.  I ripped off Ivan Illich above with his reference to perversio optima quae est pessima.  I’m quoting him again when he said, “To hell with the future.  It is a man-eating idol.”

I agree with that.  A lot. This car is breaking down and there is going to be a wreck.

Illich wrote in 1973 about the energy infrastructure crisis.  What he said has proven prophetic in both senses of the word.  Prophets are wrongly believed to be people who simply foretell the future.  In fact, prophets are those who speak truth to power and who have visions, not predictions, that forewarn us of dangerous possibilities in the future.

Every generation has some.  Illich showed in 1973, in a pamphlet entitled “Energy and Equity,” that our faith in technology as redeemer of humanity is a terrible mistake.  Now we see the big secular trends that prefigure the collapse of many infrastructures.  Climate change.  Peak resource extractions.  The very economic crisis that spawned OWS.  War for the fuel to make war.  That’s next, and not far off either.

This crisis is not short-term, and it will force people to adopt new tactics for everyday life.  It represents both a trauma and an opportunity; but that opportunity, in my opinion, is not available through policy.  Policies may alter and change in response to material changes.  What has to change is not policy, but our entire built environment based on some more personal and less abstract narratives than Progress and The Future.

This is where the 99% of the 99% can do something, and they can begin doing it right now, without leaving their hometowns.  Let’s put this in another context before explaining why and how the 99% of the 99% can make some of those changes.

Devolution & Design

All social orders eventually devolve and are forced to reorganize, and the globalized world we live in is witnessing the devolution of the social order.  These periods of discontinuity never last forever, because society eventually self-organizes out of these devolutions, and a new order is established.  When an order collapses, there is an accompanying crisis of ideas.  More and more in our own period, we are seeing the de-legitimation of our ideas not only about capitalism and socialism, or their ugly merger into neoliberalism, but about what they held in common that have proven to be dangerous idols.  Progress.  The Future.  Technological Salvation.

When I was part of the organized activist left, I cooked up an alliterated recipe for resistance: de-legitimate, disobey, disrupt.  For the present, I will add a fourth D.  Design.

We are not going to force policy-makers to remake the world.  We have to do it ourselves.  We have to take our entire built environment, one piece at a time, and re-design it.  This will take everyone, because where you live is different than where I live; and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  To hell with policies.  They are people-eating idols.

The Money Grid

One nub of the whole situation at the end of 2011 is a longstanding fact.  People have been captured by their dependency upon a vast, technocratic apparatus that has de-skilled them and rendered them 100% (not 99%) dependent on money.  The technocratic apparatus makes all our stuff, controls our climate, fixes our boo-boos, educates us, feeds us, moves us around, lights our homes, and puts us to work – all inside our most excellent technocratic life support system – and the only thing that makes the system respond… is money.  As it is in 2011.  As it was in 2010, 2000, 1990, 1980…  it just got worse with time.

Money is generated by banks and printed by the government.  It is designed to work a certain way to benefit governments and banks, which are run by the rich.  Governments and banks are never going to be the ally of any movement like OWS, so there is little likelihood that activism will change the nature of money any time soon.  Money is designed to transfer power; and it does it very well.  Money is not a morally-neutral sign any more than a gun is a morally-neutral tool.  Each is designed for a purpose.  Guns are designed to kill.  Money is designed to commodify, that is, to make everything into a thing for sale.  Including you.

The anthropologist Alf Hornborg said that money dissolves cultural and natural systems in an ecosemiotic process.  “Viewed from outer space,” says Hornborg, “money is an ecosemiotic phenomenon that has very tangible effects on ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.  If it were not for money, nobody would be able to trade tracts of rain forest for Coca-Cola.”
That’s a lot to think about.  Think about it.

The Institutional Grid

Institutions are required to administer the technocracy upon which we all abjectly depend.  Institutions are always somehow imbricated within the system of money that benefits banks and government.  There is probably nothing controversial about saying that institutions can be corrupted by money.  What I am about to say is that institutions – all of them, even your favorites – are inherently and unavoidably corruptible.

