PDA

View Full Version : USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US



Magda Hassan
12-02-2008, 04:58 AM
This was sent to me by Richard Welser. It is a couple of years old but as relevant as ever. Given that the death toll in the former USSR was millions and they were better off it's not going to be a pretty sight if it is a worst case scenario.


http://energybulletin.net/node/23259
Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US

by Dmitry Orlov
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan1.png


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am not an expert or a scholar or an activist. I am more of an eye-witness. I watched the Soviet Union collapse, and I have tried to put my observations into a concise message. I will leave it up to you to decide just how urgent a message it is.
My talk tonight is about the lack of collapse-preparedness here in the United States. I will compare it with the situation in the Soviet Union, prior to its collapse. The rhetorical device I am going to use is the "Collapse Gap" – to go along with the Nuclear Gap, and the Space Gap, and various other superpower gaps that were fashionable during the Cold War.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan2.png
Slide [2] The subject of economic collapse is generally a sad one. But I am an optimistic, cheerful sort of person, and I believe that, with a bit of preparation, such events can be taken in stride. As you can probably surmise, I am actually rather keen on observing economic collapses. Perhaps when I am really old, all collapses will start looking the same to me, but I am not at that point yet.
And this next one certainly has me intrigued. From what I've seen and read, it seems that there is a fair chance that the U.S. economy will collapse sometime within the foreseeable future. It also would seem that we won't be particularly well-prepared for it. As things stand, the U.S. economy is poised to perform something like a disappearing act. And so I am eager to put my observations of the Soviet collapse to good use.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan3.png
Slide [3] I anticipate that some people will react rather badly to having their country compared to the USSR. I would like to assure you that the Soviet people would have reacted similarly, had the United States collapsed first. Feelings aside, here are two 20th century superpowers, who wanted more or less the same things – things like technological progress, economic growth, full employment, and world domination – but they disagreed about the methods. And they obtained similar results – each had a good run, intimidated the whole planet, and kept the other scared. Each eventually went bankrupt.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan4.png
Slide [4] The USA and the USSR were evenly matched in many categories, but let me just mention four.
The Soviet manned space program is alive and well under Russian management, and now offers first-ever space charters. The Americans have been hitching rides on the Soyuz while their remaining spaceships sit in the shop.
The arms race has not produced a clear winner, and that is excellent news, because Mutual Assured Destruction remains in effect. Russia still has more nuclear warheads than the US, and has supersonic cruise missile technology that can penetrate any missile shield, especially a nonexistent one.
The Jails Race once showed the Soviets with a decisive lead, thanks to their innovative GULAG program. But they gradually fell behind, and in the end the Jails Race has been won by the Americans, with the highest percentage of people in jail ever.
The Hated Evil Empire Race is also finally being won by the Americans. It's easy now that they don't have anyone to compete against.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan5.png
Slide [5] Continuing with our list of superpower similarities, many of the problems that sunk the Soviet Union are now endangering the United States as well. Such as a huge, well-equipped, very expensive military, with no clear mission, bogged down in fighting Muslim insurgents. Such as energy shortfalls linked to peaking oil production. Such as a persistently unfavorable trade balance, resulting in runaway foreign debt. Add to that a delusional self-image, an inflexible ideology, and an unresponsive political system.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan6.png
Slide [6] An economic collapse is amazing to observe, and very interesting if described accurately and in detail. A general description tends to fall short of the mark, but let me try. An economic arrangement can continue for quite some time after it becomes untenable, through sheer inertia. But at some point a tide of broken promises and invalidated assumptions sweeps it all out to sea. One such untenable arrangement rests on the notion that it is possible to perpetually borrow more and more money from abroad, to pay for more and more energy imports, while the price of these imports continues to double every few years. Free money with which to buy energy equals free energy, and free energy does not occur in nature. This must therefore be a transient condition. When the flow of energy snaps back toward equilibrium, much of the US economy will be forced to shut down.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan7.png
Slide [7] I've described what happened to Russia in some detail in one of my articles, which is available on SurvivingPeakOil.com (http://survivingpeakoil.com/article.php?id=soviet_lessons). I don't see why what happens to the United States should be entirely dissimilar, at least in general terms. The specifics will be different, and we will get to them in a moment. We should certainly expect shortages of fuel, food, medicine, and countless consumer items, outages of electricity, gas, and water, breakdowns in transportation systems and other infrastructure, hyperinflation, widespread shutdowns and mass layoffs, along with a lot of despair, confusion, violence, and lawlessness. We definitely should not expect any grand rescue plans, innovative technology programs, or miracles of social cohesion.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan8.png
Slide [8] When faced with such developments, some people are quick to realize what it is they have to do to survive, and start doing these things, generally without anyone's permission. A sort of economy emerges, completely informal, and often semi-criminal. It revolves around liquidating, and recycling, the remains of the old economy. It is based on direct access to resources, and the threat of force, rather than ownership or legal authority. People who have a problem with this way of doing things, quickly find themselves out of the game.
These are the generalities. Now let's look at some specifics.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan9.png
Slide [9] One important element of collapse-preparedness is making sure that you don't need a functioning economy to keep a roof over your head. In the Soviet Union, all housing belonged to the government, which made it available directly to the people. Since all housing was also built by the government, it was only built in places that the government could service using public transportation. After the collapse, almost everyone managed to keep their place.
In the United States, very few people own their place of residence free and clear, and even they need an income to pay real estate taxes. People without an income face homelessness. When the economy collapses, very few people will continue to have an income, so homelessness will become rampant. Add to that the car-dependent nature of most suburbs, and what you will get is mass migrations of homeless people toward city centers.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan10.png
Slide [10] Soviet public transportation was more or less all there was, but there was plenty of it. There were also a few private cars, but so few that gasoline rationing and shortages were mostly inconsequential. All of this public infrastructure was designed to be almost infinitely maintainable, and continued to run even as the rest of the economy collapsed.
The population of the United States is almost entirely car-dependent, and relies on markets that control oil import, refining, and distribution. They also rely on continuous public investment in road construction and repair. The cars themselves require a steady stream of imported parts, and are not designed to last very long. When these intricately interconnected systems stop functioning, much of the population will find itself stranded.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan11.png
Slide [11] Economic collapse affects public sector employment almost as much as private sector employment, eventually. Because government bureaucracies tend to be slow to act, they collapse more slowly. Also, because state-owned enterprises tend to be inefficient, and stockpile inventory, there is plenty of it left over, for the employees to take home, and use in barter. Most Soviet employment was in the public sector, and this gave people some time to think of what to do next.
Private enterprises tend to be much more efficient at many things. Such laying off their people, shutting their doors, and liquidating their assets. Since most employment in the United States is in the private sector, we should expect the transition to permanent unemployment to be quite abrupt for most people.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan12.png
Slide [12] When confronting hardship, people usually fall back on their families for support. The Soviet Union experienced chronic housing shortages, which often resulted in three generations living together under one roof. This didn't make them happy, but at least they were used to each other. The usual expectation was that they would stick it out together, come what may.
In the United States, families tend to be atomized, spread out over several states. They sometimes have trouble tolerating each other when they come together for Thanksgiving, or Christmas, even during the best of times. They might find it difficult to get along, in bad times. There is already too much loneliness in this country, and I doubt that economic collapse will cure it.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan13.png
Slide [13] To keep evil at bay, Americans require money. In an economic collapse, there is usually hyperinflation, which wipes out savings. There is also rampant unemployment, which wipes out incomes. The result is a population that is largely penniless.
In the Soviet Union, very little could be obtained for money. It was treated as tokens rather than as wealth, and was shared among friends. Many things – housing and transportation among them – were either free or almost free.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan14.png
Slide [14] Soviet consumer products were always an object of derision – refrigerators that kept the house warm – and the food, and so on. You'd be lucky if you got one at all, and it would be up to you to make it work once you got it home. But once you got it to work, it would become a priceless family heirloom, handed down from generation to generation, sturdy, and almost infinitely maintainable.
In the United States, you often hear that something "is not worth fixing." This is enough to make a Russian see red. I once heard of an elderly Russian who became irate when a hardware store in Boston wouldn't sell him replacement bedsprings: "People are throwing away perfectly good mattresses, how am I supposed to fix them?"
Economic collapse tends to shut down both local production and imports, and so it is vitally important that anything you own wears out slowly, and that you can fix it yourself if it breaks. Soviet-made stuff generally wore incredibly hard. The Chinese-made stuff you can get around here – much less so.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan15.png
Slide [15] The Soviet agricultural sector was notoriously inefficient. Many people grew and gathered their own food even in relatively prosperous times. There were food warehouses in every city, stocked according to a government allocation scheme. There were very few restaurants, and most families cooked and ate at home. Shopping was rather labor-intensive, and involved carrying heavy loads. Sometimes it resembled hunting – stalking that elusive piece of meat lurking behind some store counter. So the people were well-prepared for what came next.
