02 March, 2009


Rupert Cornwell: These days, it's economists who fly in corporate jets

Out of America: As Obama seeks to reverse 30 years of Reaganism, power is shifting from New York to Washington and from bankers to presidential advisers
There was a time, and not so long ago, that the three-hour train trip to New York made Washingtonians feel like peasants bringing eggs to sell at the town market. We might stick around a while, visiting a hot Broadway show, marvelling at the skyscrapers, and at the energy, wealth and power that coursed through the streets. But when the day was done, the peasants would take the same train back, secretly rather relieved to head back to their quiet but comfy little homes. No longer.

Thanks to the financial crisis, and the arrival in the White House of a president who wants to reshape American capitalism, the US is witnessing a quite astonishing shift in power: from Republicans to Democrats, from markets to government, and in geographic terms, from New York to a newly energised Washington.

Nothing illustrated that shift quite like Barack Obama's first budget last week. The headlines were about the deficit, a mind-boggling $1,750bn , or 12 per cent of GDP. But the real story lay in policies, not numbers: initiatives on healthcare, energy and education that added up to the biggest dose of state activism since Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s.

Normally, the publication by the White House of the annual federal budget was a one-day wonder. Everyone thought of it as a work of quasi-fiction that would be unrecognisable once Congress had finished with it. The masters of the universe in their Manhattan skyscrapers would continue unperturbed, bundling dodgy mortgages, concocting credit default swaps and the like, generating vast piles of notional wealth. And if politicians got in the way, Wall Street could always mobilise an army of lobbyists to bend legislation to its will.

That age is over, crushed beneath the gravest economic crisis in three-quarters of a century. The financial masters of the universe are summoned before congressional committees and scolded like errant schoolboys, and the musings of a single Democrat Senator about bank nationalisation send the Dow skidding hundreds of points.

Take Citigroup, once arguably the most powerful financial institution on earth, now reduced to grovelling mendicant. Friday's deal, giving the government a 40 per cent stake in the bank, merely ratified the obvious: that it has to all intents and purposes been nationalised. Meanwhile, the chief executive, Vikram Pandit, is hauled into the local office of a New York congresswoman to be given an earful about his now-abandoned plan to buy a $42m corporate jet.

The Wall Street Journal even reported that a group of the bank's executives at a recent retreat wondered if some fresh-baked pastries might be construed a waste of taxpayers' money. In barely two years, Citigroup shares have tumbled from $55 to less than the $2.50 fee for a withdrawal from a cash machine. How far the masters of the universe have fallen.

In contemporary financial iconology, the new stars are the "propeller-heads", as Obama refers to his closest policy advisers . men such as Larry Summers, the terrifyingly intelligent chair of the President's council of economic advisers, and the equally brainy budget director, Peter Orszag, just turned 40. These days, nobody wants to be a hot-shot investment banker. Excitement and the hope of personal fulfilment are now to be found, not in New York, but in Washington DC, as a fresh generation of New Dealers flock to the capital to serve under Obama's banner.

Except, of course, if you're a Republican. Budget week has coincided with the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, at which aspiring leaders have been re-embracing the fiscal conservatism they so utterly abandoned while in power. That hypocrisy only added to the wretchedness of the spectacle. Watching delegates arrive, forlorn and bedraggled, was to be reminded of Napoleon's once Grande Armée during its wintry retreat from Moscow. The title of one panel discussion was typical: "Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?"

The answer, by US standards, is a resounding "Yes". De facto nationalisations in the banking sector may only be temporary. But the Obama budget is a blueprint for a government involvement in the economy that is very much intended to be permanent. Explicitly, it seeks to reverse, if not erase, 30 years of Reaganism. Taxes on the rich will be raised, not lowered. Vast sums will be poured into green energy, education, and, above all, healthcare. For the first time, you have the sense that the goal of health insurance for all might just come to pass.

