Survival Philosophy 101: The Caveman Survival Index, by Andrew M.

I still remember the first day in my Philosophy of Religion class back in the good ol’ college days.  My professor started the class with the question, “what is philosophy?”  Of course, being the smart-aleck that I still am today, I eagerly raised my hand and responded, “Philosophy is where you think really hard about something, and when you’re done, you know less than when you started.”

I got a few laughs (and some angry looks from the philosophy majors), but I was only half joking.  There is some truth to that statement.   What it really means is that, until you question your underlying assumptions, you probably think you know a whole lot more than you really do.  If your understanding is built on a shaky foundation, then, with the right type of shaking, your belief system will collapse faster than the Greek banking system.

For the 99% of readers who are not philosophy nerds, I need to explain that the philosophical process is very similar to the scientific method.  A philosopher starts by presenting a theory and then he or she looks for analogies or examples that logically negate that theory. In this way, you can’t really prove anything, but you can disprove a poorly formed theory. This may sound really boring so far, but by logically collapsing shaky theories in the “classroom”, you are less likely to be surprised by faulty thinking in real life.
When it comes to survival philosophy, this process could mean the difference between life and death.  If you don’t question your assumptions, then your beliefs may crumble when a real disturbance hits outside your expectations.  If you are sufficiently taken by surprise, you are more likely to make poor decisions or even panic in the face of the unexpected.  But “life and death” is a little overly dramatic for me.  In spite of my philosophical nerdiness, I am a practical guy, and there is a much-less-dramatic but still-important reason to philosophize on survival:  Questioning assumptions could be the difference between mere subsistence and relative comfort.

Of course, my tongue-in-cheek definition of philosophy is incomplete.  Philosophy only questions assumptions in order to help you gain clarity about those thoughts or beliefs.  Finding clarity about survival preparation is what this article is all about.  I am not going to give you any practical survival tips here.  Instead, my goal is to distinguish clearly between survival and luxury in an emergency situation.  I want to introduce a theoretical framework for maximizing your luxury without failing at that whole survival thing WTSHTF.  How this plays out in real life will look very different for different people, but I hope to introduce a way of thinking about prepping that helps you to be more purposeful about it.  With that in mind, much like my religion professor, I would like to start with a simple question:  What is survival?

This question is simple, but there is a big difference between simple questions and easy ones.  You might know survival when you see it, and you certainly know what the opposite looks like, but before we can talk about it intelligently, we need a solid definition of survival.  Well, defines survival as “the act or fact of surviving”.  That’s wasn’t very helpful.  Okay, then maybe it will be easier to define it by what survival isn’t.  You might say that survival is “the opposite of dying”.  That’s a good start, but what about the man who dies comfortably in his old age, surrounded by friends and family?  Did he fail at “survival”?   Of course not.  Dying of old age is the definition of a successful survivor, but that definition doesn’t really help you learn how to survive either. 

See how this philosophy thing works now?  We theorized on a definition of survival and then we found an example counter to that overly simplistic definition.  Obviously the “not dying” view needs to be a little more specific.  Since everybody will die eventually, survival is only meaningful if it is discussed in reference to some specific challenge or event that threatens a premature death.  So let’s narrow our definition of survival to “not being killed during some challenge or event that is capable of causing premature death”.  Does that sound more reasonable?  It does to me. 

The first thing you should notice about this definition is that it doesn’t say anything at all about a survival kit or survival skills.  A survivor could just be lucky.  This definition is equipment-agnostic and skill-agnostic.  Either way, survival is definitely not something you carry in your pocket.  So now let’s work through a hypothetical situation and see if our definition passes the philosophical smell test. 

Let’s imagine that there is a TEOTWAWKI event: nuclear war, economic collapse, zombie apocalypse… it doesn’t matter what, but let’s say that this event wipes out the retail supply chain, health care services, coffee shops (take a deep breath… this is just a thought experiment), communication systems, and the power grid.  Some people will die off immediately either directly from the TEOTWAWKI event or because some critical life support was removed… obviously we can’t call them survivors.  Now other people survive the initial shock but are trampled during food riots at the grocery store or are killed by roving bandits:  also not survivors.  But what about you?  In this thought exercise, we’ll say that you grabbed the kids and hopped into your up-armored minivan.  You bugged out to that über-Rawlesian country bunker which is stocked with enough food and ammo to fend off the raiders for years.  Is that survival?  If you are a fan of, then you can’t possibly say no.  So this hypothetical version of you kicks back, raises some chickens, and sleeps soundly behind those two-foot-thick concrete walls somewhere in the wilderness.  You are a survivor.  You are “doing” survival, because you continually avoid death despite a series of hazardous circumstances.  So far, so good.  Our definition seems to be holding up to this scenario at least.

