07 May 2008

The Survivalist Fallacy

Alex Steffen has a nice essay on the WorldChanging site where he sums up the problem I’ve always had with some self-described ‘survivalists’ and many ‘apocalyptic environmentalists’:

But real apocalypses are sordid, banal, insane. If things do come unraveled, they present not a golden opportunity for lone wolves and well-armed geeks, but a reality of babies with diarrhea, of bugs and weird weather and dust everywhere, of never enough to eat, of famine and starving, hollow-eyed people, of drunken soldiers full of boredom and self-hate, of random murder and rape and wars which accomplish nothing, of many fine things lost for no reason and nothing of any value gained. And survivalists, if they actually manage to avoid becoming the prey of larger groups, sitting bitter and cold and hungry and paranoid, watching their supplies run low and wishing they had a clean bed and some friends. Of all the lies we tell ourselves, this is the biggest: that there is any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society.

It’s not the main thrust of the essay (although it’s worth reading anyway), but when I read it, I felt like he’d been reading my mind. It’s easy to look at the range of problems facing the world and fall into despair, or worse, self-hate. And it’s a short step from worrying about catastrophe to actively wishing for it.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t consider or plan for terrible scenarios, we just need to evaluate them rationally and not fall into the trap of being seduced by doomer porn, and believe that such catastrophes won’t affect us negatively.

We have some major challenges facing us as a civilization in the next generation or two; Sir David Omand, former head of the British National Security Agency, put them into three major groups. There are political threats, including wars, terrorism, and governmental de-stabilization by other groups; there are environmental threats, including the end of petroleum fuels, global warming, and pollution; and finally there are economic threats, including a “meltdown” of the global economy.

Unfortunately it’s rare for more than one of these problems to capture the public’s attention at once. We tend to fixate on one issue – sometimes to the point of obsession, as in the case of the ultra-survivalists and ‘doomers’ – while letting the other ones slide, then get bitten in the proverbial ass and fix our attention somewhere else. It’s important that we keep a steady eye on all the issues, but not get so caught up in any of them that we despair completely.

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