Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wastrel Empires

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

To foreigners visiting Russia for the first time, I usually recommend making a stopover in Amsterdam. Holland, I explain to them, was Peter the Great's model for modern Russia. True, the attempt to turn his subjects into the Dutch was one of the emperor's least successful undertakings. Except for the garbled tricolor, which he adopted for his Navy and which eventually became Russia's national flag, the two countries couldn't be more different. But contrasts can be enlightening.

The Dutch are fond of saying that while God created the Earth, the Dutch created Holland -- by winning land painstakingly from the sea. Holland is small, tidy and rational. To save money, the thrifty Dutch sometimes separate two-ply paper napkins.

And then there is Russia: enormous, slovenly, abundant in every kind of resource -- natural as well as human -- and mind-bogglingly wasteful. The Soviet economy was especially spendthrift. Someone once described it as a vicious circle: mining iron ore and coal to make machines to mine more iron ore and coal. Add to this the systematic state-sponsored imprisonment, execution, harassment and exile of millions of highly educated, talented and productive people, and you get a clear picture of what a missed opportunity the 20th century in Russia really was.

The Soviet Union finally collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiency, but profligate habits plague the new Russia, as well. We are now witnessing another determined effort to waste a good opportunity. While the country has been enjoying a fabulous windfall from record oil prices, the Putin government has been systematically dismantling the economic and political underpinnings that had made this unprecedented run of prosperity possible.

Small wonder Russians have been so susceptible to conspiracy theories and so quick to blame sinister forces bent on destroying them. Actually, you almost need a supernatural explanation to figure out how such a rich country has contrived to stay so poor.

It is ironic that the problem Russia has succumbed to in the post-Soviet era --heavy dependence on commodity exports and decimation of the industrial base -- is known as the Dutch disease. But the Dutch, after staying dependent on natural gas exports in the early 1970s long enough to give the disease its name, have been completely cured and now once more enjoy a flourishing, resilient, diversified economy.

If it is any consolation, profligacy seems to be a trait shared by all big empires. Take the United States, for example. It started out as a relatively small country -- also partly descended from the Dutch -- and for a very long time it remained a tightfisted, straight-laced nation. Pre-World War II bank facades across America preserve chiseled praises to thrift and quotes from Ben Franklin encouraging citizens to save their pennies.

But since becoming a great power, the United States, too, has succumbed to wasteful habits. Of course, Americans exploit their resources very efficiently -- at least, they manage to pump oil out of the ground without creating those huge aboveground lakes of crude that exist in Russia's oil-producing regions. Nevertheless, all that efficiency goes by the wayside because it is put to the service of nonstop, wasteful consumption. Americans seem oblivious of the old adage that the path to happiness lies in taming one's desires, not in trying to satisfy them. They drive Hummers, devour far more calories than they need and save far less than people in other rich nations. The United States runs trade deficits measuring $800 billion per year and borrows to keep its shopping spree going.

China and India, which are currently billed as the great powers of the future, are likely to be equally wasteful. Their great resource is their people. With over 1 billion inhabitants each, these two countries account for nearly 40 percent of the world's population. Their societies understandably find it hard to create a tidy, rational and meaningful existence for each and every one of their huddled masses.

Incidentally, for much of its history, the Russian Empire was also known for its boundless human resources, which it readily deployed in wars and large-scale social experiments with callous disregard for losses. But that was before the policies of its rulers and the tragic cataclysms of the 20th century created a full-fledged demographic crisis.

While large, resource-rich nations have dominated the world over the past half century, it is rather an aberration of history than a rule. Indeed, Europe gave rise to the world's most successful civilization even though it was the smallest, coldest and the least hospitable of all the inhabited continents.

Moreover, within Europe, dominant states were rarely the largest or the richest in resources. Rome, Venice and England come to mind -- and, of course, the Netherlands. All built far-flung empires and defeated much bigger rivals not by exploiting their abundant resources -- which they didn't possess -- but by skillfully managing what little there was at hand.

On the other hand, nations that suddenly came into possession of enormous wealth -- such as Spain after the discovery of America -- tended to squander it promptly and to suffer a terminal decline. Russia's demographic crisis is living proof of what environmentalists have long been warning about: namely, that poor management and wasteful exploitation leads to the depletion of even very plentiful supplies.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the world is currently using about 20 percent per year more natural resources than the planet can replenish on its own. By the middle of the 21st century, when the world's population increases by another 50 percent, we will be consuming twice as much as the planet can supply. To use just one example, when China matches the per capita oil consumption of the United States, it will single-handedly use up the entire 80 million barrels per day that the world currently produces.

The world of tomorrow, it seems, calls for parsimony and the wise husbanding of dwindling resources. Western Europe is waking up to this reality a lot sooner than the rest of the world. The northern European landscape has been transformed over the past decade by futuristic windmills producing electricity by harnessing wind power. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans commute to work by bicycle, using safe, ubiquitous bike paths. Little of this can be found in the United States -- to say nothing of Russia.

Over the past two decades, some American conservatives have been writing damning books about their West European allies, deriding the Old World as a spent force. Recently, some European commentators have shaken off euro-malaise and have started to defend Europe's way of life. In fact, in an overcrowded, resource-stretched world, Europe's concern with wise management may yet win the day over open-ended consumption -- unless, of course, the world's wastrel empires succeed in mismanaging us all off the face of the Earth.

Alexei Bayer is a regular contributor to Vedomosti. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.