The purpose of this article is to lay out the intellectual underpinnings of what I will call the neosurvivalist movement. The target audience is those individuals either beginning, or considering to start, preparations for broad societal emergencies. The intended result is to demonstrate that far from being a fringe or extremist movement, neosurvivalism is rational and has emerged as a natural result of broader social, cultural, and technological circumstances grounded in specific historical and contemporary thinking.
This movement goes by many names, including survivalism, prepping, emergency preparedness, and so-called “offgrid” or “resilient communities.” Businesses and governments are likewise investing in continuity of operations plans, disaster mitigation, and disaster response. Everyone it seems is concerned about the permanency of civilization. While the focus of these groups varies – some are more “green” and “sustainability” focused, others are profit motivated, still others fit the traditional media stereotype of militant and self-defense orientated loners – all are worried about the fragile and interconnected nature of modern society and understand that the interconnectedness of our civilization is its major weakness.
In recent American memory the fundamental game changers were the dual warnings of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. These two events demonstrated that man-made and natural disasters could seriously disrupt a modern society, and that governmental plans were insufficient to respond quickly to large scale events. These events have spawned a large and growing body of work on emergency response and mitigation. The flagship publication is the Journal of Emergency Management, an excellent source of articles running the full gamut of neosurvivalist concerns, a mission shared since 1993 (in the wake of the governmental failure to properly respond to Hurricane Andrew) by the Federal Emergency Management Higher Education Program, itself designed to research and educate in areas of emergency planning concerns.
During the Cold War national attention was focused on fallout bunkers and bomb shelters and there was little public interest in broader problems associated with societal collapse until the mid-90s. That it has now reached a point of near universal concern at operational and strategic planning levels is most evident in the last couple of years. While the nuclear Civil Defense Programs of the 1950s and 1960s are well-known, there was little focus by federal planners on other societal threats until the creation of FEMA in 1979, which slowly expanded from almost purely nuclear civil defense to the current focus on “full spectrum” and or “integrated all-hazards” disaster response. Prior to this it was assumed local and state agencies would lead disaster response, and they often did not. Cold War preparations assumed a Federal-Individual partnership, in which the government assisted individuals by preparing “self-help” programs for citizens’ protection. The classic example was the backyard bomb shelter for individual families, a mitigation program continued today with state block grants usable for individual family safe rooms or in-ground tornado shelters. To highlight the American public’s general unwillingness to prepare, at the height of the Cold War fewer than 3% of the population had taken any personal measure to defend against radioactive fallout. Current assessments (following the U.S. Government’s introduction of the “Ready” preparedness program in 2003) of those likely to prepare for disasters typically include the following characteristics:
1. Pays attention to the news
2. Aware of and concerned about socio-environmental threats
3. Has personal experience with disasters
4. Has children in the home
5. Has strong community relationships (church, civic organizations, etc.)
6. Has disposable income available to make preparations
These characteristics are important because the surge in neosurvivalism is often attributed to religious, suburban professionals with families. These are the people, to be frank, with the awareness, good sense, and money necessary to make preparations capable of producing a meaningful result.
As much as government agencies and private industry have embraced a general preparedness philosophy in recent years, it often seems as if academia largely undermines civil defense strategy. Books such as The Imaginary War, One Nation Underground, and Bracing for Armageddon seek to ridicule and discredit preparedness concepts in general, arguing the government cannot be trusted to deal truthfully with the public on such measures (a mantra most obvious in the media frenzy over the “duct tape and plastic” advisement issued by the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003). That this view often emanates from those corners which often wish for more government and more governmental control – a schizophrenic position perched perilously on the anti-nationalism ideas of Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner, and the liberal-democratic faith in deterministic concepts of man’s inevitable progress. It’s important to consider that media treatments of private individuals engaged in preparedness typically attack along these lines – suggesting that preparedness is a statement of little faith in the government to handle emergencies, and that individuals that do so are dangerous or at least hold dangerous ideas. At the same time, the media typically depicts governmental agencies and programs as necessary, particularly if their budgets are cut. Often journalists interview academics who seem to invariable fall in line with depictions more appropriate for Cold War interpretations of governmental malfeasance than the day-to-day realities of a post-9/11 and Katrina world. This and raw political partisanship explains much of the disconnect the average American feels about his place in society. That this can manifest in profoundly important political ways (such as the “Security Moms” so often depicted in the media in 2004) only adds to the lack of clarity in the general consciousness of the population.
