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.