On Survivalism

This post was originally published in December 2010. A comment thread at Zenpundit’s place has inspired me to resurrect it.

I recently read a book by survivalist blogger James Wesley Rawles, How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. This reading has prompted a few thoughts on the aims and validity of the survivalist movement that may be of interest to readers of the Stage.

The raison d’etre of survivalism is a subject much discussed on this blog: the proper balance between between resilience and efficiency. Robustness and facility are two virtues fundamentally at odds, and all complex systems, be they organisms, economies, or militaries, are subject to the trade off between them. While the relation between specialization and efficiency was noted by both Xenophon and Ibn Khaldun centuries earlier, widespread acceptance of the “drag” redundancy places on a system’s productivity did not come until publication of Adam Smith‘s The Wealth of Nations. Mr.Smith uses the example of a pin factory to teach the general principle:

…the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations….. The division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour.

Book I, Chapter 1, “Of the Division of Labour” 

Mr. Smith does not present the primary drawback of this arrangement. With efficiency comes fragility. Ten men working by their lonesome produce a paltry number of pins, but the faults of one man do not destroy the efforts of another.  In contrast, if something happens to one of the ten factory men and; his equipment, no pins get made and the factory must shut down. One bad cog puts a stop to the entire machine.

For the survivalist this is a problem pervading not only the pin factories, but all of modern society. Over the last century two trends have decidedly shifted society’s balance away from robustness and towards efficiency. Modern dependence on technology and the specialized knowledge needed to maintain it is the first of these trends; the second is the fusion of local communities with the global economy and larger political units. The day is past where a man is expected to know how to repair all that is on his property, grow his own food, or make and use his own fuel. In some cases this is simply the fruits of geographic isolation and economic specialization – the knowledge needed to raise livestock and plant crops is quite useless to the city dweller. Other cases reflect the ‘division of knowledge’ that inevitably comes with man’s growing understanding of and ability to manipulate the universe in which he dwells (e.g. few Americans know how to build a hard drive, much less a nuclear power plant). The rise of multinational conglomerates and global supply networks ensure that most of what we need is made far away; the eclipse of local civic and political institutions by national agencies erodes our communities’ capacity to solve problems without outside help. What we are left with is a culture of dependency, so ingrained as to be seen in our aesthetics. Explains Matthew Crawford in his excellent essay, “Shop Class as Soulcraft“:

At the same time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer. 

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

Those concerned with the passivity of the American citizenry in the face of curtailed liberties and constant government encroachment ought to give this matter a moment’s thought. A people well accustomed to dependency lose little sleep over lost independence.

 Survivalists, however, are less concerned with the cause of servility as they are with its consequence. What happens to society when we can no longer can rely on the institutions, services, and technologies upon which our survival is so utterly dependent? Survivalists have imagined up a great many scenarios where just such a thing may happen. These scenarios can be grouped into three broad categories:
  1. A major but unpredictable disaster of short duration and limited geographic range (ex: large scale terrorist attack, earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, icy storms, or another natural disaster)
  2. An extreme (but not sudden) and long term economic depression (ex: extreme hyperinflation, an extreme deflationary depression, peak oil, food crisis, possibly political collapse)
  3. A disaster which is national in scale and whose effects will be felt for decades (ex: nuclear or civil war, EMP attack, political collapse, an epidemic reminiscent of the black plague)

Of the three, the only scenario we can be sure will occur is the first. This type of disaster should be accepted as an unalterable facet of life. No generation has lived without suffering them; no place on Earth has been left unscathed by them. We know such disasters will strike sometime in the future, but beyond simplistic probabilities we can not accurately predict when or where they will occur. Given the nature of these events, the prudent course for all Americans is to be prepared for whatever type-1 disasters are incident to their location.

I am certain that a disaster of a second type will occur in America sometime over the next thirty years. This is a political judgement on my part; those who do not share my politics may come to a different conclusion. Each reader will have to decide whose predictions are worth the trusting. In any case, I do not fancy being caught unprepared in the event my prediction becomes a reality.

Of course, that can be said for most disaster scenarios, no matter how outlandish they may be. That is the difficulty with type-3 disasters: the probability of their occurrence does not square with the measures that must be taken to truly prepare for them. The cost of these preparatory measures (such as relocating one’s family far away from urban centers, as Mr. Rawl’s advises) is very high – too high to recommend their adoption. If moving to a backwoods Idaho cabin is the only sure-fire way to survive a nuclear war, I would rather live my life as I will and meet, if it comes, my fiery death with a grin. I assume that I am not the only to share this view. Moreover, if preparations are made for type-1 and type-2 disasters, those of the third type will be much easier to survive. The extreme measures advocated by many survivalists are simply not necessary.

