Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Dmitry Orlov Gives an Interview

I was recently contacted by Sam Mitchell, who has a Youtube channel called Collapse Chronicles and has been interviewing the usual suspects including Jim Kunstler. And since I generally don’t mind going wherever Jim goes, I agreed to give him an interview. You can hear the audio version here and suffer through the bad sound quality, or you can just read my enhanced distillation of it below. The interview was cut short because the VOIP connection failed.

Sam: Have your views become somewhat darker since you published The Five Stages of Collapse a few years ago?

Dmitry: Yes, they have. My premise in that book was that financial, commercial and political collapse are inevitable in many of the severely overextended countries around the world, the US especially (what can’t be sustained won’t be), but that social and cultural collapse can be prevented, as they were in Russia after the collapse of the USSR. My goal, therefore, was to provide some ideas on how to survive the inevitable but also to save that which can still be saved. Since then, I have come to the realization that in these same severely overextended countries social and cultural collapse have largely run their course, and that this is being masked, for the time being, by the fact that financial, commercial and political systems there are still functioning on some level, or at least pretending to function using money injected ex nihilo, severe trade imbalances, forged statistics, gerrymandered electoral systems, etc. But once this all fails, it will suddenly become apparent that there are no time-tested social institutions or a cohesive common culture to fall back on. The bad thinking that has led to the overextendedness that results in collapse has also killed off the social and cultural cohesion of previous generations. In fact, it was its first victim.

Sam: Are you saying that social and cultural collapse can’t get any worse?

Dmitry: No, things can always get worse. For example: suppose your woodshed burns down. Is that as bad as it gets? No, it could then get hit by a tornado! Then you’d have burned timbers and ash scattered all over your patch of land, which is even worse.

Sam: But first people have to admit that there is even something wrong. Is that even working? Mike Sliva called it “the echo chamber of the doomersphere.” It’s turned into just a few of us on the planet talking to each other. Do you agree that the vast tide of humanity is nowhere near having this conversation?

Dmitry: Oh, the vast tide of humanity will certainly never have this conversation, and that’s a good thing, because we can waste all sorts of time talking about generalities and never get to discussing simple, plain, basic things that actually figure in people’s lives. It isn’t possible to process ideas as generalities; it is only possible to process them as specifics. That’s why I don’t really contribute to this doomerish discussion. It’s not interesting.

Sam: So, at what point will more people start having this conversation?

Dmitry: Well, I really have no idea. I do have a faithful readership. I wouldn’t call them “followers,” but enough people read my stuff on a regular basis. It helps them process reality. How it helps them is up to them. It’s very much a DIY experiment—what they do with whatever insights they gain. I just try to present the widest possible perspective and to kill a lot of falsehoods that are being circulated. As far as the various stages of collapse, the nitty-gritty of it, I am very interested in that too. I am a scholar of collapse. My job is to study it. It’s not my job to do anything else with it.

Sam: What are the lies that need to be killed? I assume that the lie of the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet is one of them.

Dmitry: No. You shouldn’t eat anything bigger than your head, and you shouldn’t think anything bigger than your head either. “Infinite” is a difficult term for most people; there are several different kinds of infinity in mathematics. And what on Earth is an infinitely large economy? And it’s a finite planet, but it’s a lot bigger than any of us. It’s a huge place, especially on foot, on horseback, or under sail. Most people are completely unfamiliar with 99.99999% of it. And then they try to apply a difficult mathematical concept to something they aren’t familiar with. How useful is that?

On the other hand, you can wonder about certain things far more usefully. For example, what makes you think that you will still get medical care when you are old if you are, say, in the United States? What are the chances that you will be able to collected a retirement that is a meaningful sum of money? What are the chances of you ending up on the street? (A lot of people are ending up on the street already.) And if the answers are negative, then what are you going to do about it? Is it reasonable to go to a university and run up student debt in hopes of having a prosperous career? How do you avoid becoming lonely and of no use to anyone? Will your children still like you and take care of you if it turns out that everything you’ve taught them about the world is either useless, wrong or both? Those are the sorts of questions that people should think about, not the infinite sizes of economies or the finite sizes of planets.

