Survivalism is the making of preparations for an expected long-term or complete breakdown of society or its infrastructure - also known as The End Of The World as We Know It (TEOTWAWKI).
It may involve the hoarding of guns, food, and other supplies, the construction of fallout shelters or other shelters specific to whatever apocalypse they are expecting (there is actually one group building - get this - an ark), the purchase of isolated rural property to retreat to during the crisis, hoarding some sort of barter currency in expectation of the complete collapse of the value of paper money (silver and gold are common bulwarks here, because of course everybody else will be willing to trade food and ammo for shiny metal), and either learning how to survive without electricity or building "off the grid" power supplies (particularly those based around renewable energy sources that won't run out of fuel) in expectation of the world, or at least their region, being without centralized power generation for the indefinite future.
 What survivalism is, and what it is not
General preparedness, learning first aid and CPR, learning survival skills in case one is stranded in the wilderness, and keeping in one's house emergency food and water supplies (typically about three days' worth), emergency lighting and cooking gear, a first aid kit, etc. are all recommended by most government agencies and groups like the Red Cross, even though most people don't make these preparations as well as they should.
What distinguishes survivalism from emergency survival preparedness is that survivalists expect a long-term or permanent breakdown in society's infrastructure, whereas being prepared for floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, power outages, earthquakes, being stranded somewhere, etc. necessarily implies the emergency situation will be temporary.
For example, in case of being stranded, "survival" means finding just enough food, shelter, and water to keep oneself alive until one is found or reaches help, and signaling with the intent of being rescued. This implies society's infrastructure is still alive and well, and defines survival as keeping alive so as to return to society, not abandon it.
This is a very different sense than that used by survivalists, who see themselves surviving apart from society or what's left of it. They don't want to be rescued in the event of an emergency; some of them make preparations to defend their "retreat" against all threatening intruders such as FEMA, the Red Cross, or the local volunteer fire department. Hence, survivalists are usually rugged individualists, and are largely concerned with their own survival above that of others.
The popular stereotype is that survivalists wear camo 24/7, live in bunkers and cabins deep in the woods and/or mountains, have stockpiles of automatic weapons and military-grade explosives, and have copies of Mein Kampf, The Turner Diaries and the works of Matthew Bracken et al. on their bookshelves, so one might be forgiven for believing survivalism had its origins in the militia movement (or vice versa), or among disgruntled former members of the American Nazi Party. Another popular belief is it had its origins in government civil defense programs of 1950s vintage, such as the infamous Duck and Cover.
One would be wrong on both counts. It actually had much more nerdy and wonkish origins going back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Part of it was hippies motivated by communal, environmental or "back-to-the-land" concerns, but most of it came from libertarian gold bugs grouped around such newsletters as the Innovator and the Inflation Survival Letter. Many of the early leading lights of the movement were financial advisers and coin entrepreneurs advising people to store food and precious metals in expectation of economic collapse, and many of them were followers or graduates of the lectures of Andrew J. Galambos according to Brian Doherty's rip-roaring history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism.
The racist-paramilitary reputation of survivalism, however, is not without good reason. The reason for it can probably be traced to a different group of (you guessed it) disgruntled former members of the American Nazi Party who latched onto the movement. The most notable of these guys is Kurt Saxon, author of The Poor Man's James Bond, who had also drifted in and out of the Church of Scientology, the John Birch Society, the Church of Satan, and the Minutemen among other groups. He claims to have coined the term "survivalism" circa 1975. Whether there is any truth to this is uncertain.
A third impetus came about with the directive by the LDS Church for its members to store a year's supply of food in their homes, as well as to purchase seeds and gardening tools and learn how to preserve food. With proto-survivalism being official Mormon doctrine, the heavily Mormon-populated "Jell-O Belt" of Utah, southern Idaho, northern Arizona and eastern Nevada developed a thriving cottage industry of businesses selling freeze-dried food, home canning equipment and other survival gear.
 The end is near!
Since they expect a total breakdown in society, and expecting such a total breakdown from the usual floods, fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes is unrealistic at best, survivalists' apocalyptic visions come from other sources. Many of them are complete woo:
There are really only a few events that could conceivably occur and conceivably result in long-term breakdown of the infrastructure (which excludes more ho-hum run of the mill emergencies) and the probability of some of these events occurring is quite small:
- A sufficiently large solar flare/geomagnetic storm, which can knock out power for months or years. The most notable recent example would be the flare that blacked out Quebec in 1989.
