Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Reinventing collapse" by Orlov (2008)

There are many books that warn of impending climate change, environmental disasters or other calamities. Peak Oil may be regarded as one of those "other" calamities that could bring our civilization to its knees. Sometimes - rarely - I read about climate scientists and other researchers who privately are approaching the conviction that we’ve come to the end of the road, that regardless of what we do from now on it will be too little, too late, or that it still might be possible to do something effective, but that nothing will happen in time since public support and political will are missing (think Copenhagen).

In case you share those views, you should probably not exhibit them in a public debate, because that would immediately make most people view you as failed, incompetent, idiotic or at least as an oddball. Thus, since no one knows anything for certain about the future and since we all hope for the best, even people who are pessimistic about the future show a (probably somewhat strained) "positive attitude" when speaking publicly:

You see, most people don’t want to be too alarmed, and they don’t want to hear about problems to which there are no ready solutions. So world-savers frequently try to tailor their public statements so that large numbers of people won’t be frightened to the point of despair and paralysis. How many times have I been told, “Keep it positive! Emphasize solutions!” Yet I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down with an activist whose latest policy paper is all about solutions, and in heart-to-heart conversation they reveal that they don’t really think our species has much of a chance of avoiding major catastrophe, maybe even extinction.

Similarly, there are many books that spend lots of efforts to carefully build up and impose realistic (and scary) threats, but then ends with one or more substantially shallower sections about what we should do - preferably immediately - to relatively painlessly "save the world":

"many of the book authors now writing about peak oil, climate change, species extinction and myriad other urgent environmental and resource topics usually end their otherwise grim analyses with [...] "the happy chapter," a chapter with solutions and responses which will supposedly help us to avert catastrophe."

As I have pointed out earlier, it may therefore feel almost refreshing when someone who actually believes that we are moving towards cataclysmic change also describes what the changes will be like.

Dmitry Orlov's book "Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet example and American Prospects" (2008) is such a book. Dmitry Orlov has a background that makes him especially suited to depict collapse dynamics. He is not a scientist nor an "expert", but characterizes himself as an "eyewitness". He lived his first 12 years in the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of the Soviet empire's collapse a decade later, he undertook numerous business and family trips back to his old country. As an ethnic Russian who had lived half his life in the United States, he was located in-between two cultures and could easily slip between watching the events "from within" (as a Russian) and "from the outside" (as an American). His unique perspective, his sharp eye, his offbeat analyses and his sardonic sense of humor makes his book a real gem.

The book's message is as actually a real downer, but Orlov’s intelligence, black humor and very Russian naturally indifferent attitude - "to a Russian, 'hard worker' sounded a lot like 'fool'" - makes the book a very pleasant reading experience. The book is full of resigned shrugs regarding the possibility for any individual to prevent the coming societal collapse. We're not talking about saving the world here - the best we can hope for is to save our own skins! Orlov believes, however, that a collapse in no way is the final end:

Civilizations do collapse [but] the process can take many centuries. What tends to collapse rather suddenly […] is the economy. […] There is a part of the population that is most vulnerable: the young, the old and the infirm; the foolish and suicidal. There is another part of the population that can survive indefinitely on insects and tree bark. Most people fall somewhere in between.

Communism coming to an end and the Soviet social system collapsing did not lead to total anarchy overnight. Although violence and insecurity increased, the vast majority of people survived from one day to the next and from one year to the next. Still, the experience of getting through those years was like someone pulling the rug out from under your feet, not just once, but several times, and every time you tried to stand up again, the rules had changed - and usually for the worse. Dmitry calls this process "loss of normalcy".

The fundamental question that Orlov is preoccupied with in his book is: What can we learn from the Soviet Union's collapse and what is to be expected when the U.S. collapses? (NOTE: when the U.S. collapses - at some point during Orlov’s lifetime – not if). The book begins with a comparison between U.S.A ("the U.S.") and the Soviet Union ("the S.U."). Unlike other such comparisons, this one is not about the ways in which the empires are (were) different from each other, but instead about how they are similar in area after area. They both wanted what every superpower strives for - technological development, economic growth, full employment and world domination - they just happened to have some different ideas about the means to achieve these goals.