In the United States, most people get their food from a supermarket, which is supplied from far away using refrigerated diesel trucks. Many people don't even bother to shop and just eat fast food. When people do cook, they rarely cook from scratch. This is all very unhealthy, and the effect on the nation's girth, is visible, clear across the parking lot. A lot of the people, who just waddle to and from their cars, seem unprepared for what comes next. If they suddenly had to start living like the Russians, they would blow out their knees.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan16.png
Slide [16] The Soviet government threw resources at immunization programs, infectious disease control, and basic care. It directly operated a system of state-owned clinics, hospitals, and sanatoriums. People with fatal ailments or chronic conditions often had reason to complain, and had to pay for private care – if they had the money.
In the United States, medicine is for profit. People seems to think nothing of this fact. There are really very few fields of endeavor to which Americans would deny the profit motive. The problem is, once the economy is removed, so is the profit, along with the services it once helped to motivate.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan17.png
Slide [17] The Soviet education system was generally quite excellent. It produced an overwhelmingly literate population and many great specialists. The education was free at all levels, but higher education sometimes paid a stipend, and often provided room and board. The educational system held together quite well after the economy collapsed. The problem was that the graduates had no jobs to look forward to upon graduation. Many of them lost their way.
The higher education system in the United States is good at many things – government and industrial research, team sports, vocational training... Primary and secondary education fails to achieve in 12 years what Soviet schools generally achieved in 8. The massive scale and expense of maintaining these institutions is likely to prove too much for the post-collapse environment. Illiteracy is already a problem in the United States, and we should expect it to get a lot worse.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan18.png
Slide [18] The Soviet Union did not need to import energy. The production and distribution system faltered, but never collapsed. Price controls kept the lights on even as hyperinflation raged.
The term "market failure" seems to fit the energy situation in the United States. Free markets develop some pernicious characteristics when there are shortages of key commodities. During World War II, the United States government understood this, and successfully rationed many things, from gasoline to bicycle parts. But that was a long time ago. Since then, the inviolability of free markets has become an article of faith.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan19.png
Slide [19] My conclusion is that the Soviet Union was much better-prepared for economic collapse than the United States is.
I have left out two important superpower asymmetries, because they don't have anything to do with collapse-preparedness. Some countries are simply luckier than others. But I will mention them, for the sake of completeness.
In terms of racial and ethnic composition, the United States resembles Yugoslavia more than it resembles Russia, so we shouldn't expect it to be as peaceful as Russia was, following the collapse. Ethnically mixed societies are fragile and have a tendency to explode.
In terms of religion, the Soviet Union was relatively free of apocalyptic doomsday cults. Very few people there wished for a planet-sized atomic fireball to herald the second coming of their savior. This was indeed a blessing.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan20.png
Slide [20] One area in which I cannot discern any Collapse Gap is national politics. The ideologies may be different, but the blind adherence to them couldn't be more similar.
It is certainly more fun to watch two Capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one Communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two Capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos. The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party buys 50% of the vote, and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat.
The American way of dealing with dissent and with protest is certainly more advanced: why imprison dissidents when you can just let them shout into the wind to their heart's content?
The American approach to bookkeeping is more subtle and nuanced than the Soviet. Why make a state secret of some statistic, when you can just distort it, in obscure ways? Here's a simple example: inflation is "controlled" by substituting hamburger for steak, in order to minimize increases to Social Security payments.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan21.png
Slide [21] Many people expend a lot of energy protesting against their irresponsible, unresponsive government. It seems like a terrible waste of time, considering how ineffectual their protests are. Is it enough of a consolation for them to be able to read about their efforts in the foreign press? I think that they would feel better if they tuned out the politicians, the way the politicians tune them out. It's as easy as turning off the television set. If they try it, they will probably observe that nothing about their lives has changed, nothing at all, except maybe their mood has improved. They might also find that they have more time and energy to devote to more important things.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan22.png
Slide [22] I will now sketch out some approaches, realistic and otherwise, to closing the Collapse Gap. My little list of approaches might seem a bit glib, but keep in mind that this is a very difficult problem. In fact, it's important to keep in mind that not all problems have solutions. I can promise you that we will not solve this problem tonight. What I will try to do is to shed some light on it from several angles.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan23.png
Slide [23] Many people rail against the unresponsiveness and irresponsibility of the government. They often say things like "What is needed is..." plus the name of some big, successful government project from the glorious past – the Marshall Plan, the Manhattan Project, the Apollo program. But there is nothing in the history books about a government preparing for collapse. Gorbachev's "Perestroika" is an example of a government trying to avert or delay collapse. It probably helped speed it along.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan24.png
Slide [24] There are some things that I would like the government to take care of in preparation for collapse. I am particularly concerned about all the radioactive and toxic installations, stockpiles, and dumps. Future generations are unlikely to able to control them, especially if global warming puts them underwater. There is enough of this muck sitting around to kill off most of us. I am also worried about soldiers getting stranded overseas – abandoning one's soldiers is among the most shameful things a country can do. Overseas military bases should be dismantled, and the troops repatriated. I'd like to see the huge prison population whittled away in a controlled manner, ahead of time, instead of in a chaotic general amnesty. Lastly, I think that this farce with debts that will never be repaid, has gone on long enough. Wiping the slate clean will give society time to readjust. So, you see, I am not asking for any miracles. Although, if any of these things do get done, I would consider it a miracle.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan25.png
Slide [25] A private sector solution is not impossible; just very, very unlikely. Certain Soviet state enterprises were basically states within states. They controlled what amounted to an entire economic system, and could go on even without the larger economy. They kept to this arrangement even after they were privatized. They drove Western management consultants mad, with their endless kindergartens, retirement homes, laundries, and free clinics. These weren't part of their core competency, you see. They needed to divest and to streamline their operations. The Western management gurus overlooked the most important thing: the core competency of these enterprises lay in their ability to survive economic collapse. Maybe the young geniuses at Google can wrap their heads around this one, but I doubt that their stockholders will.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan26.png
Slide [26] It's important to understand that the Soviet Union achieved collapse-preparedness inadvertently, and not because of the success of some crash program. Economic collapse has a way of turning economic negatives into positives. The last thing we want is a perfectly functioning, growing, prosperous economy that suddenly collapses one day, and leaves everybody in the lurch. It is not necessary for us to embrace the tenets of command economy and central planning to match the Soviet lackluster performance in this area. We have our own methods, that are working almost as well. I call them "boondoggles." They are solutions to problems that cause more problems than they solve.
Just look around you, and you will see boondoggles sprouting up everywhere, in every field of endeavor: we have military boondoggles like Iraq, financial boondoggles like the doomed retirement system, medical boondoggles like private health insurance, legal boondoggles like the intellectual property system. The combined weight of all these boondoggles is slowly but surely pushing us all down. If it pushes us down far enough, then economic collapse, when it arrives, will be like falling out of a ground floor window. We just have to help this process along, or at least not interfere with it. So if somebody comes to you and says "I want to make a boondoggle that runs on hydrogen" – by all means encourage him! It's not as good as a boondoggle that burns money directly, but it's a step in the right direction.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan27.png
Slide [27] Certain types of mainstream economic behavior are not prudent on a personal level, and are also counterproductive to bridging the Collapse Gap. 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 no 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.
Economic collapse is about the worst possible time for someone to suffer a nervous breakdown, yet this is what often happens. The people who are most at risk psychologically are successful middle-aged men. When their career is suddenly over, their savings are gone, and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth is gone as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society.
If the economy, and your place within it, is really important to you, you will be really hurt when it goes away. You can cultivate an attitude of studied indifference, but it has to be more than just a conceit. You have to develop the lifestyle and the habits and the physical stamina to back it up. 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.
http://energybulletin.net/image/uploads/23259/MScan28.png
Slide [28] I hope that I didn't make it sound as if the Soviet collapse was a walk in the park, because it was really quite awful in many ways. The point that I do want to stress is that when this economy collapses, it is bound to be much worse. Another point I would like to stress is that collapse here is likely to be permanent. The factors that allowed Russia and the other former Soviet republics to recover are not present here.
In spite of all this, I believe that in every age and circumstance, people can sometimes find not just a means and a reason to survive, but enlightenment, fulfillment, and freedom. If we can find them even after the economy collapses, then why not start looking for them now?
Thank you.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Editorial Notes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Energy Bulletin published an excerpt from this talk yesterday (Dec 3), and Dmitry reported that his small webserver was overwhelmed with requests. Although it's good news that his writing has such a following, PLEASE don't access the document on his web server (Club Orlov). The same content is here, on Energy Bulletin's heavier duty webserver.
---
Orlov has many penetrating insights, couched in his dark humor. Particularly striking is the strong case he makes that the peoples of the USSR were actually better prepared for a collapse because


