Archive for May, 2012

Sustainable Living as Religious Observance

Alexander Levchenko

[Update: Orren Whiddon, who organized the Age of Limits conference, has contributed some comments, which I have added below.]

I have spent the last few days at a conference organized by the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary near Artemas, Pennsylvania. Titled “The Age of Limits,” it was well attended and promises to be one of a series of annual conferences to address the waning of the industrial age and the social adaptation it makes necessary. This conference was quite different from all the others I have attended.

First, the venue is a campground; a beautiful one, consisting of lush meadows surrounded by an equally lush but passable forest girded on three sides by a fast-flowing creek of cold, clean water. This sanctuary is dedicated to nature spirituality, and includes a very impressive stone circle and a multitude of little shrines, altars, charms and amulets hung on trees. (Also included is an assortment of cheerful hippies skinny-dipping in the creek.) Second, spirituality was prominently featured in the presentations: the question of spiritual and emotional adaptation to fast-changing, unsettled times was very much on the agenda. Third, the campground is owned by a church; one of undefined denomination, theological bent or specific set of beliefs, but a church nevertheless. Lastly, the campground is run by a monastery that is at the heart of this church; the monks and nuns do not wear habits, do not seem to have not taken any specific vows other than those of loyalty, poverty and obedience, but in substance not too different from, say, the Benedictine Order: work is seven days a week, there is a meeting at eight sharp every morning, all meals are prepared and eaten together, and, except for insignificant personal effects, all property is shared.

In case the term “new-age hippies” has sprung to mind, let me add some more detail. This is not California (where the new-age flakes mostly reside) but southern Pennsylvania, on the Maryland border, some 30 miles from the dead industrial town of Cumberland, and, other than that, in the middle of nowhere. The campground is outfitted with hot and cold running water, electricity from a 10kW diesel generator, a septic system, a large communal kitchen and everything else needed to comfortably house and feed several hundred people. The buildings that are used year-round are super-insulated and heated with local wood. There is a machine shop which turns out, among other things, precision components for biomedical equipment, and a winery that makes several varieties of mead. The place has a strong survivalist bent, not of the doomsteading variety, but focused on being prepared to do whatever it takes, depending on what the future brings, be it farming or repairing the neighbors\’ farm equipment and ever-plentiful firearms. It is a perfectly good, successful example of thoughtful preparation and adapting in place.
I do not have an awful lot to say on the subjects of mysticism or spirituality, but since these were on the agenda at this gathering, at which I was invited to speak, I had thought that I could add something to the proceedings by holding forth on the (possibly) related topic of religion and the (potential) usefulness of religious institutions in helping us adapt to the unfolding deterioration and collapse of industrial civilization, all the while steering well clear of any mystical or spiritual matters. What follows is a summary of my talk, based on the notes I had scribbled on some index cards.

* * *
Our social institutions are failing us. This is not an economic or technological problem but a cultural one. There are billions of people in the world who are able to survive on less than a dollar a day, and yet many of these people are happier than most of the people in the developed nations. This societal failure takes many forms. There is the educational system which mainly trains students to take tests (not a marketable skill), then attempts to teach them a job (which, more often than not, no longer exists). The best outcome that education can achieve—an educated person, versed in liberal arts and basic science—it considers useless.
There is the travesty of commerce and finance, with an insistence on growth at any cost, on maintaining inflated standards which make it impossible for people to meet their basic needs if they lack the money for the upscale, high-standard products and services that are considered mandatory, on extreme but impersonal interdependence where everyone is forced to rely on and to put their trust in complete strangers. It is a system that forces everyone to become a gambler—be it with your retirement, or with taking on student loans, or with most other investments. Furthermore, this system of legalized gambling is rigged so as to pool localized, personal risk into centralized, systemic risk that will, sooner or later, bring down the entire economic system.
The outcome of all this is that most human relationships have been reduced to the commercial, client-server paradigm. The intergenerational contract, where parents and grandparents bring up children who then take care of them in their old age, and which is an essential evolved trait of the human species, has been gambled away. There is extreme alienation, which reduces most conversations to scripted interactions on topics that are considered safe, and a great deal of transience, both in where people live and in the people with whom they associate. There is a steady replacement of local, human culture with commercial culture, packaged as a set of popular but short-lived cultural products.
Faced with all this, the natural response for many people is to want to turn their back on society, but without being alone. What institutions do we have that could help them accomplish this? Are there any that predate this now failed society, as well as the countless other societies that have failed before? Yes, there are. Religious institutions have turned their back on more societies than we can count, and have survived. Moreover, they have repeatedly provided a survival mechanism where all else had failed.
A well-studied example is Rome after the collapse of the Roman empire. Rome went from a majestic imperial center to a papal swamp. The barbarians destroyed the baths and the fountains, but left the aqueducts running. Over the following decades, the aqueducts filled Rome with water, turning it into a malarial swamp. The Roman forum was used to graze goats and to scavenge marble, which was then burned to make lime, to make mortar which was used to build churches and monasteries. What followed was an austere, ascetic age dominated by religion, which eventually coalesced into the Holy Roman Empire. It was neither holy, nor roman, nor an empire, but the dominant role of religion set the rules by which everyone had to play, even its rulers: no warfare was permitted on Sundays or feast days, or in churches or monasteries, which were treated as sanctuaries, as well as church property, which was considered sacrosanct. There followed several centuries of small-scale, silly little “operetta” wars, in which not too many people were hurt or killed. The last surviving echo of this age was the Christmas cease-fire during the first world war.
What makes religion unique among human institutions is its ubiquity (all cultures have it in one form or another) and its lack of compartmentalization. The secular universe is always broken up into specialties. Look at the departments at your typical college or university: there is marketing, communications, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, etc., which all have their circumscribed set of concerns. Anything else is considered interdisciplinary and results in a denial of tenure. In comparison, religion is a total system that encompasses every aspect of human existence. Moreover, religion (when placed in a position of authority) is able to place limits on the secular realm, rejecting those parts of it which it finds harmful or unhelpful. Religions also have the uncanny ability to demand and be granted social exemptions and become, to quite a considerable extent, a law onto themselves. The role and authority of religion tends to increase in times of adversity. Immigrants, exiles, diaspora communities are often held together by a church, a mosque, a synagogue, an ashram, etc. This effect usually wanes as times get better, but the institutions never quite go away, and come roaring back in times such as this.
I fully understand that religion is by no means popular with everyone. I would not have given this talk if this were, say, France, but the unique religious environment of the United States makes the subject impossible to ignore. To me, atheism is a perfectly valid belief (or, if you like, belief system). Everyone believes something, because our brains spontaneously produce explanations for things, even where there isn\’t one, as is generally the case with the stock market, which can go up or down for no reason at all. Everyone believes in a creation myth of one type or another. The atheist creation myth is the Big Bang, which is that the universe came into existence 12.75 billion years ago. Alternatively, you can believe that the world was created in 6 days of work, followed by a day off. Or, if you are one of the Oogla people described by Douglas Adams, who live in the Oogla tree and subsist on Oogla nuts, you believe that the universe was created when the Giant Pixie sneezed, in an event known as the Big Sneeze.
Theology and astrophysics and humor/science fiction literature are all very different from the point of view of their practitioners, but as for the rest of us who make up about 99.9% of humanity, it is a matter of choosing what we want to believe. We walk up to the great salad bar of faith and decide what to put on our plate. The practitioners try to restrict our choices (they are, after all, in competition with each other) but in the end it is up to us. If the beliefs happen to be contradictory, then we don\’t have to believe in them at the same time. To us, these are just different stories, accepted on faith, without proof or evidence. But there is one type of story that you get to play a role in, rather than just watch television. There are no historical reenactments of the Big Bang that I am aware of, no little Big Bang mangers, with the Three Subatomic Particles come bearing gifts, set up annually to commemorate the birth of the universe on its birthday.
We cannot not believe because our brains are wired for it. All of our perceptions and value judgments are based on what we believe. And our beliefs are mostly based on what we\’ve been told when we were young and impressionable, and unquestioning. Some beliefs are outlandish; for instance, people believe that suburban real estate will continue to be valuable, because they will continue to be able to drive there. Religious belief in particular offers us a connection. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religere, to reconnect. Religion gives us a part to play. Scientific belief makes us a research subject, a specimen, or, if we are young and still daydream, a great scientist about to be awarded the Nobel prize. Science has its uses, of course. (The notes for this talk were written with a National Science Foundation Grantee Conference pen.) Science has its utility, you see. It can also inspire awe. The Large Hadron Collider is an awe-inspiring scientific experiment. But there are much cheaper ways to inspire awe, giving people a role to play at the same time; a role that expands in bad times.
The minimal functions of religion are limited to what one priest once expressed it as “Hatch \’em, match em and dispatch \’em”: baptism, matrimony and last rites. The maximal functions might be carried out by a network of monasteries that oversee agriculture and construction, regulate commerce, control politics, conduct scholarly investigation, limit warfare and offer education, medical treatment and all manner of advice. This describes, among many others, medieval Europe and Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion. Societies in which religious functions are maximized tend to last a few thousand years longer than the ones in which they are minimized.
There is a long-standing tradition of exempting religious organizations from the rules that govern civil organizations. These run the gamut from taxation to labor laws and land use laws, to lax law enforcement (which is why the Roman Catholic church in North America has not been summarily shut down, as a preventative measure, to prevent further incidents of child molestation). There are many special exemptions grandfathered in, from the Christian Scientists being exempt from Romneycare in Massachusetts to the Amish in Pennsylvania being able to live in ways that would alarm Child Protective Services were they living in a city. An exception that proves the rules is the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, which was torched out of existence by the FBI: if you stockpile illegal firearms and impregnate underage women whom you hold captive, the government will eventually go after you, but not before much soul-searching accompanied by a full-scale media frenzy. Cults are a bad problem specifically because political authorities are afraid to go near them. In the US, it\’s practically in their DNA to avoid a confrontation with anything even vaguely religious. Political arrangements are transient; religions are not. Also, religions often help governments do their job, or do the job that they do not do, of helping take care of the sick, the old and the indigent. Religious organizations face the fewest barriers to expanding their functions in bad times. They are the organizations most capable of creating alternative living arrangements during a time of permanent crisis.
Religious institutions are sustainable and resilient by virtue of the fact that they tend to outlive cultures, empires and civilizations. Not all of them are, but life in balance with nature is imperative for any religion that wishes to be one of the surviving ones. To this end, nature spirituality, which is practiced at the Four Quarters, seems to have its priorities straight. In any human endeavor there is always the threat of Realpolitik rearing Henry Kissinger\’s ugly head, and religions are no exception, but religions offer wider latitude for moral challenge than secular organizations (unless they are largely dead).
This brings us back to the American context. In other parts of the world, conscientious atheism can be perfectly moral, even scrupulous because for an atheist morality and ethics are ends in themselves, not motivated by some supernatural, external force. But the US was founded for religious reasons, and political tolerance of religious differences is here enshrined more fully than any other freedom. Given the steady erosion of civil liberties, the emergence of an untouchable financial/political elite beyond the reach of the law, and the acceptance of fraud at every level, an attempt to mount a moral challenge via the legal system is futile. At the same time, religious freedom will prove to be very difficult for American politicians to whittle down. It would be foolish to ignore so potent a source of public authority.
Religion does have a negative side, which we should not ignore either. It mostly has to do with identity games. Give an idiot a flag to wave, an anthem to sing and some patriotic drivel to repeat unquestioningly, and he will march off to battle to kill other such idiots who are marching under a different flag. Religions provide ample scope for such identification, but religious idiots tend to be even more ardent than political idiots. But at a higher, non-idiotic level, different religions tend to work and play well together. A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar… and what do you suppose they discuss? Who is the one true god? Not likely; they are far more likely to compare notes on whatever happens to threaten or to oppress them, and to share their troubles. Religious tolerance and religious freedom are exactly the same thing. Freedom from religion is just as important; the atheists deserve to have their own church. (It can be an open-air church, to save money, and it can stand empty.)
Note that I have not delved into the specifics of any one religion. I have used the word faith, but have refrained from using the s-word (spirituality). That\’s not what this talk was about. My point is that we have religious institutions, or traditions, that are able to survive just about anything. We also have a society that is disintegrating, a corrupt political system that will ruin many lies, and an economy that is failing to provide the necessities for more and more people. Why should we fight battles that have already been won? Religious institutions have already succeeded in fighting political institutions down to a reasonable truce, which the politicians are rightly terrified to break. Let us not start from scratch; let us work with what we already have.