Of course, the whole enterprise may end in tears. For all his steely will and large reservoir of support, for all the public yearning for leadership, the President may have bitten off more than even he can chew. In recent years, Congress has struggled to pass even routine budgets. How it will cope with this second US revolution is anyone's guess. Ascendant Democrats too have their factions, their jealousies and their vanities. Most fundamental of all, étatisme is not in the American political gene pool.

For the moment, these are heady days in Washington. The Citigroup crowd takes Amtrak from New York. But the new ruling caste in Washington heads north like an emperor inspecting an outpost. And in government-owned corporate jets too . not mere trains, with which the erstwhile titans must now make do.

Sunday, 1 March 2009


The Five Stages of Collapse
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross defined the five stages of coming to terms with grief and tragedy as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and applied it quite successfully to various forms of catastrophic personal loss, such as death of a loved one, sudden end to one's career, and so forth. Several thinkers, notably James Howard Kunstler and, more recently John Michael Greer, have pointed out that the Kübler-Ross model is also quite terrifyingly accurate in reflecting the process by which society as a whole (or at least the informed and thinking parts of it) is reconciling itself to the inevitability of a discontinuous future, with our institutions and life support systems undermined by a combination of resource depletion, catastrophic climate change, and political impotence. But so far, little has been said specifically about the finer structure of these discontinuities. Instead, there is to be found a continuum of subjective judgments, ranging from "a severe and prolonged recession" (the prediction we most often read in the financial press), to Kunstler's "Long Emergency," to the ever-popular "Collapse of Western Civilization," painted with an ever-wider brush-stroke.

For those of us who have already gone through all of the emotional stages of reconciling ourselves to the prospect of social and economic upheaval, it might be helpful to have a more precise terminology that goes beyond such emotionally charged phrases. Defining a taxonomy of collapses might prove to be more than just an intellectual exercise: based on our abilities and circumstances, some of us may be able to specifically plan for a certain stage of collapse as a temporary, or even permanent, stopping point. Even if society at the current stage of socioeconomic complexity will no longer be possible, and even if, as Tainter points in his "Collapse of Complex Societies," there are circumstances in which collapse happens to be the correct adaptive response, it need not automatically cause a population crash, with the survivors disbanding into solitary, feral humans dispersed in the wilderness and subsisting miserably. Collapse can be conceived of as an orderly, organized retreat rather than a rout.

For instance, the collapse of the Soviet Union - our most recent and my personal favorite example of an imperial collapse - did not reach the point of political disintegration of the republics that made it up, although some of them (Georgia, Moldova) did lose some territory to separatist movements. And although most of the economy shut down for a time, many institutions, including the military, public utilities, and public transportation, continued to function throughout. And although there was much social dislocation and suffering, society as a whole did not collapse, because most of the population did not lose access to food, housing, medicine, or any of the other survival necessities. The command-and-control structure of the Soviet economy largely decoupled the necessities of daily life from any element of market psychology, associating them instead with physical flows of energy and physical access to resources. This situation allowed the Soviet population to inadvertently achieve a greater level of collapse-preparedness than is currently possible in the United States.

HEAR HEAR!!! (Orlov's rant is not without merit)

Having given a lot of thought to both the differences and the similarities between the two superpowers - the one that has collapsed already, and the one that is collapsing as I write this - I feel ready to attempt a bold conjecture, and define five stages of collapse, to serve as mental milestones as we gauge our own collapse-preparedness and see what can be done to improve it. Rather than tying each phase to a particular emotion, as in the Kübler-Ross model, the proposed taxonomy ties each of the five collapse stages to the breaching of a specific level of trust, or faith, in the status quo. Although each stage causes physical, observable changes in the environment, these can be gradual, while the mental flip is generally quite swift. It is something of a cultural universal that nobody (but a real fool) wants to be the last fool to believe in a lie.

Stages of Collapse

Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in "business as usual" is lost. The future is no longer assumed resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out, and access to capital is lost.

Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that "the market shall provide" is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down, and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.

Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that "the government will take care of you" is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.

Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that "your people will take care of you" is lost, as local social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.

Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for "kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity" (Turnbull, The Mountain People). Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes "May you die today so that I die tomorrow" (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago). There may even be some cannibalism.

