Survivalism is a movement of individuals or groups (called survivalists or preppers) who are actively preparing for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international. Survivalists often acquire emergency medical and self-defense training, stockpile food and water, prepare to become self-sufficient, and build structures (e.g., a survival retreat or an underground shelter) that may help them survive a catastrophe.
1930s to 1950s
1950 booklet Survival Under Atomic Attack, a civil defense publication
The origins of the modern Survivalist movement in the United Kingdom and the United States include government policies, threats of nuclear warfare, religious beliefs, and writers who warned of social or economic collapse in both non-fiction and apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.
The 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 Church) long directed its members to store a year’s worth of food for themselves and their families in preparation for such possibilities; but the current teaching advises only a three-month supply.
The Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 is cited by survivalists as an example of the need to be prepared.
Basement family fallout shelter, circa 1957
The increased inflation rate in the 1960s, the US monetary 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 promote individual preparations. Harry 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 original Retreater’s Bibliography to each seminar participant.
Articles on the subject appeared in small-distribution libertarian publications such as The Innovator and Atlantis Quarterly. It was during this period that Robert D. Kephart began publishing Inflation Survival Letter (later renamed Personal Finance). For several years the newsletter included a continuing section on personal preparedness written by Stephens. It promoted expensive seminars around the US on similar cautionary topics. Stephens participated, along with James McKeever and other defensive investing, “hard money” advocates.
Oregon gasoline dealers displayed signs explaining the flag policy in the winter of 1973–74 during the oil crisis
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. Ruff later published milder variations of the same themes, such as How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, a best-seller in 1979.
Firearms instructor and survivalist Colonel Jeff Cooper popularized the concept of hardening retreats against small arms fire. In an article titled “Notes on Tactical Residential Architecture” in Issue #30 of P.S. Letter (April, 1982), Cooper suggested using the “Vauban Principle”, whereby projecting bastion corners would prevent miscreants from being able to approach a retreat’s exterior walls in any blind spots. Corners with this simplified implementation of a Vauban Star are now called “Cooper Corners” by James Wesley Rawles, in honor of Jeff Cooper. Depending on the size of the group needing shelter, design elements of traditional European castle architecture, as well as Chinese Fujian Tulou and Mexican walled courtyard houses have been suggested for survival retreats.
In both his book Rawles on Retreats and Relocation and in his survivalist novel, Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse, Rawles describes in great detail retreat groups “upgrading” brick or other masonry houses with steel reinforced window shutters and doors, excavating anti-vehicular ditches, installing warded gate locks, constructing concertina wire obstacles and fougasses, and setting up listening post/observation posts (LP/OPs.) Rawles is a proponent of including a mantrap foyer at survival retreats, an architectural element that he calls a “crushroom”.
Of course, the steel doors and window frames would expand in the summer heat, badly damaging masonry structures. The winter-summer cycle would destroy them.
Bruce D. Clayton and Joel Skousen have both written extensively on integrating fallout shelters into retreat homes, but they put less emphasis on ballistic protection and exterior perimeter security than Cooper and Rawles.
Other newsletters and books followed in the wake of Ruff’s first publication. In 1975, Kurt Saxon began publishing a monthly 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 California-based author Don Stephens popularized the term retreater to describe those in the movement, referring to preparations to leave cities for remote havens or survival retreats should society break 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 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”.
One newsletter deemed by some to be one of the most important on survivalism and survivalist retreats in the 1970s was the Personal Survival (“P.S.”) Letter (circa 1977–1982). Published by Mel Tappan, who also authored the books Survival Guns and Tappan on Survival. The newsletter included columns from Tappan himself as well as Jeff Cooper, Al J. Venter, Bill Pier, Bruce D. Clayton, Rick Fines, Nancy Mack Tappan, J.B. Wood, Dr. Carl Kirsch, Charles Avery, Karl Hess, Eugene A. Barron, Janet Groene, Dean Ing, Bob Taylor, Reginald Bretnor, and C.G. Cobb. The majority of the newsletter revolved around selecting, constructing, and logistically equipping survival retreats. Following Tappan’s death in 1980, Karl Hess took over publishing the newsletter, eventually renaming it Survival Tomorrow.
In 1980, John Pugsley published the book The Alpha Strategy. It was on The New York Times Best Seller list for nine weeks in 1981. After 28 years in circulation, The Alpha Strategy remains popular with survivalists, and is considered a standard reference on stocking food and household supplies as a hedge against inflation and future shortages.