they had learned to be more self-reliant
many crucial functions (like housing and transportation) were taken care of by the state sector which was more stable than a private sector would have been.

Orlov's cynicism about the possibility of intelligent government action was probably justified in the case of the Soviet Union, but I think it would be a tragic mistake to abandon efforts to change the direction of the U.S. The Soviets had little chance to make democratic institutions work. We do have that chance.
-BA
UPDATE: Dmitri Orlov writes on March 4, 2007:
You wrote that "The Soviets had little chance to make democratic institutions work." That's not entirely true. Perestroika and Glasnost were all about democracy, and in my opinion it had the same chance of success as the hopelessly gerrymandered system that passes for democracy in the US, (although much less than any proper, modern democracy, in which the Bush regime would have been put out of power quite a while ago, after a simple parliamentary vote of no confidence and early elections). The problem is that, in a collapse scenario, democracy is the least effective system of government one can possibly think of (think Weimar, or the Russian Interim Government) - a topic I cover in Post-Soviet Lessons.
Lastly, I don't think calling me a cynic is exactly accurate: I've been in the US a long time, watching the system become progressively more dysfunctional with each passing political season. It seems to me that it is not necessarily cynical to be able to spot a solid trend, but that it could be simply observant.
UPDATE (October 30, 2007):
We've noticed an influx of visitors to Dmitry Orlov's article, since its mention on several websites. Dmitry writes that his new book, "Reinventing Collapse," is due from New Society Publishers in the springtime.

Mark Stapleton
12-09-2008, 02:04 AM
Stunningly good analysis.

It's clear to me the political system in the US will collapse. A political revolution will follow.

The words of JFK will come back to haunt those currently in power--those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.

Magda Hassan
12-09-2008, 02:54 AM
Yes, Mark. I hope it does. For the best in the long run. And as Lenin said capitalism will sell you the rope with which to hang it. Or words to that effect. Its internal contradictions are just too unsustainable over the long term. It is only a matter of time. As well as being unjust and immoral. It would be good to get rid of money altogether and use some other system, say, time, which is unable to be fiddled with. Possible now with computer record keeping. Or be rewarded with leisure time instead of money. Given the money that has been spent on various wars and death and destruction if they had given the same amount of money or equivalent in goats, cows, chickens, clean water, vaccinations, medicines, electricity generators etc instead of bombs to our 'enemies' what a different world we would have. It is a sick system and the sooner it is put out of our misery the better though the transition is not going to be pretty for all the reasons out lined in the post. The question is does it lead to a more just and equitable system or do we get fascism?

David Guyatt
12-09-2008, 10:46 AM
The thing is that the USSR was collapsed, rather than collapsed of its own accord. This was part of the long-term strategy that Reagan brought to the table. After its collapse the West stepped in to exploit the vast natural wealth of the Soviet empire.

I think the US is different in that it is economically mated to all the major economies of the world. Something like 80% of all the US Treasuries in circulation are held overseas, mostly by foreign central banks.

Let's be sure what we're saying here. If the US goes we all go. And it won't be pretty. A global economic collapse will be like nothing any of us have ever witnessed or experienced before. Imagine empty shelves on supermarkets for months on end. No utilities. No sanitation. No clean water. Just utter chaos.

I have a suspicion that the US will go -- and within a few short years too.

Hope to hell I'm wrong though.

Magda Hassan
12-09-2008, 12:04 PM
The thing is that the USSR was collapsed, rather than collapsed of its own accord. This was part of the long-term strategy that Reagan brought to the table. After its collapse the West stepped in to exploit the vast natural wealth of the Soviet empire.http://www.deeppoliticsforum.com/forums/showthread.php?t=423

Mark Stapleton
12-09-2008, 02:56 PM
It is a sick system and the sooner it is put out of our misery the better though the transition is not going to be pretty for all the reasons out lined in the post. The question is does it lead to a more just and equitable system or do we get fascism?

Good question. My guess is a bit of both.

There's going to be so many pissed off people in the US, which makes it hard to predict because Americans don't seem to be rational (en masse I mean). I think they're too patriotic and too religious. Of course, they're not alone there.

What kind of political system emerges when the global superpower experiences collapsing wealth and living standards, coupled with rapid advancements in technology, particularly weapons and communications technology. And with climate change, overpopulation, food shortages, and competition for scarce resources thrown in?

I'm stumped.

Mark Stapleton
12-09-2008, 03:01 PM
I have a suspicion that the US will go -- and within a few short years too.

Hope to hell I'm wrong though.


You're right, David. But your estimate is too conservative, imo.

Dawn Meredith
12-11-2008, 02:32 PM
Stunningly good analysis.

It's clear to me the political system in the US will collapse. A political revolution will follow.

The words of JFK will come back to haunt those currently in power--those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.

Yes it will collapse. Mark I disagree, there will be no revolution. Fascism came to America a long time ago. In 1967 in an interview Garrison gave to Playboy he predicted "I'm afraid fascism will come to America in the name of National Security". And it did. If people try to revolt the camps will be used. Besides when a person is starving it's pretty hard to revolt.

Dawn

Magda Hassan
03-11-2009, 01:33 PM
I don't agree with everything he says, though I do most, but I do love his humour.

Dmitry Orlov: Social Collapse Best Practices

Link to video here:
http://informationclearinghouse.info/article22183.htm




Dmitry Orlov: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for showing up. It's certainly nice to travel all the way across the North American continent and have a few people come to see you, even if the occasion isn't a happy one. You are here to listen to me talk about social collapse and the various ways we can avoid screwing that up along with everything else that's gone wrong. I know it's a lot to ask of you, because why wouldn't you instead want to go and eat, drink, and be merry? Well, perhaps there will still be time left for that after my talk.

I would like to thank the Long Now Foundation for inviting me, and I feel very honored to appear in the same venue as many serious, professional people, such as Michael Pollan, who will be here in May, or some of the previous speakers, such as Nassim Taleb, or Brian Eno some of my favorite people, really. I am just a tourist. I flew over here to give this talk and to take in the sights, and then I'll fly back to Boston and go back to my day job. Well, I am also a blogger. And I also wrote a book. But then everyone has a book, or so it would seem. You might ask yourself, then, Why on earth did he get invited to speak here tonight? It seems that I am enjoying my moment in the limelight, because I am one of the very few people who several years ago unequivocally predicted the demise of the United States as a global superpower.

