Survivalism is a movement devoted to preparing for possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales ranging from local to international. Survivalists often have emergency medical and self-defence training, stockpile food and water, prepare for self-sufficiency, and build structures that will help them survive or ‘disappear’ (e.g. a survival retreat or underground shelter).
Anticipated disruptions include the following: clusters of natural disasters, patterns of apocalyptic planetary crises, or Earth Changes (in the form of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, severe thunderstorms); disaster caused by the activities of humankind (chemical spills, release of radioactive materials, nuclear or conventional war, oppressive governments); societal collapse caused by the shortage or unavailability of resources such as electricity, fuel, food, or water; financial disruption or economic collapse (caused by monetary manipulation, hyperinflation, deflation, or depression); and global pandemic.
The origins of the modern Survivalist movement in the United Kingdom and United States include government policies, threats of nuclear warfare, religious beliefs, and writers who warn of social or economic collapse in both non-fiction and apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.
Cold war era civil defense programs promoted public atomic bomb shelters, personal fallout shelters, and training for children, such as the ‘Duck and Cover’ films. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has long directed its members to store a year’s worth of food for themselves and their families in preparation for such possibilities. The current LDS teaching advises a three-month supply.
The Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 is often cited by survivalists as an example of the need to be prepared.
The increased inflation rate in the 1960s, the US monetary devaluation predicted by Harry Browne in his 1970 book ‘How You Can Profit from the Coming Devaluation,’ the continued concern over a possible nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, and the increasing vulnerability of urban centers to supply shortages and other systems failures caused a number of primarily conservative and libertarian thinkers to suggest that individual preparations would be wise. Browne began offering seminars on how to survive a monetary collapse in 1967, with Don Stephens (an architect) providing input on how to build and equip a remote survival retreat. He gave a copy of his book, the ‘Retreater’s Bibliography,’ to each seminar participant.
In the next decade Howard Ruff warned about socio-economic collapse in his 1974 book ‘Famine and Survival in America.’ Ruff’s book was published during a period of rampant inflation in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. Most of the elements of survivalism can be found there, including advice on food storage. The book championed the claim that precious metals, such as gold and silver, have an intrinsic worth that makes them more usable in the event of a socioeconomic collapse than fiat currency.
Other newsletters and books followed in the wake of Ruff’s publication. In 1975, Kurt Saxon began publishing a monthly tabloid-size newsletter called ‘The Survivor,’ which combined editorials with reprints of 19th century and early 20th century writings on various pioneer skills and old technologies. Saxon used the term ‘survivalist’ to describe the movement, and he claims to have coined the term.
For a time in the 1970s, the terms survivalist and retreater were used interchangeably. While the term retreater eventually fell into disuse, many who subscribed to it saw retreating as the more rational approach to conflict-avoidance and remote ‘invisibility.’ Survivalism, on the other hand, tended to take on a more media-sensationalized, combative, ‘shoot-it-out-with-the-looters’ image.
In 1980, John Pugsley published ‘The Alpha Strategy,’ which remains popular with survivalists, and is considered a standard reference on stocking food and household supplies as a hedge against inflation and future shortages.
Interest in the first wave of the survivalist movement peaked in the early 1980s. A renewed arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, marked a shift in emphasis in preparations made by survivalists away from economic collapse, famine, and energy shortages—which were concerns in the 1970s—to nuclear war.
Interest in the movement rose again in 1999, a second wave triggered by fears of the Y2K computer bug. Before extensive efforts were made to rewrite computer programming code to mitigate the effects, some writers anticipated widespread power outages, food and gasoline shortages, and other emergencies.
The third wave of Survivalism began after the September 11, 2001 attacks and subsequent bombings in Bali, Madrid, and London. The fear of war, avian influenza, energy shortages, environmental disasters, and global climate change, coupled with economic uncertainty, and the apparent vulnerability of humanity after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, has once again made survivalism popular.
