Collapse or Change?

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I’ve been reading quite a few books that could be loosely gathered together into “Sustainable Living” (or, I prefer, “Mindful Living”) and “Peak Oil” stacks.

I read Dimitry Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse when it came out a few weeks ago. Orlov’s core argument is that the United States is likely to undergo the sort of collapse that the Russians went through during the 1990s in the near future. He draws analogies between the situation there, economically, culturally, and politically, and the situation in the United States. He also writes quite a bit about the way things are different here (and not usually for the better). Many Americans are probably blissfully unaware of just how bad the former Soviet Union got during the years following its fall. Food shortages, no hard currency, little economy at all, etc. Orlov makes a strong point that the Russians were well served by their history of relying on their own gardens for foods, by their mass transit (which kept operating), and the fact that since housing was largely state provided and a right, people were not generally evicted into the streets to die in the winters.

In comparison, most Americans (and I number myself among them in most ways) would be at a loss if grocery stores were no longer supplied with food on a regular basis. Hardly anyone grows any of their own food. At my house, R has a small garden but it is only really started to develop in the last year. With the recent subprime mortgage crisis, I think people here are painfully aware that we could all easily wind up with no place to live in a bad enough depression. I have a mortgage, like many here, that is expensive and only really maintainable with two incomes. The days are gone in urban areas (at least the ones with functional economies) where one can simply buy a home outright. Heck, you can’t even buy land for cheap anywhere near a city. With the price of gasoline over $4.59 a gallon here this last week, owning a place outside of urban areas could also easily become suicide. R and I are fortunate, in one sense, that being on the Oakland/Berkeley/Emeryville border, we’re right in the middle of an old urban area. We have BART a mile or so away and the main Amtrak station for this part of the East Bay is a mile the other way.

I also read Farewell, My Subaru, which is a book by journalist Doug Fine on his attempt to build a local lifestyle for himself in the Southwest. He bought a house on rural property within 20 miles of a town but without any development other than other ranches and their houses. He installed solar panels to power his well pump (and later his home, I believe), got a truck to run on biodiesel, and began raising chickens and goats. While the book is written in a fairly light tone, and often for laughs, he makes it clear that he was completely unprepared for this sort of lifestyle change and literally had no idea what he was doing when he started. He’s found it valuable (and he maintains a blog that is ongoing about it) for the quality of life it promotes for him, especially being mindful of the food he’s growing and the lives of the animals that he’s raising.

The third recent book is the novel by Howard Kunstler (best known for The Long Emergency) called, “World Made by Hand. This depicts a post-Peak Oil world in which both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. have been separately destroyed by terrorists which, combined with huge economic problems and then a depopulating flu epidemic, effectively push the United States back into something closer to the 18th century than the 21st. The protagonist is a former computer software exec who moved to a small town in upstate New York, only to watch his wife and daughter die to disease (along with much of the town), his son run off when grown, and generally civilization shrink to a day’s walk in any direction. I think Kunstler depicts an overly harsh scenario (much of it wouldn’t be possible as he writes it without the flu epidemic) and I think that in a significant collapse scenario, a lot more order and communication would be maintained. As we all know, many people would probably happily work under draconian conditions in return for order, shelter, food, and water if things got bad and I think of that as the most probable worst case.

Reading all of these books (and a few others) together puts me in a rather reflective frame of mind about where we are going in this country and how to plan for the new 20 or 30 years. Orlov doesn’t give much practical advice other than showing that doing some preparation (like having a garden) is a good thing for any disaster scenario but he makes a strong case that much of the preparation is mental. The people that did the worst in the Russian collapse were those who were unable to adjust, especially middle aged men, who then simply drank themselves to death over time. Having a flexible mindset can do wonders.

I do believe that some of the Peak Oil scenarios are quite real possibilities. Do I think the country will descend into unceasing anarchy? No, but I do think we could easily see the likes of the Great Depression here with people on the street, bread lines, and forced agrarian labor to raise the food that we currently import from the rest of the world. I think the era of the car is over, no matter what, and we’re simply beginning the tail end of it now. Gas prices are not going to head the other way. That hasn’t happened since the 1970s. The rate of increase seems to be going up, especially now that we’re hitting record oil prices and oil sources are tapering off sooner than expected. I fully expect that the days when you could afford to drive your car across the country, as many of my friends have, or even to fly to another country, may be ending for those not of the richest classes. With the complete neglect of our rail system over the last 50 years, this leaves us with few alternatives, outside of boats, for long distance travel during the next few decades. I think that sort of thing will end with a whimper and taper off though. We’re not going to wake up one day in the near future without oil but where will you go when it is $25 or $40 for a gallon of gasoline?

All of that has very real effects on the larger economy as it begins to occur. Cheap goods shipped in trucks all over the country are no longer going to be imported from overseas. Since I work in technology, I wonder how my work will be affected. I can work from home (and already do a few days a week) but if the economy slows down enough, will I still be employed to do so? When I do go to my office, it is 45 miles in each direction, something that I’ve already been troubled by during this last year.

I also wonder what will happen in large urban zones like the Bay Area if the economy heads in a bad direction for long enough. There are many many people here already living in very marginal situations. There are real ghettos here and a lot of working class people who are just getting by. How are they going to react to these circumstances? What do people do when forced to choose between, for example, buying gasoline at $10 a gallon to get to their job or using the same money to buy food to eat?

I try not to be all doom and gloom about this and I don’t talk about it often with my friends because no one will have any answers. I do think that all of this is quite real. The books just bring it home to me even though I’ve been thinking about aspects of this for at least 16 years. What I do recommend to people is to cultivate local relationships and connections. Get to know the people in your area. Attend local events or take classes at a local school or center. Learn hobbies that are both interesting but also useful, perhaps even fulfilling as well. Don’t build your life around driving to see people who are an hour away and learn to do some things for yourself. Most importantly, think about these things so, if they do come to pass, you are able to roll with the punches and adapt to the changes that life brings. Even if people are somehow wrong about these changes, all of these things would serve you well.

Update: I am apparently wrong about gas prices only headed in one way (up) since the 1970s. A friend of mine sent me this explanatory graphic after a quick search:


So gas prices have adjusted up and down before with speculation since the big shortages.