Survivalism: It's hip!
The front page of Sunday Styles features an Alex Williams piece, "Duck and Cover: It's the New Survivalism." Unlike the usual liberal media coverage of survivalists like the dreaded "Michigan Militia," however, there are no racists or anti-Semites among these left-leaning "lite" survivalists. This new band of hoarding hipsters are getting strange new respect, perhaps because they're stockpiling due not to the threat of United Nations takeover or black helicopters, but to the threats of "a tanking economy," "looming environmental disasters," and paranoia about "Peak Oil" - the paranoid theory that the world will soon face shortages of oil that spell danger to society.
The traditional face of survivalism is that of a shaggy loner in camouflage, holed up in a cabin in the wilderness and surrounded by cases of canned goods and ammunition.
It is not that of Barton M. Biggs, the former chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley. Yet in Mr. Biggs's new book, "Wealth, War and Wisdom," he says people should "assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure."
"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."
Survivalism, it seems, is not just for survivalists anymore.
Faced with a confluence of diverse threats - a tanking economy, a housing crisis, looming environmental disasters, and a sharp spike in oil prices - people who do not consider themselves extremists are starting to discuss doomsday measures once associated with the social fringes.
They stockpile or grow food in case of a supply breakdown, or buy precious metals in case of economic collapse. Some try to take their houses off the electricity grid, or plan safe houses far away. The point is not to drop out of society, but to be prepared in case the future turns out like something out of "An Inconvenient Truth," if not "Mad Max."
Interest in survivalism - in either its traditional hard-core version or a middle-class "lite" variation - functions as a leading economic indicator of social anxiety, preparedness experts said: It spikes at times of peril real (the post-Sept. 11 period) or imagined (the chaos that was supposed to follow the so-called Y2K computer bug in 2000).
At times, a degree of paranoia is officially sanctioned. In the 1950s, civil defense authorities encouraged people to build personal bomb shelters because of the nuclear threat. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security encouraged Americans to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal windows in case of biological or chemical attacks.
Now, however, the government, while still conducting business under a yellow terrorism alert, is no longer taking a lead role in encouraging preparedness. For some, this leaves a vacuum of reassurance, and plenty to worry about.
Esteemed economists debate whether the credit crisis could result in a complete meltdown of the financial system. A former vice president of the United States informs us that global warming could result in mass flooding, disease and starvation, perhaps even a new Ice Age.
Preparedness activity is difficult to track statistically, since people who take measures are usually highly circumspect by nature, said Jim Rawles, the editor of www.survivalblog.com, a preparedness Web site. Nevertheless, interest in the survivalist movement "is experiencing its largest growth since the late 1970s," Mr. Rawles said in an e-mail, adding that traffic at his blog has more than doubled in the past 11 months, with more than 67,000 unique visitors per week. And its base is growing.
"Our core readership is still solidly conservative," he said. "But in recent months I've noticed an increasing number of stridently green and left-of-center readers."
One left-of-center environmentalist who is taking action is Alex Steffen, the executive editor of www.Worldchanging.com, a Web site devoted to sustainability. With only slight irony, Mr. Steffen, 40, said he and his girlfriend could serve as "poster children for the well-adjusted, urban liberal survivalist," given that they keep a six-week cache of food and supplies in his basement in Seattle (although they polished off their bottle of doomsday whiskey at a party).
He said the chaos following Hurricane Katrina served as a wake-up call for him and others that the government might not be able to protect them in an emergency or environmental crisis.
"The 'where do we land when climate change gets crazy?' question seems to be an increasingly common one," said Mr. Steffen in an e-mail message, adding that such questions have "really gone mainstream."