Although many people imagine collapse to be a sort of elevator that goes to the sub-basement (our Stage 5) no matter which button you push, no such automatic mechanism can be discerned. Rather, driving us all to Stage 5 will require that a concerted effort be made at each of the intervening stages. That all the players seem poised to make just such an effort may give this collapse the form a classical tragedy - a conscious but inexorable march to perdition - rather than a farce ("Oops! Ah, here we are, Stage 5." - "So, whom do we eat first?" - "Me! I am delicious!") Let us sketch out this process.

Financial collapse, as we are are currently observing it, consists of two parts. One is that a part of the general population is forced to move, no longer able to afford the house they bought based on inflated assessments, forged income numbers, and foolish expectations of endless asset inflation. Since, technically, they should never have been allowed to buy these houses, and were only able to do so because of financial and political malfeasance, this is actually a healthy development. The second part consists of men in expensive suits tossing bundles of suddenly worthless paper up in the air, ripping out their remaining hair, and (some of us might uncharitably hope) setting themselves on fire on the steps of the Federal Reserve. They, to express it in their own vernacular, "fucked up," and so this is also just as it should be.

The government response to this could be to offer some helpful homilies about "the wages of sin" and to open a few soup kitchens and flop houses in a variety of locations including Wall Street. The message would be: "You former debt addicts and gamblers, as you say, 'fucked up,' and so this will really hurt for a long time. We will never let you anywhere near big money again. Get yourselves over to the soup kitchen, and bring your own bowl, because we don't do dishes." This would result in a stable Stage 1 collapse - the Second Great Depression.

However, this is unlikely, because in the US the government happens to be debt addict and gambler number one. As individuals, we may have been as virtuous as we wished, but the government will have still run up exorbitant debts on our behalf. Every level of government, from local municipalities and authorities, which need the financial markets to finance their public works and public services, to the federal government, which relies on foreign investment to finance its endless wars, is addicted to public debt. They know they cannot stop borrowing, and so they will do anything they can to keep the game going for as long as possible.

About the only thing the government currently seems it fit to do is extend further credit to those in trouble, by setting interest rates at far below inflation, by accepting worthless bits of paper as collateral and by pumping money into insolvent financial institutions. This has the effect of diluting the dollar, further undermining its value, and will, in due course, lead to hyperinflation, which is bad enough in any economy, but is especially serious for one dominated by imports. As imports dry up and the associated parts of the economy shut down, we pass Stage 2: Commercial Collapse.

As businesses shut down, storefronts are boarded up and the population is left largely penniless and dependent on FEMA and charity for survival, the government may consider what to do next. It could, for example, repatriate all foreign troops and set them to work on public works projects designed to directly help the population. It could promote local economic self-sufficiency, by establishing community-supported agriculture programs, erecting renewable energy systems, and organizing and training local self-defence forces to maintain law and order. The Army Corps of Engineers could be ordered to bulldoze buildings erected on former farmland around city centers, return the land to cultivation, and to construct high-density solar-heated housing in urban centers to resettle those who are displaced. In the interim, it could reduce homelessness by imposing a steep tax on vacant residential properties and funneling the proceeds into rent subsidies for the indigent. With plenty of luck, such measures may be able to reverse the trend, eventually providing for a restoration of pre-Stage 2 conditions.

This may or may not be a good plan, but in any case it is rather unrealistic, because the United States, being so deeply in debt, will be forced to accede to the wishes of its foreign creditors, who own a lot of national assets (land, buildings, and businesses) and who would rather see a dependent American population slaving away working off their debt than a self-sufficient one, conveniently forgetting that they have mortgaged their children's futures to pay for military fiascos, big houses, big cars, and flat-screen television sets. Thus, a much more likely scenario is that the federal government (knowing who butters their bread) will remain subservient to foreign financial interests. It will impose austerity conditions, maintain law and order through draconian means, and aide in the construction of foreign-owned factory towns and plantations. As people start to think that having a government may not be such a good idea, conditions become ripe for Stage 3.