Orren\’s comments:

The overwhelming sense we have from the questionnaires returned, is the hunger of the attendees for exploring the ethical and spiritual component of Collapse. It is certainly true that we who are living through the industrial peak must begin the process of rediscovering what community is, if we are to leave any worthwhile legacy to those who come after us.

John in Cape Charles
It is not clear to me from your post whether or not you attended Age of Limits, so I will try to give a bit of background. Originally I thought that there should be an absolute minimum of \”spiritual\” content in the event, but as the presentation outlines came in from the presenters, it became clear that they had other ideas; to the point that the schedule had to be expanded at the last moment to accommodate them all. As a matter of course I anticipate that my initial opinions on any subject will be subject to later change, and that was certainly the case here as the degree to which ethical and spiritual issues were included in the events content became the most overwhelmingly positive comment made on our feedback questionnaires. I like to think that the gentle, yet palpable spirituality of Four Quarters was a part of that outcome.
I share your distrust of most organized versions of the Christo/Islamo/Judeo complex of what I like to call \”Sky Father Religions,\” that is why we here at Four Quarters offer no answer, promote no dogma and have no priest/tessdhood. Our mission is simple. To offer up Nature as an inspiration and toolkit for the individuals exploration of their own spirituality.
Gayle Bourne
Your point is a good one and I too expect that as we stair step down the back side of Collapse non-profits will be seen as a harvestable resource by governments in their desperate attempts to preserve their revenue stream. Our specific case in Pennsylvania is a bit different as Pennsylvania actually offers the bare minimum of real estate tax exemption for churches, literally only the area under the building\’s roof. That\’s a bit of a problem for us as our church is the Land and Stone Circle, with no roof to be seen! The tax advantages would actually be far greater if we were founded as an educational non-profit.
I well remember our conversation in which you insisted that I personally resolve your issue with your tent neighbors late night noise making, and my explaining that our Board of Directors discourages staff from intervening in a non-criminal civic matter until the aggrieved party has first made an attempt to resolve the issue themselves. I recall explaining to you that this policy has evolved because we have found that some people are very quick to appeal to hierarchy and perceived authority figures to resolve issues that are best resolved by their own actions; ie: by embracing their personal sovereignity. While I am not a voting member of the Board, organize only this one event with no other staff duties, and live here only part time; it is a policy of our Board that I support.
I am sure that it will come as no surprise that reality has disabused us of many of our initial idealistic conceptions as Four Quarters has moved through its 18 year history. One of the most difficult lessons we learned is that we cannot be all things to all people, any attempt to do so results only in a descent to the lowest common denominator. For this reason we understand that [a] functioning community is about exclusion as much as it is about inclusion. Our Board has expelled persons only a bare handful of times in its history because we expect that people who are seeking a libertine party, the meaning of life for a $100 donation, or someone to solve their personal problems with no effort on their own part, are unlikely to come here after reading our literature. If they do come they find that we will gently but proactively refuse to enable their dysfunction, and will suggest alternative behaviors. As often as not this works wonderfully well as these persons adapt and are then able to find their own worthwhile place within this community of choice.

We call this process of defining our communities boundaries of inclusion and behavior \”The Filter\” and we trust in it precisely because it is based on other peoples personal choices. As you shared your unhappiness in our personal interaction specifically, and Four Quarters in general, with our staff and other attendees over the course of the long weekend, it was ultimately brought to my attention. I counseled faith in your process and our own.

In the Name of Austerity, Stimulus and Growth, Amen!

Paul Kuzhynski

Here\’s some food for thought. If you\’ve been listening to the muffled and incoherent noises coming from the G8 and the surrounding political chattersphere, it\’s starting to sound like a prayer meeting: “In the name of Austerity, Stimulus and Growth, Amen!” And if you look at the individual leaders, what is there for them to do except pray?

Starting from the bottom, there is TheMan Who Wasn\’t There: the newly reinaugurated Russian president Vladimir Putin. He didn\’t even show up, but sent his obedient deputy Medvedev instead, who made positive noises about how wonderful the meeting was. Putin is a lonely man: he\’s been seen in public with his wife a total of twice over the last two years; his two daughters are living incognito somewhere in Europe, there are mobs of people outside chanting “Russia Without Putin!” over and over again, and even the VIPs present at the inauguration seemed to be half-concealing a message behind their idolatrous smiles: “Wish you weren\’t here, Vova!”
The situation in the US isn\’t that much better: even his (once) ardent supporters see Obama as slightly worse than ineffectual, while many others are happy to vilify him for things he had nothing to do with. One thing is certain: the office changed him far more than he has managed to change the office. Even if he gets reelected, it will be four more years of ineffectual waffling, futile attempts to stay the course laid in by his manifestly incompetent predecessor, and frontal assaults on our remaining civil liberties. And if his opponent gets elected, it will much the same, except without the thin plastic veneer of pretending to give a damn.
Germany\’s Angela Merkel doesn\’t have much of a reason to be cheerful either. Her political support is eroding with each election. The task of pleasing the Germans while holding Eurozone together is an impossible one: the Germans are fed up with carrying the weaker European countries on their shoulders, but if they don\’t, then all fall down. The European dynamic is different because there the states that make up the EU negotiate with each other directly rather through the opaque proxy of Washington. If New York and California had a choice as to whether to give Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas an endless series of financial piggyback rides, they would tell them to go ask Jesus for a loan, and then these three states would be worse off than Greece. But eventually something has to give, both here and in Europe.
The new face, the freshly elected socialist François Hollande, hasn\’t had a chance to do much yet, but, uncharacteristically for an elected official, he seems to want to fulfill his campaign promises: he said that he will withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, as promised. But his hand is weak: financially, France is not far ahead the Eurozone laggards; politically, Marine Le Pen\’s National Front is breathing down his neck.
And so, all they can do is pray: “In the Name of Austerity, Stimulus and Growth, Amen!” Growth is the holy grail, and austerity and stimulus will help us find it. But how?
Austerity is meant to bring deficit spending under control, curb the uncontrolled expansion of public debt, and avoid national default. But it has the unwelcome effect of triggering a severe recession, shrinking the tax base, and causing budget deficits to increase, not decrease.
Stimulus is meant to provide a way to kick-start economic growth, but the money for stimulus spending has to be borrowed, and this results in the expansion of public debt. And even an economist will tell you that a higher debt-to-GDP ratio results in lower growth.
This brings us to growth. The world is resource-constrained: the supply of most of the essential industrial commodities cannot be increased without triggering a price spike, which, in turn, will trigger another, even deeper, recession. Even with all the deep-water drilling (and spilling), fracking, tar sands and so on, there just isn\’t much growth potential for the US or the Eurozone, with their already high levels of per capita resource consumption.
Contrary to the ardent prayers of the world\’s leaders, the three-legged stool of austerity, stimulus and growth is a rickety piece of furniture: no matter which combination of legs they try put their weight on, they will end up sitting on the floor, and we will end up sitting on the floor with them. Now, sitting on the floor does not have to be uncomfortable. Perhaps, instead of praying, they should try some yoga: I am thinking of the lotus position. Repeating the same thing over and over again doesn\’t seem to be working; let\’s try meditating instead. Growth is over; now what?

From Alpha to Omega Podcast


This week I am busy preparing my three talks for the Age of Limits retreat at Four Quarters, which will, in due course, be posted here in full. In the meantime, please enjoy this podcast in which I discuss, among other things, the fact that collapse is the elephant in the room, and that the various specialists are the blind men debating whether it is like a snake or a tree or a wall or a stick or a rope…

Dmitry: Uh, this is really breaking up.
Announcer: Welcome From Alpha to Omega. (main title follows)
O\’Brien: (1:15) Hello, and welcome to the fifth episode of From Alpha to Omega. Today is Saturday, the 18th of May, 2012, and I\’m your host, Tom O\’Brien. (1:29) After a brief sojourn into the world of mathematics, philosophy, and biology, this week we return to systemic risk and economic collapse.

I am delighted to welcome to the show the high priest himself of the church of the collapsitarians, and blogger extraordinaire, Dmitry Orlov. (1:50) We will chat about the root causes of the current crisis, and what to expect and prepare for over the coming years and decades—(1:58) but first the boring stuff.

