BOOK REVIEW: Re-Inventing Collapse (Dmitry Orlov)
by Carolyn Baker
The old normal is that life will go on just like before. The new normal is that nothing will ever be the same Rather than attempting to undertake the Herculean task of mitigating the unmitigatable-attempting to stop the world and point it in a different direction-it seems far better to turn inward and work to transform yourself into someone who might stand a chance, given the world’s assumed trajectory. Much of this transformation is psychological and involves letting go of many notions that we have been conditioned to accept unquestioningly. Some if it involves acquiring new skills and a different set of habits. Some of it is even physiological, changing one’s body to prepare it for a life that has far fewer creature comforts and conveniences, while requiring far more physical labor.
These words from Pages 125 and 126 of Dmitry Orlov’s Re-Inventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects leapt out at me as perhaps the most definitive in his marvelous new book in which Dmitry illumines the collapse of the American empire, now well underway, with his insights from living through the collapse of the Soviet Union.
By way of background, I will be using his first name throughout this review because although I’ve only met him once, he feels like an old friend. I first heard of Dmitry several years ago when I became a subscriber to From The Wilderness where I was captivated by his article series “Post-Soviet Lessons For A Post-American Century.” Later in 2007, Dmitry wrote an exclusive article for my website entitled “Collapse And Its Discontent.” I was then honored and humbled by his request for an endorsement of Re-Inventing Collapse and immediately requested a review copy from his publisher, New Society.
Opening the book with a “recipe” for collapse soup and noticing that the United States has combined all of the ingredients, Dmitry states that economic collapse, particularly in the throes of Peak Oil, is an enormous red flag signaling that the collapse of the American empire is underway. Additionally, he emphasizes that “when faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money.” Physical resources and assets, as well as relationships and connections are worth their weight in gold and quickly become more valuable than cash. (11) Specifically, he states:
I therefore take as my premise that at some point during the coming years, due to an array of factors, with energy scarcity foremost among them, the economic system of the United States will teeter and fall, to be replaced by something that most people can scarcely guess at, and that even those who see it coming prefer not to think about. (15)
A key psychological factor in the individualization of oppression, deeply embedded in the American psyche, is the notion that in the face of utter powerlessness, blaming oneself provides the last semblance of empowerment, i.e., “It’s my fault; I caused it; if only I hadn’t….” This is not unlike the internal psychological mechanisms that engage within a child during and after abuse in which the child unconsciously blames him/herself for the abuse because not to do so confronts the child with an intolerable, overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
Noting that Americans find it difficult to imagine failure collectively in terms of the nation itself and prefer to insist that all failure is individual in nature, Dmitry concedes that collapse will be different for each person, but that one way to bridge the gap between “individual” and “collective” might be to notice the pre- and post-collapse conditions of the Soviet Union and compare them hypothetically with those of the United States. The ultimate intention here is to invite the reader to ask him/herself to what extent each important thing in one’s life is “collapse-proof” and then after several pages of deepening and refining many of the concepts of his “Post-Soviet Lessons” series, Dmitry makes a stunning request: to consider how to make that “important thing” collapse-proof, or come to terms with how to live without it. (17)
In his marvelous chapter on “Superpower Similarities” Dmitry offers a conclusion, certainly not new to me, but one which begs to be pondered: “Rather than one giant explosion, this is more likely to be death by a thousand cuts.” (35) After each cut, he states, Americans are likely to fantasize a technological remedy, but increasingly their fantasy will be proven to be just that, and those who offer such false hopes will become, “progressively lest trustworthy.” (35) At the same time that he emphasizes the protracted nature of collapse, he notes the power of tipping points, like Chernobyl in the Soviet Union and Katrina in the U.S., to exacerbate the velocity of collapse.
