Archive for February, 2013

Monkey Trap Nation

Lukas Brezek

A few weeks ago I flew back to Boston from St. Petersburg. Nine time zones is a lot to fly through in a day, especially when flying west. It all adds up to a single very long day that just won\’t end. When I had left Boston, I set up the boat to stay above freezing using a minimum amount of electric heat, so I expected to find a cold boat, but not a frozen one, in spite of the freezing cold and the snow, which was coming down quite heavily when I landed. But it turned out that while I was away the shore power cable\’s connection to its socket aboard the boat started arcing and burned, leaving the boat without power. (I was lucky; the boat could have burned down.) I spent an interesting couple of hours finding tools and supplies by flashlight, then stripping and splicing cables to restore power. As I finally went to sleep that night, wrapped in an electric blanket aboard a slowly defrosting boat, I thought to myself: “What have I done?” Sure, I flew to Boston because that\’s where my boat is, but there has got to be a better reason than that!

The next day I wandered out toward the center of town, and on the way saw an apartment building which had burned down, it turned out, the day before. The building had been heated badly, and the fire was caused by an electric space heater. “Windows” had plywood nailed over them, there were blooms of soot over many of them, and the doors were boarded up and posted “Danger, keep out!” The whole structure seemed to be sagging and caving in on itself. The displaced residents stood around wondering what to do. Ironically, this building happens to be across the street from the local fire station, but you see, the fire station doesn\’t happen to have any “windows” on the side that faced it, and so the firemen were quite unaware of the blaze right next door and slow to stir to action. I later found out that the fire got so out of hand that they had to call in help from the neighboring town.

Heat, house fires… see, living in Russia, I almost forgot about these things. In St. Petersburg, apartment buildings are heated using waste heat from power plants. Steam is distributed throughout the city using a network of buried pipelines which provide both heat and hot water. Their cost is just the cost of distribution (which is, at this point, mostly a matter of upkeep) since the energy would otherwise be wasted. The buildings are so warm that nobody wears sweaters indoors, and it is usually warm enough to lounge around in lingerie. On day one of a cold spell it can get a bit chilly indoors, but then somebody somewhere gives a giant steam valve a quarter turn, and things are again toasty. On the first day of a warm spell it can get positively sweltering indoors, and people start cracking windows open even though it\’s still below freezing outside, until somebody somewhere gives that valve a quarter-turn in the opposite direction. If you find this arrangement inefficient, then you must be sketchy on the concept of waste heat. Power plants are heat engines, subject to thermodynamic limits which cause 2/3 to ½ of the energy consumed to be released as waste heat. Now, there is enough heat wasted by all the power plants in the US to heat every single inhabited structure in the entire country, but instead that heat is vented to the atmosphere or used to heat the rivers and the ocean, and then quite a bit of the electricity they generate is wasted using electric space heaters. In turn, these space heaters cause a lot of house fires.

During my stay in St. Petersburg I did not see a single fire or fire engine, or hear a single fire engine siren. Buildings in St. Petersburg do not have fire exits or fire escapes; they don\’t need them. The place does not burn. The Emergencies Ministry publishes weekly statistics for things such as fires, and they bear out my casual observation. The reason for this is that houses in St. Petersburg are made of nonflammable materials: masonry and, more recently, reinforced concrete, insulated with hard plaster. If you proposed building something out of flammable materials, such as wood or vinyl siding, your project would not be approved. The walls tend to be thick—5 courses of brick or more—to provide both insulation and the thermal mass to hold in heat. Doors are made with a core of steel plate. Thus, the worst that can happen there is an isolated apartment fire.

Here in Boston, however, houses are made of flammable sticks covered in flammable plastic, the walls are kept thin to waste as much heat as possible, and the “windows”… you see, windows are like doors in that they need to both open and to close tightly to avoid leaking heat, with the additional requirement of letting through light. And so, Russian windows are basically doors with glass panes in them, that swing open on hinges. But not in the US, all because of some loon of an Englishman who—back in that country\’s dim and miserable past when the English were so poor that they couldn\’t even heat their houses and just sat shivering around a fireplace—decided that “windows” should consist of two empty glass picture frames (square ones) that slide up and down and rattle around in loose-fitting slots, letting through as much air as possible even when shut. The English then started calling normal windows “French windows,” to signal that such continental tendencies would not be tolerated. This curse of an invention then spread to all the other English-speaking countries, including the US.