On the podcast website, you can sign up to receive e-mail notifications for the latest uploads. You can also join the From Alpha to Omega group on Facebook, where our “likes” have ballooned up to a ribald twenty. If you are in a particularly generous mood, you can also help to keep the shod afloat, (2:21) by clicking on the donate buttons that you can find on the podcast website.
So, to the interview: Dmitry Orlov (2:29) is a Russian-American engineer, blogger, and author, on the topics of ecological, economic, and political collapse. He runs the extremely popular and highly recommended blog, cluborlov dot-com, which has in its short four-year history, been visited by over two million people from all across the globe. (2:49) He is the author of the unrelenting and witty, Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects, and has just released the e-book, Absolutely Positive, a collection of thirty of his most popular essays. (3:04)
Unfortunately the interview was interrupted by the temperamental nature of my internet connection and its ongoing battle with the Skype application. Some of the conversation was unfortunately lost to the void, apologies in advance. We join the conversation as Dmitry is talking about his comparative theory of superpower collapse. (3:39)
Dmitry: “…Post-American Century”. That was over five years ago, and, basically, it compared the survivability of the United States, (4:00) when facing collapse, to the survivability of the Soviet Union, based on my observations and my projections of what I saw in the Soviet Union onto what I was seeing in the United States and its cultural, economic patterns. I discovered that, um, the Soviet living arrangement was paradoxically resilient in the face of a economic and political collapse, that society there did not collapse along with all of these things, whereas in the United States, society is already in a very advanced state of collapse (4:35) and everybody is completely dependent on finance and on commerce. So once finance and commerce shut down, people will be pretty much standing in the middle of the road, blinking in the sunlight, not knowing what to do.
Basically, the USSR and the USA are these two acronym states. Now the USA of course pre-dated the USSR (5:00) by quite a bit, but it was not a very significant player on the world scene until World War II. It was really World War II that propelled both the USSR and the USA into a lead position in the world where for quite a while they, they—they basically jockeyed for control of, of uh, the entire world.
They had a presence on every continent, just about, and so, basically, they were handed the remains of other empires to—to run, and uh, there are some differences of course. For instance, the Soviet Union failed to profit from its empire, whereas the United States became quite rich for a time because it could drain resources from the rest of the world, (5:44) basically slant the playing field in its favor. It was much better doing that, but there were other patterns that were very, very similar.
The pattern of militarism that destroyed the USSR (5:56) and is in the process of destroying the USA, where the military, with each passing year, soaks up more and more resources—greater and greater share of gross national product, but delivers nothing but a string of defeats; those patterns are identical between the USSR and the USA. So, the USSR couldn\’t win in Afghanistan, the USA can\’t prevail in Afghanistan either, and so it\’s just one defeat after another.
Another parallel that can be drawn is national bankruptcy. Basically, these empires, they drain resources that are available to them and then go bankrupt. They overrun their ability to finance their own existence.
So, the Soviet Union went bankrupt, and the United States is in the process of going bankrupt. It\’s faced with this prospective of runaway debt that cannot really be sustained, a rate at which the Federal government of the United States, and the states as well, by taking on debt, is completely unsustainable. In that way, I think, the USA will follow the USSR through national bankruptcy, and then political dissolution.
O\’Brien: What was the role of (7:14) peak oil?—because you, quite famously, say that one of the key drivers of the collapse of the Soviet Union was a peaking in their oil production. What role has this played in the demise of America?
Dmitry: Well, both the USSR and the USA are predicated on the concept of constant growth. (7:30) When that failed, all sorts of things ceased to function. All sorts of plans go awry. All sorts of arrangements cannot be perpetuated.
Now, what happened with the USSR was a double hit. First of all, their oil production peaked, and there was an all-time peak. There was a resurgence of production in the Russian Federation and various other former Soviet republics, but the all-time peak of Soviet production will probably never be achieved. So their production started dwindling about three years before the USSR became a bunch of separate states and at the same time, that was the exact period of time when Prudhoe Bay and North Sea—Prudhoe Bay in Alaska—went on stream.
Because of that, the oil price on the world market plummeted to an all-time low, below ten dollars a barrel (as opposed to something like a hundred and twenty dollars to the barrel which is what it is now). So at that price the USSR could no longer sell oil to finance its imports and it became very dependent on all sorts of imports by that point because the Soviet economy was under-performing, was hollowing out, and very significantly, Soviet agriculture was never able to feed the entire population. So they depended on grain imports mostly for feeding livestock, for protein.
So when that became a problem, they started taking on debt, and, in the final stages, Gorbachoff was on the phone with Germany trying to get the Germans, Helmutt Kohl, to intercede with the Americans, trying to get some more credits to keep the game going a few more months. So basically, that\’s how; that\’s how the Soviet Union folded, is they couldn\’t continue to finance the imports that they needed to feed their own people.
With the United States the situation is quite different, because the Soviet Union, and now Russia, are oil exporters, whereas the United States is an oil importer as of 1970 or so, and so it\’s become very dependent on imports from countries that have nationalized the oil business and that are developing their own economies and using more and more of a dwindling resource, leaving less and less for exports. So in that sense, the United States is being driven into a corner where they have a very oil-dependent economy, a lot of driving. The landscape in the United States is not survivable without a private automobile, and at the same time the fuel for this is dwindling, and the price is continually going up.
That is a different path, but it all hinges on the availability of energy, and the fact that the supply of energy is such that it can no longer produce—continue to produce—economic growth. (10:25)
Interlude: The Carpenters, When It\’s Gone
(11:13) O\’Brien: So getting towards your five stages of collapse theory, can you explain this and maybe give us an understanding for where you see this different parts of the globe within this?
(11:26) Dmitry: The first three stages, which are observable right now, is; financial collapse, where basically there\’s, the ability to manage risk goes away. It becomes far too compromised, and so there really is no way to plan financially for the future. All of that becomes wrapped up in political problems because governments can\’t afford to have their banks fail, so they start printing money, they start issuing public debt to paper over these gigantic, privately generated holes in the financial system, and then; commercial collapse really has to do with the failure of the financial system, and the fact that it can no longer provide credit on reasonable terms. There\’s a lack of credit and that slows commerce to a point where people start losing access to the products that they need in order to live, in order to continue functioning in society, and that feeds back into financial collapse because those people can\’t make debt payments anymore, so there\’s a spiral there, a feedback pattern, and also feeds into political instability where governments fail.
For instance, now there isn\’t really a government in Greece. There\’s probably going to be another election. The fringe parties are probably going to dominate. Those parties happen to be against the terms of the Eurozone bailout. So the bailout won\’t happen and then the financial system will dissolve as far as Greek participation in the Eurozone.
So all of these things are coupled, but the reason I separated them into separate stages or separate entities is because the financial system can really be cut away from the political system. The fact that this or that set of rules applies to money is a political decision. (13:10) It\’s not necessary to completely destroy your country because some banker says so, but that is, in fact, what\’s happening.
Similarly, commerce can be established in patterns that are not connected to financial centers. You can relocalize the economy and actually feed and clothe and house people with local resources without using credit. It is possible. It has been done. So these things are separable in some ways, but in what we\’re seeing around the world is there\’s such close coupling between them that a financial problem compromises the government and also compromises the ability of the people to conduct commerce in the normal way.
The last two are social collapse (13:57) where various types of public institutions fail. They could be churches, they could be charities, they could be other types of social organization. There could be very local types of political organization as well, but nothing on the level of the nation-state.
Such institutions are sometimes quite strong, and can hold together quite well. So, for instance, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the living arrangement of people living in the apartments that were assigned to them by the government, it persisted even after the government was gone. Compare that to the typical arrangement in the United States: where you live depends on the existence of some finance company that handles your mortgage payments. So that is a, you know, a social arrangement that persists.
Another example is, in the United States people need either money or health insurance in order to get medical care. There is some sort of free medical care provided, mostly through emergency rooms, but that is extremely expensive and not very good, whereas in Russia there was a system of public health that continued to function even after the government became completely dysfunctional and actually largely stopped working, stopped doing anything for a time.
So those are examples of social arrangements that are sufficiently well-organized to exist without political backing, and then cultural collapse is, well, another thing in Russia is that, you know, on a cultural level people had all these coping mechanisms. The families were relatively strong. Neighbors knew each other and people looked out for each other and cooperated in all sorts of ways.
So how they behaved towards each other changed in some dramatic ways, but in other ways remained the same and provided a lot of survival strategies for people, whereas in the United States society is very atomized. People don\’t know their neighbors. Their interactions are very scripted and really revolve around money and around status, not around really taking care of each other in any meaningful way, and these relationships generally, you know, they don\’t survive periods of extended stress. People do come together in emergencies, but if the emergency is permanent in nature, (15:58) then society in the United States is just atomized, except for a few immigrant communities, a few old neighborhoods here and there, people really don\’t know each other.
O\’Brien: When I talk to people about collapse, people point out iPads and the large hadron collider. I find it very difficult to deal with my analytical side telling me these things are the apogee or the peak of our society, but then when I think about the Soviet Union, they were developing the most advanced technologies right up until the point when they collapsed.
Dmitry: Amazingly enough, they continued developing some of these technologies. Russia still has the only real viable space presence. The Russian space program, which inherited everything from the Soviet space program, is really a global achievement. It\’s the only project of this sort that still exists and is still successful.
There are quite a few other examples where the Soviet Union and now Russia are in the forefront. This is not commonly heard in the West because there is an imposed bias in the Western press to represent Russia as backward, as failed, but to give you one concrete example, for instance, in Russia, there\’s a type of surgery that you can get for having a deviated septum in the nose which does not involve cutting the cartilage, which is the way they do it in the West. (17:16) It involves softening the cartilage using a special laser and then putting in a splint. It\’s a non-invasive sort of surgery and the results are much better. So people who want to get that surgery done have to go to St. Petersburg or Moscow. They can\’t get it done in the United States or England.
O\’Brien: When I came across peak oil a few years ago, it was a real shock. Once I got the understanding, the link between energy use and economic activity, you know, it was like a twenty-ton truck hit me in the face. Everything I see nowadays, like I see through peak oil eyes.
I\’ve also found myself worrying about becoming a bit of a sucker for confirmation bias, like how a religious fundamentalist sees the hand of God in every action. Do you ever worry about this type of selective interpretation of facts, or how do you deal with it?
Dmitry: Well, I think that selective interpretation of facts…there\’s a huge bias, overall bias, that we have which is imposed by the economics profession, which feels at liberty to ignore physics, ignore nature. If you look at the economists explanations of what is happening, they all hinge on various statistical measurements that are not really physically measurable. Basically value is price and price is value and there\’s a lot of circular reasoning, and they construct these models that have nothing to do with anything physical.
So they will tell you that the economy runs on money or on credit, whereas really the economy runs on…sunlight in the final analysis, and in flows of energy in the form of preserved sunlight, in the form of fossil fuels, and it\’s these physical flows that determine everything. If you need to look at correlations, you—basically, you can look at very simple things, like: number of motor vehicle miles driven correlates very highly with GDP, and that tells you right away that what\’s really happening is not these flows of money, but really flows of energy.
You know, they say, you know, if you want to find out what\’s going on, follow the money. Well, beyond that, if you really want to know what\’s going on, follow the energy.
O\’Brien: It\’s very interesting. We had Professor Charlie Hall on a couple of shows ago and he made this exact point, that the laws of thermodynamics can\’t be broken, but they\’re absent entirely from the standard economic theories.
Dmitry: Economics is generally very disappointing. It\’s some kind of very feeble philosophy. Its real theoretical underpinnings are basically, you know, based on this bizarre assumption that you can make an abstract system that is not tied to any hard science and endow it somehow with enough explanatory depth to actually explain what is happening in the world at large. So it\’s some kind of exercise, mental exercise, that is just completely divorced from reality, and it\’s a thing within itself. You know, it\’s sort of like an autistic savant that doesn\’t actually register what\’s going on in the world, but exists in some abstract realm that isn\’t, strictly speaking, relevant.
O\’Brien: Peak oil currently is still somewhat of a fringe theory and whenever it sticks its head into mainstream media, it\’s not touted in any kind of serious way. When do you think that it might actually become mainstream opinion, given the power of the mainstream media?
Dmitry: It may never become part of mainstream opinion.
It\’s more or less a system that very much controls the center of public discourse using a manufactured message, and that manufactured message is crea—is crafted in order to suit the interests of those who own the media. It\’s not crafted to suit the interests of the consumers of that media. It is basically a sort of crowd control mechanism.
Now, to make it look legitimate, it does allow other messages to seep in around the edges, but very carefully limits their reach and their scope. So the fact that we can discuss this, you know, the fact that you have a podcast and nobody comes in, no censor comes in and shuts you down, really has to do with the fact that the reach of your podcast is very much circumscribed. If it became sufficiently popular then other mechanisms would be brought into play to make sure that your message is somehow compromised and that your word doesn\’t get out.
O\’Brien: (22:36) So this is Noam Chomsky\’s basic “manufacturing consent theory of propaganda” model.
Dmitry: (22:39) Well, I think Chomsky more or less has it right. If you look at what happens with various bloggers who actually get enough of an audience in various places, like in Russia, for instance, suddenly a very highly organized, pseudo-grassroots movement rises up to distort and compromise their message. So, for instance, if I came up with something very popular and very disruptive, some anonymous group sponsored by the government (but nobody can prove that) would pop up and duplicate my message, corrupting it in the process and then other people would attack it.
So it\’s very easy to knock someone out of the running if you have all the resources at your command. If the only resource at your command is the truth, then that can be very easily corrupted.
O\’Brien: So the use of disinformation from an information theory type of way, to basically corrupt the message so that people can\’t tell what is true from what is junk…