Fundamentally, Americans having been asking themselves questions such as “Is it wise to prepare for disaster? If so, how much is enough? To what degree should I believe the government or the media?” Journalists and leftist academics generally provide a negative reply.
It’s important to understand that the above actually represents a very small contrarian academic view, and that generally academic specialists support the conclusions of neosurvivalism. Researchers such as Tainter, Diamond, and Zartman all find the modern state as an incredibly imperiled and fragile edifice. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies follows in the footsteps of earlier historians such as Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History in that it predicts that societies do not enjoy “progress” endlessly, that eventually societies reach a point of diminishing returns when solutions to their problems invariably cost so much that they create more serious problems. This is an assessment shared by Vaclav Smil in his book Global Catastrophes and Trends. Smil foresees a connection between global stability and energy consumption; military and economic engines are powered by the energy source of the nation, a reduction in which can create substantial geopolitical problems. Peak Oil researchers will find much to agree with in Smil’s work.
Jared Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize winning academic whose work Guns Germs and Steel was followed by his equally impressive Collapse: How Human Societies Fail or Succeed. Diamond comes down on the side of environmentalist fears as a major threat to human civilization, though to his credit he’s more than willing to entertain a joint effort at sustainability with corporations. That Diamond’s Collapse has received positive reviews buttresses the idea that societies can indeed fail, and that human action or inaction can cause that collapse. Posner’s book, Catastrophe: Risk and Response, comes to similar conclusions as Diamond, and his exploration of events which can wipe out humanity and how we should rationally respond to them is a remarkable read.
William Zartman’s book Collapsed States uses post-colonial African Nations as the subject for his study of how nations cannot easily be put back together. Once a polity collapses, he ominously predicts, only a powerful outside force can reestablish its authority, and even the success of such operations is spotty at best (as U.S. adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan can attest). The typical result is ongoing instability, tribalism, and intranational violence. Zartman is supported by R.J. Rummel’s work on what he calls “democide” in his book Death by Government, which demonstrates that failed states are generally highly active in either perpetrating or supporting genocide. Mary Kaldor comes to similar conclusions in her work, including her excellent book Old Wars, New War. Fearing one’s government as an agent of violence against its own citizens is not paranoia – it’s an academically supported position, and a cause célèbre of the Amnesty International and its supporters.
Finally, consider the concept of societal collapse, something that Mr. Rawles and many others write about. This too is a well-studied and supported concept in academia. George Mason University economist Robin Hanson has this to say about it: “While there are many kinds of catastrophes that might befall humanity, most of the damage that follows large disruptions may come from the ensuing social collapse, rather from the direct effects of the disruption.” He also goes on to say that “if individuals vary a lot in their resistance [to disaster], however, then it may pay to increase the variance in such resistance, such as by creating special sanctuaries from which the few remaining humans could rebuild society.” Archaeologists Harvey Weiss and Raymond S. Bradley have said that “The archeological and historical record is replete with evidence for prehistoric, ancient and pre-modern societal collapse. These collapses occurred quite suddenly and frequently involved regional abandonment, replacement of one subsistence base by another (such as agriculture by pastoralism) or conversion to a lower energy sociopolitical organization (such as local state from interregional empire).” Thomas Homer-Dixon’s work, such as Environment, Scarcity, and Violence maintains (as an extreme simplification) that environmental scarcity results, ultimately, in violence (something Smil and many other scholars have concluded). That these scarcity issues cannot always be solved is something Homer-Dixon explores in his book The Ingenuity Gap. The result is fragmentation and destruction, if not extinction.