The ingredients I like to put in my superpower collapse soup are: 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. The heat and agitation can be provided most efficaciously by a humiliating military defeat and widespread fear of a looming catastrophe. […] It took a couple of decades for the United States to catch up, but now all the ingredients are in the pot and starting to simmer. […] Let us not even try to imagine that this will all just blow over. Make no mistake about it: this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty!

This is followed by a comparison between the Soviet and the U.S. in area after area (accommodation, transportation, food, medicine, education, work, religion etc.). What is interesting is that from a collapse perspective, the U.S. is much worse off than the S.U. in area after area. The reason for this is (somewhat counter-intuitively) that as everything functioned so poorly in the S.U., people were already inadvertently collapse-prepared and they were used to solve many problems by and for themselves. The U.S. is instead like a well-lubricated machine, but this unfortunately means that people and social structures will be more unprepared to face the consequences of a failing society. The very worst scenario, according to Orlov, is a perfectly functioning, growing economy that one day suddenly collapses.

An example of accidental collapse preparation is the fact that many Russians had a little patch where they grew their own food. Although these small kitchen gardens only represented 10% of the agricultural land, they accounted for 90% of domestic food production. When society collapsed, many people already had a habit of taking care of (some of) their own food supplies, and the kitchen gardens saved many lives.

In spite of the monumental failures of Soviet agriculture, the overall structure of Soviet-style food delivery proved to be paradoxially resilient in the face of economic collapse […] there was no starvation and very little malnutrition. But will fate be as kind to the United States?

In the U.S. (and in Sweden), most people are totally dependent on a large and complex system for growing and distributing food and on the fact that the supermarket shelves are replenished every day. On top of that, U.S. citizens also need copious amounts of (affordable) gasoline to refuel their cars so that they can get to the supermarket in the first place.

Orlov points out other equally fascinating paradoxes. Since there was no profit motive in the Soviet Union, there was no incentive for planned obsolesensce in the few consumer products that were produced. Instead, they constructed simple, functional and sturdy (but oh-so-ugly) refrigerators that were sufficiently durable and repairable to function long after production of a model was stopped.

This may be compared with my a-few-years-old-but-broken pot rack from swanky Myresjökök (it's in the corner cabinet of my kitchen). To reduce the life expectancy, Myresjökök has chosen to complement the robust stainless steel rack with a few small plastic details that hold the rack in place in the cabinet - and already when the pot rack was brand new, I knew that the plastic parts would be worn out, become brittle and sooner rather than later would break (much sooner than the metal in the rack itself of course). The rack is virtually impossible to repair for a layperson, and if the manufacturer decides to not keep these small plastic details (worth a dollar or so) in stock (with no profit margin), I will have to buy a new rack for more than 400 USD, or learn to do without ... That is how the (over)mature capitalist consumer society works today. My loss, someone else's gain.

Another difference between Russia and the United States is that Russia is a rich country that is (more than) self-sufficient in terms of energy. This made it possible, although not easy, for Russia to "bounce back" after the collapse. The U.S. is instead the world's largest energy importer. Who will be interested in selling energy to the U.S. at a point in time when the mighty U.S. economy is a thing of the past? Thus, on this point as well, the U.S. has a weaker position than Russia when it comes to getting through a collapse safe and sound.

What then is recommended by Orlov and his likes, who like bloodhounds have an unrivaled sense of smell in regards to detecting and analysing systemic weaknesses? A less laconic person than Orlov who has uncovered many fundamental problems with the "system" writes as follows:

"I have written ad nauseam about the impending financial cataclysm that awaits our nation. I have spent countless hours documenting the unsustainable path of our politicians' financial decisions and lack of courage in addressing the forthcoming tragedy that grows closer by the day. Our political system is so corrupt and dysfunctional that there is absolutely no chance that our path will be altered at the voting booth".

