Shrinking the Technosphere-Part Five

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (November 10 2015)

Before we proceed any further in describing how political technologies can be used to bring about the sort of dramatic social change that might grant humanity a new lease on life on planet Earth, let’s describe what “naturelike technologies” might look like. By “naturelike” we mean something that is in balance with nature – its rhythms, both diurnal and annual, and its cycles: of water, carbon dioxide, organic nutrients – and human generations. By “technologies” we mean the know-how, passed from generation to generation, which one needs in order to survive – not any fancy gadgets or machinery, not the internet of things, nano-this or genetically-engineered-that.

Of course, there must also exist political technologies that can sustain and defend such an effort, especially against the predations of profit-driven psychopaths who have imperilled human survival through rapid resource depletion and out of control industrial development, but let’s put this question aside for now …

While I was growing up in the USSR, every summer, from age five to age nine or so, my family would take off in some direction, east or west, on trips that could, in some of their aspects, be described as trips back in time. We spent one summer in a village so out-of-the-way that the locals demanded to know how we knew that their village existed. We hadn’t known, neither did the authorities in the local regional centre, and the locals seemed keen to keep it that way.

We simply tagged along with a geological survey team that was doing seismic testing, blasting its way along a hydrocarbon seam. Our method of transportation was a “Smotka” – a reel truck that bumped along rutted dirt roads running cable between sensors stuck in the ground that triggered small explosive charges, then recorded seismic data as jagged lines on spools of graph paper spewed out by a seismograph inside the truck.

It was a very poor village, with half of the intact log cabins boarded up, its few remaining residents in rough shape. At night, wolves and bears roamed the village, and meat, when we managed to get some from passing truck drivers, had to be buried outside, in a pit, with boulders piled on top. As the summer wore on and the wolves and bears got better at digging, the pit became deeper and the boulders larger.

We spent another summer in a village in the vicinity of Rybinsk, near lands flooded by the construction of hydropower dams, where most of the transportation was by boat over flooded land, and where the older people spoke an impenetrable Ugro-Finnish dialect whose name they didn’t know. This village was more prosperous; most households had cows, which turned the dirt road that ran through the village centre into a knee-deep wallow whenever it rained. I remember getting my rubber boots stuck in the mud, trying desperately to pull them out before the oncoming herd of cattle got to me, which included some quite ornery bulls that would periodically decide to chase me.

There were other summers too – on a family homestead in Estonia that had barely changed since the Middle Ages and had become something of a museum, with an impressive collection of wrought-iron candelabras that had actual candles in them, then on another family homestead in Transcarpatha of Western Ukraine – a working farm, and where I got a chance to herd cows on horseback (which I liked), helped with making hay (which I hate to this day) and slept in the hayloft with the family’s four daughters (which I liked a lot).

We spent two summers in a hunting lodge on Lake Ladoga in Karelia which once belonged to Baron Gustaf Mannerheim – during the short period when Karelia was no longer part of the Russian Empire’s Grand Dutchy of Finland but had not yet become Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR. By the time we got there it had been nationalized, turned into a resort and assigned to the Composers Union, of which my father was a member. There, I became obsessed with fishing, trolling from a rowboat for fresh-water pike which hid in the crevasses that ran along the bottoms of the fjords. We ate it after hot-smoking it with smoke from alder twigs.

Wherever we happened to be spending the summer, most of our days were spent wandering around the woods, foraging for berries, mushrooms and whatever else the woods had to offer. Everywhere, the woods were a maze of trails worn by the movements of both animals and people over many thousands of years.

Unlike what Americans like to call “wilderness” or, worse yet “unimproved land”, this was land that couldn’t possibly be improved, because it was alive and full of spirit, where animal and human spirits commingled over thousands of years of uninterrupted harmony. In comparison, the North American landscape, with its national parks, marked hiking trails headed by large parking lots, and with the rest of it posted “no trespassing”, is a dead landscape, bereft of spirit and meaning, maintained because it is thought to have uses, such as recreation or conservation. That landscape is artificial: a mental construct overlaid on a natural realm that is considered alien. To an American, the map is the landscape; to a Russian living deep in the countryside, a map is evidence that you might be a government official or, worse yet, a spy.

In Russia, in most places you can walk in any direction for almost any distance, guided by memory and instinct rather than trail markings or a map. Rather than follow a marked trail single-file as Americans tend to do, in what to the untrained eye looks like a prison walk, in Russia people fan out across the landscape and keep in touch by yoo-hooing back and forth. Even young kids tend to wander the woods on their own, because American-style safety-consciousness is nonexistent and would probably be considered harmful – a way to raise nincompoops.

