Though we’ve had Transition Voice for almost a year now, last month was the first time I talked to Russian-American peak oil and economic analyst Dmitry Orlov, whose popular website, Club Orlov, offers both his own thoughts, and a vigorous community of like-minded readers.
Because Orlov takes a more skeptical, less forgiving look at collapse, I think I might have been tuning him out to a degree, considering myself not doomer enough for his club. Or maybe I had Panglossia when it came to him.
But my prejudices were upended when I took the time to read his book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects. Erik Curren just reviewed the book for us, but I have my own take, too, in fewer words; it’s awesome.
If you can call reading about peak oil and collapse “awesome.”
Infinitely readable — a page turner even — Orlov’s direct experience with Soviet collapse translates into an excellent historical perspective supported by research and a clear context. Yes, he’s pretty blunt, and doesn’t candy-coat things, but at the same time he’s efficient and even somewhat elegant in his writing. It’s a quick yet informative read and I highly recommend it.
Soon after I spoke with him and, still nervous about my perception of his intensity, I went into the interview not knowing what this guy would be like.
But like most tough guys, he turned out to be a big pussycat. Very nice, very approachable, funny, insightful, easy to talk to. Rather than finding a stodgy analyst of intellectual information — though he is quite sharp — I’d describe his approach as “moving with, rather than against, collapse.” That was one reason for the title for this article, “No shirt, no shoes, no problem.” Orlov’s is a view seasoned by experience, not just theoretical predictions. So there’s an insightful depth there that takes things seriously, while also operating from a deep sense that it’s “just life.”
Oh, and it was my first shirtless interview. Orlov, that is. He was shirtless. It was a very hot day and I interviewed him via Skype. He was on his boat. It was hot here, too. The heat wave of ’11. My shirt stayed on.
I’m on a boat
LC: I’m so glad we get a chance to talk to you today. I’ve done interviews with a bunch of people in the peak oil world and haven’t had a chance to talk to you, so I’m really excited to talk to you today. I wanted to just ask you some sort of basic things, kind of get your take on where things are today. Unless you have something to share, some thoughts to frame our conversation today we can just jump right into the questions I sent you.
DO: Let’s jump right in.
LC: I did ask you if you’re living in a top secret undisclosed location or something, like Dick Cheney or something. Are you?
DO: Well, I’m living in a secure facility if you will, the boat yard in Boston. There’s a guard shack at the entrance. I wave at the guard, say “Hi Gary,” or “Hi Dave,” you know, as I go by.
LC: Sounds like a “gated community,” huh?
DO: Sort of, yeah. I suppose it is a gated community. There is a gate. It’s usually open, though.
LC: So not in the way that some people building their little “compound” have a gated community. Just in the irreverent sense?
DO: The whole compound thing I think is, you know, silly in general. I’ve heard from a lot of people who are in, say, investment banking, and, you know, don’t really trust what they’re doing. So on top of doing investment banking they’re also building some sort of a bunker. That seems to be the mindset: “We’ll keep doing what we’re doing, but if it all falls apart then here’s our little self-contained Plan B.”
And I don’t think the world is that tidy.
Plutocrats and peak oil
LC: And so there are some investment bankers you know who are not feeling so secure about the direction things are going?
DO: They’re feeling extremely insecure. A lot of them are out of a job.
LC: Oh, okay. So it’s not just the freaks on the sidelines like you and me and the people who we read who are kind of going, “Hmm, things aren’t looking so good right now.”
DO: Oh the finance people are definitely freaks. They’re the freakiest people in the world.
LC: Not for the reasons we normally think though—for the kinds of investments they go for. But for actually maybe not believing in their own system, huh?
DO: Well, I don’t think belief has much to do with it. I think it’s, you know, greed and fear, and you balance the two against each other. And so they end up with a lot of strange coping mechanisms.
LC: And when you talk to people who are, say, in different work than you, do you keep a good humor about the view that they take on the world? How do you interact with people like that?
DO: Oh it really depends on the individual. I don’t think there’s really any standard approach.
LC: Okay, well the premise of your book seems to be that “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
You know, the US certainly has this vision of itself. We’re “the greatest nation on earth,” and then on top of it—even though it’s misunderstood on the Right—this idea of what “American exceptionalism” means now in its kind of new translation. And “we’re mighty!” and this kind of thing. Collapse just happens to other people.
But it seemed to me from reading your book that you were suggesting that because of a lot of those things, America’s self perception, if there were to be an economic collapse, or a convergence of collapse elements in the US, that it could actually be worse here. Could you tell us a little but about your thoughts on that?
DO: Yes, well the Americans are quite a bit more delusional than the Soviets were, by the end.
I think by the end of the Soviet Union the delusion of grandeur kind of wore thin in the Soviet Union. Everybody knew that the problems weren’t just cosmetic. It wasn’t just a rough patch. You know, it wasn’t something that, “Oh, we’ll just get over by trying the same thing a little bit harder.”
People realized that what they had been trying for the past 70 years basically didn’t work.
But in the United States, people are, most people are very far from realizing that what they’ve been doing basically doesn’t work and will probably end up killing a lot them. So there isn’t really that realization at all.
LC: And when you say that most people in America don’t realize that what we’re doing doesn’t work, meaning that it just simply isn’t on the average person’s radar at all? That we’re just coasting along like things are just like they are and there’s no reason really to wonder? “The economy will get better!” The whole idea that anything really hard could be looming on the horizon is just not in the picture at all for most Americans?