Sam: Before we get to the United States, you are Russian, aren’t you? You have no accent whatsoever. What’s up with that?

Dmitry: I am a trained linguist with expertise in phonetics and phonology, so accents aren’t a big issue for me. I can put on an accent for the occasion. I’ve been going back and forth between the US and Russia for much of my life, and I am very familiar with both. But I am quite happily and unrepentantly Russian and have become an expert on the United States through no fault of my own.

Sam: But you are living in Russia now. Is that a permanent decision? Are you done with the United States?

Dmitry: Probably not. I don’t make permanent decisions. The planet we are on is currently not a good place for making permanent decisions. Things are changing too fast for that. We have to keep things flexible and keep our options open. Right now I am in Russia, and I am really enjoying it, but I don’t know what the future holds.

Sam: But what is your vision for life in the United States moving forward?

Dmitry: I’ve traveled around and have lived in a few different places in the US and in Europe, and it’s absolutely shocking how backward and substandard and really run down the US has become, how many things there are really outdated, sometimes in a dangerous way—like the way the bridges and the highways are, and other infrastructure, such as water and sewer mains, the electric grid, the railways, etc. It is also stunning how absolutely ridiculously stupidly everything is organized, from the tax code to the permitting and licensing systems. The banking system in the US is the most retarded banking system I have ever seen. Who has ever heard of paper checks? That’s just not done any more. And why do wire transfers cost so much and take days instead of seconds? There are endless circles of ridiculousness that we could spend days talking about—the way the government operates, various other things. Overall, there is the feeling that it’s a land that time forgot. Dinosaurs roam the United States. The rest of the planet has moved on.

Sam: At what point is all of this going to bite us in the ass? Do you attach a timeline to any of this?

Dmitry: I look at timelines when looking backwards in time. Looking forward—it’s a bit too unpredictable, especially where chaotic phenomena are involved. But in terms of what the US has already achieved…

…look at political collapse. The country has completely lost any faith it may have once had in its leadership class. That’s why Barack Obama got elected—a complete outsider. Of course, he turned out to be a complete traitor as well, and produced eight years of nothing. And then it got even worse when Trump got elected. He is even more of an outsider. Not only does he talk like an outsider, but he acts like one! He has threatened to kick over the feeding trough for all the little piggies in Washington. And if you look at what’s happening in Washington right now, it’s a country in the midst of a nervous breakdown.

Or look at defense: the US spends more on defense than any other country on Earth by far, and gets less for it than a lot of other countries—such as Russia or China. Just in terms of procurement, the spending parity between the US and Russia is 10 to 1: it takes $10 of US defense spending to match $1 of Russian defense spending. The Russians don’t waste money; they actually get results. Then end result of that is that the US is now militarily enfeebled. The entire aircraft carrier fleet is now redundant; it cannot be deployed in any conflict involving any reasonably well-armed nation. That’s just one example. There are also boondoggles galore: the F-35, the Zumwalt ships, Patriot missiles that still can’t shoot down Soviet-era SCUDs.

Or look at finance. The US is busy sawing through the financial branch that it’s been perched on ever since World War II, which is the US dollar. It is forcing other countries to use the US dollar to their own economic disadvantage, and they are all conspiring to end their dependence on the US dollar and executing plans to do just that. Once that happens, the US becomes a much poorer country overnight. Nobody knows exactly when, but it’s going to happen.

So these are just some examples of the ways in which the United States has already decisively blown it. … It is on a collision course with reality. Pretty soon the interest paid on the national debt will exceed the defense budget; that’s an interesting inflection point. Right now the US is running record deficits, and it’s not even considered to be in a recession… although you never know what that means any more because the US has been cooking its books for quite a while now. We really don’t know what the real unemployment figure is, we don’t know what inflation really is. But you can look at other numbers, that are harder to forge—drug overdose and liver disease statistics, suicides in the military, childhood poverty, mental illness—and from them you can tell that this is a country in severe distress.

Sam: I want to ask about fracking and the whole Peak Oil debate. What about Donald Trump’s claims that the US is going to be the number one producer of oil on the planet? Are you still staying on the Peak Oil bandwagon?

