Mainstreaming Survival

I watched the new show about survival preppers on the National Geographic channel last night. I notice that several grocery stores in our area have started carrying big cans of long term storage food in the past year. In the same year, I surprised myself with how many people read post-apocalyptic fiction. I sense the rising level of unease with our future. Perhaps it goes hand in hand with frustration with our government.

In terms of television, I shouldn’t be surprised at all. There’s a good chance that I shouldn’t add this new show, Doomsday Preppers, to the pile of signs that we are collectively growing ever more fearful of our direction as a nation. I mean, there are reality shows about literally everything else these days. There’s a form to the genre. I can only only imagine that every pitch for a new reality show includes the words “train wreck” and “you can’t stop watching.” On the other hand, maybe the show is part of a larger pattern. Maybe it seeks to fill a niche in our desire for security in an ever shakier world. You tell me.

Whether survival thinking is truly more prevalent or not, it feels more visible to me. As with all problems, I wonder if that visibility is just a function of more channels of information, or simply the fact that I am paying more attention to that aspect of life. I doubt if the latter is the case. I’ve been self-sufficiency oriented for a long time. I’ve been able to see potential breakdown scenarios for a long time as well. I’m lucky enough to have been exposed to some good survival training along the way. I’ve got 800,000 words of survival fiction sitting on my hard drive, but for some reason, it’s still odd to me to watch a TV show about hard core preppers doing their thing.

In each case, I saw some good survival thinking, good prep, good plans, and at least one aspect that made it hard to accept. In every case, some unidentified experts critiqued the methods and plans of each prepper. And in each case, the preppers themselves reacted to the critique with a fair amount of fanatical adherence to their own methods. The amount of time, effort, and money that was involved should lead a critical thinker to ask, “What if I’m wrong?” That never seemed to happen. Of course, it’s television, and there is no way that a 20-minute segment can cover the entire methodology of a person in that short amount of time. Every prepper had a favorite apocalypse scenario, and that was their reality in TV land. They were all in.

I say there is nothing wrong with that. This ostensibly free country says you can believe what you want, and live the way you want, as long as you do it within the law. Good for them. Here’s the problem, though. If your whole life is about survival, if you do nothing with your time and money except for preparing for the apocalypse, are you really living? What if you are wrong and, like it or hate it, nothing really changes?

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I don’t believe we can maintain the trends that have gotten us to this point of insecurity with our future, but it’s entirely possible that our esteemed leaders can figure out a way to keep grinding along for quite some time. It certainly works well enough for them that they will move mountains to keep the status quo.

There are a million perspectives, and mine is worth exactly what you paid for it, but I think there are three pieces to survival – come what may.

One is the here and now. If nothing changes, you need to survive this world, find some measure of success, and hopefully gain some happiness along the way. Take advantage of relative peace and prosperity to educate yourself and live life to the fullest.

Two is the self-sufficient layer. If our leadership has proven one thing, it’s that we can’t necessarily trust them to do what is in our best interest. That means to some extent that you have to figure out how to hold your life together if they make mistakes that cause problems for us regular folks. Only you can decide what this means for you. You may live on some land, grow your own food, and run your house on a wind generator. You may develop a network of people who can help you if there are disruptions in life. You may simply gain some skills that you think will trade for value if systems break down. It’s for you to decide. Again, educate yourself and consider your own situation. Dream up potential scenarios and develop the answers that work for you.

Three is true survival situations. Earthquakes, floods, blizzard, pandemic, wildfires, war, economic collapse, and so on. If life pulls the rug right out from under you, what do you do? The odds of any single event occurring is very low. The cumulative odds of a survival event is still low, but over the course of a lifetime, it’s significant. This is another plan that should be dependent on your particular situation and needs. The way I approach it is: What’s the worst that could happen? Ok. I can’t possible survive that. Now, what’s the worst survivable situation that could occur? If you can deal with the worst survivable scenario you can dream up, that’s level three.