The idea that the USA will go the way of the USSR seemed preposterous at the time. It doesn't seem so preposterous any more. I take it some of you are still hedging your bets. How is that hedge fund doing, by the way? I think I prefer remaining just a tourist, because I have learned from experience luckily, from other people's experience that being a superpower collapse predictor is not a good career choice. I learned that by observing what happened to the people who successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. Do you know who Andrei Amalrik is? See, my point exactly. He successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. He was off by just half a decade. That was another valuable lesson for me, which is why I will not give you an exact date when USA will turn into FUSA ("F" is for "Former"). But even if someone could choreograph the whole event, it still wouldn't make for much of a career, because once it all starts falling apart, people have far more important things to attend to than marveling at the wonderful predictive abilities of some Cassandra-like person. I hope that I have made it clear that I am not here in any sort of professional capacity. I consider what I am doing a kind of community service. So, if you don't like my talk, don't worry about me. There are plenty of other things I can do. But I would like my insights to be of help during these difficult and confusing times, for altruistic reasons, mostly, although not entirely. This is because when times get really bad, as they did when the Soviet Union collapsed, lots of people just completely lose it. Men, especially. Successful, middle-aged men, breadwinners, bastions of society, turn out to be especially vulnerable. And when they just completely lose it, they become very tedious company.

My hope is that some amount of preparation, psychological and otherwise, can make them a lot less fragile, and a bit more useful, and generally less of a burden. Women seem much more able to cope. Perhaps it is because they have less of their ego invested in the whole dubious enterprise, or perhaps their sense of personal responsibility is tied to those around them and not some nebulous grand enterprise. In any case, the women always seem far more able to just put on their gardening gloves and go do something useful, while the men tend to sit around groaning about the Empire, or the Republic, or whatever it is that they lost. And when they do that, they become very tedious company. And so, without a bit of mental preparation, the men are all liable to end up very lonely and very drunk. So that's my little intervention. If there is one thing that I would like to claim as my own, it is the comparative theory of superpower collapse. For now, it remains just a theory, although it is currently being quite thoroughly tested.

The theory states that the United States and the Soviet Union will have collapsed for the same reasons, namely: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget, and ballooning foreign debt. I call this particular list of ingredients "The Superpower Collapse Soup." Other factors, such as the inability to provide an acceptable quality of life for its citizens, or a systemically corrupt political system incapable of reform, are certainly not helpful, but they do not automatically lead to collapse, because they do not put the country on a collision course with reality. Please don't be too concerned, though, because, as I mentioned, this is just a theory. My theory. I've been working on this theory since about 1995, when it occurred to me that the US is retracing the same trajectory as the USSR. As so often is the case, having this realization was largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The two most important methods of solving problems are: 1. by knowing the solution ahead of time, and 2. by guessing it correctly. I learned this in engineering school – from a certain professor. I am not that good at guesswork, but I do sometimes know the answer ahead of time. I was very well positioned to have this realization because I grew up straddling the two worlds – the USSR and the US. I grew up in Russia, and moved to the US when I was twelve, and so I am fluent in Russian, and I understand Russian history and Russian culture the way only a native Russian can. But I went through high school and university in the US .I had careers in several industries here, I traveled widely around the country, and so I also have a very good understanding of the US with all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. I traveled back to Russia in 1989, when things there still seemed more or less in line with the Soviet norm, and again in 1990, when the economy was at a standstill, and big changes were clearly on the way. I went back there 3 more times in the 1990s, and observed the various stages of Soviet collapse first-hand.

By the mid-1990s I started to see Soviet/American Superpowerdom as a sort of disease that strives for world dominance but in effect eviscerates its host country, eventually leaving behind an empty shell: an impoverished population, an economy in ruins, a legacy of social problems, and a tremendous burden of debt. The symmetries between the two global superpowers were then already too numerous to mention, and they have been growing more obvious ever since. The superpower symmetries may be of interest to policy wonks and history buffs and various skeptics, but they tell us nothing that would be useful in our daily lives. It is the asymmetries, the differences between the two superpowers, that I believe to be most instructive. When the Soviet system went away, many people lost their jobs, everyone lost their savings, wages and pensions were held back for months, their value was wiped out by hyperinflation, there shortages of food, gasoline, medicine, consumer goods, there was a large increase in crime and violence, and yet Russian society did not collapse. Somehow, the Russians found ways to muddle through. How was that possible? It turns out that many aspects of the Soviet system were paradoxically resilient in the face of system-wide collapse, many institutions continued to function, and the living arrangement was such that people did not lose access to food, shelter or transportation, and could survive even without an income. The Soviet economic system failed to thrive, and the Communist experiment at constructing a worker's paradise on earth was, in the end, a failure. But as a side effect it inadvertently achieved a high level of collapse-preparedness. In comparison, the American system could produce significantly better results, for time, but at the cost of creating and perpetuating a living arrangement that is very fragile, and not at all capable of holding together through the inevitable crash. Even after the Soviet economy evaporated and the government largely shut down, Russians still had plenty left for them to work with. And so there is a wealth of useful information and insight that we can extract from the Russian experience, which we can then turn around and put to good use in helping us improvise a new living arrangement here in the United States – one that is more likely to be survivable. The mid-1990s did not seem to me as the right time to voice such ideas. The United States was celebrating its so-called Cold War victory, getting over its Vietnam syndrome by bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age, and the foreign policy wonks coined the term "hyperpower" and were jabbering on about full-spectrum dominance.

All sorts of silly things were happening. Professor Fukuyama told us that history had ended, and so we were building a brave new world where the Chinese made things out of plastic for us, the Indians provided customer support when these Chinese-made things broke, and we paid for it all just by flipping houses, pretending that they were worth a lot of money whereas they are really just useless bits of ticky-tacky. Alan Greenspan chided us about "irrational exuberance" while consistently low-balling interest rates. It was the "Goldilocks economy" – not to hot, not too cold. Remember that? And now it turns out that it was actually more of a "Tinker-bell" economy, because the last five or so years of economic growth was more or less a hallucination, based on various debt pyramids, the "whole house of cards" as President Bush once referred to it during one of his lucid moments. And now we can look back on all of that with a funny, queasy feeling, or we can look forward and feel nothing but vertigo. While all of these silly things were going on, I thought it best to keep my comparative theory of superpower collapse to myself. During that time, I was watching the action in the oil industry, because I understood that oil imports are the Achilles' heel of the US economy. In the mid-1990s the all-time peak in global oil production was scheduled for the turn of the century. But then a lot of things happened that delayed it by at least half a decade. Perhaps you've noticed this too, there is a sort of refrain here: people who try to predict big historical shifts always turn to be off by about half a decade. Unsuccessful predictions, on the other hand are always spot on as far as timing: the world as we know it failed to end precisely at midnight on January 1, 2000.

Perhaps there is a physical principal involved: information spreads at the speed of light, while ignorance is instantaneous at all points in the known universe. So please make a mental note: whenever it seems to you that I am making a specific prediction as to when I think something is likely to happen, just silently add "plus or minus half a decade." In any case, about half a decade ago, I finally thought that the time was ripe, and, as it has turned out, I wasn't too far off. In June of 2005 I published an article on the subject, titled "Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post- American Century," which was quite popular, even to the extent that I got paid for it. It is available at various places on the Internet. A little while later I formalized my thinking somewhat into the "Collapse Gap" concept, which I presented at a conference in Manhattan in April of 2006. The slide show from that presentation, titled "Closing the Collapse Gap," was posted on the Internet and has been downloaded a few million times since then. Then, in January of 2008, when it became apparent to me that financial collapse was well underway, and that other stages of collapse were to follow, I published a short article titled "The Five Stages of Collapse," which I later expanded into a talk I gave at a conference in Michigan in October of 2008. Finally, at the end of 2008, I announced on my blog that I am getting out of the prognosticating business. I have made enough predictions, they all seem very well on track (give or take half a decade, please remember that), collapse is well underway, and now I am just an observer. But this talk is about something else, something other than making dire predictions and then acting all smug when they come true. You see, there is nothing more useless than predictions, once they have come true. It's like looking at last year's amazingly successful stock picks: what are you going to do about them this year? What we need are examples of things that have been shown to work in the strange, unfamiliar, post- collapse environment that we are all likely to have to confront. Stuart Brand proposed the title for the talk – "Social Collapse Best Practices" – and I thought that it was an excellent idea.