Dmitry: …exactly. It has nothing to do with consent, it has to do with noise. It has to do with bombardment. It\’s information warfare. That\’sso that\’s the environment in which we work.
O\’Brien: The consumer of information is left with this job to try to pick the difference between what\’s right and the wrong, and once this effort becomes so large, the effect of the truth becomes essentially diluted.
Dmitry: Well, people who just look at information, who don\’t look beyond facts, don\’t stand a chance. They will be inundated with all sorts of highly distorted, slightly distorted, information—complete nonsense, and they will never find their way through it. The way people need to approach such subjects is by developing a philosophical perspective, a system of belief, a coherent system of belief.
It isn\’t really just ideology, or something simple like that, but it\’s a value system that they live by, and then they go through life accepting things that fit into their value system and reject things that don\’t, and once they start doing that, they\’re on a path of transformation that has nothing to do with being informed. It has to do with actively changing who they are. From that point of view, anybody has the power to make their own path, and a lot of people are doing it.
So, I think that that\’s the really hopeful thing and that\’s why I do what I do, is to allow people the space in their heads so that they can craft their own value system, not mine, their own, and follow their own path—again not my path, their own path.
O\’Brien: Would you like to tell the audience a little bit about your current path?
Dmitry: It\’s really uncertain at this point. I\’m trying to devote more effort to my writing and speaking career if I could call it that, because it\’s in such demand and events are unfolding so fast. So the things that I wrote about; financial and political and commercial collapse are actually happening in parts of the world. We can actually witness them in places like Greece, and Spain, and many other countries around the world, and the process is accelerating.
So I think that these next couple of years will be the years to watch and to observe and to write about these events, because a lot of people will be interested in them. After these things run their course, then, you know, what I do will be less useful, because people will look inward and will try to find ways to cope. They won\’t need the big picture as much. They won\’t be as interested in it. So that\’s what I\’m concentrating on right now, and de-emphasizing other things, like software engineering, which is the way I\’ve made money over the years.
O\’Brien: You\’ve released a new e-book called Absolutely Positive. Can you tell us about this new book and maybe why an e-book?
Dmitry: The reason it\’s an e-book is because releasing an e-book, if you know a little bit about computers and things like HTML formatting, it\’s technically quite trivial. It\’s a very easy to distribute a work. It really takes very little effort.
The book is made of essays that I\’ve published over the years on-line, on my blog, that were particularly successful and that continue to be read. So I decided that after four years of this activity, that I should give these essays that I wrote a little bit more permanence.
One interesting thing about publishing a work of essays is that it\’s rather hopeless to try and do it through a publisher, that publishers seem to have this unwritten rule that the only people who can publish books of essays are dead people and Nobel prize-winners like Krugman. Nobody else is allowed to do that. So this is my escape hatch, if you will, to actually get these essays out into the world, and it\’s working moderately well.
O\’Brien: Recently I watched a long two-part interview with Alexander Bulgazen [sic]. He\’s a professor of political economy at the Moscow State University, and he was asked why the USSR collapsed, and he gave this most confusing, waffly, nonsensical type of answer, no mention of oil or energy production whatsoever. It seems to me that we might go back through this transformational change in society and no one will really ever know why it happens.
Dmitry: It\’s like the story of the three blind men and the elephant…
Three blind men and the elephant interlude.
The people who have a lot of weight that\’s on their opinions are professionals. If they\’re professionals, then they\’re professionals in some specific discipline. It could be finance. It could be economics. It could be political science. It could be sociology. It could be history, cultural criticism. They view everything from a particular perspective.
Now, there is no such science as Collapsology, the study of collapses. It\’s not recognized. There are a few people actually, who have approached it successfully, like Joseph Tainter, for instance, who actually manage to put out scholarly works in this direction, are helpful, but overall the trend is to listen to experts who have never studied the subject in question. So they\’re just basically ad-libbing a little bit or giving their own perspective from the point of view of their specific, narrow specialization.
O\’Brien: When I released my first episode of this podcast interviewing Professor Charlie Hall, a friend sent me an article, I think from the Daily Telegraph, saying everything\’s going to be fine; all we need is a few thorium nuclear reactors, and the last couple of weeks, I\’ve read a couple of things on the internet about NASA and generating cold fusion. What do you think of all this stuff and how the people are reacting to these stories?
Dmitry: If you just keep economic growth going, even if you improve the energy efficiency of the economy, lower the energy intensity per unit growth GDP, you would still get a boiling hot planet in a matter of a couple of hundred years. So, it doesn\’t matter whether you get it from cold fusion or from thorium or from what-have-you, you just can\’t have ever-accelerating pace of economic activity, because it involves a flow of energy. You cannot improve the energy efficiency of any given process ad infinitum, because at some point the laws of thermodynamics come into play. Because you can\’t get something for nothing, as long as you are following this idea that, you know, there\’s this exponential curve that we\’re all traveling on, this exponential expansion of population, of money supply, of everything else, you still get a dead planet after a couple of hundred years.
So it\’s not really a technical problem. That\’s what I try to get people to understand, that a technical, utilitarian approach got us to this point, got us to this impasse. It\’s not going to get us out of it.
We have to do something completely different, approach it in from a completely different perspective in order to stand a chance. Basically, the thing to do with all of these technological systems that we\’ve built up is to figure out how to shut them down, and that is difficult enough. We have all these nuclear reactors that will go Fukushima on us if we—if they\’re not supplied with electricity externally for many, many decades, and that is one of the biggest problems we face. There are also a lot of other issues where we can\’t just shut it down, we have to shut it down in stages and carefully. So that\’s where people should be devoting their energies, in how to shut down this industrial economy that we have.
O\’Brien: So you\’ve talked recently on your website about the increase of brown-outs in America. That\’s electricity basically going down. What is the current state of the American energy infrastructure?
Dmitry: Well, about half the electricity is generated with coal which has no upside potential at this point, no growth potential. Right now there is a glut of natural gas so a lot of power plants are using, are burning natural gas to generate base-load as opposed to peak-load. Natural gas-fired power plants can ramp up and down very quickly, unlike nuclear and coal, which take many hours to heat up and cool down. So usually gas was used for peak electricity production, but it, I guess it\’s also being used now, because gas is so cheap, for base-load, but the reason gas is so cheap is because of this silly financial game with shale gas.
A lot of money got spent drilling these wells that deplete very quickly and are not really a very good way to produce energy, but it\’s a really good way to producewell, it was for a short period of time a very good way to produce financial results for exploration and production companies, uh, like Chesapeake Energy which is now probably going to go bankrupt along with quite a bit of the rest of the shale gas industry. So this is a temporary condition.
Now, as far as the black-outs and brown-outs, that is a legacy of under-investment in the electric grid in the United States. There\’s really just no money to upgrade it, and with each passing year the equipment gets older, the transformer farms get older, the transmission lines become more and more fragile, and more and more susceptible to failure, and the grid is structured in a way that there\’s very high chance of cascaded failure. So one point failure spreads throughout the system, causes a large black-out instead of a small one, and if you look at the frequency of black-outs, of power cuts in the United States, that frequency is increasing exponentially, and that is one of the most frightening curves because, you know, if the number of black-outs doubles every year then that means lights-out in about five years, permanently, and there\’s nothing really to indicate that this trend is broken. It might be, but there\’s nothing to indicate that. So, that really puts a time limit on the whole experiment. (35:30)
O\’Brien: What role do you think privatization has played in the energy industry in America not getting the funds that it needs to upgrade all these infrastructures?
Dmitry: I think that they\’re related, but basically privatization in the US is yet another financial swindle. At some point in the US it was discovered that the only way to make money at the top is by cheating. That gave us things like Enron, but the problem has never gone away.
The tendency to game the system, to manipulate the markets, using all kinds of financial schemes, that hasn\’t gone away, because that has become the core competency of the United States as a country. That\’s what they do as a country now. They\’re financial manipulators. So, they can\’t stop doing that, because what else would there be for them to do?
So the privatization, you know, it was talked about as a way to save money for the consumers. I don\’t believe it has done that. I think instead it has driven up costs everywhere by extracting a lot of money into private profits. That was the reason it was being done and that is actually what happened, and of course, if the money is being siphoned off and sent offshore somewhere so to make the very rich people even richer, then that money isn\’t available to upgrade transformer farms and transmission lines.
There was a black-out in the middle of Boston where I live. A big part of the town where I was working at the time was shut down for almost a week. All the businesses closed. Nothing happens without electricity.
O\’Brien: It must make for an interesting city when everything is shut down and people can\’t go to work.
Dmitry: It was interesting to see what happened during the shorter black-out that happened in the exactly same area, where basically everybody poured out into the street, and it was almost like a spontaneous demonstration, because people were talking to each other. Just basically standing around, but the feel of the place was, not that this was something surprising and strange and unusual, but basically people were treating it as some kind of, like, a new reality. This is the sort of thing that happens here now, was the feeling.
Van Morrison interlude, It\’s All Over Now Baby Blue
O\’Brien: You\’ve lived in (39:36) both the old Soviet Union and in America. Adam Smith talked of the market working as if moved by an invisible hand to create the best outcomes for a society. You have a somewhat different take on, on this.
Dmitry: I actually looked into it. There\’s this part of economic theory that deals with conditions for market equilibrium, which is behind the idea that markets are efficient and self-regulating, and provide the best possible outcome when left to their own devices. Well it turns out that that theory is based on ridiculous assumptions that do not exist in the real world.
Economic theory has these curves that are just postulated out of thin air, supply and demand curves as separate entities that cross and that\’s the equilibrium point. Well, it turns out that you cannot really observe those things in nature. They\’re not really directly measurable at all. They\’re strictly constructs in economic theory, and it turns out that the range of conditions under which there\’s such a thing as market equilibrium is extremely small and, for most purposes, irrelevant.
There\’s really no reason to think that there\’s some kind of an invisible hand that isn\’t actually somebody\’s hand that you\’re not seeing. It\’s just that you\’re not seeing it so you think it\’s invisible, but it\’s very visible. You just, it\’s not being shown to you.
In fact, markets are structured by various market participants at various levels. They can plan to make these markets work in the public interest, or they can make them work in the private interest, in their own interest, and it\’s just a question of who, politically, runs those markets. It\’s not an economic question, it\’s a political question.
O\’Brien:…and currently the people who control the markets are in favor of extraction of wealth to the top.
Dmitry: Yes, right now most of the markets in the so-called free market economy in the world, those people are not actually people. They\’re gigantic bags of abstract financial wealth and they\’re becoming increasingly paranoid with each passing month, and the only thing they know how to do is make their giant bags of money even bigger, because they think that\’s going to be safer, whereas in fact it\’s the opposite. The bigger it is, the more likely it is to completely fail.
O\’Brien: So what are you doing yourself to prepare? I know that you\’ve bought a boat and fitted it out. What else are you interested in?
Dmitry: Well, I\’m interested in all sorts of things, but I\’m not really, you know, a kind of doomer, prepper person. I just live my life, and I have some amount of situational awareness that keeps me out of trouble, and it\’ll carry me through, I think. I don\’t think I\’ll have to do anything very highly specific.
You know, I don\’t really buy into this high burn-rate kind of consumerist living arrangement that most Americans are involved in. My needs are not very great, and that probably makes me more resilient than most.
O\’Brien: I\’ve watched a number of your videos on YouTube and the like, and what strikes me when you deliver a speech to an audience is that the audience reacts to your theme as if it\’s, like, all a big joke. What is the emotional impact, being of, seeing what happened in Russia, and now seeing very strong parallels in the West?
Dmitry: Well, you bring up an important point, which is, you know, humor is a defense mechanism in some ways. People think that I\’m just joking in order to psychologically protect themselves. It\’s also a coping mechanism.
So if you can laugh about something, you\’re not going to cry about it, and I would say that having a healthy sense of humor is really very important. One of the most important survival strategies is to be able to joke about things. There\’s a lot of gallows humor that went on in Russia during the worst times, and, you know, that is helpful.
Now, one thing I notice in the audiences over the years is that, yeah, a lot of people are still laughing. You know, that\’s a typical thing. Especially young people, you know, they still have their organic, you know, animal optimism that allows them to laugh at just about anything.
I cater to that a little bit. I, you know, I try to throw in jokes, so that it\’s not that they have to figure out for themselves that, you know, that you can laugh about it, I actually try to get them to laugh a few times during each talk, but I also noticed that some people, especially older people, are in absolute shock. The process with them is different.
First of all they recognize that what I\’m saying has something to it, that it\’s true, that I\’m not just making things up. I\’m saying things that make immediate sense to them, and secondly, they are not in a position where they can laugh about it, because they\’re really in pain, you know, psychologically, psychically, they are in pain over what they are seeing happen to them, to their world. That is a big change that I\’m seeing.
I think that once nobody in the audience laughs at my jokes, I\’ll be in a lot of trouble, because, at that point, I\’ll be in a very, very serious business of actually trying to comfort people through a very difficult situation, and that is a much taller order than just coming out and being laughed at.
O\’Brien: But what about your own personal emotional impact, the devastation of what happened for a number of years in the Soviet era, collapse, and now having to see this yourself, again? This is quite a double whammy.
Dmitry: Well, you know, morticians are not really emotionally affected by the sight of cadavers, and I think I\’ve become something like, like that. I\’ve become desensitized by watching these things. I approach these issues in almost a professional capacity.
So it doesn\’t actually affect me emotionally at all. In terms of my own life and the things that I enjoy, I derive a lot of pleasure from fairly simple things, from nature, from reading, things that have nothing to do with this subject, and interacting with people where, you know, it\’s not something that I bring up with them. I can lead a perfectly normal life, and yet devote quite a lot of my time to this particular field of study.
O\’Brien: What do you make of the nationalization by certain South American countries of European assets?
Dmitry: Actually, could you repeat that again?
Tape loop and end sequence
O\’Brien: I would like to thank Dmitry again for a typically enlightening interview, and I look forward to talking with him in the future about the progression in our lives through the likely coming of financial and commercial, and political collapse.

