Should I be preparing for collapse? Should you?

I’ve been following a blogger named Dmitry Orlov for some years now. His ClubOrlov blog is listed among my Favorites on my Blogs I Like page, and some of my favorites from his writings are on my Archive of Good Stuff page.

A Russian-born American citizen who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Orlov became known for a slide show called “The Collapse Gap

,” in which he compared the USSR just prior to its collapse with the contemporary USA. Both countries, as he noted, were in industrial decline, militarily over-extended and dependent on foreign credit to maintain their material standard of living. Both had economic systems that did not serve the public need, and both had governments in which the public had lost confidence.

Paradoxically, Orlov wrote, the Soviet people were better prepared for collapse than Americans. Russians were accustomed to not being able to buy things in stores and having to fend for themselves. Russian families with many generations crowded into small apartments were better able to face crises than American families, scattered across the country, isolated in suburbs and dependent on availability of cheap gasoline.

global-warming-record-temperatures-2012-537x442This all makes sense to me, but Orlov in the meantime has moved on. He no longer limits his prediction to an American political and economic crisis. Now he predicts a global collapse of civilization, based on exhaustion of fossil fuels, climate change and the inability of established institutions to respond.

In a blog post sometime back, he reviewed a book, American Exodus, by a Canadian author, Gilles Slade, about where to live in North America in 2050 after global climate change has set in.

Slade thinks that Mexico will burn up and that the U.S. Great Plains will dry up. The Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for much of a region stretching from Texas to Nebraska, will disappear. Irrigation water will no longer be available for places such as California’s Central Valley.

northwestterritoriesThe East Coast will be destroyed by rising oceans and increasingly frequent and intense hurricanes. Drought refugees from Mexico will invade the United States, and drought refugees from the U.S. will invade Canada.

Taking all these things into consideration, Slade thinks the safest place to be in North America will be Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

I haven’t read Slade’s book and don’t know the specifics of his research, but this doesn’t sound impossible to me. I can’t guess how bad things will get, or when the worst will be, but the consequences of human-made global warming are already being felt and can only get worse.

So in the light of all this, why do I continue to live my accustomed life as if nothing is wrong?

It is partly because, although I am able to perceive the possibility on an intellectual level, I am unable to believe in it on an emotional level. This is reinforced by the fact that I’m 77, and that none of the things that I thought I had good reason to fear during the course of my life ever came about.

I worried about the possible triumph of totalitarianism. I worried about the threat of nuclear war. Bertrand Russell said during the late 1950s that, given that nuclear war was possible at all, it was mathematically certain to occur eventually if nothing was ever done to control nuclear weapons.

In 1968, I read The Population Bomb, in which Paul Ehrlich warned that, due to overpopulation, mass famine was inevitable in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1972 I read The Energy Crisis, which predicted that, because of shortages of fossil fuels, gasoline rationing would be imposed by the end of the decade, a world depression would occur in the 1980s and Russian would be the world’s only remaining superpower.

If I had organized my life around preparing for Russian invasion, nuclear war, global famine or these other threats, I would have missed out on a lot.

But the thing is: None of these threats were imaginary and none of them has gone away. The Cold War between the USA and the USSR is over, but the United States and the Russian Federation still have nuclear weapons ready to fire, and Bertrand Russell’s warning is still valid. Given unlimited time, anything that can happen, will happen.

The world’s population is projected to level off at a high level, but the leveling-off process could end at any time. The Green Revolution of high-yield crops made it possible to feed more people than previously thought possible, but, for various reasons, there is uncertainty as to whether this is sustainable. New ways of extracting oil and natural gas have been discovered, but the amounts of these resources are still finite and the economic and social cost of extracting them continues to rise.

All of these processes depend on the functioning of a complex and fragile global production and distribution system whose continued functioning cannot be taken for granted.

Global_Warming_MapNone of the governments of the world is addressing these problems adequately, and, here in the USA, it is controversial even to discuss them. Our dysfunctional governmental and economic elite is part of the problem, not part of the solution. We are losing the ability even to carry on normal functions of society such as teaching school and keeping roads and bridges in good repair. I don’t know how we would respond to an unprecedented worldwide emergency.

The future is unknowable—at least by me. Maybe humanity will suddenly come together and deal with resource and climate problems on an emergency basis. Maybe there will be technological breakthroughs that I can’t imagine now. Maybe there will be a sudden collapse. Maybe there will be a slow decline. Maybe humanity will muddle through, as has happened so often in the past.

The only thing I think I know for sure is that things can’t go on the way they are now.

There is a Greek myth about Cassandra, whose fate it was to always be able to foretell the future but never to be believed. There is a fairy tale about Chicken Little, who was hit in the head by an acorn and thought the sky was falling. And there is the fable of the boy shepherd who falsely cried “wolf” until, one day, the wolf really came. Which story is the most relevant? I think that someday the wolf really may come, but I don’t know when and I don’t know what the wolf will look like.

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2 Responses to “Should I be preparing for collapse? Should you?”

  1. simonandfinn Says:

    This is a well written and very thoughtful post. Thank you. I like the ending in particular with its reference to Cassandra, Chicken LIttle, and Never Cry Wolf. If I could add one more example to the balance between prudence and living life, it would be through Calvin & Hobbes:


  2. Atticus C. Says:

    “The only thing I think I know for sure is that things can’t go on the way they are now.”

    Take comfort in the fact that this is true no matter what. I think we will make it through, with difficulty of course, but we’ll make it. With every major problem there is a major solution. So barring a sudden global catastrophe destroying human life – I think we will figure things out – even if it takes a slap in the face to do so.


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