Anthropology, Survival, and Emergency Preparation

It has been a warm autumn, but winter is coming, and with it storms and extreme cold. Summer heat waves will follow. As we saw with Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy, electric and water services will fail, supermarket shelves will be stripped bare, and disaster-relief services will be overwhelmed. Nowadays, when something goes wrong, it affects many people in the same way, at the same time, and in the same place.

A growing number of “Survivalists” and “Preppers” plan for such disasters, but never before in history have so few people known basic survival skills. Post-disaster survival is a popular theme in recent movies, such as The Road, The Impossible, and Contagion, and books such as Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Heart Goes Last, and Ted Koppel’s nonfiction work, Lights Out. Reality-television shows such as Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, and Dual Survival reflect interest in these subjects as well. But, as Cody Lundin, former co-host of Dual Survival, writes, one has to remember that these shows are entertainment programs in a competitive market. They focus on drama among colorful participants and ever more exotic and contrived survival challenges, such as Naked and Afraid, Alaskan Bush People, or Fat Guys in the Woods.

How should we prepare for natural and man-made disasters? Few people will ever need the advanced survival skills these television programs and survivalist literature showcase, such as stalking and killing wild animals, foraging for exotic plant foods, or fighting off starving hordes of their former neighbors. Worse, shows such as Doomsday Preppers misdirect people into preparing for the wrong things. War, pandemics, and economic crises are indeed potentially severe disasters with profound consequences. But, they are improbable in the short term and unlikely to cause long-term social collapse. There is nothing wrong with learning how to live “off —> Read More