In Part II – Context, I wondered whether there were distinct cultural differences we needed to pay attention to, between the UK and the US. In this post, I spell out one of them that I see as pertaining directly to the Peak Oil community: the perspective on ‘Survivalism’ as a philosophy.

I had initially thought it was just a matter of personal prejudice on Rob Hopkins part, when I disagreed with him so vehemently in his September 4, 2006 piece entitled: “Why Survivalists Have Got It All Wrong.” He displayed pictures of pseudo-cavemen, and made reference to selfish survivalists hording lifeboats on the Titanic and an “every man for himself” behavior in a house fire. He was responding to Zach Nowak’s piece that had earlier posted in Energy Bulletin. He wrote:

    “I have very little time for the survivalist response to peak oil…”

I couldn’t imagine how he could so easily dismiss such a large group of people who were not only savvy about Peak Oil, but were also, in my community, among some of the most active members of our sustainability group.

My response:

“I read what you wrote with interest, but I’m afraid your photos and tone might be undercutting your message. It may be easier to stereotype and point to extremes in a community than it is to look more carefully at what wisdom their philosophy might offer to all of us. If we are interested in building community, we may need everybody, including those who have chosen to keep the basic arts of preparing for difficult times a living, breathing art form. These same people teach others how to hunt or butcher or breed animals; how to can or grow or harvest food; how to weave or sew or preserve fabric. While we may not choose to do all of these things, a move toward greater self-sufficiency might be the unifying message we can all embrace.

Survivalism, in its more moderate form, is also social commentary that requires the adherents to “walk their talk.” When we teach our children at home, it is commentary on a loss of faith in public education. When we choose to grow our own food, it is because what is sold as ‘food,’ is often tasteless and lacks nutrition. When we slaughter our own animals, it is because we know they haven’t eaten hormones and chemicals, have been raised with care, and slaughtered gratefully.

There is also an implicitly political message in making a caricature of the “survivalist,” as it suggests that there is nothing in our environment that we need to adapt to and “survive.” If we embrace any notion of having to “power down,” we may want to consider a different message.

Such ridicule isn’t deserved by many people I could label ‘survivalists.’ A true survivalist has gone into that ‘dark night’ and realizes that the notion of isolation is an absurd one.

One final point: when the fire breaks out, the true survivalist has already taught their families to prepare for it, which exits to use for escape and to crawl, not walk to them if the smoke is heavy. And also, I doubt you’d get most survivalists to buy the notion of an “unsinkable” ship. The best would have taught their families to swim, and what to do in the event that there was no room on the lifeboats. That event happened because of a lack of planning. I doubt a ‘survivalist’ was to blame.”

What Survivalists Got RIGHT

The Transition Handbook has a chapter highlighting Post Petroleum Stress Disorder. Here Rob mentions the “irrational grasping at unfeasible solutions.” Also included is a single paragraph that continues to create a caricature of nihilists and survivalists. Hopkins drags out stereotyped examples designed to ridicule these movements, suggesting that, unlike his own, they have no real contribution to make. As I mentioned in my response to his article, my experience is distinctly different. Far from having nothing to contribute, many people in these movements strongly embrace not only the need for community, but offer preparedness skills, insightful, and valid criticisms of our culture, and its predicament. It was difficult for me to understand, then, why in a book filled with encouragement to reach out to the widest possible audience and teach tolerance in community-building, he would stereotype and reject potential allies, who shared his concerns. In addition, overlapping communities with some differences appeared to me to make a movement MORE resilient, not less. It was disappointing to read.

I also wondered why he would be so hostile to the very same folks who will be some of our most skilled community members in the future. Why a parody promoting intolerance for those who “think differently?” Was the goal to “brand” TI as a more “mainstream” movement that’s “not like them?” At the time, I saw such derisiveness as mean-spirited, and marginalizing the dedicated efforts of those who identify themselves in this way.

I’ve come to look upon this as yet another cultural difference.

Fighting off Invaders with a Shake of the Fist!

While I could find dozens of US sites that covered many different perspectives on Survivalism, I could find only one UK site devoted to the same theme. In one of them, a humorous response by one reader was this:

“In the event of the world turning upside down, I think most folk in the UK will dig trenches behind their privet hedges and be prepared to fight off invaders with a shake of the fist and a harsh letter to The Times…failing that, Capt. Mannering and his brave brigade will restore order and justice from GCHQ at Walmington-on-Sea

…as long as we have tea, we will prevail!! “

Capt. Mannering is a character from a popular British sit-com about a military official who keeps order in the UK during WWII.

The only other item about “Survivalism” in the UK, spoke of a 1975-1977 TV series, about a small band of survivors who emerged from a pandemic that wiped out more than 95% of the population. In sharp contrast to our own more recent gun-toting holocaust TV series “Jericho,” the protagonist here, Abby Grant, and her ad hoc group, remained reluctant to arm themselves, even after being confronted by armed adversaries on numerous occasions.

Guns have traditionally been shunned in the UK, and even police did not carry them until recently. One person attributed the spread of hoof and mouth disease to the fact that UK vets aren’t allowed to carry guns, and therefore could not kill the animal on the spot, when they learned they were diseased. As previously mentioned, the UK has, what “is believed to be some of the strictest gun legislation in the world” while the US has some of the most lenient.