Although the term "best practices" has been diluted over time to sometimes mean little more than "good ideas," initially it stood for the process of abstracting useful techniques from examples of what has worked in the past and applying them to new situations, in order to control risk and to increase the chances of securing a positive outcome. It's a way of skipping a lot of trial and error and deliberation and experimentation, and to just go with what works. In organizations, especially large organizations, "best practices" also offer a good way to avoid painful episodes of watching colleagues trying to "think outside the box" whenever they are confronted with a new problem. If your colleagues were any good at thinking outside the box, they probably wouldn't feel so compelled to spend their whole working lives sitting in a box keeping an office chair warm. If they were any good at thinking outside the box, they would have by now thought of a way to escape from that box. So perhaps what would make them feel happy and productive again is if someone came along and gave them a different box inside of which to think – a box better suited to the post-collapse environment. Here is the key insight: you might think that when collapse happens, nothing works. That's just not the case. The old ways of doing things don't work any more, the old assumptions are all invalidated, conventional goals and measures of success become irrelevant. But a different set of goals, techniques, and measures of success can be brought to bear immediately, and the sooner the better. But enough generalities, let's go through some specifics. We'll start with some generalities, and, as you will see, it will all become very, very specific rather quickly.

Here is another key insight: there are very few things that are positives or negatives per se. Just about everything is a matter of context. Now, it just so happens that most things that are positives prior to collapse turn out to be negatives once collapse occurs, and vice versa. For instance, prior to collapse having high inventory in a business is bad, because the businesses have to store it and finance it, so they try to have just-in-time inventory. After collapse, high inventory turns out to be very useful, because they can barter it for the things they need, and they can't easily get more because they don't have any credit. Prior to collapse, it's good for a business to have the right level of staffing and an efficient organization. After collapse, what you want is a gigantic, sluggish bureaucracy that can't unwind operations or lay people off fast enough through sheer bureaucratic foot-dragging. Prior to collapse, what you want is an effective retail segment and good customer service. After collapse, you regret not having an unreliable retail segment, with shortages and long bread lines, because then people would have been forced to learn to shift for themselves instead of standing around waiting for somebody to come and feed them. If you notice, none of these things that I mentioned have any bearing on what is commonly understood as "economic health." Prior to collapse, the overall macroeconomic positive is an expanding economy. After collapse, economic contraction is a given, and the overall macroeconomic positive becomes something of an imponderable, so we are forced to listen to a lot of nonsense. The situation is either slightly better than expected or slightly worse than expected. We are always either months or years away from economic recovery. Business as usual will resume sooner or later, because some television bobble-head said so. But let's take it apart. Starting from the very general, what are the current macroeconomic objectives, if you listen to the hot air coming out of Washington at the moment? First: growth, of course! Getting the economy going.

We learned nothing from the last huge spike in commodity prices, so let's just try it again. That calls for economic stimulus, a.k.a. printing money. Let's see how high the prices go up this time. Maybe this time around we will achieve hyperinflation. Second: Stabilizing financial institutions: getting banks lending – that's important too. You see, we are just not in enough debt yet, that's our problem. We need more debt, and quickly! Third: jobs! We need to create jobs. Low-wage jobs, of course, to replace all the high-wage manufacturing jobs we've been shedding for decades now, and replacing them with low-wage service sector jobs, mainly ones without any job security or benefits. Right now, a lot of people could slow down the rate at which they are sinking further into debt if they quit their jobs. That is, their job is a net loss for them as individuals as well as for the economy as a whole. But, of course, we need much more of that, and quickly! So that's what we have now. The ship is on the rocks, water is rising, and the captain is shouting "Full steam ahead! We are sailing to Afghanistan!" Do you listen to Ahab up on the bridge, or do you desert your post in the engine room and go help deploy the lifeboats? If you thought that the previous episode of uncontrolled debt expansion, globalized Ponzi schemes, and economic hollowing-out was silly, then I predict that you will find this next episode of feckless grasping at macroeconomic straws even sillier. Except that it won't be funny: what is crashing now is our life support system: all the systems and institutions that are keeping us alive. And so I don't recommend passively standing around and watching the show – unless you happen to have a death wish. Right now the Washington economic stimulus team is putting on their Scuba gear and diving down to the engine room to try to invent a way to get a diesel engine to run on seawater. They spoke of change, but in reality they are terrified of change and want to cling with all their might to the status quo. But this game will soon be over, and they don't have any idea what to do next. So, what is there for them to do? Forget "growth," forget "jobs," forget "financial stability." What should their realistic new objectives be? Well, here they are: food, shelter, transportation, and security. Their task is to find a way to provide all of these necessities on an emergency basis, in absence of a functioning economy, with commerce at a standstill, with little or no access to imports, and to make them available to a population that is largely penniless.

If successful, society will remain largely intact, and will be able to begin a slow and painful process of cultural transition, and eventually develop a new economy, a gradually de- industrializing economy, at a much lower level of resource expenditure, characterized by a quite a lot of austerity and even poverty, but in conditions that are safe, decent, and dignified. If unsuccessful, society will be gradually destroyed in a series of convulsions that will leave a defunct nation composed of many wretched little fiefdoms. Given its largely depleted resource base, a dysfunctional, collapsing infrastructure, and its history of unresolved social conflicts, the territory of the Former United States will undergo a process of steady degeneration punctuated by natural and man-made cataclysms. Food. Shelter. Transportation. Security. When it comes to supplying these survival necessities, the Soviet example offers many valuable lessons. As I already mentioned, in a collapse many economic negatives become positives, and vice versa. Let us consider each one of these in turn. The Soviet agricultural sector was plagued by consistent underperformance. In many ways, this was the legacy of the disastrous collectivization experiment carried out in the 1930s, which destroyed many of the more prosperous farming households and herded people into collective farms.

Collectivization undermined the ancient village-based agricultural traditions that had made pre-revolutionary Russia a well-fed place that was also the breadbasket of Western Europe. A great deal of further damage was caused by the introduction of industrial agriculture. The heavy farm machinery alternately compacted and tore up the topsoil while dosing it with chemicals, depleting it and killing the biota. Eventually, the Soviet government had to turn to importing grain from countries hostile to its interests – United States and Canada – and eventually expanded this to include other foodstuffs. The USSR experienced a permanent shortage of meat and other high-protein foods, and much of the imported grain was used to raise livestock to try to address this problem. Although it was generally possible to survive on the foods available at the government stores, the resulting diet would have been rather poor, and so people tried to supplement it with food they gathered, raised, or caught, or purchased at farmers' markets. Kitchen gardens were always common, and, once the economy collapsed, a lot of families took to growing food in earnest. The kitchen gardens, by themselves, were never sufficient, but they made a huge difference. The year 1990 was particularly tough when it came to trying to score something edible. I remember one particular joke from that period. Black humor has always been one of Russia's main psychological coping mechanisms. A man walks into a food store, goes to the meat counter, and he sees that it is completely empty. So he asks the butcher: "Don't you have any fish?" And the butcher answers: "No, here is where we don't have any meat. Fish is what they don't have over at the seafood counter." Poor though it was, the Soviet food distribution system never collapsed completely. In particular, the deliveries of bread continued even during the worst of times, partly because has always been such an important part of the Russian diet, and partly because access to bread symbolized the pact between the people and the Communist government, enshrined in oft-repeated revolutionary slogans. Also, it is important to remember that in Russia most people have lived within walking distance of food shops, and used public transportation to get out to their kitchen gardens, which were often located in the countryside immediately surrounding the relatively dense, compact cities. This combination of factors made for some lean times, but very little malnutrition and no starvation.