- A global pandemic or widespread disease outbreak
- A nuclear war. While this threat has faded considerably in most of the Western world since 1989, it is still ever-present in India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed states which have been to war with one another four times in less than seventy years, and which have chilly (at best) relations and a major border dispute in Kashmir. Nations close to North Korea (particularly Japan and South Korea) also worry about this, though given North Korea's ineptitude at building the means to deliver their bombs, they have a bit less to worry about.
- An asteroid impact
- Economic collapse. Pertinent examples would include the Great Depression, the post-communist economic crisis in Russia and the former Eastern Bloc, and the 2001-02 economic crisis in Argentina.
- A widespread, protracted civil war(s), such as that seen in the former Yugoslavia.
- Repressive government and/or genocide
- Military invasion by a foreign country. This one is chiefly an issue in the developing world (see: the Russian invasion of Georgia), as most First World countries have renounced warfare (against each other, at least) and their less-developed neighbors are too militarily impotent to seriously threaten them.
- Collapse of government (resulting in conditions of anarchy)
- A supervolcano eruption
As for the rest:
- The more pessimistic predictions of global warming and peak oil, particularly the "Long Emergency" scenario for the latter. While many developing countries, especially in low-lying and/or tropical areas, will be screwed over due to their limited access to both scarce resources and the means to adapt to a changing climate, the ability of the developed world to adapt through technological means and energy efficiency has been debated for years, and a solid case can be made both for and against. In addition, there's the not-insignificant chance that the worst-case peak oil and global warming scenarios may be mutually exclusive — the effects of peak oil may force a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which can in turn reduce the effects of global warming, and most plans to stall, mitigate or adapt to climate change would reduce consumption of fossil fuels and, with it, the effects of their shortage.
- Y2K was disputed before January 1, 2000, and turned out to be a bunch of people making mountains out of molehills.
- "Earth changes"
- The "Great Tribulation" prophesied in some interpretations of the Bible. Christians will have to live off the grid for three to seven years so they don't have to take the Mark of the Beast, 666, on their foreheads/wrists!
- God hates (fill in the blank) and is about to do for the U.S. what He did for Sodom and Gomorrah
- The 2012 apocalypse is coming; this one was firmly discredited on the morning of December 22, 2012
- A race war is coming because whites are being out-bred by those of inferior genetic stock (read: minorities)
- The UN's black helicopters occupying America to enforce the New World Order
- The Commies are coming and a small remnant must be ready to take to the hills and wage guerrilla warfare. WOLVERINES!
- Fluoride in our water (or mind control rays, or the Russian Woodpecker, or whatever) makes people stupid and will do the same for the U.S. as lead in the water pipes did for Rome
- Another great flood
- The zombie apocalypse, though this one is admittedly more of a spoof or a thought experiment (usually). Some survivalists and preparedness groups (such as the Zombie Squad), while not seriously believing in zombies, use a hypothetical zombocalypse as a benchmark for survival, the theory being that, if you can survive zombies, you can survive anything. Even some quite serious organizations use a zombie apocalypse as a model for various disasters – the Center for Disease Control, for example, uses it to model the outbreak of a pandemic disease.
 Not woo, just juvenile
- Grown-up little kids for whom "survivalism" is merely an excuse to run around in the woods in camo and read magazines about mercenaries
- Some survivalists have a grudge against society and want it to collapse, whether or not they actually believe it will (see: Unabomber). These people are known as "collapsitarians", anticipating that the collapse of the status quo will lead to the ascendancy of their preferred system (libertarianism, theocracy, primitivism, neo-Nazism, and various flavors of anarchism are all popular), and that they will naturally be a part of the new 1% rather than the teeming, impoverished masses.
 Politics and religion
Ironically, many survivalists claim to be practitioners of Christianity, a religion originally built on the willingness of converts to accept personal extinction in a process known as martyrdom. It also includes some New Agers, who believe in the end of the world because
J.Z. Knight Ramtha said so, or "earth changes" are coming soon, or the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, or other woo. It has also attracted some white supremacist types who think society will inevitably break down what with all the minorities unless we institute a national eugenics program ASAP.