The author is obviously very frustrated, and the reason for his frustration is the expectation that "the system" should work better than it does. Orlov has no such expectations, and his view is therefore very different and strange to us Swedes who essentially have high confidence in politicians and the political system:

"The Soviet Union had a single, entrenched, systemically corrupt political party, which held a monopoly on power, The US has two entrenched, systemically corrupt political parties, whose positions are often indistinguishable and which together hold a monopoly on power. […] It is a tribute to the intelligence of the American people that so few of them bother to vote […] the American version [of democracy] is little more than window-dressing for the real business of politics, which happens behind closed doors and mainly involves the exchange of vast sums of money.”

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?"

Orlov’s faith in political solutions can not be any lower than it already is. At one point he writes that "politics has great potential for making a bad situation worse". What Orlov instead praises are people without strong convictions - people who mind their own business and who do what needs to be done, and refrain from being bothered about how others should live their lives.

"The Russian people are exceptionally patient: even in the worst of post-collapse times, they did not riot and […] They coped as best they could. The safest group of people to be with in a crisis is one that does not share strong ideological convictions

The fact that Orlov has little confidence in the possibilities of changing the world politically does not mean that he advocates apathy on a personal level. On the contrary. It is only when we stop listening to politicians and stop caring about what is being said on TV or in the newspapers that we can start to prepare ourselves and change our own lives - although it is extremely difficult to act on knowledge which is contradicted by our everyday experiences and by most of the people around us.

Rather than 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.

Good ways to prepare include physical changes (keeping fit and in good health), psychological changes and changes in habits (including learning new things).

A recurring argument used by Orlov is that a collapse tends to make (economic) weaknesses into strengths, and vice versa (food production, consumer products etc.). He takes this idea to its logical endpoint where his ideas become completely absurd - or not. It is not easy to decide whether to take his proposal seriously, since his perspective is so unusual and counter-intuitive:

"It is not necessary for the United States to embrace the tenets of command economy and central planning […] We have our own methods that are working almost as well. I call them ”boondoggles.” They are solutions to problems that result in more severe problems than those they attempt to solve. […] The combined weigth 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."

It seems to me that Orlov should judge the 2008-2009 economic crisis and its impact in the U.S. as something Good on the whole. Based on the belief that an economic collapse is inevitable, it seems preferable to the author that "a few at a time" (all the losers of the crisis) get the "opportunity" to cope with a crumbling existence, and the "privilege" as pioneers (on the road that many more soon will wander) to invent creative ways to cope with fewer resources. This should in any case be much better than if all at once have to handle the dire consequences of a collapse, with anarchy and chaos luring around the corner.

I do not think I misinterpret Orlov. Elsewhere in the book he says that the best way to prepare for an economic collapse is to try to live, as far as possible, as if the collapse has already happened. Get by with as little money as possible and make yourself independent of the regular economy ("demonetize"). Grow your own food. Operate in the gray area between the black and the white economy by trading favors and strive towards obtaining robust networks of friends, acquaintances and contacts. Learn to repair things that break and take care of what others throw away. In short, learn to live without a "silver lining".

To Orlov, the poor and those who manage to live on the margins ("conscientious economic underachievers and various categories of the creatively underemployed") are the unsung heroes of our time. We need to draw inspiration from them and from ”Those parts of the population that have recent or continuing experience with circumstances that have forced them to provide for their mutual welfare – recent immigrant groups, minorities and the poor.

The opposite of living on the margin is to tightly connect your destiny to the current economic system. Such a thightly coupled relationship will hurt a lot when the financial system collapses. After the Soviet collapse, it turned out to be the successful middle-aged men who were the most psychologically vulnerable. After their careers ended, their savings evaporated and their properties become worthless, all their self-esteem disappeared. They tended to be overrepresented among those who drank themselves to death and among those who committed suicide.

Although Orlov's book is slim (160 pages), I have had time to highlight only some parts of it. If you want to learn more about what the future might look like and how to prepare yourself, I recommend that you read the entire book. Not only is the book funny and pleasant to read, but there is also value in reading a text with such a strange and thought-provoking perspective!

