Comfortable and Furious

Collapse (2009)

From what I’ve read, a lot of people seem to think Chris Smith is advocating the ideas put forward by his film’s subject, Michael Ruppert. I don’t really think so. Did he also believe the guy from American Movie was going to be the next big horror director? Why is the movie called “Collapse?”

If the film was intended as a mere platform for Ruppert’s views, it would probably be less entertaining and Ruppert would come across less credibly. But Collapse is not a puff piece, it is a portrait of a madman. Maybe. Ruppert, like so many people today, like so many people since antiquity, believes that the end of the world as we know it is at hand. As I pointed out in my otherwise crappy 2012 review, we like to fantasize that the end is near because it means that we are part of the most important generation (especially if we have a chance to stop it). Also, we like to believe that the world couldn’t possibly go on without us, being too small-minded a species to distinguish between our individual mortality and the course of humanity. Back to Ruppert, who makes smoking look like the single most pleasurable activity on earth and who looks to be on the downside of middle age. If we are in the first stages of collapse, didn’t he just happen to come along at the perfect time? He spent the prime of his life at the very height of human civilization. Now, as he winds down his life, he gets to witness the most important and awesome events in human history. Finally, he’ll pass away knowing that, if humans survive at all, they will spend centuries in desperate and primitive squalor, revering the mythical golden age in which he lived.

From here you can plug in the apocalyptic fantasy of your choosing. 2012, Nostradamus, UFOs, Lizard People, global warming. Well, the record does scratch on that last one, doesn’t it? Because global warming seems to be a reality. That is the flip-side of the end-times fantasy: inevitably one generation of doomsayers will be correct and they might come pretty soon. Ruppert makes a pretty good case for his generation and viewpoint, most importantly the “peak oil” scenario, being the ones to finally hit the mark with their revelations.

Part of his appeal, and the appeal of the film, is that Ruppert is on the borderline of credibility and you can’t dismiss him off the bat, but no intelligent person (this seems to exclude other movie reviewers) would accept his claims at face value. The film’s prologue tells us that the filmmakers were making a film about CIA involvement in domestic drug dealing when they met Ruppert and became sidetracked by him and his worldview. His first foray into the fringe came when he was an LAPD officer in the late seventies and early eighties. Ruppert claims he was approached by the CIA to help move drugs on his beat in South Central. While I know fuck all about peak oil, this is an issue I’ve looked at and take it from me, some random guy on the internet, there is a very strong case to be made that the CIA was indeed involved in the cocaine trade in order to finance their wacky adventures in Latin America. If the smuggling did happen, Ruppert would be a prime subject to recruit into the program because both of his parents worked in the intelligence community at fairly high levels. So much so, he says, that while working for the LAPD he discovered that he had a high security clearance, given to him in childhood as a formality because his dad was so frequently involved in secret activity, and never taken back. Ruppert, who had graduated from UCLA with honors and was valedictorian of a police academy class of 1,100, blew the whistle and saw his career crumble and, he says, his life put in jeopardy.

That was the turning point for Ruppert and is the crux of the film. His story holds decent credibility, as he is obviously not insane, he gained nothing and lost everything by his decision to blow the whistle and his story fits in with other accounts of what was happening in LA at the time. If his story is true, it is evidence that he is an honest guy of substantial integrity. Whether it is true or not, this is the point at which Ruppert made the permanent shift from a highly promising young cop, poised to uphold the status quo, to a fringe critic of the same.

Ruppert’s credibility rests largely on that integrity, along with what he describes as a gift for critical thinking. He is not a PhD, but some of his initial, freelance articles were up to the standards of The LA Times. His credentials, though not overwhelming, support the impression he gives of just being a very sharp minded person. His theories and analysis are rarely esoteric, nor totally original, but they are pretty complex and he hits one of the key markers of someone who knows their shit cold, be it Chomsky or Friedman: the ability to explain viewpoints based on complex theories and realities in plain terms. Finally, we see Ruppert break down emotionally at a couple of points, which I think is also critical. No doubt, part of this due to his personal collapse and the long struggle to be heard. But if you listen to the preponderance of nutjobs, and listening to nutjobs is kind of a hobby of mine, you can sense that they don’t really believe what they are saying. They are living fantasies about lizzard people, aliens and Jesus. But their emotional states don’t correspond to their purported beliefs. If you really believe in an impending alien invasion, you don’t spend most of the day watching “Three’s Company” reruns, hit Burger King, then go online and chat about the how the alien invasion has already begun for 45 minutes before a peaceful nights sleep. If you really think your unsaved friends and relatives will literally be tortured forever, why are you less concerned than you would be if you knew one of them was driving drunk? The inconsistencies are due to the fact that all of these people are role playing, but that does not seem to be the case for Ruppert. He believes what he is saying, and has shaped his life around it.