And so the Russians heat with waste heat from power plants, build well-insulated houses out of nonflammable materials and sit around in their lingerie even as mercury freezes solid and snow-dunes drift slowly past, while the Americans heat their flammable, badly insulated stick-built houses with oil, gas and electricity, do their best to battle hypothermia and are often forced to choose between turning up the heat and being able to pay for food. Does this mean that the Russians are smart and the Americans stupid? I don\’t think so. People are people. But there is a cultural difference that\’s worth pointing out, and it comes down to just one thing: short-term thinking. Historically, the Russians seem to have been less susceptible to the short-termism that afflicts so many Americans. This may be less true now, with the recent hectic pace of development in Russia, but still there is plenty of social inertia causing people to continue to ask and re-ask the same inconvenient question over and over again: “And then what?” (“Ну а потом что?”)

Wouldn\’t it be nice if short-term decisions had short-term consequences and long-term decisions had long-term consequences? Well, too bad; it\’s the other way around. Short-term decisions have long-term consequences because they tend to lock you into an arrangement that is beneficial in the short term but detrimental in the long-term. Long-term decisions have short-term consequences because planning for the long term incurs short-term expenses. For example: in the short term, it is cheaper to nail houses together out of sticks and put them up in places far removed from the power plants that could heat them for free, but in the long term the heating bills, the house fires and the expense of keeping up a temporary structure tend to get out of hand. On the other hand, in the long-term, it is cheaper to build houses next to steam mains supplied free of charge by a power plant, out of solid masonry, and with steel plate doors and insulated double-windows (saving on fire alarms, fire escapes and fire departments) but in the short term this is more expensive.

What\’s worse, the consequences of short-term decision-making are cumulative over time: the long-term consequences of short-term decisions just keep piling up. But people are loathe to admit the errors of their ways, and can rarely be made to accept the consequences of their decisions. Instead, the tendency is to regard these consequences as new, entirely unexpected short-term problems to be solved with more short-term thinking. The result is a tendency to double down on every bad bet, and beyond a certain point the consequences magnify and feed on each other until they add up to an intractable, systemic crisis where no more short-term solutions can be found.

* * *

The monkey trap is, as the name suggests, a device for trapping monkeys. It is ingenuous in its simplicity, and also in the fact that it does not actually trap the monkey at all: it is the monkey that does the trapping. The trap consists of a hollowed-out gourd tied to a tree using a vine. The gourd has an opening just big enough to admit a monkey\’s paw when it isn\’t clenched into a fist. Inside is a banana. The monkey reaches inside, grabs the banana, but cannot withdraw it. Even as the hunter approaches to collect it, it cannot bring itself to unclench its fist, let go of the banana and escape. What traps the monkey is the monkey\’s own internal cost/benefit analysis, which is slanted toward the short term, coupled with its inability to consider the long-term effect of its short-term decisions. It is a perfect metaphor for what has caused the US to go off the rails.

Let us take another look at Russia. St. Petersburg now has a standard of living that compares favorably to many places in the US, including some of its more prosperous cities. Salaries are still considerably lower, but then so are the costs. In Russia, many consumer products, such as clothes, electronics, furniture and all of the other things that can cost almost arbitrary amounts of money, are quite expensive, and few people can afford to own closets full of clothes they hardly ever wear. On the other hand, necessities are quite reasonably priced: housing, education, heath care, communications, transportation and all the other basics are far more affordable. The US is the polar opposite. Here, all sorts of consumer items can be had for next to nothing, but when it comes to the necessities (housing, education, health care, communications and transportation) the norm seems to be to bleed people dry.

With housing, the major issue is that incomes have been falling for decades, but housing prices have only gone up. Housing is a cost, not an investment, because a residence is not a productive asset but a place to eat, sleep and recreate. The obvious long-term solution is to crash the real estate market, bulldoze unpromising suburban subdivisions and revert them to farmland, then build non-flammable apartment buildings next to power plants to provide affordable housing. Next thing you know, everybody suddenly has plenty of disposable income and the economy takes off. But that\’s long-term thinking, you see; short-term thinking is to prop up ridiculous real estate valuations by buying up defaulted mortgages at face value and hiding them inside the Federal Reserve. And so that\’s what\’s being done.

With education, the monkey trap was assembled in stages. First, the value of a college education was inflated to the point where only college graduates could get the remaining good jobs. Next, college education was pronounced a birthright, and financial aid was extended to make it universally accessible, on terms that amount to a lifetime of indentured servitude. Next, the price of higher education was inflated out of all proportion to its value, to cash in on the bonanza of free government-guaranteed money. And so now we have a ridiculously overpriced higher education system that is considered mandatory even though for most people earning a degree no longer guarantees an income sufficient to repay the loans. The obvious solution is to do away with the now meaningless college degrees and fall back on certificates, licenses, apprenticeships and other ways of getting people directly into the workplace. But that\’s long-term thinking, you see; short-term thinking is to make higher education even more mandatory, but somewhat more affordable, by automating it: instead of an actual lecture hall, students are now treated to a virtual experience of listening to a talking head robo-prof over the Internet from the comfort of their parents\’ basement. The only two subjects that can be taught using this method are test-taking and masturbation.