But what about me?  In our little experiment, I’m no country boy.  No, I’m a die-hard suburbanite.  I love my air conditioner, and I keep just enough food in my house to make it to the next paycheck.  When TEOTWAWKI hits, do I survive?  Don’t be too quick to say no.  My survival kit is far from Rawlesian, but I still have one.  Here are a few things on my list: 
-Hunting knife
-Change of clothes
-Duct tape
-Several means of lighting a fire (magnifying glass, matches, lighter)
-My truck (yes, I consider that a big part of my kit, and it’s with me most of the time)
-My family and friends
-My air conditioner
-A cold refrigerator full of fresh food
-The gas station down the street
-A steady paycheck
-My bank
-The internet (just in case I forget how to tie a clove hitch)
-A complex system of delivering food and consumer goods to local retailers (so that I can buy stuff with my debit card when supplies are low)

As you read my list of survival items, you are probably thinking, “That’s the dumbest survival list I’ve ever seen! That’s not survival, that’s just you living your life!” Of course, you’re right.  My survival kit only works if a crashing Euro doesn’t drag down my bank and nothing disrupts my precious system of just-in-time retail supplies.   Remember what I said about philosophical foundations crashing in the face of the unexpected?  Well, whether we like to admit it or not, my survival kit describes the survival plan for the vast majority of the population.  It works 90% of the time, but under catastrophic circumstances, this kit fails miserably. 
So back to our TEOTWAWKI event.  My kit is pathetic, but remember that our definition of survival doesn’t mention any gear or skills.  For the sake of this thought experiment, let’s say that I adapt quickly to my new environment.  While my fellow urban dwellers are raiding the gas station for one last nicotine fix, I break into the library and permanently check out several books on native plants.  I fashion a sling from junk I find in my closet just before my house gets burned by a rioting mob.  The streets are not safe, so I take shelter in a drainage tunnel in the greenbelt behind what used to be my favorite subdivision.  While my fellow khaki-clad barbarians are killing each other in the streets, I play it smart and lay low.  When I get hungry, I use my sling to hunt birds and rodents, or I pick berries and dig up roots in the greenbelt.  Is this survival?  Well, I didn’t die.  I think this also counts as survival by our definition.

Alright, so our definition of survival still seems to be holding up under two very different circumstances.  I think we can all agree that “not getting killed” is necessary to survival, but this definition doesn’t say anything about how you live.  While the prepper hunkered down in relative security with plenty of food and a good shelter, the urbanite survivor was barely getting by day-to-day and he will have to move out when the rainy season hits if not sooner.

Now take a look at my urban survival kit again, and be honest:  If it was possible to throw all that stuff into a bug-out-bag, wouldn’t you want to?  (I know, this is sort of a silly argument, but remember, this is philosophy… we aren’t constrained by reality).  If you have electricity, refrigeration, gas stations, and your friends and family with you, then it would feel more like a vacation than TEOTWAWKI, right? 

Obviously we can’t pack a retail distribution system into a BOB, but it does bring up an important point.  Preparation is about far more than mere survival.  Preparation is also about minimizing your loss of luxury.  I know that many within the survival community tend to hold “luxury” in contempt at least on the surface, but I think what should really be looked down on is not luxury but “wasteful, unsustainable luxury”.  If you are truly against all luxury, then you should be happy living like a caveman for the rest of your life.  Now ask yourself:  If I never took another shower the rest of my life, would I be ok with that?   Think about it.

At this point, I would like to introduce a concept that I call “The Caveman Survival Index” (CSI for short).  The CSI is a mental tool I use to determine my expected quality of life (i.e. level of luxury) during a survival situation.  At the very top of this index, you will find… me!  I am the ultimate modern urban survivor.  I thrive on the globally connected veneer of a stable information-based society.  I have air conditioning, social networking, coffee shops, and a smart phone.  My food comes from restaurants, and when there’s a problem with my shelter, I call a handyman who got good reviews on Angie’s List.  I don’t start fires… I microwave.  If I get cold, I crank up the thermostat!  Life is full of freedom and comfort, and I like it that way.

Now, at the bottom of the Caveman Survival Index, we of course find the humble caveman.  Caveman survival is what many people think of when they say “survival”.  The word “caveman” conjures up images of hairy men running naked through the woods and starting fires with sticks and rocks.  Isn’t this what a lot of survival schools teach you?  (Well, ok maybe they don’t talk about the hairy/naked part… that mental image is bad for business). 
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing to know how to live like a caveman.  In an emergency situation, “Threat Level: Caveman” means that the only way I can avoid imminent death is by rubbing two sticks together to start a fire.  It means the only way I will eat is by killing rodents with a crude club or a sling… just like a Stone-Ager would do.  In a survival situation (or daily life for that matter), this is the last place I want to be, but without survival skills, many unprepared urbanites will hit “caveman” status pretty quickly after TEOTWAWKI.