In addition to hard copy newsletters, in the 1970s survivalists established their first online presence with BBS and Usenet forums dedicated to survivalism and survival retreats.
Interest in the first wave of the survivalist movement peaked in the early 1980s, with Howard Ruff’s book How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years and the publication in 1980 of Life After Doomsday by Bruce D. Clayton. Clayton’s book, coinciding with 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. In the early 1980s, science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle was an editor and columnist for Survive, a survivalist magazine, and was considered influential in the survivalist movement. Ragnar Benson’s 1982 book Live Off The Land In The City And Country suggested rural survival retreats as both a preparedness measure and conscious lifestyle change.
Logo created by The President’s Council on the Year 2000 Conversion for use on Y2K.gov
Interest in the movement peaked again in 1999 in its 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 such as Gary North, Ed Yourdon, James Howard Kunstler, and Ed Yardeni anticipated widespread power outages, food and gasoline shortages, and other emergencies. North and others raised the alarm because they thought Y2K code fixes were not being made quickly enough. While a range of authors responded to this wave of concern, two of the most survival-focused texts to emerge were Boston on Y2K (1998) by Kenneth W. Royce, and Mike Oehler’s The Hippy Survival Guide to Y2K. Oehler is an underground living advocate, who also authored The $50 and Up Underground House Book, which has long been popular in survivalist circles. Because of extensive software testing and expensive code re-writing, the predicted Y2K crisis did not materialize.
A town near the coast of Sumatra lies in ruin after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
The third wave of survivalism began after the September 11, 2001 attacks and subsequent bombings in Bali, Madrid, and London. This resurgence of interest in survivalism appears to be as strong as the first wave in the 1970s. 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 increased interest in survivalism topics. Preparedness is once more a paramount concern to many people who seek to stockpile supplies, gain useful skills, and develop contacts with like-minded people to learn as much as possible.
Many books were published from 2008 and later offering survival advice for various potential disasters, ranging from an energy shortage and crash to nuclear or biological terrorism. In addition to the 1970s-era books, blogs and Internet forums are popular ways of disseminating survivalism information. Online survival websites and blogs discuss survival vehicles, survival retreats, emerging threats, and list survivalist groups.
Economic troubles emerging from the credit collapse triggered by the 2007 US subprime mortgage lending crisis and global grain shortages have prompted a wider cross-section of the populace to prepare.
The advent of H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009 piqued interest in survivalism, significantly boosting sales of preparedness books and making survivalism more mainstream.
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 with Jim Puplava on December 18, 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 neighbors, your neighborhood, 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.”
This last aspect is highlighted in The Trends Research Journal: “Communal spirit intelligently deployed is the core value of Neo-Survivalism”.
2010 to present
Events such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami have revitalized the survivalist community.
A number of popular television shows and movies have also emerged recently to capitalize on “today’s zeitgeist of fear of a world-changing event.”. Doomsday ideas disseminated, especially on the internet, in relation to 2012, and misunderstandings about the Mayan calendar fueled the activities of some preppers in the run-up to December 2012.
Preppers gained unwanted attention after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. This was in part because the debate that ignited over the gun control revealed extreme distrust of the social structure in the United States.
Outline of scenarios and outlooks
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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 most (if not all) survivalists fit into more than one category:
Safety preparedness oriented
While these people accept the long-term viability of Western civilization, they learn principles and techniques needed for surviving life-threatening situations that can occur at any time and place. They prepare 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
Astronaut Susan J. Helms gathers firewood during winter survival training.
This group stresses being able to stay alive for indefinite periods in life-threatening wilderness scenarios, including plane crashes, shipwrecks, and being lost in the woods. Concerns are: thirst, hunger, climate, terrain, health, stress, and fear.
This group focuses on surviving brief encounters of violent activity, including 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
People who live in tornado, hurricane, flood, wildfire, earthquake or heavy snowfall areas and want to be prepared for possible emergencies. They invest in material for fortifying structures and tools for rebuilding and constructing temporary shelters. While assuming the long-term continuity of society, some may have invested in a custom built shelter, food, water, medicine, and enough supplies to get by until contact with the rest of the world resumes following a natural emergency.
Natural disaster, prolonged
This group is concerned with weather cycles of 2–10 years, which have happened historically and can cause crop failures. They might stock several tons of food per family member and have a heavy duty greenhouse with canned non-hybrid seeds. Recent work has indicated that for disasters involving the elimination of conventional agriculture, alternative food conversion is a more practical means of ensuring human food.
UK Prepping & Survivalism