Dmitry Orlov


Dmitry Orlov (born 1962) is an engineer and a writer on subjects related to “potential economic, ecological and political decline and collapse in the United States,” something he has called “permanent crisis”.[1] Orlov believes collapse will be the result of huge military budgets, government deficits, an unresponsive political system and declining oil production.[2]

Orlov was born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and moved to the United States at the age of 12. He has a BS in Computer Engineering and an MA in Applied Linguistics. He was an eyewitness to the collapse of the Soviet Union over several extended visits to his Russian homeland between the late 1980s and mid-1990s.[3]

In 2005 and 2006 Orlov wrote a number of articles comparing the collapse-preparedness of the U.S. and the Soviet Union published on small Peak Oil related sites.[4] Orlov’s article “Closing the ‘Collapse Gap’: the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US” was very popular at EnergyBulletin.Net.[5][6]

In 2006 Orlov published an online manifesto, “The New Age of Sail.” In 2007 he and his wife sold their apartment in Boston and bought a sailboat, fitted with solar panels and six months supply of propane, and capable of storing a large quantity of food stuffs. He calls it a “survival capsule.” He uses a bicycle for transportation. Having bartered vodka for necessities during one of his trips to the post-collapse Russia, he says “When faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money.” [7]


Reinventing Collapse

Orlov’s book Reinventing Collapse:The Soviet Example and American Prospects, published in 2008, further details his views.[9] The New Yorker‘s Ben McGrath writes that Orlov describes “superpower collapse soup” common to both the U.S. and the Soviet Union: “a severe shortfall in the production of crude oil, a worsening foreign-trade deficit, an oversized military budget, and crippling foreign debt.” He believes the U.S. will fare worse because Americans have fewer backup plans. Orlov told interviewer McGrath that in recent months financial professionals have begun to make up more of his audience, joining “back-to-the-land types,” “peak oilers,” and those sometimes derisively called “doomers.”

Author James Howard Kunstler, who has been described as “one of Orlov’s greatest fans” but denies he is a “complete ‘collapsitarian’”,[7] described the book as an “exceptionally clear, authoritative, witty, and original view of our prospects.”[10]

In his review of the book, commentator Thom Hartmann writes that Orlov holds that the Soviet Union hit a “soft crash” because centralized planning, housing, agriculture, and transportation left an infrastructure private citizens could co-opt so that no one had to pay rent or go homeless and people showed up for work, even when they were not paid. He writes that Orlov believes the U.S. will have a hard crash, more like Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s.[11]

Writing on Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, Wayne Davis considers Orlov’s views and anecdotal stories to be an easy read for a serious subject. Orlov gives practical advice, like when to start accumulating goods for barter purposes and the need to buy goods that would sustain local communities – “hand tools, simple medications (and morphine), guns and ammo, sharpening stones, bicycles (and lots of tires with patch kits), etc.” Orlov writes: “Much of the transformation is psychological and involves letting go of many notions that we have been conditioned to accept unquestioningly. In order to adapt, you will need plenty of free time. Granting yourself this time requires a leap of faith: you have to assume the future has already arrived.” He also advises: “Beyond the matter of personal safety, you will need to understand who has what you need and how to get it from them.”[12]

The EnergyBulletin.Net review states that “Orlov’s main goal is to get Americans to understand what it will mean to live without an economy, when cash is virtually useless and most people won’t be getting any income anyway because they’ll be out of a job.”[13] The review by author Carolyn Baker, PhD, notes that Orlov emphasizes that “when faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money.” Physical resources and assets, as well as relationships and connections are worth more than cash and those who know how to “do it themselves” and operate on the margins of society will do better than those whose incomes and lifestyles have plummeted.[14]

Not all commentary has been favorable. In a 2009 article in Mother Jones Virginia Heffernan labels Orlov’s position as “collapsitarianism” which she believes involves “a desire for complete economic meltdown” and writes that Orlov espouses “bourgeois survivalism.”[15]


The New Age of Sail

Dmitry Orlov

1. Introduction

A sailboat is not the first thing that comes to mind when contemplating the range of useful responses to the set of intractable global problems that confront us. Nor the second. But once it does, a bit of further study makes it apparent that few things will possess greater long-term utility in the changed circumstances we should all be expecting. And it takes just one more leap of imagination to realize that it makes sense to pursue this long-term utility, rather than continuing to think of temporary measures and half-measures, while being mesmerized into paralysis by the unfolding deterioration of the status quo, in thrall to questions of political strategy and process.

And so, let us purge our minds of the inane buzz-words of today, such as “energy security” or “energy independence” and “green” this or that. (“It’s easy to be green!” says Kermit the frog in an SUV commercial; I would beg to differ, but then who am I to disagree with a hand-puppet?) Let us drop the conceit that these are “problems,” and that they can be “fixed.” Let us instead try an experiment: let us dissociate from human history, and free-associate our way into the next chapter of natural history, which, let us bravely assume, a member of our ecologically challenged species will still be on hand to narrate.