Survivalists are not necessarily on the political hard right. While right-wingers have predominated, there are survivalists with views across the spectrum, with some completely apolitical, and a left-wing survivalist movement mostly associated with the aforementioned New Agers and the 1970s "back to the land" movement. This contingent, moribund since about 1981, has made a comeback recently, largely motivated by extreme interpretations of the potential effects of peak oil and global warming (we have the books of James Howard Kunstler to thank for this), and by William Strauss and Neil Howe's prediction of an imminent crisis period lasting 20 years. Because of this, the usual rightie-dominated survivalist forums are starting to complain about all the lefties who have been showing up of late. However, extreme-right interest in survivalism also appears to be at a high point right now, for various reasons (the War on Terror, predictions that the culture war will expand into an actual shootin' war, that big bad Islamic threat, Barack Obama is the antichrist, the New World Order is coming, etc.)
Typically, survivalism grows and ebbs over the years, and holds some attraction for mainstream people during times when a (realistic, not woo-based) potential major crisis gets a lot of media attention: economic collapse in the 1970s, global thermonuclear warfare in the early-mid 1980s, Y2K in the late 1990s, and economic collapse (again) and, as mentioned, climate change and peak oil in the present day. Each time, the mainstream folks inevitably lose interest within a year or two, leaving a core of true believers expecting one or another sort of woo. The wild-eyed apocalyptic woo-meisters and assorted right-wing extremists tend to positively repel normal folks, and normal folks usually also quickly figure out there is a difference between preparedness for emergencies and survivalism, and opt for the former. As of this writing, woo-based survivalism seems to be more prevalent than ever.
 The "American Redoubt"
The "American Redoubt" in the inland northwestern US is a concept that perfectly illustrates the right-wing undercurrent underlying much of the modern survivalist movement. Broadly defined, the Redoubt consists of the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana (particularly the western half of the state), and the areas of Washington state and Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains (away from those filthy tree-huggers, hipsters, and commies in Seattle and Portland).
The idea of the Redoubt was developed by James Wesley Rawles, owner of the popular one-stop survivalist website SurvivalBlog, as a haven for survivalists and conservatives to relocate to on the basis of its being perceived as the exemplar of "true American" values, a place where small towns, farmers, the working class, and churches dominate political and cultural life. Furthermore, the region's mountainous terrain makes it prime territory for guerrilla warfare against an invading army — he explicitly disqualified North and South Dakota and eastern Montana from being part of the Redoubt, despite their similar values, on the basis of their open plains being "tanker country".
It was likely for this reason that the people behind The Citadel have chosen northern Idaho as the site of their planned community for "true Americans".
Coincidentally, the northwestern US was also chosen by white nationalists in the '80s as a place to relocate to in order to turn it into a white/Aryan "homeland" on the grounds of the area being overwhelmingly white. Rawles and other Redoubt supporters insist that they're not racist, though; in fact, Rawles explicitly speaks of Orthodox Jews (and, of course, Messianic Jews) as being in line with his moralistic Christian ideals, and calls on them to move to the Redoubt as well.
 Survivalism vs. emergency preparedness
Thanks to disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there has been a sharp resurgence in reality-based emergency preparedness. Many of those involved have begun using the term preppers to describe themselves, possibly to distance themselves from the political and religious extremism that survivalism has come to be associated with. Promoting reality-based preparedness for emergencies has been part of FEMA's official policy for a while. September is National Preparedness Month. Make a plan — get a kit — be informed. Keep a first aid kit in your home and in you car, and learn how to perform basic first aid. Learn how to boil water and cook food without electricity, and keep a few days' worth of water and non-perishable food for each member of your household, so that you don't get caught off-guard and forced to spend extra money eating at restaurants if the power goes out for several days (such as after a major storm) or the water main springs a leak and gets contaminated. Learn how to change a tire so that you don't have to spend extra money to have your car towed in the event of a flat — cars come with spares, jacks and tire irons for a reason.
 Survivalism in practice
Ironically, the sort of long-term breakdown survivalists expect has happened in recent years — in Somalia, a country where few people had the means to make the sort of elaborate preparations survivalists make. Survivalism is a game for the idle rich in search of self-actualization; those who actually have to concern themselves with day to day survival can't afford it. The big irony here is if the breakdown survivalists are expecting actually comes, they (like everyone else) will suddenly be dirt poor and forced to adopt the lifestyles of remote third world villages in order to survive. Cooperative living will be a necessity, and a stance of rugged individualism (in this case, a euphemism for being willing to knife someone in the back for a carton of powdered milk) will be a one-way ticket to starvation.
