Saturday, May 9, 2009
Anyone following my blog on a regular basis will know that I am a relentless dabbler in the literature of civilizational collapse. I seem drawn to reading this stuff as a moth to flame, ricocheting back and forth like a billiard ball between the recondite pronouncements of Timothy Geithner (that we'll get through this and that none of the biggest banks are at risk for insolvency) and my own fitful but persistent inner panic that says no, dear, we won't.
This pessimistic side is reinforced every time I read another doom-writer like Derrick Jensen or James Howard Kunstler, and, more recently, Dimitry Orlov, whose book "Reinventing Collapse" I have just finished. The problem is, I tend to believe both sides, knowing of course that they can't both be right, since they avow diametrically opposite things. The Obama-Geithner axis projects a slow but inevitable recovery; by contrast, here is some quintessential Orlov:
"Let us not even try to imagine that this will all just blow over. Make no mistake about it: this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty."
The soup in question is "collapse soup," whose ingredients must be present for a modern, military-industrial superpower to collapse. The required ingredients are: a severe and worsening trade deficit; a runaway military budget; and ballooning foreign debt. Apply heat to this mix, which can be supplied by a humiliating military defeat or a looming catastrophe that generates huge amounts of fear (provided in the instance of Russia by the war in Afghanistan, and by the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl). Stir the pot, and you will get a tasty order, not of Chinese wonton, but of Dimitry Orlov's collapse soup.
Orlov, who was born and grew up in Leningrad, has lived in the U.S. ever since the mid-1970s, but he returned to Russia during the late 1980s for several extended visits, in order to study various stages of the Soviet collapse. As an experienced observer of the phenomenon of collapse, he was hoping to understand what happens when a modern economy crashes, and the complex society it supports disintegrates. The collapse of the U.S., he claims, may seem as unlikely now (his book, published last year, was written before the extreme downturn in the economy) as the demise of the Soviet Union appeared to be in l988, but the warning signs read loud and clear.
In the end, Russia was able to bounce back because of its rich reserves of oil and natural gas, which is not true of the U.S. The Soviet Union did not need to import energy, whereas oil production in the U.S. peaked in 1970 and has been declining ever since. Its economy was never based on runaway consumerism, nor on huge credit debt, as is ours. American car-based culture, which has to import three-quarters of its oil, is destined to find itself without enough energy to keep its economy functioning. In truth, as the world's largest debtor nation, the U.S. is already technically bankrupt. I read this, I cringe, and know that it is true.
Listening to Geithner and Obama, however, you get a rather different impression. They assure us that by saving the banks and greening the economy, disaster can be averted. The goddess of technology will provide clean energy to galvanize another century of economic recovery. Orlov, however, mocks the prospect of biofuels as a lethal exercise in futility; it amounts to burning one's food to feed the car addiction and destroying what is left of topsoil in order to continue driving. "Welcome to the sideshow at the end of the universe," he writes. These kinds of solutions are nothing less than boondoggles--they result in more severe problems than those they attempt to solve. I must say I felt the full impact of this comment when I caught the final minutes of a documentary on PBS the other week, about the prospect of mining lithium on the high steppes of Bolivia--lithium being the crucial component for battery-driven electric cars. This single area in Bolivia seems to contain the world's supply of lithium, and corporations are already in a bidding war for mining rights. Once we've destroyed another remote region of the earth with our tragic ambitions, and the lithium disappears, then what?
Orlov suggests that a better alternative would be to reduce energy consumption by progressively shutting down all non-vital parts of the economy, and redistributing our limited resources to uniformly provide for the welfare of the entire population. But he isn't holding his breath waiting for this to happen. "Since such a revolution is not politically possible, the only remaining alternative is economic and political collapse."
God knows these are not good days to be in the auto business. The entire industry seems to be folding its tent and vanishing in front of our very eyes. So it was synchronicity at work again when somebody alerted me this week to the work of a design student at the University of Central Lancashire in England named Sara Watson. Watson was given a Skoda Fabia car by a local recycling firm; she then spray painted its surface so the car blends in with the building and parking lot of her studio (as in the photo above). Viewed from exactly the right angle, the entire car magically disappears. The procedure took the artist about three weeks to accomplish, and the art work is being used as advertising for the local recycling firm that donated it.
I'm always happy when art has the last word. But this time, the last word has to go to Orlov, who on page 82 of "Reinventing Collapse" has this to say about my hapless subject for the past month: plastic debris: "The last act in the American consumerist tragedy will end with the now naked consumer standing on top of a giant mound of plastic trash. At the end of an economy where everything is disposable stands the disposable consumer. But once the consumer is disposed of, who will be left to take him out with the trash?" (Orlov's blog can be found at cluborlov.blogspot.com.)