Russia is another example that’s referenced by Transitioners and Descenders. Dmitry Orlov, in his book Reinventing Collapse, writes as an “eyewitness,” having watched the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. He grew up in Russia and emigrated to the US, and during his periodic visits back he was able to watch the disintegration of the Soviet economy. His description in many ways mirrors John Michael Greer’s template of collapse as a series of declines rather than one catastrophic event. The Soviet Union certainly endured economic ruin but its history brings little usable insight to the biotic and climactic collapse that is the subject of this current book.
Cuba’s fossil fuel supply was cut off overnight: the Soviet Union’s was not. The former Soviet Union’s own reserves may have peaked, but the oil is still flowing. The collapse of its economy was due to economic and political policy, where Cuba’s hardships were caused by the sudden, drastic lack of fossil fuels and cheap manufactured goods, including food. In the Soviet Union, both production and distribution faltered but never ground to a halt. Indeed, Orlov points out that “Russia was able to bounce back economically because it too remains fairly rich in oil and natural gas, and will probably continue in relative prosperity for at least a few more decades.”60
Still, the experience of economic and social disintegration is useful to study, because we will certainly be facing those as biological emergencies build into collapse. The first fallout of economic collapse is, in fact, profoundly hopeful. Writes Orlov of his trip in 1990, “I … found a place I did not quite recognize. First of all, it smelled different: the smog was gone. The factories had largely shut down, there was very little traffic and the fresh air smelled wonderful.”61 Without the continuous assault of industrialism, the atmosphere and landbase were starting to heal. He continues, “There were very few gas stations open and the ones that were had lines that stretched for many blocks. There was a ten-liter limit on gasoline purchases.” As in Cuba, and as in The Transition Timeline, government rationing is what forced change while keeping some semblance of civic order, not a sudden outbreak of voluntary goodness.
Orlov is instructive in his description of the black market and barter economies the Russians developed. Vodka was rationed, and a half liter was worth ten liters of gas, “giving vodka far greater effective energy density than rocket fuel.”62 He reaffirms one of the central impulses of the Transitioners: “When faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money. Access to actual physical resources and assets, as well as intangibles such as connections and relationships, quickly becomes much more valuable than mere cash.”63
He also describes the human misery of old women selling grandchildren’s toys to get money for food, of once-professional people digging through public trash bins, and of workers continuing to go to jobs which no longer paid salaries but had a cafeteria and hence a free lunch.
Russia is a country with a negative population growth caused by “a collapse of the birth rate and a catastrophic surge in the death rate.”64 The country has a 0.6 percent population decrease, which means it will lose 22 percent of the population by 2050. That adds up to thirty million fewer people.65
One reason for the decline is that Russia has an extremely high involuntary infertility rate. Somewhere between 13 and 20 percent of married couples are infertile, and that number may be rising.66 For women, one of the main causes was a society-wide reliance on abortion as a form of birth control, abortions often done under substandard medical conditions. The literal scars of such procedures have left many women unable to conceive or carry to term. Sexually transmitted diseases are also a culprit—rates of syphilis are literally hundreds of times higher in Russia than in other European countries.67 Marriage rates have dropped and divorce rates risen, and 30 percent of Russia’s babies are being delivered to single mothers—this in a country too poor to offer public benefits. Women can’t afford to have more children.
Add to that a mortality rate that is “utterly breathtaking.”68 Tuberculosis, AIDS, alcoholism, and the disappearance of socialized medicine have pulled the numbers up. The main two causes of death, though, are cardiovascular disease (CVD), which in thirty-five years increased 25 percent for women and an astounding 65 percent for men, and injury. The increases in CVD is traceable to smoking, poor diet, sedentarism, and severe social stress. The injury category includes “murder, suicide, traffic, poisoning and other violent causes.”69 The violence is so bad that the death rate for injury and poisoning for Russian men is twelve times higher than for British men. And both CVD and the violence are helped along by vodka, which Russians drink at an extraordinary rate, equivalent to 125 cc “for everyone, every day.”70
Population in Russia is dropping dramatically without a cataclysmic event or a Pol Pot–styled genocide, which the authors of this book are often accused of suggesting. Though each individual death is its own world of tragedy, the deaths have not collectively brought daily life—or even the government—to a halt.
Russia may best illustrate the kind of slow decline of which Greer writes; and Russia’s disintegration is not even based on energy descent, as oil and gas are still abundant. The former USSR may give us good insights into people’s responses to economic decline, and how best to survive it, but as an example it does not address the conditions of biotic collapse that are our fundamental concern.
