Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reinventing Collapse in the US and Canada

by Justin Ritchie, The Tyee

It's all too easy to make jokes about our neighbors to the south for their dramatic weight problems, generally poor understanding of geography and that stretch of coastline now famously known as the Jersey Shore.

Yet we're seriously reliant on the economic health our southern neighbours. In British Columbia, 45.9 per cent of our total exports went to the U.S. last year. The Canadian economy exports over 70 per cent of its products to the States, forming the world's largest trading relationship between two nations. The case could be made that no other sovereign economy is tied to the U.S. more than Canada's.

So when someone deeply familiar with the collapse of the Soviet Union writes about how the States is headed in the same direction, we might wish to pay attention. Even greater cause for concern is that he has been doing so since 2005, and his predictions have been proving true at alarming accuracy. That, combined with a crushing national debt hovering over Washington D.C., means there is a prescient need for people to hear from those experienced with "superpower collapse."

Dmitry Orlov writes not for fame or fortune, but to provide a book with which you can smack your friends across the head when they state, "No one could have seen this coming." He moved with his family from the USSR to the U.S. as a kid, but his career allowed many opportunities to travel back home and catch glimpses of growing collapse. Though the USSR had been falling apart slowly, it wasn't until Yeltsin uttered the words "Former Soviet Union" that it seemed to happen all at once. The world's first superpower collapsed because its founding myths of technological progress and "bread for all" had failed to match reality.

Moving past the 'iron triangle'

In the newly revised version of Reinventing Collapse, first published in 2008 before the financial crisis began later that year, Orlov expands on his attempt to convince you that the U.S. is much less prepared for collapse than the Soviet Union ever was. Though headlines declaring the end of America won't appear anytime soon, Orlov forecasts that collapse will happen for each person individually, as they are rudely awakened from the American Dream. And while his propositions can be frightening at times, he understands that forecasts of superpower collapse will either frustrate or alienate most people, or end up largely ignored -- until it's too late.

Many of Orlov's forecasts from the previous edition have proven accurate. Orlov's America is a system barely able to sustain itself, ruined by a population bent on a hardened mythology: an iron triangle of home, car and job that is out of touch with the reality of rapidly depleting cheap energy, which made vehicle ownership and suburban home life a gateway to the goal of being middle class. Orlov predicted that as the steady stream of money from employment dried up, the country's depleted social infrastructure would be exposed and the American standard of living would plummet. His forecasts are lived out by the people who have their home in the underground corridors of Las Vegas and in cars across the nation.

Orlov argues that there is a clear recipe for social unrest in the U.S., with approximately 350 million guns, a consumption rate of two-thirds of the world's anti-depressant drugs and a national homicide rate that could be equaled by a 9-11-sized event every month. The can-do American spirit and career-oriented mindset may have served its residents well in the past, but it will be particularly vulnerable in the transition to a post-growth economy. Contrasted to the Russian work ethic during the latter stage of Soviet decline, Orlov says that someone who worked hard and played hard was considered a fool. American career ethics and economic dynamics have lead to patterns of migration that uproot people from communities, something we're witnessing in Canada now -- though this can be a positive in times of collapse, as it makes us more open to strangers and varied living situations than the tightly knit Russian communities Orlov witnessed. Vancouverites know how difficult affordable housing can be, and openness is an asset as living affordability becomes more precarious.

Orlov contrasts the U.S. and the USSR in areas as diverse as housing policies, health care, food production and core societal myths. His explanation of the difference between Soviet and American expectations for education particularly resonated with me. While Soviet schools had far fewer resources, they produced children that knew much more general information and had better conceptual understanding, rather than a focus on exams. At my university in North Carolina, I experienced that exact dynamic. When a professor made a point to avoid specific outlines of what to study, students squirmed with discomfort. In classes with Russian professors, students complained that exams didn't follow homework problems, testing concepts instead. Orlov concludes this is because schools in the U.S. aren't about learning, they are about institutionalization; merely biding the time while kids enter the institution of the workforce, government, a corporation or prison.

