Survivalism Back in Vogue

2010•03•10 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

“I knew this was coming.”

“You knew it was coming?”

“Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.”

“Did you try to get ready for it?”

“No. What would you do?”

So goes the conversation between two of the characters in the haunting novel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, that describes the total collapse of the biosphere and a place where the only living creatures remaining are humans.

The conversation sums up how many people feel when confronted by the impending end of civilization caused by global warming, peak oil or whatever. “What would you do?” For most of us, the only thing to do is to search for more information and there are a lot of survivalist websites, books and movies popping up at the moment.

Spurred on by peak oil, the survivalist website Life After the Oil Crash warns us that: “Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon,” because we are running out of oil.

At this website, you will see a list of books, including The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World (2005) by Paul Roberts; The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2005) by Richard Heinberg; and The Long Emergency (2006) by James Howard Kunstler. They warn us that now is the time to act to re-shape our energy future, or face severe consequences.

There has also been an upsurge in doom and gloom documentaries and the message is clear and simple: We are in big trouble.

If you are more of a viewer than a reader, there has been an upsurge in doom and gloom documentaries, starting with the End of Suburbia (2004), moving onto A Crude Awakening – The Oil Crash (2007) and more recently the bleaker Collapse (2009). The message is clear and simple: We are in big trouble.

The Life After the Oil Crash website is doing good business. There are a heap of survival goods advertised, including solar equipment, water micro filters, emergency radios and walkie-talkies. And for the opportunists out there, a guide called Profit from the Peak (2008), which argues that peak oil is the greatest investment opportunity of the 21st Century.

If this all seems a little extreme, and something more like climate change is your cup of tea, you can pick up a copy of the Global Warming Survival Handbook (2007), written by David de Rothschild, which outlines 77 essential skills for stopping climate change. And no one can forget Al Gore’s seminal documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), or the engaging The Age of Stupid (2009).

On other issues, End of the Line (2009) explains how our fisheries could soon collapse as a result of over-exploitation and Blue Gold (2009) describes how future wars will be fought over water.

The objective of these collected works is to raise awareness of our impending global crises and to stimulate people to take action to prevent, avoid or survive them. But they may have an undesirable indirect effect by creating a sense of either hopelessness or denial in the reader or viewer. (“What would you do?” syndrome.) How else can we explain the slow pace of change?

A tradition of survivalism

Have you heard it all before? Survivalism is at least as old as the industrial revolution, if not older. John Dryzek, author of The Politics of the Earth (1997), explains how the first survivalists were William Forster Lloyd and Thomas Malthus. The former wrote about the checks on population growth in 1833, after the latter wrote his famous treatise on the principles of population, completed in 1798. Together they introduced the ideas of the overuse of a public commons and the dangers of uncontrolled population growth.

Over 130 years later, these ideas were transformed into The Tragedy of the Commons by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 and the Limits to Growth by Dennis Meadows and friends in 1972. The latter was commissioned by the Club of Rome and was required reading in my undergraduate course at university. It explores the relationship between exponential growth and finite resources, illustrating how resource limits could be exceeded.

The survivalist tradition has been upheld by many distinguished scientists, scholars and commentators, including Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute; Norman Myers, one of the world’s leading authorities on biodiversity; and Paul Ehrlich, biologist, educator and author of the Population Bomb (1968).

Survivalists fall victim to the criticisms that they have too easily discounted human ingenuity, creativity, brilliance, innovation, technology and our fantastic resilience and ability to adapt.

They warn us of the dangers of exponential growth. One of the best examples of this is the elegant and simple story of the lily pond told by Lester Brown in his 1978 book, entitled The Twenty-Eighth Day, where the lilies double in number every day. On one given day, the 28th, the pond is only half full and all seems well, the next day the number of lilies doubles and the pond is completely covered.

Using such stories, the scientists try to warn us of the carrying capacities of ecosystems that can be exceeded when populations grow beyond them and subsequently the ecosystems collapse. As engineers and geologists, they warn of the limits that exist in terms of the resources we depend upon for our modern industrial society.

They were the flag bearers for the survivalist discourse but their voices were drowned out in a sea change of sustainability talk in the 1990s.