If OWS develops “lists of demands” and programs and the like, there will be predictable appeals to target institutions for particular policy changes.  Money controls the institutions.  Money controls the policies.  Money will come to control the institutions that are created to fight the institutions.  As it ever has been and ever shall be.  The movement will become “focused,” it will deploy a strategy, and let the games begin.  The movement will be placed under management to oversee and coordinate the strategy.  The movement will come to depend on money.

Policy games controlled by money will be able to frustrate the original objectives of activists, either by crushing them or co-opting them.  Then the demoralization will start anew, amid more nihilism because the devolution will have advanced throughout the process.

If OWS itself begins to unravel over time, which it hasn’t so far but certainly may eventually, the follow-up options may appear to be (1) play by the rules for scraps or (2) to argue for more direct force against the system.  The latter will increase the probability of outright destruction, and the former might lead people to believe that nothing, in fact, can be done.

Welcome to the institutional grid.

Relations On and Off the Grid

I believe there is a way out of that impasse.  To explain it, I need to make reference to an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar.  He calculated that human beings have the cognitive capacity and the time to sustain a very finite number of caring relationships.  His guess was around 150.  I give this a lot of leeway, but I accept the general idea.  Finite brain.  Finite time.  Finite capacity.  Got it.

These primary relationships are built on trust and empathy, requiring no formal agreements, no contracts, no administration by a third party.  Most close family relations fall into this category, as do friends.  My own trick for categorizing these relations is to think of them as covenantal as opposed to casual or contractual.  Your relation to your boss is contractual.   Your relation to a grocery clerk you see once a week is casual.  Your relation to your friend, lover, child, mother, etc, is covenantal.  These covenantal relations are built on care, on trust and empathy.  They imply certain non-monetized, highly personal duties and obligations to one another that are accepted out of love.  These relations do not require formal rules; and in fact, formal rules would have a deleterious effect on these relations.
“A contract is an agreement made in suspicion. The parties do not trust each other, and they set “limits” to their own responsibility. A covenant is an agreement made in trust. The parties love each other and put no limits on their own responsibility.”
-Wambdi Wicasa
Once a group exceeds this fuzzy cognitive limit, this “Dunbar’s number,” it begins to require third parties to administer, manage and resolve conflicts.  This is the genesis of administration and management, and it becomes inevitable with greater scale, more people.  This new layer of relations is more impersonal, first by some small degree.  With more people and more administrators come greater degrees of impersonality.  The uprooted impersonality of administration is inevitable.  The tendency of these social formations is summed up in the way we can refer to administration as an “apparatus.”

A remarkable moral shift occurs with the emergence of this apparatus.  Doing the right thing because you care for someone is superseded by doing the correct or legal thing because of an impersonal rule.  The rules are necessary because the third parties of these apparati have to be seen as disinterested parties.  In this single moral shift, those who administer the rules gain a new kind of social power that makes them inherently corruptible.

This applies to a corporation, a club, a rifle platoon, a progressive non-profit, a church, a school, a hospital, a town, the water supply system, the food system, everything… because our technocratic society is administered by an apparatus that is approaching perfect impersonality.  Plain size can begin this pernicious process, so small “organizations” beware.  Simply calling yourself an organization carries this risk of impersonality.  The corruptibility of these institutions inheres in the enormous power they accumulate purely through the authority to administer and manage.

The Fetishism of Bureaucratic Competence

So while we are unmasking ideologies – those constellations of ideas that simultaneously conceal and reproduce power – let’s look at this ideology of “progress” and the “future.”  It is entirely built on force, and that power has accrued to the one percent, and we have not unmasked what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the “fetishism of bureaucratic skill,” part of the ideology of progress that both reproduces and conceals this administrative power.  Most of the left and the right have fallen prey to this fetishism.
“The modern American is culturally conditioned to think of nature as nothing more than matter-in-motion, as a standing reserve that through technological and entrepreneurial prowess is converted into a consumer’s cornucopia.”
-Max Oelschlaeger
To this adds MacIntyre:
“The fetishism of commodities has been supplemented by another just as important fetishism, that of bureaucratic skills… the realm of managerial expertise is one in which what purport to be objectively grounded claims [e.g., to the knowledge of the good society and how to achieve it] function in fact an expression of arbitrary, but disguised, will and preference.”
Power.  His qualification is at the heart of it, “to the knowledge of the good society and how to achieve it.”  This is a delusion of the ideology of progress, this notion that people can render the future predictable and manageable.  Experts, managers and administrators take full advantage of this ideology to exert will and preference behind a mask of special competence.

