Monday, September 03, 2007

After Peak Oil

The Loss of Technological Comforts
Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century

Dmitry Orlov

Warning: what I am about to say may be somewhat unpleasant, but I'd like to get the issue out of the way. Most of the technological progress of the 20th century resulted in a higher level of physical comfort. Yes, that's why we caused global warming, a hole in the ozone layer, and a mass extinction of plants, fish, birds, and mammals: to be somewhat more comfortable for a little while.

We all expect heating and air-conditioning, hot and cold water, reliable electricity, personal transportation, paved roads, illuminated streets and parking lots, maybe even high-speed Internet. Well, what if you had to give up all that? Or, rather, what will you do when you have to give up all that?

Most of our ancestors put up with a level of physical discomfort we would find appalling: no running hot water, an outhouse instead of a flush toilet, no central heat, and one's own two feet, or a horse, as the main means for getting around. And still they managed to produce a civilization and a culture that we can just barely manage to emulate and preserve.

Let's start with the most important civilizing element: the toilet. It's what sets us apart from other higher primates, who think nothing of throwing their feces about just to make a point. You don't have to go to the zoo to find examples: on a recent afternoon, as I was bicycling past the Fresh Pond Mall in Cambridge, Massachusetts - a short stretch suburban hell haphazardly inserted between the idyllic Minuteman bike trail and the perfectly reasonable, older parts of Boston - I smelled it: raw sewage. There was a Cambridge Public Works truck, and it was pumping sewage right onto the inbound side of Route 2. Apparently, their policy of hiring the best and the brightest is finally paying off. The fine ambiance pervaded the strip mall for at least a week.

It doesn't take a crisis to make public utilities go on the blink, but a crisis certainly helps. Any crisis will do: economic, financial, or even political. Consider the governor of Primorye, a region on the far side of Siberia, who simply stole all the money that was supposed to buy coal for the winter. Primorye froze. With winter temperatures around 40 below, it's a wonder there's anyone still living there. It's a testament to human perseverance. As the economic situation degenerates, events seem to unfold in a certain sequence, regardless of locale. They always seem to lead to the same result: unsanitary conditions. But an energy crisis seems to me by far the most efficacious way of depriving one of one's treasured utility services.

First, electricity begins to wink in and out. Eventually, this settles into a rhythm. Countries such as Georgia, Bulgaria and Romania, as well as some peripheral regions of Russia, have had to put up with a few hours of electricity a day, sometimes for several years. North Korea is perhaps the best Soviet pupil we have, surviving without much electricity for years. Lights flicker on as the sun begins to set. The generators struggle on for a few hours, powering light bulbs, television sets, and radios. When it's time for bed, the lights wink out once again.

Second in line is heat. Every year, it comes on later and goes off sooner. People watch television or listen to the radio, when there's electricity, or just sit, under piles of blankets. Sharing bodily warmth has been a favored survival technique among humans through the ice ages. People get used to having less heat, and eventually stop complaining. Even in these relatively prosperous times, there are apartment blocks in St. Petersburg that are heated every other day, even during the coldest parts of winter. Thick sweaters and down comforters are used in place of the missing buckets of coal.

Third in line is hot water: the shower runs cold. Unless you've been deprived of a cold shower, you won't be able to appreciate it for the luxury that it affords. In case you are curious, it's a quick shower. Get wet, lather up, rinse off, towel off, dress, and shiver, under several layers of blankets, and let's not forget shared bodily warmth. A less radical approach is to wash standing in a bucket of warm water - heated up on the stove. Get wet, lather, rinse. And don't forget to shiver.

Next, water pressure drops off altogether. People learn to wash in even less water. There is a lot of running around with buckets and plastic jugs. But the worst part of this is not the lack of running water; it is that the toilets won't flush. If the population is enlightened and disciplined, it will realize what it must do: collect their excretions in buckets and hand-carry them to a sewer inlet. The super-enlightened build outhouses and put together composting toilets, and use the proceeds to fertilize their kitchen gardens.