If Stage 1 collapse can be observed by watching television, observing Stage 2 might require a hike or a bicycle ride to the nearest population center, while Stage 3 collapse is more than likely to be visible directly through one's own living-room window, which may or may not still have glass in it. After a significant amount of bloodletting, much of the country becomes a no-go zone for the remaining authorities. Foreign creditors decide that their debts might not be repaid after all, cut their losses and depart in haste. The rest of the world decides to act as if there is no such place as The United States - because "nobody goes there any more." So as not to lose out on the entertainment value, the foreign press still prints sporadic fables about Americans who eat their young, much as they did about Russia following the Soviet collapse. A few brave American expatriates who still come back to visit bring back amazing stories of a different kind, but everyone considers them eccentric and perhaps a little bit crazy.

Stage 3 collapse can sometimes be avoided by the timely introduction of international peacekeepers and through the efforts of international humanitarian NGOs. In the aftermath of a Stage 2 collapse, domestic authorities are highly unlikely to have either the resources or the legitimacy, or even the will, to arrest the collapse dynamic and reconstitute themselves in a way that the population would accept.

As stage 3 collapse runs its course, the power vacuum left by the now defunct fedral, state and local government is filled by a variety of new power structures. Remnants of former law enforcement and military, urban gangs, ethnic mafias, religious cults and wealthy property owners all attempt to build their little empires on the ruins of the big one, fighting each other over territory and access to resources. This is the age of Big Men: charismatic leaders, rabble-rousers, ruthless Macchiavelian princes and war lords. In the luckier places, they find it to their common advantage to pool their resources and amalgamate into some sort of legitimate local government, while in the rest their jostling for power leads to a spiral of conflict and open war.

Stage 4 collapse occurs when society becomes so disordered and impoverished that it can no longer support the Big Men, who become smaller and smaller, and eventually fade from view. Society fragments into extended families and small tribes of a dozen or so families, who find it advantageous to band together for mutual support and defense. This is the form of society that has existed over some 98.5% of humanity's existence as a biological species, and can be said to be the bedrock of human existence. Humans can exist at this level of organization for thousands, perhaps millions of years. Most mammalian species go extinct after just a few million years, but, for all we know, Homo Sapiens still have a million or two left.

If pre-collapse society is too atomized, alienated and individualistic to form cohesive extended families and tribes, or if its physical environment becomes so disordered and impoverished that hunger and starvation become widespread, then Stage 5 collapse becomes likely. At this stage, a simpler biological imperative takes over, to preserve the life of the breeding couples. Families disband, the old are abandoned to their own devices, and children are only cared for up to age 3. All social unity is destroyed, and even the couples may disband for a time, preferring to forage on their own and refusing to share food. This is the state of society described by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull in his book The Mountain People. If society prior to Stage 5 collapse can be said to be the historical norm for humans, Stage 5 collapse brings humanity to the verge of physical extinction.

As we can easily imagine, the default is cascaded failure: each stage of collapse can easily lead to the next, perhaps even overlapping it. In Russia, the process was arrested just past Stage 3: there was considerable trouble with ethnic mafias and even some warlordism, but government authority won out in the end. In my other writings, I go into a lot of detail in describing the exact conditions that inadvertently made Russian society relatively collapse-proof. Here, I will simply say that these ingredients are not currently present in the United States.

While attempting to arrest collapse at Stage 1 and Stage 2 would probably be a dangerous waste of energy, it is probably worth everyone's while to dig in their heels at Stage 3, definitely at Stage 4, and it is quite simply a matter of physical survival to avoid Stage 5. In certain localities - those with high population densities, as well as those that contain dangerous nuclear and industrial installations - avoiding Stage 3 collapse is rather important, to the point of inviting foreign troops and governments in to maintain order and avoid disasters. Other localities may be able to prosper indefinitely at Stage 3, and even the most impoverished environments may be able to support a sparse population subsisting indefinitely at Stage 4.