MacIntyre continues, in 1984, that “we know of no organized movement towards power which is not bureaucratic and managerial in mode, and we know of no justifications for authority that are not Weberian.”

As the power of administrators grows, an ethic of care becomes more and more antithetical to the rules-regime of administration.  Impersonality metastasizes, and we wake up to find ourselves not living in the world but moving plugs around on a switchboard to get what we need from the technocratic grid.

Management makes rules that help management.  Management is the administration of administrators.  Administration makes rules that benefit administration.  As Haitians say, ti tig se tig.  “The child of a tiger is a tiger.”
The original purpose of a rule – often created out of good will – is subverted by the administrative application of the rule.  In common parlance, “the tail starts to wag the dog.”  The letter of the law is administered against the spirit of the law.  This dog-waggery leads to the incomprehensibility of the rules and resentment of administration and management, which in turn becomes defensive, setting up a power struggle in which administration is already advantaged by the growing dependency of the administered on administration.  Remember that Stalin accrued his immense power through control of an administrative apparatus.

One of the reasons we have so little power to act creatively in the face of so many crises is not just that we are fragmented, but that we’re cut off in a much deeper way by the lack of social cohesion that can only happen in the small, intimate group.  Covenantal relations are strong bonds.  Contractual relations are weak bonds.

Every infantry squad leader knows that.  Every good mother knows it.  The rest of us ought to, too.

Management is the enemy of social cohesion, because it substitutes secondary (weak) bonds for primary (strong) ones. By re-strengthening primary bonds, we develop a greater capacity to resist power, but also to creatively adapt to (without direct resistance) rapidly changing circumstances.

Strategy and Tactics

Strategy and tactics as they are commonly understood are war terms, and they can’t escape their conflict implications.  Michel De Certeau, however, draws a distinction between them that leaps over some of the martial interpretations of these ideas.

In military parlance, strategy is the identification of key campaigns that are necessary to accomplish the main objective – in most cases, winning the war.  Operations is a level of planning that determines key battles necessary to win campaigns.  Tactics are those techniques that are required to win battles.  So the tactic is subordinate to the campaign, which is subordinate to the strategy.  In other words, “In the beginning, there was Strategy, and without it the world was shapeless and void.”

De Certeau wrote about people in their everyday lives, not conditions of extremity and conflict, in a book entitled oddly enough, The Practice of Everyday Life.

Strategy, notes De Certeau, is always the purview of power.  Strategy presumes control.  Strategy is self-segregating, in the same way administration and management is self-segregating, setting itself up as a barricaded insider.  The strategic leaders become the Subject; and the led become — along with any enemies — the Objects.  Strategy presumes an in-group that executes the Strategy.
“Strategy is the calculus of force-relationships; when a subject of will and power can be isolated from an environment.”
-De Certeau
The financial masters of the universe at Wall Street oversee the strategy.  They are the institutions.  In many ways, the rest of us cannot escape their Grid.  They are the subject, and the rest are the object. They are inside; and we are outside.  They live behind guarded walls.

De Certeau calls tactics, on the other hand, the purview of the non-powerful.  His version of “tactics” is not as a subset of Strategy, but adaptation to the environment (which has been structured by A Strategy).

The city planning commission may determine what streets there will be, but the local cabbie will figure out how to take best advantage of lived reality of those streets.  This making-do is what De Certeau calls bricolage, and it often implies cooperation with others as much as competition with others.
While the masters of the financial universe at Wall Street protect their guarded walls and ensure the system keeps paying the imperial tribute, we are making do.  We do things that they can’t control or fully account for.  We barter, clip coupons, work under the table, trade labor, share tasks and expenses with friends… all those little cheats to bypass the more disadvantageous routes along the Grid.  Making do.  Bricolage.
Bricolage is so detailed, so numerous in instance, so adaptable, that much of it escapes the notice of the Big Strategists; more importantly, it is beyond their power to control.


