Reinventing Collapse (2008). By Dmitry Orlov

 

 

Review by Dom Nozzi

 

This is a grim, unnerving book. It is a short, quick read.

 

The author grew up in the Soviet Union and experienced the economic collapse they had there. He therefore has a unique, fascinating way of seeing America for what it is—a way that most Americans are blind to (and saying things about Americans that Americans dare not say about themselves). He compares what happened in Russia to disturbingly similar patterns happening here in America. His writing is lucid and illuminating. Nearly every one of his paragraphs contains a brilliantly tragic insight.

 

The book provides a sobering, frightening comparison between the survivability of the Soviet system before their collapse, and the lack of survivable counterparts in America (what I often refer to as a lack of a “Plan B”). Our system of food, housing, transportation, etc., have little or no ability to sustain themselves if or when this nation must confront drastic change. For example, most Soviets lived in publicly-owned housing, whereas most Americans live in housing whose mortgage means they are essentially owned by banks. Meaning that while most Soviets were able to stay in their homes after collapse, an enormous number of Americans (including middle- and upper-income) face homelessness.

 

The Soviets also had central planning of communities, which meant much less car-dependent sprawl and nearly all homes connected to a transit system. In America, most homeowners have no access to transit, which means they are trapped without a way to travel once gas stations disappear.

 

Another advantage the Soviets had over us is that they have more intact family structures where most family members tend to live relatively close to each other. Family support, therefore, was more available in a crisis situation. American families, by contrast, tend to be scattered hundreds of miles from each other. And what is perhaps even worse, we have become a nation of loners. Few of us have more than a few people we could call good, reliable friends.

 

An important drawback Americans face in comparison to the pre-collapse Soviets is a profound lack of a “craftsman” class. Very few Americans retain or have any sort of skills in craftsmanship or manufacture—skilled workers are much fewer than in the Soviet population. Being able to build or repair things will be an essential skill after a collapse.

 

The section in the second half of the book pertaining to medicine and education is particularly poignant. And a strong indictment of the American system, where the author notes persuasively that it is enormously unethical that the profit motive is applied to treatment of the sick. And that the goal of higher education is not to educate (it is to make us conform to being wage slaves).

 

His style is very along the lines of Kunstler. Less funny, but nevertheless right on the mark on a large number of world and domestic issues.

 

If you continue to believe that the American society is not teetering on the verge of collapse despite the recent meltdown of the financial system, this book will quickly convince you otherwise. The book contains a troubling yet important message about what to expect when America collapses, and how to survive collapse.

 

As Kunstler says, most Americans suffer from the delusion that we can find ways to avoid fundamental changes to our American Dream lifestyle. Orlov warns us that Americans have a “faith in the Goddess of Technology: that she will provide. On her alter are assembled various ritualistic objects used to summon the Can-Do Spirit: a photovoltaic cell, a fuel cell, a vial of ethanol and a vial of bio-diesel. Off to the side of the alter is a Pandora’s box packed with coal, tar sand, oceanic hydrates and plutonium: If the Goddess gets angry, it’s curtains for life on Earth…I would suggest against waiting around for some miracle device to put under the hood of every SUV and in the basement of every McMansion, so that all can live happily ever after in this suburban dream, which is looking more and more like a nightmare in any case…the coming widespread unavailability of cars has placed American politics outside the scope of reality, and it is only a matter of time before people are forced to notice this particular inconvenient truth. Al Gore’s prescription…is basically to drive carefully so as not to leave too many carbon footprints. I believe this rather misses the point. What are you supposed to do with your last tank of gas? Drive off a cliff slowly, so as to conserve energy?”

 

The coming economic collapse in America is nearly inevitable. Yet Americans remain in an utter state of denial. “Perhaps most importantly,” Orlov informs us, “America’s national mythology makes it anathema to think of collective failure. All failure is to be regarded as individual failure—something that happens to somebody else, or to you, but only if you happy to be unlucky or do not try hard enough. Fair enough: economic collapse will in fact happen for each of you individually, in turn. For some, like the retired schoolteacher in Santa Barbara who lives in a car with her cats, it has happened already. Certain others will have to wait their turn, until one day they find that the mansion is cold and dark, the Rolls Royce is out of gas and the bank is out of money, so there is nothing left to do except mix really stiff drinks and sit around the fireplace.”

 

In many ways, as noted above, Orlov’s book points out how the Soviets were much better prepared for collapse than Americans. “America’s economy will evaporate like the morning mist. Its population will be stranded wherever they happen to be, and will wait to be rescued. They will expect to be fed, sheltered, defended from each other and told what to do. Many of them will be angry and disoriented and look for someone to blame.”

 

Having been in Russia during their economic collapse, the author is able to provide us with a number of examples and lessons learned when he explains what happened to various types of people after the collapse, and what coping mechanisms were most successful. He describes ways in which individuals and a nation can reduce the suffering. For example, he recommends that America begin now to slowly release prisoners from prison, as a sudden, collapse-induced release of the millions that now languish there would be extremely problematic, to say the least.

