The suddenly famous pessimist Dmitry Orlov spoke at the Long Now Foundation seminar last week. Here is Stewart Brand’s summary. Audio and video of the talk will be available on-line soon. See also Orlov’s site, which includes the text of the Long Now Talk, as well as a link to text and slides for Orlov’s famous 2006 “Collapse Gap” talk.
“Managing social collapse
With vintage Russian black humor, Orlov described the social collapse he witnessed in Russia in the 1990s and spelled out its practical lessons for the American social collapse he sees as inevitable. The American economy in the 1990s described itself as “Goldilocks”—just the right size—when in fact is was “Tinkerbelle,” and one day the clapping stops. As in Russia, the US made itself vulnerable to the decline of crude oil, a trade deficit, military over-reach, and financial over-reach.
Russians were able to muddle through the collapse by finding ways to manage 1) food, 2) shelter, 3) transportation, and 4) security.
Russian agriculture had long been ruined by collectivization, so people had developed personal kitchen gardens, accessible by public transit. The state felt a time-honored obligation to provide bread, and no one starved. (Orlov noted that women in Russia handled collapse pragmatically, putting on their garden gloves, whereas middle-aged men dissolved into lonely drunks.) Americans are good at gardening and could shift easily to raising their own food, perhaps adopting the Cuban practice of gardens in parking lots and on roofs and balconies.
As for shelter, Russians live in apartments from which they cannot be evicted. The buildings are heat-efficient, and the communities are close enough to protect themselves from the increase in crime. Americans, Orlov said, have yet to realize there is no lower limit to real estate value, nor that suburban homes are expensive to maintain and get to. He predicts flight, not to remote log cabins, but to dense urban living. Office buildings, he suggests, can easily be converted to apartments, and college campuses could make instant communities, with all that grass turned into pasture or gardens. There are already plenty of empty buildings in America; the cheapest way to get one is to offer to caretake it.
The rule with transportation, he said, is not to strand people in nonsurvivable places. Fuel will be expensive and hoarded. He noted that the most efficient of all vehicles is an old pickup fully loaded with people, driving slowly. He suggested that freight trains be required to provide a few empty boxcars for hoboes. Donkeys, he advised, provide reliable transport, and they dine as comfortably on the Wall Street Journal as they did on Pravda.
Security has to take into account that prisons will be emptied (by stages, preferably), overseas troops will be repatriated and released, and cops will go corrupt. You will have a surplus of mentally unstable people skilled with weapons. There will be crime waves and mafias, but you can rent a policeman, hire a soldier. Security becomes a matter of local collaboration. When the formal legal structure breaks down, adaptive improvisation can be pretty efficient.
By way of readiness, Orlov urges all to prepare for life without a job, with near-zero burn rate. It takes practice to learn how to be poor well. Those who are already poor have an advantage.”