Strategy makes two presumptions:  control and an in-group.  The contradiction of strategy is that the control is never perfect and the situation upon which the strategy was constructed is always changing, making aspects of the strategy obsolescent.  The self-segregation of in-groups magnifies these myopic aspects of strategy, because the walls that keep others out also obscure their view of the outside.  Strategy becomes self-referential.
Tactics, on the other hand, or bricolage, is action in a constant state of reassessment and correction based directly on observations of the actual micro-environment.  Tactical theorist John Boyd rather schematically diagrammed this process as an OODA-loop, meaning people observe their surroundings (O), orient on the most important developments in the environment (O), decide on an immediate course of action (D), take that action (A), then revert immediately to observation (O) of the environment to see how their last action might have changed it (orienting again, deciding again, acting again…and again).  There is no presumption of how things will turn out, as there is in strategy.  There is, in fact, readiness to take advantage of unpredictable changes; this is called tactical agility.

Ignore that Boyd studied aerial combat for a moment, and we see that this is sense in many other scenarios.  It just requires recognizing the radical limits on our ability to control something called “the future.”  That future has always and always will remain unpredictable. As it should.

Strategies are undermined by unpredictability.  Tactics (bricolage, OODA-loops) can make an ally of unpredictability.

The intrepid street manifestantes of the Occupy movement can benefit from the OODA-Loop.  They are in a tactical contest with the authorities to perform their prophetic tasks.  For those among the other 99%, what kinds of bricolage can begin to directly and intentionally reduce our degree of dependence on the technocratic grid?

Strategic Without Strategy

Nero – both an emperor and a sadistic misanthrope – is said to have wished humanity had one throat so he could have the pleasure of cutting it.  This is the statement of a strategic principle.  The centralized structures of one’s enemy are considered strategic targets.

Sherman’s great arson campaign was principally aimed at Atlanta, where both the railroads and telegraphs of the Confederate forces converged.  His march to Atlanta prefigured what would later become strategic bombing.
As the United States Armed Forces, to their chagrin, discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan is that when there were no longer centralized political structures to attack in Iraq, there was a complete loss of tactical initiative.  The US forces were metaphorically reduced to fighting off a swarm of hornets.  Their strategy became incoherent.  The problem was further magnified in Afghanistan, because there even the material infrastructure lacked centralization.  Rumsfeld’s first complaint about Afghanistan, when the Bush administration was preparing its war, was that Afghanistan presented the US with “no good targets.”

One thing this might be telling us, if we are listening, is that we are safer from the strategies of ill-wishers in decentralized groups.  The more the merrier.

In nature, decentralized diversity generates resilience.  Centralized monoculture, on the other hand, is vulnerable precisely because it is centralized.  One electrical failure can plunge 50 million people into opaque helplessness. One new fungus can wipe out a monocropped food staple.
I bring this up, because I want to suggest a mode of strategic decentralism.  Being strategic without developing A Strategy.  The 99% of the 99% need to have some answer to the question, “What can we do?”  My answer is make new facts on the ground.  Start re-designing the built environment, especially in those spaces that are being ignored or abandoned during the process of devolution.

I want to propose a strategic goal without any general staff, without any hierarchy of any kind, part of which almost anyone can accomplish.  No requirement for management, and no implied requirement for conflict (some will always find you), and no one-size-fits-all instructions on how to get it done.

I want to propose that we begin a systematic effort to reduce our dependency on the technocratic grid, by a lot of people working at or near their homes.  One of the most powerful dependencies we have on the grid is food.  The power of the food institutions is already well known and well understood, from Monsanto, to ADM and Cargill, to the Food and Drug Administration.  Our very survival has been lashed to this grid by food-production monopolies.  The entire world is groaning under the depredations of the food giants.

