“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