Depending on the kindness of strangers

world beachball upsidedown

Dmitry Orlov says that a world where strangers come before family and cash comes before barter is upside down. Photo: Natecull via Flickr.

“Most of what you have been and are being told about economics is simply wrong,” says Dmitry Orlov. “It is ideology and fake religion, not science.”

In “The Twilight of the Antipodes and the Cultural Flip,” a presentation he gave recently at a conference in northern California, Orlov offers a disturbingly rational picture about what’s wrong with our economy and what we can do about it, given peak oil and its corollary, peak everything. And he adds a social analysis that’s missing from many discussions about energy and the economy.

Overshoot begins at home

We already know that behaving as if our planet is infinite will lead to disaster. But for Orlov, overshoot is not just a matter of human stupidity or greed. Instead, the inevitable collapse of urban industrial society will come from what you might call a loss of family values.

“Collapse is baked into the economic DNA and is therefore guaranteed to occur,” he says. “Timing is irrelevant; all that matters is that it is not yet too late to prepare. A cultural flip is needed to change from impersonal, commercial focus to personal focus based on trust.”

We need to make that flip because, compared to most of human history, today’s urban-industrial people are living upside down.

In the past, people interacted primarily with members of their family or clan and to a lesser extent, with friends and allies. Only after that (the tip of Orlov’s pyramid) came strangers, with whom the average human throughout history would have had few if any interactions. Indeed, strangers were considered enemies until they could prove friendly intent.

But today, it’s the other way around. Many of us are estranged from any family members but (current) spouses and kids under 18 while we work hardest to get close to our bosses, clients and customers — all relationships mediated by money.

Cash, check or barter

Same goes for the economy. In the past, we got most of our stuff as gifts from our family or clan members. We may also have had to pay some tribute to a feudal overlord, a tithe to a church or taxes to a government. We may also have done some barter with friends and allies. But we got very little of what we used from trade or commerce and as a result, most people needed little or no money in their daily lives. Again today, the pyramid is upended. Now, without goods and services made by strangers, most of us would probably die within a week.

When it comes to energy, the uber-commodity of industrial society, it’s clear. In the old days, people didn’t have to write a check to ConEd or PG&E; they had to chop wood. They didn’t have to swipe a credit card for a fill up at the Sheetz station; they fed their horses hay.

Before cash became king, most people had a direct, unmediated relationship to their energy, their transportation and the rest of the stuff they used.

In today’s upside-down society, it’s no wonder that we understand so little about energy in particular, but also about food and consumer products. We don’t make much of our own stuff. We don’t even see it being made. And it’s too easy to get. Just flip a switch and the light comes on. Just drive to Wal-Mart and pick up a steak or an iPod.

It’s also no wonder that we ascribe magical, religious status to money. After all, it’s what allows us to compel strangers on the other side of the world to help fulfill our material needs.

Efficiency doesn’t like you

As he challenges mainstream thinking about how capitalism creates value through economic growth and lending money at interest, so Orlov also blows up the idea of efficiency, which he calls a “liar word.”

It is more “efficient” to off-shore industrial production to low-wage countries. It is more “efficient” to replace local specialty shops with big box stores that sell cheap imports. It is more “efficient” to close these big box stores once the locals run out of money because their jobs have been offshored. It is more “efficient” to evict, foreclose, and demolish towns once commerce is dead than to try to save them by investing in local production.

He even challenges people who want to get off fossil fuels and onto clean energy to re-examine efficiency when applied to energy efficiency, since “efficient systems are more fragile and less resilient.”

How can we get back to living with each other right side up?

Orlov tells us to start getting out of the money economy as much as we can while at the same time getting closer to family and friends who we can really count on in the future.

The money economy has already started to collapse. Orlov tells us to get ready for a future where we get more of our stuff as gifts and through barter. That’s how it worked in the Soviet Union where Orlov, author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, grew up and it could start to happen in the America of tomorrow.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of doing business with family and friends. It can sound like nepotism, crony capitalism, or even racketeering. But with the Wall Street collapse of 2008 capping three decades of rampant corporate fraud and misdeeds, big business from Enron to AIG has shown that you don’t need to be related to your co-workers to pull an inside job.

Orlov presents Big Think ideas in such a clear and engaging way that his presentation is sure to make you say “Yes, that’s how it is!”

— Erik Curren


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  1. Auntiegrav says

    I’ve tried to explain this before, but here goes again:
    Every species that survives over the long term has a Net Future Usefulness to its behaviors. What this means is that a living thing must give more than it takes from the resource pool. Dmitri’s “gift economy” will work only as long as the total behavior of the human population doesn’t take away too much from the natural systems. This is the failure of the Humanist philosophy which believes that anything that is good for humans is good for everything else just because of some magical “goodness”. Humans are just fancy animals with more tools than sense. Only when something is good for ALL future humans (the Native American ‘seven generations’ idea), will humans be sustainable.
    This is the essence of survival: being generous to your own future(protecting resources, building practical skills, cooperating), rather than stealing from it (debt, pollution, wealth accumulation, competition).
    As Raj Patel said, “The opposite of consumption isn’t frugality, it’s generosity.” We have to be generous not only to each other, but to those who will live in the future. That means giving them more clean air, water, and soil than we take from them.
    Monetary and Gift economics are a side effect of our activities as we move toward some future. Both monetary and gift economies can be destructive of the future, perhaps the latter is less so, but it still misses the fully aware mark. (With respect to Dmitri, however: that is some very good work.) It is our activities that matter, not our economies, but our economies tell us something about our activities.

  2. says

    Thanks for the post — I plan on reading the book! Mr. Orlov’s thoughts on surviving the impending/ongoing collapse of corporate-orchestrated consumer capitalism, focusing on family-like relations and a post-cash economy, are in accord with my idea that the benevolent path through the wreckage of capitalist modernity depends on re-establishing localized communities of like-minded people based on the adoption and enactment of the moral/political principles of true democracy:

    At birth, every human being is equally deserving of respect and equally deserving of a society where she or he can live a good life.
    Good citizens and decent people live by the following principle of morality and freedom: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or your children or mother or whoever you care most about in the world. The golden rule demonstrates that morality (“the way a person should act”) is SOCIAL; it’s about how you treat other people and the extent to which you consider how your actions will affect other people.
    Step 3) DEMOCRACY
    With golden rule-morality as the starting point, the ideal political form is what can be called “true democracy,” which is to say that people govern themselves – any governing is by and for the people being governed in any particular situation. Wouldn’t you want the opportunity to participate in any decision that affects you? The golden rule demands we extend that right to all. And that is true democracy.
    Step 4) JUSTICE
    Within the open-honest-thoughtful discussions that make up the political process of true democracy, good citizens and decent people will consider the good of everyone affected by the decision to be made, as called for by the golden rule. If people try to argue for a course of action based on selfish self-interest, good citizens and decent people will recognize and critique such positions as anti-democratic.
    Step 5) FREEDOM
    Live and let live; look kindly on people, both generally and specifically; feel free to find and create ways to be happy and enjoy life any way you can without hurting or infringing on others.

    • says

      Art — Sometimes I think the US needs a second Bill of Rights, or a Bill of Freedoms as I think FDR proposed (Freedom from Want, etc). Your list would be a good start.

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