Collapse And its Discontents By Dmitry Orlov
A CarolynBaker.Org Exclusive
February 01, 2007
Many readers are familiar with Dmitry Orlov, who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union and from his experience offers options for surviving the collapse of Western civilization as we know it.—CB
Read more Dmitry Orlov at: carolynbaker.org and energybulletin.net
It’s been a couple of years since I started writing on the subject of economic collapse, as it occurred in Russia and as it is likely to occur here in the United States. Thus far, I remain reasonably content with my predictions: it’s all lining up, slowly but surely.
Militarily, the US, followed by Israel, seem to have landed themselves in a cul de sac of their own creation, having squandered much treasure on useless high-tech weapons while losing infantry battles against motivated freelancers, with the eventual effect of losing access to the oil fields in the Middle East. Economically, Peak Oil appears to have actually transpired some time in the summer of 2005, and is now slowly coming into focus in the rear view mirror, just as it’s supposed to. Politically, the country has wobbled leftward, only to rediscover that its other Capitalist party also happens to be its other War party. Internationally, hoisting the American flag is now considered a lewd gesture, and this will probably remain so for quite some time, since honor and reputation happen to be among the most difficult things to reclaim. Financially, the US economy has degenerated into a sort of cargo cult, where people feel that they can continue to attract recycled petrodollars by dancing around piles of internet servers with their cell phones and their laptops.
In short, steady as she goes, and I see no reason to start worrying that history will prove me wrong. But that is where the satisfaction ends, and the problems begin.
A dispassionate and ironic approach is all well and good. However, my very own mother accuses me of unsympathetic sang froid in understating the horrific suffering endured by the Russian people when I describe how much better-prepared for economic collapse they were than the United States currently is. So, for the record, I am talking about a die-off, shattered lives, a missing generation of children, and much that is precious and irreplaceable burned or buried under a tide of violence and filth. I also know that endlessly recounting tales of horror and misery is the surest way to lose one’s audience, as my mother would no doubt be willing to demonstrate. Others have accused me of Schadenfreude: of not being sufficiently dispassionate, but of greeting the troubles and the signs of the coming collapse with glee. This is an ad hominem argument, boiling down to “you say such things because you are the sort of person who enjoys saying such things.” Again for the record, I do not feel gleeful, see above as to why. But, to be truthful, I am not a big fan of the American lifestyle. I prefer to stay out of the suburbs, I rarely drive, and I do my best to avoid flying. I don’t feel that the prospect of it all eventually going away is a bad thing. In fact, I am very much looking forward to all the fresh air, although once pollution-induced global dimming goes away, global warming will proceed at a redoubled rate, and we will be forced to seek higher ground further north sooner rather than later – a prospect that does not fill me with glee either.
I suppose that if I were the sort of person who derives a deep feeling of contentment from pursuing the suburban lifestyle, extreme car dependence, shopping at malls and big box stores, jetting around, and daydreaming about full spectrum dominance, I would not be talking about collapse, because I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of such things. This lifestyle seems like sheer misery to me, but I recognize that tastes do differ. Moreover, it must be something of a blessed state, not knowing anything about resource depletion or global warming or collapse, or not caring to know. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we all die,” says the preacher, and who am I to disagree? When people do find out about these things, they sometimes go through a bout of acute psychological distress, and only eventually settle down to some internal compromise. I feel almost guilty when I bring someone out of this blessed state, because it feels wrong to be breeding discontent among an otherwise pacified and well-controlled populace. They are like children when they first find out about death, and before they are consoled with stories of angels and heaven, or, in this case, hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol, biodiesel, wind farms, hybrid vehicles, or whatever other eco-props happen to be on hand. Still, they often end up with a nagging worry that not enough is being done.
Such consolations are not as convincing as we would hope, and the nagging worry starts some of us on the road to questioning everything: the living arrangement, the job, the life. Some people go as far as questioning the value of technological civilization, and wondering if it is on a path to planetary-scale self-destruction. They can then become extremely tiresome and tedious company, and breed discontent in everyone they come into contact with, talking incessantly about melting ice caps, drowning polar bears, Texas-sized fields of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean, dead sea birds, fish going extinct, dying coral reefs, and so forth. “Enough!” you might say to them. “If the challenge is to avert planetary self-destruction, then let’s all get on the same page: formulate a project plan, define the next steps, and start executing.” Then you realize that the person you are talking to is serious, and the situation becomes awkward.