Although it is possible to prepare directly for surviving Stage 5, this seems like an altogether demoralizing thing to attempt. Preparing to survive Stages 3 and 4 may seem somewhat more reasonable, while explicitly aiming for Stage 3 may be reasonable if you plan to become one of the Big Men. Be that as it may, I must leave such preparations as an exercise for the reader. My hope is that these definitions of specific stages of collapse will enable a more specific and fruitful discussion than the one currently dominated by such vague and ultimately nonsensical terms as "the collapse of Western civilization."

Bradipo said...

I think you underestimate the willingness of the United States to expropriate foreigners.

The government will talk up the sanctity of property rights and the importance of the rule of law until we've managed to extract as much investment from overseas as possible, but then we'll just keep what we've got.

It'll probably be a soft expropriation--foreign owners will retain ownership, they'll just lose control and be prevented from repatriating any of their wealth or profits. There's a long history of behavior like this in the US.

The desire to keep the oil flowing will hold things off for a while, but I expect that the result will be special (and temporary) deals for a handful of major oil exporters, while other foreign investors will be big losers. (They won't lose everything, though. We'll let them keep just enough that they'll go on imagining that there'll do a bit better by hanging on and cooperating than by trying any other options. And, in fact, they'll probably be right. The US also has a strong history of restoring property rights, once we're wealthy enough that it won't be a hardship.)


I think the real problem is that even if one only has to deal with another "great depression" the amount of time involved is going to be measured in decades. Why stick around for a long, long nasty event that has the high probability of getting much worse?

When it became obvious to me (2002) that the US was headed in this direction I started liquidating my assets in the US. My wife and I decided to pack up the family and head for a location that would avoid these kinds of problems and offer more of a future for the children. After some serious research we moved to the Island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela.

Currently we pay 10 cents per gallon for gasoline (!) and otherwise the cost of living is less than half of what it is in the US. We live on a Caribbean island outside the hurricane belt with great weather, and the economy is absolutely booming.

After a collapse in the US, I don't know how things will play out down here, but I think that this country in general and this Island in particular will not do badly. Surely there will be a market for Venezuelan oil somewhere, so the government will have the resources to stay in control, which will be a definite benefit. OTOH, there will be a definite shift in the power structure as many of the "wealthy" people of Venezuela see their US-based assets wiped out.

After a lot of thought and reflection I started to view economic cycle as somewhat like the seasons of the year- with both a cycle and a geographic shift. When it is winter in one location, it's summer in another, and things are always growing and dying. In the economic world, where one economy is in the process of collapse another will be growing. Over the course of the next few decades, I think that geographic location will be a major determinant in the quality of one's life.

With that in mind, I focused on acquiring multiple citizenships, multiple language fluency (especially for the children) and a relatively good location in terms of "weathering the storm" that's surely coming.

What is most interesting to me is that seemingly few people in the US are willing to leave. Even the ones who have a good idea of how bad it will be and how long it will last are "digging in" rather than heading for greener pastures.

The British are leaving Britain in droves. Why don't Americans?



During this hour of national election mania in the United States, I cannot resist Dmitry's sardonic observation that "The two capitalist parties offer a choice between two placebos," (55) later noting that "...all successful adaptations to the new circumstances will have to be made at the local level, and will have to rely on existing infrastructure, inventory and locally available talents and skills." (61) In pondering his analysis of collapse-how it manifested in the S.U. (Soviet Union) and is now manifesting in the U.S., one is dumfounded with the utter vacuousness of all American political party platforms in the face of a crumbling empire. The Soviet experience confirms that when societies collapse, all issues become acutely and intensely local, and communities and neighborhoods-or large numbers of the dispossessed in a particular venue--must address them. --Carolyn Baker--The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster in Russian history since WWII. Huge numbers of people died the old fashioned way of starvation and random violence. Still today in Russia more people are dying than are being born. Russia's billionares, who cannibalized their own people and countrym are now profiting from the petro-boom in the Russian economy. Facing collapse means not just facing poverty and random violence, it means facing a mafia gangster society where the only law is that of violence. As America faces becoming a national "Tombstone", don't exect a Wyatt Earp to ride into town and solve all our problems. Together we will have to face our future.--WPA