In the United States, the agricultural system is heavily industrialized, and relies on inputs such as diesel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and, perhaps most importantly, financing. In the current financial climate, the farmers' access to financing is not at all assured. This agricultural system is efficient, but only if you regard fossil fuel energy as free. In fact, it is a way to transform fossil fuel energy into food with a bit of help from sunlight, to the tune of 10 calories of fossil fuel energy being embodied in each calorie that is consumed as food. The food distribution system makes heavy use of refrigerated diesel trucks, transforming food over hundreds of miles to resupply supermarkets. The food pipeline is long and thin, and it takes only a couple of days of interruptions for supermarket shelves to be stripped bare. Many people live in places that are not within walking distance of stores, not served by public transportation, and will be cut off from food sources once they are no longer able to drive. Besides the supermarket chains, much of the nation's nutrition needs are being met by an assortment of fast food joints and convenience stores. In fact, in many of the less fashionable parts of cities and towns, fast food and convenience store food is all that is available. In the near future, this trend is likely to extend to the more prosperous parts of town and the suburbs. Fast food outfits such as McDonalds have more ways to cut costs, and so may prove a bit more resilient in the face of economic collapse than supermarket chains, but they are no substitute for food security, because they too depend industrial agribusiness. Their food inputs, such as high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified potatoes, various soy-based fillers, factory-farmed beef, pork and chicken, and so forth, are derived from oil, two-thirds of which is imported, as well as fertilizer made from natural gas. They may be able to stay in business longer, supplying food-that-isn't-really-food, but eventually they will run out of inputs along with the rest of the supply chain. Before they do, they may for a time sell burgers that aren't really burgers, like the bread that wasn't really bread that the Soviet government distributed in Leningrad during the Nazi blockade. It was mostly sawdust, with a bit of rye flour added for flavor. Can we think of any ways to avoid this dismal scenario?

The Russian example may give us a clue. Many Russian families could gauge how fast the economy was crashing, and, based on that, decide how many rows of potatoes to plant. Could we perhaps do something similar? There is already a healthy gardening movement in the United States; can it be scaled up? The trick is to make small patches of farmland available for non-mechanical cultivation by individuals and families, in increments as small as 1000 square feet. The ideal spots would be fertile bits of land with access to rivers and streams for irrigation. Provisions would have to be made for campsites and for transportation, allowing people to undertake seasonal migrations out to the land to grow food during the growing season, and haul the produce back to the population centers after taking in the harvest. An even simpler approach has been successfully used in Cuba: converting urban parking lots and other empty bits of land to raised-bed agriculture. Instead of continually trucking in vegetables and other food, it is much easier to truck in soil, compost, and mulch just once a season. Raised highways can be closed to traffic (since there is unlikely to be much traffic in any case) and used to catch rainwater for irrigation. Rooftops and balconies can be used for hothouses, henhouses, and a variety of other agricultural uses. How difficult would this be to organize? Well, Cubans were actually helped by their government, but the Russians managed to do it in more or less in spite of the Soviet bureaucrats, and so we might be able to do it in spite of the American ones. The government could theoretically head up such an effort, purely hypothetically speaking, of course, because I see no evidence that such an effort is being considered.

For our fearless national leaders, such initiatives are too low-level: if they stimulate the economy and get the banks lending again, the potatoes will simply grow themselves. All they need to do is print some more money, right? Moving on to shelter. Again, let's look at how the Russians managed to muddle through. In the Soviet Union, people did not own their place of residence. Everyone was assigned a place to live, which was recorded in a person's internal passport. People could not be dislodged from their place of residence for as long as they drew oxygen. Since most people in Russia live in cities, the place of residence was usually an apartment, or a room in a communal apartment, with shared bathroom and kitchen. There was a permanent housing shortage, and so people often doubled up, with three generations living together. The apartments were often crowded, sometimes bordering on squalid. If people wanted to move, they had to find somebody else who wanted to move, who would want to exchange rooms or apartments with them. There were always long waiting lists for apartments, and children often grew up, got married, and had children before receiving a place of their own. These all seem like negatives, but consider the flip side of all this: the high population density made this living arrangement quite affordable.

With several generations living together, families were on hand to help each other. Grandparents provided day care, freeing up their children's time to do other things. The apartment buildings were always built near public transportation, so they did not have to rely on private cars to get around. Apartment buildings are relatively cheap to heat, and municipal services easy to provide and maintain because of the short runs of pipe and cable. Perhaps most importantly, after the economy collapsed, people lost their savings, many people lost their jobs, even those that still had jobs often did not get paid for months, and when they were the value of their wages was destroyed by hyperinflation, but there were no foreclosures, no evictions, municipal services such as heat, water, and sometimes even hot water continued to be provided, and everyone had their families close by. Also, because it was so difficult to relocate, people generally stayed in one place for generations, and so they tended to know all the people around them. After the economic collapse, there was a large spike in the crime rate, which made it very helpful to be surrounded by people who weren't strangers, and who could keep an eye on things. Lastly, in an interesting twist, the Soviet housing arrangement delivered an amazing final windfall: in the 1990s all of these apartments were privatized, and the people who lived in them suddenly became owners of some very valuable real estate, free and clear. Switching back to the situation in the US: in recent months, many people here have reconciled themselves to the idea that their house is not an ATM machine, nor is it a nest egg. They already know that they will not be able to comfortably retire by selling it, or get rich by fixing it up and flipping it, and quite a few people have acquiesced to the fact that real estate prices are going to continue heading lower. The question is, How much lower?

A lot of people still think that there must be a lower limit, a "realistic" price. This thought is connected to the notion that housing is a necessity. After all, everybody needs a place to live. Well, it is certainly true that some sort of shelter is a necessity, be it an apartment, or a dorm room, a bunk in a barrack, a boat, a camper, or a tent, a teepee, a wigwam, a shipping container... The list is virtually endless. But there is no reason at all to think that a suburban single-family house is in any sense a requirement. It is little more than a cultural preference, and a very shortsighted one at that. Most suburban houses are expensive to heat and cool, inaccessible by public transportation, expensive to hook up to public utilities because of the long runs of pipe and cable, and require a great deal of additional public expenditure on road, bridge and highway maintenance, school buses, traffic enforcement, and other nonsense. They often take up what was once valuable agricultural land. They promote a car-centric culture that is destructive of urban environments, causing a proliferation of dead downtowns. Many families that live in suburban houses can no longer afford to live in them, and expect others to bail them out. As this living arrangement becomes unaffordable for all concerned, it will also become unlivable. Municipalities and public utilities will not have the funds to lavish on sewer, water, electricity, road and bridge repair, and police. Without cheap and plentiful gasoline, natural gas, and heating oil, many suburban dwellings will become both inaccessible and unlivable. The inevitable result will be a mass migration of suburban refugees toward the more survivable, more densely settled towns and cities. The luckier ones will find friends or family to stay with; for the rest, it would be very helpful to improvise some solution. One obvious answer is to repurpose the ever-plentiful vacant office buildings for residential use. Converting offices to dormitories is quite straightforward. Many of them already have kitchens and bathrooms, plenty of partitions and other furniture, and all they are really missing is beds. Putting in beds is just not that difficult. The new, subsistence economy is unlikely to generate the large surpluses that are necessary for sustaining the current large population of office plankton. The businesses that once occupied these offices are not coming back, so we might as well find new and better uses for them. Another category of real estate that is likely to go unused and that can be repurposed for new communities is college campuses.

The American 4-year college is an institution of dubious merit. It exists because American public schools fail to teach in 12 years what Russian public schools manage to teach in 8. As fewer and fewer people become able to afford college, which is likely to happen, because meager career prospects after graduation will make them bad risks for student loans, perhaps this will provide the impetus to do something about the public education system. One idea would be to scrap it, then start small, but eventually build something a bit more on par with world standards. College campuses make perfect community centers: there are dormitories for newcomers, fraternities and sororities for the more settled residents, and plenty of grand public buildings that can be put to a variety of uses. A college campus normally contains the usual wasteland of mowed turf that can be repurposed to grow food, or, at the very least, hay, and to graze cattle. Perhaps some enlightened administrators, trustees and faculty members will fall upon this idea once they see admissions flat-lining and endowments dropping to zero, without any need for government involvement. So here we have a ray of hope, don't we. Moving on to transportation. Here, we need to make sure that people don't get stranded in places that are not survivable. Then we have to provide for seasonal migrations to places where people can grow, catch, or gather their own food, and then back to places where they can survive the winter without freezing to death or going stir-crazy from cabin fever. Lastly, some amount of freight will have to be moved, to transport food to population centers, as well as enough coal and firewood to keep the pipes from freezing in the remaining habitable dwellings. All of this is going to be a bit of a challenge, because it all hinges on the availability of transportation fuels, and it seems very probable that transportation fuels will be both too expensive and in short supply before too long. From about 2005 and until the middle of 2008 the global oil has been holding steady, unable to grow materially beyond a level that has been characterized as a "bumpy plateau." An all-time record was set in 2005, and then, after a period of record-high oil prices, again only in 2008. Then, as the financial collapse gathered speed, oil and other commodity prices crashed, along with oil production.

