Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Closing the Collapse Gap

Dmitri Orlov in great form as usual. The following excerpted from the complete slide show at Energy Bulletin.
Here's the video of the talk:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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