Down the Skyscraper


Ben Grasso
It was Andrew Lawrence, the inventor of the skyscraper index, who pointed out that the building of the world’s tallest buildings is a good proxy for dating the onset of major economic downturns. His index has stood the test of time; the few times when it made an incorrect prediction can be adequately explained by exceptional circumstances, such as the onset of world wars. It is now being put to the test again, and we ignore its advice at our own peril.
In “Skyscrapers and Business Cycles” Mark Thornton writes:
“The ability of the index to predict economic collapse is surprising. For example, the Panic of 1907 was presaged by the building of the Singer Building (completed in 1908) and the Metropolitan Life Building (completed in 1909). The skyscraper index also accurately predicted the Great Depression with the completion of 40 Wall Tower in 1929, the Chrysler Building in 1930, and the Empire State Building in 1931.”
“The Petronas Towers were completed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1997 setting a new record for the world’s tallest building at 1,483 feet [452m] beating the old record by 33 feet [10m] (the two towers were only 88 stories high compared with the 110 story giants built in the early 1970s). It marked the beginning of the extreme drop in Malaysia’s stock market, rapid depreciation of its currency, and wide-spread social unrest. Financial and economic problems spread to economies throughout the region, a phenomenon known as the “Asian Contagion.”
Thornton then goes on to elaborate why this might be so, based on economic theory:
“…the construction of the world’s tallest buildings [is] a salient marker of the twentieth-century’s business cycle; the reoccurring pattern of entrepreneurial error that takes place in the boom phase that is later revealed during the bust phase.”
“The world’s tallest buildings are generally built when there is a substantial and sustained divergence between the actual interest rate and the natural rate of interest, where the actual rate is below the natural rate as a result of government intervention. When the rate of interest increases, the financial effects all reduce the value of existing structures and the demand to build tall structures and when combined with depressed economic activity, the desire to build at all.”
In short, people are born stupid, and this results in a periodic divergence between one artificial parameter not observable in nature and some other artificial parameter not observable in nature. And then people lose the desire to build. If you aren\’t pleased with explanations of this sort, then here is an alternative one, using just words, without any of the statistical/mathematical hocus-pocus fetishized by the economics profession.

Skyscrapers occur during the terminal stage in the hypertrophy of financial and other control mechanisms. They are optimized for a single function: sucking resources out of the surrounding, low-rise economy, which is actually tied to the natural world in some way, through agriculture or resource extraction or the use of physical human labor. The appearance of very large skyscrapers signals the onset of a new kind of economic vampirism, in which the parasite outgrows the host, and then begins to starve.

