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Tuesday, 11 November 2008 05:12

Dmitry Orlov's Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects -- The Thom Hartmann 'Independent Thinker' Review

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THOM HARTMANN'S INDEPENDENT THINKER REVIEW OF THE MONTH

Each month, BuzzFlash is privileged to have Air America progressive talk show host Thom Hartmann review a progressive book or DVD exclusively for BuzzFlash. See other DVDs and progressive premiums at the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace.

I read two books yesterday. The first was Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” a dense, profound, and insightful academic/archeological discussion of why civilizations have a stubborn habit of crashing. Following that, I read Dmitry Orlov’s “Reinventing Collapse,” about how the USSR collapsed and how the US is on the verge of doing the same – for many of the same reasons – any day now. What Tainter did for academics and archeology wonks (I confess I’m one), Orlov did for you, me, and Joe The Plumber.

“Reinventing Collapse” is a short 160-page, story-rich, and wonderfully readable book about how and why societies collapse. Orlov’s insights are necessary for all of us, and startling. His conclusions and suggestions seem at first overstated, but as somebody who was in Russia during its collapse, I think, if anything, they may be conservative.

For example, in the second week of June, 1996, I sat in the living room of a Russian family in Kaliningrad, watching TV. The man on television, a politician by the name of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was waving his hands about like a demagogue, alternating between pointing at the screen and pounding the table with his fist. The wife of the family, Olga, a German married to a Russian, broke into laughter while her husband blinked, unsure what was so funny.

It was Russia’s first democratic election in its 1000-year history. My Russian being limited to a few words and phrases, I hadn’t been able to follow what Zhirinovsky was saying, so I asked Olga.

“He just said that if we voted for him,” she told me in German, “then he’d send me a turkey and a liter of vodka.”

The TV screen flashed to a couple of news anchors, a man and a woman, who had an earnest conversation about where Zhirinovsky was going to get all those turkeys and all that vodka. They seemed to agree that the latter wouldn’t be as much of a problem as the former.

“This is the first election most Russians, including my husband, have ever seen,” Olga, who had grown up in West Germany, said. “They don’t understand how outrageous it is for a politician to make such a promise.”

The Soviet Union had collapsed five years earlier, in 1991, and just then in 1996 Russia was just beginning to put itself back together. (My diary from that trip is in my book “The Prophet’s Way.”)

As fascinating as it was to me to watch Russia collapse and begin the long, painful climb back up (I helped start a social welfare organization there – info at Salem international.org and add english/en_worldwide/en_russia.htm – that is today doing well and thriving), Dmitry Orlov lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union with a much more keen observer’s eye. He’d grown up in the USSR as a child, left as a refugee, returned during and after the crash as an adult and businessman.

Accidentally, he writes in “Reinventing Collapse,” the former USSR hit a “soft crash” because of things like centralized planning, housing, agriculture, and transportation.

The government built all the housing, so they always built it near public transport lines.

All housing in the USSR was free – a right of citizenship – so nobody paid rent, mortgages, or property taxes; the result was that when the government collapsed and the currency inflated itself to meaninglessness nobody went homeless for lack of the ability to pay rent or property taxes.

The transportation and food systems were government jobs, and controlled systems used by their own workers, so even as the government collapsed the workers continued to show up for work – they wanted their own families and communities to have food and transportation, and hoped some day they’d get a paycheck.

And these are just a few for-examples that Orlov documents of ways the USSR fell into a soft crash, and the USA will fall into a hard crash, more like the Weimar Republic of the 1920s.

Right now in the United States it takes ten calories of oil – seven of them imported – to grow and get to table one calorie of food. We make oil into fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. It powers our agricultural equipment, our processing plants, and our trucks that bring food to our stores. And when you toss in the oil we use driving to the store and refrigerating the food after we buy it, you can add another calorie or two to the equation.

From 1859 when Colonel Drake drilled the world’s first oil well in Titusville, PA, until the early 1970s, the United States produced more oil than it consumed. Then, around 1974, we hit peak oil in this nation. By that time we’d run dry the Pennzoil fields of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, New York, and Michigan. Oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma were getting low, as were the more recent ones in California. Oil in Alaska added a bit, but overall as a nation we’ve been in production decline since then.

When Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President, we had the ability to be and become oil self-sufficient. But Reagan then became president and reversed Carter’s energy independence policies, pulled his solar panels off the roof of the White House, and as a direct result today we import over 60 percent of our oil – and thus our food, our transportation, our heat, and pretty much everything else.

This is just one of the many, many reasons Orlov concludes the US is heading for a very, very hard crash.

There were times – many of them – when I found myself laughing out loud while reading this incredibly entertainingly-written book.

There were also times when the deep truths about the fragility and brittleness of the American capitalist system were discussed that I wanted to run out and shove a copy of the book into the hands of each of our three grown children and say, “Read this! Now!!”

As soon as I finish writing end emailing to Mark Karlin this review, I’m ordering those three copies for them. You, too, should get at least a few copies to share with family and close friends. The quality of your life over the next decade may depend on it.

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling Project Censored Award winning author and host of a daily talk show on Air America Radio. You can learn more about Thom Hartmann at http://www.thomhartmann.com and find out what stations broadcast his program.

THOM HARTMANN'S INDEPENDENT THINKER REVIEW OF THE MONTH

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