Modern transportation, agriculture and energy production have brought us to the brink of the 2-degrees Celsius threshold — the limit scientists say global warming can reach before it triggers catastrophe. Even if implemented, the last-ditch agreement at the latest U.N. Climate Conference may not be enough to avert it.
As we face escalating heat waves, fires, floods, droughts and animal extinctions, how humanity can survive is up for debate. Some people are stockpiling canned beans. Others say it’s more complicated — but that survivalists may have something to teach us.
Andy George, Minneapolis-based host of the YouTube series “How To Make Everything,” spent six months and $1,500 making a single sandwich from scratch — curing his own cheese, baking his own bread, slaughtering a chicken — then sank his teeth into the sandwich and declared it merely “not bad.”
“It’s one thing to make sure you have food to survive, but another to be able to make your favorite sandwich or dessert or to have a book to read,” says George. “True survivalism involves preserving the aspects of our culture that we value.”
Do we need to sacrifice some parts of civilization to survive as a species? If so, how do we get there? Should we focus on individual survival? Work together to revive old skills? Move back to the land? Or, as journalist Leigh Phillips argues in his book Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, do we need “a pro-industrial, pro-growth left” rather than “hair-shirted, anti-development greenery”?
For answers, we turned to George and two other progressives exploring survivalism. One is Kim Holtan Lang, a psychotherapist in Vermont who, over 10 years’ time, experimented with primitive living in the wild. Our other panelist is Rob Hopkins, a British permaculture activist who founded the Transition Network, composed of towns that “have started up projects in areas of food, transport, energy, education, housing, waste, arts, etc., as small-scale local responses to the global challenges of climate change, economic hardship and shrinking supplies of cheap energy.”
Kim and Andy, you’ve both tried to forgo contemporary tools and technologies. How hard is it?
ANDY: If somebody out in the woods tried to follow my directions literally, they would die. Because it would take them six months to make a sandwich, and they would starve, and it would take them 10 months to make their own clothing, and they would freeze to death.
KIM: Survival with no tools, no shoelaces or containers: That’s pretty intense. If you’re standing next to a dead elk, and you’ve never done this before, it’s pretty shocking. If we all dashed out into the woods to try and live that way, it wouldn’t really be viable.
Given the difficulties, why try?
KIM: It would be very positive to see a generation learning to use their hands and be skilled again in terms of resilience — both personal and community. That aspect has much to offer young people.
ROB: For me, the classic head-for-the-hills-with-four-years-of-beans-and toilet-paper-and-firearms model isn’t really a solution. Survival skills are important. But part of the big work is asking how we bring people closer together. You can bring those skills into the places where people live, and that can stimulate new enterprises and networks. Here in Totnes, England, we have started a number of community social enterprises. We’ve crowdfunded to build, for the first time in 100 years, the infrastructure to mill locally grown grain. This economic localization approach creates jobs — and good food. This gives us more confidence that if we’re faced with a problem, we have the skills to respond. But also, there’s huge potential there for reimagining, redreaming and rebuilding the economy of the place where we live so it’s appropriate for the times we’re moving into.
KIM: My experience is more of what happens when you’re on your own in the woods or with one other person. I’ve gone out with just a knife and a tarp. It’s very experiential, very isolated. There’s a lot of physical, mental and emotional things happening, and those are transferable. The number one survival skill, in my opinion, is attitude. That can either keep you alive or it can kill you. What Rob is saying about bringing these skills back really resonates with me. What you learn out there are truths that are transferable to society.
So do we need to go back to a precivilization or simply a pre-extractivist way of life? Or, as Leigh Phillips argues, should we barrel ahead with “growth, progress, industry and stuff”?
KIM: There are plenty of places on earth where life is tribal. I don’t think we’re ever going to get pre-anything. So it depends what we’re calling civilization. I’m not anti-resource use, because you need resources to survive. We can’t live if we can’t make tools.
We can exist and do a better job of stewarding our forests, watersheds and resources. We haven’t learned how to not poison our water and our children.
ROB: I think the idea that we can go back, that anybody wants to go back, is ludicrous, because it’s impossible. It comes down, for me, to this idea of what is progress. My argument is that we should be responding to the climate crisis by suggesting a model of progress based on limits, and not on economic growth — a whole different way of measuring progress. Some argue that progress is nuclear power stations and airplanes, and without those we’re somehow throwing civilization out with the bathwater. When we talk about progress, we first need to look at many of the indigenous people who don’t live in so-called developed ways, who are having this model of development forced on them, and say, “That’s not progress, as far as we’re concerned” — like the buen vivir approach in South America.
So it’s not about saying, “Can we go backwards?” There are many things that I certainly would not want to go back to. In Totnes, when we started the Transition movement, we did oral history interviews with people who remembered the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when we used a lot less energy, a lot less imported food, and so on. People were delighted, for example, that we no longer used coal servicing and that the washing machine had been invented. But also, people missed growing up in a town where food was growing everywhere. It brought a quality to life that we’ve just discarded.
It’s about how do we move forward in a way that’s most appropriate to the challenges we have, which is cutting carbon emissions 10 percent every year to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change, as the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research argues. That should shift our thinking to what we imagine is possible versus what we keep doing because it’s what we’ve always done.
ANDY: In some senses I’m trying to be that person who goes into the woods by himself trying to create modern stuff. It takes a ton of time and the end result is never that great. I tried to make clothing — a suit. It took 10 months. I made a book. I made root beer floats. It all took ages. It just really illustrates the difference between working alone versus in a society where everybody is specialized. When you try to do it all yourself, it’s pretty much impossible.
I don’t think it’s really practical to try to go back. Most people won’t be willing to give up their coffee, or anything like that. What we should probably go back to is just being aware of where stuff comes from. A hundred years ago, people would have watched my series and been like “Yeah, I can do that. Big deal.” Today most people are oblivious. But having that awareness makes you less wasteful. Once you make your own sandwich, you’re a lot less likely to throw away a perfectly good meal.
KIM: I’ve had conversations with people who say, “Oh, I don’t know how anyone could hunt.” Well, where do you think that neatly packaged thing in the refrigerator comes from? More than once I’ve heard, “I don’t want to think about that.” We want the goods, but we don’t want the responsibility.
So are we dependent on society to survive?
KIM: To survive, no. To flourish, yes.
ROB: I’m very sociable, and I think while it is possible that you could survive on your own, it’s not an existence I’d want. Sociologists talk about how we now have an epidemic of loneliness. For me, it’s about taking survival skills, thinking about how they might enable us to reimagine our local economies, and then getting together rather than taking off on our own up into the mountains.
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