The New Survivalism

Every age, it seems, has its answer to what to do when all the systems collapse. In the 1950’s, it was the bomb shelter. When the Russians drop The Big One, the family with a giant metal tube buried in the backyard will survive while their neighbors with less foresight and no pallets of batteries will perish.

In this view, survivalism is based on What You Have. Got a lifetime supply of meatlike-substance-in-a-can and a hand-cranked can opener? Then, you’re set for life.

With the Arab oil shocks of the 1970’s, the weakness of this form of survivalism was evident. How in the world could a man stockpile a lifetime supply of gasoline when oil products were rationed? For that matter, why would a man need to stockpile goods at all if he simply learned to supply himself from nature with what he needs? After all, stuff can be taken away from you, but knowledge can’t.

So up popped what I call the ‘Ted Nugent Era’ of survivalism. What You Have no longer mattered as much as What You Know. How to start a fire from two sticks. Forge iron. Farm. Shape wood. The stuff your dad knew how to do but that you only spent a weekend doing in Boy Scouts. The Foxfire series was published. Hunting and fishing grew in popularity. Heirloom crafts.

But with the fall of the Evil Empire, people realized that perhaps we wouldn’t one day be living out in the mountains like Patrick Swayze in Red Dawn, drinking warm deer blood and ambushing our Cuban overlords.

We could survive or even prevent the post-Peak Oil World, some people said, if we just built walkable communities, where cars were not necessary, with lots of open space and bicycle paths and farmers’ markets and hand-knitted iPod cozies and where electricity comes from rainbows and the fields are fertilized with unicorn manure. The world would be wonderful if every place could just be as well-landscaped and the people as bright-faced as the campus at your closest liberal arts college.

From this foundation came the concept of ‘New Urbanism’ by pioneers like Andres Duany. He designed the city of Seaside, Florida, the place where the ‘The Truman Show’ was filmed. The movie starred Jim Carrey as a man who lived his entire life in this picture-perfect town, not realizing that he was being filmed the entire time.

Many people don’t realize that the idyllic town featured in that film is real. And like any planned community designed by an architect to be ‘organic’, of course, it’s totally fake. The building regulations are so strict that houses are so expensive that it’s nothing but a retirement community for former New York City lawyers and their pampered wives. Basically no children. No poor people. No minorities.

I’ll give the movement an A for intentions, though. They want cities to be ‘walkable’ (rather than drivable) and ‘on a human scale’ (rather than a scale for cars), both of which are noble goals. But then, Kinshasa is ‘walkable’, by necessity. Mogadishu has lots of ‘open space’. Ougadougou is ‘human scale’. But I wouldn’t want to live in any of those places and most rational people wouldn’t either.

In the New Urbanist view, survival depends on Where You Live. Because streets are narrow and they all have sidewalks, when the oil runs out you’ll be able to walk to the marketplace whose shelves are bare. Renovated and repurposed strip malls will become wonderful art space and upscale dining establishments targeted at Baby Boomers who won’t be able to afford health care when the dollar collapses. Parking lots will be torn up and have condominiums built on top of them so that we can all freeze together in the dark (because if there’s anything America has a shortage of, it’s newly built condominiums).

For much of human history, survival has been a communal activity. If you have a patch of land, getting it into shape took the help of your neighbors. And they’d gladly help, in part because you would then help them, but mostly because they were your cousins and uncles and nephews. They shared the same religion as you. The same genes. The same place on earth. The same fate. Your success meant their success.

For much of human history, survival depended not on What You Know nor Where You Live, but rather Who You Know (and Who You Owe). Brad Kessler talks about this in his book The Goat Song, talking about raising goats and harvesting hay on a small farm in Vermont. When it was time for a neighbor to bring in the harvest, everyone around that farm helped to pitch in. Not because they were going to get paid cash (They weren’t). And not because they were explicitly hoping to get re-paid in labor or gifts at some point in the future. They helped out because they share the same fate in that little patch of rural Vermont.

Kessler’s slice of Vermont is a nice place to live for this reason, regardless of how walkable it is to the downtown or how wide peoples’ porches are. Conversely, Baghdad and Kabul and Mogadishu are unpleasant places to live not because of the color schemes or architectural styles of the facades of buildings, but rather because of how the people there treat each other – as enemies and targets, rather than as people who share the same future.

That’s why New Urbanists like James Howard Kunstler are missing the point when they complain that America is becoming a nation of ‘noplaces’ – strip malls and parking lots and fast food restaurants and other ugly, poorly designed places that are ‘not worth caring about’. Even though they are well manicured and easy to walk around, gated ‘alphaville’ communities are not worth caring about simply because of high mobility. He’s the regional manager at a major retail chain and she’s an orthodontist and they’re only living in their upscale community for 3-5 years until he’s promoted to the head office and they can flip their house and move to some other alphaville. There’s no value to knowing the neighbors because you all can afford your own lawnmowers (so you don’t need to share tools), you don’t need anyone to help pull in any harvest (so you don’t need to share labor) and you’ll move away in a few years (so your kids are not going to get married to their kids and carry on the next generation).

You see, what people like Duany and Kunstler miss is that it’s not places that are worth caring about, it’s people. The New Survivalism, I think, looks a lot like the old survivalism. If energy becomes more expensive and travel more difficult, don’t worry about What You Have nor Where You Live, but rather Who You Know and Who You Owe. Because those are the people whose success depends upon yours.


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