Sunday, June 25, 2006

Russia's plight: A cautionary tale about the need to relocalize

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.


Gareth Doutch said...

The example of Russia is always a good one, and I think it also highlights that "Die off" is certainly not as closely linked to fossil fuel use as harsh economic injustice.

From "Death of a Nation"

- In the first six months of 2005, the Russian population fell by half a million;

- By the middle of this century Russia could lose up to half of its people, according to Russian government stats;

- Life expectancy for men is 56 years, the same as Bangladesh;

- Ten years ago, the life expectancy for men in Russia was 63;

- The World Health Organisation says that at a conservative estimate more than a million people will have died because of AIDS in Russia by 2020;

- Every other newborn baby is diagnosed with a disease at birth;

- There are more abortions every year in Russia than babies are born;

- Thanks to ill-health, 10 million Russians are infertile;

- A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line;

- Paradoxically, Moscow has more billionaires than any other city in the world;

- Although Russia's population is in freefall, they're still throwing people out. Thirty thousand Meshket Turks have recently had to seek asylum in America, having been forced from their homes in the south of the country by discriminatory laws and racist attacks.

Although I would add that Moscow's number of billionaires whilst 1/4 live below the poverty line is certainly no paradox.

From "The possibility of progress" by Mark Braund, chapter 4, "The State of the World":

It [neoliberalism] is certainly not working for the people of Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the resulting social and economic chaos has seen male life expectancy fall from 66 to 59 in just ten years. In a survey in 2002, the Russian Ministry of Health discovered that 60 per cent of children were unhealthy. Half of Russia's 18-year-olds were rejected for military service on health grounds. Since 1985, life expectancy among men has fallen by ten years, principally as a result of widespread alcoholism, but also due to the re-emergence of previously eradicated diseases such as tuberculosis. Less than half of teenage boys on Russia today will reach the age of 60. Empolyment, virually guaranteed under the communist system, is no longer secure for many: 40 per cent of Russians now live below the poverty line. The country has an estimated six million users of hard drugs out of a population of only 150 million. In many new republics, organised crime operates as a virtual shadow government, controlling a black market which provides for the needs of the few, while the formal economy fails to meet the needs of the many. By 1994 murders in Russia were averaging 83 per day, or 30,000 a year, this rate shows no sign of reducing and is way ahead of the United States.

The poorly planned move to a capitalist economy has had little impact in the way of economic liberalization, or in reviving the economy to feed, clothe and house the Russian people. The privatization of state enterprises has led to oligarchic arrangements under which a tiny politically connected elite control much of the economy, in what has been described as the tycoon model of capitalism. Profitable elements of the economy are under the control of this political elite: non-profitable elements, such as food production, are left to the people. Between 1991 and 1998, production within the formal economy almost halved.
Millions of people have no money; they survive through subsistence farming on small plots and by barter. The absence of traditional agricultural planning, and the failure to develop adequate market-driven mechanisms for food produciton, has left tens of millions of Russian struggling to feed themselves. This experience suggests that certain conditions must hold in order for a market-based economy to provide adequate opportunities for all members of society. ...

Despite Mikhail Gobachev's attempts to prioritize environmental concerns, the condition of the land, water and air in Russia is amongst the worst in the world, and is deteriorating. Super-polluting factories which were shut down for environmental reasons have been reopened in exactly the same condition. The quality of food and water available to the population is heavily compromised; people have neither the means nor the motivation to put things right. As Vladimir Tsirkunov of the World Bank noted: 'If you are dying of hunger, what do you care if you are going to die of cancer in ten years time. Environment is an abandoned child.'

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Russia's situation is that since the fall of communism this huge country, rich in resources, and steeped in cultural tradition, has neither created nor invented anythong of worth. The carcass of an exhausted economy has been divided up among a tiny minority, and that part of it on which the people depend for their basic needs, discarded.

The Russians have swapped the failings of a command economy, which deprived consumers of choice, for a desperately flawed attempt at emulating the market economies of the West, which seem likely to make them among the poorest and most deprived in the world. Whatever human rights violations were committed under the communist system, and they were very many and serious, virtually the entire population had its basic needs guaranteed for forty years following 1945. Under the economic reforms introduced by Boris Yeltsin and now taken up by Vladimir Putin, most Russians have seen their life savings become worthless as their currenceis have been devalued. John Gray suggests that western politicians are equally to blame, As he says, 'The crackpot policies that were foisted on Russia had nothing to do with the country's needs and everything to do with the neo-liberal hubris that had gripped western governmtents.' The shelves that stood empty for decades may now be full of consumer goods, but few can afford to buy them. When the Soviet Union broke up, the fate of Russia was far from inevitable, but forcing Russians to play by the rules of a game in which only a few can possibly be winners, the West ensured that it would be the direst aspects of the legacy of Stalin and Brezhnev which would emerge to lead the Russian people in to darkness.

From "Death of a Nation"

Harald Korneliussen said...

But Russia is well placed in the strategic game for oil, since they have a lot of it.And there isn't a "dieoff" going on in Russia, people aren't starving to death, and even though the AIDS epidemic is severe, it's not what's causing the population decline.
The decline in Russia's population has been a long time in the making. They have had below-replacement fertility levels for a long time. They were the first modern country to legalize abortion, in 1920 (although Stalin forbade it again, out of population growth concerns). Since that was the only form of "prevention" at the time, they had a head start in population decline.

Also, in the Soviet Union and in russia, surgical abortion was (and is ) used instead of prevention. Along with alcoholism, which aslo has a long history in the east, it may be connected to the high infertility levels in Russia.

Also, look at the mindset. There was little incentive to economic success. Religion was supressed. The meaning of life that the communist party preached was completely discredited even before its fall. What did they have to left live for? In that nihilistic soup that is today's russia, there is little place for children, and much for life-subsitiutes like drugs and alcohol.

Henry Warwick said...

Harald wrote:

"And there isn't a "dieoff" going on in Russia, people aren't starving to death, and even though the AIDS epidemic is severe, it's not what's causing the population decline."

Actually Harald, there is. It is something I've been barking about for years: that the Die Off will not be seen as a "Die Off". It will be attributed to secondary or tertiary causes. Medical System disruptions or dysfunction. Economic stress. Bad planning. Lousy [X].

The problem is, the [X] in question is always not seen as a failed position in the thermodynamic gradient for resource acquisition. It's ALWAYS seen as "something else" but never energy / resources quantities or acquisition system / systemic quality failures.

And: it always will be, as the socio-political elites need to keep people in the dark about the material facts and facture of their own existence. If people achieve the consciousness of these things on a mass basis, it would sweep away capitalism and quickly dismantle the industrial work process, and immediately bring about a nature based society of sustainable (and by sustainble I mean, permanent, and by permanent I mean something close to forever) technologies.