I could make a similar argument with respect to health care, communications and transportation. Perhaps I will do so next week. Or perhaps you\’ve caught on already. I hope that this will be enough to make you allergic to short-termism.

* * *

But who, you might ask, are the monkeys? Well, that\’s the funny bit (at least to me). The real monkeys are the people running the system: the people who think they have it made. You see, they can\’t let go of the banana inside the gourd, because holding onto it gives them power. They are all the people who benefit outlandishly from the current system of bleeding the system dry: the college administrators, the health care administrators, the various managers who make six figures and beyond, and who are all lavishly rewarded for bringing in good quarterly and year-end results, a.k.a. short-term thinking. They think that holding onto that banana inside the gourd for another round will make them even better off. But I believe they are wrong.

Their prize “banana,” expressed in financial terms, consists of stocks (propped up by endless quantitative easing), bonds (issued by a bankrupt government drowning in debt), real estate (which will have to be protected by a private army as the land lapses into chaos), and cash (fiat currency, subject to sudden bouts of hyperinflation). Where are they going to escape to with all this loot? Costa Gringa? El Gringador? The fabled kingdom of Abu Gringadabi? Once the abovementioned pieces of paper all turn out to be worthless, they may not get too far beyond “¡Sus papeles, por favor!” You destroyed your own country; what do you plan to do with ours? Or are they going to construct a luxury artificial island anchored on some shoal in the middle of the ocean and live there? If so, whose navy is going to protect them from the pirates who will show up and say: “What nice island you have! You want something bad to happen to it?” (They only watched the dubbed version of that movie, and something got lost in translation.)

You see, their short-term thinking is… short-termist, enough said, while their long-term thinking is mostly a work of fantasy. You don\’t want to be like them, do you? In that case, stop thinking for the short term! Oh, and if you do get stuck in a monkey trap: let go the banana, withdraw your paw, hold the gourd hole-down and shake out the banana, grab the banana, run up a tree and eat the banana while, optionally, making eye contact with the hunter. Got that?

If you are still wondering what keeps this blog going, it is still just you. If you haven\’t done so yet, please pre-order your copy of The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors\’ Toolkit.
Regular price $18.00 USD Autographed, numbered copy $28.00 USD
(Although the order is placed through PayPal, you don\’t need to have a PayPal account; just click \”Don\’t have a PayPal Account?\” during check-out and enter a credit or debit card number. If you do have a PayPal account, please make extra-double-sure that the shipping address associated with it is up-to-date and correct, and will remain that way through May.)

Pray for an Asteroid


On the morning of February 15, 2013, a 500-ton meteor entered the atmosphere somewhere near the Ural mountains, in the vicinity of Chelyabinsk, Russia, an industrial city of over a million. The intensity of the blast was estimated at around 500 kilotons of TNT equivalent, or 30 nuclear bombs of the type the Americans dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The shock waves from the sonic boom it created blew out numerous windows. Around a thousand people were wounded, mostly with lacerations from flying glass; 40 of them remain hospitalized. The damage is being estimated at over one billion rubles ($33 million USD). Over 24,000 workers and volunteers, coordinated by Russia\’s Emergency Ministry, went to work on the clean-up. Their specific emphasis was on keeping buildings from freezing (the temperature in Chelyabinsk is around -20ºC). By February 17 much of the damage had been repaired. Schools, hospitals and other pubic buildings had their windows replaced and were reopened. The government is supplying replacement windows to residential buildings.

There was, by all appearances, no panic of any sort. Quite the opposite: the Internet instantly filled up with pictures, videos and tweets of the light show and the percussion that followed. Then came the jokes: one was that Chelyabinsk residents detonated something and claimed it was an asteroid to get the government to provide them with replacement windows. A major television channel was successfully spoofed into accepting as real a video of what was supposedly the impact crater. Supposed bits of the meteor (which were only recovered on February 17) instantly appeared for sale. Some of the observers seemed positively giddy, describing how the shockwave made them jump, discussing how the object in question must have been traveling at supersonic speeds, then going on to estimate distances based on the lag time between the flash and the shock wave. In all, the reaction and the response could perhaps be best characterized by what is currently a very popular word in Russia: “adequate.”

