Recent mention in the media of more than a decade of population decline in Russia elicited little more than a yawn from the somnolent public. The usual explanations link that decline to events in Russia which seem specific to that country: a high rate of alcoholism, a poor public health system, widespread denial about a raging AIDS epidemic, and economic hard times. No doubt there are many things uniquely Russian about the sad state of Russian society. But is Russia's decline really only about Russia? Can we safely ignore the bad news and assume nothing like it can happen to us?
Perhaps if Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, had published his book today instead of in 1988, he might not have had to reach back so far in history for an example of a complex society in collapse. (For a brief summary of Tainter's ideas, read his 1996 article entitled, Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies.) And, if William Catton, author of Overshoot, had published his book this year instead of in 1980, he might have had to look no further than post-Soviet Russia for an example of how a reduction in the scope of trade relations can create an ecological crisis of sorts, one that led to a long economic depression in Russia which at its depth cut the country's GDP in half. (This was far worse than what the United States experienced in The Great Depression of the 1930s.)
Let's take Tainter first. Whatever one believes were the causes of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the complex economic and political arrangements of the Soviet block were becoming increasingly untenable given shifting realities. One of Tainter's contentions is that when a complex system doesn't meet the needs of the people it governs, they may seek to break off from that system, i.e., govern themselves under conditions of lower complexity. It is certainly true that changing technology, particularly communications technology; the globalization it spawned; and the military and diplomatic pressure applied to the Soviet system worked to confound its inflexible, hierarchical pattern of governance and economic organization. Those arrangements weren't delivering to people what they could now see others getting in terms of material goods, services and freedom of movement. Not even the Red Army could stop the cascade of events that finally fractured the Soviet empire.
In his book Overshoot Catton explains how a vast reduction in the scope of international trade was, in part, responsible for the severity of The Great Depression. Many goods and services that were formerly obtained through trade either had to be made within each country or region or simply done without. Since much of the world's productive capacity had become specialized by country and region, in the short term, people suffered a triple calamity. First, they found that things they needed that had formerly been imported from other countries weren't widely available. Second, they found that the things which they themselves produced were in considerably less demand since foreign markets had essentially been closed. Third, many whose work depended on exports found themselves out of jobs. This, of course, made it difficult for those people to buy whatever essentials were still affordable in the depression-plagued economy. And, that rippled through the rest of the domestic economy.
The inciting event for The Great Depression was financial: the worldwide stock market crash of 1929. The inciting events for the breakup of the Soviet Union were a mix of economic, social, political and military developments that resulted in a major reduction in scope. But, what might the inciting event be for a worldwide reduction in the scope of trade? Those who believe we are nearing a peak in world oil production have an answer: very high oil prices.
Because petroleum-based liquid fuels power the vast majority of the world's land, sea and air transportation fleet, it should be fairly obvious that skyrocketing fuel prices could destroy the current world trading system. That system is based on cheap fuel. Without it, many things which are routinely shipped across the oceans or by airfreight today would cease to move. Inexpensive plastic household goods, bottled water, flowers and fresh produce come to mind. At first, anything with low value per unit of weight or volume would be in jeopardy. As the crisis deepened, perhaps only luxury goods would be worth transporting long distances. We would, in a manner of speaking, be thrown back to the days of Marco Polo. Yes, we would have more technological resources and still many more times the power, but we would lack the incentive to use it--at least, in the way we have become accustomed to using it.
A sudden reduction in scope might very well manifest itself as an economic depression. But, this time the underlying cause would not be financial, but rather the declining availability of a key resource. The results would be far-reaching. All of the new governments formed in the wake of the Soviet breakup including the Russian government found themselves disoriented and unprepared. Long settled trade, political and social arrangements were suddenly ripped away with nothing immediately available to replace them. The results have been nothing short of catastrophic for the average citizen.
In Russia, for example, male life expectancy plummeted from 64 to 57 years. It has recovered a bit and now hovers around 59. But, that number may soon be a memory as the AIDS epidemic overwhelms the dysfunctional public health system. Death rates from AIDS and other causes are skyrocketing. The blow to important public services, especially health services, has been so severe that demographers say that if death rates remain at this level and birth rates continue their current low trajectory of about 1.2 per woman (far below the 2.1 replacement rate), Russian population could fall 22 percent by 2050. Already, population has fallen by about 3 percent from a peak of more than 148 million in the early 1990s to about 143 million today.
Such is the power of a sudden reduction in scope that it not only undermines the economic well-being of those affected, but also ultimately the ability of their government and community institutions to cope with things most of us in wealthy industrialized nations take for granted.
There are, in addition, all manner of foreign policy implications--most of them, in this case, quite bad--when one empire crumbles while another lives on. But, what kind of mess would we find ourselves in should a sudden reduction in scope visit the entire globe, one precipitated by extremely high oil prices?
This is why those concerned about peak oil have been calling for the relocalization of economic life; this is why they have been saying that we have no time to lose. We need only look to Russia to see what they mean.