DO: Well, yes. And in that there’s this idea that, well, you have to produce something that is a selling, commercially viable product. Collapse is not a selling, commercially viable product. And it’s not a good method of crowd control either to explain to people that, you know, collapse is occurring. So it just doesn’t get done. There’s no impetus for getting it done.
I was looking at Mike Ruppert’s site today, and in one of his little comments that he intersperses with various news stories he said, “We’re herdling towards collapse, h-e-r-d, herdling.” It’s a really wonderful kind of mishmash of hurtling as a herd. And I thought, “Hmmm, he just coined a word. Isn’t that wonderful!”
That’s what we’re doing. We’re herdling towards collapse as an orderly stampede. As an orderly herd.
LC: And do you feel like while this whole debate rages on about debt (ED: this interview took place about two week before the debt ceiling deadline), and increasing the debt limit, and all the machinations in Washington, and all the theatrics, that there’s any real sense among the elected leaders that collapse is coming down the pike? Or are they as oblivious as the average schmoe?
DO: Oh, they’re not oblivious at all. What they’re doing is they’re converting their remaining political and financial power into hard goods, locking out everyone else. That’s really what they’re doing.
In terms of the debt crisis it’s really sort of theatrical suspension of disbelief, if you will; rating the creditworthiness of various bankrupt institutions. So, if you’re bankrupt, how creditworthy are you? Well it turns out that it’s not zero. There are all kinds of shades to being bankrupt.
One of the games that they’re playing, and it’s a very interesting, very dangerous game, sort of like juggling knives, is…
…if the economy, if the real physical economy is collapsing, unemployment keeps going up, more and more people are excluded from the economy all the time, then that gives you the ability to print money because the two things balance out. So you have this deflationary trend, of the economy collapsing, of property values and various asset prices falling, and at the same time you can re-inflate the economy by printing money. And that money ends up in the pockets of very few people who then use it to buy up physical goods. So that’s really the trend, we see this concentration of paper capital.
But in the end that paper will not be worth very much.
Collapse is for the lowly masses, not the elite
LC: Going back to what you were saying about them converting what they have into hard goods, I mean what are you talking about there? Are you talking about individuals who are in the highest leadership positions being highly cognizant that collapse is coming and just watching out for their own asses while they play a game for television and newspapers? Or what are you saying there?
DO: Well they want to perpetuate the fiction of control. That this is still making sense.
Now the point is that the economies of the world have stopped growing. They will never resume growth. And the preconditions for their continued existence, for the continuous existence of the financial schemes, they’re gone, they don’t exist anymore. So now there’s this strange paper shuffling game where they’re trying to pretend that everything is still under control, and normal, and to parley that into some sort of physical advantage where they lock down resources of various kinds—farmland or access to energy supplies, or whatever else.
LC: And what’s the motive there? “Who cares about the US, I’m just watching out for me and mine?”
DO: Well, the countries don’t matter anymore. The nation-state and sovereignty and things like that, it doesn’t matter any more. I mean, a big chunk of the US is Chinese-owned now, and so they’re the new masters. They can exert authority in more ways because power in China is less decentralized than in the US. So in the end they will call more shots than the Americans.
But in general, there are these transnational industrial and banking mafias that run the world and they don’t owe their allegiance to any one country. And the leaders of the various countries get together and their job is to appease the people who actually make the decisions, not to make the decisions themselves.
LC: Do you foresee any kind of revolt against this? Any kind of growing awareness or just headlong over the cliff for the lemmings?
DO: Revolt in this situation amounts to turning down your lunch. It’s like, “No thank you, I’m revolting and I wont eat today.” Where else are you going to get it?
So people are in no position to revolt. They’re completely dependent on this financial totalitarian scheme. There’s no opting out of it so there’s very little that people can do.
LC: Its a grim picture there.
Everywhere you go, there you are
LC: Let’s go to one of the other questions.
It did seem like in reading the book that, because—I’ve never been to Russia myself—I got the impression that there wasn’t as much debt among consumers, in how the people lived, there was more social cohesion, and more cultural memory and more working together in family and extended family and community. And so with that in place I felt a kind of a picture of, in some ways, of buffers making it a little better to sustain a collapse in the way that you wrote the book than, say, the atomization of the United States, for families and communities, as well as kind of every man on his own to make it in his little personal family personal niche.
So are you planning to stay, why are you planning to stay in the United States? And if so, why the United States versus being back in Russia for you?
DO: I don’t see why those are the two choices—
LC:—and they’re not…
DO: No matter what I pick I’m staying on this planet.
The other point is that the Soviet Union has collapsed already, so I’d be moving to a post-collapse place. Russia right now is a fairly strange country in a stable sort of way. By stable I mean it’ll hold together for a few more decades at least, because it’s so energy-rich and resource-rich. Not for any other reason.
I see that Soviet society had certain advantages in terms of surviving collapse, but it disintegrated in the course of that collapse.
What we have now in Russia is this gonzo capitalism where oil and natural gas revenues filter in and through the economy through various kinds of kickbacks and graft and corruption and inflate this very urban, middle class, prosperous society which only comprises a small percentage of the overall population.
The rest of the country is going extinct. Russians as a people are going extinct. There will be fewer and fewer large cities. The countryside is largely devastated and empty. And on top of that there are lots of environmental disasters coming down that may make growing food in Russia as dicey a proposition as elsewhere.
So Russia is slowly shriveling away as a country. There’s no longer a border between Russia and China. I think there are deals in the works where the entire eastern part of the Russian federation will eventually be leased out to China for various purposes. Big chunks of it are already.