But the glorious Russian woods, so full of wonder and spirit, were also quite empty of people. In many places, we would happen across abandoned homesteads: trees sprouting from a foundation pit, the log cabin that stood over it long decayed into moss-covered mounds; a stout willow sprouting from a caved-in dug well – nature swiftly reclaiming the land. About the only structure left standing is the one, rather impressive, bit of masonry found in every traditional Russian village house: the Russian stove (of which more later). Sometimes there would be the remains of an orchard and a garden, the fruit trees – apples, pears, plums – still bearing fruit, along with the bushes and cane – currant, raspberry, gooseberry – but the potato field and the vegetable garden had already reverted to woodland.

This emptying of the rural landscape in Russia was one of the worst outcomes of the twentieth century: collectivization and rapid industrialization following the Revolution drove people out of the villages and into the cities. The old, centuries-old patterns of local democratic self-governance and self-reliance were destroyed in a single generation. Old family farms were replaced by large communal farms and centrally planned agricultural production schemes. These turned out to be an unmitigated failure, forcing the USSR to resort to importing grain from the US and Canada on credit, and paving the way to its eventual destruction at the hands of its foreign creditors. Luckily, this effect was temporary; a quarter-century after the Soviet system fell apart, Russia is once again one of the world’s main agricultural producers and exporters, taking first, second or third place in the production of most agricultural commodities.

Although there is quite a lot of mechanized industrial agriculture in Russia, for export commodities especially (Russia’s Rosselmash stacks up well against John Deere) a lot of the food is still grown on small plots, which tend to be very productive, and their produce, sold through ubiquitous farmer’s markets, is of higher quality. Western sanctions imposed on Russia following the putsch in Kiev, Crimea’s referendum and the civil war in Eastern Ukraine, and the Russian countersanctions, which banned food imports from the offending Western nations, combined with lower oil prices and a speculative attack, which drove down the exchange rate of the Ruble, have given local agricultural producers a big boost. Sanctions notwithstanding, a lot of the food imports are never coming back. Russians are tuning into where their food comes from, plus Russia has banned all genetically modified products, cutting off imports from the almost entirely GM-corn-fed Americans.

A number of new initiatives and new legislation are making it easier for people to go back to small-scale farming. Certain categories of people, such as veterans and young families with children, now receive free parcels of land from the government. Income tax, which is normally a fifteen percent flat tax plus a one percent retirement tax, drops down to just six percent for those who take up farming. Other factors, such as the widespread penetration of cell phone service and internet access and the growing popularity of home schooling (by Russian law, schools have to compensate homeschooling parents) are helping make rural living more popular. Reports that periodically surface in the social media from those who have moved out to villages tend to paint idyllic portraits of rural living. Slowly but surely, the landscape is being resettled.

This trend is in many ways a reversion to norm: over much of its millenium-plus-long history, Russia was a country of many small towns, numerous villages and countless isolated homesteads. This pattern of habitation suited the landscape, which is vast but provides rather diffuse resources to a preindustrial economy. Until quite recently most houses in Russia, even large ones, were built with wood, limiting their lifespan. Wood was, and still is, plentiful, but stone is quite scarce in many places, limited to some scattered boulders rolled across the landscape by glaciers many ice ages ago. Because of this, very little has remained in the way of ancient buildings or ruins: a few churches and a few forts. Of course, this changed with industrialization and the advent of cement, brick and reinforced concrete, but for many centuries before that Russian civilization left scarcely any permanent mark on the landscape – hardly anything that nature could not quickly reclaim by fire or decay.
The humble, rustic Russian village cabin, with its log walls and thatched roof, is physically impermanent: the logs rot; the thatch had to be replaced every few seasons. All that can be done to extend the life of the structure, which simply sits on wet ground, is to periodically replace the bottommost logs, but even then, after a few decades, the entire structure has to be abandoned – disassembled and cut up for firewood, burned in place, or simply allowed to decay into a compost heap. But as an easily replicated technology, it is ageless: a perfect set of adaptations to a difficult and demanding environment that have been honed to perfection over many centuries. It, along with the lifestyle and the practices associated with it, is a very good example of an all-encompassing naturelike technology. We shall describe it in detail in the next part of this seemingly never-ending series, which is at this point threatening to become feedstock for my next book.

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