Saturday, June 14, 2008

Book Review: Reinventing Collapse

Reinventing Collapse came in the mail just before my recent trip, which allowed time for reading on flights and pondering Dmitry Orlov's work. Here is a perspective on this latest in Peak Oil/Collapse literature.

I had been eagerly anticipating this particular work. Most of the Peak Oil/Collapse works these days are rehashes of The Long Emergency, Deffeye's books or cut-and-pastes from Matt Savinar's site.

Here was a book that offered "The Soviet Example and American Prospects." I was very excited to read a variety of anecdotes, case studies and other applicable data points that could help me with some blog posts I have planned on the formation of Resilient Communities and Networked Tribes.

Reinventing Disappointment

In summary, I was quite disappointed. This was a book that could have offered so much more. Mr. Orlov was the right man in the right place to write such a work, but what he produced was a pale shadow of what someone of his intelligence, experience and education could have delivered.

For those of you who are still on the fence and think the U.S. will sail through the coming crisis on the back of techno-miracles or through blind luck, then this book is for you. It will specifically address many points of what were once known as "American Exceptionalism" - back when we were exceptional - and demolishes them thoroughly. For those of you looking to learn from specific points of the Soviet Collapse, to read specific examples of smart adapative responses or utter failures, this is not the book for you. As I was in the latter group, that lack colors the following review.

Let's go over it chapter by chapter.

Chapter One - The Soviet Example

The book began on a very high note. The introduction and this first chapter lay out the rationale for such a work, with some very interesting notes and stories from Mr. Orlov's experience of traveling back to Russia, post-Soviet collapse. He hinted at some of the difficulties encountered in travel and business, but also alluded to some of the paradoxical strengths that helped Russia mitigate the fall of the Soviet Union. I was hooked.

Chapter Two - Superpower Similarities

This chapter got old fast. Partially this is because I read Mr. Orlov's essays published by Matt Savinar a few years ago and partially is simple ego. In order to get his point across that the U.S. and Soviet Union (S.U.) weren't as far different as some think, he makes sure to paint as black a picture as possible of the U.S. and the decrepit systems that keep it afloat in this late stage of Consumerist Materialism. Fair enough, I thought, that's his premise, this will be short and sweet and we can get on to the meat of the work.

But it wore on and on. I get it - the U.S. has significant flaws and an historical karma, if you will, that is freighted with violence and oppression. The efforts to address this are of course ignored and the S.U./Imperial Russia version is given a much lighter shade of gray. Fine. Anyone who is reading his book, though, understands much of this. If you are reading Reinventing Collapse, you have a grasp of these things, why drone on and on on about it? I was looking for facts and stories - I got a bunch of assertions I'm supposed to take ex cathedra. Again, fine, if that's what it takes to get the "Soviet Example" explained to me, I can deal with it. The chapter had to eventually end, and it did.

This chapter does have some very interesting nuggets, oases in the desert of the "two legs bad, four legs good, America baaaad, SU not so baaaad" template that shaped this chapter. The subsection on Information Technology (pg. 29) and the sections on The Cost of Technological Progress (pg. 33) and Militarism (pg. 35) had some very interesting points.

I was especially intrigued by his review of how information technology developed and how the lack of software patents was possibly the only thing that allowed it to take off. From my experiences with IP, I agree with him wholeheartedly here - and this is another reason I think any solutions in the U.S. to a significant collapse in the economy or an oil supply shock are going to be hampered by many who will never believe that the old system is dead as soon as Peak Oil hits - and they will fight tooth and nail to preserve a legal and corporate system that won't be viable in the coming century. The lost time during the transition could wind up being catastrophic.

I wanted more out of the "Costs" section as he refers to the Chernobyl Disaster multiple times as a key swing point for the legitimacy of the old S.U. Being a nuclear engineer, I am obviously interested, but got nothing more than high-level "it made us all distrust the Communists." Okay, but, like Oliver Twist, I was left asking for more. I didn't get it.

Mercifully the chapter ended. We all knew America is bad, bad, bad. But finally, I would get the anecdotes and case studies that would prove useful in the coming years, because I had made it to Chapter 3.

Chapter Three - The Collapse Gap

Reading the sections of this chapter in the Table of Contents gets anyone interested in scenario planning excited. Here's a man with direct experience and contacts in Russia ready to discuss housing, transportation, money, energy and a whole host of other issues.

Then I began to read it. It was Chapter Two, all over again, for the most part.

America is bad. The legacy petroleum infrastructure that it is tied to will be dysfunctional at best. The "efficient" market-based systems that drive corporations reduce inventory and stockpiles, leaving few things to scavenge or steal during a collapse, reducing any cushion. Cars are bad phallic symbols and lacking one will lead to chaos in the U.S. Basically, premises that anyone shelling out the bucks for this book would already be familiar with to one degree or another. And oh yeah, did we mention that America is bad, though some of the citizens are nice?

There were few extensive examples from the Soviet Experience. For instance, in the Transportation section, there are no real direct examples of, say, the daily life of a Russian citizen in both urban or rural environments. Hell, there was a much better anecdote in the damn Introduction that discussed how Mr. Orlov and some friends used vodka to barter for scarce fuel. That's what I was expecting. I got "The population of the United States is almost entirely car dependent, and relies on markets that control oil import, refining and distribution, as well as on continuous public investment in road construction and repair." No shit, Sherlock.