And the villages of the idyllic, self-sufficient sort don’t really exist in Russia. There are a lot of little mini plantations bought up by city people here and there. In fact it’s pretty hard to find a place, a nice place in the countryside in Russia that hasn’t been bought up by people from St. Petersburg or Moscow.
It’s something that might hold together a little better than here, but I’m not so sure about it.
The other thing is people think that, “Oh well, yeah, you’re from Russia, so you came to the United States and now you can just go back.” No, going to the United States is a one-way ticket for most people.
When you come to the United States you stop being whoever you started out as, and you become this amorphous “American” that doesn’t fit anywhere else in the world. A lot of what becoming American means is kind of leaving behind the obligatory cultural baggage which is considered unnecessary in the United States. Oh, it’s still necessary wherever you came from. So you can’t go back there and say, “Well, you know, I left you behind, but here I am, take me back.” No, nobody’s going to take you back. And so it’s a one-way trip for everybody who comes here. Myself probably included.
LC: Are you an American citizen?
LC: Do you miss Russia?
DO: I have no idea what that means.
LC: Okay, do you miss your homeland? Do you miss family? Do you miss anything? Or just you’re where you are, whenever you are and that’s what it is?
DO: That’s what it is.
Keep your head down
LC: Alright. Okay, so, kind of playing off of your earlier comments, and looking at your take on the elected leaders as I put it before, and the games, the theatrics about what any of them might be doing personally, which for me is just supposition…But I’m not—I don’t trust these shysters at all, personally.
But at the same time, again from the book, I got a sense that you didn’t put a lot of stock in national level activism. That you have your own personal preparation in your own story. And advice that you give to others, maybe a little bit of community, but the kind of political action—I mean I’m a big “revolutionary” (ha), I’m ready to “overthrow” the whole thing— it doesn’t sound like you see a lot of purpose for that. Can you tell me why?
DO: First of all part of my preparation is understanding that the political situation in the world at large and in the United States too, eventually, is going to devolve into something pretty nasty. To where people are getting held up at check points and the undesirables are herded away and I don’t want to be one of them. So I’m not going to be a rebel and get shot. I don’t really want that to happen to me. So I’m not going to take part in any sort of futile organized rebellion or anything of that sort.
In terms of preparations. Yes, people do this and that to prepare if it makes sense. Some don’t.
I know a lot of people who are starting little mini plantations and mini farms and growing their own foods. And yet they drive around like mad. If they were cut off from the gasoline supply, or if there were check points on the road where produce was confiscated, then they wouldn’t stand a chance. They just wouldn’t be able to survive, so the preparations are sort of status quo preparations. They’re sort of in this magic la-la land where, “We’re sort of preparing for something but once it occurs, how is it going to work?” I have no idea.
LC: I feel that a lot. I say something similar quite often to Erik, that I feel a very palpable sense that something is happening, or is going to happen. That it’s inevitable. And yet everything is exactly as it ever was. So it’s kind of, there’s a quality of insanity to it. I’m aware that it’s all just a deluded thing around me, but I still get in my car to go to the gigantic supermarket to go get some food. I’m writing again, and again, and again about issues that concern me, and it seems that the things I’m pointing to are untenable, they can’t possibly last. And yet they last and they last and they last. And I start to feel like, “Is this real?” And then I conclude, “Yes it is real, but why am I writing about it because nothing’s really happening?” And it’s a really tough position, I think, for people to be in, whether they’re actively working in the peak oil community, or whether they’re just a person who is kind of sensing that things aren’t all together right.
But then the sun rises tomorrow and things look the same and it’s…
..I can also feel a sense of futility about certain preparations. I don’t even have really land, maybe a bit more than a boat, but I’ve got about four feet by about six feet in my front yard in two beds in which I can grow something and the sage and the chives and the basil that are out there aren’t going to feed me very much. So I can see where it’s sort of tough to prepare, but maybe it’s a personal thing.
I’m enraged by the falseness of our government as well as the culture in so many ways that I can’t help but feel like it all needs to be ripped to shreds. And maybe that’s just my own thing. That’s just an aside. I’m not asking you a question there. I’m just rambling about my desire to have a revolution.
DO: I think you’re too hard on American politicians because look at the people they’re governing. If you tried to rule these people you would probably end up just like them. It’s a completely thankless task unless you find some benefit in it for yourself. So the politicians are hard pressed to make it worth their while to be politicians. I can commiserate with them about the quality of the populace because democracy is really for people who are capable of self-governance.
Now Americans at large are not capable of self-governance. They expect to be protected from each other. They expect to be provided for. They expect for things to remain the same even when this doesn’t make any more sense. And those are their expectations. So they expect to be lied to.
If you stop lying to Americans they would kill you. That is the bind that our national politicians are in and we should feel sorry for them.
LC: Oh, I do quite often. I definitely do feel that it’s the system at large. But I go back and forth. Is it the politicians? Is it the media? Is it the interface? Is it the people? And you know, it’s hard to unravel the cat’s cradle of insanity that the entire ball of yarn is. So.
But I have to remain true to myself and for whatever reason I want to “overthrow” it.
Getting there from here
LC: Anyway, so what do you think of the Transition movement as a possible solution for communities or individuals?
DO: Well it presupposes the idea that you can get there from here.
Part of what they try to do is this sort of incrementalist approach where you change one thing at a time. You do what’s doable. You open it up to society at large, and see what little thing can be done. What little token of activity is possible. Maybe grow a little corn, maybe open a bike lane, maybe put up a little wind generator somewhere. Whatever. Do a little carpooling.
But what if you can’t get there from here? What if post-collapse society doesn’t resemble this society in any way, shape or form?