I have witnessed food riots firsthand.  It is an unforgettable experience.  Our dependency on food is a terrible weapon in the hands of the one percent.
I want to propose we build a million food gardens.  Two million.  However many.  However many conditions.  However many designs.  There is the strategic direction:  make food, and not just for the same reasons Gandhi made salt.  Make food because it puts that much of our lives back into our own hands, and the hands of our communities.  Into the hands of our friends, our families, our covenantal relations.  We can meet one of our own needs without any bureaucratic apparatus.

Making Food

In the town where I live, with around 20,000 souls, we built a garden this year.  A group of people built the first of several food donation gardens on what the city has called “orphaned properties.”  The city owns them, but they have no particular use for them during this devolutionary contraction.  Next Spring, we want to make two more gardens.  A friend from church just offered the use of a portion of her country property for garden cultivation.  We have around a million maples worth of leaf mulch and compost, mountains of chipped wood (from ice storm damage last year), and those long Northern summer days of sun.  We have barely begun to learn how much food we can grow here… off the commercial food Grid.

I, for one, do not intend this to be some strategy to force new policies into the commercial food grid.  Speaking for me, I see this as a way of serving divorce papers on the commercial food grid.  And no one has figured out a way to call helmeted, militarized police out to stop anyone working in the gardens.  The cops I talked to this year said it was a good idea, the garden.
Multiply this by a million, then instead of a quarter acre of re-designed facts on the ground, you have 250,000 acres of re-designed facts on the ground.  These are easier to defend than a policy, and it presents no strategic targets.  Certainly there are threats and potential threats, but there is no one neck so Nero can have the pleasure of cutting it.  Instead there is an accumulation of intimate victories, accomplished by convenantal communities, communities made that much stronger by the reduction of their dependency on the technocratic grid and the recognition of their very personalized interdependency on each other.

Walking on Two Legs

Demonstrating in the street, this unmasking work that OWS has done so incredibly, inspiringly, lovingly well, is not done yet.  I am not by any means arguing that anyone ought to return from the street.  Those of us who can’t be there do need you to represent.  You are the allies of unpredictability, the agile OODA-artists of the street, the magicians who can abracadabra bits of stunning clarity out of your hats.  Your job is exhilarating, exhausting and crazy risky sometimes.  If you can do it, that is where you need to be.

There will never be more than a fraction who have the flexibility at a particular time to be manifestantes.  We love you, and we want you to go on, and we have been both instructed and entertained by your courage, creativity and endurance.

When you can no longer do it, there is something you can do, and so can the 99% of the 99% who can’t be those shock troop manifestantes, right now.
What can be done, and without any strategies involved, is a straightforward and strenuous effort by 99% of the 99% who are at home to make food. If there are 500,000 OWS protestors, then there need to be 1,000,000 more people who are making food in their yards, their neighborhoods, their churches, temples and synagogues, their workplaces, their schools, their land trust plots, their fallow fields, their empty lots, their apartment decks, their patios and their kitchen windows.

Even when the demonstrations end – and they will end – we are not left with nothing to do to continue dissolving that power.  Every square yard of land recovered for food is a material victory in the face of little resistance, and that same square yard is a square yard of independence from the Grid.
Do not pit your weakness against their strength.  Exercise your strengths where they are weakest, where you live.  The system is falling apart, and nothing will stop that.  More and more niches will appear.

Even more important to me personally:  gardens are peacemaking.  Peacemaking is still the most important form of resistance.
Let a million gardens bloom.


Monday, November 07, 2011

The Russian Soul and the Collapse of the West

[Guest post by Sandy, ClubOrlov's Siberia correspondent. A version of this article was run in late October in the newspaper Business Biysk, in the Altai Region of Russia.]

The earliest stirrings of modern industrial society can be traced back to some 6,000 years ago, to the emergence of the first cities, the emergence of agriculture and storage of food surpluses in the Near East. A bit later, analytic and linguistic keys to the forward march of civilization found critical refinement in Aristotle’s syllogistic logic and the founding of the sciences. The current trajectory of the West burst into full self-consciousness during the period of European Enlightenment, with the birth of rationalism and the elaboration of the modern scientific method. These, in turn, eventually gave rise to the industrialization, hyper-specialization, technological innovation and increasing commodification of just about everything that we are witnessing today.

