(New Society Publishers; March 2011, 195 pages, $17.95)
Neither an economist nor a formally trained scholar, Dmitry Orlov is perhaps best described in his own words, as "more of an eyewitness" to the phenomenon on which he writes. He's a Russian émigré who saw the Soviet Union fall firsthand and has been drawing on this experience in warning of the coming U.S. collapse. He came to fame five years ago with a smash-hit Internet article that won him a loyal following and a subsequent book deal. The book, Reinventing Collapse, is now in its second edition—and regardless of how well it holds up to scholarly scrutiny, it's admirable in its wit and prodigious street smarts.
The book's central contention is that the U.S. economy is collapsing, and for the same basic reasons as caused the Soviet collapse: dwindling domestic oil production, a worsening foreign trade deficit, out-of-control military spending and mushrooming foreign debt. (With his usual comic panache, Orlov refers to these factors as ingredients in a "superpower collapse soup"; and he promises that "this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty!") He further argues that America is less prepared for collapse than the U.S.S.R. was, largely because of its obsession with the automobile as a symbol of, and prerequisite for, middle-class membership. And he calls for adaptation rather than reform, the latter being as futile as "you or me wiggling our toes at a tsunami."
A Leningrad-born software engineer, Orlov came to the States in the mid '70s when he was 12.* During extended visits back home in the late '80s to mid '90s, he watched his home country disintegrate in time-lapse fashion. He later became convinced that America was fated for a similar crash, but remained a closeted doomer for more than a decade. When he finally came out with his message, he found an eager audience among the fledgling peak oil community. Energy Bulletin published his "Closing the 'Collapse Gap': The USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US" in December 2006, and it quickly became one of the site's most popular articles ever.
Orlov knew that many would reject his comparison of America with the U.S.S.R., but he insists that it's valid and telling. Starting with obvious similarities, he cites the two nations' respective advances in space exploration and weaponry, as well as their competition for the title of world's biggest debtor nation. He also notes their rivalry in the "jails race," "hated evil empire race" and "squandering of natural resources race." And he imagines that one day their two collapses may be relegated to a single textbook chapter, and that children "will like learning about the superpowers just like they like learning about dinosaurs: big, scary monsters–but extinct, and therefore not so frightening."
Besides their lower level of car dependence, the Soviets' edge in collapse preparedness lay in the fact that the state provided for people's needs. No matter how bad the economy was, people never had to worry about homelessness or losing access to medical treatment. Americans enjoy no such security.
Reinventing Collapse is intended to give readers a concrete sense of how they can change their lives to better face the reality ahead. Everyone's starting point, argues Orlov, should be eliminating his or her need for money. He's certain that America will choose to inflate away its debt ŕ la the Soviet Union, making the dollar effectively worthless. Those who divest themselves of exposure to dollar depreciation will be poised not just to survive but to flourish in these trying times. For example, someone with the foresight to stockpile basic supplies like razor blades, medications and soap will be well-positioned to barter for other things.
America's future economy, believes Orlov, will depend on access to physical resources and assets, as well as healthy relationships with others who have resources and assets. He illustrates how this worked in practice during the Soviet collapse, largely at the hands of itinerant merchants known as chelnoki. The chelnoki would travel abroad frequently and bring things back in their luggage. Though they had to bribe officials and were often robbed, they were the Soviets' only source of consumer products for a while. Orlov suggests that post-collapse America may evolve its own version of the chelnoki, with customers hauling away their purchases in pilfered shopping carts (already a common sight across the urban landscape, he notes).
And he predicts that nomadic life will have much to recommend it. Nomads will be extremely valuable for their news of the outside world, assorted spare parts, occasional luxury items, elixirs and technical know-how. They'll also have greater survival savvy because of their highly developed situational awareness and their ability to wring the most out of resources.
Orlov advises staying as far as possible from the U.S. justice system, since it "offers a fine luxury model, but its budget model is manifestly unsafe." Already grossly tipped in favor of the rich, it may drop any pretense of serving justice and become simply a tool for social control. Orlov provides some Soviet examples of this, including the Gulag policy of political imprisonment, and describes America's use of secret jails, torture and indefinite detention as steps in the same direction.
Yet Orlov also foresees a melding of the official economy and the criminal one that would compel increasing numbers of people to engage in criminal activity and thus become targets of persecution by the authorities. He describes how during every economic collapse there emerges another, informal economy based around recycling remnants of the waning one—and many of its occupations involve defacing property (i.e., "asset stripping"), administering violence (aka "private security consulting") and trafficking drugs and alcohol.
The author is deeply worried about nuclear waste, the fate of the prison population and the repatriating of overseas military personnel. Nuclear waste poses the gravest threat since it remains radioactive for so incredibly long. Orlov warns that future generations will be unable to deal with it and that its radiation will spread across horrifyingly vast stretches. As for the prison population, he fears that hordes of dangerous criminals will go free in a general amnesty once we lack the resources to keep prisons running. Lastly, with regard to military personnel, Orlov thinks it likely that many of the nation's roughly 1,000 overseas bases will be simply abandoned to their fates once we can no longer maintain them.
The updates in this edition are mostly energy-related. For example, when the first edition came out in 2008, experts still couldn't say the exact year of peak conventional oil production. But they now have enough of a rear view to tell that it happened in 2005, and Orlov notes this in the new book. The past couple of years have also seen an accelerating trend called the land export effect, which is the tendency of oil exporters that are past their peak production rates to cut exports rather than supplies to their domestic populations. Orlov addresses this development as well in the new book, interpreting it as a sign that oil supply shortfalls will be far worse than even the pessimists expect.
One valid criticism that has been leveled against Orlov is that he makes unsupported, unprovable assertions about human behavior. And indeed, his discussions in this book contain some overly facile explanations for why people have mental depression, why revolving doors exist between industry and government and the motives behind news censorship, among other things. Nor does it help that the book lacks notes or references with which to substantiate such statements. If one overlooks these flaws, however, Reinventing Collapse is an eminently practical guide written with welcome comic relief by someone who's been around the block.
* Elizabeth (EJ) Hurst, "Deep thought–May 24, Energy Bulletin: Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov released," Energy Bulletin, May 24, 2008, http://www.energybulletin.net/node/44786 (accessed Jun. 13, 2011).