 

Orlov concludes by telling us that “I have tried to express what many people think but fear to say, and perhaps even a few things that people fear to think.” Orlov has “worked very hard to write a book on an important but seriously depressing subject that’s nevertheless fun to read…all that I ask in return is that you retain the ability to see things clearly, decide for yourself, and keep your sense of humor—no matter what happens.”

 

Yes, the book is exceptionally bleak. “Why should I read a book so depressing?,” you might be asking yourself. For at least two reasons: First, it is always good to know in advance about a likely crisis one must face in the future. Second, the book offers a number of useful suggestions about how to survive the crisis, if or when it happens.

 

Don’t walk to a library or store to get this book. RUN!!!!!! You MUST read this book at your earliest convenience. It is that good.

 

In its own twisted way, it is also an entertaining read.

 

Enough…I need to get back to building my bombshelter…

 

_________________________________________________

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4 Comments

Filed under Economics, Peak Oil, Urban Design

4 responses to “Reinventing Collapse (2008). By Dmitry Orlov

  1. Pavel

    I read Dmitry Orlov’s book as well and liked it a lot. Orlov is a keen observer with a great eye for details.

    I would strongly disagree with characterizing his book as ‘exceptionally bleak’. It is only bleak if you consider further continuation of the ruinous and utterly unsustainable industrial civilization as desirable. Obviously, the US and European elites consider it to be desirable, since they have thrown trillions of dollars at saving the system with close to zero public discussion and input, and no regard whatsoever to the actual cost of all the bailouts that are going on.

    If, on the other hand, you consider an economic collapse that is both global in scope and long-term is duration to be our only realistic chance of significantly reducing our carbon footprint and avoiding catastrophic climate change as early as this century (as I do), Orlov’s message is actually a great news!

    One thing he does not mention in his book is that while Russian GDP shrank by 55% between 1990 and 1995, carbon dioxide emissions went down by close to 50% as well in the same period. In fact, Russia will be one of the few signatories to the Kyoto Protocol (the others that I am aware of are Denmark, Norway and Sweden) that is on track to meeting its 2010 GHG emission targets. Note that this is not because the Russian government actually did anything to cut Russian GHG emissions, but because the economic collapse of early 1990’s did the job for them.

    What we need on a global level is an 80% reduction in GHG emissions starting now to avoid the worst-case climate change scenario. Since the elites are committed to economic growth at any cost (witness recent bailouts), there is a zero chance of that happening as a result of a coordinated global policy. But if we can shrink the global GDP by 80% or so, and cut our fossil fuel consumption sharply as a result, with some extra help from peak oil, this is actually doable.

    BTW, here’s a link to a recent interview with Dmitry Orlov on Russia Today (the interview is in English):

    Worth watching!

  2. Thank you for your passionate, informed thoughts about the book and my review of it. I certainly agree that the American society could use a strong kick in the pants toward sustainability. I think Orlov’s book is an excellent wake-up call. However, I think you are underestimating the misery, ugliness and violence that would be associated with a societal collapse. My work as an urban designer strives to allow our society to more incrementally and less painful transistion towards a more sustainable way of living. As fuel & resource prices inevitably rise, we will be forced to live more sustainably. Or perish. The question is whether we will have a “plan B” in place soon enough. I am not yet convinced that we must leverage revolutionary change as Lenin believed (severely worsened conditions are necessary to catalyze needed change). I continue to believe that rising prices will allow us to become more sustainable w/o societal collapse.

  3. Pavel

    Not sure which of my comments gave an impression that I am underestimating the misery, ugliness and violence that would be associated with a societal collapse. I am just taking a less anthropocentric view of the situation by pointing out the obvious: the fastest reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be achieved by discontinuing activities that produce GHG’s, which would include most types of economic activity. The severity of the impact of doing so depends on how we as a society manage our collective economic decline. So far the “jump start the consumer economy at any cost” paradigm is winning over the “managed collapse to minimize human suffering” paradigm hands down.

    One topic I would like to explore further is what impact can urban designers have on developing a “Plan B” in the absence of the actual investments necessary to physically redesign local communities. Much of the new urbanist stuff focuses on physical redevelopment that is capital-intensive, and I don’t think we will see a whole lot of that going forward. For the most part, it looks like we will be stuck with the infrastructure we have now. How do we retrofit it for sustainable use with little resources to build anything new?

  4. I think what I read as “underestimating” was your disagreeing that Orolov’s message is bleak. I think one of the most persuasive, agreeable aspects of his message is that he DOES present a bleak projection of what American can expect if we don’t get our house in order. I think Americans need to hear that, as they are mostly naive about how awful it can get. Yes, it is highly disappointing how little of the stimulus efforts are deploying the necessary transformative actions we need at this time.
    As for your important question about what “Plan B” things can happen in a cash-strapped world, as I recently pointed out in Complete Streets workshops, much of the transformative projects we can undertake are based on revising our road system. Roads have an extremely powerful influence on the livability and sustainability of our world (not to mention a host of other impacts). Fortunately, we don’t necessarily need new dollars to make them more Complete, livable & transformative. Mostly, we just need to RE-DIRECT existing dollars that are being spent to ruinously widen roads. Road DIETS are comparatively cheap — particularly when we use dollars that would have otherwise been used to widen. Also, some of our widening dollars can be used to demolish dysfunctional suburbs. (Just kidding)

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