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The old normal is that life will go on just like before. The new normal is that nothing will ever be the same Rather than attempting to undertake the Herculean task of mitigating the unmitigatable-attempting to stop the world and point it in a different direction-it seems far better to turn inward and work to transform yourself into someone who might stand a chance, given the world's assumed trajectory. Much of this transformation is psychological and involves letting go of many notions that we have been conditioned to accept unquestioningly. Some if it involves acquiring new skills and a different set of habits. Some of it is even physiological, changing one's body to prepare it for a life that has far fewer creature comforts and conveniences, while requiring far more physical labor.

These words from Pages 125 and 126 of Dmitry Orlov's Re-Inventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects leapt out at me as perhaps the most definitive in his marvelous new book in which Dmitry illumines the collapse of the American empire, now well underway, with his insights from living through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By way of background, I will be using his first name throughout this review because although I've only met him once, he feels like an old friend. I first heard of Dmitry several years ago when I became a subscriber to From The Wilderness where I was captivated by his article series "Post-Soviet Lessons For A Post-American Century." Later in 2007, Dmitry wrote an exclusive article for my website entitled "Collapse And Its Discontent." I was then honored and humbled by his request for an endorsement of Re-Inventing Collapse and immediately requested a review copy from his publisher, New Society.

Opening the book with a "recipe" for collapse soup and noticing that the United States has combined all of the ingredients, Dmitry states that economic collapse, particularly in the throes of Peak Oil, is an enormous red flag signaling that the collapse of the American empire is underway. Additionally, he emphasizes that "when faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money." Physical resources and assets, as well as relationships and connections are worth their weight in gold and quickly become more valuable than cash. (11) Specifically, he states:

I therefore take as my premise that at some point during the coming years, due to an array of factors, with energy scarcity foremost among them, the economic system of the United States will teeter and fall, to be replaced by something that most people can scarcely guess at, and that even those who see it coming prefer not to think about. (15)

A key psychological factor in the individualization of oppression, deeply embedded in the American psyche, is the notion that in the face of utter powerlessness, blaming oneself provides the last semblance of empowerment, i.e., "It's my fault; I caused it; if only I hadn't...." This is not unlike the internal psychological mechanisms that engage within a child during and after abuse in which the child unconsciously blames him/herself for the abuse because not to do so confronts the child with an intolerable, overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

Noting that Americans find it difficult to imagine failure collectively in terms of the nation itself and prefer to insist that all failure is individual in nature, Dmitry concedes that collapse will be different for each person, but that one way to bridge the gap between "individual" and "collective" might be to notice the pre- and post-collapse conditions of the Soviet Union and compare them hypothetically with those of the United States. The ultimate intention here is to invite the reader to ask him/herself to what extent each important thing in one's life is "collapse-proof" and then after several pages of deepening and refining many of the concepts of his "Post-Soviet Lessons" series, Dmitry makes a stunning request: to consider how to make that "important thing" collapse-proof, or come to terms with how to live without it. (17)

In his marvelous chapter on "Superpower Similarities" Dmitry offers a conclusion, certainly not new to me, but one which begs to be pondered: "Rather than one giant explosion, this is more likely to be death by a thousand cuts." (35) After each cut, he states, Americans are likely to fantasize a technological remedy, but increasingly their fantasy will be proven to be just that, and those who offer such false hopes will become, "progressively lest trustworthy." (35) At the same time that he emphasizes the protracted nature of collapse, he notes the power of tipping points, like Chernobyl in the Soviet Union and Katrina in the U.S., to exacerbate the velocity of collapse.

During this hour of national election mania in the United States, I cannot resist Dmitry's sardonic observation that "The two capitalist parties offer a choice between two placebos," (55) later noting that "...all successful adaptations to the new circumstances will have to be made at the local level, and will have to rely on existing infrastructure, inventory and locally available talents and skills." (61) In pondering his analysis of collapse-how it manifested in the S.U. (Soviet Union) and is now manifesting in the U.S., one is dumfounded with the utter vacuousness of all American political party platforms in the face of a crumbling empire. The Soviet experience confirms that when societies collapse, all issues become acutely and intensely local, and communities and neighborhoods-or large numbers of the dispossessed in a particular venue--must address them.