Except in one instance: Chernobyl. Ninety thousand square miles were contaminated with radiation; 350,000 people were displaced; and there is a permanent “exclusionary zone” encompassing a nineteen-mile radius and the ghosts of seventy-six towns.
But other ghosts have come back from the dead. Because despite the cesium-137 that’s deadly for 600 years and the strontium-90 that mammal bones mistake for calcium, Chernobyl has become a miracle of megafauna: the European bison have returned, as well as, somehow, the Przewalski’s horse. There are packs—that’s plural—of wolves. There are beavers coaxing back the lost wetlands. There are wild boar. There are European lynx. There are endangered birds like the black stork and the white-tailed eagle, glorious in their eight-foot wingspans. All this even though ten years after the accident, geneticists found small rodents with “an extraordinary amount of genetic damage.” They had a mutation rate “probably thousands of times greater than normal.”71 Yet twenty years after the accident, and with multiple excursions into the contaminated area, the same researcher, Dr. Robert Baker, said flat-out, “The benefit of excluding humans from this highly contaminated ecosystem appears to outweigh significantly any negative cost associated with Chernobyl radiation.”72 Witnessing the return of bison and wolves, who could say otherwise? Even a nuclear disaster is better for living creatures than civilization. And the real, if fledgling, hope: this planet, made not by some Lord God but instead by the work of all those creatures great and small, could repair herself if we would just stop destroying.
There are better ways to reduce our numbers than through alcoholism, syphilis, and nuclear accidents. We don’t need to wring our hands in helpless horror, stuck in a wrenching ethical dilemma between human rights and ecological drawdown. In fact, the most efficacious way to address the twin problems of population and resource depletion is by supporting human rights.
One of the great success stories of recent years is Iran. People’s desire for children turns out to be very malleable. Even in a context of religious fundamentalism, Iran was able to reduce its birthrate dramatically. In 1979, Ayatollah Khamenei dissolved Iran’s family planning efforts because he wanted soldiers for Islam to fight Iraq (and n.b. to those who still think they can be peace activists without being feminist). The population surged in response, reaching a 4.2 percent growth rate, which is the upper limit of what is biologically possible for humans. Iran went from 34 million people in 1979 to 63 million by 1998.73 Let’s be very clear about what this means for women. Girls as young as nine were legally handed over to adult men for sexual abuse: for me, the word “marriage” does not work as a euphemism for the raping of children.
The population surge proved to be a huge social burden immediately, and Iran’s leaders “realized that overcrowding, environmental degradation, and unemployment were undermining Iran’s future.”74 Health advocates, religious leaders, and community organizers held a summit to strategize.
They knew that free birth control was essential, but it wouldn’t be enough. All the major institutions of society had to get involved. Family planning policies were reinstituted and a broad public education effort was launched. Government ministries and the television company were brought into the project: soap operas took up the subject. Fifteen thousand rural clinics were founded and eighty mobile health care clinics brought birth control to remote areas. Thirty-five thousand family planning volunteers were trained to teach people in their neighborhoods about birth control options, and there were also workplace education campaigns. The government got religious leaders to proclaim that Allah wasn’t opposed to vasectomies; after that, vasectomies increased dramatically. In order to get a marriage license both halves of the couple had to attend a class on contraception. And new laws withdrew food subsidies and health care coverage after a couple’s third child, applying the stick as a backup to the carrots.
The biggest social initiative was to raise the status of women. Female literacy went from 25 percent in 1970 to over 70 percent in 2000. Ninety percent of girls now attend school.75
In seven years, Iran’s birthrate was sliced in half from seven children per woman to under three. So it can be done, and quickly, by doing the things we should be doing anyway. As Richard Stearns writes, “The single most significant thing that can be done to cure extreme poverty is this: protect, educate, and nurture girls and women and provide them with equal rights and opportunities—educationally, economically, and socially.… This one thing can do more to address extreme poverty than food, shelter, health care, economic development, or increased foreign assistance.”76
There is no reason for people who care about human rights to fear taking on this issue. Two things work to stop overpopulation: ending poverty and ending patriarchy. People are poor because the rich are stealing from them. And most women have no control over how men use our bodies. If the major institutions around the globe would put their efforts behind initiatives like Iran’s, there is still every hope that the world could turn toward both justice and sustainability.