Monday, January 23, 2012

Why I Am Not a Survivalist

Over at The Oil Drum today, a reader points us to a Web site that they consider the ultimate in doomer preparation.  In the world of Peak Oil, doomers are those who believe that declining availability of petroleum-based fuels will lead quickly to a catastrophic crash of modern society.  Survivalists are a subset of the doomers who believe that the only way to survive such a crash -- as the starving mobs burn down the cities -- is to be well isolated in the distant countryside, supplied with all the equipment needed to be self-sufficient.  The day I visited this particular site, the headline story was about preparing caches along the line of march that would be followed to reach the author's hideout (worst case, 60 miles uphill across broken country).

Survivalists are not a new phenomenon, although the most-commonly feared disaster that requires fleeing the cities has varied over time.  Starting when I was a lad in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I have read survivalists who believed they would have to flee (in rough chronological order): a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, massive riots by minority groups, a New World Order brought about by the United Nations, and an economic and social crash due to a permanent loss of petroleum supplies.  Through it all, I have declined to be convinced.  Not because the survivalists are necessarily wrong about the burning cities, but because of philosophical disagreements about survivalism as a basic strategy.

My first complaint is that many survivalists approach it as a short-term tactic: stockpiles of canned food, guns, ammunition, toilet paper.  At some point, that all runs out.  Maybe in weeks, maybe in years, but at some point, the stocked supplies from a contemporary civilization are gone.  Absent the civilization, there's no such thing as a resupply, either.  There are also accidents to consider.  A rifle is only one unfortunate drop from a bent barrel, which transforms it from a sophisticated long-distance weapon into a badly-designed club.  If the survivalist's intent is to provide for their own, and their family's, indefinite survival, many of them are stocking the wrong things.

My second complaint is that when you start making a list of the minimal skill set you want to preserve that doesn't depend on current society and technology, it quickly becomes apparent that no individual has the time to practice all of them.  Consider the problem of producing a simple pair of trousers.  Agriculture to grow flax or hemp.  An understanding of the process to separate out the fibers.  Some form of spinning -- and some are quite simple -- to produce thread or yarn.  A loom to weave cloth.  Something to cut the cloth.  Needles to sew the pieces together.  Add other technologies and you add the need for more experts: a carpenter, a blacksmith, a potter.  Pretty quickly, you've moved beyond the individual survivalist to the need for at least a village.  The Indians of the American Great Plains, with very minimalist technology, still lived in villages of several hundred or more people.  Few survivalists seem to be building villages, only isolated strongholds for a tiny group.

My third complaint is the matter of timing one's run for safety.  If one is too slow to go, you get caught in the whatever: nuclear blast, riots, etc.   Few survivalists have made the decision that now is the time to run.  I would argue that if you really believe you will need to run, then it is better to do it sooner rather than later.  If nothing else, it may take years of practice to acquire the necessary skills to live that life, or even to discover that you have overlooked something critical in your stockpiles (how many pounds of salt is enough?).  Since I'm not willing to live that way now, chances seem good that even if I managed to run away at precisely the right time, I wouldn't be particularly good at the necessary skills, nor have time to acquire them.

My final complaint is that survivalists are too pessimistic.  In one sense, their approach to the problem is that there are no other solutions.  With respect to modern tech and energy resources, I don't believe that.  Oh, there's no doubt that parts of the world are going to have disastrously bad outcomes; too many people, too little local energy and other resources.  But things are not distributed uniformly.  I think that most of Africa is a lost cause, as soon as long-distance shipping of bulk grain disappears.  I think that Bangladesh is probably even worse.  Closer to home, I suspect that in the US, the BosWash corridor is going to have a fairly tough time, but hold out considerable hope for the western US from the Rocky Mountain States to the Pacific (well, ignoring Las Vegas).  That region, with large renewable resources relative to its population and energy demands, has a chance to maintain an electrified high-tech civilization.  Not "business as usual", but recognizable.


  1. Dear Mr. Cain,

    I agree with you, I am not a survivalist either. I think middle aged men running around in fatigues, drinking beer and playing paint ball does nothing to prepare for hard times and really doesn't qualify as a sport. If it was a real sport it would have bleachers, cheerleaders in skimpy outfits, referees and best of all a marching band.