Guns and Butter
The very notion of a “survivalist” evokes a distinctly American image of the Wild West, or Appalachian folks with shot-guns in the hills with hidden moonshine stills.

This pervasive spirit of individualism, or the more poetic sentiment that “good fences make good neighbors,” is much more uniquely American. Like the automobile, that allowed us to ‘take in the wide open spaces,’ a majority of Americans believe that they have a right to own a gun. About half of the U.S. population actually live in households with guns, but there is a broad geographical difference between these folks and those who do not. The bulk of gun owners generally live in rural areas and small towns, while the strongest advocates of strict gun laws tend to live in large urban areas.

These rural areas and small towns also enable other features embraced by survivalist thinking, such as raising livestock, farming and creating root cellars. Far from being isolationist, these areas recognize the inherent need to rely on others. Our urban cousins (sometimes referred to as “city-zens”) might have less interest in these arts, given their limited space, zoning restrictions, and easy access to shopping.

Natural Disasters
In a fairly mild climate, like the UK, it is more difficult to remember that there exists in the US, and many other countries around the world, a need for preparations as protection against “the weather.” This winter, my neighbors and I were without electricity for a week or more. My preparations allowed me to have light, keep warm, and to cook hot meals from food storage for my family. We were both the givers and recipients from neighbors, of food, water, and other necessities. We checked up on those that might be facing problems. These preparations are part of our rural lifestyle. Like many of my neighbors, I have pets and livestock to care for, and can’t allow a little ice storm to threaten my life or theirs.

Many survivalists I know have become so, after they’ve lived through a variety of natural disasters or climate conditions such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes or blizzards. Some have had to survive the more mundane problems of unemployment that required them to live off their food storage when money was in short supply. A weeks worth (or even three months worth) of preparations doesn’t make you a wacky reactionary, or anti-social when you live with such threats. It makes you sensible.

These preparations can be as simple as following Red Cross and FEMA recommendations by keeping a first aid kit, shovel, and extra clothes in the car, or maintaining a small kit of emergency supplies in the home and car, containing food, water, a space blanket and other essentials. A “bug out bag” can enable your family to preserve precious photos, medicines and a few non-electric toys, when you are forced to flee in a wild-fire. Basic skills, such as knowing how to drain your plumbing, or shut off your gas, can leave you with a home to return to, once the danger has passed.

Preparation: Community AND Individual Solutions

But still, unlike our ancestors, who simply assumed that it was smart to be skilled in basic arts such as canning, preserving, chopping wood, raising livestock, and yes, even killing an animal that posed a danger to your children, these are lost to a great many of us. They aren’t required of urban dwellers. Even those who should take an active interest in “surviving” presenting dangers often do not. They simply assume that government officials will rescue them when the worst happens. This is a decidedly “non-community” focus, that taxes the common resources of all of us. Hurricane Katrina is a teaching tale in this regard.

More worrisome, those who were well-prepared during this disaster experienced the hostile attitude Rob typifies, and were often looked upon with suspicion by relief workers, when they preferred to stay put, after the initial danger had passed. One writer believed that the relief workers assumed that these inhabitants must have stolen what they had, so rare was this notion of being “well prepared.” He believed that these officials were convinced that public shelters were automatically a better solution, than remaining in one’s home, and some homeowners reported being threatened when they refused to go.

I would like to suggest that in the US, we should be emphasizing the need for more of our neighbors to be well-prepared, rather than mocking those who are.

Beyond Cliché: Toward Embracing Commonality
I, therefore, would ask that we, here in the US, take a more sober approach to our writings and our attitudes toward those who might identify themselves as survivalists. We can begin by promoting sensible books like Kathy Harrison’s now classic “Just in Case.” Such books make basic notions of surviving a wide variety of disasters, whether you live in the city or the country, good common-sense.

The current edition of the Transition Handbook is a manual now being regarded as the blueprint for the future. Unfortunately, his prejudice against survivalists is now officially part of the TI perspective. It is unfortunate that Hopkins is incorporating this second-hand cliché of the American survivalist movement, as a truism. Having no first-hand experience of how large and diverse a community it is, he is doing a disservice to spread this bias. I attribute this to another example of how dangerous cultural blinders can be, when we seek to transplant a set of ideas from one culture to another.

American “Survivalist” movements straddle a vast array of attitudes and opinions, from deplorable notions of white supremacy, to accepted wisdom of community self-sufficiency that bear a great resemblance to the best aspects of TI. They do, however, emphasize skills, stores, and self-defense, whether on an individual or community level. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” could be said by a survivalist, but this does not automatically mean an individual approach. This preparation often encompasses the community; advocating notions of generosity and charitable giving, while simultaneously stressing individual responsibility.

The single most popular and widely read blog of its kind, SurvivalBlog, emphasizes the values of community, sharing knowledge, the necessity of faith, and the importance of charity, while stressing the need for “bullets, Band-Aids and beans.” It has approximately 124,000 unique visits per week, 208 million+ hits since it was founded in August of 2005. “Survivalism” is a growing force in the US Peak Oil movement, and might be the dominant American collapse- preparation paradigm, currently having a far greater number of adherents in the US than the TI movement.

We can all have a good laugh pointing out their “folly,” or we can be sincere in investigating where we share common ground. The choice is ours.