What if you basically have to start out from the point of view of, “Well, most of you won’t make it?”
There are situations like that that I’ve been in. For example engineering school. Dean’s address to freshmen, “Look to your right. Look to your left. Remember those people. Two semesters from now, they won’t be around. Our attrition rate is 75%.” That’s engineering school in the United States.
Why is collapse supposed to be better than engineering school, let me ask you that? Why is it supposed to be softer on people?
LC: So, too idealistic a view of the conditions that will allow for such a transformation?
DO: Yes, I mean, it’s not really idealism. It’s just this basic supposition that such a transformation is possible. A transformation where you take something and you convert it into something else. Not you take something, you throw it on the ground, step on it and then look around and see what else you can build.
The youth vote
LC: People who—well you talked about sort of compassion for politicians, or at least understanding the situation that they’re in—and understanding the position that anybody’s in if they’re dimly aware that circumstances are not likely to move in the same expected direction as, say, we’ve been raised to believe they’re going to. What else are people supposed to do?
I mean, is it just human nature that people will attempt to forge solutions, or is it your viewpoint that they’re deluded? Or is there some worth or merit in trying to do something?
Where do you stand on just the human condition of recognizing a change and trying to move with it and communicate with others as best as they can?
DO: I see that happening. I think it’s happening naturally. It mostly right now affects young people.
Now if you look at what’s happening to young people now, not just in this country but around the world. But specifically in this country, two-thirds of college graduates can’t find a job that they were supposedly training for. They can’t pay back their student loans. They’re dropping out of the system. It changes their world view. When young people are going to college, most don’t know the answer to the question “how much money can I borrow for student loans?“, they are not given much information, causing confusion with all of it, this, in turn, has a knock-on effect on what they go on to eventually do after college.
The idea that you’re going to work for worldly goods is out the window. There is basically a different value system that’s taking shape in little pockets of younger people around the world. Where what they’re interested in, what makes them interested in each other, is something that ideally we don’t know about. They’re creating their little hermetic societies and sects and cliques from which the older generation is going to be completely excluded.
You see this in American society, where older people can not talk to younger people. They’re afraid of them. There’s this incredible fear of youth that permeates American society. There’s this incredible urge to control young people, to structure their activities. To make sure they’re supervised at all times. When they act up, to make sure that they’re medicated as soon as possible with psychoactive substances, etcetera.
Because there’s a split going on.
The older generations think they can live out their years the way they’ve been used to it. The younger generation wont have it. And that’s the truth about that. We’re going to be old and helpless surrounded by people who can’t relate to us.
LC: Do you have kids?
LC: I have two children. I have 14 and 16 year old daughters. And I personally find a big struggle because… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Waldorf School system? But that’s kind of how I raised my girls. Low media, low exposure to the pop cultural world. Doing a lot of knitting and crocheting and gardening and writing by hand and blah blah blah. Which hasn’t…I mean they’re normal…but they don’t have cell phones. They don’t text. I barely let them use the computer. But they interact with their peers and they’re normal kids in every kind of way.
But I sometimes look at their generation and I think, what you’re talking about on one hand is sort of those kids going and forming another path, and on another hand I sometimes wonder if this is the most ill-equipped generation to inherit this freaking chaos? Because they’re so used to sitting with their thumbs twiddling a mile a minute on texting and their computer communications and a sort of a disconnect from the world of real inputs—work to, not to gain something in the sense of material goods, but any palpable engagement with the physical body in some real way.
What do you think of youth inheriting this freaking chaos?
DO: I think they’re perfectly well adjusted. Because there’s nothing to be done. There’s nothing to work towards.
You know it’s a shrinking, a negative sum game. It’s going to be less and less from now on, poorer and poorer quality on a still very crowded planet. So the best you can do is distract yourself.
And so now we have these wonderful branded experiences that various corporations are providing us with. Little glowing electronic devices. The world around us can become incredibly ugly and decrepit and run down and just cave in on itself, but if we have this tiny little glowing box with our friends in it, represented by shiny little avatars, then everything is fine, everything is cool, and we can be comfortable. And not go crazy, in this artificial little realm.
So the whole economy may be caving in, it’s the economy of cars and houses and jet aircraft. Which part of economy is doing well? Facebook, Twitter. Things that isolate you from physical reality as much as possible.
Why? Because physical reality isn’t worth looking at anymore. We’re just going to escape into this artificial, electronic realm and that’ll be the endgame.
LC: Well, not to confine you to a specific time period of predictions about something like that. But, I mean, Google for example has these gigantic, massive servers that obviously are huge energy eaters that are required to make them function. Facebook has the same thing. How long can this kind of thing be sustained in the face of a real world physical decline?
DO: You can probably have three or four or five more Googles, maybe ten or a hundred more Googles, if you get rid of various bloated corporations with their useless servers. If you get rid of the US government with all of their spinning capacity.
Basically you can have economic growth in the promising areas by having economic collapse in the non-promising ones.
Imagine just how much capacity you suddenly create if you do away with the global automobile industry? Or if you suddenly make it impossible to have people fly to a vacation? Now, that is a very easy thing to do. All you have to do there is some kind of a terrorist scare, you know, depress demand.
So there’s a lot to be sacrificed..
LC: Without anyone noticing?
DO: Oh, the people who notice won’t matter. That’s how this works.
The reason those parts of the economy are failing is because the participants in that economy haven’t fled to higher ground. Maybe they’re like, as Mike Ruppert says, they’re like the slowest camper that the bear is going to catch.
LC: So you don’t have the most optimistic outlook about things?
