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.


Anonymous said...

Great Review Dmitry

Larry said...

As Canada was once termed 'The Empire of the Bay' (Hudsons Bay Company), one wonders if the collapse and possible breakup of the USA would lead to the breakup of Canada as we know it.

john patrick said...

Thanks, Dmitry!

escapefromwisconsin said...

Hi Dmitry. It looks like yet another one of your predictions is coming true - the opening up of "new business opportunities" outside of traditional employment. The latest growth area is pet kidnapping. From the BBC:

Dog thefts in the US have more than trebled in recent years, according to new figures. So what's behind the surge in stealing pet pooches?

"There are economic reasons behind this," says spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. "Criminals sell them on the internet to unsuspecting buyers or at flea markets or roadside sales. I've seen dogs stolen and then miraculously turn up again to get a reward from the owner."

The criminals strike in many ways, she says - breaking into a home, into a parked car or just snatching them in the street.

A family were playing with their pitbull terrier in Oklahoma when a man approached and asked some questions, says Ms Peterson. He followed them home and broke in the next morning, tied up the family at gunpoint and stole the puppy.

And in New York, a Maltese was stolen from its female owner's arms in the street, while in Idaho a similar attack was mounted against a girl holding her dog on a park bench.

It's a way to make a quick buck, says Russell Hess, director of the US Police Canine Association, but it's not new. It was also a problem in the 60s and 70s, when he was working in Ohio.

"We had dog thefts reported from time to time so it was happening before the recession but I'm sure it's increased due to the number of people that are needing money right now.

Teaching High School said...

Quite disturbing. I hope we can wean ourselves off petroleum for energy.

Anonymous said...

The comment "iron triangle" stuck in my head as I was watching a bit of idiot box the other night (that's a television if you aren't familiar with that turn of phrase.) A commercial for some insurance company came on describing exactly how one can protect one's iron triangle, a man is seen moving around in a series of large white boxes, one holding his car, another his home office, and of course the boxes themselves are his house. So simple and idyllic, wife putting the babe to rest in the newly added white box with a crib and mobile, he is reclining at his desk, sporting a tie and suit to let the viewer know that he is a successful individual with a right to the ritualized costume of tie and suit, secure in the knowledge his property and situation are safe, free to turn back to his work duties which he does with a look of dedicated focus. This picture of life is orderly, placid, and ultimately fulfilling if the voice over is to be believed...

It struck me, an unemployed teacher with piles of student debt who struggles to find nickel and dime jobs, how wildly divorced this scene was from the majority of US'ers. It also struck me how quickly those things can evaporate from under one's fingertips in the US, even in "good" times, let alone during a confluence of numerous negative indicators from the economy, politics, and the natural world. Finally I was left wondering exactly how much of a role advertising, PR, and related obscenities play in keeping people not merely misinformed but even ensorcelled. It's one thing to be misinformed, to have bad information given to you and entirely another thing to have a false picture of the world painted and constantly refreshed, with a supporting cast of millions, surrounded by a vast sea of true believers who desperately want to think it's all real, you just have to reach out for it. These thoughts chill me to the bone, I used to think I was crazy because I felt and saw these problems and others did not. Now I think I'm living in the worlds largest mental sanitarium.

Anonymous said...

Sustainability indeed. Global population already far exceeds the earth's carrying capacity. All nations depend on some kind of economic growth for prosperity. Under a growth mandate, even the greenest of us help destroy the planet. I think green initiatives that don't include a commitment to reduce global population are the worst kind of feel-good distractions to clear thinking. We can never become green without reducing our numbers - a whole lot, and soon. The only answer I can come up with is for the next 20 years, sterilize every woman and man after the birth of their first child. As population diminishes the planet will begin to heal itself. And more importantly as far as our species and all other species that are dependent on us and the planet may survive. If we even have 20 years.

MJ said... got it!!! It seems like we are all living the movie "The Trueman Show" and just starting to notice the cracks in our cultural reality.