These developments led Gerald Celente, founder of the Trends Research Institute, to identify a trend that he calls ‘Neo-Survivalism.’ He explained this phenomenon in a radio interview in 2009: ‘When you go back to the last depressing days when we were in a survival mode, the last one the Y2K of course, before the 1970’s, what had happened was you only saw this one element of survivalist, you know, the caricature, the guy with the AK-47 heading to the hills with enough ammunition and pork and beans to ride out the storm. This is a very different one from that : you’re seeing average people taking smart moves and moving in intelligent directions to prepare for the worst. (…) So survivalism in every way possible. Growing your own, self-sustaining, doing as much as you can to make it as best as you can on your own and it can happen in urban area, sub-urban area or the ex-urbans. And it also means becoming more and more tightly committed to your neighbours, your neighbourhood, working together and understanding that we’re all in this together and that when we help each other out that’s going to be the best way forward.’
Survivalism is approached by its adherents in different ways, depending on their circumstances, mindsets, and particular concerns for the future. The following are characterizations, although many survivalists fit into more than one category.
Safety Preparedness Oriented: Makes preparations for such calamities as structure fires, dog attacks, physical confrontations, snake bites, lightning strikes, car breakdowns, Third World travel problems, bear encounters, flash floods, home invasions and train wrecks.
Wilderness Survival Emphasis: Stresses being able to stay alive for indefinite periods in life-threatening wilderness scenarios, including plane crashes, shipwrecks, and being lost in the woods. Survival kit often includes water purifiers, shelter, fire starters, clothing, food, medical supplies, navigation, signaling gear, and a heavy-duty survival knife.
Self-Defense Driven: Concerned with surviving brief encounters of violent activity. Focus is on personal protection and its legal ramifications, danger awareness, John Boyd’s cycle (also known as the OODA loop—observe, orient, decide and act), martial arts, self defense tactics and tools (both lethal and non-lethal).
Natural Disaster, Brief: Lives in tornado, hurricane, flood, wildfire, earthquake or heavy snowfall areas and wants to be prepared for the inevitable. Invests in material for fortifying structures and tools for rebuilding and constructing temporary shelters. May have a custom built shelter, food, water, medicine, and enough supplies to get by until contact with the rest of the world resumes.
Natural Disaster, Prolonged: Concerned about weather cycles of 2–10 years, which can cause crop failures. Might stock several tons of food per family member and have a heavy duty greenhouse with canned non-hybrid seeds.
Natural Disaster, Indefinite/Multi-Generational: Global warming, global cooling, environmental degradation, warming or cooling of gulf stream waters, or a large meteor strike.
Bio-Chem Scenario: Fatal diseases, biological agents, and nerve gases. Might own NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) full-face respirators, polyethylene coveralls, PVC boots, Nitrile gloves, plastic sheeting, and duct tape.
Malthusian: An increase in human population affects available fresh water, food, health-care, environment, economics, consumerism, and spread of diseases.
Monetary Disaster Investors: Believe the Federal Reserve system is fundamentally flawed. Newsletters suggest hard assets of gold and silver bullion, coins, and other precious-metal oriented investments such as mining shares. They are preparing for paper money to become worthless through hyperinflation.
Biblical Eschatologist: Study End Times prophecy and believe the Savior is going to return soon, and that the final battle with Satan on the Plains of Megiddo might occur in their lifetime. Most believe that the Rapture will follow a period of Tribulation, though a smaller number believe that the Rapture is imminent and will precede the Tribulation (‘Pre-Trib Rapture’). There is a wide range of beliefs and attitudes in this group. They run the gamut from pacifist to armed camp, and from having no food stockpiles (leaving their sustenance up to God’s providence) to storing decades’ worth of food.
Peak Oil Doomers: The Doomers are convinced that Peak Oil (oil depletion) is a genuine threat, and take appropriate measures, usually involving relocation to an agriculturally self-sufficient survival retreat.
Rawlesian: Followers of James Wesley Rawles, the best-selling author of survivalist fiction and non-fiction books, often prepare for multiple scenarios with fortified and well-equipped rural survival retreats. Most are politically conservative. Nearly all place an emphasis on both being well-armed as well as being ready to dispense charity in the event of a disaster. Most take a ‘deep larder’ approach and store food to last years.
Medical Crisis Oriented: Has a complete medical pack in house and car. Donates blood and is active in the Red Cross. Has taken CERT, EMT, and CPR courses, knows vital signs, and stockpiles medicines. Concerned with vehicle accidents and emergencies involving injuries. Focus is on helping family, friends, and community survive medical emergencies.