By a complete coincidence, on that same day the Earth was buzzed by a much bigger body: an asteroid, nicknamed 2012 DA14. Coming from a different direction, it came closer to Earth than the ring of geostationary weather and communications satellites that hover in fixed positions over the equator 35,786 km above the planet, and could have caused far more extensive damage—similar to that caused by the one that exploded over Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, which is the largest meteor event in recorded history. (If it seems like Russia gets more than its fair share of cosmic debris, that\’s because it\’s big: try to hit the Earth from space, and you are likely to hit the ocean, but, failing that, you are quite likely to hit Russia.) But the coincidences don\’t end there: there was also a meteor seen over Ufa, Russia, on the 12th, and another one over Japan on the the 14th. There was another flash in the sky that rattled windows reported on the 12th near Cienfuegos, Cuba, and another on the 15th near San Francisco. Are we being bombarded from outer space? Is someone out there throwing rocks at us, from different directions? Let there be no rest for the conspiracy theorists!

Asteroids are exciting, because they are part of a small class of singular events capable of dramatically altering the course of history. There is nuclear war, followed by nuclear winter—but we like to think that we have nuclear war somewhat under control, simply because nuclear weapons make for good defense (deterrence) but bad offense, because nuclear confrontations offer no winning strategies for anyone. Then there are the massive volcanic eruptions, like the ones that triggered the Little Ice Age, which began quite suddenly between AD 1275 and 1300. We don\’t control these at all, of course, but we sometimes get some advance warning, and the events themselves can be arbitrarily nasty without being mysterious. Then there are pandemics like the Bubonic Plague which wiped out a third of Europe\’s population; their unpredictability provides some amount of excitement, plus epidemiologists tell us that their likelihood keeps rising, giving them an aura of inevitability. Less inevitable but also very nasty are solar storms that fry all of our electronics and take down the electric grid, while a supernova within the Earth\’s galactic neighborhood would be even nastier, potentially sterilizing the entire planet.

So much for unpredictable, history-altering, cataclysmic events. But there are a couple more—ones we can predict with complete accuracy and confidence. Let\’s start with the smaller one: there are 437 operational nuclear reactors in the world. These sometimes produce electricity (and steam for industrial and residential uses) but they always require electricity to run the cooling pumps, or they overheat and explode, like Fukushima Daiichi in Japan did. If they cannot get electricity from the grid, then they have to make their own, using diesel generators on site. And if these generators run out of diesel, then the reactors and the spent fuel pools all melt down and generate a radioactive plume that poisons the surrounding area for generations. The problem is that there probably isn\’t enough diesel to keep them supplied over the decades it would take to shift all of the nuclear waste into dry cask storage and bury the casks in tunnels in geologically stable rock that will at some remote date enter a subduction zone and melt safely into the Earth\’s mantle. Since we really don\’t want there to be 437 Fukushima Daiichi\’s, it would make sense for us to get cracking on the problem of eliminating these reactors from the face of the earth; but are we doing that? Of course not! We are extending the lifetimes of the existing reactors, and even building a few new ones.

And now we come to the really important cataclysmic event that at this point seems all but unavoidable: the effect of chemical changes to the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Scientists have reached a consensus that anything beyond a 2ºC rise in average global temperature will put the Earth\’s climate in an unknown state, but probably one that is not conducive to our continued existence. Beyond that point, various tipping points are reached, causing positive feedback loops that can quickly take the climate very far from the homeostatic equilibrium we have enjoyed thoughout our history as a species: glaciers melt inundating coastal cities where much of the population lives; droughts parch farmland causing famines; extreme weather events cause ever greater damage to our infrastructure. A temperature rise in excess of 2ºC all but assures a planet that our children will not be able to live on. It will be a planet that we will not be around to not recognize. Now, it turns out that to avoid exceeding the 2ºC budget, we have to stop burning fossil fuels—all of them, and not at some point in the future, but right now. And not gradually taper down our use or attempt to shift to renewables over time, but cold turkey. All oil refineries, all gas distribution networks, all coal-fired power plants have to be shut down immediately; but are we doing that? Of course not! We are doing all we can to ramp up production of fossil fuels, to restore economic growth. As I write this, Bill McKibben and numerous protesters are gathered at the White House protesting the plans for the XL pipeline. I applaud the effort, but that\’s one pipeline out of how many?