Examples? Well, Russian trains range from okay to great and they get crowded at planting and harvest time, when Russian citizens head out to their dachas. Okay - how about a story of one family over the course of a year or season and how they get to their gardens, tend them and reap the harvest? Nope, nothing substantive - just cotton candy.

The section on food, where all kinds of case studies could have been very profitable was barren. Basically, the old S.U. was so inefficient when it came to producing food from collectivized plots that a tradition of kitchen gardening helped keep the populace fed during hard times. That's it. No examples of how the soil was tended, how the produce was guarded from thieves, what crops worked best, etc. Just a few paragraphs stating the obvious.

The entire chapter is like this. Few actual "Soviet Examples" are provided. Lot's of bashing on U.S. structures continues. One of my favorites is on how the lazy, fat "natives" who all rule corporations, of course, lord over a subclass of technoligcally capable men and women, mostly foreigners, while spending all their time on the golf course. Riiiiight. I worked as a computer programmer for many years for a reasonably large company. It had plenty of dysfunction, but the goal was to get the job done. My team of programmers was all "native" and we were twice as effective as the Russian contractors that were constantly being brought in on the cheap. Nice people, but when you wanted work done, it was us lazy natives churning it out.

Mr. Orlov finally generated a laugh from me on page 99, in a section on Ethnicity. This is surely to be a key issue, but again, it is all statements, no examples. No examples of Russians dealing with being a minority in a Former Soviet Republic. No examples of the fight with the Chechens, other than a few paragraphs glossing over it all. No discussion of Chinese illegals in the Russian Far East. What he did give us is "Russia's settlement of its vast territory was accompanied by intermarriage with every tribe the Russians met on their drive east." Really? Intermarriage? It sounds so nice, as if the Russians weren't busy doing what the U.S. was doing in the 1800's - killing all who stood in their way and taking the women of conquered tribes when it suited. While referencing the mass die-off and genocide of the American aboriginals there was of course no mention that the peoples conquered by Russia already had a built up tolerance to the diseases that ravaged the New World. It was made to sound like the fierce Russian drive to the East was just a bunch of bachelors heading out into the world, peacefully marrying the local girls... Then he goes on to point out, again, the obvious potential ethnic fractures the U.S. faces - but no specifics. No discussion of the ethnic breakdown of places that did collapse into ethnic violence versus those that survived. Just more telling, not showing.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that my reaction to the story about the programmers and the ethnic issues is just my little ego reacting to perceived insult and reading about my country in the most negative light possible. This would be fine if there was meat to go along with the beating. There was only gristle. I guess my expectations were just too high.

Chapter Four - Collapse Mitigation

This is actually worth reading. You might even read it first. His discussion of "activists" is worth reading.

Chapter Five - Adaptation

Another chapter where detailed scenarios or anecdotes from the very real Russian experience would be key. Another where such anecdotes were thin on the ground. That said, this is another solid chapter and gives some very useful ideas for preparing both mentally and physically. It's worth reading, but again, it's just statements, not "examples."

Chapter Six - Career Opportunities

Same evaluation as Chapter Five. It's not bad, it's just that for someone of Mr. Orlov's experience and talent, there could have been a lot of great examples here, rather than the high-level discussions that anyone who has thought about Peak Oil implications has already been puzzling through.


I think my negative reaction to this book mainly stems from my high expectations at the beginning. I really expected "Soviet Examples" that could be used to plan now and to act later, should events play out into a collapse scenario. Instead, it was like reading warmed-over Noam Chomsky - though more coherent, I must admit.


Anonymous said...

"Collapse - for you, the putatively satisfied consumer of information products - is a faulty product that will fail to please you. If, however, you have already dropped out of the ranks of satisfied consumers, then for you collapse is already well underway, and you have far more pressing things to consider than tilting at the windmills of climate change or obsessing over countless other issues of global import. Collapse, it turns out in the end, is a single-use product. Properly applied, it produces a deep and abiding feeling of dissatisfaction. In this, and this alone, it is quite excellent."

Dmitry Orlov
Collapse and its Discontents

So, what the heck did you expect anyway?

Flagg707 said...

I guess I expected some detailed anecdotes of how individuals handled - or mishandled - the collapse of a strong, industrialized empire/country. This scientist who was relegated to hunting ducks in a park - how did that go? How long did it last? What is he doing now?

Others, especially the older people that were alluded to who couldn't handle the transition - did they turn to alcoholism solely? The social fabric held together remarkably well in Russia proper as was pointed out - any specifics of how and any thoughts on why?

Other interesting questions - the basic mechanics of the kitchen gardens that helped Russia keep from starving - how did seed sharing work? What was done to pillagers?

In the end, as I specifically pointed out in the review, I had differing expectations of what the comparison of the "Soviet Example" was going to be. That's my fault. I did not expect that to mean a work meant to merely cause dissatisfaction. I was working on a false assumption that anyone shelling out the money for Reinventing Collapse is already very dissatisfied with the current system and knows it is doomed.

The U.S. is about to run straight into a brick wall, the likes of which have never been witnessed in human history. The potential crash will make what happened to the USSR look like happy party. I was hoping for more than a book trying to generate "dissatisfaction" and more stories of how real people dealt with a similar crash.

I fully admit my baggage colored the review I wrote.