If you (despite my recommendations) do not want to buy the book, there are some previously written texts on the internet covering parts of the book's content:
- "Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century" (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) (2005)
- "Closing the 'Collapse gap': The USSR was better prepared for collapse than the U.S." (2006)
- Orlov’s blog, Club Orlov, has a very low volume but high quality
- On the site "Creative loafing" there is a text about Orlov’s book and a few related books.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Peak Oil, "Big Education" and "Big Science"

.Image: Big Education; graduation ceremony

Image: Big Science; Linear Accelerator interior, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, 1957

My previous text discussed the set of arguments I use to try to explain what each member of society should know, worry about and act upon before peak oil strikes us with full force. In this text, I develop some ideas that relate to, but didn't quite fit the previous text. It starts out a little rambling but moves on the the issue of peak oil and higher education/research in the second half of the text. You can jump there directly if that is your main cup of tea, I've made it easy to find.

Peak oil is unfortunately a new idea to most people, and the natural reaction for someone who has never heard about it is to instinctively simply push all this worrysome new meme away and carry on living life as usual, as before.

Unfortunately, peak oil will not disappear just because we choose not to think about it. We still have a date with peak oil in the future, and the time of this date is approaching relentlessly and without regard to what we happen to think or feel. (Think of the Titanic as a ship that had a date with an iceberg.) But in the case of peak oil, it is not so much a date as a "shotgun marriage" that will last forever after.

One of, if not the main problem with peak oil is this great ignorance. Comprehension among too many of our non-PO-educated friends is and will remain sadly inadequate as we are moving towards the chaotic post-peak-oil era. NOTE: In order to avoid being accused of being overly pessimistic I would like to stress that some things most likely will turn out for the better compared to today - but only after we have passed through a turbulent and confusing period.

In plain language: We have no idea what life will look like on the other side of peak oil and how long it will take to get there. But there is no doubt (to me) that the transition will be painful. Major social change is always painful. Individuals will suffer when entire business areas (for example air travel) are eradicated and people loose their jobs, and when things we have taken for granted are denied to us not only temporarily, but for all time (holidays in Thailand, or to able to buy what we like on a Saturday afternoon in the shopping mall).

But back to the topic of societal ignorance and misunderstandings in relation to peak oil. To not understand what is happening and why it happens naturally reduces the chances of making the right decisions and doing the right things at the right time - both on an individual and a societal level. Until the very end, individuals will get into debt to buy new, fancy cars for tens of thousands of dollars, and we will continue to build new airports and new highways until the very end. A guy who sat across me at a party last year told me he had just bought a house in Thailand and he hoped to be able to visit it a few weeks every year and rent out to tourists the rest of the time. I wish him good luck but I don't expect he will have much.

If we who think of oil and energy as critical factors are right, and if our way of thinking turns out to be a good “lens” through which we can understand our world today and tomorrow, then the absence of this lens will make people not see the connections, become confused, make the wrong decisions, throw good money after bad and accuse the wrong parties when the effects of their choices in life collide with a non-cooperating reality. Such a “lens” through which we interpret and understand data and processes is what researchers usually call a "theory". And without one, our thoughts are easily led in the wrong direction. Richard Heinberg has expressed it as follows:

''...yet people won't be talking about the oil peak. They'll be talking about the unemployment figures. They'll be talking about the high price of food. They'll be talking about the fact that you can't get on an airliner and travel anymore because the airline industry has collapsed, there are only a few carriers still in business and tickets are astronomically expensive. They'll be talking about the latest war or terrorist incidents. They will have completely lost sight of the one event that caused all of those effects.''

Peak oil, higher education and research

Regarding my own area, higher education, I take for granted that it will at best shrink considerably in size and scope. As late as in the early 1950's less than 5% of an age cohort in England, France or Australia went on to higher education/university studies - and that still represented a doubling compared to only a decade or two earlier (according to Alison Wolf in her great book "Does Education Matter?: Myths about Education and Economic growth").

