I am not known as an optimist. I am more than willing to point out that the glass is half-empty. So my friends were not surprised when, during the general euphoria over the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 90's, I said, “We are looking into our own future, 10 or 15 years from now.” Of course, the statement seemed absurd. The West had “won” the Cold War, and America was the world's only super-power. International hegemony was in sight, and there were no credible opponents. The economy was booming, and the internet revolution was just getting started. And indeed, 10 years have past, and now 15, but we have not collapsed.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of foreboding. Hegemony seems far off (thank goodness) and the world is full of opponents. We can rattle our sabers over Georgia, but can't really do much about it, even if Sarah Palin becomes the new Dick Cheney. We seem to be bogged down in wars we cannot win, debts we cannot pay, an economy that is a long way from producing what we need, a government mired in chronic incompetence and corruption, a politics with not only no solutions, but no real awareness. We are facing major failures in health care, infrastructure, finance, housing, manufacturing, education, and any other area you care to name. Indeed, searching for the bright spot seems to be a task not worth the effort.
Comes now Dmitry Orlov with Reinventing Collapse, a comparison of the US/SU (United States/Soviet Union) at the moment of collapse. Orlov grew up in the SU but has been in the US since the 70's. He is an engineer and a leading theorist of the “Peak Oil” movement. He traveled in his native land extensively in its period of collapse, and now he believes that he sees the same forces at work in the United States.
Now, by “collapse,” Orlov means something very specific. Not the “end of civilization as we know it” (although it will—and did—feel like that), but simply the failure of the economy to be able to produce enough to maintain the existing capital base, and the breakdown of political authority. The first seems already to have happened; by any measure, the economy is bankrupt, and we must, like Blanche DuBois, rely on the kindness of strangers to keep us afloat. Wages by themselves have long since failed to clear the markets, and we are curiously dependent on credit to get us through to the end of the month. We must depend on people who make even less than we do to make our goods. Indeed, the most frightening line about the economy is the one one hears repeated everyday with casual nonchalance: “The consumer is two-thirds of the economy.” Excuse me? Doesn't that mean that production is only one-third? And doesn't that mean, in turn, that we produce only half of what we consume? Surely, this is a recipe for collapse. If we produce less than we consume, we must borrow the difference, and borrow it from governments and nations that may not have our best interests at heart. Why should they?
But it is not only the consumer, but the government (at all levels) and the banks that depend on usury. Surely, this is a ponzi-scheme that must collapse, indeed, is collapsing right before our very eyes. Government is now concerned with two issues: the bailout du jour and the war of the week. But who will bail out the Fed when it fails (meaning, when foreigners no longer want to support it), and how will we fight our wars when we can no longer support our workers at home, much less our armies abroad?
Orlov finds many similarities between the US and the SU. He finds these similarities in similar levels of (and mythic belief in) technological progress, militarism, failures in food production and information technology, an over-developed jail system consuming a significant portion of the population, not to mention economic resources, an over-reliance on imports for things that could be made domestically, a strong ideological commitment to world domination, and so forth.
However, more interesting than the similarities is the differences. In comparing the SU/US, Orlov finds that the Soviet Union was much better prepared for collapse than we are. Part of this is due to the fact that they were at a much lower level, so “collapse” was more like falling out of a one-story window, rather than from the top of the building. Further, the command economy had some curious advantages in preparing for collapse. For one thing, money wasn't all that useful in the SU; there wasn't much to buy, and housing, health care, transportation were all free. The housing may have been mean, and the health care basic, but people didn't lose their homes, such as they were. There was a chronic shortage of housing, so three generations lived together in close quarters, so at least they could provide some support. And the transportation system functioned throughout the long crises. Mussolini may have been praised for “making the trains run on-time,” but in Russia they always ran on-time.
Russian consumer goods were somewhat of a joke. The command economy concentrated on capital goods, with consumer goods seen as a distraction. The refrigerators were famous for heating the house, and the food. You waited for years to get one, but it was up to you to make it work. However, once you got it working, it lasted for years, and became an heirloom. Russians never threw anything out, because everything was made to last forever. American consumer goods are beautiful and marvelous, but fragile, and that deliberately so. Planned obsolescence keeps the economy going, and things are made to be thrown away; to have yesterday's gadgets or clothes is to make yourself obsolete in the eyes of your friends.