Age of opportunity?

While the updated Reinventing Collapse retains many of its first edition's ideas, it reads smoother and makes the case stronger for the collapse of the U.S. But it's not all doom and gloom. Orlov presents very clear and surprisingly optimistic recommendations, revealing an age of opportunity for those willing to adjust their expectations. Orlov thinks black market economies in scavenged material will become the norm in the near future -- and evidence of that is booming, as witnessed by the rapid growth industry of copper and air conditioner theft in the U.S. Orlov explains that expensive health care will become out of reach for the majority, and alternative medicine will grow in popularity as the complex networks that enable pharmaceuticals wither away. He says that instead of building an electric car no one can afford, products and services can be designed to serve the huge and untapped market segment of the permanently unemployed. There will be a need, he says, for low-cost housing opportunities like dormitories, GPS devices for retrieving and locating stashes of gear, or campgrounds that provide garden plots.

The American economy is deeply tied to oil consumption at incredible levels, made possible by the world's reserve currency. Orlov explains that as oil prices increase, the economy will decline, leading to shortages of serviceable equipment and an inability for citizens to consume -- hurting economic activity further, weakening the U.S. dollar and making more oil even further out of reach. Once shortages appear, much of the spare gasoline is wasted idling at the few gas stations still open and hoarded by those with ambition and foresight. Reinventing Collapse explains how even a relatively minor temporary disruption in gasoline could lead to a dramatic shift to a black market economy for fueling vehicles. Another advantage lies herein for Canada as the value of the loonie has been closely tied to oil prices for over a decade.

So where does that leave Canada? While our debt-to-GDP ratio is among the healthiest of the G20, economic ties to the U.S. means we should pay attention. By understanding where the U.S. is headed, perhaps the argument for greater resilience and sustainability here in Canada can be made anew.

Friday, August 19, 2011

No shirt, no shoes, no problem


Though we’ve had Transition Voice for almost a year now, last month was the first time I talked to Russian-American peak oil and economic analyst Dmitry Orlov, whose popular website, Club Orlov, offers both his own thoughts, and a vigorous community of like-minded readers.
Because Orlov takes a more skeptical, less forgiving look at collapse, I think I might have been tuning him out to a degree, considering myself not doomer enough for his club. Or maybe I had Panglossia when it came to him.

But my prejudices were upended when I took the time to read his book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects. Erik Curren just reviewed the book for us, but I have my own take, too, in fewer words; it’s awesome.

If you can call reading about peak oil and collapse “awesome.”

Infinitely readable — a page turner even — Orlov’s direct experience with Soviet collapse translates into an excellent historical perspective supported by research and a clear context. Yes, he’s pretty blunt, and doesn’t candy-coat things, but at the same time he’s efficient and even somewhat elegant in his writing. It’s a quick yet informative read and I highly recommend it.

Soon after I spoke with him and, still nervous about my perception of his intensity, I went into the interview not knowing what this guy would be like.

But like most tough guys, he turned out to be a big pussycat. Very nice, very approachable, funny, insightful, easy to talk to. Rather than finding a stodgy analyst of intellectual information — though he is quite sharp — I’d describe his approach as “moving with, rather than against, collapse.” That was one reason for the title for this article, “No shirt, no shoes, no problem.” Orlov’s is a view seasoned by experience, not just theoretical predictions. So there’s an insightful depth there that takes things seriously, while also operating from a deep sense that it’s “just life.”

Oh, and it was my first shirtless interview. Orlov, that is. He was shirtless. It was a very hot day and I interviewed him via Skype. He was on his boat. It was hot here, too. The heat wave of ’11. My shirt stayed on.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Le pic pétrolier, c'est de l'histoire

[Merci, Tancrède! Le texte originel est ici.]

