“This sucker could go down.” George W. Bush, 2008.
Dmitry Orlov, writer and collapsatarian social critic has been travelling up this intellectual trail for so long now he is nearly out of sight of most North Americans. As his readership already knows he got to observe the failure of the Soviet Union fairly closely. His family were émigrés to the United States from Russia. Insider/outsider status in both worlds got Orlov thinking that the West was probably next into the garbage can of history. That thinking led to his 2008 book Reinventing Collapse: Soviet Experience and American Prospects. For this new book, Orlov describes the phenomenon of collapse in greater detail and at a wider scale.
It’s gonna be a doozy, folks.
You see, resource depletion has already fatally undermined industrial complexity. Where we are headed will only result in collapse, there isn’t going to be a slow deflation, soft landing, an energy-technology miracle. We could make some better decisions along the way but there will be a global, societal collapse by mid-century at the latest. Collapse is built into industrial society, and it is completely indifferent to your sucky feelings, good intentions, daydreams, denials and entitlements.
Casual observation, statistical analysis and computer modelling alike demonstrate there is simply not enough of anything left at the quantities and price needed by the machine to keep it fed. The financial systems supporting our reality require indefinite future growth so that debt can be repaid and new debt issued. Without a positive resource trend, especially for energy resources, the financial system no longer can remain the operating system for commerce.
The built forms and human behaviours related to suburban sprawl are the primary complex of North American economic life. It’s over for the whole enchilada, according to Orlov. Five Stages of Collapse is a well-argued, moderately priced opus and through it we can see the suburban poverty we look at here as an early stage of collapse, an unavoidable, terminal, and ever growing deviation from the original intention of suburbia as an expression of prosperity.
Expect five stages:
1. Financial collapse
2. Commercial collapse
3. Political collapse
4. Social collapse
5. Cultural collapse
The first two stages are about the end of money. That’s expected because lending at interest, usury, only works under a scheme of perpetual growth, otherwise it’s cyanide to everyone imbibing. Orlov feels we are already past this stage. For example, on page 32 he tells us blithely that “…the main use of the old industrial-era infrastructure will be as a plentiful source of scrap”.
To a great many people, his shtick is shocking, anti-social, unpatriotic, science-fictional, it might even seem like it’s the product of a poorly-adjusted mind, maybe even an ill one. Certainly Orlov is a remarkably critical man with little in our present approach to life not overdue for evisceration. “And now that most of the easy, cheap, plentiful reservoirs of these fossil fuels have been used up and what remains is difficult, risky, expensive to extract and rather small in size, we are due for another collapse. The difference that this collapse will be on a completely unprecedented scale, and global in scope,” he says.
Yikes! What will happen to our regional shopping malls, the condominium towers that seem to reproduce all over the landscape while we sleep?
The third element, political collapse, is when things start to get sticky. In fact, the shit truly hits the fan as the system dimly recognizes the terminal danger it is in and flails and claws angrily about in self-defence. Instead of naturalistic “new rules” developing from the ground up we see an official desperation that blends all too easily into serious violence, repression, corporate power and abuse and other heavy forms of control.
Plentiful precedent and our imagination indicate to us that the first three stages of collapse can get dicey fast. Weimar Germany comes to mind as an example of just how unhinged an advanced society can become. At the same time though, such collapses might offer humanity the opportunity to start anew with simpler, clearer goals, something often sought within the life of the individual so why not for our communities? Orlov also indicates via his own manner of living (on a box-hulled sailboat and as a writer) that a reasonably equipped individual with a supportive community, tribe or network could actually ignore a good part of the first three types of collapse. You know what, he’s actually a pretty optimistic end-of-the-world kind of guy …in a depressing way. His writerly acquaintances mention Orlov’s charm and wit very often.
It’s in the latter two stages of collapse that the potential for creativity and decency becomes exterminated and human society fails at the level of its most basic behaviours and relationships, passing down through levels of tragedy to a state of barbarism that would have to be described as sub-animal. Orlov has a grim deftness with the topic, asking questions most of us are schooled to pretend don’t exist.
What is to be done, then? Well, not much colleagues, cousins and neighbours, you see “…the sort of community that stands a chance post-collapse is simply unacceptable pre-collapse: it is illegal, it is uncomfortable and it is unsafe. No reasonable person would want any part of it,” Orlov says on page 200. What can emerge from collapse, and the system’s doomed-to-fail responses to collapse, are new tribes suited to immediate realities and providing for their members according to new behavioural codes and relationships. This is where a rough kind of hope lies.
The case studies Orlov uses to illustrate what will be possible are deeply off-putting ones. Except for post-2008 Iceland perhaps, this is certainly the case for the remaining four, which are the Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan, the now-dispersed Ik people of Uganda (about as messed up a story of any human grouping as you will ever find), the post-1991 Russian Mafia, and the Roma.
The Five Stages of Collapse contains a great deal of wisdom about human behaviour and social relations. It’s well informed by history but is about us in the here and now. Each stage of collapse has its own chapter with a case study following it to add depth. Orlov’s comfort with science and engineering is evident. There’s a mini rant here and there including a memorable one about the inherent flaws of the English language. State religion gets a spanking, as it should, though the social benefit of local religious association is to be welcomed.
Whatever stands out for you in particular about The Five Stages of Collapse, you will need to go for a long walk in the woods by yourself after reading it. Or have a stiff drink, …or both.
Either way, when you come back, you’ll be thinking about getting ready for it all.
Suburban-poverty.com says “read this book!”