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”.