The Five Stages of Collapse

by Dmitry Orlov

Hello, everyone! The talk you are about to hear is the result of a lengthy process on my part. My specialty is in thinking about and, unfortunately, predicting collapse. My method is based on comparison: I watched the Soviet Union collapse, and, since I am also familiar with the details of the situation in the United States, I can make comparisons between these two failed superpowers.

I was born and grew up in Russia, and I traveled back to Russia repeatedly between the late 80s and mid-90s. This allowed me to gain a solid understanding of the dynamics of the collapse process as it unfolded there. By the mid-90s it was quite clear to me that the US was headed in the same general direction. But I couldn't yet tell how long the process would take, so I sat back and watched.

I am an engineer, and so I naturally tended to look for physical explanations for this process, as opposed to economic, political, or cultural ones. It turns out that one could come up with a very good explanation for the Soviet collapse by following energy flows. What happened in the late 80s is that Russian oil production hit an all-time peak. This coincided with new oil provinces coming on stream in the West - the North Sea in the UK and Norway, and Prudhoe Bay in Alaska - and this suddenly made oil very cheap on the world markets. Soviet revenues plummeted, but their appetite for imported goods remained unchanged, and so they sank deeper and deeper into debt. What doomed them in the end was not even so much the level of debt, but their inability to take on further debt even faster. Once international lenders balked at making further loans, it was game over.

What is happening to the United States now is broadly similar, with certain polarities reversed. The US is an oil importer, burning up 25% of the world's production, and importing over two-thirds of that. Back in mid-90s, when I first started trying to guess the timing of the US collapse, the arrival of the global peak in oil production was scheduled for around the turn of the century. It turned out that the estimate was off by almost a decade, but that is actually fairly accurate as far as such big predictions go. So here it is the high price of oil that is putting the brakes on further debt expansion. As higher oil prices trigger a recession, the economy starts shrinking, and a shrinking economy cannot sustain an ever-expanding level of debt. At some point the ability to finance oil imports will be lost, and that will be the tipping point, after which nothing will ever be the same.

This is not to say that I am a believer in some sort of energy determinism. If the US were to cut its energy consumption by an order of magnitude, it would still be consuming a staggeringly huge amount, but an energy crisis would be averted. But then this country, as we are used to thinking of it, would no longer exist. Oil is what powers this economy. In turn, it is this oil-based economy that makes it possible to maintain and expand an extravagant level of debt. So, a drastic cut in oil consumption would cause a financial collapse (as opposed to the other way around). A few more stages of collapse would follow, which we will discuss next. So, you could see this outlandish appetite for imported oil as a cultural failing, but it is not one that can be undone without causing a great deal of damage. If you like, you can call it "ontological determinism": it has to be what it is, until it is no more.