Whereas some may feel guilty about political apathy or their unwillingness to participate in the national election charade, Dmitry argues that "Although people often bemoan political apathy as if it were a grave social ill, it seems to me that this is just as it should be. Why should essentially powerless people want to engage in a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those who wield the power?" (114) Thank you Dmitry; you've just described how I've felt after departing a voting booth every four years for the past three decades.

In his chapter on "Collapse Mitigation" Dmitry names his major concerns regarding the nature of the catastrophe that lies ahead. He notes that "there is no one who will undertake an organized effort to make the collapse survivable", but this is indeed a circular dilemma. A society that cannot and will not even consider the possibility of collapse is incapable of organizing to survive it. And so it is that we have many radioactive toxic installations, stockpiles, and dumps lying around. Many nuclear power plants have been built near coastlines, which does not bode well for surrounding communities in the face of rising sea levels resulting from global warming. (111) As a result of collapse, soldiers may become stranded overseas, along with private contractors.

As prison systems become increasingly costly and unmanageable due to the diminishment of resources, what will happen to those populations that can no longer be maintained and managed? Will they be released, setting off "a crime wave of staggering proportions"? (112) Even more frightening is the collection of non-collateralized debt, such as credit card debt, which is "secured by threat of force" and which Dmitry suggests may result in massive indentured debt servitude.

In a wonderful section called "Do It Yourself", Dmitry states:

Any behavior that might result in continued economic growth and prosperity is counterproductive: the higher you jump, the harder you land. It is traumatic to go from having a big retirement fund to having not retirement fund because of a market crash. It is also traumatic to go from a high income to little or no income. If, on top of that, you have kept yourself incredibly busy and suddenly have nothing to do, then you will really be in rough shape.... (122) If the economy, and your place within it, are really important to you, you will really be hurt when they go away.(123)

It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live. (123)

So "doing it oneself" is about figuring out how to increasingly operate and live from the margins of society. Those who have already learned how to do so will have an advantage over the many who haven't.

From many collapse watchers such as Richard Heinberg, Derrick Jensen, James Howard Kunstler and others, we frequently hear the word "adaptation" or synonymous terms, indicating how crucial it is that we are able to adjust our demands to the reality of "Peak Everything" because of how a collapsing world will force human beings to live. Ideally, we need not be forced but will proactively prepare ourselves physically, financially, and emotionally. While Dmitry points out that there is nothing wrong with comforts, he emphasizes that for optimum collapse survival, we need to perceive them as luxuries, not necessities.

In addition, we need to be able to blend, in somewhat chameleon-like fashion, into the environment. It is best to appear average and mainstream while constructing a life of radical survival so as not to attract attention. While we live in a great deal of uncertainty that FEMA is actually constructing detention camps to incarcerate American citizens, we read here and there online about it, and we assume that in a chaotic milieu of food shortages, power failures, water rationing, massive unemployment, inaccessibility of health care, and total societal breakdown, martial law and detention camps will be required for social control. Those whose behavior is agitated, hysterical, or recalcitrant attract attention, while the ability to remain calm, rational, and outwardly compliant may afford much-needed anonymity as the panic of collapse exacerbates.

Dmitry implies that acting skills might be useful in a milieu where many people will be looking for someone to blame for their plight. The most important thing beyond personal safety, he suggests is "to understand who has what you need and how to get it from them." (138) That is to say that in a collapsing world, existence is likely to become increasingly utilitarian-much more about getting the job done than agonizing over social graces or ego-based preoccupations with performance. This may sound robotic, and perhaps a bit schizophrenic in the light of the disparity Dmitry points out between one's inner world and one's public persona. Nevertheless, countless survivors of extremely oppressive regimes have found the discrepancy invaluable for navigating unimaginable stress.