During this hour of national election mania in the United States, I cannot resist Dmitry’s sardonic observation that “The two capitalist parties offer a choice between two placebos,” (55) later noting that “...all successful adaptations to the new circumstances will have to be made at the local level, and will have to rely on existing infrastructure, inventory and locally available talents and skills.” (61) In pondering his analysis of collapse-how it manifested in the S.U. (Soviet Union) and is now manifesting in the U.S., one is dumfounded with the utter vacuousness of all American political party platforms in the face of a crumbling empire. The Soviet experience confirms that when societies collapse, all issues become acutely and intensely local, and communities and neighborhoods-or large numbers of the dispossessed in a particular venue—must address them.
Whereas some may feel guilty about political apathy or their unwillingness to participate in the national election charade, Dmitry argues that “Although people often bemoan political apathy as if it were a grave social ill, it seems to me that this is just as it should be. Why should essentially powerless people want to engage in a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those who wield the power?” (114) Thank you Dmitry; you’ve just described how I’ve felt after departing a voting booth every four years for the past three decades.
In his chapter on “Collapse Mitigation” Dmitry names his major concerns regarding the nature of the catastrophe that lies ahead. He notes that “there is no one who will undertake an organized effort to make the collapse survivable”, but this is indeed a circular dilemma. A society that cannot and will not even consider the possibility of collapse is incapable of organizing to survive it. And so it is that we have many radioactive toxic installations, stockpiles, and dumps lying around. Many nuclear power plants have been built near coastlines, which does not bode well for surrounding communities in the face of rising sea levels resulting from global warming. (111) As a result of collapse, soldiers may become stranded overseas, along with private contractors.
As prison systems become increasingly costly and unmanageable due to the diminishment of resources, what will happen to those populations that can no longer be maintained and managed? Will they be released, setting off “a crime wave of staggering proportions”? (112) Even more frightening is the collection of non-collateralized debt, such as credit card debt, which is “secured by threat of force” and which Dmitry suggests may result in massive indentured debt servitude.
In a wonderful section called “Do It Yourself”, Dmitry states:
Any behavior that might result in continued economic growth and prosperity is counterproductive: the higher you jump, the harder you land. It is traumatic to go from having a big retirement fund to having 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…. (122) If the economy, and your place within it, are really important to you, you will really be hurt when they go away.(123) It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live. (123)
So “doing it oneself” is about figuring out how to increasingly operate and live on the margins of society. Those who have already learned how to do so will have an advantage over the many who haven’t.
From many collapse watchers such as Richard Heinberg, Derrick Jensen, James Howard Kunstler and others, we frequently hear the word “adaptation” or synonymous terms, indicating how crucial it is that we are able to adjust our demands to the reality of “Peak Everything” because of how a collapsing world will force human beings to live. Ideally, we need not be forced but will proactively prepare ourselves physically, financially, and emotionally. While Dmitry points out that there is nothing wrong with comforts, he emphasizes that for optimum collapse survival, we need to perceive them as luxuries, not necessities.
In addition, we need to be able to blend, in somewhat chameleon-like fashion, into the environment. It is best to appear average and mainstream while constructing a life of radical survival so as not to attract attention. While we live in a great deal of uncertainty that FEMA is actually constructing detention camps to incarcerate American citizens, we read here and there online about it, and we assume that in a chaotic milieu of food shortages, power failures, water rationing, massive unemployment, inaccessibility of health care, and total societal breakdown, martial law and detention camps will be required for social control. Those whose behavior is agitated, hysterical, or recalcitrant attract attention, while the ability to remain calm, rational, and outwardly compliant may afford much-needed anonymity as the panic of collapse exacerbates.
Dmitry implies that acting skills might be useful in a milieu where many people will be looking for someone to blame for their plight. The most important thing beyond personal safety, he suggests is “to understand who has what you need and how to get it from them.” (138) That is to say that in a collapsing world, existence is likely to become increasingly utilitarian-much more about getting the job done than agonizing over social graces or ego-based preoccupations with performance. This may sound robotic, and perhaps a bit schizophrenic in the light of the disparity Dmitry points out between one’s inner world and one’s public persona. Nevertheless, countless survivors of extremely oppressive regimes have found the discrepancy invaluable for navigating unimaginable stress.