The ultimate plan would allow someone to maintain a life of comfort and security no matter what happens. It’s a balance of everything, and therefore almost impossible to achieve. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I do think it would take all your time and all your money to even approach the ultimate plan. For me, a better approach is to create a lifestyle that leans towards self-sufficiency while keeping that set of tools that would allow survival in the extreme scenarios. What’s extreme? Think of pioneers moving west into hostile territory with nothing but a little rough food, a pack full of tools, and a head full of knowledge to use them.

In short, I think survival starts and ends with what you know. You can improve any situation with the ability to think and adapt to what you have to work with. Everything else is icing on the cake. Be smart.

Meanwhile, we can watch Doomsday Preppers. We can live in shipping containers arranged like a castle. We can, as a young woman, plan to hike across Houston in short shorts and expect not to be noticed. We can learn to eat weeds and hope no one else knows the same tricks. We can stockpile 30 years of gourmet food and hope that no one will arrive in force to take it. We can make fantastic plans yet allow ourselves to be morbidly obese. We can do all kinds of things to prepare for the worst, but lets not forget to live our best.

18 thoughts on “Mainstreaming Survival

  1. So I struggle everyday to figure out how to best protect my family if there is ever a collapse. I live in a suburban neighborhood with a huge mortgage. There is unfortunately no way out of that huge mortgage (to move to a house with lots of land and no neighbors) without major penalties (financially and morally). I DON’T want to stockpile guns and ammo in this suburban home in fears that it will get broken into and all those guns stolen (and used for criminal activity). I could also stockpile food, but living in a neighborhood with 300 other homes and a block away from Wal-Mart makes me feel as though it will get stolen once food runs out at the grocery stores. I also don’t want to live in fear everyday that an apocalyptic event will even happen, but then again, I need to be prepared to protect my family. Maybe I am just clueless on where and how to start. I’m not an outdoorsmen nor am I ex-military, so it seems to me like I am screwed.

    • Well, the good news is that there are almost an infinite number of ways to improve your self-sufficiency. You can do it anywhere. The bad news is that, in a literal sense, every one of has some barriers to preparedness we must overcome. The worse news is that for every last one of us, there are scenarios that we cannot prepare to survive. At some point in the curve, we are all screwed. My thought is you can push the ‘screwed’ point a lot further out on the continuum of possibilities with a few simple preps.

      Many preppers work much harder to extend that point as far as they can. Aside from all the practical difficulties of trying to account for everything, there is a philosophical aspect to the whole debate. I chose my first level of preparedness as being prepared to live the life we live now for a reason. Life is hard enough without living in fear of disaster. Millions of people are in exactly your mortgage situation, for example.

      Level two serves as some level of resiliency, reserves you can call upon if needed. This could be a couple of weeks worth of extra food on hand and a backup water supply, or it could be a garden and a basement full of canned goods. It’s entirely up to you to define it. My own view is that we are so used to a convenient and stable supply of food in this country that it wouldn’t take long before your reserve food would be quite handy. In a way, this type of preparedness is the most difficult, because it demands some kind of lifestyle adjustment.

      Level three is not that hard in the prepping sense. If things get that bad, your mortgage will not be an issue. You put together a kit full of basic supplies and get somewhere safe. If you think you may be left without transportation, build your kit in a backpack(s) and plan to walk it.

      One thing I left out of the article was community, which is another aspect you must define for yourself. My brother, for example, lives in a neighborhood that is not conducive to long term survival in a tough scenario. His whole plan is built around a friend’s farm. If he sees approaching disaster, he’ll head out to the farm and they’ll build a community on the spot. If you have a friend or relative with a situation that seems more resilient than yours, have a talk with them. You never know until you ask. Maybe they have similar concerns and would be glad for the extra hands.

      Where to start… It turns out, preparedness is a popular topic. It doesn’t matter where you want to emphasize your preparations, your philosophical stance, or how hardcore you want to go, there is a website out there that can get you up to speed. If you want a nice, organized package of information, head for the library and start reading. Over time, you will learn enough that you can pick and choose the ideas that work for you.