Under this combined set of circumstances, there are three causes of mortality to avoid. The first is simply avoiding freezing to death. It takes some preparation to be able to go camping in wintertime. But this is by far the easiest problem. The next is avoiding humans' worst companions through the ages: bedbugs, fleas, and lice. These never fail to make their appearance wherever unwashed people huddle together, and spread diseases such as typhoid, which have claimed millions of lives. A hot bath and a complete change of clothes is often a lifesaver. Baking the clothes in an oven kills the lice and their eggs. The last is avoiding cholera and other diseases spread through feces by boiling all drinking water.

It seems safe to assume that the creature comforts to which we are accustomed are going to be few and far between. But if we are willing to withstand the little indignities of reading by candlelight, bundling up throughout the cold months, running around with buckets of water, shivering while standing in a bucket of tepid water, and carrying our poop out in a bucket, then none of this is enough to stop us from maintaining a level of civilization worthy of our ancestors, who probably had it worse than we ever will. They were either depressed or cheerful about it, in keeping with their personal disposition and national character, but apparently they survived, or you wouldn't be reading this.


So let's consider the countryside. Suppose that you own a homestead and have a tiny mortgage that shrivels to next to nothing after a good bout of inflation, or that you own it free and clear. If it's in a developed suburban subdivision, there will still be problems with taxes, code enforcement, strangers from outer space living next door, and other boondoggles, which could get worse as conditions deteriorate. Distressed municipalities may at first attempt jack up rates to cover their costs instead of simply closing up shop. In a misguided effort to save property values, they may also attempt to enforce codes against such necessities as compost heaps, outhouses, chicken coops, and raising crops on your front lawn. Keep in mind, also, that the pesticides and herbicides lavished on lawns and golf courses leave toxic residues. Perhaps the best thing to do with suburbia is to abandon it altogether.

A small farm offers somewhat better possibilities for farming, but most farms in the U.S. are mortgaged to the hilt, and most land that has been under intensive cultivation has been mercilessly bombarded with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, making it an unhealthy place, inhabited by men with tiny sperm counts. Small farms tend to be lonely places, and many, without access to diesel or gasoline, would become dangerously remote. You will need neighbors to barter with, to help you, and to keep you company. Even a small farm is probably overkill in terms of the amount of farmland available, because without the ability to get crops to market, or a functioning cash economy to sell them in, there is no reason to grow a large surplus of food. Tens of acres are a waste when all you need is a few thousand square feet. Many Russian families managed to survive with the help of a standard garden plot of one sotka, which is 100 square meters, or, if you prefer, 0.024710538 acres, or 1076.391 square feet.

What is needed, of course is a small town or a village: a relatively small, relatively dense settlement, with about an acre of farmland for every 30 or so people, and with zoning regulations designed for fair use and sustainability, not opportunities for capital investment, growth, property values, or other sorts of "development". Further, it would have to be a place where people know each other and are willing to help each other - a real community. There may still be a few hundred communities like that tucked away here and there in the poorer counties in the United States, but there are not enough of them, and most of us would not be welcome there.


Investment Advice

People often come to me and say: "I hear that the U.S. economy is going to collapse soon; what investment tips can you give me, so that I can adjust my portfolio accordingly?" Well, I am not a professional investment adviser, so I risk nothing by making some suggestions.

The nuclear scare gave rise to the archetype of the American Survivalist, holed up in the hills, with a bomb shelter, a fantastic number of tins of spam, an assortment of guns, and plentiful ammo with which to fight off similar idiots from further downhill. And, of course, an American flag. This sort of survivalism is about as good as burying yourself alive, I suppose.