It seems that we can\’t help ourselves at all, can we? But we can still hope. It seems like asteroids can potentially fix things for us. I would venture to guess that a series of good-sized asteroid impact craters around the world\’s financial and industrial centers would pretty much cancel the rest of the fossil fuel-burning extravaganza, saving the planet for our children (the few who will survive the transition to life without fossil fuels). This may seem to you like a raw deal, but then what\’s the alternative? Peaceful protest? Or would you like to try some more civil disobedience? There isn\’t any time for any of that left, you know; 2ºC is already baked in, and we are now working on something that goes beyond unpleasant and is starting to border on lethal.

But does hoping for a global fix to our fossil fuel predicament to rain down on us from heaven amount to hoping against hope? It is rational to hope for things that have a finite, non-negligible likelihood, but the likelihood of such a “solution” from outer space is unknowable. Rather, what we should do is pray. Now, it is well known that even avowed atheists resort to prayer under certain circumstances: mostly when they think they are going to die. Not all people are capable of such a realization, preferring to remain delusional, but I would like to think that you, dear reader, are sufficiently far-sighted and diligent in researching catastrophic climate change to realize that that is indeed the case: if the fossil fuel-burning machine isn\’t shut down now, you are facing extinction within just a few generations. It doesn\’t seem to matter how you pray or what deity or deities you pray to. What matters is that, through prayer, you take the locus of control over your destiny somewhere far outside your puny, helpless person and place it somewhere else—perhaps in the strange benevolence of nature that allows us to survive in spite of our best efforts. In so doing, you may find inner peace, and sometimes even the strength to survive.

And so, let us pray. Let us pray that a fix will show up before it is too late for us and for life on Earth as we know it. Clearly, we can\’t bring ourselves to do what\’s needed, which is to stop ourselves in our tracks no matter the immediate consequences. Let us therefore pray that there is a force somewhere in the universe, beyond our control, that can do that for us. And let us pray that we will be able to recognize it when it shows up, and that we will have the presence of mind to not fight it. If we can\’t win the battle for survival, then let\’s try going down in defeat.

If you are wondering what keeps this blog going, it is you. If you haven\’t done so yet, please pre-order your copy of The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors\’ Toolkit.

Regular price $18.00 USD Autographed, numbered copy $28.00 USD
(Although the order is placed through PayPal, you don\’t need to have a PayPal account; just click \”Don\’t have a PayPal Account?\” during check-out and enter a credit or debit card number. If you do have a PayPal account, please make extra-double-sure that the shipping address associated with it is up-to-date and correct, and will remain that way through May.)

Book Excerpt: The wrong math

This is an excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors\’ Toolkit. Please order your copy for shipment in May.
Regular price $18.00 USD Autographed, numbered copy $28.00 USD


An argument can be made that lending at any rate of interest above 0 percent eventually leads to a deflationary collapse followed by a quick but painful bout of hyperinflation thrown in at the very end. A positive interest rate requires exponential growth, and exponential growth, of anything, anywhere, can only produce one outcome: collapse. This is because it quickly outpaces any sustainable physical process in the universe, outside of a few freak cases such as a sustained nuclear explosion, where the entire universe blows up, taking all of us with it, along with all of our debts.

Here is a thought experiment that illustrates this point. Suppose we solve every technical problem on Earth and go on and colonize space, found space colonies and take over the solar system, and the galaxy, and other galaxies, and the entire universe (which may not be infinite, which would give us another cause for eventual collapse, but let\’s ignore that for the moment). As everyone knows, space empires aren\’t cheap, and to get our space empire started we borrow some money, at an introductory low rate of interest (after somehow convincing the lenders that building a space empire is a low-risk proposition). Suppose we expand this empire at close to the speed of light (since it requires infinite energy to accelerate a finite mass to the speed of light). A space empire expanding even at the speed of light in all three dimensions will only grow as t3 (time cubed). (Let\’s ignore the fact that initially, while taking over the solar system and the Milky Way galaxy, which are both flat, our empire will only be able to expand in two dimensions.) Meanwhile, our empire\’s debt will grow as Dt (debt raised to the power of time). And here is the problem: it is a mathematical certainty that as time passes (t increases), debt grows faster than empire for any initial amount of debt. Exponential growth outpaces any physical process.