Although it is easy to assume that the life blood being sucked out by the vampires is money, it is actually hope. In his novel Empire “V” (“V” stands for “vampire”) Viktor Pelevin describes an entire vampiric ecosystem: the imperial vampires feed not on money but on a metaphysical substance called bablos. Bablos is generated when people, multitudes of them, work for money in pursuit of their hopes and dreams. Bablos is harvested when these hopes and dreams are then shattered. The vampires\’ bag of tricks includes abstract disciplines such as Discourse and Glamor, which they use to optimize the metaphysical expropriation of the products of human greed and envy. Bablosis administered as part of a special ritual, during which bushels of worn-out currency are burned in a fireplace, but this is only done to symbolize that the money has served its purpose as a vehicle for harvesting hope via greed.
It is hardly unexpected that high belfries would be inhabited by large bats. Skyscrapers crop up when the economic vampires decisively gain the upper hand and feel exuberant about their ability to endlessly expand their numbers and their reach. But the moment at which they are at their strongest is precisely when their quarry—the base of natural resources made available by human labor—is, correspondingly, at its weakest, and can no longer support the ever-increasing load of parasites. The result is a downturn, or a crash, or a collapse.
The ascent to the top of a skyscraper is normally an exhilaratingly rapid ride in a high-speed lift, but, in an emergency, or a downturn/crash/collapse, the descent can be nothing of the sort. As John Michael Greer writes in The Long Descent:
“…as we\’ve climbed from step to step on the ladder of progress, we\’ve kicked out each rung under us as we\’ve moved to the next. This is fine so long as the ladder keeps on going up forever. If you reach the top of the ladder unexpectedly, though, you\’re likely to end up teetering on a single rung with no other means of support—and if, for one reason or another, you can\’t stay on that one rung, it\’s a long way down. That\’s the situation we\’re in right now, with the rung of high-tech, high-cost, and high-maintenance technology cracking beneath us.” [p. 168]
Lofty and proud, often endowed with a literal pinnacle of human ingenuity and industrial might, a skyscraper has but two futures: as a smoldering pit produced by a controlled demolition, or as a rusting, teetering derelict, shed of its plate glass and overgrown with vine, serving as a bird rookery, with only an occasional visitor scaling its lofty heights, swatting away the birds, to scrape up some guano, perhaps pocketing a few eggs along the way. This is the career path of the skyscraper: from the lofty seat of the captains of industry to a mighty bird-shit factory in the sky; or is it bat-shit? Let\’s just call it “sky-scrapings.”
The prospect of collapse is built right into the very concept of the skyscraper. The best case scenario of a controlled demolition requires explosive charges and electronic sensors to be placed in key areas all along its steel frame. The explosions must be triggered in a specific sequence, precise to the millisecond and dynamically adjusted by a computer so as to steer the accumulating avalanche of rubble into the footprint of the skyscraper\’s basement, to be excavated using heavy machinery once the entire mass stops burning and cools down. Without such precise and active control, things are guaranteed to go sideways because errors multiply rather than cancel. The idea that a skyscraper can collapse down into its own footprint by itself has been disproved by every generation of little children who played with stacking up blocks and knocking them down: the blocks don\’t land on top of each other in an neat little pile; they scatter all over the living room floor. The worst case scenario is that the entire structure will eventually start to lean a bit, then a bit more, and eventually topple, forming a trench forced with twisted steel. Where the skyscrapers are packed close together, as they are in the many “downtowns” where skyscrapers are to be found, there is a chance of a domino effect, with one skyscraper knocking down others in a chain reaction.
What better metaphor is there for our entire collapse-prone, highly temporary living arrangement than a skyscraper? An update to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax holding together his wings, causing him to plummet into the sea and drown, the modern skyscraper—a phallic challenge to the heavens—is an object study in failed ambition. Perhaps most significantly, no other type of building intended for human use goes so quickly from comfortable and posh to potentially lethal. Having worked in many of them over the years, I have been forced to watch, and even to participate in, situations that have convinced me that I don\’t want to spend any significant amount of time either inside or near any skyscrapers.
While working at 100 State Street in Boston, I once witnessed an emergency involving a window washer. One of the two cables holding up the platform that travels up and down the side of the building, allowing the window washers to do their job, snapped. The platform then hung vertically, held by a single cable, with the window washer barely holding on. The various fashion victims who inhabited that floor of the tower (it was in an advertising agency) crowded next to the window and signaled their shock with theatrical gasps and pantomimes of horror. The fire department was called, and the following routine played itself out. First, the entire building was placed under lock-down: nobody could enter or exit the building. Second, a security perimeter was established around it; traffic was stopped and cars parked within the perimeter were towed away. Third, firemen used axes to smash the plate glass window next to the window washer from inside, sending a cascade of glass shards tumbling down to the now empty street below. It took a surprising amount of force to bash through the glass. It sounded like gunfire when it finally broke away in large, irregular-shaped pieces, which, after smashing into the pavement below (I went down to check) looked like coarse sand. Finally, two more firemen standing inside the building grabbed the window washer and pulled him in.
On another occasion, I was working across the street from 1 Broadway in Kendall Square, an MIT-owned building in Cambridge, when that building suffered a transformer explosion in its basement. “Workers described suffocating smoke that smelled like burnt rubber and was so thick in places it was hard to see even a few inches.” wrote the Boston Globe. Since lights went out in the entire area, our building was evacuated as well, and I went over to observe. I saw hundreds of people emerge from the building over a period of many minutes, at least a hundred of them bearing the telltale smoke inhalation soot marks under their noses. Some collapsed, some bent over retching, some just stood there trying to catch their breath. What they had inhaled was burned plastic from office carpeting, furniture and partitions (loaded with dioxins) and burned transformer oil (loaded with polychlorinated biphenyls). In a short period of time they had absorbed a load of toxic chemicals which, lodged in their lungs, will last them the rest of their life, hastening its end. Mercifully, this building had only 17 floors; had it been a scraper, more people—perhaps everyone in the building—would have been forced to breathe smoke for a longer period of time.
You see, skyscrapers are not really like other buildings. They are more like space capsules hanging in the sky, closer to ships and planes than to buildings. But ships have life rafts and lifeboats and planes have oxygen masks in case of decompression and inflatable chutes and life vests in case of a water landing, and buildings have fire escapes and windows reachable by the fire department\’s ladder trucks, while skyscrapers have… stairwells. These stairwells are some of the most frightening places in which you might find yourself: featureless, claustrophobic, and endless. Often these stairwells are not accessible from the elevator halls directly, but require going through areas secured by electronic access cards, which require electricity to work: if a power cut finds you in the elevator hall, that\’s where you will stay.
In an emergency, you and your co-workers, two-thirds of whom (in the US) are obese or have bad knees or a bad heart or are wheelchair-bound, are expected to giddily trot down tens of flights of stairs. Since such processions are only as fast as their slowest participants, they progress very slowly. If there is a fire, the stairwells can quickly fill with smoke. Panics, stampedes and jams are not uncommon; beyond a certain density, people form a solid plug of bodies, and then nobody can move. Efforts to simulate the behavior of crowds exiting a skyscraper using fluid dynamics, to try to find a better way, have run into a problem: in such situations, the crowd does not behave as a fluid should. It forms clumps. The state of the art is to simply try to hold people back until the stairwell clears.
What might trigger such an evacuation? There could be many reasons, but the two common ones are a fire and a power outage. A fire automatically triggers a power outage, to avoid the possibility of further fires started by electrical equipment that has been soaked by the sprinklers. Some skyscrapers are equipped with diesel power generators, which can provide emergency power, even in case of a fire, but then only to emergency systems.
If the idea of slowly trudging down an endless stairwell while inhaling toxic smoke does not appeal to you, here are a couple of options. The first is to buy a “Personal Escape Device” (the base model is $500 down plus $50 a month with a 10-year commitment, according to the web site.) You will also need an axe to smash out the window, since in a skyscraper none of the windows open; good luck smuggling one past security.
The other option is for the active and adventurous vampire bat: learn BASE jumping, and keep a chute and a wing-suit(and, of course, an axe) with you at all times. This may seem dangerous, but, given the nature of this sport, the list of known fatalities is actually fairly short. No self-respecting skyscraper-dwelling vampire bat should be without a bat-suit. Good luck!
Gazprom Tower
But where is the skyscraper index pointing at the moment? One project worth watching is the Gazprom tower being planned in Lakhta-Center in St. Petersburg. This is the second attempt to get this project off the ground; the previous attempt was called Okhta-Center, and was sited in Krasnogvardeisky District, where I happened to have grown up. There, the residents proved far too combative for Gazprom\’s PR machine to handle. The public meetings went very badly, and Gazprom opted for a change of venue. The new site, in Primorsky District, is far on the outskirts, on the Gulf on Finland. Its centerpiece a 96-floor, 470m office tower, going up in a city where there are, at present, exactly zero skyscrapers. In fact, the existing height restriction in the zone of the planned construction site is 27m. The soil there is soft and boggy, land is still relatively cheap, and so building tall structures there is strictly for the foolish. Nevertheless the planning phase should be completed this year, and the project is to be completed by 2018. There is still hope that the unfolding economic debacle in the Eurozone, which is Gazprom\’s major export customer, will prompt Gazprom to rethink this vanity project. If the project does proceed, then the skyscraper index will come to point squarely at Gazprom, and at the Russian Federation, in an accusatory fashion.
The other project worth watching is the so-called Freedom Tower, a.k.a. One World Trade Center, going up in lower Manhattan, on the site of the destroyed twin towers of the World Trade Center. It will be a symbol of your freedom to work an office job until you get laid off. It is going to be 541m tall, have 104 floors (plus 5 more underground), and will dwarf every other skyscraper in Manhattan. It is scheduled to reach full height this summer, and to open for business sometime next year. Given the unhappy history of the site, the project will include a massive blast wall. Security at this location is bound to be very tight; perhaps too tight for you to smuggle in your wing-suit, chute and axe.
Nervous watchers of the skyscraper index may wish to take this opportunity to consider strategies for geographic diversification: away from Manhattan, away from the United States, away from Western financial institutions. As for the rest of us, let us work to diversify away from all of them. Let us stop pinning our hopes and dreams on a paper currency which the vampire bats will use to light their fireplaces once we are done slaving for it.

Shale Gas: The View from Russia


The official shale gas story goes something like this: recent technological breakthroughs by US energy companies have made it possible to tap an abundant but previously inaccessible source of clean, environmentally friendly natural gas. This has enabled the US to become the world leader in natural gas production, overtaking Russia, and getting ready to end Russia\’s gas monopoly in Europe. Moreover, this new shale gas is found in many parts of the world, and will, in due course, enable the majority of the world\’s countries to achieve independence from traditional gas producers. Consequently, the ability of those countries with the largest natural gas reserves—Russia and Iran—to control the market for natural gas will be reduced, along with their overall geopolitical influence.

If this were the case, then we should expect the Kremlin, along with Gazprom, to be quaking in their boots. But are they?

Here is what Gazprom\’s chairman, Alexei Miller, recently told Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Shale gas is a well-organized global PR-campaign. There are many of them: global cooling, biofuels.” He pointed out that the technology for producing gas from shale is many decades old, and suggested the US turned to it out of desperation. He dismissed it as an energy alternative for Europe. Is this just the other side\’s propaganda, or could Miller be simply stating the obvious? Let\’s explore. I will base my exploration on Russian sources, which is why all the numbers are in metric units. If you want to convert to Imperial, 1 m3 = 35 cubic feet, 1 km2 = .38 square miles, 1 tonne = 1.1 short tons).
The best-developed shale gas basin is Barnett in Texas, responsible for 70% of all shale gas produced to date. By “developed” I mean drilled and drilled and drilled, and then drilled some more: just in 2006 there were about as many wells drilled into Barnett shale as are currently producing in all of Russia. This is because the average Barnett well yields only around 6.35 million m3 of gas, over its entire lifetime, which corresponds to the average monthly yield of a typical Russian well that continues to produce over a 15-20 year period, meaning that the yield of a typical shale gas well is at least 200 times smaller. This hectic activity cannot stop once a well has been drilled: in order to continue yielding even these meager quantities, the wells have to be regularly subjected to hydraulic fracturing, or \”fracked\”: to produce each thousand m3 of gas, 100 kg of sand and 2 tonnes of water, combined with a proprietary chemical cocktail, have to be pumped into the well at high pressure. Half the water comes back up and has to be processed to remove the chemicals. Yearly fracking requirements for the Barnett basin run around 7.1 million tonnes of sand and 47.2 million tonnes of water, but the real numbers are probably lower, as many wells spend much of the time standing idle.
In spite of the frantic drilling/fracking activity, this is all small potatoes by Russian standards. Russia\’s proven reserves of natural gas amount to 43.3 trillion m3, which is about a third of the world\’s total. At current consumption rates, that\’s enough to last 72 years. Russian gas production is constrained by demand, not by supply; it is currently down simply because Eurozone is in the midst of an economic crisis. Meanwhile, US production has surged ahead, for no adequately explored reason, crashing the price and making much of it unprofitable.
Let\’s compare: Gazprom\’s price at the wellhead runs from US$3 to $50 per thousand m3, depending on the region. Compare that to shale gas in the US, which runs from $80 to $320 per thousand m3. At this price, the US cannot afford to sell shale gas on the European market. Moreover, the overall volume of shale gas being produced in the US, even given the feverish drilling rate of the past couple of years, if cleaned up, liquified, and shipped to Europe in LNG tankers, would not be enough to book up just the LNG terminal in Gdańsk, Poland, which is currently standing idle. It seems that Gazprom has little to worry about.
The US, on the other hand, does have plenty to worry about. There has been much talk already about groundwater pollution and other forms of environmental destruction that accompanies the production of shale gas, so I will not address these here. Instead, I will focus on two aspects that are just as important but have received scarcely any attention.
First, what is shale gas? Ask this question, and you will be told: “Shut up, it\’s methane.” But is it really? The composition of shale gas is something of a state secret in the US, but information about the gas produced from the nine Polish shale gas test projects did leak out, and it\’s not pretty: Polish shale gas turned out to be so high in nitrogen that it does not even burn. Technology exists to clean up gas that is, say, 6% nitrogen, but Polish shale gas is closer to 50% nitrogen, and, given high production costs, low yields, rapid depletion and low wellhead pressure, cleaning it up to bring it up to spec (which is 1% nitrogen) would most likely result in a net waste of energy.
Even if shale gas is low enough in nitrogen to burn, the problems do not end there. It may also contain hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic and corrosive and has to be removed before the gas can be stored or injected into a pipeline. It probably contains toluene and other organic solvents—ingredients in the fracking cocktails—which are carcinogenic. Lastly, it may be radioactive. All clays are mildly radioactive, and shale is a sort of heat-treated clay. While Barnett shale is not particularly radioactive, Marcellus shale, which has recently been the focus of frantic drilling activity, is. Thanks to Marcellus shale gas, radioactive radon gas is being delivered directly to your kitchen, via the burners of your stove, or to a power plant smokestack upwind from where you live. This is expected to result in increased lung cancer rates in the coming years.
Second, why is shale gas being produced at all? Natural gas prices have fallen through the floor, and are currently around $2 per thousand cubic feet. This works out to around $70 per thousand m3. If shale gas costs from $80 to $320 per thousand m3 to produce, it is unclear how one might make any money with it.