The American economy is built on our fetish for the car, and our cities are designed around the automobile. We think nothing of living an hour or two from work, in remote suburbs that are difficult and expensive to service. Further, the housing itself is “stick-built,” cheaply made and easy to knock down, which is what is likely to happen as the suburbs are abandoned and people migrate to the cities, where transportation and services, such as they are, will still be available.
Examining the way the Russians coped and adapted gives some insight to what America can do. This is what makes the book important for distributists, because the answer to collapse is distributism. The development of local manufacturing, local food supplies, local currencies, local defense and policing, etc. will be the best adaptations to the new realities. The America that is cannot be much longer. The America that could be, could be in the end much stronger. But the transition will be brutal, as it was in the SU. And if Orlov is right, it will be much worse here than there. Much more traumatic, with a greater degree of chaos and anger. A nation that define itself in consumerism will have a tremendous crises when it can no longer consume in the same way, when there are no jobs, when there is no future, or at least no future that looks anything remotely like the past.
Everyone should learn to do a few things. One, they should learn to be useful. Skills conferred by the MBA or as marketing managers may not be useful. Learn to make something that would actually be useful to your neighbors in time of need. Two, we should all learn to grow things, and grow them without chemicals and pesticides that may not be available. And never, ever, throw any garbage away: compost, compost, compost. Recycle. Reuse. Grow a garden now to learn what works were you live and what doesn't. In Russia, failure of the food supplies (other than high-quality bread) was a fairly common occurrence, so Russians learned to fend for themselves even in the best of times. In the collapse, garden plots of 1100 square feet sustained many a family. If a collapse comes, you will be surprised how much it is possible to grow in a home garden, once you get rid of all that useless grass.
Don't worry about money. Worry about wealth. Wealth is things, not money. In a collapse, food that can be stored will be worth more than greenbacks. Learn to get by without money. Learn to work, learn to walk, learn to ride a bike. And (it may well be) learn to shoot. Get to know your neighbors; you may need them shortly.
There are two points about the book that deserve further comment. One, Orlov is a “Peak Oil” fan, and sees the failure of energy supplies as a cause of collapse. Now, I am not smart enough to judge the peak oil argument. However, I think it would be unfortunate if it were not true. It would be unfortunate if, as some think, there is a new Saudi-sized oil field under the now-melting polar ice-cap. The very fact that you can find it under the melting ice tells you what the problem is. Indeed, if peak oil is not true today, it must become true at some point in the future, unless one believes that the earth is creating oil faster than we use it, which seems unlikely. So the real argument is not if, but when.
The other point is that Olov has fallen into the Malthusian trap. Our problems are not caused by overpopulation, nor the shortage of any necessary commodity. Indeed, peak oil is not about population, it is about greed. It is not the many that are consuming too much, it is the few. And if the many learn to consume as we consume, soon nobody will consume much of anything. But that is not a population problem. Indeed, neither peak oil nor population pressure had much to do with the Soviet collapse. Indeed, the population problem is largely an illusion. Birth rates throughout the world are already below replacement rates. The population appears to be growing only because the death rates are declining; people are living longer, but having fewer children. The real problem will be declining populations.
I would very much like to be wrong about all of this. Nothing would please me more than if, five years hence, someone would say to me, “John, remember that post you wrote about the impending collapse? But now the economy and the nation is stronger than ever, our wars are over, and we've learned to make all the things we need, or at least buy them with things we do make. You sure look like a fool now, don't you?” I would very happily accept being the fool in such circumstances. But I think the risks of that are fairly low.
In the meantime, I think the best advice to Distributists is to prepare for the worst and pray for the best. But I am not always the pessimist. Civilization did not collapse in the SU, and need not collapse here. Indeed, there was a revival of religion, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Catholic Church in the Ukraine, Churches which had been suppressed or subverted since the Russian Revolution. Our churches have not been suppressed, but they have been subverted and marginalized. And as our civilization falls apart, it may be that its own errors show us the way to its real redemption, both in the temporal and the spiritual order.
Maybe the glass is half-full after all.