Dt t3

Suppose the empire\’s engineers struggle mightily with this problem and, after taking on even more debt to finance research and development, eventually invent “warp speed,” which flouts the laws of physics and allows our space empire to expand faster than the speed of light. But to their surprise, debt just keeps increasing. Eventually they discover the answer: even at “warp-10,” which is ten times the speed of light, debt is still increasing faster than the empire:

Dt (10t)3

One brilliant engineer (who happens to be a fan of the band Spinal Tap) hits on a brilliant idea and invents “warp-11.” Everyone is hopeful that this invention will give the imperial growth rate “that extra push over the cliff” and allow it to catch up with its ballooning debt. But this too is to no avail, because…

Dt (11t)3

Perplexed, the engineers wander back to their drawing boards. Then one remembers a film he saw once — The Adventures ofBuckaroo Banzai Across the8th Dimension — and is struck by a brilliant thought: what if they were to actually invent the circuitry that allowed Buckaroo to penetrate solid matter and travel across eight dimensions instead of just three? Then their space empire could expand across eight dimensions at the same time! They get to work, and quickly cobble together the Oscillation Overthruster (Buckaroo\’s fully automatic 12-volt cigarette lighter socket plug-in unit, not Dr. Lizardo\’s bulky foot-operated floor-mounted kludge). A bit more effort is required to compensate for strange hyper-relativistic effects when using the Overthruster at “warp-11” (Buckaroo\’s was only tested at just over Mach-1) but once they got the hang of it their space empire starts expanding across eight dimensions at eleven times the speed of light, quickly conquering and enslaving the Lectroids of Planet 10, along with billions and billions of others. Alas, it soon turns out that even this rate of growth is nowhere near fast enough to keep up with their debts, because…

Dt (11t)8

After some more fruitless exploration, the engineers decide to overcome their innate distrust of mathematicians and invite one to join the team, hoping he might be able to explain why this keeps happening to them. The mathematician asks for cocktails to be brought in and, once he sees that the engineers are sufficiently inebriated to take the edge off the bad news, he grabs a cocktail napkin and furiously scribbles out a proof (here omitted for clarity). His proof attempts to demonstrate that exponentially expanding debt will eventually outpace the rate of growth of anything finite that grows at any finite speed across any finite number of dimensions. He then goes on to say that “things get much more interesting once we move into the infinite domain,” and, even more enigmatically, “we can always renormalize it later.”

Shocked, they dismiss the mathematician and, grasping at straws, hire a shaman. The shaman listens to their problem and tells them to wait until sundown for an explanation. Then he asks them to shut off electricity everywhere and to join him outside in the middle of the parking lot and form a circle around him. Once their eyes adjust to the darkness, he points to the sky and says: “Look at the darkness between the stars. See it? There is nothing there. Now look at the stars. That is all there is.”

Since the engineers all happen to know that what they can see is limited by the age of the universe and the speed of light, not the size of the universe, which, for all they know, could very well be infinite, they dismiss the shaman, turn the lights back on, drink some more, then nurse their hangovers. One of them (a bit of a class clown) writes “It\’s The Exponential, Stupid!” on a placard and pins it up on a wall next to their cubicle farm. But then another one, a fan of TheTime Machine, the 1895 novella by H. G. Wells, hits on yet another brilliant idea. What if they invent a time machine, and go back in time to settle the empire\’s debts? With that, the math would finally work in their favor, because they could go back in time and pay each loan off with just the principal. Being short of cash, they try taking out another large loan to finance the development of the time machine, but their creditors balk, declaring the project “too risky.” And so the empire defaulted on its debts. Shortly thereafter, it turned out that it was no longer able to secure the financing it needed to continue interplanetary oxygen shipments, and they all died of asphyxiation.

Conclusion: borrowing at interest is fine provided you have plans for a time machine and enough cash on hand to actually build one, go back in time and pay off the loan with just the principal; it is not recommended otherwise.

This was an excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors\’ Toolkit. Please order your copy for shipment in May.
Regular price $18.00 USD Autographed, numbered copy $28.00 USD

Talks, Seminars, etc.



Dmitry Orlov is the author of the award-winning book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects and numerous essays published on his blog, Born in Russia, he moved to the US while a teenager, and has traveled back repeatedly to observe the Soviet collapse during the late eighties and mid-nineties. He is an engineer who has worked in many fields, including high-energy Physics research, e-commerce and Internet security. Recently, he has been experimenting with off-grid living and renewable energy by giving up the house and the car. Instead, he has been living on a sailboat, sailing it up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and commuting by bicycle. Dmitry believes that, given appropriate technology, we can greatly reduce personal resource consumption while remaining perfectly civilized.


a sampling of previous public appearances

Social Collapse Best Practices

For the Long Now Foundation at Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason Center in San Francisco
February of 2009

Seizing the Mid-Collapse Moment

June 2009, at the Davenport Hotel, Dublin, Ireland

Definancialisation, Deglobalisation, Relocalisation

At the New Emergency Conference: Managing Risk and Building Resilience in a Resource Constrained World. Held on 10-12 June 2009, All Hallows College, Drumcondra, Dublin 9, Ireland

The Twilight of the Antipodes and the Cultural Flip

March 2012 at Green Life Eco Fest in Grass Valley, California

Please email your requests to dmitry dot orlov at gmail dot com.