In addition, even with the collapse of the central government, many places still see some form of order — the northern states of Somaliland and Puntland have, for all intents and purposes, restored government in their areas and are de facto independent, functioning nations, while in the rest of the country an assortment of warlords, pirates and Islamists hold power.
One survivalist, Fernando "Ferfal" Aguirre, runs a blog called "Surviving in Argentina" dedicated to his experiences with having lived in a developed country where a large-scale economic and societal collapse actually happened — Argentina, during that country's economic crisis in 2001-02 after the nation defaulted on its debt. His observations pointedly contradict many of the assumptions made by American survivalists:
- The logic of "bugging out" to a distant rural area to escape the chaos in the cities did not hold up in practice, as major cities like Buenos Aires and Cordoba were often the first places to see order and services restored. By contrast, rural survivalist compounds often found themselves outgunned and outnumbered by criminal gangs with nobody to help them for miles. Many such compounds were later discovered by the authorities looted and abandoned, sometimes with their would-be survivalist owners murdered.
- Government collapse is always temporary. By 2003, the crisis was over and Argentina's economy was booming again, partly as a result of the economic corrections triggered by the crisis.
- Even at the height of the collapse, collective effort was often the most conductive way for many working-class and former middle-class Argentineans to make a living, as demonstrated by the proliferation of worker-owned cooperatives.
- The rich, rather than being thrown from their lofty perch, got richer during and after the collapse — income inequality rose between 2001 and 2005, and at the height of the collapse the upper classes managed to defend their wealth by hiring armed private security.
- Likewise, the decadent pop culture and lifestyles that should have been swept away (according to American survivalists) were only reinforced. To give just one example, Argentinean TV studios and networks, reeling from the economic collapse, cut costs in any way they could and went for the cheapest programming they could find. Yup — the economic meltdown led to an explosive boom in trashy reality TV, and a similarly sharp decline in educational programming.
In short, total anarchy and a return to rural subsistence living failed to materialize even in the midst of a worst-case economic meltdown scenario.
The experiences of Somalia and Argentina together demonstrate many of the fallacies, shaky logic and biases surrounding the thinking of many survivalists, especially those on the right wing of the political spectrum. The prevailing stance of many survivalists is one of rugged individualism, an idealized vision of life in which a man can make it by the sweat of his brow without having to rely on anybody else. In reality, such a stance would get one killed as those who engage in collective effort, be they gangs, warlords or new city-states, out-compete them and eventually drive them out. Philosophical arguments about "common law" will matter to the armed men at your doorstep about as much as arguments about Roman law did in the Dark Ages. Even in the Wild West, it was never the lone cowboy that drove back crime, it was the new settlements collectively organizing for law enforcement and the other infrastructure of society.
Furthermore, many survivalists also assume that a return to rural and small-town living will be the "natural" result of the collapse, with cities descending into total chaos while the countryside weathers the storm. To be fair, this idea emerged in a time when the threat of nuclear war (in which cities would be targeted for destruction) was very real, but it is just as present in predictions of economic meltdown and other disasters. What they fail to account for is that the collapse of law and order will happen everywhere, including in their rural retreats, as trade and transportation break down and their Wal-Marts and country stores stop getting shipments of food. With the end of the Cold War and the threat of World War III, it becomes clear that this idea is rooted more in a bias towards, and an assumption of the superiority of, rural living vs. urban living than in any realistic assessment of a collapse.
 In fiction
Science fiction author David Brin's post-apocalyptic novel The Postman has, as one of its central themes, the way that survivalism siphons off resources needed to keep society running. Sadly, it's best known now for how self-career-imploding Hollywood hack Kevin Costner turned it into one of the least comprehensible movies ever.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's book Lucifer's Hammer is also a post-apocalyptic novel with a more positive view of survivalism than Brin's work. (However, it is also viciously misogynistic, crowing about the death of feminism in one passage.)
Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse is a "novel" written by James Wesley Rawles (the same guy behind the American Redoubt and SurvivalBlog). In all actuality, it is a survivalist manual using a novel as a framing device, meant to present Rawles' ideas about survival and politics in an easily digestible literary form. The plot is a fairly standard right-wing/libertarian potboiler — in the event of economic meltdown, a group of people from Chicago "bug out" to northern Idaho and later lead a guerrilla war against a tyrannical "Provisional Government" backed by Europe and the UN. It's not particularly well-written on the literary front; even its fans seem to appreciate it more for its message and its survival tips than for the actual story. Notably, when Rawles wrote a sequel that focused more on the story, entitled Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse, even many of his fans thought it sucked.