Today in Sweden, virtually everyone with the capacity (and some without it) start senior high school at the age of 16 (98-99% of an age cohort). Furthermore, about 40% of an age cohort now commence some sort of higher (university) education before the age of 25. There is (or has been) a political (Social Democratic) goal that 50% of an age cohort should proceed to higher education, but I don’t know the exact reason why. The general arguments I have encountered are precariously weak in their logic and vaguely refers to slogans about "democracy", "competing with the rest of the world" or perhaps something about "preparing for the knowledge societey". I assume that the whole thing is half dogma and half a disguised (and expensive) measure to reduce unemployment numbers among the youth.

The last figure I pull out my magic hat is that up to 3% of an age cohort in Sweden nowadays study to complete a Ph.D. degree. I can not remember if this figure refers to people who start or who finish their Ph.D. studies – in any case it results in quite a few Ph.D. students – approximately 3,000 new ones each year in a small country such as Sweden! Of course, all those long years in school cost a lot of money, and the educational-industrial complex is another line of “business” that peak oil will substantially reduce the size of.

I believe that if we will afford to maintain higher education and research (which of course anyway has to shrink in size and scope), we will see substantial changes in priorities within and between different research areas and academic disciplines. It is hardly a wild guess that there will be less funds allocated to "big science", that is, large-scale projects usually funded by a government or groups of governments, with a Big Budget, Big Staffs, Big Laboratories and Big Machines. There will be less funding for researchers interested in large particle accelerators and in the origins of the universe. We can just forget about projects that require lots of scientists and terribly expensive equipment in order to achieve incremental (and marginal) results of doubtful practical utility.

Quite recently (June 22) I read on the front of the magazine Computer Sweden that "KTH [the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden] invests 133 million" SEK - 20 million USD - in buying a new supercomputer which will be one of the fastest computers in Europe (temporarily of course). I find it hard to understand why an expense of 133 million is called an "investment". A more proper headline would be that "KTH spend 133 million". The negative equivalent to "KTH invests" would be “KTH wastes 133 million”. In any case, it is hard to believe that anyone 10-20 years from now will receive funding to by a gadget for 133 million SEK, with the possible exception of energy research in some much-needed area.

But a computer for 20 million USD is a drop in the ocean compared to the more than 6 000 million Euros that France and the rest of Europe now have to fork up for the 2012 construction of an experimental fusion power plant (ITER). The project is now on shaky economic ground after the financial crisis and as the costs are running away from what was earlier projected and budgeted (and that is even before any actual construction has started). There are other partners in the project (U.S., Russia, Japan, Korea, China, India), and the total estimated cost for this experimental power plant is currently 16 000 million Euros. And the costs might become significantly higher if we take into consideration that they have grown by 10 000 million Euros (!) compared to calculations made back in 2001. I will happily bet (and give the generous odds 5 to 1) that this fusion power plant will never be completed. Is there anyone who dares to bet against me? Construction is planned to take 10 years and I will generously let my offer stand until 2030. The fight for money has already begun and "researchers in other fields [are] wondering whether their funding will suffer if funds are diverted to ITER".

Overall, today's specialization in the research community (where people qualify themselves by knowing a lot in increasingly smaller areas), is likely to decrease as the number of scientists and the amount of available money for research decrease. To know more and more about less and less will become a dead end, whereas the ability to connect various areas will become more interesting. Perhaps the interest in some "soft" social sciences such as psychology, sociology, political science and peace/conflict research will increase - provided that those research fields start to investigate peak oil-related questions:

- How can we live together in a world of shrinking resources?
- How can we provide treatment / therapy to people who are addicted to shopping but who are no longer able get their "fix"?
- What do we do with middle-aged skilled careerists who have lost their job, their car and their house, and consequently their identity, their drive and their motivation?
- How can we understand the (coming) popular movement of gardening?
- How can we deal with young people’s (justified) disappointment and aggression towards the generation of their parents?
- What are we to do with all Peak Oil refugees when they knocks on our door and want to enter? Or with climate terrorists with little or nothing to loose?
- How do we phase out all the benefits that the state has generously offered without having too many people suffer too much?
- How should society cope with declining stock markets (which will also affect our pensions)?
- How do we create institutions at a local level that can work towards reducing dependency on the rest of the world?
- How do we rebuild our strategic basic industries which left Sweden 20 or 50 years ago?
- How do we transform our agriculture to become less energy intensive?
- What kind of health care can we afford in the future? How should it be organized? How do you explain in a pedagogical way that surgery X or medicine Y is no longer available?
- How do we create a primary and high school curriculums (and find teachers) who can prepare our youth for the real 21st century?
... and so on ...

