Now survivalism isn't just for eccentrics
Idea of 'extreme preparedness' heads to the mainstream
By Alex Williams
The traditional face of survivalism is that of a shaggy loner in camouflage, holed up in a cabin in the wilderness and surrounded by cases of canned goods and ammunition.
It is not that of Barton M. Biggs, the former chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley. Yet in Biggs' new book, "Wealth, War and Wisdom," he says people should "assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure."
"Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food," Biggs writes. "It should be well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc. Think Swiss Family Robinson. Even in America and Europe, there could be moments of riot and rebellion when law and order temporarily completely breaks down."
Survivalism, it seems, is not just for survivalists anymore.
Faced with a confluence of diverse threats - a tanking economy, a housing crisis, looming environmental disasters and a sharp spike in oil prices - people who do not consider themselves extremists are starting to discuss doomsday measures once associated with the social fringes.
They stockpile or grow food in case of a supply breakdown, or buy precious metals in case of economic collapse. Some try to take their houses off the electricity grid, or plan safe houses far away.
The point is not to drop out of society, but to be prepared in case the future turns out like something out of "An Inconvenient Truth," if not "Mad Max."
"I'm not a gun-nut, camo-wearing skinhead; I don't even hunt or fish," said Bill Marcom, 53, a construction executive in Dallas.
Still, motivated by a belief that the credit crunch and a bursting housing bubble might spark widespread economic chaos - "the Greater Depression," as he put it - Marcom began to take measures to prepare for the unknown over the last few years: buying old silver coins to use as currency; buying GPS units, a satellite telephone and a hydroponic kit; and building a simple cabin in a remote West Texas desert.
"If all these planets line up and things do get really bad," Marcom said, "those who have not prepared will be trapped in the city with thousands of other people needing food and propane and everything else."
Interest in survivalism - in either its traditional hard-core version or a middle-class "lite" variation - functions as a leading economic indicator of social anxiety, preparedness experts said: It spikes at times of peril real (the post-Sept. 11 period) or imagined (the chaos that was supposed to follow the so-called Y2K computer bug in 2000).
At times, a degree of paranoia is officially sanctioned. In the 1950s, civil defense authorities encouraged people to build personal bomb shelters because of the nuclear threat. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security encouraged Americans to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal windows in case of biological or chemical attacks.
Now, however, the government, while still conducting business under a yellow terrorism alert, is no longer taking a lead role in encouraging preparedness. For some, this leaves a vacuum of reassurance, and plenty to worry about.
Esteemed economists debate whether the credit crisis could result in a complete meltdown of the financial system. A former vice president of the United States informs us that global warming could result in mass flooding, disease and starvation, perhaps even a new Ice Age.
"You just can't help wonder if there's a train wreck coming," said David Anderson, 50, a database administrator in Colorado Springs who said he was moved by economic uncertainties and high energy prices, among other factors, to stockpile months' worth of canned goods in his basement for his wife, his two young children and himself.
Popular culture also provides reinforcement, in books like "The Road," Cormac McCarthy's novel about a father and son journeying through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and films like "I Am Legend," which stars Will Smith as a survivor of a man-made virus who is left wandering the barren streets of New York.
Middle-class survivalists can also browse among a growing number of how-to books with titles like "Dare to Prepare!" a self-published work by Holly Drennan Deyo, or "When All Hell Breaks Loose" by Cody Lundin (Gibbs Smith, 2007), which instructs readers how to dispose of bodies and dine on rats and dogs in the event of disaster.
Preparedness activity is difficult to track statistically, since people who take measures are usually highly circumspect by nature, said Jim Rawles, the editor of a preparedness blog (www.survivalblog.com). Nevertheless, interest in the survivalist movement "is experiencing its largest growth since the late 1970s," Rawles said in an e-mail message, adding that traffic at his blog has more than doubled in the past 11 months, with more than 67,000 unique visitors per week. And its base is growing.
"Our core readership is still solidly conservative," he said. "But in recent months I've noticed an increasing number of stridently green and left-of-center readers."
One left-of-center environmentalist who is acting is Alex Steffen, the executive editor of a Web site (www.worldchanging.com) devoted to sustainability. With only slight irony, Steffen, 40, said he and his girlfriend could serve as "poster children for the well-adjusted, urban liberal survivalist," given that they keep a six-week cache of food and supplies in his basement in Seattle (although they polished off their bottle of doomsday whiskey at a party).
He said the chaos following Hurricane Katrina served as a wake-up call for him and others that the government might not be able to protect them in an emergency or environmental crisis.
"The 'Where do we land when climate change gets crazy?' question seems to be an increasingly common one," said Steffen in an e-mail message, adding that such questions have "really gone mainstream."
Many of the new, nontraditional preparedness converts are "Peakniks," Rawles said, referring to adherents of the "Peak Oil" theory. This concept holds that the world will soon, or has already, reached a peak in oil production, and that coming supply shortages might threaten society. While the theory is still disputed by many industry analysts and executives, it has inched toward the mainstream in the last two years, as oil prices have nearly doubled, surpassing $100 a barrel.
The topic, which was the subject of a U.S. Department of Energy report in 2005, has attracted attention in publications like the New York Times Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and was a primary focus of "Megadisasters: Oil Apocalypse," a recent History Channel program.
Another book, "The Long Emergency" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) by James Howard Kunstler, an author and journalist who writes about economic and environmental issues, argues that American suburbs and cities may soon lay desolate as people, starved of oil, are forced back to the land to adopt a hardscrabble, 19th-century-style agrarian life.
Such fears caused Joyce Jimerson of Bellingham, Wash., a coordinator for a recycling-composting program affiliated with Washington State University, to make her yard an edible garden, with fruit trees and vegetables, in case supplies are threatened by oil shortages, climate change or economic collapse. "It's all the same ball of wax, as far as I'm concerned," she said.
Scott Troyer, an energy consultant in Sunnyvale, said he was spurred by discussions of peak oil - "it's not a theory," he said - and other energy concerns to remake his suburban house in anticipation of a petroleum-starved future. Troyer, 57, installed a photovoltaic electricity system, a pellet stove and a cool roof to reflect the sun's rays, among other measures.
Troyer remains cautiously optimistic that Americans can wean themselves from oil through smart engineering and careful planning. But, he said, "The doomsday scenarios will happen if people don't prepare."
Some middle-class preparedness converts, like Val Vontourne, a musician and paralegal in Olympia, Wash., recoil at the term survivalist, even as they stock their homes with food, gasoline and water.
"I think of survivalists as being an extreme case of preparedness," said Vontourne, 44, "people who stockpile guns and weapons, anticipating extreme aggression. Whereas what I'm doing, I think of as something responsible people do.