“Shrinking the Technosphere – Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency and Freedom,” by Dimitry Orlov, 2017
This book is one of Orlov’s weakest due to his many sidetakes. He envisons present society as a unitary self-regulating ‘technosphere’ similar to the Gaia hypothesis. Gaia says that the whole earth and nature are one self-regulating living unitary system. But instead of capitalism or neo-liberalism, Orlov renames the economic and political system the ‘technosphere’ – sort of like the ‘Matrix’ or HAL in ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey.’ Humans are dominated by the technosphere and he wants to dig a way out of its control. This renaming is because Orlov is allergic to the term capitalism or the uses of technology by capitalism. His project diverts attention away from the ‘economic’ womb nearly all the world lives in by making it linguistically invisible. Orlov is in love with sweeping and somewhat grandiose statements, yet he has some valuable ideas, especially coming from his Russian background.
More than half of the book is taken up with making fun of deluded liberals’ and vicious conservatives’ addictions to technology. There is a paen to Ted Kaczynski, pointing out that as a very young college student Kaczynski was subjected to an MKUltra experiment, which permanently soured him on the government. In the book Orlov continually poses the choice of a planetary industrial Armageddon or returning to a small farming or hunting/fishing lifestyle. Orlov ultimately rejects Kaczynski’s revolutionary project of opposing all industry and community (ala deep ecology) and gathers a more rational list of methods to oppose the ‘technosphere.’ Essentially he recommends local, secretive, artisanal, small group, time-tested methods of survival in a post-industrial world, using a ‘benefit/harm’ method of evaluating technology. The Russian log cabin, stove, sauna and un-heated entry room are examples of workable accommodations to collapse.
In the process Orlov quotes Nietzsche, upholds gender roles and ethnic tribalism, and praises health and physical strength – recommending the avoidance of physical and emotional weaklings. His ideal is the isolated Russian village of the past. If this sounds a bit primitive and reactionary for an upscale former physicist who spends his present days sailing on a solar and propane-powered yacht with his wife, you might be right. One of Hitler’s first acts was to kill thousands of mentally and physically disabled Germans. Orlov’s view of hunter/gatherer societies is actually somewhat stereotyped, as ‘odd people,’ old people and weak people had a role there too. He believes in 'survival of the fittest' - but that is not actually how primitive communist societies functioned.
Orlov wants to replace technology with nature. As such his methods dovetail nicely with many survivalist, anarcho-deep ecology practices, but he also fits into the understanding that without a functional and close relation to nature in the near future, we will starve and die. Food will be the main issue as climate change burns up agricultural land and despoils the oceans, minerals run out and power from oil/gas, nuclear and even solar and wind become infrequent or missing. Orlov understands we are already on the back-side of peak oil, while coal and nuclear are dying. He thinks solar and wind production use up as much energy to make as they produce, but he has no figures to back that up. Solar and wind cannot replace all of present energy, so no matter what happens there will be less ‘energy’ in the future to harness. The only solution is a certain downscaling. Hence his plan of breaking with the ‘technosphere’ and replacing it with ‘natural technology,’ a phrase he borrows from a speech by Vladimir Putin.
The three worst things Orlov sees are nuclear power, genetically modified food and nano-technology because they all have the possibility of absolutely ruining the whole planet and the humans on it. Just on the issue of GMOs (which Russia has banned, part of making Russia the largest producer of organic food in the world) it is clear that the capitalist privatization of seeds and food is behind GMOs. GMOs are profitable because it forces farmers to buy these essentials from Big Ag corporations in the U.S. Given the U.S. is a much larger capitalist power than Russia, this only makes sense for Monsanto and ADM. Yet the source is not some kind of ‘Matrix’ – it is neo-liberal privatization and monopoly.
Orlov supplies a list of basic tools needed to survive in a single location, and describes the skills that will be necessary in his future/past world – metal and wood working, hunting & fishing, small scale farming, animal breeding, food preparation and food gathering. Dogs, cats and chickens are part of the formula. Due to the changing climate, nomadism – living in black tents in the desert, yurts in the plains or forests, dome tents in the Arctic, all in close relation with local animals – actually might be the only way to survive. His current back-to-the-land romanticism is not necessarily proletarian. As you can see, Orlov is an advocate of the old-fashioned rural peasant or herder economy.
Orlov eschews nearly all political struggle, though he makes a short nod to Russian ‘partisans’. He describes the broken ‘political technologies’ used in the U.S. and then exported around the world, including what he calls the elite ‘color revolution syndicate’ of State Department NGOs, propaganda and money. Like many leftists, he supports the vote to leave the Ukraine by Crimea and the struggle against the imperial-fascist putsch in Kiev by the Russian partisans living in eastern Ukraine. His name for bureaucracy here is re-christened ‘social machines’ – corporate, church, military, legal and political party control mechanisms. Most of these chapters do not add much to what politically-aware people already know.
Nevertheless, like his prior books Orlov highlights the issue of what technologies working-class people need to continue, and what we need to discard. My personal opinion is that a stage of technology for the whole world would be around the 1940-45 level in the U.S., prior to the takeoff of the suburban car economy. Of course, newer technologies would replace coal. This is also when carbon levels began to accelerate exponentially. However, getting back to this level, even with new technologies, is a matter of timing and revolutionary action against the market system - and time is running out. Orlov is predicting a 15 degree rise in temperatures, not 2, so this would create a terminal threat to agriculture and the seas almost worldwide. He thinks nothing can be done except preparing.
Other books by Orlov reviewed below: “Reinventing Collapse,” and “The 5 Stages of Collapse.” Use blog search box, upper left.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
April 8, 2017