But perhaps making money with it is not the point. What if shale gas is just a PR campaign (with horrific environmental side effects)? Going back to what Alexei Miller said, what if the entire point of the exercise was to increase the capitalization of shale gas exploration and production companies? The number one company in shale gas is Chesapeake Energy, the owner of the Barnett basin and a major player in the Marcellus basin. This company almost went bankrupt in 2009, but then managed to claw its way back to profitability in 2010 and 2011 by drilling, and drilling, and drilling, and then drilling some more. Sixty percent of their revenue is from drilling operations. And now there is a scandal involving Chesapeake Energy\’s (former?) chairman, Aubrey K. McClendon, who apparently awarded himself a stake in each well his company drilled, used them as collateral for billions in loans, and used the loans to bet that natural gas prices will go up (they haven\’t). In the meantime, natural gas drilling rig count has dropped to a ten-year low. Given that shale gas wells deplete very quickly, it looks like the shale gas boom is over.

But now that it\’s over, what was it, exactly? It appears to have been something like the dot-com bubble: companies with no conceivable way of turning a profit using hype to attract investment and drive up their valuations. Since 2008, various kinds of hype-based market manipulations have become the staple of economic life in the US, and so this is nothing new or different.

One interesting question is, What sort of bubble will the US attempt to blow next, if any? There is the Facebook IPO coming up. Facebook is a ridiculous time-waster and, as such, seems a bit overpriced. Are we going to attempt blowing up another dot-com bubble? Another round of subprime mortgages does not seem to be in the works. What\’s a bubble boy to do? If there are no more bubbles to blow, then it\’s back to just plain printing money.

So this whole shale gas thing didn\’t work out as planned, did it? But could it have? Had it turned out to be much better in every way, could it have swung geopolitical influence away from Russia and Iran and back toward the US? Alas, no.
You see, there is no such thing as a global natural gas market. Yes, there are some LNG tankers sailing about, but that is very much a point-to-point trade. There is a closed North American market, a European market, and another market in the Asia-Pacific region. These markets do not interact. The North American market and the European market could have potentially shared just one producer: Qatar. Qatar once wanted to export LNG to the US, but then decided to export it to Europe instead, generating less of a loss, because European gas prices are substantially higher. And the reason Qatar is dumping natural gas in Europe is because it has gas to dump: its northern gas field is a very “wet” field, with a substantial percentage of natural gas condensate. Qatar\’s OPEC quota is 36-37 million tonnes of oil per year, but natural gas condensate is not considered to be oil and is not covered by OPEC quotas. Exploiting the condensate loophole allows Qatar to export 65.7 million tonnes: 77% over quota. The LNG is just concomitant production, and Qatar can afford to export LNG to Europe at a loss. This is a juicy bit of trivia, but really something of a footnote: an exception that proves the general case: there is no global natural gas market.
There is still, however, a global American disinformation and PR hype market, although this too is changing. The view from Russia is that it is pretty clear what this was all along: American propaganda and financial shenanigns. Nothing to see here, people, keep moving.

Memorial Day Plans


The Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of The Global Industrial Model
Friday May 25th thru Monday May 28th, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend at the beautiful Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. If you are in reasonable traveling distance of Artemas, PA, please join us.

There will be talks, workshops and moderated discussions on specific topics of interest with John Michael Greer, Carolyn Baker, Dmitry Orlov (that\’s me), Gail Tverberg, Thomas Whipple and others.

Here are my talks:

I. Slowly at First, then All at Once: Progressing toward Collapse
It seems counterintuitive to most people that highly optimized, integrated, technologically advanced, progressive, mechanized, automated, highly efficient systems are far more fragile and far more prone to sudden failure than low-tech, localized, labor-intensive, inefficient ways of getting things done. But in fact striving for higher efficiency, be it labor efficiency or energy efficiency, is a way of coping by increasing complexity (and fragility) in order to be able to operate on a thinner and thinner margin. Once that margin disappears altogether (due to resource scarcity or when other limits are reached), or when the costs of complexity come to exceed its rewards (due to diminishing returns) then it is suddenly game over (a.k.a. \”systemic failure\”, or collapse). I\’ll cover some theory on the subject (a light, non-mathematical treatment) and then talk about some examples: the electric grid, big box retail, centralized internet-based services, global finance, container shipping, air travel, etc. In each case, I\’ll try to show what a scaled-down, non-fragile, resilient substitute might look like, and try to outline some steps that can be taken in that direction.
II. Our Brave Experiment: Living Aboard a Sailboat
Some years ago I started thinking about the importance of bringing back sail transport. I put my thoughts together in an article titled The New Age of Sail, which has been called my “manifesto.” In it I described the sort of sailing vessels that could be quickly put together and operated in a resource-scarce and chaotic environment, in spite of problems such as lack of highly trained crew, lack of dredging and channel markers, coastal erosion putting destroying dockside facilities and global warming putting them underwater. I further expanded on this topic in a later article, Sailing craft for a post-collapse world. In the meantime, in keeping with a time-honored scientific tradition of experimenting on oneself (and one\’s family), my wife and I purchased a sailboat of the sort I described, moved aboard, and have spent a total of about three years living aboard and sailing up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the US. In the process, I was able to verify, by direct experience and by observation, everything I wrote in the above two articles, with one exception (it turns out that small sailboats can\’t outrun hurricanes). Along the way, we discovered a great deal about the pros and cons of minimalistic living. In this talk, I will discuss the role of sail in our future, and also share our experiences of living on the water and extrapolate them to life on land.

III. Sustainable Living as Religious Observance

Our understanding of the world in crisis has become increasingly compartmentalized and fragmented: there is scientific analysis, cultural criticism, political discourse, discussions of economics and finance, community organizing, survivalism and a mystical/spiritual approach, to name a few. There is only one type of institution that can transcend all of these boundaries and provide the basis, the motivation and the discipline to create and to perpetuate a sustainable living arrangement, and that is organized religion. It is also the one institution that has the political power to stand apart from the mainstream and to refuse to adhere to the standard set of practices: from the Amish ability to exclude invasive or oppressive technologies through their Ordnungen, to the Christian Scientists\’ successful refusal of medicine, to numerous other exceptions from the status quo. There simply isn\’t time to evolve a new set of resilient and sustainable social institutions from scratch, while the vast organizational possibilities offered by religion are simply too important to ignore. It is hard to imagine a religion, from primitive animism to pantheism to Islam, that is dogmatically opposed to living in harmony with nature. It is a question of emphasis: a charter entered in addition to, rather than instead of, existing religious observance. On the other hand, sustainability is no more a specific religious choice than is survival. A spiritual approach to sustainability is valid, but, at the same time, so is a perfectly practical, if not to say materialist approach to the question of using a religious orders as an organizing principle around which sustainable communities can be built. Rather than present a lot of material on this topic, I will attempt to paint a broad outline, and then open it up for what I hope will be an interesting and fruitful discussion.

Making the Internet Safe for Anarchy


[En français] [In italiano]

Suppose you wanted to achieve some significant political effect; say, prevent or stop an unjust war. You could organize gigantic demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets, shouting slogans and waving anti-war banners. You could write angry editorials in newspapers and on blogs denouncing the falseness of the casus belli. You could write and phone and email your elected and unelected representatives, asking them to put a stop to it, and they would respond that they will of course try, and by the way could you please make a campaign contribution? You could also seethe and steam and lose sleep and appetite over the disgusting thing your country is about to do or is already doing. Would that stop the war? Alas, no. How many people protested the war in Iraq? And what did that achieve? Precisely nothing.