DO: I think it’s fairly optimistic. I think it’s going to be a technological future that will include some people.
LC: Oh, okay. I didn’t actually know that that was the direction that your thoughts trended.
I thought more that you were defining things more in terms of our immediate physical environment, our communities, and recognizing the decay that was around us.
But you feel that simultaneously to that that there’ll be a lot of technological distractions?
DO: I’m trying to help everybody. And not just the people who are extra smart and extra capable and will make it no matter what. Because there will always be those. You know it’s a very tenacious race that we have. And people are this invasive, weedy species that adapts to any circumstance. So I’m not worried about the survival of the human race.
What I’m trying to talk about is people in general. Just everyone. The widest audience. My readers are just an incredible cross section of the population, young and old and all over the world. Because I’m talking to them about how they can adapt. How they can at least start thinking in ways that will make it possible for them to adapt.
Back in the U.S.S.R.
LC: What motivates you, Dmitry? Why do you care about helping people?
DO: I don’t know what else there is to do. I could help myself but that is a very sort of self limiting sort of activity. Helping people is a very pleasurable activity. So I think it’s its own reward.
LC: And what initially made you trend in the direction of energy observations and observations about economy and collapse. What, either part of your background, or part of your nature, would you point to as…
DO: Oh, I can totally explain that. Basically I kept going back to the Soviet Union right before the collapse, and to Russia after the collapse.
And around ’96 or so I started thinking that I really wanted to know why the Soviet Union collapsed. Because all of the rationales that were given, like…Americans for some reason thought that it had something to do with them. Ronald Reagan was supposedly somebody who had something to do with it. You know, “ The Great Actor” stood around and said things and made a huge land empire collapse. That’s untenable.
So I tried to figure out why that happened. And I came upon research done by Campbell and Laherrère and Deffeyes and Jay Hanson and a few other people that totally made sense. Because basically the Soviet Union could grow by expanding its resource base. And could sustain itself.
Now a few years before the collapse their oil production crashed because they exceeded the limits of their technology. And their technology involved drilling wells, letting them gush, and producing them while they were gushing and then abandoning them. Capping them off and moving on. So they ran out of places to move on to. And suddenly their oil production was crashing.
At the same time they became very dependent on imports of consumer items and food from around the world, and so that needed foreign revenue which they got from natural gas and oil.
So the combination of a slowing industrial base, a shrinking industrial base because there was less and less oil, and less and less foreign revenue because the oil was selling at these rock bottom prices, basically doomed them. And they realized that pretty early on.
The rest of it was just this sort of attempt to survive on the part of the Soviet elite, scrambling for position and resources. They weren’t trying to save the system at that point.
That all fell into place for me because of oil. And that approach was later vindicated because people looked at the analysis of Soviet and Russian GDP and how it fell apart. And basically the leading indicator was the fall in oil production, then the GDP fell, then coal and natural gas production fell as well. And then there was a run on effect where there was a secondary stage of destruction. So it all kind of made sense to me.
Now, transferring that to the United States, well, there was a domestic peak in oil production in 1970, it caused the US to go off the gold standard, and basically coerced the rest of the world into exporting its oil to the United States in exchange for printed money that has been dropping in value ever since. And that gambit has been playing out for over thirty years now.
But it’s sort of a treadmill of sorts where things get worse and worse and worse over time, and what dooms it eventually is when global oil peaks. Because you can import your way out of a local peak, but you can not import your way out of a global peak. It hits everyone at the same time.
But not entirely.
Some people are better positioned than others. So China is better positioned than the United States now. But essentially that is the end game for the United States as well. Less oil means a smaller economy. But the financial requirements are still the same and some of the physical requirements are still the same. That is the undoing that we’re witnessing right now.
LC: Do you feel that with, say, friends or family members in Russia, all the visits when you went back, did you talk to other people? It stands to reason that you talked to other people about their perception of things. What did you find that their take was? Anything along the lines of the way you were analyzing or were they too inside it to really see?
DO: Well, the best reaction you hope for is, “Oh, hmm, very interesting.”
LC: What else you got?
Collapse American style
LC: Well, we sort of covered this a bit, but it certainly sounds like you don’t think most people in America even have a clue. The thought being that Americans think this only happens to people in other countries. For most Americans it’s not even on the radar.
But what about the other aspect of the question. In terms of our guns, our militarism, our “I want my MTV.” And Starbucks and McDonalds and I’m driving around and I’m consuming things and I’m tossing them out.
What do you foresee if things converge in such a way that there’s a harsh comedown, how ugly do you think things could get in the US, citizen to citizen?
DO: As ugly as it is. If you want to see ugly go to Flint, Michigan. Go to Detroit. There’s lots of places in the rust belt that—you go there and they’re really post-collapse already. And there’s more and more of them every year. We’re losing entire cities. It’s an ongoing process. And it’s very, very ugly.
LC: Ugly in what way?
DO: People get killed. A lot of people don’t survive. A lot of people’s lives get ruined. So that’s happening. It’s not something we look forward to in the future. It’s happening today.
It’s just that Americans have this strange idea that, “Well, it happens to somebody else.” It’s always happening to “somebody else.” And then when it happens to you, it’s, “Oh, that’s just my bad luck.” Suddenly I’m somebody else. But it doesn’t relate. It just bounces off people.
So we’re not talking about some fictional realm that only exits in the future. We’re talking about this country today.
LC: And we’re just inoculated from it because this isn’t the kind of stuff we talk about as Americans. We just, like you said earlier, we want to be lied to. So we’re kind of just dealing with what’s in our own neighborhood. And that’s the stuff that happens in bad neighborhoods. Not in my neighborhood. Until it happens in my neighborhood. Or to me.