Dmitry has sometimes been called a "doomer"-a label with which I'm quite familiar since it has frequently been attached to me as well. And while it's true that Re-Inventing Collapse isn't a fluffy, feel-good novel with a happily ever after ending, it is tempered with delicious outbursts of Dmitry's heartwarming sarcasm and mischievous humor which makes him the delightful human being he is. An unforgettable case in point from the book is the section entitled "The Settled And The Nomadic" in which he emphasizes how much moving around from place to place may be required of us in a collapsing world. Then poking fun at our terminally mobile culture he says:

Where to ensconce and secrete our precious selves, there to sit out the gathering storm? In a nation of nomads, who think nothing of growing up in one state, going to school in another and settling down in a third, it is surprising to see that so many people come to think that, during the most unsettled of times, some special place will sustain them perpetually. More likely than not, they will be forced to stay on the move. (139)

The idyllic dream of many collapse watchers-the small farm isolated from the city, may or may not be the safest, sanest venue. One will need neighbors with whom to barter, and who knows--and Dmitry doesn't address the topic, to what extent a repressive regime will have the time, money, or hydrocarbon energy to roam the countryside and round up those who do not "blend in."

What he does recommend is a small village where an acre of farmland for every 30 people or so is available and where people know each other and are willing to help each other. However, given the uncertainties and unpredictability of life during and after collapse, one may be forced to stay on the move. "Having a permanent base of operations is certainly a good thing, but if so, then having two or three is even better." (141) Remaining somewhat nomadic allows one the necessary detachment to avoid getting caught in "deteriorating circumstances" and flee so as to avoid them. Thus, a "winter camp" and a "summer camp" are recommended. Again, like maintaining one's inner world while presenting a divergent exterior, Dmitry suggests not letting on that one doesn't have a permanent home since "communities are always suspicious of nomads", but at the same time remaining aware that "To seek out that sympathy of strangers, you need to have a place you call home, even if that place only exists in your imagination...."(142)

Suddenly, following his daunting description of life in a collapsed world, a chapter entitled "Career Opportunities" appears. As a result of reading "other Orlov", I smiled and guessed that this chapter would be more about survival, as opposed to becoming comfortably ensconsed in a new profession. And I was right.

In this final chapter, Dmity speaks honestly about the alternative economies that flourished in the Soviet Union and that are typical of decaying societies. "Asset stripping" or pulling the copper out of the wires of abandoned homes, carrying off the vinyl siding and the fiberglass insulation could provide a treasure trove of "currency" and bargaining chips for future transactions on which life depends such as food, water, or medicines. Black market pharmaceuticals will be indispensable, and of course, in a world in which people have collapsed emotionally as well as financially, drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes will have inestimable value. Authentic doctors and nurses will be sorely needed, but black market medical practices are likely to abound as well.

As for transportation Dmitry opines that there will soon be only two viable options: bicycling and sailing. A proud proponent of sailboating as the most reliable form of transportation during and after collapse, Dmitry emphasizes that sailboats are not actually luxury items. He suggests checking the foreclosure lists and states that "a few months' rent will buy you a new, floating, rent-free home. If the cost is still too much, all you have to do is wait; the sailboat market is going from bad to worse."(154)

Dmitry leaves us with an exceedingly important piece of advice. Noting the vast numbers of people who have asked him what he plans to do to prepare for collapse, he emphasizes that preparation should include more than one option because there is no "one plan." In Re-Inventing Collapse, he offers no crystal ball and humbly admits that he does not know how collapse will unfold, only that he has lived through one collapse in his life and wishes to utilize that experience to shed light on the next one that has already begun.

I have no negative criticism of the book, but I must add that I wanted to hear more about psychological and attitudinal preparation-for two reasons, one being that my own forthcoming book explores them deeply, but also because I long to hear more personally from Dmitry how he has been impacted by the demise of the S.U. even as he navigates the downward spiraling of the U.S. Nevertheless, everyone who has forsaken denial about collapse and is serious about preparation must read Re-Inventing Collapse.

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posted by u2r2h at Monday, March 02, 2009


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