Le baratin mercatique sur la quatrième de couverture de la première édition de mon premier livre, Réinventer l'effondrement, me décrivait comme un théoricien majeur du pic pétrolier. Quand je l'ai vu la première fois, ma mâchoire est tombée — et elle est restée pendante. Vous voyez, si vous parcourez une authentique liste de théoriciens majeurs du pic pétrolier — les Hubbert, Campell, Laherrère, Heinberg, Simmons et quelques autres valant d'être mentionnés, vous ne trouverez pas un seul Orlov parmi eux. En vain chercheriez vous dans les annales et les comptes-rendus de l'Association pour l'étude du pic pétrolier la moindre trace de votre humble auteur. Mais à présent que cette bourde est imprimée et en circulation sur tant de copies, je suppose que je n'ai pas d'autre choix que d'essayer d'être à la hauteur des attentes qu'elle crée.

Mes déqualifications mises à part, le moment semble propice à discourir avec un nouveau bout de théorie du pic pétrolier, car c'est l'année où, pour la première fois, presque tout le monde est prêt à admettre que le pic pétrolier est réel, par essence, bien que certains ne soient pas encore tout à fait prêts à l'appeler par ce nom. Il y a seulement cinq ans tout le monde, depuis les officiels du gouvernement jusqu'aux cadres des compagnies pétrolières, traitait la théorie du pic pétrolier comme l'œuvre d'une frange de lunatiques, mais à présent que la production conventionnelle mondiale de pétrole à atteint son pic (en 2005), et que la production mondiale de tous les liquides à atteint son pic (en 2008), tout le monde est prêt à concéder qu'il y a de sérieuses difficultés à accroître l'approvisionnement mondial en pétrole. Et bien que certaines personnes craignent encore d'utiliser le terme pic pétrolier (et que quelques experts insistent encore sur ce que le pic doit être désigné comme un plateau ondulé, ce qui, au moins, est une gracieuse tournure de phrase), les différences d'opinion proviennent d'un refus d'accepter la terminologie du pic pétrolier plutôt que la substance d'une production mondiale de pétrole atteignant son pic. Ceci est, bien sûr, tout à fait compréhensible : il est embarrassant de sauter soudainement de le pic pétrolier est une ânerie ! à le pic pétrolier, c'est de l'histoire ! d'un seul bond. De telles acrobaties ne sont sans danger que si vous vous trouvez être un politicien ou un économiste.


Monday, August 15, 2011

De val van Amerika: Een vergelijking met de Sovjetunie

[RC is now available in Dutch.] Wat overkomt de Verenigde Staten bij de aanstaande ineenstorting? Wat zijn de overeenkomsten en verschillen met de val van de Sovjet-Unie? En wat kun je zelf het beste doen als het komt tot een brandstofloos bestaan zonder gezag?

‘Wat betekent een maatschappelijke ineenstorting voor de gemiddelde Amerikaan?’ Die vraag stelt Dmitry Orlov zich in zijn boek De val van Amerika. Niet de vraag wat precies de val van Amerika in gang zal zetten, wanneer deze exact zal plaatsvinden, of diep hij zal zijn.

Orlov gaat er eenvoudig van uit dat er ergens een afgrond gaapt. De ingrediënten voor de ineenstorting zijn hem duidelijk: ernstige en chronische tekorten bij de productie van aardolie, een ernstig en groeiend tekort op de handelsbalans, op hol geslagen militaire uitgaven en een snel aanzwellende buitenlandse schuld. In combinatie met een militaire nederlaag en wijdverspreide angst voor een dreigende catastrofe moet dat leiden tot een val van Amerika. Wanneer en hoe interesseert Orlov minder. “Probeer gewoon dit beeld voor ogen te houden: het is een supermacht, hij is reusachtig, machtig en staat op het punt in elkaar te donderen. Jij noch ik kunnen daar iets aan doen. Het zou zijn alsof je met wriemelende tenen een tsunami probeert tegenhouden.”