With Europe and, more recently, America leading the way, the path charted and engineered by Western civilization spawned a mindset that is rapidly overtaking the globe, socially, economically, and culturally. This ascendancy has unleashed a domination of values, which, unlike political hegemonies of the past, are spreading with lightning speed, virtually unchallenged, and artfully enabled by the very technologies it has spawned.

Many Americans are convinced that their culture represents the apex of this historical legacy, the best in scientific and technological advancement, as well as political and economic leadership. What America has achieved, so they believe, is a dream come true. It was this “American Dream” that has been held out to (or thrust upon) the rest of the world as the ultimate expression of the “good life”—the proper locus of human happiness. However, it was cheap energy, in the form of fossil fuels, that has enabled this cultural and industrial progress, and the recent recognition that world oil extraction has peaked surely signals the prospective collapse of industrial economy, and, with it, the dissolution of its core institutions. The trajectory of Western civilization, now characterized by accelerating energy decline and global climate change—a trajectory that Homo sapiens had set in motion upon excavating the first coal pit—is nearing its end.

There are yet some dreamers and wishful thinkers who tell us of oil extraction technologies and spectacular discoveries of new supplies that will power our future. Overlooking the insidious exaggeration of these claims, the unintended consequences of technologies needed to deliver on them will surely bring substantial ecological fallout, further limiting our access to survival necessities such as clean air, fresh water, and healthy flora and fauna. Likewise, alternate sources of energy will never replace industrial civilization’s continuous and ever-growing need for transportation fuels. We are living within an unsustainable bubble that is already deflating, slowly for now, more quickly in the near future. Sustainable human existence will require smaller-scale and more local approaches to just about everything.

With the globe facing epic crises—ecological, financial, economic, political, psychological—at whose feet do we lay the blame? Where do we look to better understand the roots of these crises, or to learn how to outrun their dire consequences? While many have identified pursuit of the American Dream as a proximate cause of this global unraveling, the USA was not alone in its reliance upon certain fundamental assumptions about subjugation and exploitation of nature, ineluctably leading to devastating outcomes. All civilized regimes—from the first empires of ancient Mesopotamia to modern nations such as Russia and China—share the responsibility for the current planetary devastation. Industrial progress, economic growth, technological innovation, political expansion and environmental devastation have been the hallmarks of civilization since the beginning of history.

Not surprisingly, there is now growing disaffection in the West (of all places) with the way things are going. Given a global financial meltdown, high unemployment, austerity, endless war, insurrections popping up everywhere, unparalleled greed, irrational terrorism, the American Dream is fading like like the trace of warm breath on a mirror. Mother nature herself seems to be speaking to us loudly, with more frequent and more brutal natural disasters than at any other time in recorded history. Barely two decades into America’s uncontested ascendancy to unipolar imperial power—with the entire planet supposedly globalizing around its neoliberal capitalist dogma—and the whole thing is starting to come apart. If you think this makes the institutional fabric of Western civilization vulnerable, you are right; it does.

Yet do not think for a moment that it is going to come down without a struggle. There are centripetal forces holding this spectacle together as much as there are centrifugal forces pulling it apart. Aside from the greedy and controlling hands of plutocrats, there is too much raw desire out there in the hinterlands, too many people who have been living on the fringes of this “Dream” just waiting for their turn, for a piece of the pie. The entire Soviet Bloc, systematically excluded from all the fun for almost a century, now holds the forbidden fruit firmly within its grasp. These now independent nations are busy chasing the dream as quickly as they can muster the energy and the capital. China has also awakened from its slumber, focused on making up for lost time in securing a position of global prominence. The Indians have decided that they too want to play: Mumbai has made a good beginning in this respect, taking over nearly all customer service functions for major US corporations, siphoning off consumer purchasing power that once went to Americans.