Dmitry has sometimes been called a “doomer”-a label with which I’m quite familiar since it has frequently been attached to me as well. And while it’s true that Re-Inventing Collapse isn’t a fluffy, feel-good novel with a happily ever after ending, it is tempered with delicious outbursts of Dmitry’s heartwarming sarcasm and mischievous humor which makes him the delightful human being he is. An unforgettable case in point from the book is the section entitled “The Settled And The Nomadic” in which he emphasizes how much moving around from place to place may be required of us in a collapsing world. Then poking fun at our terminally mobile culture he says:
Where to ensconce and secrete our precious selves, there to sit out the gathering storm? In a nation of nomads, who think nothing of growing up in one state, going to school in another and settling down in a third, it is surprising to see that so many people come to think that, during the most unsettled of times, some special place will sustain them perpetually. More likely than not, they will be forced to stay on the move. (139)
The idyllic dream of many collapse watchers-the small farm isolated from the city, may or may not be the safest, sanest venue. One will need neighbors with whom to barter, and who knows—and Dmitry doesn’t address the topic, to what extent a repressive regime will have the time, money, or hydrocarbon energy to roam the countryside and round up those who do not “blend in.”
What he does recommend is a small village where an acre of farmland for every 30 people or so is available and where people know each other and are willing to help each other. However, given the uncertainties and unpredictability of life during and after collapse, one may be forced to stay on the move. “Having a permanent base of operations is certainly a good thing, but if so, then having two or three is even better.” (141) Remaining somewhat nomadic allows one the necessary detachment to avoid getting caught in “deteriorating circumstances” and flee so as to avoid them. Thus, a “winter camp” and a “summer camp” are recommended. Again, like maintaining one’s inner world while presenting a divergent exterior, Dmitry suggests not letting on that one doesn’t have a permanent home since “communities are always suspicious of nomads”, but at the same time remaining aware that “To seek out that sympathy of strangers, you need to have a place you call home, even if that place only exists in your imagination….”(142)
Suddenly, following his daunting description of life in a collapsed world, a chapter entitled “Career Opportunities” appears. As a result of reading “other Orlov”, I smiled and guessed that this chapter would be more about survival, as opposed to becoming comfortably ensconsed in a new profession. And I was right.
In this final chapter, Dmity speaks honestly about the alternative economies that flourished in the Soviet Union and that are typical of decaying societies. “Asset stripping” or pulling the copper out of the wires of abandoned homes, carrying off the vinyl siding and the fiberglass insulation could provide a treasure trove of “currency” and bargaining chips for future transactions on which life depends such as food, water, or medicines. Black market pharmaceuticals will be indispensable, and of course, in a world in which people have collapsed emotionally as well as financially, drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes will have inestimable value. Authentic doctors and nurses will be sorely needed, but black market medical practices are likely to abound as well.
As for transportation Dmitry opines that there will soon be only two viable options: bicycling and sailing. A proud proponent of sailboating as the most reliable form of transportation during and after collapse, Dmitry emphasizes that sailboats are not actually luxury items. He suggests checking the foreclosure lists and states that “a few months’ rent will buy you a new, floating, rent-free home. If the cost is still too much, all you have to do is wait; the sailboat market is going from bad to worse.”(154)
Dmitry leaves us with an exceedingly important piece of advice. Noting the vast numbers of people who have asked him what he plans to do to prepare for collapse, he emphasizes that preparation should include more than one option because there is no “one plan.” In Re-Inventing Collapse, he offers no crystal ball and humbly admits that he does not know how collapse will unfold, only that he has lived through one collapse in his life and wishes to utilize that experience to shed light on the next one that has already begun.
I have no negative criticism of the book, but I must add that I wanted to hear more about psychological and attitudinal preparation-for two reasons, one being that my own forthcoming book explores them deeply, but also because I long to hear more personally from Dmitry how he has been impacted by the demise of the S.U. even as he navigates the downward spiraling of the U.S. Nevertheless, everyone who has forsaken denial about collapse and is serious about preparation must read Re-Inventing Collapse.