DO: Yeah. You can sort of separate Americans into polite society and not-so-polite society. I think I straddle the two worlds in some ways.
But in polite society there’s a definite limit to what people will deal with. They have this basic idea that “everything is going to be alright.” You have no right to tell them otherwise. They won’t listen to you if you do. If you don’t believe that “everything is going to be alright” there’s something wrong with you. You need to be medicated or something. You need therapy. You’re not optimistic enough to join polite society.
And then there are the people who never stood a chance in that realm at all. They’re just living their lives however they can. They’re deeply flawed. Their lives are in some sense ruined already by this environment that they’ve been in. And nothing is ever going to be alright for them. And therefore they will not be admitted. They’re shunned. So there’s this internal shunning process that goes in this country, where we have the normal people and then we have the people who have “problems.” And what people can’t admit to themselves here is that they all have problems. Or, more likely, they all have the same problems.
LC: Yeah, we feel that a lot.
Erik sometimes mentions that, you know, in other societies if you ask people genuinely, “How are you?” be prepared to hear what ever’s going on with them. That it might be not a pretty picture, and they want to share it with you. And you’re going to have a conversation and things are going to stop and you’ll engage with them for the period of time that you’re…and maybe you’ll even be called to action in some way by them, or you’ll want to be. You’re really relating to a real human being.
Where in America it’s all about, “Everything’s fine!” You know? “I have a great life!” And anything that’s bad for me, that wouldn’t be something I would bring up, because that’s just not what you do here. And that’s a hard thing to live with. You have to be fake. You have to be Hollywood to get by here.
DO: Well a lot of people just don’t put up with that at all. I realize that that’s going on and so there’s a built-in filter for the “How are you?” “Fine” sort of people. So it’s like they’re not real. They’re fake.
But you know I could walk down the street and find somebody who’s probably going to be black or Latino, who’s NOT like that. AT ALL! And never has been.
LC: Yes, perhaps we don’t admit to that as the cultural norm because we have too narrow a view of what is the cultural norm.
DO: I don’t even have a view of what the cultural norm is. I just know that certain types of interactions are very standard and at the same time not very useful. It’s sort of like dealing with livestock—
DO: Well, I like sheep too much.
Life is what you make of it
LC: Well, might be a silly, silly question but, Do you have any view on where are better places to be in the United States now that we’re in the throes of collapse?
DO: It really depends on who you are. And what your interactions with other people are.
I used to think that Boston is kind of a dreadful place to be. But again it depends on who you are here. Because Boston, strangely enough, has a lot of families that have been here for generations that know each other pretty well.
And I’ve been here long enough that my accent flips back and forth now. It depends. Even when I speak with a local, I sound like a local. I only recently became aware of this. That there are people who listen to En-Pee-Are and there are people who list to En-Pee-Aah.
LC: Ah huh. Are you a Southie?
DO: No, I’m not a Southie.
LC: I’m just kidding.
DO: But you see it’s a different society. It’s very different from your kind of normal, branded American experience. It’s something that was sort of left behind. I think that that overall stands more of a chance everywhere.
It’s this thing called, some people call it “Weird Old America.” It’s the stuff that doesn’t fit in. It’s the stuff that never stood a chance. But it’s still around, because it works. And so if you’re a part of that anywhere, then you might stand a chance with it.
It’s the United States of Generica that’s really doomed.
DO: But there are lots of little islands, lily pads, and you might hop from one to another and make a home on one, maybe on a couple. But it’s really a creative act. It’s not a prescription.
LC: Right. I’ve often felt that way. You know you go down any strip in some sort of generic town that’s all sprawl and built out, and it doesn’t look like anything. But the byways of America, down the forgotten roads, there’s, I think, so much about people…people are people anywhere you go all over the world. Certainly mass culture has it’s way of infiltrating that. But then there are many ways that it’s not touched, or wholly touched, or not completely polluted and there’s a lot of good stuff to find, I think.
So how long have you lived in Boston? What do you do? And how long have you lived on that boat?
DO: I’ve been in Boston for over thirty years now.
I’ve lived on a boat…we’ve had the boat for about five years. We lived on it for a couple of years and then I had it hauled out and did a lot of stuff to it and now we’re living on it again. It’s quite a bit more comfortable and better because of all the stuff that I’ve done. So we’ll be overwintering on it in Boston. We’ll see how that goes.
But you know it’s demanding in some ways.
There’s a whole subculture of people living on boats. Even in places like Boston. There’s lots more of them in Florida, of course. But it’s something that can be done.
It’s kind of an escape hatch because on the water you don’t pay rent per se. You rent a marina slip but that’s not very expensive.
So it’s kind of an interesting way to escape the whole real estate and rental racket in this country where people have this deluded notion that housing is an asset. Housing is a cost. It’s just warehousing people. You’re paying to store people—how’s that an asset?
Living on a boat kind of rescues you from that entire realm in a sense, although having a place on land can be very nice.
And I’ve been working mostly in IT as a software engineer.
LC: I had someone ask me a question about the housing situation. This came from the Internet from one of our readers. He asks,
I’d like to hear more about the experience of average families during the Soviet collapse. Did they sell everything they had to buy food? Did gardens spring up everywhere? Or did they go hungry? Were store shelves empty of certain items?
And then here is the part that relates to what you just said:
I worry too because they lived in Soviet housing whereas we have mortgages.