A new generation of Russians is racing to be first at the finish line. The Russian Federation, in concert with its regional administrations, is aggressively stripping forestland, building new roads and expanding old ones, and refurbishing and building-out regional and the international airports. They are doing so with great abandon, as if there is no tomorrow—and perhaps there won't be. Yet no one in Siberia younger than fifty years old seems to want to discuss this possibility. They are having too much fun with their newfound wealth, and are enjoying the spectacle. This is most evident when you look at the younger generation of Siberians and the nouveau riche in Barnaul, Biysk, Belokurikha, and across Altai Krai. They cannot live without their cell phones, their iPods and their credit cards; without their health club memberships, pricey coffee houses and their air conditioners; without their recently financed foreign automobiles and their newly minted driver's licenses. In short, they have tasted the promise of this “society of the spectacle.” They are mesmerized by its allure and hooked on its fascinating appeal. It is not just blue jeans they want. They want it all! Short of an abrupt exhaustion of basic vital resources like fossil fuel, clean water, or fresh air, the only way we could see a quick collapse of this “curriculum of the West” as it moves east, is by prying it from the clutching hands of all those who previously had little, but now choose to have hope for more.

But there is also something ancient and primitive pulling at the emotional core of Siberians, something that once spoke clearly to a more archaic need, and perhaps still speaks to the older generations of Siberians even today. I am referring to the thoroughly mythologized Russian soul: a soul that in the mother tongue is feminine in gender—душа [dushá]—and, as such, is intimately connected with the mystery of Mother Earth. Recall Dostoevsky’s many references to the Russian soul as a reflection of the people’s unfailing and non-negotiable connection to the land from which life springs. There is a well-articulated and indestructible sentiment among our people that does not allow complete separation, physically or emotionally, from the land in which they were born and where they naturally survive and flourish. The Russian people have the greatest appreciation for, love of and attachment to their homeland and families, as well as to the broader ties of kinship these entail. They understand all of this to be intimately connected, as their language makes abundantly clear:

род [rod]: family, kind, sort, genus
родина [ródina]: homeland, motherland
родители [rodíteli]: parents
родить [rodít']: to give birth
роднить [rodnít']: to unite, bring together
родовой [rodovói]: ancestral, tribal
родство [rodstvó]: kinship

Over their historically, Russians have had to endure the hardships and struggles of political turmoil and repeated invasion, and Siberians understand struggle as a given, as part of the cycle of life, death and nature. The normal conditions of existence here, whether in the city or the village, are not what we Americans would consider easy, convenient, or comfortable (although they are improving). Those who live here have preserved some age-old instincts in order to survive, and even to celebrate life in the midst of recurrent hardships and strife. The personal and cultural resolve that personifies this soul has been forged over generations of people facing down aggression, natural and political, then calmly and courageously returning to their roots and rebuilding their lives upon an archaic foundation in which they never lost faith. It is impossible to understand the depth and mystery of this soul separately from its rootedness in the simplicity of the Russian peasantry and the inviolability of the Russian soil. There is an earthly sensuousness that infuses the Russian experience; this culture remains drenched in the primacy of the body and the natural world that nourishes it. This autochthonous connection to the land—the Siberian’s more elemental experience of life in wilder, mysterious nature—may still be capable of influencing the future trajectory of both the new Russia and Western civilization.

Perhaps Russia’s long-suffering messianic mission still stands firm in the Siberian wilderness, albeit less vociferously than before, quietly recalling humanity from the abyss of alienated spirit that haunts the self-absorbed West with its scientific rationalism, its consumerism and its otherworldly transcendence—a self-misunderstanding that seems to be marching all of us mindlessly toward global collapse. Perhaps the more primal Siberian awareness can summon us back to a feral memory trace, helping us recall our essential rootedness in Mother Earth and the earthly sensuousness of our flesh, the flesh of the world. But the delusion of ‘manifest destiny’ that drives Western hegemony and its commodity culture is chipping away relentlessly and callously at that archaic Russian soul, perhaps more rapidly than she is able to redirect and dissipate the self-destructive energy of Western imperialism and its global appetite. Siberians, and those of us living here in Altai Krai, must rethink their commitment to this Western curriculum as it continues to lead us relentlessly, mindlessly, toward a precipice.