  2. Getting and staying as physically fit as possible is one thing we all can do. Hopefully by staying fit we could eliminate the need for prescription drugs that might not be available. Did you ever really see how far you can walk? It is amazing how fast the body builds itself, a person can gain a lot by just walking and then adding 5 more minutes to your walk over a period of time. And walking gives you a lot of time to think about those other things.
    I’d say, learn how to store food, how to get water, how to make it drinkable, how to make a fire without a match or lighter. All the things our great or great great grandparents knew.
    But I really think health comes first then strength and knowledge.
    I’m in a place in my life finally that is good, I would be mad a hell if everything goes to hell…but I’d also be so mad that I would try to survive…no laying down crying waiting for someone to fix things. I’m not that kind.
    And also, I’m sure we would need to be able to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the things we need to survive.
    You’re never screwed until you lay down and give up.

    • Well said, Pocofish. I happen to know that it’s possible to walk at least 119 miles in a 24-hour period. I’ve read that we all (generally) have enough stored body fat to walk from coast to coast. Walking is exceptionally good thinking time.

      I’d say attitude (or spirit, if you like) comes first, then everything else. Health is definitely invaluable. A lack of it is not always avoidable, but you play the cards you were dealt. My opinion is that knowledge is more important than strength. It’s all too easy to work hard on the wrong thing. One of my big worries is that most of us have lost touch with those great(s) grandparents and have a blind faith that nothing can go wrong or change. That’s the real trap. I don’t believe that you should make your whole life about preparing for disaster, but I think failing to consider the possibilities is dangerous. Without having gone there in your mind, I expect that a great deal of freaking out will be the result at the onset of real trouble.

      • Jim/Pocofish,

        I appreciate the responses and agree with both of you. I try to stay physically fit by playing softball, walking, coaching my son’s baseball team, etc. I’m not a GQ model, but feeling ok by today’s standards. I’ve started to store some food away and have an escape plan to my in-laws who live much further out in the country here in Florida (only 15 minutes away). I’d never give up of course, but disgusted enough by what’s going on in today’s society to make me feel like we are all screwed.

        Thanks for this blog, as it helps me bring this thing called life into perspective. I’ve read all the Renewal books and have recommended them to all my friends.

  3. Hey Jim! I’m new to the blog. I found you via Renewal on Amazon. (BTW, I am enjoying the series.)
    Anyway, I thought I would chime in and say that I really experienced a life-changing event in August of 2005 when I responded (in my role as a health care worker) to Mississippi in the days following Hurricane Katrina. I really don’t want to take the time to go into it right now but the whole experience had a profound effect on me.

    When I got home I immediately began putting things together in what I call a “hurricane box” and making plans for all kinds of disasters. I told my wife that we needed to have cash on hand. I saw what it was like to be hundreds of miles away from any functioning power grid. I have since that time kept a substantial amount of food stores, not anything crazy but in a rotation that we use. We also garden and can and are active in our local agriculture community. I am a life-long outdoorsman and feel that I have the skills, tools, and experience to be smart enough to make wise decisions. I have become well read in a wide range of topics from Peak Oil to EMP to “Super-Flu”. I am constantly moving my homestead towards more self-sufficiency.
    It is my desire to pass these skills on to my grandchildren. At two and four years old they are already savy hikers and campers.
    Besides all that I think I live in a great location for survival in a small town in southern Appalachia.

    Do I live life to the fullest? Hell yes! Do I think that the Mayan Apocalypse is coming to get me on 12/21/2012? No. Do I believe that planning and survival skills are a good thing? Yes!

    I agree with you, first of all life is about living…this moment, right now. I’m not going to waste it worrying and obsessed about living in a cave and eating canned beans surrounded by an arsenal of AR-15s. But at the same time, I don’t want to be caught with my pants down either!

    I’m looking forward to reading more Jim. Take care!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Hometownhiker. It sounds like you’ve managed to find a good balance.

