Thursday, July 30, 2015

Western style Catastrophism: a few questions for my Russian readers

Weekly page views of "Resource Crisis" on July 30, 2015. Note how Russia is the largest non-English speaking country in the list. These data are not the result of  any special post about Russia, they are a normal feature of the blog.  

I don't need to say that I am very pleased for the success that this blog is having in Russia. Russia is a country that I know reasonably well, I know the people, the places, nature, a little of the language and, well, about countries you can use the verb "like" regarding your attitudes toward it; but you can also use the verb "love." Personally, I would feel more inclined to use the latter term in regard to my personal feelings regarding Russia.

This said, however, I am curious about why exactly "Resource Crisis" is having so much success in Russia. It is true that I have posted a few times about matters regarding Russia, but this is not, by any means, a Russia-oriented blog. And, for what I know about Russia, the general attitude, there, is not at all "catastrophistic" as this blog is.

So, I thought I could dedicate a post to this subject and ask my Russian readers (and also non Russian ones) if they can spare a little of their time to comment on some questions that I am asking to myself and to them.

1. Would you agree with my impression that in Russia there doesn't exist a "catastrophistic" line of thought regarding "the end of the world as we know it"? In the West, we have a number of thinkers, for instance James Howard Kunstler, John Michael Greer,  Guy McPherson, Dmitry Orlov and many others (perhaps also yours truly!) whose work is dedicated to the exploration of the concept of social and economic collapse, and even to the extinction of humankind. Their relevance in the overall cultural and political discourse in the West is minor, but, I venture to say, not irrelevant. But, I can't find any equivalent Russian thinkers - which may very well due to my very limited command of Russian. Or is it just that catastrophism doesn't "stick" to the Russian mind?

2. Did anyone in Russia predict in advance the collapse of the Soviet Union? This question is related to the first one. The West seems to be going towards its collapse not without considerable warning, although consistently choosing to ignore it. Did anyone warn the Soviet government of their impending collapse? (not that, most likely, the Soviet Government would have done better than the Western ones, but, out of curiosity......)

3. Did you have the impression, as I do, that most people in Russia tend to see both peak oil and climate change mainly as Western propaganda? My contacts with the Russian oil industry and universities tend to think that Russia is immune to peak oil because of its large reserves and also that it will be scarcely affected by climate change, because it is located in the North. Some people seem to think that Russia could actually gain something because of global warming. Both these impressions - in my opinion - are utterly wrong and could seriously damage Russia in the long run.

4. Do you think that the current Russian leaders have some kind of long term plan on how to manage the Russian mineral resources? Russia controls a considerable fraction of the remaining world mineral resources. Even though large, these resources are not infinite. So, should Russia help Westerners to waste fuel produced from Russian oil for their SUVs, or, rather, keep the oil for the future prosperity of Russia? Does anyone in Moscow think about these matters?

5. What should be Russia's future source of energy? Here, it seems that most Russians think of a comfortable, nuclear powered future. That may be a possibility, but the Russian uranium resources are not infinite and surely are not among the most abundant in the world. Theoretically, fast neutron reactors overcome the problem of uranium depletion and Russia is probably the most advanced country in the world in this area. But fast neutron reactors are a very difficult technology, frayed with risks and uncertainties, also strategically vulnerable. Shouldn't Russia consider alternatives?  Despite being a Northern country, Russia has plenty of high insolation regions and plenty of available space. Why neglect solar energy so much as it has been done up to now?

So, if you are Russian (or even if you are not) and you feel that you can say something about these questions, or on other points related to Russia, your comments are most welcome!

Some recent posts of mine related to Russia (I would also thank Prof. Tatiana Yugay for her posts on my blogs, both in English and in Italian)

Putin Eats Babies: lies, damned lies and psyops . (May 12 2015)

The Mind of Empires (May 3, 2015)

The Great Oil Game (May 2, 2015)

How Do Empires hunt bears?  (March 9 2015)

Unleashing the Oil Weapon against Russia (Oct 6, 2014)


  1. Andrei Amalrik's "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?" (1970), I always remember this book when I read about how flat-footed our intelligence agencies were when it came to seeing the implosion predicted very tellingly in Amalrik's book, altho, I unfortunately can't find it in my "library" anymore.