I guess the substance what Ruppert actually believes must be addressed. The essence of the “peak oil” theory is that, given that oil is a finite resource, we will begin to run out of it at some point. Once we pass the peak of oil production, shit will hit the fan. Ruppert points out that we are dependent on oil for far more than fuel. All plastics are made from oil. It takes 7 gallons of oil to make one tire. All industrial fertilizers are derived from fossil fuels. You get the idea. Someday–arguably yesterday–we are going to begin the process of running out of our most important resource (besides precious children, of course). There are strong indications that this is already underway, including the fact that the Saudis, sitting on top of 25% of the world’s oil supply, refuse to make their reserve estimates public, but have begun cost-intensive off-shore drilling. The actions of a nation with a 50-year supply in their cheap, underground wells? Probably not. Logic dictates that if 25% of the world’s oil supply is starting to run out, the world’s oil supply is starting to run out. Solar and wind are the only viable alternatives for energy, according to Ruppert, but even these are not huge net-producers, once you account for all of the energy that goes into getting energy out of them. I looked up “peak oil” on wikipedia, and the counterarguments to the general tenets of the theory seem to amount to “hopefully it’s not as bad as all that.” Or in the words of philosopher king Homer Simpson, “That can’t be true. If it were, I’d be terrified.”

As an armchair economist I can point out something right away. Even if we are ultimately unable to replace oil in our civilization, the breadth of its use should mean a slower decline than Ruppert figures. There is a ton of shit made out of plastic, for example, that doesn’t really have to be. We should see glass coke bottles and metal laundry hampers long before we see food shortages in Los Angeles. As the price of oil based fertilizer goes up it seems likely that some kind of alternatives will emerge. Given that beef production is hugely inefficient in terms of produce in and produce out, for example, as fertilizer prices multiply, beef could become a luxury item and most of us will have to learn to like tofu.

Not that I really know what I’m talking about. More importantly, the film does not succeed or fail with the details of Ruppert’s ideas, though it must be pointed out that there is film of him discussing the impending collapse of the derivatives markets about a year before it happened. But his most interesting points are the generalities. Why should the sudden explosion in human population, which correlates perfectly with our figuring out how to use oil, end any differently than the explosions animals experience when they discover a massive new food source, devour it and then see a population crash? His economic criticisms are essentially Marxist: capitalism is predicated on infinite growth, but nothing grows infinitely. Certainly the hubris of capitalism’s advocates is unjustified. Assuming you actually read and stuff, how many times have you seen someone write off the Marxist prediction because we survived the depression. Well, shit, anything that lasts 150 years and only comes to the brink of total collapse a couple of times is certain to last forever, right? I’d boil down Ruppert’s general point to the observation that a our population is expanding, and our energy use is expanding even per capita, and our economy is becoming evermore about infinite expansion, largely on paper; while our growth and consumption cannot go on forever and contraction will be jarring at best, and more likely catastrophic.

Equally interesting to me, is the general profile of Ruppert I’ve tried to convey. As I said, I love nutjobs, be they authentic wackos like Holocaust-deniers and UFO people or radical philosophers who I might wind up agreeing with. Mostly, this is because it’s much more fun to read a tenured professor seriously proposing a shift to capitalistic, syndo-anarchism, than to read some shills quibble about the public option. Ruppert is so interesting because he seems to cover all of the bases. Bright, articulate and not crazy, but overly invested in his conclusions. He has unusual ideas, but his fundamental world view is not totally divorced from convention. He seems a bit damaged, but not unhinged. The bottom line is that you can watch him talk for about 90 minutes straight without a moment of boredom.



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