Dmitry: If Donald Trump is a petroleum geologist, then I am from Mars. You have to pay attention to who you pay attention to. Donald Trump is not one to enlighten anyone on this topic. Yes, the raw volumes of oil that the fracking phenomenon is currently producing in the US are huge, but the effect is temporary. Overall production is around 11 million barrels per day, but the decline rate of existing wells hit 500,000 barrels per day per month this summer, and it’s going up. And most of the wells being drilled to compensate for this decline rate produce less than the old ones because all the sweet spots have been tapped already. Add to that the fact that fracking is extremely energy intensive, lowering the EROI of fracked wells. Add to that the fact that the fracking industry hasn’t made any money and is only being kept afloat by a debt bubble kept inflated by low interest rates—which are trending up. Yes, the country is being turned into toxic Swiss cheese; no, this is not going to produce lots of oil long term.

Sam: Then there is the Bill McKibben camp, claiming that Global Warming will kill us off before we get a chance to burn up all the oil.

Dmitry: The effects of Global Warming will vary country by country. We already have extreme, life-threatening heat waves in Southern Europe and in the South and Southwest of the US. There was a lot of crop damage in Europe this summer as a result. The US can no longer compete with Russia in wheat exports. Russian grain exports have surpassed weapons in terms of export revenue and are now in second place after oil and gas. Russia is becoming the breadbasket of the planet. Of course, it has more land than any other country on Earth, but it used to be pretty cold. Now it’s warming up and things are growing really well. The tomatoes that we grew in Russia this summer did really well. We were just buried in tomatoes! And so there will be winners and losers. Bangladesh and the Netherlands will end up underwater. An entire belt through the south of the US will not be survivable in the summer without air conditioning…

Sam: It’s 97ºF [36ºC] here in Atlanta in October. I can’t run the AC because it ruins sound quality, so I am sitting here with sweat running down my face… But how much has Global Warming affected your view of the future?

Dmitry: It has affected my view of the present. The world has been reconfigured by Global Warming. The fact that it is now possible to ship goods year-round through the Arctic Ocean, along the north of Russia and Canada, is a game changer. Goods no longer have to pass through the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal. There is a more direct route now. That is a sudden, drastic change that has happened thanks to Global Warming—thanks to the fact that the Arctic is now relatively ice-free, to a point where Russia’s atomic icebreaker fleet can keep the sea lanes clear year-round. There will be winners and losers. Sorry to have to state the obvious, but Russia is looking like a Global Warming winner and the US is looking like a Global Warming loser. This is not just my opinion: lots of authoritative voices are making that point and recent economic results back it up.


the blame-e said...

Infinite growth on a finite planet can be visualized from several examples off-hand.

The concept is common among teenagers trying to find their place in the world: "My God, it's so big."

The city planet depicted in Star Wars called Coruscant (/ˈkɒrəsɑːnt/). It first appeared onscreen in the 1997 Special Edition of Return of the Jedi, but was first mentioned in Timothy Zahn's 1991 novel "Heir to the Empire."

Just visiting some of the world's largest cities right here Earth, like New York City can make you feel small and insignificant by comparison and compare that to a whole planet that is just one big city.

If you are like me, who broke a foot in five places, has several steel plates, a bunch of nuts and bolts, and no cartilage in a right foot, who can only walk 5-city blocks without planning their retreat to someplace more finite, like a place to sit down -- the infinite is a very real (and painful) concept.

Even the absence of the infinite can suggest the presence of the infinite, like what happens listening to the Beach Boys song "In My Room."

Professor Al Bartlett's YouTube video on exponential growth is a great beginning.

If you don't take time to consider the infinite you become nothing more than a solipsist at best. At worst, you become a sucker for insanities like "Open Borders" which is nothing but infinite growth inflicted upon a finite country.

Unknown said...

Is incredible how far the financial system still runing, in south america Argentina and Brasil are runing on debt and the social violence is huge in brasil...and well the next year I see economical and social conditions worst, and the political system continue runing. The worst thing is the media and how they continue lying the public. Is hard to believe that we ate going to have any kind of soft transition.

Anonymous said...

USA is just insane. I don't know how else to call "it".