    1. I didn't know the story of Amalrik, at all. He seems to have foreseen something, but he was not a "prophet of doom" comparable to the present generation of Western catastrophists. Or so it seems to me after a cursory look of what can be found about him on the Web

  2. I am not from Russia, but I am from another former communist country so I have some observations on the issue.

    Regarding the first question:

    I have been wondering about why there is so little discussion of these topics in former Eastern bloc countries myself. The best answer I've come up with is that the 1960s and 1970s just completely missed them -- most people writing about these topics in the West today have been heavily influenced by the wave of concern about the environment and sustainability that happened back then. But none of that really reached the other side of the curtain. Then after 1989 neoliberalism entered into a pristine territory and you can image in what direction things went.

    Regarding the third question:

    Yes, this is very much the case. I have actually seen many prominent intellectuals who are otherwise on the right side of many issues, talk about not just the Limits to Growth study but the very idea of limits to growth as a conspiracy designed to facilitate an even greater extent of takeover by the elites over the resources of the planet. I have hard time understanding why that is -- it probably has something to do with the division between analytic and continental philosophy as almost everyone who has said such things that I can think of comes out of the latter tradition, and that is a tradition not just divorced from but often openly hostile to the physical sciences.

    1. Yes, but there remain some question about why the Soviet Union or Russia didn't develop their own version of - say - the Limits to Growth. They were perfectly capable of doing that, and one would think they might have seen that approach as a powerful tool for running their planned economy. Instead, they seem to have totally ignored system dynamics. I checked, and the Russian chapter of the World system dynamics society was formed only in 2010!

      For everything that happens there is a reason, even though sometimes that reason is not easy to find....

    2. Yes, but there remain some question about why the Soviet Union or Russia didn't develop their own version of - say - the Limits to Growth

      That one is easy - the regime promised eternal rosy future of unprecedented abundance and possibilities. How welcome would a limits-to-growth message have been in such an environment? Communists were just as hooked on the idea of infinite growth and progress as capitalists are -- that's why I like to say that if you put the two in the 2D plane and assign coordinates (-1,0) to communism and (1,0) to extreme free-market capitalism, reality would be somewhere around (-0.1,1000) or something of the sort. If the currently dominant ideology in the West had the same repressive apparatus, how much do you think we would have heard about these things?

      Now did the real scientists and engineers (note the "real" qualifier -- there were many fake ones who advanced their careers by means other than doing good science) discuss this is in private? I don't know the answer, but if it is negative, then we have a real mystery.

  3. Thank you very much, Ugo, for your very thoughtful questions. It seems that I'm the first Russian who writes the comment. So I'll answer to your 1st question. You know that I'm not a catastrophist as well as the majority of Russian population. It's difficult to be a catastrophist in a country which is so rich of natural resources. And I think that Italians are more fatalists than we are. Just watch how Russians and Italians behave in the time of crisis.

    1. Tatiana - I'm curious about the Russian reaction to the extensive wildfires in Siberia over the last few years (extremely dry and hot conditions contributing to the size, altho not perhaps the direct cause), extensive flooding from unusually heavy rainfall, and the (gas hydrate?) blowouts in Siberia last year?

      They certainly contributed to a lot of catastrophic speculation in certain (mainly US, I think) parts of the blogosphere.

      Thanks (BTW, these photos of scientists exploring the inside of one of the craters in wintertime are fascinating)

    2. Dear Tatiana,

      abundance is like youth. When you have it, it looks like it will last forever. But it doesn't.

    3. Dearest Ugo, don't forget about the science and technological progress! We don't know what new kinds of energy our grandchildren will invent.

    4. Dear FLwolverine, Russia has been always a territory of extreme weather phenomena, so the people has got accustomed to them. We have an excellent emergency service. A few years ago, a tiny river of Saline got out of the banks and flooded half of the city Montesilvano (Italy). A woman was blocked in her car which went underwater and died. She had rushed to rescue her parents. In Russia, people call the emergency service not their children.
      When it was that terrible flood in the Far East, not a single person had died. And all the people who had lost their home where granted new houses during 2 years. Maybe, you think that it isn't a scientific argument but it explains pretty well the optimistic approach of people, in general.

    5. Technology can make one look younger, but no more than that. But, technology or not, a classy woman is never too old!

    6. It's nice to hear the second part of observation from the great connoisseur...

    7. Theoretical observations.... theoretical observations.....

  4. Regarding your first question, don't forget that Dmitry Orlov is Russian, even if much of his writing is in English. Also, are you aware of The Vineyard of The Saker ? He publishes in several languages, including English and Russian, and he very much has a Russian focus.

