Survivalism is a commonly used term for the preparedness strategy and subculture of individuals or groups anticipating and making preparations for future possible disruptions in local, regional or worldwide social or political order. Survivalists often prepare for this anticipated disruption by learning skills (e.g., emergency medical training), stockpiling food and water, preparing for self-defense and self-sufficiency, and/or building structures that will help them to survive or "disappear" (e.g., a survival retreat or underground shelter).
The specific preparations made by survivalists depend on the nature of the anticipated disruption(s), some of the most common scenarios being:
Within pop-culture the term is also used to refer to isolationist groups with anti federalist agendas. Pop-culture survivalism is often associated with paramilitary activity, though real world survivalism need not include such preparations.
The Cold War era government Civil Defense programs promoted public atomic bomb shelters, personal fallout shelter, and training for children, such as the Duck and Cover films. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long directed its members to store a year's worth of food for themselves and their families in preparation for such possibilities. Also, the Scout movement lives by the motto: Be Prepared!
Articles on the subject appeared in such small-distribution Libertarian publications as The Innovator and Atlantis Quarterly. It was also from this period that Robert D. Kephart began publishing Inflation Survival Letter (later renamed Personal Finance). The newsletter included a continuing section on personal preparedness by Stephens for several years. It promoted expensive seminars around the US on the same cautionary topics. Stephens participated, along with James McKeever and other defensive investing, "hard money" advocates.
Newsletters and books on the topic of survival followed the publication of Ruff's first book. In 1975, Kurt Saxon began publishing a tabloid-size newsletter called The Survivor, which combined Saxon's editorials with reprints of 19th century and early 20th century writings on various pioneer skills and old technologies. Kurt Saxon used the term "survivalist" to describe the movement, and he claims to have coined the term.
In the previous decade, preparedness consultant, survival bookseller and author Don Stephens from California, had popularized the term "retreater" to describe those in the movement, referring to preparations to leave the cities for a remote place of haven or survival retreat when/if society breaks down. In 1976, before moving to the Inland Northwest, he and his wife authored and published The Survivor's Primer & Up-dated Retreater's Bibliography.
For a time in the 1970s, the terms "survivalist" and "retreater" were used interchangeably. While the term "retreater" eventually "fell below the public radar", many who subscribed to it saw "retreating" as the more rational, conflict-avoidance, remote "invisibility" approach. "Survivalism", on the other hand, tended to take on a more media-sensationalized, combative, "shoot-it-out-with-the-looters" image.
Another important newsletter in the 1970s was the Personal Survival Letter published by Mel Tappan, who also authored the books Survival Guns and Tappan on Survival. Newsletters functioned as important networking tools for the survivalist movement before the information age.
In 1980, John Pugsley published the book The Alpha Strategy. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks in 1981. Even after 28 years in circulation, The Alpha Strategy is considered a standard reference on stocking up on food and household supplies as a hedge against inflation and future shortages. This has made the book popular with survivalists.
Many books have been published in the past few years offering survival advice for various potential disasters, ranging from an energy shortage and crash to nuclear or biological terrorism. In addition to reading the 1970s-era books on survivalism, blogs (such as SurvivalBlog) and Internet forums are popular ways of disseminating survivalism information. Online survival websites and blogs discuss survival vehicles, survival retreats and emerging threats, and list survivalist groups.
Economic troubles emerging from the credit collapse triggered by the 2007 US subprime mortgage lending fiasco and global grain shortages have prompted a wider cross-section of the populace to get prepared. James Wesley Rawles, the editor of SurvivalBlog was quoted by the New York Times in April 2008 that "interest in the survivalist movement 'is experiencing its largest growth since the late 1970s'”.
Many survivalists also have a bag of gear that is often referred to as a Bug Out Bag (BOB) or Get Out of Dodge (G.O.O.D.) kit, holding basic necessities and useful items weighing anywhere up to as much as the owner can carry.
Survivalists aim to remain self-sufficient for the duration of the breakdown of social order, or perhaps 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. Survivalists allow for the contingency that they cannot prevent this breakdown, and prepare to survive in small communal groups ("group retreats") or "covenant communities."
In 1999, many people purchased electric generators, water purifiers, and several months or years worth of food in anticipation of widespread power outages because of the Y2K computer-bug. Instead of moving or making such preparations at home, many people also make plans to remain in their current locations until an actual breakdown occurs, when they will-in survivalist parlance- "bug out" or "get out of Dodge" to a safer location.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an official policy of food storage for its members. This is more of a precaution for emergencies rather than in preparation for some apocalyptic event. Some very small religious sects have also been known for their belief in a coming apocalypse and the adoption of some survivalist practices. Among the best known of these groups are the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
And the Maya Doomsday prediction for December 21, 2012 has mystical/religious underpinnings. Promoted by The History Channel and various websites has given rise to a mystical belief that the Mayans were able to predict cataclysmic events or even the end of the world at this date. December 21, 2012 is the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar.