More recently, the oil markets have come to rest on an altogether different "bumpy plateau": the oil prices are bumping along at around $40 a barrel and can't seem to go any lower. It would appear that oil production costs have risen to a point where it does not make economic sense to sell oil at below this price. Now, $40 a barrel is a good price for US consumers at the moment, but there is hyperinflation on the horizon, thanks to the money-printing extravaganza currently underway in Washington, and $40 could easily become $400 and then $4000 a barrel, swiftly pricing US consumers out of the international oil market. On top of that, exporting countries would balk at the idea of trading their oil for an increasingly worthless currency, and would start insisting on payment in kind – in some sort of tangible export commodity, which the US, in its current economic state, would be hard-pressed to provide in any great quantity. Domestic oil production is in permanent decline, and can provide only about a third of current needs. This is still quite a lot of oil, but it will be very difficult to avoid the knock-on effects of widespread oil shortages. There will be widespread hoarding, quite a lot of gasoline will simply evaporate into the atmosphere, vented from various jerricans and improvised storage containers, the rest will disappear into the black market, and much fuel will be wasted driving around looking for someone willing to part with a bit of gas that's needed for some small but critical mission. I am quite familiar with this scenario, because I happened to be in Russia during a time of gasoline shortages. On one occasion, I found out by word of mouth that a certain gas station was open and distributing 10 liters apiece. I brought along my uncle's wife, who at the time was 8 months pregnant, and we tried use her huge belly to convince the gas station attendant to give us an extra 10 liters with which to drive her to the hospital when the time came. No dice. The pat answer was: "Everybody is 8 months pregnant!" How can you argue with that logic? So 10 liters was it for us too, belly or no belly. So, what can we do to get our little critical missions accomplished in spite of chronic fuel shortages? The most obvious idea, of course, is to not use any fuel. Bicycles, and cargo bikes in particular, are an excellent adaptation. Sailboats are a good idea too: not only do they hold large amounts of cargo, but they can cover huge distances, all without the use of fossil fuels. Of course, they are restricted to the coastlines and the navigable waterways. They will be hampered by the lack of dredging due to the inevitable budget shortfalls, and by bridges that refuse to open, again, due to lack of maintenance funds, but here ancient maritime techniques and improvisations can be brought to bear to solve such problems, all very low-tech and reasonably priced. Of course, cars and trucks will not disappear entirely. Here, again, some reasonable adaptations can be brought to bear.

In my book, I advocated banning the sale of new cars, as was done in the US during World War II. The benefits are numerous. First, older cars are overall more energy-efficient than new cars, because the massive amount of energy that went into manufacturing them is more highly amortized. Second, large energy savings accrue from the shutdown of an entire industry devoted to designing, building, marketing, and financing new cars. Third, older cars require more maintenance, reinvigorating the local economy at the expense of mainly foreign car manufacturers, and helping reduce the trade deficit. Fourth, this will create a shortage of cars, translating automatically into fewer, shorter car trips, higher passenger occupancy per trip, and more bicycling and use of public transportation, saving even more energy. Lastly, this would allow the car to be made obsolete on the about the same time scale as the oil industry that made it possible. We will run out of cars just as we run out of gas. Here we are, only a year or so later, and I am most heartened to see that the US auto industry has taken my advice and is in the process of shutting down. On the other hand, the government's actions continue to disappoint. Instead of trying to solve problems, they would rather continue to create boondoggles. The latest one is the idea of subsidizing the sales of new cars.

The idea of making cars more efficient by making more efficient cars is sheer folly. I can take any pick-up truck and increase its fuel efficiency one or two thousand percent just by breaking a few laws. First, you pack about a dozen people into the bed, standing shoulder to shoulder like sardines. Second, you drive about 25 mph, down the highway, because going any faster would waste fuel and wouldn't be safe with so many people in the back. And there you are, per passenger fuel efficiency increased by a factor of 20 or so. I believe the Mexicans have done extensive research in this area, with excellent results. Another excellent idea pioneered in Cuba is making it illegal not to pick up hitchhikers. Cars with vacant seats are flagged down and matched up with people who need a lift. Yet another idea: since passenger rail service is in such a sad shape, and since it is unlikely that funds will be found to improve it, why not bring back the venerable institution of riding the rails by requiring rail freight companies to provide a few empty box cars for the hobos. The energy cost of the additional weight is negligible, the hobos don't require stops because they can jump on and off, and only a couple of cars per train would ever be needed, because hobos are almost infinitely compressible, and can even ride on the roof if needed. One final transportation idea: start breeding donkeys. Horses are finicky and expensive, but donkeys can be very cost-effective and make good pack animals. My grandfather had a donkey while he was living in Tashkent in Central Asia during World War II. There was nothing much for the donkey to eat, but, as a member of the Communist Party, my grandfather had a subscription to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, and so that's what the donkey ate. Apparently, donkeys can digest any kind of cellulose, even when it's loaded with communist propaganda. If I had a donkey, I would feed it the Wall Street Journal. And so we come to the subject of security.

Post-collapse Russia suffered from a serious crime wave. Ethnic mafias ran rampant, veterans who served in Afghanistan went into business for themselves, there were numerous contract killings, muggings, murders went unsolved left and right, and, in general, the place just wasn't safe. Russians living in the US would hear that I am heading back there for a visit, and would give me a wide-eyed stare: how could I think of doing such a thing. I came through unscathed, somehow. I made a lot of interesting observations along the way. One interesting observation is that once collapse occurs it becomes possible to rent a policeman, either for a special occasion, or generally just to follow someone around. It is even possible to hire a soldier or two, armed with AK-47s, to help you run various errands. Not only is it possible to do such things, it's often a very good idea, especially if you happen to have something valuable that you don't want to part with. If you can't afford their services, then you should try to be friends with them, and to be helpful to them in various ways. Although their demands might seem exorbitant at times, it is still a good idea to do all you can to keep them on your side. For instance, they might at some point insist that you and your family move out to the garage so that they can live in your house. This may be upsetting at first, but then is it really such a good idea for you to live in a big house all by yourselves, with so many armed men running around. It may make sense to station some of them right in your house, so that they have a base of operations from which to maintain a watch and patrol the neighborhood. A couple of years ago I half-jokingly proposed a political solution to collapse mitigation, and formulated a platform for the so-called Collapse Party. I published it with the caveat that I didn't think there was much of a chance of my proposals becoming part of the national agenda. Much to my surprise, I turned out to be wrong. For instance, I proposed that we stop making new cars, and, lo and behold, the auto industry shuts down. I also proposed that we start granting amnesties to prisoners, because the US has the world's largest prison population, and will not be able to afford to keep so many people locked up. It is better to release prisoners gradually, over time, rather than in a single large general amnesty, the way Saddam Hussein did it right before the US invaded. And, lo and behold, many states are starting to implement my proposal. It looks like California in particular will be forced to release some 60 thousand of the 170 thousand people it keeps locked up. That is a good start. I also proposed that we dismantle all overseas military bases (there are over a thousand of them) and repatriate all the troops. And it looks like that is starting to happen as well, except for the currently planned little side-trip to Afghanistan. I also proposed a Biblical jubilee – forgiveness of all debts, public and private. Let's give that one… half a decade? But if we look just at the changes that are already occurring, just the simple, predictable lack of funds, as the federal government and the state governments all go broke, will transform American society in rather predictable ways. As municipalities run out of money, police protection will evaporate. But the police still have to eat, and will find ways to use their skills to good use on a freelance basis. Similarly, as military bases around the world are shut down, soldiers will return to a country that will be unable to reintegrate them into civilian life. Paroled prisoners will find themselves in much the same predicament. And so we will have former soldiers, former police, and former prisoners: a big happy family, with a few bad apples and some violent tendencies. The end result will be a country awash with various categories of armed men, most of them unemployed, and many of them borderline psychotic. The police in the United States are a troubled group. Many of them lose all touch with people who are not "on the force" and most of them develop an us-versus-them mentality.