Maar je kunt je ogen er niet voor sluiten. Dus: hoe maak ik dit tastbaar, vroeg Orlov zich af. Als geëmigreerde Rus had hij het juiste middel bij de hand: een vergelijking met de val van de Sovjet-Unie.
“Ik probeer de muur in het voorstellingsvermogen te doorbreken door een vergelijkende analyse waarin ik de daadwerkelijke omstandigheden van voor en na de ineenstorting van de Sovjet-Unie vergelijk met de hypothetische omstandigheden van voor en na de ineenstorting van de Verenigde Staten. Ik richt mij daarbij op categorieën die cruciaal zijn voor overleving: voedsel, huisvesting, transport, onderwijs, financiën, veiligheid en nog een paar andere.”

“Het zijn de overeenkomsten op microniveau die ons praktische lessen kunnen leren over hoe kleine groepen met succes het hoofd kunnen bieden aan een economische en sociale ineenstorting. En dat is waar de Russische ervaring van het post-Sovjettijdperk ons heel wat nuttigs te bieden heeft.”

Dmitry Orlov wil ons helpen, wat er verder ook te gebeuren staat, een gelukkig en voldaan leven te kunnen leiden. Hij doet dat door de zaak vanuit allerlei invalshoeken te bekijken, ook door de mogelijkheid van een ‘zachte landing’ te bespreken, en door uitgebreid de manieren de revue te laten passeren waarop je je kunt aanpassen aan het nieuwe normaal en welke carrièremogelijkheden deze toekomst met volkomen nieuwe spelregels in petto heeft.

Het boek wordt nooit zwartgallig. Je schiet bij het lezen geregeld bij in de lach, al is het onderwerp nog zo ernstig.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Sledge-O-Matic

Gallagher smashing a watermelon.
[A generally pleasant and helpful book report by Erik Curren. I took the liberty of taking out a paragraph where he sounds too much like a defensive American. There is no room for national inferiority complexes here. Sorry to admit, I haven't read de Toqueville. He talked about democracy in America; what's that? Nor have I heard of Gallagher.]

Dmitry Orlov scares the crap out of me.

The relentlessly doomerish boss of has become famous in peak oil circles for presiding over a kind of comedy club from hell where a rabid fan base celebrates the coming fall of the American Empire under the load of peak debt while devouring posts on such subjects as the future of sailing ships and ways for dead people to send text messages. The site’s sidebar lists topic tags including cannibalism, ruins and Siberia.

Even Orlov’s name is scary, suggesting to the Anglo-Saxon ear a marriage of Orwell and Karlov — evoking George and Boris respectively, each in his own way a master of horror.

But while his online homies clearly relish Orlov’s hard edge, it would be a shame if his intimidating reputation put off a wider audience from reading his brilliant book, recently re-released.

Here, I’d like to propose a different, hopefully more accessible way of seeing Orlov: as a foreign-born observer of American culture in the mold of Alexis de Tocqueville. But with a little bit of Gallagher thrown in — yes, that Gallagher, the prop comic with the goofy hair and suspenders, popular in the 1980s for smashing watermelons on stage.

Hypocrisy in America
I’ll start by admitting I think that Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects is just as perceptive a read on the American mind and the American system as was de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

"As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” said de Tocqueville. Compare Orlov on the American’s “primitive idolization of money”: 
The only thing that makes an American good is the goodly quantity of dollars lining his pockets. This is what makes the ritualistic acts of humiliation heaped on the poor and the unfortunate so politically popular even with the very slightly well-to-do; just utter the fashionable term of abuse — “welfare queen” or “illegal immigrant” — and citizens line up in an orderly gamut, ready to dispense corporal punishment.
It may seem that Orlov is more provocative than de Tocqueville, but historians say that in its time, readers in both the US and the author’s native France thought Democracy in America was pretty edgy too. It’s easy to see why two centuries of scholars and pundits haven’t stopped quoting a guy who says stuff like this: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

And though Orlov doesn’t mention de Tocqueville, the two should be good friends. Presciently, in 1835 De Tocqueville predicted the superpower rivalry between the US and Russia that would become the backstory to Orlov’s analysis.

The Frenchman also foresaw key threats to American democracy that ultimately led to the debased nation that Orlov finds today: the rise of a plutocracy, the dominance of mass culture over thinking for oneself, a preoccupation with material goods and the isolation and alienation of the individual.