You see, the slogan “speak truth to power” has certain limitations. The trouble with this slogan is that it ignores the fact that power will not listen and the fact that the people already know the truth and even make jokes about it. Those in power may appear to be persuaded or dissuaded, but only if it is to their advantage to do so. They will also sometimes choose to co-opt, and then quietly subvert, popular movements, in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of those who would otherwise oppose them. But, in general, they cannot be shifted from pursuing a course they see as advantageous by mere rhetoric from those outside their ranks. Some weaker regimes may be sensitive to embarrassment, provided the criticisms are voiced by high-profile individuals in internationally recognized positions of authority, but these same criticisms backfire when aimed at the stronger regimes, because they make those who voice them themselves appear ridiculous, engaged in something futile.
Using rhetoric to shift those in power from their positions is like trying to win at chess by persuading your opponent to sacrifice his pieces because it is a reasonable, just and fair thing for him to do. As with chess, victory is achieved by moving in a way that restricts your opponent\’s choices. And, as with chess, the winning strategy is neutralized if your opponent is aware of your strategy ahead of time. Thus, attempting to enter into a dialogue with your opponent is a sure way to weaken your position by giving away your game plan.
In confronting the powerful, the need for secrecy is strengthened by the fact that, unlike chess, which is an overt game, the game of shifting those in power from their positions is best played covertly: it is advantageous to make game-changing events appear as accidents or coincidences, spontaneous rather than organized, and difficult to pin on anyone. Since a scapegoat is always found anyway, it is advantageous if there isn\’t any identifiable organization with which he can be associated. Where an organization is required, it\’s best for it to be transitory, fluid and anarchic in nature, and to appear to be ineffectually engaged in some trivial, innocuous pursuit. In CIA parlance, it should at all times maintain plausible deniability.
Such a strategy just might be conceivable, provided the whole thing stays off the Internet. In previous, less networked eras, the work of the secret police was challenging and labor intensive, but the Internet has changed all that. Anything you say on the Internet, whether in a private email, an unpublished document, or posted to a blog, can now be used in evidence against you, or anyone else.
Back in the USSR, to spy on your conversations, the KGB had to come and install a bug in your apartment. That was quite a job in itself. One agent was assigned to track each of your family members, to find a time when there was nobody home. Another agent had to then stand watch, while a couple more would pick the lock, move a piece of furniture, neatly cut out a piece of wallpaper, drill a hole, install the bug, glue and retouch the wallpaper so that it looks undisturbed, and put the furniture back in place. Then the conversations overheard by this bug had to be recorded, and someone had to stand by to swap the bulky reel-to-reel magnetic tapes. Finally, somebody had to go through all the tapes, listening for seditious-sounding snippets of conversation. Often the entire eavesdropping mission failed because of some trivial oversight, such as a deadbolt locked one turn too many or a cigarette butt of the wrong brand left in an ashtray, because it would cause the quarry to suddenly become careful, turning up the radio or the television when discussing anything important. Even if something vaguely seditious could be discerned, it sometimes happened that the person charged with listening turned sympathetic toward his quarry, in a sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome, because the dissidents he was spying on turned out to be forthright, honorable, likeable people—unlike his own detestable superiors. If found, the seditious content had to be laboriously transcribed.
If it became necessary to map out the quarry\’s social connections, the process was, again, laborious. Transcripts of phone conversations and surveillance tapes had to be correlated against photographs of persons walking in and out of the apartment or seen talking to the quarry. Sometimes letters had to be steamed open and read to determine the nature of the relationships. If seditious documents were found, which were normally typed, then an attempt was made to determine their origin based on the ownership of the typewriter, which could be matched by comparing minor imperfections in characters and small deviations in their alignment against a library of typed samples maintained on file, except that the documents were often typed through five layers of carbon paper, making the characters too blurry to make such identification possible.
Compare that to the situation in the US today, where CIA/FBI/NSA/Homeland Security is quite far along in forming one giant security apparatus that dwarfs the quaint old KGB in both intrusiveness and scope, though probably not in effectiveness, even though modern technology makes their job trivial to the point where much of it can be automated. There used to exist privacy protections written into US law, but they are in the process of disappearing as a result of new legislation, such as the CISPA bill making its way through Congress now. But whether or not a sweeping abolition of privacy rights makes it into law, your online privacy is gone. Since the government can now detain you indefinitely without ever charging, trying or sentencing you, and has full access to your digital data, legal niceties make little difference. Nor does it matter any longer whether or not you are a US citizen: the firewall between CIA (which was supposed to only spy on foreigners) and FBI has disappeared following 9/11, and although this practice violates several acts of Congress, you would be foolish to wait for anyone to do anything about it.
People now tend to communicate via cell phone voice calls, text messages, emails, posts to Facebook and tweets, all of which are digital data, and all of which are saved. Relationships between people can be determined by looking at their Facebook profile, their email contacts, and their cell phone contacts. If your phone is GPS-enabled, your position can be tracked very precisely; if it isn\’t, your position can still be determined fairly accurately and tracked once your phone connects to a few different cell phone towers. All of this information can be continually monitored and analyzed without human intervention, raising red flags whenever some ominous pattern begins to emerge. We are not quite there yet, but at some point somebody might accidentally get blasted to bits by a drone strike while texting when a wrong T9 predictive text autocompletion triggers a particularly deadly keyword match.
A lot of commerce now happens online, while most retail point of sale systems are now computerized, and most people use credit/debit cards rather than cash and often use “rewards cards” even when paying cash. Thus, everything you buy can be traced to you, and your purchasing patterns can be analyzed to determine such things whether or not you are pregnant. In a recent scandal, the Target chain committed the faux pas of offering discounts on baby products to women who did not yet know they were pregnant, based on their recent purchases of such things as unscented face cream, larger-size bras and various soft, plush items.
Thanks to vastly increased computational power, the emphasis is now shifting from enforcing the law to flagging as aberrant any sort of behavior that the system does not quite understand. That is, it is not looking for violations of specific laws, but for unusual patterns. One such pattern might be an attempt by you and others to go electronically dark for a time. Suppose you are walking to a park, and, before getting there, you switch off your cell phone. And suppose several other people walk to that same park at the same time, and also switch off their cell phones before getting there. And suppose none of you called or texted each other beforehand. Well, that\’s an obvious red flag for conspiracy! Video from surveillance cameras installed in that park will be downloaded, fed through facial recognition software, and the faces matched up with the cell phones that were switched off. Now you are all connected and flagged as attempting to evade surveillance. If this aberrant behavior is observed during some future time of national emergency (as opposed to the usual permanent war on terror) drone aircraft might be dispatched to take you out. All of this might happen without any human intervention, under the control of a fully automated security threat neutralization system. It\’s a bit of a Catch22: stay off the Internet, and you are sure to be too socially isolated to organize anything; get on the Internet and you are immediately exposed; do a little of each, and you suddenly start looking very suspicious and invite additional scrutiny.
If you are a bit more savvy, you might be able to come up with ways to use the Internet anonymously. You buy a laptop with cash and don\’t register it, so that the MAC address can\’t be traced to you. You use Internet cafés that have open Internet access or pirate open wifi connections from somewhere. You connect to web sites outside of the US jurisdiction via SSL (HTTPS protocol) or use encrypted services such as Skype. You further attempt to anonymize your access using Tor. You think you are safe. But wait! Are you running a commercial operating system, like Windows or Mac OS? If so, it has a back door, added by the manufacturer based on a secret request from the US government. The back door allows someone (not necessarily the government, but anybody who knows about it) to install a keystroke logger that captures all your keystrokes and periodically uploads them to some server for analysis. Now all of your communications, and username/password combinations, are known to a third party.
Suppose you know about back doors in commercial operating systems, and so you compile your own OS (some flavor of Linux or BSD) from source code. You run it in ultra-secure mode, and nervously monitor all incoming and outgoing network connections for anything that shouldn\’t be there. You encrypt your hard drive. You do not store any contact information, passwords or, for that matter, anything else on your laptop. You run the browser in “private” mode so that it doesn\’t maintain a browsing history. You look quite fetching in your tin foil hat. You are not just a member of Anonymous, you are Anonymous! But do you realize how suspicious this makes you look? The haggard look from having to memorize all those URLs and passwords, the darting eye movements… Somebody is going to haul you in for questioning just for the hell of it. At that point, you represent a challenge to the surveillance team: a hard target, somebody they can use to hone their skills. This is not a good position to be in.
Internet anonymity doesn\’t have much of a future. It is already all but nonexistent in China. You land in Beijing, and need a cell phone. To purchase a SIM card for your cell phone, you need to show your passport. Now you SIM card is tied to your passport number. You go to an Internet café. There, Internet access is free, but to connect you need a password which is sent to your cell phone via SMS. Now your passport number is tied to everything you do while on the Internet. Can you remain anonymous? Not too much, I would think.
But even if you could remain anonymous, are you still rebellious enough to challenge the status quo through risky but effective covert action? My guess is that you are by now quite docile, thanks, again, to the Internet. You don\’t want to do anything that might jeopardize your access to it. You have your favorite music and books in the cloud, your online games, your Facebook friends, and you can\’t imagine life without them. For many people, Internet is also the way they get sex, either voyeuristically, through porn, or by finding people to have sex with. And I have observed that men, even if normally rebellious, become quite docile if they think that they might get to have sex. (Women tend to be more docile than men in any case.) Overall, there seems to be a taming effect associated with Internet access. People might still feel rage, but they rage by posting nasty comments on blogs or engaging in flame wars on newsgroups.
There is supposed to be such a thing as Internet activism, but a better term for it is “Slacktivism,” a term used by Evgeny Morozov in his book The Net Delusion, which is worth a look. He is a Belarussian activist whose work is funded by George Soros\’s Open Society Foundation, which I find creepy, plus he spends a lot of time trying to give policy advice to the US government on ways to promote democracy abroad—a funny-smelling subject as far as I am concerned, pots calling kettles black and so on. He does list a lot of amusing SNAFUs, such as the State Department spending money to train Iranian bloggers to use software that\’s been embargoed by the Treasury Department. But the point he makes about Internet activism is important: it is too easy, too low-risk (unless you happen to be in Iran or Syria or Belarus) and, in general, futile. Should it ever rise to the point of posing a threat to the status quo, it is easily neutralized by authoritarian governments, Western corporations, or a combination of both. The world\’s biggest censors are not China and Russia, says Morozov, they are Apple Computer and Facebook. In all, Internet activism is a powerful time-waster, a boon for repressive, authoritarian regimes, a tar pit for foreign Internet neophytes, and a delusion for Western politicians and activists.
Does the idea of achieving some significant political effect still seem interesting? What if I told you that you could achieve that same effect with just a bit of patience, sitting like a Buddha with your arms folded, a beatific smile on your face? The idea is not too far-fetched.
You see, the Internet is a very resilient system, designed to let packets flow around any obstruction. It is, to some extent, self-regulating and self-healing. But it depends on another system, which is not resilient at all: the electric grid. In the US, the grid is a creaking, aging system, which now exhibits an exponentially increasing rate of failure. It is susceptible to the phenomenon of cascaded failure, where small faults are magnified throughout the system. Since the money needed to upgrade the system no longer exists, blackouts will continue to proliferate. As the grid goes down, Internet access will be lost. Cell phone access is more likely to remain, but without the grid most people will lose the ability to recharge their mobile devices. Information technology may look shiny and new, but the fact remains that the Internet is around 40% coal-fired and around 20% nuclear-powered.
Beyond the purely technical issues with the electric grid, there is also a problem with finding enough energy to power it. About half the electricity comes from coal, which is of increasingly poor quality. The volumes of coal are staying more or less constant, but the energy density of the coal is decreasing over time. The anthracite that made the age of steam possible is all but gone. The lignite and brown coal that have replaced it are sometimes closer to dirt than to coal. At some point it will become a net waste of energy to mine them and transport them to a power plant. Already the inferior quality of coal is causing giant balls of clinker to accumulate in the power plant furnaces, causing extensive downtime and millions in damage. As for other sources of electricity, the aging nuclear power plants, many on their last legs and already unsafe, is a story for a separate article; likewise with the mirage of energy independence, to be achieved by “fracking” for shale gas and other equally ineffective dirty tricks. Moving forward, the amount of time the electric grid is available in any given place will dwindle, and with it the amount of Internet access.
As the electric grid goes down, there will be a great deal of economic disruption, which is enough material for yet another article. But in terms of the surveillance system, two effects are virtually guaranteed. First, people will once again become very expensive to track and monitor, as in the olden days of the KGB. Second, people will cease to be docile. What keeps people docile is access to the magic shiny world of television and the Internet. Their own lives might be dull, grey, hopeless, and filled with drudgery, but as long as they can periodically catch a glimpse of heaven inhabited by smooth-skinned celebrities with toned muscles sporting the latest fashions, listen to their favorite noise, watch a football game, and distract themselves with video games, blogs, or cute animals on Reddit\’s /r/aww, they can at least dream. Once they wake up from that dream, they look around, and then look around some more, and then they become seriously angry. This is why the many countries and regions that at one time or another ran short on energy, be it former Soviet Georgia or Bulgaria or the Russian far east, always tried to provide at least a few hours of electricity every day, usually in the evenings, during “prime time,” so that the populace could get its daily dose of fiction, because this was cheaper than containing a seriously angry populace by imposing curfews and maintaining around-the-clock military patrols and checkpoints.
And so, if you want to achieve a serious political effect, my suggestion is that you sit back Buddha-like, fold your arms, and do some deep breathing exercises. Then you should work on developing some interpersonal skills that don\’t need to be mediated by electronics. Chances are, you will get plenty of opportunities to practice them when the time comes, giving seriously angry people something useful to do. By then nobody will be watching you, because the watchers will have grown tired of looking at their persistently blank monitor screens and gone home. Then they too will become seriously angry—but not at you.

[Comment and discuss on reddit\’s /r/collapse]