Of course, energy research will be of immense interest. Maybe there are also lessons to be learned from the use of technology in today's developing countries (for example on the use of mobile technology and low-tech off-grid energy solutions)? Just the idea of a reversed transfer of knowledge from developing countries to more developed countries is staggering...

Of course, researchers will no longer be able to travel back and forth all over the world to attend conferences, so the transfer of knowledge between researchers will by neccessity become more regional (or can the Internet make up for decreased mobility?). Swedish researchers (as well as the population in general) will have to put up with travelling only in Europe, or maybe, as time goes by, only in Scandinavia, or Sweden. This contraction will of course affect which languages our youth will learn in primary school and high school. We ought to experience a renaissance of languages spoken in areas geographically close to us (not the least Norwegian and Danish), and a decreased interest in "exotic" languages such as Arabic, Japanese and Chinese.

One last guess that does not feel too daring is that economics in its present form will be discredited and kicked to the dust bin of history in the same way that scientific communism was non-honorably retired 20 years ago. My guess is that as the world changes, traditional neoclassical economists in particular will be depicted as Quislings of our time or even as accomplices to the crash, and they will become as popular as racial anthropologists are in today's university world.

Nevertheless, we need some kind of economic theories, and the ones I believe are most likely to suceed are the (presently) radical ideas of biophysical and ecological economics. The non-negotiable starting point for these theories is what the Earth can bear - how extensive our human (economic) activities can be without destroying our environment and our ability to create wealth even in the (far) future. When we move from expansion to contraction, we also move from the economy of opportunities to the economy of restrictions - or why not the economy of the real world.

In the 1800s we hunted whales to the end of the world, on journeys that lasted several years, in order to illuminate our homes. When whales began to run low, we were saved by the discovery of kerosene, but what will save us this time? Many are those who have read too many fairy tales or watched too many movies to be able to imagine a story without a happy ending. Those are the people who got frustrated when Obama or BP simply failed to fix that oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico right away. At best, they suspect monumental incompetence and at worst they suspect a conspiracy. They have a skewed picture of reality, because they are convinced that every challenge can be solved by American know-how, and that a group of brilliant-but-misunderstood scientists somewhere had a solution, but were hampered by evil bureaucrats or the governments from once and for all plugging that hole (see "American faith in magic Technological exacerbates frustration with the Gulf of Mexico oil leak").

Unfortunately, I personally believe there of courser aren't any guarantees of happy endings except in fictional stories - products created for a mass market – whose purpose is to make us feel comfortable. The last 200 years has been one long success story - at least for us here in the West. Unfortunately, the good times will not last forever. What irritates me is that we have not used the good times to prepare for the bad.

In the Bible, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat and seven lean cows as representing seven good years to be followed by seven years of poor harvests. Pharaoh had the Egyptians prepare by storing food during the good years, and they survived the crisis (hooray!). But we have lived with an unprecedented abundance, without giving tomorrow more than a fleeting thought once every leap year. Instead of starting to slow down, we continue to press the pedal to the metal right into the hairpin curve.

Dmity Orlov argues that if we put our trust in an intervention from "outside", the only "reasonable" hope is that friendly extraterrestrials will show up just in time to save humanity (all seven billion) and our consumption-addicted society. As if.

I think our grandchildren will hear many, many stories and moralizing tales about arrogance, wastefulness, gluttony and short-term thinking and that many of the stories will have unhappy endings ("that’s what happens if you don’t..."). These stories will constitute an appropriate training for entry into a tough world, and also a good way to mentally work through challenges and changes happening around us in Sweden and abroad.

In all honesty I am more pessimistic about our (society's) lack of understanding and our inability to cope with peak oil, than I am about peak oil itself. Thus, if we used our still-considerable resources to immediately start preparing society for peak oil, then I would not be very worried at all. And if pigs could fly...