Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Social Collapse Best Practices

Dmitri Orlov gave a talk about post-collapse culture for the Long Now Foundation, based on his experiences following the end of the Soviet Union. Some of this is good advice:

Here is another key insight: there are very few things that are positives or negatives per se. Just about everything is a matter of context. Now, it just so happens that most things that are positives prior to collapse turn out to be negatives once collapse occurs, and vice versa. For instance, prior to collapse having high inventory in a business is bad, because the businesses have to store it and finance it, so they try to have just-in-time inventory. After collapse, high inventory turns out to be very useful, because they can barter it for the things they need, and they can’t easily get more because they don’t have any credit. Prior to collapse, it’s good for a business to have the right level of staffing and an efficient organization. After collapse, what you want is a gigantic, sluggish bureaucracy that can’t unwind operations or lay people off fast enough through sheer bureaucratic foot-dragging. Prior to collapse, what you want is an effective retail segment and good customer service. After collapse, you regret not having an unreliable retail segment, with shortages and long bread lines, because then people would have been forced to learn to shift for themselves instead of standing around waiting for somebody to come and feed them.

This is a basic restatement of the axiom that all strategies have an embedded strength and weakness. Next, focus on "Food, Shelter, Transport, Security".

The Russian example may give us a clue. Many Russian families could gauge how fast the economy was crashing, and, based on that, decide how many rows of potatoes to plant. Could we perhaps do something similar? There is already a healthy gardening movement in the United States; can it be scaled up? The trick is to make small patches of farmland available for non-mechanical cultivation by individuals and families, in increments as small as 1000 square feet.
At a certain point, the prescriptions Orlov offers start to go off the rails. Essentially, they assume a profound collapse of the social and economic system, not just a collapse in the scale of demand within a working system. It is also pretty clear that the model for that innovation is not post-Soviet Russia, since post-post-Soviet Russia (Putin's Russia) isn't finding their way back to these solutions.

Which means we're back to Dr. Keynes & Co.: the best way to get out of a protracted downturn is to invest in things that will make the situation better.

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