    But I will say one thing, I have seen countries collapse, jumped out of a helicopter 43 times and was wounded twice in countries we denied being in. My family has received 4 notices that I was dead, the last was about 5 years ago. But I'm still alive.

    I am definitely not a pessimist because if I was I wouldn't have bothered coming home from Vietnam. There is always hope and if you have hope you can instill hope in others when all they see is how rotten the world is, the system is, corruption on Wall Street and blah blah blah, thanks to mainstream media.

    If we can't hope to make the world a better place, why survive? I know most people abhor my lifestyle. I have electricity but no bills, I have water and septic system, but no bills and I have no mortgage. All the wonderful things that build great societies, bills. Don't forget junk mail. I think research will find Nero didn't fiddle while Rome burned, it caught fire when he burned all his junk mail, but that is just a guess.

    No, survivalism is like any other -ism, it is long on promises and short on delivery. I believe in lifestyle changes. Is it survivalism to carry a spare tire? Is it survival to carry a cell phone in case of an emergency? God forbid it is survivalism to plant your crops and grow your own food with out tons of pesticides that are used in countries outside of the US EPA jurisdiction, so you can feed yourself and your family a healthy meal. And why would you do those things if you were a pessimist anyway?

    Kids will get sick, or die in a car accident so why worry about their health. If you grow your own food you might put someone else out of a job. No. It is because we have hope that we engage in these things. I think those with no hope are those that think the government operates in their best interest and rely on politicians who make millions on insider trading for their salvation instead of relying on their own wits and strengths, no matter how meager those may be.

    No, I am not a survivalist but I am a survivor and I will continue survive until the end of my days, which could be tomorrow.

    I hope, yes, I said hope, that all is wonderful and safe in your world and you never, ever have to survive. God bless you and yours and your readers, too.

    Cyrus D. Harding a.k.a Country Codger

  2. owned!

    stocked food may be enough to supplement an insufficient aid ration at a bread line, or supplement your own hunting and farming, or aid a transition to it.

    pairs of pants? generally last ten years, most people have too many clothes, so would have enough for a lifetime, and then there would be plenty of people not needing theirs anymore. "survivalists" are not setting out naked.

    potters and all associated trades in a community, similar. pots last for many years and people who have no food to cook will not neeed theirs.

    and preparedness involves preparation. practicing and learning now how to grow vegetables eg successfully while there are still plenty at supermarkets.

    I have never bent a barrell of a rifle. pistols are too short to bend barrels. Those who know firearms know that dropping a loaded weapon especially on its butt, causes it to discharge.

    observe the behavior of a mob for eg in a busy city traffic jam, everyone trying to meet their need or objective, get to where they are going. see the lack of courtesy and honking and cutting each other off, blocking, swearing etc. and that is in a situation where the only consequence is you will be late. How do you think it would be when/if people were truly desperate. How much more if the police were not likely to turn up to or follow up any incident you can report.

    an incident such as layabout larry and shifty sammy from down the street coming through your window to raid your pantry because bread is $100 a loaf and you seem like a soft target to the predatory.

  3. Thank you for your post about survivalism. Many websites mentioning survivalism have been making me miserable for the last four months. Also, those who mention surviving the collapse of a nation have no idea what they are dealing with.

    Don't the survivalists realize that we need to DO SOMETHING to preserve, maintain, protect, and restore society in times of crisis? That is called sustainability. It ensures a much higher chance of survival than simply running away from the problem.

    You should read this article about sustainability too:

  4. Also, communities ought to help themselves; one way being to generate their own power:

  5. I believe it's inevitable that we are headed into a "power down". One way or the other, the brilliant, burning fossil fuel age is going to flame out. I think our best strategy is to work collectively for a soft landing and transition to a new energy economy... that's the best case scenario that involves the lowest amount of panicked instability.

    But I also believe it's prudent to begin preparing now for huge change. I have moved out of a large Canadian city. I am developing a large garden. But most importantly, I am building community, people with whom I can can share my gifts and receive assistance. Guns will not protect you. Living in community is your best route to successful living in the coming decades.