I say this not because I find fault with the preparation ethic of the survivalists, but because I find fault with what the survivalists prepare for. Survivalist literature is dominated by images of chaos and disorder, social disintegration à la Mad Max, full of riots, robbers, bandits, and desperate men willing to do anything – and kill anyone – to survive. This vision of bellum omnium contra omnes in the suburbs of America betrays a profound unfamiliarity with disaster psychology and sociology. The literature on this topic is extensive (this, this, and this are a few good introductory articles; this and this are popular books on the subject) and it lends no support to the notion that disasters produce panic stricken mobs or roving bandits prone to avarice and violence. It is the opposite that occurs: those who survive sudden disasters respond to their plight not with riots and terror, but with spontaneous acts of altruism and amazing feats of self-organization. Remember the 11th of September, when more than 500,000 denizens of Manhattan Island were evacuated by boat, bridge, and ferry without any centralized planning or direction. Consider the state of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina raged,  levies broke, and hundreds of thousands of  people fled the region for safer climes. The Hurricane and its aftermath are widely seen as an unparalleled disaster. The centralized response to the Hurricane was just that; everything from the army-built levees to FEMA’s delayed relief efforts were marked by failure and mismanagement. The same cannot be of the said of the main populace’s uncoordinated response to the disaster. Though millions of people were evacuating the region and police forces temporarily lost control of New Orleans and its immediate environs, crime levels in New Orleans were no higher than normal. Reports of looting and violence were creations of an easily excited media machine, bearing no resemblance to reality.

This suggests that, contrary to the expectations of most survivalists, the greatest danger will not come from the other disaster survivors, but from outside elites trying to reassert authority over a disaster ravaged area. These elites are susceptible to what has been called the “Myth of Panic“: being the largest beneficiaries of the traditional order, they cannot see anything but chaos, violence, and carnage in its absence. The government response to Hurricane Katrina is a testament to the perilous effects of such misperception. Fear of violence and crime led to the misallocation of relief resources, and in a few shocking cases, refusal to offer relief at all. Eager to restore “peace and order”, government officials stripped Louisianans of their rights, confiscating all weapons in the city of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina is small fare compared to most of the scenarios survivalists prepare for; in the event that such a disaster occurs, we cannot expect the authorities’ scramble for control to pose any less of a danger to the lives and liberties of disaster survivors.

Spontaneous self-organization and elite panic are the products of sudden disaster. If America falls with whimper in place of bang then a fraying of the social fabric should be expected. This alone is not enough to give credence to the apocalyptic visions of survivalist literature. Post-war Germany, Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and hyper-inflationary Argentina provide a historical precedent for future  type-2 disasters. All horrible to live through, but none were Apocalypse.

While we do not need to prepare for “the end of the world,” some preparation is prudent. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • If the water in my pipes stops flowing, will I have access to a water supply that will fulfill the needs of myself and my family for three days? How about three weeks? Three months? A year?
  • Do I have enough to food to meet the needs of myself and my family for three days? How about three weeks? Three months? A year?
  • Could I heat my home for three days if the power grid failed? How about three weeks? Three months? A year? Without power would I be able to receive or send communications outside of the disaster zone?
  •  If emergency and medical services were unavailable, would I have the materials and equipment needed to treat a seriously injured friend, neighbor, of family member?
  • If I was forced to evacuate my home, would I know where to go? Do I have the supplies necessary to meet the needs of myself and my family until we would reach our destination? Could we leave at a moment’s notice?

It is unlikely that we will face any disaster so bad that we will be forced to eat from our larders for a year or more’s time. However, preparing for that year as if it were a certainty is quite sensible: those with supplies otherwise unavailable will undoubtedly be providing for the needs of more than just their immediate family. When friends and neighbors are sick or starving and asking you to help them survive, the wisdom in such extensive preparations will be more than evident.

This focus on supplies should not mislead us into thinking that survival is simply a matter of gear or supplies. Herein lies one of my main complaints with the survivalist movement: too many survivalists seem to think that survival comes down to equipment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The key to survival does not lie with supplies, but people. 

I mean this in two senses. On the one hand, an individual’s skill set is incalculably more valuable than anything they might own. (E.g. if you are not trained in basic first aid then all of the medical supplies in the world will do you no good). Yet even this is not enough. As with most things, what we know is less important than who we know. The notion of a lone survivalist tramping off into the wilderness to make it through doomsday is utter nonsense. These figures are great for Hollywood, but they stand little chance of surviving in the event of a real world disaster. The well supplied lone wolf is even less resilient than the masses of modern society he so abhors. One accident is all it takes to bring the best laid plans of the single survivalist to nought. Their survival will be dependent on a margin or error that simply does not exist.

Mr. Rawls and a few other survivalists recognize this. They recommend “forting” with a small group of several families or close friends. I submit that even this will prove unsatisfactory. The most successful survivors will be those who belong to a much larger community. We’ve already discussed how networks of mutual aid spontaneously arise in the wake of disaster; those formed around existing social groups with a strong sense of collective identity, social cohesion, and a regularly exercised ability to care for their own will be by far the most successful of these communities. Being independent of national infrastructure and existing political structures  these groups will have little trouble organizing and mobilizing after a major disaster. Minority immigrant groups, Mormon congregations, military bases, rural towns, and their like will become the loci of the new commonwealths forged by disaster. The organizational capacity of these communities will far outstrip what any family commune is capable of providing.

