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Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects Paperback – May 31, 2011
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…Reinventing Collapse< examines the circumstances of the demise of the Soviet superpower and offers clear insights into how we might prepare for coming events. This challenging yet inspiring work is a must-read for anyone concerned about energy, geopolitics, international relations, and life in a post-Peak Oil world.―The A Word
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Orlov's analysis, gained through personally experiencing the Soviet collapse, shows us that this collapse was more a factor of economic problems caused by a crash in oil revenues than by the Regan/Breshnev arms race that was credited by so many westerners for fomenting this collapse. When the oil-glut of the 1980's caused the price of oil to fall radically, the Soviet income from their inefficient state run petroleum industries crashed (it basically cost them about as much to pump and refine their oil as the export price per barrel), and the result was a cash flow crunch that could not sustain the rest of their state-run economy.
Now that oil prices have shot past the $100 a barrel mark, the tables have turned. Russia has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world's number one oil producer, and the same oil exports that caused the Soviet regime's cash flow problem when prices were extremely low, is now making the new Russian economy cash-rich. America is seeing the devaluation of our dollar, brought on primarily due to a negative cash flow of billions of dollars a day for petroleum product imports and military ventures to protect our access to the supply of oil in foreign countries (Iraq, etc.), contributing to a large portion of our skyrocketing national debt, bringing the threat of economic collapse ever closer to our shores. Orlov points out a few of the differences between the former Soviet situation and the current US situation that makes our predicament even scarier.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of its state run systems continued to function. For example, most Soviets lived in public housing, fueled by public utilities, and they got around using public transportation. When their economic system went down, even though few people had much or any usable cash, their homes were still heated and not boarded up, the lights stayed on, and they could still get around using buses and trains. Here in America, the free market and privatization makes ours a very different story. When we stop paying our bills, the lights go out and the banks take our homes. If you don't have money for gas, or happen to live where trains and buses don't go where you need to go, your only recourse is to walk or hitch hike. When cash stops flowing, paychecks halt immediately and services screech to a halt (remember Enron and MCI?). When the Soviet Union collapsed, their country still had vast untapped resources to help rebuild after the collapse. America, on the other hand, has already used up most of our steel, natural gas, oil, timber, and so on. What untapped resources do we have to draw upon to pull ourselves out of this predicament? If the American dollar plunges, how will we continue to buy the resources and products from other countries that we no longer make ourselves?
So, if you are worried about the future and what you may do to prepare your friends, family, and country for what may lie ahead, I suggest you pick up a copy of "Reinventing Collapse", and learn from Orlov's experience. He gives us a clear vision of what to expect, including which strategies worked best for individuals, and what items proved most valuable to stock up for barter use when cash has no value because the economy crashed. What you learn from the past can help you to navigate a course through the future. Highly recommended!
Throughout this book Orlov uses scientific precision to knock down one myth after another about American life. He is very funny in mocking many of the silliest and stupidest aspects of American life. This book doesn't lay out a blueprint for how to survive the collpase, because Orlov himself makes plain that he doesn't pretend to know exatly how it will happen, but it does give some useful tips for how to prepare mentally and physically. The book is only 160 pages and I think you'll be so drawn in by it that you'll finish it in one evening just like I did. I guarantee it will be an evening well spent.
1. The collapse of the USSR was a political act; the USA is facing a resource-depletion-financial crisis. Now a financial collapse (K-Wave "winter," or the repudiation of all debts, public and private) certainly could lead to political collapse, but that is by no means set in stone.
The cultural and structural differences between the USSR and the USA are significant, and if Orlov had been an anthropologist his book might have drawn somewhat different distinctions. His primary thesis is that the Soviet Union was actually better prepared to weather collapse than the U.S., but I think he missed this critical difference: Russia and the other constituent states of the former USSR were resource-rich. Once they got their politcal house in order, they had immense resources to aid their financial recovery.
2. The Soviet Union was not a nation of immigrants; the U.S. is and has been since its inception. Even the Native Americans came from somewhere else, albeit a long time ago (though 12,000 years is merely a blink in geological time). Now on the surface immigration is driven by a number of things: hunger, poverty, desire for religious freedom, etc. But fundamentally it is a form of natural selection. Among any group of people, there wil be some who look around at the poverty, corruption, hopelessness and lack of opportunity for non-elite people and decide the best way to change their lives is to leave.
3. Religion plays a unique and powerful role in the U.S. in ways which it did not in the USSR. A quick glance at Russian art suggests the central role of the Church in Russian culture. But if Orlov were African-American, I believe his dismissal of religion might not have been so quick and assured.
Rather than the non-factor Orlov expects, I would reckon religious institutions will play critical roles in organizing people for their own betterment. People didn't come here to ignore their religion, they came here to practice it, and that goes for every religion. It's been said that the black church is the only institution owned lock, stock and barrel by the African-American community, and it will not be a non-factor in that community but a central institution of stability, hope and communal services.
4. Wandering around as a homeless migrant is not a good survival strategy. Orlov suggests at the end of his book that wandering between two or three sources of resources would be a good strategy. My own view is that freeloading is frowned upon in the U.S. and your best bet to is either stay put (yes, even in ghettos and urban neighborhoods) or move to a place where you have some roots (where you grew up is always a good place to start) or where there is some commonality: a church you belong to, an ecosystem you love and will nurture, etc.
5. The U.S. is on par with Sadr City, Iraq in terms of firepower in the hands of citizens. As the most heavily armed society in the developed world, the U.S. can easily go the way of well-armed criminal gangs controlling urban zones or well-armed militia sprouting up to take out the criminals. There is historical precedents for either scenario. A third scenario (common in the 3rd World) is for wealthy enclaves to hire private forces to protect the enclave.
While I can't predict which will play out in various circumstances, we should be aware that the U.S. has millions of military veterans and millions of weapons. The USSR had the vets but not the weapons in private hands. People will eventually choose to support an alternative to anarchy or criminal/mob rule, unless the criminal gang is the only alternative to something worse (i.e. the Sadr City scenario). Or people will pay extra to maintain a top-notch police force and let go of the other city services, performing them communally via volunteer labor.
My point is simply that a heavily armed culture with tens of millions of firearm-trained vets is not going to follow the route of a society without those two elements.
6. Orlov underestimates the power of the Web/Internet. Orlov is extending his experience in a pre-Internet Russia, in which you had to stand outside in the cold in order to hitch a ride. Assuming the Internet backbone will be maintained--and why wouldn't it be placed ahead of every other use except hospitals and the public safety centers?--then virtually everyone will be able to arrange barters of almost unimaginable range via the Web.
Despite these points (which are all debatable, of course), it's a very worthy exercise to read his work and make your own analysis.