The hammer and the sickle, and the hammer again
Orlov, who was born in Leningrad, emigrated to the US in the seventies and then made repeated trips back home, which enabled him to witness the collapse of the USSR and its aftermath from a perspective both Russian and American. No surprise that he’s built a career out of making unflattering comparisons of the US to his home country.

Orlov has earned a fearsome reputation as a doomer who not only predicts, but even seems to relish, the collapse of American society, while he disdains political activism, celebrates apathy as a healthy coping strategy and warns that there’s nothing anybody can do to fix things. Yet, in his book Orlov projects genuine goodwill, showing evident compassion for the “big, rowdy party that was this country, with its lavish, garish, oversized, dominating ways.”

As the party winds down, Orlov reminds us that “people like to party together but they like to nurse their hangovers alone.” So, he offers no one-size-fits-all plan for surviving the coming turmoil. But in classic American fashion, he urges each of us to come up with our own plan.

“You should figure out what it is you absolutely need to lead a healthy, happy, fulfilling existence. Then, figure out a way to continue getting it once the US economy collapses, taking a lot of society with it. (This is easier said than done; good luck!)”

For example, Orlov himself lives on a sailboat and says that today’s economic downturn is probably a good time for readers to seek their own boat at a fire-sale price. At the same time, living on a boat is not for everybody, and Orlov gives lots of other ideas to prepare for a future economy that’s basically beyond employment and beyond money.

On the way down
Of course, in his place in the cycle of American imperial rise and fall, Orlov differs from de Tocqueville. That could help explain the difference in tone between the two writers. Despite all his criticism of America’s money-grubbing, crowd-worshipping character, the Frenchman often flattered our sensibilities and saw a bright future for our nascent democracy. By contrast, the Russian has little good to say about our character and even less good to say about our prospects.

Measure after measure, Americans are less prepared to deal with a Soviet-style collapse than his people were. In Russia, for example, when the economy collapsed few people lost their homes, because the buildings were owned by the state and more-or-less permanently assigned to their occupants. By contrast, in the US, private landlords and mortgage-holders are unlikely to tolerate deadbeat tenants or defaulting homeowners for very long. In an economic collapse, evictions could dwarf the foreclosure crisis of the last few years.

The collapse party
At the same time, despite a few good qualities (our friendliness to strangers makes us excellent roommates, for example, which could come in handy during a housing crisis), Orlov thinks that Americans are pampered fools who are much less prepared to fend for ourselves than the wily Russians were.

Take food for instance. Many urban Russians had dachas outside of town where they could grow food for their own use and for barter. But in the US, not only do few besides the relatively wealthy own a second home — even fewer of us bother to plant a kitchen garden. When grocery store shelves start to empty out, the dependent American food eater will be like a baby who’s lost his bottle. And a nation raised on cheap eats and easy livin’ could soon face the unimaginable: widespread hunger.

So, what Orlov is really doing is trying to show that the American system is hard and unforgiving but that the American people are ripe and soft, like a big watermelon.

And for me, that’s where Orlov meets that other analyst of the American character, Gallagher. And I don’t mean the racist clown that the un-funny old man has become today, “a hate-filled, right-wing loon,” according to Salon. I mean classic Gallagher, the guy we cared about in the 1980s for only one reason: the Sledge-O-Matic.

This routine with the mallet and an unlucky piece of summer fruit, computer keyboard or other highly smashable item of everyday life clearly spoke to something deep in the American psyche. It wasn’t just the adolescent fun of busting things up. Gallagher also connected to a pervasive if quiet discomfort among the public with our culture of material abundance and wastefulness at the period of its very height.

I don’t think Orlov takes a Sledge-O-Matic to America’s national pride just as a Russian’s revenge. Instead, I believe him when he says he wants to help Americans wake up from their own debilitating national myths in time to save themselves from disaster.

“Sledge-O-Matic removes unwanted fingerprints from walls,” says Gallagher as pitchman. “Sledge-O-Matic also removes unwanted walls from fingerprints.”