Back to our thought experiment:  Let’s say that I (the unprepared urbanite) at least have some limited prep skills.  Before my beautiful house was burned by a hungry mob, I duct-taped my hunting knife to the handle of a garden rake.  With a little practice, I can use this makeshift spear to hunt larger game.  Plus, where I live, there is an abundance of flint lying around in the greenbelt behind my neighborhood.  If I find a hardened piece of carbon steel, then I just moved up the Caveman Index from “Caveman” to “Viking”, because I now have steel tools.  A Viking may still have to forage for roots and berries, but at least I am using a lot less energy to get a fire started and my meat is easier to come by.  It is important to note here that it is not only the tools that advanced me from Caveman to Viking.  I also needed the skills to recognize and make use of those tools.  If I don’t know how to start a fire with a flint and steel, then, when it comes to starting fires, I am still in Caveman mode even if I am surrounded by Viking materials.  Likewise, if I don’t know how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, and TEOTWAWKI reduces me to Caveman living… I won’t survive.

So now do you see how the CSI works?  There is no comprehensive list of “levels” within the Caveman Index.  The CSI is simply a way of thinking about your current situation and how you want to change it.  The main point of the CSI is that you probably want to be as far from living like a caveman as possible at all times, but if you find yourself in a situation where you have nothing but rocks, sticks, and your own wit, then you’d better know how to survive at least long enough to improve the situation.  Personally, I hope I never need those skills, but if I do end up in a “Threat Level: Caveman” scenario, one of my first goals will be to get out of the Stone Age as quickly as possible. 

Now that I have defined survival as not dying during an emergency, and I introduced the Caveman Index for rating your quality of life during survival scenarios.  I would like to ask one final question:  How does this affect your preparation for emergencies? 

By our working definition of survival, the only requirement to achieve “survival” is that you have sufficient skills or enough luck to not get killed.  That’s not what most people would consider “good” preparation, because the caveman life is not much fun.  You don’t want to prepare for “survival”.  Instead, you want to prepare for luxury!  If you think in terms of the CSI, your preparations should really do two things:  First, you want to have the equipment necessary to minimize regression down the Caveman Index.  Second, if a sudden setback is unavoidable, you need skills that will help you rapidly climb back up to a comfortable level on the CSI. 

Ah, now this brings up another important point.  In addition to quantifying your general comfort level, the Caveman Index also helps to highlight the purpose of equipment versus skills when prepping.  In terms of the CSI, your skills can determine how far and how quickly you move up to a higher comfort level, but it is actually your “stuff” that determines how comfortable you are.  For example, a skilled marksman with no ammunition is still stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to acquiring meat.  Likewise, if you are surrounded by unfamiliar equipment that you don’t know how to use… well that’s equally problematic for escaping from the caveman lifestyle.  So you see that the CSI shows you the importance of matching your skills to your resources while preparing for an emergency.

The CSI also explains the behavior of those unskilled hordes of city-dwelling moochers.  Because it is not skill, but “stuff” that sets your living standard on the Caveman Index, you now understand why moochers want to steal all your stuff.  Theft and robbery are the only methods they understand for moving up to a higher standard of living.  Without the necessary skills to adapt to a survival situation, most moochers will rapidly waste their resources and regress to more primitive living… at least until they find another victim to take more stuff from.  So you see that many people will swing from living high-on-the-hog to living like a brute again and again WTSHTF.

Getting back to our TEOTWAWKI thought experiment, let’s take one last look at you, the ultimate prepper.  You are secure from the looters in your country bunker.  You are raising chickens and hunting with rifles.  You use a woodgas generator to power the light bulbs in your kitchen.  Maybe you aren’t updating your Facebook status anymore, but your life has not changed quite as drastically as all those urban savages.  You may not have 100% uptime on your electrical system, but most of the time you fall somewhere between “Late-1800’s Cowboy” and “1950’s Traveling Salesman” on the Caveman Index.  Even if you lose everything you’ve got, you won’t stay in Caveman mode for long, because you have the skills to move back up the ladder quickly by making the most of your available resources.

So now you see that good preparation helps you not only to survive but also to maintain a relatively steady and comfortable lifestyle in the midst of chaos.  I hope you will also agree now that luxury during survival is not necessarily a bad thing.  The CSI concept helps you to analyze your survival situation whether you are surviving a zombie apocalypse, an anti-banking riot, or getting lost in the woods.  When it comes to choosing what type of preparations to make, I hope that the Caveman Survival Index will be useful in helping you choose the right skills and the right equipment to maximize your comfort level in spite of TEOTWAWKI. 

And who knows, some day you just might let a philosopher join your survival colony! No?  Well, okay.  I wouldn’t either.