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Massive Economic Disaster Seems Possible -- Will Survivalists Get the Last Laugh?

With multiple crises on the horizon, survivalist views don't seem as marginal as they did before.
 
 
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They used to be paranoid preparation nuts who built bomb shelters for a place to duck and cover during nuclear dustups with communist heathens, but their tangled roots go back to the Great Depression for a reason. If you want to get sociological about it, survivalism started out as a response to economic catastrophe. And now, with a cratering stock market, a housing meltdown that has devalued everything in sight, and skyrocketing prices for food, gas and pretty much everything else, survivalists are preparing for -- and are prepared for -- the rerun. In fact, they may be the only people in America feeling good about the prospects of a major crash.

And the interesting thing about the once-fringe movement at this moment in history is that survivalism has now gone green -- at least in theory.

From peak oil and food crises all the way to catastrophic payback from that bitch Mother Earth, there are more reasons to hide than ever. Conventional society as we know it is already undergoing some disastrous transformations. Ask anyone ducking fires in California, floods in the Midwest or bullets in Baghdad. Maybe it didn't make sense to run for the hills, stockpile water and food, grow your own vegetables and drugs, or unplug from consumerism back when America's budget surplus still existed, its armies weren't burning up all the nation's revenue and its infrastructure wasn't being outsourced to a globalized work force.

But those days are gone, daddy, gone.

What's coming up is weirder. Author, social critic and overall hilarious dude James Kunstler tackled that weirdness, otherwise known as an incoming post-oil dystopia, in his recent novel, World Made by Hand , which has since become one of a handful of survivalist classics. And as Kunstler sees it, whether you are talking about gun nuts or green pioneers, at least you are talking.

"At least they're aware that we've entered the early innings of what could easily become a very disruptive period of our history," the Clusterfuck Nation columnist explains. "Most of them are responding constructively rather than just defensively. They're much more interested in gardening and animal husbandry than firearms."

Not that the gun nuts have gone away. Their ranks have just diversified.

"The gun nuts have been on the scene longer than the peak oil argument has been in play," he adds. "They were initially preoccupied with Big Government and its accompanying narrative fantasy of fascist oppression, which is why they adopted a fascist tone themselves. But peak-oil survivalists are different from the Ruby Ridge generation. They don't think that a bolt-hole in the woods is a very promising strategy. We have no idea at this point what the level of social cohesion or disorder may be, but if the rural areas, especially the agricultural centers, become too lawless for farming, then we'll be in pretty severe trouble because there will be nothing for us to eat."

That's not on the to-do list of author and SurvivalBlog owner James Rawles, who has been getting asked more and more questions by a mainstream press finally waking to the consequences of disaster capitalism, climate crisis and the hyperreal dream of bottomless consumption. He has fielded questions from the New York Times , and he has taken an online beating from conscientious pubs like Grist, but he hasn't gone Hollywood. The times, which are a-changin', have caught up to him.

"There is greater interest in preparedness these days because the fragility of our economy, lengthening chains of supply and the complexity of the technological infrastructure have become apparent to a broader cross section of the populace," Rawles wrote to me via e-mail (but only after asking how many unique monthly visitors AlterNet commanded). "All parties concerned may not realize it, but the left-of-center greens calling for local economies and encouraging farmers markets have a tremendous amount in common with John Birchers decrying globalist bankers and gun owners complaining about their constitutional rights. At the core, for all of them, is the recognition that big, entrenched, centralized power structures are not the answer. They are, in fact, the problem."

Fair enough. But that broad brush fails to recognize the complexities of the very community it is purporting to try to establish. Indeed, difference is what survivalists seem to be running from, whether it is historically the difference between blacks and whites, secularists and true believers, or simply the haves and have-nots. It is that latter crowd that the survivalists seem most worried about. Their separation from society at large is arguably a retreat from community rather than a striving toward it.

"I'd say that survivalism is indeed a celebration of community," Rawles asserts. "It is the embodiment of America's traditional can-do spirit of self-reliance that settled the frontier."

But that's also a generalization, especially when one considers that the word "settled" is a coded reduction for a "near-genocidal wipeout of the frontier's native populations," most if not all of whom were perfecting a survivalist ethic by maximizing their skill sets and living in symbiosis with the land that provided them what they needed in food, tools and medicine. In fact, those settlements would have been hard-pressed to exist without what Rawles earlier described as a "centralized power structure," known as the expansionist United States government and its military, paving the road forward. Each self-reliant mythology carries within it grains of complicity in the community at large, which is a fancy way of saying there's nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide.

This is especially true today in our hyperreal, hyperconsuming 21st century, where survivalism has become more of a gadget fantasy than an earnest grasp for community.

"It seems a natural human impulse that we are hard-wired to follow as circumstances require," Kunstler says, "although it is constrained by social and cultural conditioning. To some degree, in our consumer culture, survivalism is related to the gear fetishism you see in popular magazines that purport to be about sporting adventures, but are really about acquiring snazzy equipment. America in 2008 has become a cartoon culture of Hollywood violence that promotes grandiose power fantasies of hyper-individualism and vigilante justice. Add guns and economic hardship, and spice it up with ethnic grievances, and the recipe is not very appetizing."

This future cultural, environmental and geopolitical miasma is where the survivalist and the mainstream converge in agreement. Both camps, pardon the pun, are convinced that we're screwed down the road.

"The next Great Depression will be a tremendous leveler," Rawles prophesies. "If anything, life in the 22nd century will more closely resemble the 19th century than the 20th century. Sadly, the 21st century will probably be remembered as the time of the Great Die-Off."

"I don't consider it a total wipeout," Kunstler counters. "It's a very big change, but people are resilient and resourceful. Look, imagine if you were a person who had survived the Second World War in Europe, and you were walking around Berlin in the spring of 1946, a year after the end of the war. A once-magnificent city has been reduced to rubble. Your culture is lying in ashes. Yet, people pick up and rebuild."

That is, if they're sticking together. If they're scattered and fending for themselves, and taking armed retreat defense tips from SurvivalBlog, that makes rebuilding a bit more complicated. Which, in the end, is where survivalism is most ambiguous. Is it a growing population of forward-looking realists who are smartly preparing for the die-off brought on by climate crisis and economic collapse, so they can pick up themselves and their people, and rebuild with that "can-do" spirit, as Rawles calls it? Or are they simply gadget-fascinated fundamentalists afraid of change and challenge, so afraid that they'd rather hide and hoard than join the fight?

The jury is still out. But, according to Rawles, it will soon have its diversity mirrored by survivalism's changing demographic.

"I think that in the next couple of decades," he explains, "we will witness the formation of some remarkable intentional communities that will feature some unlikely bedfellows: anarchists and Ayn Rand readers, Mennonites and gun enthusiasts, Luddites and techno-geeks, fundamentalist Christians and Gaia worshippers, tree huggers and horse wranglers. We welcome them all. Because the threats are clearly manifold: peak oil, derivatives meltdowns, pandemics, food shortages, market collapses, terrorism, state-sponsored global war and more. In a situation this precarious, I believe that it is remarkably naive to think that mere geographical isolation will be sufficient to shelter communities from the predation of evildoers."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.

 
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