Because, you see, there really is not much to be done, on a global scale, and most serious people sense that intuitively. The biggest “if” in the world is the one in sentences that start “If we all…” If we all reduce our ecological footprint to a sustainable level, then there wouldn’t be anyone left out to increase theirs at our expense. An additional complication is that we cannot make such a huge reduction because the current human population of the Earth far exceeds its carrying capacity: a lot of people would have to die. If this sort of thing has to be part of our little project plan, then doing absolutely nothing becomes the more ethically acceptable option, albeit a distressingly impotent one.
In a culture that prides itself on keeping busy, doing nothing is actually a lot harder than doing something. I was recently invited to fly to Alaska to do a presentation, but declined the invitation, because it seemed ridiculous to me to burn a few more barrels of kerosene and drown a few more polar bears for the sake of informing a group of Alaskans that it’s time for them to consider moving south. To inspire them, I could have told them stories of settlements in the Russian arctic that froze when their winter fuel deliveries failed to happen. As always happens, not all of them had been evacuated. I could have also told them that fuel isn’t necessary for humans to survive arctic winters. All you need is a good double-sided fur parka with matching pants, boots, and mittens (wolverine fur for the trim around the hood, please, because it doesn’t ice up), an igloo, a fat-burning lamp (because months of total darkness are not healthy, and because sewing fur and leather and working bone and flint into tools is hard to do in the dark), and a pile of frozen animal carcases to chew on. You hack off hunks of frozen meat and put them inside the parka until they thaw. For something to wash them down with, you stuff a skin bag full of snow and put it inside your parka until it melts. It’s been done this way for thousands of years, but if we are now on our way to a completely different planet, one without much ice and snow, then all bets are off.
I somehow felt that drowning a few more polar bears for the sake of telling Alaskans what Alaskans should know better than me in any case was the wrong thing to do: the hypothetical benefits of my trip did not justify the quantifiable harm to the environment. But everyone I discussed this with seemed less than pleased with my decision: I got points for being consistent, and not much else. Plenty of other people have no such qualms, and feel that the means justify the ends. For them, the same industriousness that is destroying the earth can be used to save it. They fly and drive to attend conferences, champion various social and environmentalist causes, and organize energy-consuming, environment-damaging campaigns with the goal of saving energy or saving the environment. According to the news, this doesn’t seem to be solving any of the big problems, or even stopping them from growing worse.
The one large and uniquely solvable problem, and therefore the one Al Gore chose as his example of environmentalist victory, is the Montreal protocol limiting the discharge of CFCs into the atmosphere. Most other problems are too complex to organize around, and so the environmental movement has failed to check either mass extinction and habitat destruction, or deforestation, or land and water degradation, or overpopulation, or carbon emissions, or a host of other, equally intractable problems. Overpopulation – the mother of all problems – is hardly even discussed, because every woman has the right to have a child (at least one, and that’s already too many), and also, I think, because babies are really cute. In spite of our superficial cleverness, there is a requisite base level of mindlessness to being human, and it sets bounds on what we can do collectively to control our numbers. We can pretend to be able to control nature, for a while at least, but we can’t even pretend to be able to control our own natures and appetites. Nature will have to do it for us – but then it always did and always will.
We can be sure that the living will not always outnumber the dead, as they do now, and that the flow of humanity will reach a peak and start to ebb. Based on everything I have seen and experienced, I can imagine that once the downward slide begins, it will not be a smooth transition, but an abrupt, wrenching change. The downward slide will acquire a logic and a momentum of its own. Taking the specific example of oil, which a lot of people focus on, I can’t imagine that, a few years down the road, we will still be looking at annual production shortfalls of just a few percent. I imagine the number to be closer to 100% – not a slowdown, not a recession, but a collapse. I am also sure that we, collectively, will have little idea that this is happening. Once the lights go out for good in your neighborhood, nobody but your few nearest neighbors will know what is happening to you, and you will know of the larger world no more than you presently know of the goings on in the various places that are already largely in the grip of a permanent blackout, like Zimbabwe or North Korea. Our one world is fragile artifact, and places within it only exist while they have electricity, scheduled flights, and bottled water for the foreign journalists to drink.
If our last hope is that economic collapse will put a stop to our rampaging and trampling of what’s left of the ecosystem just shy of the point of no return, and even if it does happen this way, each of us will be disappointed. Because collapse will not be televised, you will not know that it has happened. You will only know that it has happened to you. And so it is only fair that I warn you: caveat emptor! Collapse – for you, the putatively satisfied consumer of information products – is a faulty product that will fail to please you. If, however, you have already dropped out of the ranks of satisfied consumers, then for you collapse is already well underway, and you have far more pressing things to consider than tilting at the windmills of climate change or obsessing over countless other issues of global import. Collapse, it turns out in the end, is a single-use product. Properly applied, it produces a deep and abiding feeling of dissatisfaction. In this, and this alone, it is quite excellent.