Becoming a part of one of these communities before disaster strikes is the best way to ensure your survival in its aftermath.

Leave a Comment


Brilliant post that distills the problems of the survivalist movement. My comments:

(1) "The notion of a lone survivalist tramping off into the wilderness to make it through doomsday is utter nonsense. These figures are great for Hollywood, but they stand little chance of surviving in the event of a real world disaster. The well supplied lone wolf is even less resilient than the masses of modern society he so abhors."

Totally agreed. The War Nerd made this point in his hilarious-as-usual post Apocalypse Never. Recommend for the LOLs.

(2) "I mean this in two senses. On the one hand, an individual's skill set is incalculably more valuable than anything they might own. (E.g. if you are not trained in basic first aid then all of the medical supplies in the world will do you no good). Yet even this is not enough. As with most things, what we know is less important than who we know."

Mostly agreed. That's why these survivalist forum people are so funny. With the amount of time they spend there discussing "SHTF" and "TEOTWAWKI" all that other insane acronym stuff, they're getting neither skills nor connections.

That said, I don't really agree with you that who you know is more important than your skills. Sure, if you have loyal family members in influential places, or very, very good friends, then you can get help from them unconditionally – but that doesn't apply to most people. The basic social contract of post-collapse societies seems to be reciprocal exchange of goods (barter) and services. If you have no useful skills to offer, then you're guaranteed to be at the bottom of the pecking order, subsiding on the very rare commodity of other people's generosity. But on the other hand if you have skills that are in demand then you'll always find "friends" and communities that will reward you for it. For instance, in 1990's Russia, very few ex-special forces (security) or programmers (informatization) ever went hungry.

(3) Agreed on the non-sustainability of armed "doomsteading". I think they can only prosper – and I'm talking of the more extreme collapse scenarios – if they assume some other important function of relevance to the wider community, such as providing local security / "roof" (like feudal lords) or knowledge (as with monasteries – don't imagine that happening with doomsteaders, but universities could transform into something like the knowledge-preserving monasteries of the European Dark Ages).

(4) My own views: I think useful skills (inc. social skills, and excluding the formulaic learning promoted by most education systems); the psychological traits of being open to new ideas, curious, a-ideological (by that I include not tying one's happiness and sense of self to material culture); physical health; and the ability to navigate (and preferably have access to assets in) different countries and continents, are the best preparation for collapse. Furthermore, all or most of these serve to make your life more fulfilling, so it's not even a case of sacrificing now to be ready for a collapse that may not even come (though IMO it will).

I regret to say that Google Blogger has eaten my previous (and lengthy) comment on this post.

To reproduce the gist of it:

(1) One of your best posts IMO.

(2) Totally agreed that the "lone wolf" fantasies beloved of too many survivalists are pretty inane. War Nerd makes the point beautifully in this article.

(3) I agree with your emphasis on the importance of connections, but IMO skills are even more important. The reason is that in a hard post-collapse environment, if you have the right skills, then you'll always be able to make appropriate "friends" (whereas old friends can be fickle in hard times). E.g. in 1990's Russia programmers (informatization), ex-special forces and martial artists (security) never went hungry. Of course, having the connections to become an oligarch is sweet, but in practice very few can pull it off.

(4) The "doomstead" forters, I agree, are unlikely to prosper as survivalists envisage it. IMO, in the truly severe post-collapse scenarios, either they'll be destroyed as bandit outposts – and that's likely what they'll become anyway – by citizen militias, or they'll use their armed power to exert control and become post-industrial feudal lords. Universities are interesting institutions to consider. Could they become like monasteries preserving knowledge in the new Dark Ages?

The !Kung has two ways to meet catastrophe. The reciprocal gift-giving system call hxaro, and the namesake networks !gu!na. In different way, both systems created long-distance networks to draw upon in time of need. (Flannery – Markus)

If a complex technology fails, trying to fix it, or trying to replace it, is a waste of valuable time. Mobility and social networks are a better choice.

Forting? the rat's solution to the flood…


The example of Russian programmers and ex special forces during 1990s Russia works better with prolonged type 2 disasters than sudden type 3 collapse, for they are almost always accompanied with the fraying of the country's social fabric. Friends eat friends when society has forgotten how to trust. (And for what it is worth, half a century of communism meant that Russian social capital or civic society was probably at a low already…)

It is more difficult to say how well the Russian experience applies to a type 3 disaster. There is an old phrase, "It is not what you know, but who you know." In a world without resumes this will be more true than it is now, I suspect.

For skills to matter would-be "friends" have to decide that they do. I doubt people will weigh these things in a highly rational cost-benefits type of way. Whose skills do you trust – the man you just met, or the guy you have known for years? Who do you feed – the guy you just met, or your brother? And so on and so forth. In the end it will come down to trust. Rarely does trust come from skills alone.

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can become more effective in case of eliminating the risk during a disaster.