Mainstream economist and financial adviser Barton Biggs is a proponent of preparedness. In his 2008 book Wealth, War and Wisdom, Biggs has a gloomy outlook for the economic future, and suggests that investors take survivalist measures. In the book, Biggs recommends that his readers should “assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure.” He goes so far as to recommend setting up survival retreats: “Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food,” Mr. Biggs writes. “It should be well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc. Think Swiss Family Robinson. Even in America and Europe there could be moments of riot and rebellion when law and order temporarily completely breaks down.”
Kurt Saxon, who besides publishing a survival newsletter is also the author of a book on improvised weapons, The Poor Man's James Bond, is perhaps the best known proponent of this approach to survivalism. Saxon's writings on survival tend toward social Darwinism, with survivalism defined by Saxon as "Looking out for #1" and a need to be sufficiently armed to defend one's refuge and belongings from hungry people who might demand that others share them if society breaks down.
The potential for Societal collapse is often cited as motivation for up-arming. Thus, some non-militaristic survivalists often have developed an unintended militaristic image. Societal collapse has recurred throughout history and is an aspect of the human condition which may await all human societies. The modern day interest in survivalism is concerned in-part with preparing for the possible collapse of the contemporary technologically complex society with its long chains of supply.
In the event of such a collapse some militaristic groups theorize that roaming hordes of looters and/or organized gangs will unleash terror in competition for limited resources, and that government resources to control such events will be immediately overwhelmed. Thus, being armed is a crucial aspect of their survival plan. The need for firearms in common military chamberings is often cited by survival web sites and blogs This contributes to the perception by some outside the movement that survivalism is militaristic.
Such a militaristic approach is not shared by all survivalists, and is indeed condemned by some survivalists that envision a more peaceful transition in a catastrophic era. Nevertheless, its prominence in popular depictions results in the term "survivalism" being sometimes used interchangeably with right-wing reactionarism. In particular, the mainstream media tends to loosely label many militants and miscellaneous extremists as "survivalists", whether or not they are actively preparing to survive.
The U.S. government civil defense program was minimal during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, despite efforts by a few including Christian Dominionist writer Gary North to lobby the government to resume civil defense efforts and build fallout shelters. Gary North co-wrote a book, Fighting Chance to advocate for the return of the civil defense program. A renewal of U.S. government interest in preparedness and training did not happen until after the September 11th attacks and Hurricane Katrina. This renewed interest is typified by Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) organizations.
Official government preparedness training has often been ridiculed or discounted by those in the survivalist movement. This goes in particular for the 1950s/1960s era duck and cover drills. One main tenet of the survivalist movement has been that people should prepare on their own or with like-minded people, not rely on the government to take care of them in emergencies. On the other hand, there is a growing body of thought in favor of community based efforts, widespread involvement in CERTs, and working together with first responders. Many of those in favor of this approach reject the term "survivalist" because they see preparing in conjunction with government agencies, and preparing completely apart from the government, as two separate things; also because they emphasize that they do not anticipate any permanent or long-term breakdown of society which they say survivalists do.
Philip Wylie's novel Tomorrow (1954) is the story of two American cities weathering a nuclear attack. One was prepared with an extensive civil defense plan while the other was not.
Robert A. Heinlein used survivalism as a theme in much of his science fiction. Tunnel in the Sky (1955) explores issues of survivalism and social interactions in an unfamiliar environment. Farnham's Freehold (1964) begins as a story of survivalism in a nuclear war. Heinlein also wrote essays such as How to be a Survivor which provide advice on preparing for and surviving a nuclear war.
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) is a story dealing with life in Florida after a nuclear war with the USSR. Pat Frank also authored the non-fiction book How To Survive the H Bomb And Why. (J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1962.)
Malevil by French writer Robert Merle (1972) describes refurbishing a medieval castle, and its use as a survivalist stronghold in the aftermath of a full-scale nuclear war. The novel was adapted into a 1981 film directed by Christian de Chalonge and starring Michel Serrault, Jacques Dutronc, Jacques Villeret and Jean-Louis Trintignant
Ernest Callenbach's 1975 novel Ecotopia, about the secession of the Pacific Northwest from the United States to form a new country based on environmentalism, named the political party governing the new country the Survivalist Party. However in his 1981 sequel to the book, Ecotopia Emerging, he qualified that choice of name by having the party leader state that the name Survivalist referred to the survival of the planet's ecosystems, rather than to people who prepare for an economic or political collapse.
Lucifer's Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven (1977) is about a cataclysmic comet hitting the Earth, and various groups of people struggling to survive the aftermath in southern California. Their similarly themed "Footfall" (1985) is about aliens bombarding Earth using controlled meteorite strikes to exterminate life.
Edward Abbey's 1980 novel Good News is about small bands of people in the Phoenix, Arizona area trying to fend off the rise of a military dictatorship after the collapse of the economy and government.
The Survivalist is the title of a series of 29 paperback novels by Jerry Ahern first published between 1981 and 1993. The Postman by David Brin (1985) is set in a time after a massive plague and political fracture result in a complete collapse of society. It gives a very unflattering portrayal of survivalists as one of the causes behind the collapse. The quasi-survivalist "Holnist" characters are despised by the remaining population. The Holnists follow a totalitarian social theory idolizing the powerful who enforce their perceived right to oppress the weak. However later Brin stated that when he was writing the book survivalist was the best term to describe the militia movement.
Patriots: Surviving the Coming Collapse by James Wesley Rawles (1998) is a novel about a full-scale socio-economic collapse and subsequent invasion of the US. The novel describes in detail how the lead characters establish a self-sufficient survival retreat in north-central Idaho.
Dies the Fire, the first book in the Emberverse Series of post-apocalyptic fiction by alternate history author S.M. Stirling. The story takes shape in a universe where electricity, guns, explosives, internal combustion engines, and steam power no longer work. More books follow in the series and flesh out the story-line in a survivalist post-Change world of agriculture, clan-based life and conflict.
"World Made By Hand" by James Howard Kunstler (2008) is a "cosy catastrophe" set in upstate New York. The time is the near future, and the novel depicts an America that has economically collapsed as a result of the combined impact of peak oil, global warming, influenza epidemic, and nuclear terrorism. The characters struggle to reclaim lost skills, maintain order, and redevelop a pre-industrial revolution lifestyle in an agrarian village. In part, the novel explores the question of what happens when modern technology, based on electricity, is no longer available.
"24" is a TV series about a federal agent named Jack Bauer and his attempts foil terrorist plots in Los Angeles. During Season 2 Jack's daughter, Kim Bauer, is on the run from the law and finds shelter with a survivalist.
Jericho (2006) is a TV series that portrays a small town in Kansas after a series of nuclear explosions across the United States. In the series, the character Robert Hawkins uses his prior planning and survival skills in preparation of the attacks. Most of the episodes center around the sudden collapse of American society resulting in a six way split of the country. The town usually must fight an outside enemy in order to preserve their food and supplies. Jericho, as well as other media fiction (as Oddworld) also focuses on scavenging.
Lost, a group of crash survivors are stranded on an island with little food and only the remains of the aircraft and baggage to survive with. Over the course of the series, the survivors adapt to life on the jungle isle while some even welcome it. One of the main characters of the series, John Locke, appears to be a survivalist even before the events of the crash, both carrying knives with him as baggage, hunting and tracking skills, and was part of a pseudo-survivalist commune earlier in life.
The BBC TV series Survivors from 1975–1977 suggested a UK view of survivalism with a small band of survivors emerging from a biological apocalypse. Following the success of the new series of Doctor Who the BBC are rumoured to be looking at Terry Nation's other works and are considering a remake of the show.
Survivor (2000-present) is a reality television game show which places a group of contestants in remote location and awards a prize to the one which lasts the longest. Generally, the game is structured such that a player's social skills are more important to winning than survival skills.
In the HBO TV series Six Feet Under, one of the characters' (George Sibley) delusions manifests itself as a form of survivalism, and he becomes terrified that a number of apocalyptic or damaging events, ranging from nuclear war and the disappearance of water to earthquakes, are imminent and takes precautions against it, much to the horror of his wife- who realizes that it is beyond cautious and is becoming obsessive.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008) is a science fiction show involving time travel with lead characters that take survivalist steps to prepare for, or possibly prevent, a future nuclear war.
Deliverance, both the 1970 novel and the 1972 film adaptation, feature elements of survivalism, and one of the main characters, Lewis Medlock (played in the film by Burt Reynolds), is a self-proclaimed survivalist, who at one point briefly explains his apocalyptic worldview: "Machines are going to fail, and the system is going to fail. And then...survival. Who has the ability to survive. That's the game, survival."
In the 1983 made for TV movie Packin' it In, the main character Gary Webber (Richard Benjamin) moves his family from suburban L.A. to the wilderness of Oregon. The family moves in to a small rural community where most of the residents are survivalists.
The 1984 movie Red Dawn portrays Colorado high school students who take to the hills after a fictional invasion of the US by the Soviet Union. The students survive with supplies gathered at the beginning of the invasion, by hunting, and by ambushing Soviet patrols and supply convoys.
In the Tremors film and television franchise the character Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) is a self-admitted survivalist. In the first film he and his wife are preparing for social upheaval. Later in the series Burt shifts his focus towards the "graboids" that infest the soil of his home valley.
The Postman, a movie based upon the above mentioned novel, depicts a post-apocalyptical future in America in which a survivalist militia preys on weaker communities.
In Mad Max, a global oil shortage causes a total socioeconomic collapse and depopulation. The few scattered survivors in the Australian Outback are depicted fighting for survival, with precious "guzzoline" as their main object.
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) John Connor's mother, Sarah Connor stores weapons in an underground shelter in the desert, as instructed by Kyle Reese, John's father, in preparation for an apocalypse precipitated by computerized machines.
In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a mission involves stealing a harvester from a survivalist farm. The survivalists are portrayed as extremely violent and aggressive individuals.
In Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri the Spartan Federation faction is run by a survivalist.
The concept album Year Zero by industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails, is based around the theme of a hypothetical oppressive US government in the year 2022, and contains a single entitled "Survivalism" and a group named "Art is Resistance".