Book Excerpt: The Problem of Excessive Scale

This is an excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors\’ Toolkit. Please order your copy for shipment in May.
Regular price $18.00 USD Autographed, numbered copy $28.00 USD

(Although the order is placed through PayPal, you don\’t need to have a PayPal account; just click \”Don\’t have a PayPal Account?\” during check-out and enter a credit or debit card number. If you do have a PayPal account, please make extra-double-sure that the shipping address associated with it is up-to-date and correct, and will remain that way through May.)

In his excellent book The Breakdown of Nationsthe maverick economist Leopold Kohr makes several stunning yet, upon reflection, commonsense observations. He points out that small states have tended to be far more culturally productive than large states, that all states go to war but that big states have disproportionately bigger wars that kill many times more people, and that by far the most stable and advantageous form of political organization is a loose confederation of states, each so small that none can dominate the rest. Kohr arrives at his conclusions by a process of reasoning by homology (viz. analogy) by analyzing many of the problems of modernity as different manifestations of the same underlying problem: the problem of excessive scale.

Most people can relate to the concept of optimal scale on an intuitive, visceral level; we know when something is abnormally big or abnormally small, and we tend to dislike abnormality. The exceptions, be they midgets or giants, are considered freaks. In living things, growth tapers off and stops when the organism has reached its optimum size. Pursuit of largest possible size is a quixotic one, like that of the farmer who tries to grow the largest-possible turnip. Terms like “jumbo shrimp” make children giggle. There was once a very successful and influential religious cult devoted to finding the optimum in all things: the Greek cult of Apollo, with its motto of μηδὲν ἄγαν — “Nothing in excess.” Excess is never without cost, excessive size is no exception, and beyond a certain point the cost of excessive size becomes exorbitant. This point is lost on very few people, virtually all of whom happen to be politicians. For them, there is simply no limit to how big their nation-state should be allowed to become. When they think “bigger” they automatically think “better” and “more powerful,” in spite of much evidence to the contrary. Incapable of understanding the concept of diminishing and negative economies of scale, they cannot understand why increased defense spending results in more military defeats, or why increased spending on education causes ignorance to spread and test scores to plummet, or why increased spending on health care results in an increase in morbidity and mortality. In their headlong pursuit of “growth” they work themselves into the cul de sac of excessive size, a predicament from which there is no escape except through collapse.

Kohr defines the effect of excessive size using the Law of Diminishing Productivity: if one adds variable units of any factor of production to a fixed quantity of another, at some point the effect of adding one more variable unit will decrease productivity rather than increase it. The best example of this law in action we currently have is with population as the variable unit and Earth as the fixed unit. Indications are that we passed this point some time ago, but the population continues to grow because, although productivity is being steadily diminished, it is still above zero. Kohr\’s ideas lived on in the work of E. F. Schumacher and others, but they have failed to gain enough traction to reverse the march to gigantism, followed inexorably by collapse.

Ironically, Kohr\’s effort failed precisely because of the vast scale of the contemporary intellectual endeavor. Kohr pointed out that most of the great advances in learning and the arts occurred in small communities — in ancient Greece, medieval Europe and other places where everyone knew everyone, where the entire sweep of human affairs could be taken in at a glance and where one could be well regarded as what was once called a Renaissance Man — a generalist. But the vast scale at which contemporary society operates makes it impossible for anyone to observe the whole of it with any degree or precision or insight, forcing everyone to specialize in one thing or another; the vaster the scale, the more circumscribed the realm in which one can gain sufficient expertise to understand what is happening and be in a position to predict what might happen next. The proliferation of experts who know almost everything about almost nothing is a sure sign that the pursuit of knowledge has been carried to an excessive scale, but the existence of these same experts makes it impossible to claw knowledge back from the brink of utter irrelevance, because that can only done by a generalist. In turn, generalists are not allowed among specialists: to a specialist, as Kohr pointed out, a generalist is either irrelevant (unable to advance knowledge in the specialist\’s narrow field of expertise) or an impostor (someone not even interested in advancing knowledge in the specialist\’s narrow field of expertise).