What I have attempted to do here is layout the academic and intellectual work that has been done in support of neosurvivalism. This is necessarily only a short introduction to the topic, and it focuses only on the academic research angle, the books published largely through academic presses such as Oxford University Press, MIT Press, and Princeton University Press. These books are read mostly by policy makers and planners, generally not by journalists or non-specialists. The reason I have focused on these is to inform the general neosurvivalist community of the immense support that government and academia provide for them as they make individual contingency plans. When faced with family members and others who are dubious about the practice of emergency preparedness, a library stocked with the texts I listed above may be the very best tools available because they may help convince loved ones of the importance of emergency preparedness.
In closing, the U.S. government has been urging American citizens to prepare for nuclear war since 1947, for all-hazards emergencies since the late 1970s, for terror attacks since 1999, and for national health disasters, such as pandemics, since 2006. Every U.S. state has a disaster management agency, which often has funds available for disaster mitigation in individual homes. The Red Cross urges emergency preparedness as well, including the requirement for two weeks of food at home and one gallon of water per person per day, as well as the packing of an evacuation bag, with three days food and water in it. The reason people do not prepare is because they do not match the criterion I listed above – they either do not have the disposable income (meaning they choose to spend family funds on other priorities) or they are unaware of the dangers to which they are exposed. In addition, academic researchers from the best universities have produced copious evidence to support any number of rational preparation schemes, to include preparation for total societal collapse. Following the recommendation of the government disaster planning agencies and the scholars who specialize in studying disasters is the result of neither paranoia nor foolhardiness. It is prudent, logical, and rational. Pretending none of this is an actual threat, and refusing to make even the most basic preparations, is lunacy.
The following academic texts may prove interesting to the general survival community. These are not “how-to” survival texts, but nevertheless are books very worth the reading because they help the reader to understand the potential survival situation which may result from a disaster or societal collapse. (And this alone is an invaluable service for emergency planners, institutional or individual.) Those marked with an asterisk are, in the author’s opinion, especially useful:
David W. Orr, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse
Johan M. Havenaar, Toxic Turmoil: Psychological and Societal Consequences of Ecological Disasters*
Robert A. Stallings, Methods of Disaster Research
Havidan Rodriguez, Handbook of Disaster Research
Piers Blaikie, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters*
Maxx Dilley, Natural Disaster Hotspots: A Global Risk Analysis
Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community*
Greg Bankoff, Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People
David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations
World Health Organization, The Management of Nutrition in Major Emergencies*
Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response*
Michel Agier, On the Margins of the World
Karen Jacobsen, The Economic Life of Refugees
Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Large-Scale Disasters: Prediction, Control, and Mitigation
United Nations Human Settlements Programme, Enhancing Urban Safety and Security
Vaclav Smil, Energy: A Beginner’s Guide*
Nayef Al-Rodhan, Neo-Statecraft and Meta-Geopolitics
Nick Bostrom, Global Catastrophic Risks
Dmitry Shlapentokh, Societal Breakdown*
Michael Bollig, Risk Management in a Hazardous Environment
Carl Sagan, The Cold and the Dark: The World After Nuclear War*
Jerome H. Barkow, The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture
Azar Gat, War and Human Civilization*
Henrik Hogh-Olesen/Azar Gat, Human Morality and Sociality
Glenn M. Schwartz, After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies*
Herbert Gintis, The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory
Daron Acemoglu, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
Douglass North, Violence and Social Orders*
Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God
Marc Gopin, Between Eden and Armageddon
Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground
Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century
Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy*
John Robb, Brave New War*
Fathali M. Moghaddam, The New Global Insecurity*
Kaldor, Old War, New War*
Tainter, Collapse of Complex Societies*
Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Human Societies Fail or Succeed
Walter Dodds, Humanity’s Footprint: Momentum, Impact, and Our Global Environment
Goudsblom, The Course of Human History: Economic Growth, Social Process, and Civilization*
Bill McGuire, A Guide to the End of the World
Vaclav Smil, “Limits to Growth Revisited: A Review Essay”
Vaclav Smil, “Energy at the Crossroads”
Vaclav Smil, Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years*