    And while I can't really know the Russian mindset, I think part of the reason so many Americans are focused on catastrophism is because it hasn't really happened within their lifetimes. The fear of the unknown makes it that much worse. My guess is that since Russians have already been through a collapse, they know they can survive another.

    1. That is exactly the same answer that the father-in of my Russian wife gave to the question three weeks ago, in Sant Petersburg. I told him about peak oil, the possible end of growth, and its disturbing consequences, and this was his comment: "We, Russians, have gone through so many collapses that one more is nothing impressive to us"

    2. Dmitry Orlov provided an excellent description of the Soviet collapse and of the reaction of the people to it. But he didn't say much about how it was perceived before it happened.

      About the Saker, it is such a subversive blog that no one wants to admit to be reading it. I, for one, don't. But, just in case it might have happened to me to stumble by chance into one of the Saker's pages, well, he is not a catastrophist in the sense I was describing in my post.

    3. Dear Ugo
      Here in the CE Europe The Soviet imperium collapse remained inforseen untill it began.
      Non of the eggeheaded sovietologs (worldwide & those behind the iron curtain) predictions are known to me (and our polish reporter Kapuściński.)
      Our contemporary Minister of foreign Affairs (Sikorski) during the times he fought togheter with Mudhjahedins against Russians just deared to express his hope in theboook he wrote latter - that once the soviet army had to move out of Agghanistan it had to be a sign of falling Goliat.
      I do remember the times pretty well and it was kind of info we could hardly believe in.
      Nowadays the catastrophist voice is unwillingly heard in here as it disilussion the generation of ppl who havent yet enjoyed enough the long dreamed of consumers lifestyle.

      Once U mention and explain the idea of steady state economy and limits to growth the post-homo-soveticus reaction is always the same. Smilar to the one presented here by Tatiana. IMHO a generation of Inveterate Cornucopians. denial and calling U a pessimist without common sense.

      btw. IMHO Comrade Orlove's depiction of Societ Collapse is as far from excellent as wrong is his outlook @ the russian - ukrainian conflict.

  5. In my opinion, there are several reasons, but not those that you may think:

    -The Ghost of Collapse that haunts many Westerners is partly related to the trauma we still have for the fall of the Roman Empire. The United States is very afraid to collapse because they see themselves as the new Roman Empire. Russian Empire never really fell as far as has always been, in one way or another, Mother Russia. The same applies to China.

    -In the last 100 years Russia has passed through not only the collapse of the Soviet Union, but through a revolution and a civil war (with millions of deaths by starvation and violence), a forced collectivisation (with tens of millions of deaths by starvation and violence), a Nazi invasion (with tens of millions of deaths by violence and starvation). Therefore, one can hardly scare them by hypothetical evils that are still fuzzy in the future as climate change or collapse of society by oil depletion). Not to mention that what many peak oilers propose as a solution is to return to an agricultural society. A Russian may think, with good reasons, that to return to an society of little villages and farmers, instead of cities, industry and transport, is just a fantasy of urbanites that, if implemented, would surely cause much more hunger than the problems they want to avoid.

    1. You have several good points. Worth thinking about. Probably worth of a whole new post

  6. I first became aware that global warming would be an issue within my lifetime in 1988 when Hansen addressed congress. Living in Canada, we have always gotten all their media as well as ours. It was only one year later when Communism fell and I wonder if that may have contributed to their lack of awareness regarding global warming. They were kinda preoccupied for awhile there first with surviving, then rebuilding. In addition, environmentalism might only be a luxury for rich democratic populations.

  7. I think one reason may be the high Science literacy of Russians.

  8. Hi, Bardy!
    My name is Alexey,I am from Russia, though I did a Ph.D. in France.

    As to your questions.
    1. We surely don't have a mindset about "the end of the world as we know it", basically because it
    has already ended here :), and this way it was most of our history. The main reason, I think, is that in russian
    culture there is no such thing as "religion of progress". Our culture is more oriented to "the meaning of life" thing.
    So no matter what our world is not going to end :). Civilization is a nice thing, but pretty girls are better.

    2. Many people predicted the collapse in advance. The collapse was due to unwillingness of russian people to cooperate with the government. In other words it was a collective-Gandian revolution.

    3. People in Russia doesn't care about climate change, because hotter is better for us. Peak oil is also a nice thing, high prices are good. So why should we care?

    4. Hard to tell what our leaders think about. Sometimes I have impression that their actions are too wise to be random. I mean isolation of Russia, that gives a chance for our manufacture.

