Book review: Reinventing Collapse

By Philip Brewer on 30 July 2008 (Updated 3 December 2008) 2 comments

Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects by Dmitry Orlov

Do you think the United States is about to collapse?  Dmitry Orlov does, but you don't have to agree with him to learn a lot from his new book, which is packed with useful tips on succeeding in a world where the economic future is unknown and governments can't be trusted.  That is to say, the world we live in now.  On top of that, it's really funny.

Orlov has a unique perspective on collapse, thanks to a series of visits to Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Due to the insights he gathered on those trips, he's able to provide a framework for understanding collapse, and follow that up with useful prescriptions for getting by in a world where the economy and government are failing.  As you read it, though, you'll note that all his insights into post-collapse survival are just as true pre-collapse--and that's the real value of the book.

I've read a lot of "survivalist" books and articles--the sort that recommend storing food and guns in a defensible rural retreat to which you'll flee when collapse hits.  (Books like Joel M. Skousen's The Survival Home Manual, Mel Tappan's Tappan on Survival, and Bruce Clayton's Thinking About Survival.)

They're mostly useless--they solve the wrong problems and they solve them poorly.  The key flaw is that they suppose that there'll be a clear break between the pre-collapse world, and the post-collapse world.  They imagine that before the collapse you'll be working your regular job and living much as you do now (with occasional trips to your survival retreat to store more food and practice with your guns), and then after the collapse you'll lurk in your retreat, eat your stored grain, and stand ready to shoot the lawless hordes that will come to steal your stockpile.

Collapse doesn't happen that way, and with his first-hand experience, Orlov is in a position to talk about the difference between that fantasy of collapse and the reality.  

For me, though, the key takeaway from the book is that the skills and behaviors for surviving collapse work just fine before a collapse too.  They may not be the optimal strategies for a pre-collapse world, but they're effective, functional strategies.  That means that you can position yourself so that, if there is a collapse, you can just go on living much the same way you were living before.  

There's a cost to following that strategy.  If you're willing to bet everything that there won't be a collapse, your standard of living can probably be higher.  Happily, you don't have to make an all-or-nothing choice:  You can pick and choose among various strategies that make your situation less vulnerable to collapse.  Pick the ones that appeal to you--some of them you probably do already.

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Besides the survivalist books, I've also read a lot of books on getting by with little or no money--the sort that recommend planting a garden, gathering wild foods, and making do with free stuff.  (Books like Charles Long's How to Survive Without a Salary: Learning How to Live the Conserver Lifestyle and Dolly Freed's Possum living: How to live well without a job and with almost no money.)

These books are, I think, a lot more useful than the survivalist books I mentioned earlier.  These strategies work pre-collapse and they'll work post-collapse.  

Orlov's book overlaps a bit with this category of books, but only a bit.  Most of the book is about understanding how collapse happened in the former Soviet Union and how the different circumstances in United States might affect how a collapse would play out here.  The balance of the book does offer some suggestions for collapse mitigation, both at the societal level and at a personal level, and then makes some tongue-in-cheek career suggestions, based on positions that turned turned out especially well for people after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It's not really a how-to guide, but it does provide a framework for thinking about which aspects of your life depend on there not being a collapse.

Everybody who writes about Orlov's book talks about how funny it is, but nobody gives any examples.  Now that I've read it, I see why.  The humor sneaks up on you, and it builds on itself.  It's tough to find a sentence, or even a paragraph, that's particularly funny if you haven't read the book up to that point.  Perhaps this bit will give you a taste:

Post-collapse, a medical marketing expert becomes an ex-medical marketing expert turned professional ditch-digger, while an expert on early 19th century French romanticism remains able to find perfect felicity in sharing specialized knowledge, even if necessity intrudes on it with episodes of tiresome freelance ditch-digging.  Some professions are only viable in the context of a functioning economy and therefore transitory.  Others are of little economic value to start with and, having little to lose, are sometimes spared the worst ravages of collapse.

Thoughtful and funny, Dmitry Orlov's Reinventing Collapse is a gem.  You don't need to expect collapse to find the book entertaining or useful.  It's for anyone who doesn't know the future--and that's all of us.

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Guest's picture

I've been looking for a book like this. It seems, like you suggest, that many books are either completely doomsday scenarios. I don't expect things to change so quickly but would like to be prepared and understand the various routes that the economy may take. This sounds like something I was looking for.

Are there any other similar books? Historic or otherwise?

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Anna_esq

I saved correspondences from a scientist friend muddling through Peristroika in Russia (the time of the collapse) and think the Russians have a thing or two to teach us about getting by when the rug gets pulled out from under society at large. Until the collapse, the government controlled all food production by having the less educated slave on communal farms not so very different than the way big agribusiness imports hispanic "sharecroppers" to slave on US corporate farms. When peristroika declared people were free, the first thing the "slave-farmers" did was walk off the communal farms (most kept walking right out of Russia) and leave millions of people with no food to eat. The economy collapsed, nobody could find work, and families began to start "dachas" (kitchen gardens) in the countryside to grow and store their own food. Today, even though the Russian economy has recovered (thanks to their gas and oil industry), most Russian families view it a point of pride to travel from the cities to their "dachas" to work the gardens and stay in little huts every weekend. What most people don't realize about the collapse of the Soviet Economy is that it was very closely tied to the fall in oil prices at the end of the 1970's/early 1980's. No oil money, no money to prop up their bloated government, and whalah! collapse. Sound familiar? I'll definately get this book from my library!