The CBS TV series Jericho is perhaps one of the more notable depictions of survivalism on the small screen. Lasting about two seasons, it followed the residents of the town of Jericho in western Kansas after terrorists stage a massive nuclear attack against dozens of American cities. Made back when Lost was spawning a huge boom in sci-fi/mystery television, it was as much a conspiracy thriller as anything else, revealing that a Halliburton-esque corporation orchestrated the attacks and blamed them on Iran and North Korea in order to take over America and turn it into a corporate-run dictatorship, like an anti-military-industrial complex version of the usual right-wing, anti-UN conspiracy theories. The second season ended with a Second American Civil War about to begin, just in time for the show to be canceled. Outside of its fandom, it's best known for the campaign by its fans to save it from cancellation at the end of season one, which involved sending bags of nuts to CBS headquarters. Don't ask.
A much longer list of depictions of survivalists and survivalism in general can be found on TV Tropes. The fact that their "trope" for survivalism in pop culture is called "Crazy Survivalist" speaks volumes.
 See also
- Militia movement - a distinct but sometimes overlapping group
- Duck and Cover - survivalism as taught in 1950s elementary schools
- Whacker - another sometimes overlapping group
- Survival seed bank
- Useless eaters
- Frugal Squirrels
- Zombie Squad
- Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends - Survivalists
- International Survival and Homesteading Forum Community - everything related to preparedness, from survival to homesteading.
- Off The Grid News — an example of the right-wing, Christian variant
- SurvivalBlog — James Wesley Rawles' website
- Mother Earth News — an example of the left-wing, environmentalist variant
- One year of emergency food by Robery Wayne Atkins.
- ↑ They're in western Maryland, which is not to be confused with the rest of Maryland -- western Maryland is mountainous, isolated, tends to get snowed in in the winter, and is more like West Virginia and south central Pennsylvania than the likes of Baltimore -- and yes they are building an ark, right next to Interstate 68 where I'm sure they will be safe from God's next big flood although all the sheeple fleeing Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. on same Interstate 68 when TSHTF may be a problem for them.
- ↑ "Food Storage: Why, What, and How." About.com, Latter Day Saints.
- ↑ "Food Storage." Mormon Wiki.
- ↑ See the Wikipedia article on March 1989 geomagnetic storm.
- ↑ While the Y2K "bug" was a very real issue, it would not have destroyed society, but just made some financial transactions screw up until they could be fixed. It did, however, provide full employment for a while for COBOL programmers who forgot about centuries changing. It is well known that the world will in fact end in January 2038, when 32 bit Unix timestamps overflow, given that God runs Unix.
- ↑ The Russian Woodpecker[wp] was the name given by shortwave listeners and ham radio operators to the Soviet Union's top secret Duga-3 missile radar installation; the name came from the sound of the signal in an AM shortwave radio, which resembled a high-speed tapping. It powered up in the mid-70s and went off-line in 1989 for reasons still not publicly known in the West.
- ↑ Zombie Squad
- ↑ http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm
- ↑ Virginia Heffernan, "Apocalypse Ciao: Let the End Times Roll." Mother Jones, July/August 2009.
- ↑ http://www.teachingaboutreligion.org/Demographics/map_demographics.htm
- ↑ wp:American Redoubt
- ↑ Rawles' call to move to the mountains.
- ↑ Or, as he calls himself, James Wesley, Rawles. Yeah, that's the kind of guy we're dealing with here.
- ↑ See the Wikipedia article on Northwest Territorial Imperative.
- ↑ Somaliland has made it formal and declared independence from Somalia, though it is not officially recognized as such by any foreign governments or by the United Nations.
- ↑ Surviving in Argentina
- ↑ Specifically, the devaluation and inflation of the Argentinean peso caused a manufacturing boom as foreign companies took advantage of very friendly exchange rates.
- ↑ If you must, it's a reference to a scene in the first season finale where the main characters are cornered by a rival militia from a neighboring town. When asked to surrender, one of the characters quotes General Anthony McAuliffe at the Battle of the Bulge, who replied "nuts!" to the Nazis' call for him to surrender when they had him surrounded.
- ↑ TV Tropes: Crazy Survivalist