And so you touched upon that. And we do have tons of ideas wrapped up around the investments, and we just had the housing bubble, and, but then even rents. I mean my gosh, How the Hell do people even make it in America? And I know because I was a single mom for ten years before I met Erik and raised my kids without child support on very, very, very low income. Having to use cash loans every now and again to help me make big purchases or cover emergency costs. Just making rent is back-breaking in this country and cash loans really did save me many times. In the beginning, I didn’t even know how to establish credit and then all of a sudden I was trying to maintain credit because of the loans I was taking. I know a lot of people who rely on lenders to help them get through the month. So it takes up a good part of that energy in terms of how we can engage with our society and culture.
So what’s your take on how that’s affecting us as things are getting more dicey?
DO: I think that there’s the standard pattern of inhabiting the landscape, which is the detached ticky-tacky house with a driveway. So that’s the thing to get rid of.
There’s this iron triangle of House-Car-Job, and the entire landscape is structured so you have to have all three or your life falls apart. People have to be creative in escaping from there.
One promising direction is indoor camping. You wouldn’t want to live in an abandoned commercial building, right, of which millions dot the landscape in the United States. But if you bribe the right people and gain access, officially, semi officially, or whatever, you might be able to pitch a tent inside. You might even get that tent heated during the winter, a little propane heater. You might put in a water collection and filtration system. A composting toilet. Outfit it. Start a whole village. You know, protected from the elements until the roof caves in.
But that’s how people will have to deal with it once the whole real estate racket really degenerates. Because this housing stock that has been built up in this country is really unmaintainable. It’ll cave in on itself anyway. It’s just like little puff balls of vinyl siding and drywall and what have you and it’s just not going to last.
But there will be fairly substantial commercial buildings—because commercial real estate is so overbuilt—that people will be able to squat in and will be able to call home for periods of time.
So people have to open up their minds and realize that, you know, different landscape, different country.
LC: The crappy real estate notwithstanding—fortunately we don’t have that, we have a nice little brick Victorian house, plaster walls, pretty, feels good to live in, but we have a mortgage just like anyone else. So we’re feeling vulnerable, like many people.
Do you already know of villages like this that are springing up?
And also if there’s just such a widespread crash of everything are people really going to be ousted from their homes, or might there be a, could you envision a scenario in which it’s pointless to put 300 million families out on the streets milling around wondering where to go?
DO: Well it’s happening already if you read the news.
LC: Yeah, but even larger scale in other words?
DO: It’s already fairly large scale. Have you looked at the foreclosure phenomenon around the country? How many people, how many families have been thrown out of their houses?
LC: What’s the latest figures?
DO: I don’t have the figures. But it’s a very substantial percentage of the population that’s jobless, long term unemployed, no place to live, living in cars or shelters or campgrounds.
The New York state has recently even introduced a program where they’ll be increasing the number of campgrounds because there’s such a huge homeless population. I’ve visited some campgrounds that really have the feel of long term kind of unofficial communities. So more and more of that is happening.
Now, to answer your question, Do I know of any communities like that? Well if I did I wouldn’t tell you because you’d blab it all over the Internet.
LC: Ha ha!
DO: You don’t get things like that to work if there are journalists around.
LC: Okay, alright, well I’ll keep them under my lid. I know nothing!
Uncle Sam may or may not want you!
What do you think is going to come down the pike with the US? How do you think the US government will respond as oil supplies tighten, prices rise and the economy weakens further?
Pointing guns at us? Herding us up?
Business as usual?
DO: They’ll probably do some inane sorts of Homeland Defense initiative type things. Because that is sort of on autopilot. Until that runs out of money it will continue doing incredibly stupid things. Tightening visa requirements on foreigners, tightening various other kinds of requirements. Just becoming basically more and more invasive in people’s lives for no good reason. For this myth of safety. So they’ll continue to pursue that.
A lot of the system is just this sort of automaton, running amok, executing a program that no longer makes any sense.
But in terms of the politicians themselves, you know, they know that they have to lie, right? So the only real competition is in how well you lie and what new lies you come up with when the old lies stop working. They’ll continue doing that until somebody turns the lights off and the cameras off. Basically while there’s a camera pointed at them they’ll continue doing it.
They have this neat way of slicing and dicing the political pie into Left and Right, which completely excludes the middle. They’ll continue doing that.
LC: Business as usual.
The Collapse Party
LC: In your book, the part talking about the Collapse Party, but in my e-mail, as you touched on earlier Americans don’t like things that seem negative, so who the hell’s going to get anywhere with anything called the “Collapse Party?” Not that it doesn’t make total sense. But does it have currency?
The fact that you said that you kind of don’t see much point for activism, it’s essentially kind of pointless.
But is there room for other political parties to emerge or is that, where do you, well…how serious of an idea was that? It seemed a little bit joking in the book. But at the same time, politics are real, whether it’s just your community, your locality or at a bigger scale.
DO: The interesting thing about the Collapse Party is that it has worked without fielding a single candidate. Most of the agenda is actually being pushed through on a rather aggressive timeline without any actual budget or anything like that. That is actually a good piece of news.
The Collapse Party advocated shutting down nuclear power and lo and behold that’s starting to happen. And many other things like that. Troops are being repatriated. Not fast enough, but still.
I think that the Collapse Party is actually, it’s agenda is succeeding faster than could actually be hoped if it were a real political party.
So I think that collapse has its own momentum and its own requirements and it will take shape. I don’t think we actually have to get involved in politics to watch it happen. To watch it unfold. We can just fold our arms and take a back seat and be happy.