    5.Only the God knows what would be our next energy source. We have other problems to worry about: corruption, high prices, no rule of law, falling education, almost destroyed science, bad medical care. On the other hand common people are nice, and girls are pretty. That's why I live here.

    1. Very nice comment, Alexey. I mostly agree with your statement that Russian girls are very, very pretty. Even though, I must add, this is only a theoretical, long range observation on my part!!

    2. And also that Russian people are nice - this is from first hand experience!

    3. I do get perfectly well with Russian ppl but only to a certain level.
      Once the bottle/s is/are almost empty there always comes a proposal to toast in praise of Stalin.
      that's the moment the tatal & bilateral lack of understending starts.
      Russian outlook is so ubiquitously propaganda whitehashed that any contra reasonig is taken as an offence. The deeper "gluibinka" the more balck&white way of perceiving the world.

  9. A few years ago I was visiting my in-laws in a Russian city, when I was invited to meet various people from the local government, to say hello. It was a city where they had, and still get, very few Western visitors. I was shocked on arrival at meeting, the attendees were me, my wife, and a list of who's who from the local civic community/government.
    It really was like a bygone era, where I had celebrity status just because I was a foreigner. The format was them asking me questions, I cannot remember the details, it was about 12 years ago. It seemed to me that being a city of the far north, this city would suffer really badly come the peak oil crash, and I naively tried to warn them of the coming problems. They clearly did not have a clue what I was talking about (my wife was translating).
    Three points. Firstly, in Russia today, the media is totally controlled by Putin and his government, and issues like oil depletion do not appear on the radar (not so different from here). Secondly, if I tried the same advice almost anywhere in Europe, I would probably get the same reaction, and in Aberdeen - 'oil capital of Europe', lynched. Thirdly, Putin did his PhD in Russian/global gas supplies, he knows what he is doing, but I don't know that that is.

  10. What an interesting set of questions and answers.
    I notice the ratio of UK readers is lower than one might expect considering the language. There is no blogger here in UK takes the LTG line that I know of.

    There is one well-informed Peak Oil UK blog, but this is climate sceptical and very sceptical about renewable energy - (Euan Mearns in Aberdeen, Scotland). One might expect people like Jeremy Leggett to write a popular ‘Cassandra-type’ blog, but this seems not to be the case. Jeremy is Peak Oil aware and writes good books, but his blog focuses on ‘decarbonising’ and on the climate and seems ‘activist’ but not catastrophist. George Monbiot is strongly ‘environmentalist’ and has a popular ‘reach’ to ‘green’ activists and sympathisers, and at times has been ‘catastrophist’ about climate change and loss of biodiversity, but mostly steers clear of Peak Oil and LTG.

    Our oldest daughter has lived and worked in Russia and was in touch with the very small ‘environmentalist’ movement, but saw little of the ‘Western’ awareness of climate change. I find Alexey’s comment above very interesting and it makes a lot of sense to me: “The main reason, I think, is that in Russian culture there is no such thing as "religion of progress". Our culture is more oriented to "the meaning of life" thing.”

    I have yet to visit, but I find the prospect attractive.

  11. If global warming proceeds as some predict the cool 11 degree Celsius (52 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature in Murmansk Russia today would have been bumped up to a awesomely pleasant 21 degrees (70 degrees Fahrenheit). The delusion of focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative would seem to me to make denial of impending tragedy easy from a Russian point of view. They have the only real estate that will be worth anything. The White Sea could become a new Hawaii. In the summertime.

    About your question five. None of that is going on anywhere on the planet.

    And, as Antonio García-Olivares's Russian wife said:

    "Russians, have gone through so many collapses that one more is nothing impressive to us"

    And perhaps much less so when you are the landlord of everything that is left.

  12. Just out of curiosity (I doubt much can be concluded from it) I quickly did mentally the comparative per capita calculation for the views of Resource Crisis indicated above, but only for Iceland and the United States…..since I already knew that Iceland has a population of about 320,000 and the U.S. a population of about 320 million, i.e. 1000 times less. But 4510 divided by 1000 is about 4.5. But Iceland had 125 views or roughly 28 times 4.5 . Are people in Iceland 28 times more concerned or interested in Resource Crisis issues than Americans? 28 x 4500 is 128,000 so the U.S. is "just a little bit" behind Iceland? Russia I think has a population between 140 and 150 million so the U.S. and Russian per capita views are roughly comparable, though somewhat fewer in Russia. I wonder how many hits a blog in Russian would get in the United States.