      The funny thing for me, and maybe this will help with the passing things on to your grandchildren, is that all those things my parents did when I was a kid really count. Some of it was torturous and boring at the time, but decades later, I’m so thankful that I was exposed to hiking, camping, farming, building, and fixing things. I’m sure it took a lot of patience on my parents’ part. Looking back, much of it spurs the best childhood memories I have. I lacked any grandfathers, but I had a close uncle, and a neighbor who made for an excellent grandfather substitute. At some point, it adds up to a general ability to use whatever is at hand, to figure things out, and to save lots of money on plumbers and electricians. Perhaps more importantly, it adds up to a philosophy that makes it easy to learn new skills.

      Although I hope the entire topic is irrelevant for all of us, the inner game of self-sufficiency is one worth playing. It’s a small price to pay for a little extra padding against the hard knocks of life.

      Thanks for reading and joining the conversation.

  4. I just thought of something…we all seem to be able to talk fairly “possitive” thoughts on survival tactics..yet, seem to be pretty negative when we speak of our government.

    It’s a crying shame that our government has been so removed from “for the people, by the people.” Sort of makes a person want to build that log cabin in the woods next to a stream with my shot gun over the fireplace and fishing pole by the door.

    • Pocofish, I hiked 2176 miles from GA to ME on the Appalachian trail at age 50 in 146 days. That is including 15 zero or no mile rest days. That works out to 16.6 trail miles a day while hiking. That’s not counting all the extra miles actually walked off trail to shelters, water supplies, and hitchiking and walking in to towns for resupply.
      I figure I am good for an average of 20 miles a day on good terrain. My longest day was 26 miles. I knew several younger hikers who could manage an occasional 30 miler. People tend to fall into rhythms during a long distance hike and you learn to tune into and listen to your body. Everyone has their own pace.

      • And I bet you had good hiking boots, too. I’m impressed, while walking, notice I describe what I do as going for a walk, I think about walking to Florida…what it would be like, makes the time go faster. Honestly, shoes and/or boots are items we take for granted. A lot of the shoes people have wouldn’t hold up for very long at all.
        146 days…wow, I’d like to do that, I really would. There would be something really good about just walking and taking one step after another. Did the weather take a toll or was it pretty good for you? I’m assuming you are a guy, did you go as a group and were there women also?
        I’ve thought about it, I don’t think I ever would really do it, but just letting everything go and taking off, well it’s something I think about.

  5. I think that the mainstreaming of survival is a response of society to all the major unknowns were are facing as a Nation. The prepper lifestyles highlighted on the Nat Geo program are interesting in that these individuals have taken it to one extreme and focused on one doomsday scenario. I think people should just take aware from the show what some of the dangers of the modern world truly are and how you and make yourself ready of what make come.

    I personally would love to have a bug out location in the mountains stocked with everything imaginable much like John Rourke in the Survivalist series. Not realistic for me though. But I can and have learned to keep a good amount of freeze dried foods, a case or 2 of MRE’s, 2 full pantries of dry/canned goods, and plentiful water supplies on hand in the home without breaking the bank. Some alternate power, cooking, and heating sources on hand are a useful and low cost investment for what may come. One handgun, one reliable battle rifle, and one small game rifle with a decent sized lot of ammunition. I keep a bug out bag in my car for the simple reason I have a 60 mile drive to work through a part of the desert with minimal cell phone reception so I could be stranded and need more than most folks keep on hand in their cars.
    Am I set to ride out the end of the world as we know it? Not really but I am ahead of 75% of the average population of sheeple who mainly only are concerned with the next american idol, football, basketball, or what have popular thing. Do I live my life in fear of not being ready? Not all, I live life day to day enjoying the little things that make living worth while. A person can keep an awareness of what would be good to do for emergencies and not get bogged down by fear and worry.
    Just my 2 cents worth.


  6. I have a little second hand insight into the shows producer. He allegedly said that integrity doesn’t matter. He said that he compromises his integrity every five minutes. The show seems to have the goal to marginalize preppers. I’ve heard of several people that have been asked to participate in the show and have flat refused. Why would you want to set yourself and your family up to be misrepresented and ridiculed in the name of a pseudo reality show? Just my two cents worth.

    • Hmmm. Now why would anyone want to marginalize hardworking preppers? Let me think… We could see it as the typical marketing for “reality” television, or perhaps something a little more purposeful.

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