Don’t be so pessimistic

One reason why survivalism tends to take a very distant back seat in global environmental discussions is because it is seen by many as overly pessimistic and not offering practical solutions or a way forward. In his time, Malthus was reviled for undermining our notions of material progress and wealth accumulation. Not much has changed.

The population bomb that Ehrlich described keeps ticking and fails to explode. The limits to growth concept remains invisible to most ordinary people and the survivalists fall victim to the criticisms that they have too easily discounted human ingenuity, creativity, brilliance, innovation, technology and our fantastic resilience and ability to adapt.

The same optimistic/pessimistic divide surrounds the climate change, peak oil, biodiversity and food security debates. People like Bjorn Lomberg remind us that things have never been so good and there are more important areas on which to spend our limited resources than reducing greenhouse gas emissions (See the Sceptical Environmentalist, 2001). Others — like Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their controversial essay, The Death of Environmentalism (PDF) — argue that modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological problems. They recommend that environmentalists go beyond their single issue focus and point out that what we need, in relation to global warming, for example, is a bold clean energy revolution or an endeavour like the ‘Apollo Program’ (which aimed to land the first humans on the moon), rather than a cautious Kyoto Protocol.

There is a lot of sense in what they say and, to be honest, an optimistic viewpoint fits better with the reality of global capitalism. An alternative survivalist agenda goes completely in the opposite direction of our consumer-based lifestyles (i.e., self-restraint, self-sufficiency, constraints) and hence has limited attraction for political leaders and practically everyone else.

But what if they are right?

The sad part of the story about the boy who cried wolf was the fact that the wolf was real.

The truth may be that we have heard about the pending crisis so many times now, that we are like the villagers who decide we are not going to rush to rescue the boy the next time he cries wolf and we willingly risk losing the sheep. Perhaps that is because there will always be wolves, in one form or another.

But in this instance, is the wolf real? In 2008, Graham Turner compared the Limits to Growth scenarios with real data from 1970 to 2000. Very worryingly, he concluded (PDF) that the real data closely matches their “standard run” or “business as usual scenario”, which results in a global collapse before the middle of this century. That is a pretty disturbing wake up call.

However, the message is not getting through. Perhaps the general public faces the question of survival on a daily basis with the challenge of just holding down employment in difficult economic times and hence they have limited attention for the bigger questions, such as the state of the world in the near future. “Someone else should be taking care of it,” they hope.

Maybe the survivalist message will only have broader relevance to everyone when the crisis actually happens.

Or, as Dryzek points out, maybe survivalism is a discourse that only has resonance with the elites of this world. This could explain why the world’s governments appear greatly concerned with establishing a new global climate change agreement, while their publics appear less so and instead seem to be facing something called Apocalypse Fatigue. At least, that is what we are led to believe.

Maybe the survivalist message will only have broader relevance to everyone when the crisis actually happens and then fingers will be pointed and people will say, “Why did no one tell us?” If anyone begins listening by then, the survivalists will respond with “Why did no one listen to us before?”

But if we are truly at a some kind of turning point and about to enter an age of scarcity in a carbon constrained world, then the question becomes: “How do we move this discourse from elite groups and institutions to the wider society?” Perhaps, sadly, we are incapable of doing so and that could be one reason why civilizations collapse, as Jared Diamond reminds us in his 2005 book. Do we have a choice? Have we already chosen to fail?

Diamond explains that civilizations die from suicide, not murder. Even those societies that excel at problem solving can fail when their mental fixations prevent subsequent problems from being solved. For instance, let us say that our first challenge was to provide a cheap supply of energy and we found it in oil. However, we have now become so fixated with this challenge, it is difficult to know how to respond to a world with less and less oil.

Another point to recognize is that there also appears to be a scarcity of another vital resource: young, upcoming, recognised scientists who talk the survivalist talk with the same authority and stature as Erhlich, Brown, Meadows, Myers and so on. There seems to be no younger generation to take on the survivalist mantle. Could that be because such thinking is seen as discredited, irrelevant and inappropriate? Is such environmentalism truly dead, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus would have us believe?

Or alternatively, are we witnessing the initial steps towards mainstreaming these concerns with the upsurge in websites, books and movies aiming to popularise the notions of scarcity and constraint? Is survivalism stealthily creeping back in vogue, even if most people still aren’t listening?

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Survivalism Back In Vogue by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.