  13. I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but 1/2 serious too I suppose; perhaps it's just that all the INTJ's in Russia have something else to do with their time besides read articles on the internet. Maybe they all have their noses in books?

    PS I love the articles and books you write.

    1. One earlier commenter said that the Russians are - on the average - much more scientifically literate than the Americans; which is probably true. I read that at the time of the Soviet Union, the term "Nie Kulturny" (no culture) was a commonly used offense. But it is hard to say how things are evolving there, now that they have color TV and the Internet.

    2. As to science literacy I may 100% stick to Ur opinion. i'd even add the the field of interest of an average russian is much wider.
      But I have a contact with travelers (openminded) aged from 30-50.
      IMHO the change is even visible in moscows' subway. In 80's and 90's ppl used to read books or talk about it. have a look at comntemporary passengers now.

  14. Sometimes talking the talk begins with walking the walk. Whatever their motivation they are doing something right.

    40 Percent of Russia’s Food Is Grown from Dacha Garden

  15. A correction, when I said:

    "About your question five. None of that is going on anywhere on the planet."

    I meant '4'.

    The idea that politicians are out for the long term best interest of their people has the same mental roots as imagining equatorial ice cubes.

  16. Hello Professor Bardi -

    glad you are asking about perceptions in Russia. I too love the place and have had the great good fortune to work there on occasion with some great people. the small group I worked with certainly struck me as wise, practical, and very very capable.

    to your query - how about the Anastasia series done by Megre? are you familiar with any of his work related to the 'Ringing Cedars'? maybe it has something of the 'Ishmael (Quinn)' aspect, but I don't know about the impact in Russia itself of this small movement or much of its history, though it does seem to strongly imply collapse.

    anyway, just a thought. very best regards from my skateboard shopping cart in North Vancouver - Charles

    1. Anastasia by Megre..... how many things there exist in the world that I know nothing about? It has to be a conspiracy against me! :-). I'll try to read something about that. Thanks for this message, Charles, and have a good ride on your supermarket cart!

  17. Dear Prof,
    here my modest opinion. I'm an engineer devoted to social science and avid reader of collapse literature. In my PhD I explored the notions (...religion is more appropriate) of progress and development; concepts born in the West and 'exported' to the rest of the world. As one of the commenters has said, although Russia might appear close to our European culture, it is deeply far in its inner soul. Such positive and enthusiastic view on the future doesn't exist or, better, doesn't exist in the way we frame it in the West. An old but nice book of Arnold Toynbee, the World and the West, provides a fascinating account of those subtle differences that makes Russia so apparently close to us and, at the same time, so far. In a society obsessed by the linear teolological notion of progress, collapse can be only a catastrophe. In other settings the same perspective can embed very different expectations... even positive in some cases ;)
    Un saluto

  18. I asked Dmitriy Orlov more or less the same question (what do people in St. Petersburg think about our general economic/climate predicament?). He said that there was zero discussion among family/ friends with him about such things while he was visiting.

    My own experience dovetails with what he said, and the reasons given by Alexey above. My (very pretty) Russian wife went through the Soviet collapse and so is very irritated by my "fixation" on something that cannot be controlled. Anyway, she got through it once. When forced, she will acknowledge Orlov's arguments as having validity. The Russians who have watched Orlov's Russian language interview do not view it in a positive light.

    A nuclear physicist I know was talking about coal as much worse than Chernobyl way back in 1992. They support nuclear there.

    An educated geophysicist/stock trader (sort-of) laughs at the Limits to Growth, but has the typical misunderstandings about the book. Another geophysicist is quite taken with being against the socialists and Putin, negating all else.

    It is just a hodge-podge of experiences. They are different from the U.S.

  19. Here is an opinion published in NYT: "Reading Mr. Pavlovsky’s book, one realizes that what is totally absent in the Western analyses of today’s Russia is this “end of the world” mentality among Mr. Putin’s political and intellectual elites. In Mr. Pavlovsky’s view, the experience of the catastrophic collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than geopolitical interests or values, is the key for understanding Russia’s strategic behavior and the inner logic of Mr. Putin’s regime.

    The Kremlin is populated not by mere survivors of the post-Soviet transition but by survivalists, people who think in terms of worst-case scenarios, who believe that the next disaster is just around the corner, who thrive on crises, who are addicted to extraordinary situations and no-rules politics.

    That complex and unpredictable context, rather than the vagaries of Mr. Putin’s mind alone, is the key to understanding contemporary Russian politics."



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)