2. The Easter Islanders and You

When in 1722 a European ship first anchored off Easter Island, the surviving islanders paddled out to it in their canoes, which the Europeans described as fragile, made of many small sticks ingeniously fastened together, not at all seaworthy, and entirely unlike the large ocean-going canoes that had carried the ancestors of these Polynesian settlers to the island across the vastness of the Pacific around 1200 AD. The islanders wanted to trade with the Europeans, and timber was high on the list of items sought by islanders. By that time, few trees still grew on Easter Island. It had once been heavily forested with palm trees, but was by then denuded, the palm nuts having been gnawed by rats, which were introduced by the settlers. The islanders survived this environmental calamity, shifting to grasses for making fire, and their population remained stable until the arrival of the Europeans. But they found themselves marooned. They had lost their boatbuilding and seafaring skills; moreover, they lacked a key boat-building material: large, old-growth trees. With no means of escape, they were easy prey for the conquering Europeans; thousands of them were enslaved and carried off; many others remained and died of disease. They should have built some boats, while they still could, and kept their options open.

Small islands such as Easter Island, the sudden collapses that befall their fragile ecosystems, and the subsequent cataclysms experienced by their populations, are considered to be objects worthy of study, because in microcosm they represent many of the same problems that are now besetting the planet as a whole. We live at a time when even the most concerted attempts at cultivating an optimistic outlook fail in the face of front-page news about catastrophic climate change, impending energy shortages, military quagmires and fiascos, and degradation of land and water resources, all of which are putting an ever-greater strain on a global population whose precipitous decline will perhaps be no less spectacular than its recent exponential increase. The economic services on which we depend are in turn based entirely on ecological services, whether from living ecosystems, or from the remains of fossilized ones.

By most accounts, it is a certainty that at some point during the present century oil and natural gas will no longer be produced in significant quantities anywhere in the world. Attempts to replace these sources of energy with other, dirtier sources, such as tar sand, shale oil, uranium, coal, wood, dried sea squirrels (biomass), or anything else that will burn, will only accelerate the pace of environmental devastation and climate disruption. It is proceeding apace in any case, drawing the curtain on the last ten thousand years of unusually stable climate, which allowed agriculture to flourish and human populations to mushroom. In light of these developments, it seems implausible that the technological civilization which currently constitutes our communal life support system will hold together.

Perhaps we should be making some new plans, like the Easter islanders should have done, while there is still time. But there is hardly anything more enduring in the world than human folly, and there is no-one to steer this ship of fools away from the rocks of physical reality. Even if there was, this ship is not designed to turn, or even to slow down, but only to speed up. What other word is there for people who are working harder and harder in order to bequeath to their children a bankrupt country and a planet-sized disaster area – except fools? Some suppose it it our insect-like genetic programming to postpone desperate measures until it is too late for them to be of any use. I doubt that it is: we were free spirits once, before a millennium or two of settled, civilized labor of tending fields and serving a landlord (or serving as a landlord) bred it out of us.

It is our luck as a species that the foregoing applies to most of us, but not to all of us. Some far-sighted and courageous souls, whose initiative has not been entirely crushed by the forces of civilization, are taking their first, tentative steps in a direction away from certain disaster. They are making conscious choices that reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and on technologies that rely on them. They are attempting to form close-knit communities, and strive for self-sufficiency. Some of them are starting to construct their own shelter, grow their own food, educate their own children, and provide their own entertainment. These are all very sensible measures, and I applaud the people who are trying to make them work.

In fact, I am one of them. I live in a place that is cheap to heat and cool. A few years ago, I sold my car, and I am now a year-round bicyclist. I limit myself to one airline trip a year. I have even made some tentative steps in the direction of growing my own food (more peas, anyone?). Some might say that by taking these steps, I have improved my inclusive fitness. Others might observe that I have only increased my exclusive smugness. Suits me either way, but really all I have done is take a few steps in the right direction, one step at a time, because I could. So can you. It’s simple.

Such steps, followed to their logical conclusion, are sometimes grouped under terms such as powerdown, relocalization, and ecovillages. These approaches will probably be viable in some areas, but not others. None of them addresses an important question: What are we to do about all the many places that will no longer have the carrying capacity to sustain a permanent settlement of any size? We should expect this to be the norm, not the exception: before the recent ten-thousand-year period of predictable weather, agriculture was not reliable enough, and people had to remain on the move, leading a migratory or nomadic existence, surviving through hunting and gathering food over a wide area. Given an environment characterized by droughts, floods, a long and violent hurricane season, coastal inundations due to rising sea levels, soils depleted by a century of mechanized agriculture, and forest ecosystems undermined by the northward spread of diseases and pests, is it not perfectly conceivable that the migratory, nomadic lifestyle will once again become for the majority of us the only survivable option?

In a climate where the tropics are only survivable during the winter, and the temperate regions only during the summer, we would still stand a chance if we establish a lifestyle where we chase good weather by wandering back and forth between the two, and practice Permaculture by establishing edible forest gardens and gathering food as we travel up and down the coasts and inland waterways. If we establish this lifestyle before we are crippled by the onset of permanent crisis, while bold experiments are still possible, we would stand a chance. And if we pass this lifestyle on to our children, they would stand a chance as well.

This brings us full circle back to the hapless Easter islanders with their leaky canoes made of small sticks: we will certainly need better boats than that. Because a nomadic life does not have to be particularly hard or dangerous – provided you can take your home with you wherever you go. As a practical matter, this means that your house has to be a sailboat, and as any one of a whole tribe of live-aboard cruising sailors will attest, in some ways this is an arrangement that is superior to the settled existence of a landlubber. Since, prior to the onset of reliable weather, we were nomads, we can revert, and once we do so, the enslavements of settled life will probably start to seem like an odd bargain. I can testify that I have improved my life dramatically by becoming car-free. Might I improve it yet further by becoming house-free as well?

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