Common preparations include the creation of a clandestine or defensible retreat, haven, or Bug Out Location (BOL) in addition to the stockpiling of non-perishable food, water, water-purification equipment, clothing, seed, firewood, defensive or hunting weapons, ammunition, agricultural equipment, and medical supplies. Some survivalists do not make such extensive preparations, and simply incorporate a ‘Be Prepared’ outlook into their everyday life.
A bag of gear, often referred to as a Bug Out Bag (BOB) or Get Out Of Dodge (G.O.O.D.) kit, can be created which contains basic necessities and useful items. It can be of any size, weighing as much as the user is able to carry.
A ’72-hour kit’ may be assembled, which contains essential emergency items. In most community emergency situations, it will take at least three days (72 hours) for help to arrive. Therefore, there should be three days’ worth of food, water, and personal items for each member of the family. The 72-hour survival kit also includes a first aid kit, important numbers and papers, as well as plans for outside contact and rendezvous. There are also 72-hour isolation kits that include using a 5-gallon bucket as a toilet, tablets for water purification, and personal hygiene supplies. The American Red Cross recommends keeping such a 72-hour supply of essential items in case evacuation is needed. They recommend a 2 week supply of water in order to ride out a disaster in the home.
The most ardent survivalists aim to remain self-sufficient for the duration of the breakdown of social order, or indefinitely if the breakdown is predicted to be permanent (a ‘Third Dark Age’)—a possibility popularized in the 1960s by Roberto Vacca of the ‘Club of Rome,’ a global think tank. Some survivalists prepare to survive in small communal groups (‘group retreats’ or ‘covenant communities’).
Other survivalists have more specialized concerns, often related to an adherence to apocalyptic religious beliefs. Some New Agers anticipate a forthcoming arrival of catastrophic earth changes and prepare to survive them. Some evangelical Christians hold to an interpretation of Bible prophecy known as a post-tribulation rapture, in which Christians will have to go through a seven-year period of war and global dictatorship known as the ‘Great Tribulation.’ Jim McKeever helped popularize survival preparations among this branch of evangelical Christians with his 1978 book ‘Christians Will Go Through the Tribulation, and How To Prepare For It.’
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an official policy of food storage for its members. This is a hedge against unemployment and prolonged sickness, and is focused more on self-reliance than survivalism. The policy is referred to as ‘Provident Living’ in official Church publications. It has existed throughout the Church’s history, and has evolved to reflect changes in threats to personal independence. The current food storage minimum for LDS members is one year, but at one point the minimum was 7 years.
In popular culture, survivalism has been associated with paramilitary activities. Some survivalists do take active defensive preparations that have military roots and that involve firearms, and this aspect is sometimes emphasized by the mass media. Kurt Saxon is one proponent of this approach to armed survivalism. Saxon’s writings on survival tend toward Social Darwinism and Eugenics. According to Saxon, survivalism is: ‘Looking out for #1’ and being sufficiently armed to defend one’s refuge and belongings against hungry people who might demand that others share.
The potential for Societal collapse is often cited as motivation for being well-armed. Thus, some non-militaristic survivalists have developed an unintended militaristic image, and the term survivalism has been used to signify right-wing reactionary paramilitary activities. In particular, the media tends to loosely label many militants and miscellaneous extremists as ‘survivalists,’ whether or not they are actively preparing to survive, and regardless of formal survival training or firm affiliation with survivalist groups.
The government of Switzerland with its long-standing militia system, mandatory construction of fallout shelters in all newly-constructed multi-unit housing, and its network of reduit fortresses is one of the best prepared nations. An earlier civil defense effort in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s fell into disrepair by the 1970s. These preparations included the designation of structures as official fallout shelters, and duck and cover drills in schools.
Adherents of the back-to-the-land movement inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing, sporadically popular in the United States in the 1930s and 1970s (exemplified by ‘The Mother Earth News’ magazine), share many of the same interests in self-sufficiency and preparedness. Back-to-the-landers differ from most survivalists in that they have a greater interest in ecology and counterculture. Despite these differences, ‘The Mother Earth News’ was widely read by survivalists as well as back-to-the-landers during that magazine’s early years, and there was some overlap between the two movements.