To illustrate how this works (or, as the case may be, does not work) let us take the specific example of breast cancer. There are specialists in the genetics of breast cancer (which seems specialized enough for our purposes) who have recently taken to the airwaves in the hopes of drumming up support for extending their already rather expensive program of research. They have found some genetic markers for breast cancer which could potentially lead to more effective treatments given a great deal of further research. Some poor sane woman calls up and asks, “What about prevention?” (There didn\’t used to be so much breast cancer, you know.) One specialist starts babbling about the difficulty of doing studies of breast cancer prophylaxis therapies … before remembering that she is an oncological geneticist, dammit, not an historical epidemiologist! Now, let\’s suppose the impossible: someone managed to get an historical epidemiologist specializing in breast cancer on that same show. (It is difficult to have different areas of expertise represented on one show and still have it be interesting because the different specialists tend to politely ignore each other.) The historical epidemiologist would probably say that the evidence for lower historical incidence of breast cancer during centuries past is ambiguous because the diagnostic techniques we use today were not available then, but it\’s certainly the case that the rates for many types of cancer have doubled and even tripled since the early twentieth century, by which time doctors were certainly able to recognize tumors. So why is that? Well, the epidemiologist volunteers, the spike in cancer rates coincides with the introduction of a large number of synthetic organic compounds into the environment — ones that do not occur in nature. Another poor sane woman calls up and asks, “What about the carcinogenic pesticides found in breast milk?” What specialist do we summon next, a neonatal nutritionist, perhaps, who will tell us about the increased risk of cancer in breast-fed infants? (Sorry, that\’s off-topic!) Or an agricultural chemist, who will tell us that the pesticides are required to bring in the bountiful harvests we need to feed a growing, albeit cancer-riddled, population? Perhaps we should ask a politician? A politician would no doubt say that he will support all of these lines of research, so please remember to vote for him on election day.

Better yet, let\’s all take a short mental holiday (because by now most of us could probably use one) and ask a prince. Suppose the court scientist comes to the prince and says, “My prince, our women are developing tumors in their breasts at an alarming rate, and I have discovered why.” (He is the only court scientist, but a very good one. He specializes in Knowing Much More Than Anyone Else.) “In this vial I have an extract of breast milk,” he goes on, “which contains the same poisons your chemists are giving to your peasants to kill insects. I have fed these poisons to rats, and they too developed tumors. The poisons must be banned.” The prince, his pampered hand resting lightly on a leather-bound volume by Niccolò Machiavelli, thinks to himself: “These chemists say that they are my friends, but are they really? Here is my chance to find out. If I ban these dreadful poisons, then they may comply willingly, but if they resist even for a moment, then I will condemn them as poisoners of women and children and clap them in irons and/or banish them from my realm in accordance with my caprice dujour! In either case, I will no longer have to wonder whether or not they are my friends.” Aloud he says, “These poisons are an abomination,” and to the palace guard, “Summon the chemists!” When the chemists arrive some minutes later, red in the face and out of breath, the prince, growing impatient, motions to the court scientist to get on with it. The court scientist repeats his words. “As you wish, my prince,” the chief chemist says, “but don\’t your peasants need these poisons to kill the insects to feed the growing population?” The prince, now looking positively bored, turns to his scientist: “What would be better for us, a smaller but healthier population or a larger but sicker one … never mind, I just answered my own question. The poisons are hereby banned. Lunch, anyone?”

If a relatively specific problem, such as the task of banning cancer-causing pesticides, shatters into tiny, mutually unintelligible domains upon the submerged rocks of overspecialization, then what of the far more general problem of controlling scale at every level? It is simply not specific enough to register with any of the numerous specialists and specialisms on whose domains it impinges. There is a vast and desolate no-man\’s-land stretching between political science, economics, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, history and philosophy (to name a few) and this is the wilderness that our poor hero, Leopold Kohr, chose to wander. And although his book is a joy to read in spite of its sombre message, his fate was a sad one. He was trying to stop the cancer of unconstrained, uncontrolled growth after it had already metastasized and engulfed the entire planet. But thanks to Kohr\’s efforts we are able to realize that although the sick patient is the entire planet, the cancer is not necessarily in all of us. Instead of pointing at each of us, Kohr points at the global political juggernaut driven by a blind ambition of achieving global unity. Our task, it would appear, is to jump off this death-wagon without breaking our legs.

This was an excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors\’ Toolkit. Please order your copy for shipment in May.
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(Although the order is placed through PayPal, you don\’t need to have a PayPal account; just click \”Don\’t have a PayPal Account?\” during check-out and enter a credit or debit card number. If you do have a PayPal account, please make extra-double-sure that the shipping address associated with it is up-to-date and correct, and will remain that way through May.)