Book Review: Confronting Collapse
Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World by Michael C. Ruppert.
We hardly talk about collapse here. Wise Bread is all about living large, while collapse mitigation is usually about living small. But that doesn't mean that there aren't things we can learn from books about collapse.
I'm kind of a connoisseur of books on collapse. I've been reading them since the 1960s (when they were mostly about overpopulation) and read a lot in the early 1980s (when they were mostly about financial collapse due to government debt and inflation). The most important thing I've learned is that many systems — biological, environmental, social, political, economic — are more resilient than people have any right to expect.
Ruppert's new book largely focuses on the threat of peak oil. It effectively makes the point that energy drives everything in the economy: When energy gets expensive, so does everything else (in particular, food and water). It does a workman like job of dismissing the fantasy sources of additional energy (tar sands, clean coal, fusion). More important, it gets it just about right on the non-fantasy sources (wind, solar): They're real and important, but they're no substitute for cheap oil.
The book is structured in the form of a program statement such as might be prepared for a U.S. president by his policy wonks. After laying out its case for collapse, it presents a 25-point program for mitigating collapse. Those are largely exactly right: re-localize the economy (especially food and energy production), remove subsidies from energy boondoggles, shift infrastructure money from road and air projects to rail (oddly, he doesn't mention canals), support community-level efforts at the national level.
The downside of the structure is that, although there is guidance for ordinary people, you have to read between the lines to find it. Re-localizing is something that's going to be done person-by-person and community-by-community anyway. Home-scale solar and wind energy production is possible and quite reasonable, even if it isn't economic without the feed-in tariffs he proposes. A lot of the infrastructure decisions (on roads and the power grid) are going to be made at the local level, where two or three active concerned voters can have as much influence as the President of the United States.
So, why should a Wise Bread reader have any interest in collapse, when so many books on collapse are all about living small (and the ones that aren't are all too often bizarre fantasies of post-apocalyptic violence)? Well, I read them because the good ones turn out to have a lot of overlap with my own personal vision of living large — living large through freedom, rather than living large through mass consumption funded by wage and debt slavery. Making your household and your community centers of production rather than centers of consumption enables living large in a way that lasts. The fact that the same lifestyle mitigates collapse is just a bonus.
It's worth comparing this book to Dmitry Orlov's Reinventing Collapse that I reviewed for Wise Bread a couple years ago. Ruppert's book has none of Orlov's humor and little of Orlov's practical, household-level advice. What it does have is a lot of background information on oil production and depletion, petroleum inputs to food production, alternative energy sources, and so on. If you want to laugh at your problems, go with Orlov. If you want to try to do something about them at the national or global level, go with Ruppert. If you want to do something about them at the household and community level, read both.
Although I regret its lack of practical suggestions for ordinary people, leaving those out has let him steer clear of a lot of survivalist cliches. (And it is the survivalist cliches that turn so many collapse books into a sort of anti-Wise Bread — tracts on living small.) Confronting Collapse does a good job of laying out the case for peak oil and suggesting policies for dealing with it. It's especially good if you want to take action to help everybody, rather than just taking action to help yourself and your neighbors.
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