The soldiers returning from a tour of duty often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The paroled prisoners suffer from a variety of psychological ailments as well. All of them will sooner or later realize that their problems are not medical but rather political. This will make it impossible for society to continue to exercise control over them. All of them will be making good use of their weapons training and other professional skills to acquire whatever they need to survive. And the really important point to remember is that they will do these things whether or not anyone thinks it legal for them to do be doing them. I said it before and I will say it again: very few things are good or bad per se; everything has to be considered within a context. And, in a post-collapse context, not having to worry whether or not something is legal may be a very good thing. In the midst of a collapse, we will not have time to deliberate, legislate, interpret, set precedents and so on. Having to worry about pleasing a complex and expensive legal system is the last thing we should have to worry about. Some legal impediments are really small and trivial, but they can be quite annoying nevertheless. A homeowners' association might, say, want give you a ticket or seek a court order against you for not mowing your lawn, or for keeping livestock in your garage, or for that nice windmill you erected on a hill that you don't own, without first getting a building permit, or some municipal busy-body might try to get you arrested for demolishing a certain derelict bridge because it was interfering with boat traffic – you know, little things like that. Well, if the association is aware that you have a large number of well armed, mentally unstable friends, some of whom still wear military and police uniforms, for old time's sake, then they probably won't give you that ticket or seek that court order. Or suppose you have a great new invention that you want to make and distribute, a new agricultural implement. It's a sort of flail studded with sharp blades. It has a hundred and one uses and is highly cost-effective, and reasonably safe provided you don't lose your head while using it, although people have taken to calling the "flying guillotine." You think that this is an acceptable risk, but you are concerned about the issues of consumer safety and liability insurance and possibly even criminal liability.

Once again, it is very helpful to have a large number of influential, physically impressive, mildly psychotic friends who, whenever some legal matter comes up, can just can go and see the lawyers, have a friendly chat, demonstrate the proper use of the flying guillotine, and generally do whatever they have to do to settle the matter amicably, without any money changing hands, and without signing any legal documents. Or, say, the government starts being difficult about moving things and people in and out of the country, or it wants to take too much of a cut from commercial transactions. Or perhaps your state or your town decides to conduct its own foreign policy, and the federal government sees it fit to interfere. Then it may turn out to be a good thing if someone else has the firepower to bring the government, or what remains of it, to its senses, and convince it to be reasonable and to play nice. Or perhaps you want to start a community health clinic, so that you can provide some relief to people who wouldn't otherwise have any health care. You don't dare call yourself a doctor, because these people are suspicious of doctors, because doctors were always trying to rob them of their life's savings. But suppose you have some medical training that you got in, say, Cuba, and you are quite able to handle a Caesarean or an appendectomy, to suture wounds, to treat infections, to set bones and so on. You also want to be able to distribute opiates that your friends in Afghanistan periodically send you, to ease the pain of hard post-collapse life. Well, going through the various licensing boards and getting the certifications and the permits and the malpractice insurance is all completely unnecessary, provided you can surround yourself with a lot of well- armed, well-trained, mentally unstable friends. Food. Shelter. Transportation. Security. Security is very important. Maintaining order and public safety requires discipline, and maintaining discipline, for a lot of people, requires the threat of force. This means that people must be ready to come to each other's defense, take responsibility for each other, and do what's right. Right now, security is provided by a number of bloated, bureaucratic, ineffectual institutions, which inspire more anger and despondency than discipline, and dispense not so much violence as ill treatment. That is why we have the world's highest prison population. They are supposedly there to protect people from each other, but in reality their mission is not even to provide security; it is to safeguard property, and those who own it. Once these institutions run out of resources, there will be a period of upheaval, but in the end people will be forced to learn to deal with each other face to face, and Justice will once again become a personal virtue rather than a federal department. I've covered what I think are basics, based on what I saw work and what I think might work reasonably well here. I assume that a lot of you are thinking that this is all quite far into the future, if in fact it ever gets that bad. You should certainly feel free to think that way. The danger there is that you will miss the opportunity to adapt to the new reality ahead of time, and then you will get trapped. As I see it, there is a choice to be made: you can accept the failure of the system now and change your course accordingly, or you can decide that you must try to stay the course, and then you will probably have to accept your own individual failure later. So how do you prepare? Lately, I've been hearing from a lot of high-powered, successful people about their various high-powered, successful associates. Usually, the story goes something like this: "My a. financial advisor, b. investment banker, or c. commanding officer has recently a. put all his money in gold, b. bought a log cabin up in the mountains, or c. built a bunker under his house stocked with six months of food and water. Is this normal?" And I tell them, yes, of course, that's perfectly harmless. He's just having a mid-collapse crisis. But that's not really preparation. That's just someone being colorful in an offbeat, countercultural sort of way. So, how do you prepare, really? Let's go through a list of questions that people typically ask me, and I will try to briefly respond to each of them.

OK, first question: How about all these financial boondoggles? What on earth is going on? People are losing their jobs left and right, and if we calculate unemployment the same way it was done during the Great Depression, instead of looking at the cooked numbers the government is trying to feed us now, then we are heading toward 20% unemployment. And is there any reason to think it'll stop there? Do you happen to believe that prosperity is around the corner? Not only jobs and housing equity, but retirement savings are also evaporating. The federal government is broke, state governments are broke, some more than others, and the best they can do is print money, which will quickly lose value. So, how can we get the basics if we don't have any money? How is that done? Good question. As I briefly mentioned, the basics are food, shelter, transportation, and security. Shelter poses a particularly interesting problem at the moment. It is still very much overpriced, with many people paying mortgages and rents that they can no longer afford while numerous properties stand vacant. The solution, of course, is to cut your losses and stop paying. But then you might soon have to relocate. That is OK, because, as I mentioned, there is no shortage of vacant properties around. Finding a good place to live will become less and less of a problem as people stop paying their rents and mortgages and get foreclosed or evicted, because the number of vacant properties will only increase. The best course of action is to become a property caretaker, legitimately occupying a vacant property rent-free, and keeping an eye on things for the owner. What if you can't find a position as a property caretaker? Well, then you might have to become a squatter, maintain a list of other vacant properties that you can go to next, and keep your camping gear handy just in case. If you do get tossed out, chances are, the people who tossed you out will then think about hiring a property caretaker, to keep the squatters out. And what do you do if you become property caretaker? Well, you take care of the property, but you also look out for all the squatters, because they are the reason you have a legitimate place to live. A squatter in hand is worth three absentee landlords in the bush. The absentee landlord might eventually cut his losses and go away, but your squatter friends will remain as your neighbors. Having some neighbors is so much better than living in a ghost town. What if you still have a job? How do you prepare then? The obvious answer is, be prepared to quit or to be laid off or fired at any moment. It really doesn't matter which one of these it turns out to be; the point is to sustain zero psychological damage in the process. Get your burn rate to as close to zero as you can, by spending as little money as possible, so than when the job goes away, not much has to change. While at work, do as little as possible, because all this economic activity is just a terrible burden on the environment. Just gently ride it down to a stop and jump off. If you still have a job, or if you still have some savings, what do you do with all the money? The obvious answer is, build up inventory. The money will be worthless, but a box of bronze nails will still be a box of bronze nails. Buy and stockpile useful stuff, especially stuff that can be used to create various kinds of alternative systems for growing food, providing shelter, and providing transportation. If you don't own a patch of dirt free and clear where you can stockpile stuff, then you can rent a storage container, pay it a few years forward, and just sit on it until reality kicks in again and there is something useful for you to do with it. Some of you may be frightened by the future I just described, and rightly so. There is nothing any of us can do to change the path we are on: it is a huge system with tremendous inertia, and trying to change its path is like trying to change the path of a hurricane. What we can do is prepare ourselves, and each other, mostly by changing our expectations, our preferences, and scaling down our needs. It may mean that you will miss out on some last, uncertain bit of enjoyment. On the other hand, by refashioning yourself into someone who might stand a better chance of adapting to the new circumstances, you will be able to give to yourself, and to others, a great deal of hope that would otherwise not exist.