LC: That’s interesting because as I heard you say that I felt happiness there. So what’s the root of the happiness? That it’s tearing down illusion and putting something real in its place. Or what’s going on there that collapse is a good thing?
DO: The alternative to collapse is this kind of nasty slow burn that leaves a completely devastated planet incapable of supporting life.
So the faster this pustule is pierced, the more hope for the patient. It is like lancing a boil. It may be an unsightly process but the sooner it happens the better for everyone.
LC: Good, okay.
Let’s Hear It For The Boy(s)
LC: One other question that came from the Internet that I want to ask you and then we’ll wrap it up here. This guy says that,
You famously said that ‘middle age men become tiresome during collapse.’ Being a middle aged man, a white guy, too, I’m talking about me, not about you, though I guess you’re both of those things, also. Do you offer any middle aged man advice for getting through a societal collapse?
And he said you feel it’s going to be harder on middle aged men.
DO: I tried something and it works and I advocate other middle aged men do it as well. Retire immediately. Just drop it. Go to work: Resign.
And then make what ever adjustments are needed considering that you’re not going to have much of an income. Have a little bit of an income. But get rid of the mortgage, obviously. Get rid of the car.
If the family can’t deal with it, that’s their problem.
Just shirk off. See how that, see where that takes you. How that changes your life. Wait a couple of years and then go back to work. But a reset like that will just completely change your perspective.
Most of the people who are in the danger zone as far as I’m concerned are ready to just basically work until retirement and then die shortly thereafter. And chances are their career won’t even hold together that long. That is becoming a rarity, too.
But the thing that gets them most depressed is just the complete thanklessness of being plugged into something that they don’t believe in. Just because they feel that this is what their sense of self worth depends on. And they start hating themselves and hating everything around them and they become very self-destructive internally. And that’s not good.
So my advice is just go fishing for a few years. You can afford it. It doesn’t matter whether anyone else can. But if you’re like a middle-aged, successful, educated, bread-winner you can probably put together the funds to go fishing for two years. Let everybody else go and eat what they kill. You go and fish.
LC: We’ve experienced a little bit like that here, because both Erik and I have been out of a job for over a year. So we just do Transition Voice now and you know we’re pretty basically totally cobbling by on next to nothing. And pretty much happier, I mean we’re really happy! Because we’re doing what we love.
But when it first happens it feels like it’s a big shock to your life, but really it’s a better life than working for other people. I’ve kind of worked for myself a lot. For Erik it was a big change. But I think he’s really embracing it now.
DO: That’s good. That’s helpful. The only word of caution there is you do actually have to drop your burn rate.
Some people think, “Oh wow, this is for a while and we’ll figure out something else,” and meanwhile they’re just burning through their reserve. So that’s pretty important.
A lot of people, they don’t want to take the steps that are there but don’t seem fashionable. Like moving into an RV, getting rid of the house. A perfectly reasonable thing to do but it’s not stylish enough.
LC: Right, right. Definitely. And I think also, just a whole host of normal lifestyle things that really aren’t necessary when you get right down to them and kind of free you up when you don’t think you need to spend money on them any more.
There’s certainly ways to make it liberating but it certainly takes making a conscious effort in that direction.
LC: So you’re sitting around shirtless. Is it hot in Boston?
DO: Yeah, it’s like 94 degrees here right now but there’s a sea breeze though, so it’s not bad.
LC: And do you have solar panels or something on the boat? How do you power the boat besides the motor that I saw? I mean heat for this upcoming winter. You said you’d be wintering over on the boat?
DO: We spend the winter at the dock so we’re plugged in to a 30 amp 115 circuit and so we run little space heaters.
We don’t have AC. I actually considered getting one. Like one of those little RV cabin top things? I actually thought about doing that because this is kind of ridiculous right now. And it’s only going to get worse.
But we have solar panels so we can run electronics and lights and fridge just from the solar panels. So we’re relatively well equipped for anything.
LC: Sounds good.
So I think that was everything that I had for you.
But did you have anything that you think would be beneficial for our readers to hear? Or just something I haven’t touched on? Just thoughts you’re having?
I have a blog that I’ve been neglecting recently because I started a job, but I’ll probably get back to it. I don’t know how active it is but I write whenever the spirit moves me. And sometimes it’s a thousand words and sometimes it’s 20,000 words. It varies.
Once in a while I drop a huge article in there. It’s Cluborlov.com.
If people want to get in touch with me my email is on there. You have to put it together yourself. It’s under contacts. I generally respond to emails if people have questions. And talk to people on the phone even, sometimes. People should feel free to get in contact with me and ask me more questions if they have something specific they want to find out
And also I’ve been invited to speak at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil in Washington this fall.
LC: Right, right.
DO: And I need researchers.
So if somebody knows how to do research on economics and energy industry specifically, get in touch with me. Because I definitely need some help. I don’t have enough time to put numbers together. To put models together. So anybody out there who wants to help, that would be appreciated.
LC: Okay, sure we’ll get that out to the readers.
And we were at ASPO last year covering the event for the four days. We may be there again this year. We have to look into, well we don’t have a boat that we can just moor down in Occoquan or wherever so we’re looking for funding. So we’re not quite sure we’re going to be table to go this year or not.
And New Society was kind enough to send your book, which we both just finished reading and Erik’s doing a review of that which will come out near to the time of this interview. That will be hopefully in the next week.*
LC: So thanks so much for talking to me today. And it was great to meet you and thanks so much for sharing your take on things.
DO: Alright, well thank you very much.
*Editor’s Note: I failed miserably at that timetable — this has come out about a month after we talked. Such is the nature of volunteer writing, editing and publishing.
–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice