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Nine Reasons I’m Interested in Survivalism

I've become more interested in survivalism over the past few months, for a number of reasons.

1) Survivalism describes a "back to the basics" approach to survival and living that helps strip away (or at least make optional) the consumerism and other trivialities that tend to preoccupy the minds of modern city dwellers, which is refreshing. It's also intellectually fulfilling because it's a vast domain of knowledge with practical application. Smart people also tend to see new solutions to problems that many others do not see, so in an area where it's easy to get up to speed and start having novel ideas, they benefit from the satisfaction of developing novel ideas that few if any people have thought of before and which can help others.

2) In today's uncertain times, survivalism is especially appealing to generations growing up in periods of economic and geopolitical turmoil. Survivalism doesn't have to be an all-out lifestyle change -- even something as simple as growing food in your own backyard to supplement purchases from the supermarket can lead to better nutrition, less expense, better tasting food, and the satisfaction of producing something with your own two hands.

3) Before you can run, you have to learn to walk. Before you can live to 100, you have to live to 50. Before you live to 200, you have to live to 100, and so on. Too much discussion of life extension seems to focus on supplements and exercise (not to say these aren't important, just that these points are practically common knowledge in many parts of the US and Europe), and not on the less-trendy-among-the-SWPL-crowd topics such as pursuing scientifically legitimate anti-aging technologies (though some transhumanists are doing a good job on this, and the mainstream is quickly following), medical knowledge (if you injure yourself and can't easily get to a hospital, what do you do?), and self-defense (if you are attacked by a mugger in the dark, how should you react?) With our handy-dandy friend, Bayesianism, we make a good shot at precisely quantifying risk and allocate our attention accordingly.

4) Of course, survivalist knowledge and skills can vastly magnify your chances of surviving a major disaster up to and including nuclear war or worse, while also increasing your chances of being able to save dozens or even hundreds of lives of others in such a scenario. . Even straightforward knowledge like the fact that millions of gallons of water could be recovered from underground water pipes in undulating terrain even in a grid-down scenario by opening fire hydrants at the lowest available altitude could save hundreds of lives in a disaster. During the exodus from Hurricane Katrina, thousands of thirsty people walked right by fire hydrants. There are many thousands of similar examples of people suffering due to lacking simple knowledge as soon as they are transplanted outside of their zone of familiarity.

5) Acquiring survivalist knowledge can help us take action today to prepare our cities, countries, and planet for resilience under any disaster. If every person in the US spent $50 today, they could acquire enough food and water to keep them in good health for a month even if distribution were halted. Even such a basic measure would increase societal resilience far out of proportion to its cost. Not only resilience in the face of catastrophic disasters like EMP attack or pandemic flu, but even simple downturns like a recession. For someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, which is most Americans, setting aside a small reserve for a rainy day can make a huge difference. For practically all of human civilization up until very recently, this was considered common sense, but with the great economic boom of the last 60 or so years, many people have become complacent. This fits in with the logic of someone who wants to live a very long time -- take history seriously and you can get the next best thing to having hundreds of years worth of wisdom. This view of life stands in stark contrast to the thrill-seeking risk-taker who regularly speeds, drives buzzed, and generally regards his life as disposable -- something to be used up and then thrown away.

6) Another reason for valuing survivalism, and this is somewhat related to #1, is that it builds a greater understanding for how people live in poor countries. Surviving with basic tools is daily reality for billions of people. The poor make up most of the population of the world. To see how high technology can really help people and change the world, don't just look at the latest Apple products. ("Think Different", y'know?) Everybody and their brother is excited by the sexiness and sleekness of expensive, new gadgets, and some of these toys may indeed be the wave of the future, but a lot of it seems to merely be technophilic masturbation. What is more exciting to me are technological upgrades to long-standing human needs, like acquiring water or generating basic alternative power. I am far more interested in a machine that takes water directly from air than the latest $4,299 monitor. When I say "artificial general intelligence could have a massive beneficial impact on the world", I'm generally thinking of its potential contributions to the former type of technology, not the latter.

7) Survivalism embodies back-to-the-earth type attitude that fosters good health (by helping us see the value of exercise) and better treatment of the environment.

8) At some point over the next 10-20 years, probably prior to the Singularity, I foresee the possibility of increasing decentralization of technological society due to wonderful inventions like better fab labs, alternative energy systems, personal security systems, and much more. The more technology improves, the less it makes us dependent on sometimes hectic agglomerations of technology like cities. Already, technology is making it easier for the middle-class to live well while camping, backpacking, or visiting a country home, so these activities do not have to be synonymous with low-tech. With a hand-crank radio and personal solar cell, I can charge my cell phone or even a laptop or Game Boy in the middle of nowhere. This opens up the possibility of entirely new communities -- savvy, educated city folk capable of living off the grid in picturesque areas without going back to the Stone Age or dragging along a massive, gas-guzzling RV. I think that FM-2030, an early transhumanist I admire, would really appreciate this. For someone like me, who loves both high technology and the ruggedness of nature (and is interested in seeing their eventual fusion), this is like having my cake and eating it too.

9) Somewhat more obscurely, learning more about the totality of the "tech tree" of modern society, rather than just a few pieces of it, could help me better argue the ways in which a "human-equivalent AI" could rapidly bootstrap its own infrastructure and practically become an autonomous civilization of its own, with great potential for helping or hurting humanity, including humans that live in the middle of isolated forests. Technology-soaked urban humans find it difficult to fathom the idea of a human-equivalent AI surviving and thriving outside of a regulated lab or mainframe environment, but the knowledge I've acquired over the last few years makes it seem more plausible -- and I'm not even an AI, which would have a much greater-than-human memory and focus even if its general intelligence were "merely human-equivalent".

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  1. As an avid survivalist, I’m happy to see you going in this direction. I agree that the urban zombie consumerism that has become so rampant around the planet is a *huge* problem. If you never unplug from the matrix and experience wild nature, you tend not to know or care that it’s being trashed beyond repair to make your lifestyle possible. With over half of humanity living in cities for the first time ever, and an ever-growing population that almost universally wants the consumer lifestyle, this problem can only get worse. I don’t know if nanotechnology and other tech revolutions are really coming, but my biggest fear is that they will only accelerate the trend toward a completely domesticated and processed planet, where all wilderness has been replaced by dystopian machine-made landscapes. To me this is a vision of hell. This vision is exactly what drove Ted Kaczynski to become a terrorist; he saw where things were going and concluded that bringing about the collapse of industrial civilization was the only way to prevent a nightmarish future. At any rate, that’s one plausible solution the “singularity problem”.

  2. In any scenario where I have to live off my emergency supplies, it’s unlikely that there would be much in the way of life-extension research (or any research) going on. If I don’t end up living forever, I won’t consider myself to have survived anything.

    I’m really kinda surprised that you wrote this post.

  3. Jim, if you have to live off emergency supplies for a week, or even five years, that means that all research stops forever?

    An immortalist writing a post about survivalism really shouldn’t be that much of a shocker.

  4. So true, survivalism skills knowledge gives edge in uncertain times, the urban civilization is unprepared for any unexpected economic or environmental, technological shocks.

  5. The idea of comfortable folks hoarding supplies for the apocalypse doesn’t particularly appeal to me. While it’s better than playing the consumerist status game, I see enough too much suffering and want around me to worry about cataclysm. I would rather share than stockpile.

    On the other hand, your reference to the coming decentralization of production strikes a resonating chord. That sort of technology has vast liberating potential. The radical community loves trying to live off the grid, though our general lack of resources and technical ability makes current attempts rather pathetic. Nor does the influence of primitivism help matters. If your vision of resilient transhumanist survivalism could merge with the anarchist dream of autonomous, self-sufficient communities, then we might have a revolution on our hands. Unfortunately, I suspect cultural and ideological differences will continue to prevent that from happening.

  6. It’s not that research would stop forever, it’s that it wouldn’t achieve the goal of figuring out immortality during my (and your) lifetime, which is all that matters to me.

  7. I’m 26, so a five year interruption of scientific progress would still leave an expected 54 years of progress to occur before my current expected actuarial death in roughly 2070. (I can even estimate my expected actuarial death at roughly 2090 if I assume that average lifespans increase a quarter of a year per year throughout most years in the 21st century, as they did during the 20th.) Even a 20-year interruption would give me 35 or more good years in which to take advantage of new progress in life extension. Are you already in your 50s or 60s or somesuch? Also, I know that not everyone buys into it potentially working, but of course there is cryonics.

    I read your comments above as implying that any disaster will necessarily preclude our taking advantage of life extension even if recovery is possible in a decade or less. I think you may underestimate the possible rate of reconstruction. Also, note that we don’t need to achieve “immortality” to live forever, just longevity escape velocity (and the avoidance of accidents or disease — very important!)

  8. The motivation behind the Internet was building a network that can survive a nuclear war. To that end, it is decentralized with no single point of failure. Similarly, survivalism and self-sufficiency increases the robustness of human society, which is itself a type of network.

    As technology accelerates, there are likely to be increasing instabilities. Improving resiliency is a good way to try to counterbalance.

  9. Regarding interruptions in progress, my thought is that any event that would force us to use our survival skills would be either localized or global.

    If an EMP takes out the US infrastructure, it screws the US and causes some pretty bad global economic repercussions for a couple years, but the majority of “western” technology would survive. They’d still be doing longevity research and nanotech development in Argentina or Switzerland or India. In this regard Michael is right. It pays to be prepared.

    Now, I agree with Jim when you introduce scenario two: a non-local cataclysm. I think we tend to overestimate the speed with which society can rebuild after a global cataclysm, but we underestimate how fast society can rebuild after a major local one. We have long experience with the latter, and absolutely no baseline for the former.

    In my example, World War 2 would be considered a local catastrophe. It only took Europe and Japan a decade or so to recover their infrastructure and quality of life. I suspect it would be the same with us.

  10. Doesn’t have to be any major societal disruption. You can easily imagine a plane crash or car failure situation where a cell phone doesn’t work or is broken. This could mean weeks waiting for rescue or making your way back somewhere, which is not necessarily trivial.

  11. I’d like to distinguish between these two questions:

    1) Is there any hope of immortality if longevity research stops for X number of years?
    2) Is there any hope of immortality if I have to live off of emergency supplies for X number of years?

    If it’s the first, I completely agree with you that everything could be fine. But if you *had* to live off of emergency supplies for any extended period of time, that means something seriously terrible had to have happened, and it happened everywhere. What scenarios like this are you planning for that still leave you hopeful that recovery could happen in time?

  12. Any global catastrophe, like a large enough supervolcano eruption, a meteor strike, all out nuclear war, etc will deal a massive blow to all research endeavors by the fact that the research population will be culled down next to zero.

    Developing AGI is the only viable way to have quick restoration of research and development as provided the hardware it is able to quickly ramp up the research being done.

    Lacking AGI one can only hope decent facilities for cryonics remain, and one either knows the procedures or they’re well documented at the facilities.

  13. I think some commentators here have seriously underestimated how globalized the production of commodities has become since the world wars. Even a localized collapse, in some parts of the world, will throw the international economy into extreme turmoil.

    Second point: Modern scientific research requires training, peer review, scale economy financing, and other tools that may not exist in the wake of a global collapse. These capital commodities simply might not exist in a small scale environment.

  14. Jim, a scenario like EMP attack. Such an event could cause devastating damage to a large region but still only directly effect less than 10% of global population.

    Even if there were a major nuclear war, there would still be dozens of countries not involved and not bathed in fallout that would probably do OK. (For instance, most of South America has not historically been too involved in American-European-Asian conflicts.) The world is a really huge place. The reason why war can be devastating is not because our bombs can bomb major portions of the Earth’s surface (contrary to popular belief), but because aggressive humans have a way of seeking out other humans and precisely killing them. This can’t be all-encompassing unless you have a group that really wants to take over the entire world, biowarfare that spreads pathogens almost literally everywhere, or unfriendly AI is involved.

  15. Most transhumanism are interested in preserving the established order. Somehow they believe that by enhancing themselves they can remain relevant, and in charge of the future. They seek to create AI slaves to serve their needs. They cling desperately to life and power rather than trying to create a better world. I think at some point humanity will willingly or unwilling turn over control to the AI. Transhumanisms seek to prevent that. Whether they want to emit it or not the singularity institute fits this mold.

  16. Survivalists tend to be a somewhat cranky bunch, but I have known folks with that kind of world view in the dim and distant past. They are ever vigilant to take action “when the balloon goes up”, and have basements stockpiled with baked beans and dog food.

    Survivalism may help you to make it through a temporary tough period, such as an earthquake or revolution, but eventually your baked bean supply will run low and you’ll grow weary of dining on rodents. Ultimately you’ll have no option but to emerge from the fortified bunker and begin to work together cooperatively with whatever remains of the wider society.

    The modern survivalist might want to ensure that all of their data is locally backed up, so that they’re not vulnerable to disappearance of internet connectivity. It may also be worth buying several computers of an identical model (interchangeable spare parts), and make sure you have a copy of Wikipedia on DVD.

  17. Michael, I highly recommend as an excellent resource on disaster preparedness. It features surprisingly rational and practical advice and covers every aspect of pretty much any scenario you’d care to name, both natural and man-made.

  18. Thanks Randy! Actually I’ve been reading JWR’s blog regularly for a few months now and have both of his books. :) I was surprised to find a school of survivalism that really thought about everything and could actually work in a disaster because it takes so many things into account.

    A key insight from JWR is that in a post-disaster world, force multipliers matter even more, and it’s possible to accumulate so many force multipliers if you plan ahead that you can make it incredibly difficult for you to be killed by an outside group.

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