The idea of stockpiling is not altogether bad, though. Stockpiling food is, of course, a rotten idea, literally. But certain manufactured items are certainly worth considering. Suppose you have a retirement account, or some mutual funds. And suppose you know for certain that it won't exist by the time you are scheduled to retire. And suppose you realize that you can currently buy a lot of good stuff that has a long shelf life and will be needed, and valuable, far into the future. And suppose, further, that you have a small amount of storage space: a few hundred square feet. Now, what are you going to do? Sit by and watch your savings evaporate? Or take the tax hit and invest in things that are not composed of vapor.

Once the cash machines are out of cash, the stock ticker stops ticking, and the retail chain breaks down, people will still have basic needs. There will be flea markets to fill these needs, using whatever local token of exchange is available; bundles of $100 bills, bits of gold chain, packs of cigarettes, or what have you. It's not a bad idea to own a few of everything you will need, but you should invest in things you will be able to trade for things you will need. Think of consumer necessities that require high technology and have a long shelf life. Here are some suggestions to get you started: condoms, razor blades, and drugs (over-the-counter and prescription). Rechargeable batteries (and solar chargers) are sure to become a prized item (Ni-MH are the less toxic ones). Toiletries, such as good soap, will be luxury items. Fill some containers, nitrogen-pack them so that nothing rusts or rots, and store them somewhere.

After the Soviet collapse, there swiftly appeared a category of itinerant merchants who provided people with access to imported products. To procure their wares, these people had to travel abroad, to Poland, to China, to Turkey, on trains, carrying goods back and forth in their baggage. They would exchange a suitcase of Russian-made watches for a suitcase of other, more useful consumer products, such as shampoo or razor blades. They would have to grease the palms of officials along their route, and were often robbed. There was a period of time when these people, called "chelnoki", which is Russian for "shuttles", were the only source of consumer products. The products were often factory rejects, damaged, or past their sell-by date, but this did not make them any less valuable. Based on their example, it is possible to predict which items will be in high demand, and to stockpile these items ahead of time, as a hedge against economic collapse. Note that chelnoki had intact, economies to trade with, accessible by train - while this is not guaranteed to be the case in the U.S.

A stockpile of this sort, in a walkable, socially stable place, where you know everybody, where you have some close friends and some family, where you own your shelter and some land free and clear, and where you can grow most of your own food, should enable you survive economic collapse without too much trouble. And, who knows, maybe you will even find happiness there.


Although the basic, and obvious, conclusion is that the United States is worse prepared for economic collapse than Russia was, and will have a harder time than Russia had, there are some cultural facets to the United States that are not entirely unhelpful. To close on an optimistic note, I will mention three of these. I will say nothing particularly original here, so feel free to whistle your own cheerful tune as you read this.

Firstly, and perhaps most surprisingly, Americans make better Communists than Russians ever did, or cared to try. They excel at communal living, with plenty of good, stable roommate situations, which compensate for their weak, alienated, or nonexistent families. These roommate situations can be used as a template, and scaled up to village-sized self-organized communities. Communism (obviously, under a more palatable name) makes a lot more sense in an unstable, resource-scarce environment than the individualistic approach. Where any Russian would cringe at such an idea, because it stirs the still fresh memories of the failed Soviet experiment at collectivization and forced communal living, Americans maintain a reserve of community spirit and civic-mindedness.

Secondly, there is a layer of basic decency and niceness to at least some parts of American society, which has been all but destroyed in Russia over the course of Soviet history. There is an altruistic impulse to help strangers, and pride in being helpful to others. Americans are culturally homogeneous, and the biggest interpersonal barrier between them is the fear and alienation fostered by their racially and economically segregated living conditions.

Lastly, hidden behind the tawdry veneer of patriotic bumper stickers and flags, there is an undercurrent of quiet national pride, which, if engaged, can produce high morale and results. Americans are not yet willing to simply succumb to circumstance. Because many of them lack a good understanding of their national predicament, their efforts to mitigate it may turn out to be in vain, but they are virtually guaranteed to make a valiant effort, for "this is, after all, America."

Labels: ,