Hail Survivalists

Two recent articles on survivalists:

  1. “From the outside, Jerry Erwin’s home … is a nondescript house … But tucked away out of sight in his backyard are the signs of his preparations for doomsday, a catastrophic societal collapse that Erwin, 45, now believes is likely within his lifetime. … Erwin and others like him in the United States and elsewhere see political upheaval and natural disasters as clear signs that civilization is doomed.” (more; HT J Hughes)
  2. “Vivos goes all out by promising a survival shelter stocked with power generation, water wells, filtration systems, sewage disposal, a year’s supply of food, security devices and medical equipment. Of course, you’ll need all that if you believe disaster may strike at any moment because of a polar shift, super volcano eruptions, solar flares, nuclear war, and `even the return of Planet X (known as Niburu or Nemesis),’ Vivos cheerfully states. Did we mention that there’s a 2012 countdown clock on the company website?” (more)

Sadly, as with cryonics patients, while survivalists do society a great good, the media mostly snickers at them. This makes sense when you realize: Charity Isn’t About Help. Given a choice between praising acts that show devotion and loyalty, or acts that actually help, humans usually praise loyalty.

On the good: The world faces existential risk, i.e., a risk that the world will die.  Such a death is bad not only for those who live here now, but also for vast future generations who might descend from us now.  Cultures and ethnicities face related risks.  By preparing to save themselves under various disaster scenarios, survivalists also tend to make their culture, ethnicity, and world a bit less likely to die.  An effort for which future generations should be quite grateful.

On snickering:  On average, survivalists tend to display undesirable characteristics. They tend to have extreme and unrealistic opinions, that disaster soon has an unrealistically high probability.  They also show disloyalty and a low opinion of their wider society, by suggesting it is due for a big disaster soon.  They show disloyalty to larger social units, by focusing directly on saving their own friends and family, rather than focusing on saving those larger social units.  And they tend to be cynics, with all that implies.

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  • http://blog.urth.org/ Dave Rolsky

    You’re making a very big assumption here, which is that “saving the human race” is somehow “good”.

    Personally, I believe very strongly in working to alleviate individual suffering and maximize individual pleasure (human and non-human). I don’t think species or races have any intrinsic value.

    In other words, individuals are valuable as individuals, not as representatives of a group. Groups cannot suffer or feel pleasure. Similarly, not-yet-existent individuals don’t really have any interests to protect, because they can’t suffer or feel pleasure.

    So given all that, it’s hard for me to see why I should value survivalists. They’re working to minimize their own chances of suffering, but they’re not really doing much for any other individuals, are they?

    • Metacognition

      And even worse a large portion of survivalists are against technologies that would actually eliminate the desire to inflict cruelty onto animals. They’re actively opposed to genetic engineering, not only on safety grounds but on ‘natural’ grounds as well.

      • Roko

        > They’re actively opposed to genetic engineering, not only on safety grounds

        Remember this when the first genetically engineered weaponized virus is released.

      • Metacognition

        @Roko
        I wasn’t trying to imply safety wasn’t a valid reason for opposition, it is a valid concern. I was trying to say opposing it because it isn’t natural isn’t a valid reason.

      • Roko

        I agree, I misinterpreted your phrasing.

    • Roko

      > Similarly, not-yet-existent individuals don’t really have any interests to protect, because they can’t suffer or feel pleasure.

      Isn’t it a good job that the people before you didn’t take this attitude?

      Ultimately, the attitude of setting zero value on future persons leads to untenable positions in normative ethics. Our payment for the gift that the past gave us is to pass that gift on to the future.

      • Captain Oblivious

        I think there are (at least) two ways of parsing the GP’s quote (“not-yet-existent individuals don’t really have any interests to protect, because they can’t suffer or feel pleasure”):

        1) We don’t need to worry about the kind of world (financial, environmental, political, etc) we leave to future generations, because they don’t exist yet – even though they eventually will exist. This seems sufficiently extreme that I’m reluctant to parse the GP this way, especially in light of the alternative interpretation…

        2) If a particular person who “would have been” conceived (per some expectation of future events) is not in fact conceived, then that person has not been harmed, and neither has any other person. This sounds a little extreme at first glance, but on closer analysis I think it’s quite reasonable: the person who is never conceived clearly is not harmed (there literally is no one there to be harmed!), and any others who might be tempted to claim harm (e.g. the non-person’s siblings, future spouse, etc) are ultimately making a staggering claim: that someone else has a duty to provide them with the sort of sibling, spouse,etc, they want. I don’t think this is reasonable.

        NOTE: none of the above should be misread to support, for example, slipping a pregnant woman an abortion drug without her knowledge or against her will. Even aside from the question of when life begins, the mother is clearly being harmed and thus the action is improper on those grounds alone.

      • Captain Oblivious

        In fact, taken in the first person, the second interpretation says “I wouldn’t mind if I had never been born”. While some might think that only the clinically depressed would have such a thought, I think it’s entirely reasonable: had I not been born, I would not mind it a bit – indeed I could not mind, because (by definition) there would be no me to do the minding!

        Any other position would seem to require a strange superposition of being and non-being that I simply can’t wrap my head around…

    • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

      Yes but should you also survive a disaster the more people that survive the better off you will be because of the division of labor.

    • Luke

      This is an interesting perspective. Is it really important that a species survive, as opposed to members of it not suffering?

      I don’t think it quite adds up like that. Suffering is something we want avoided for one instinctive reason, species-preservation is something we value for another. Saving the lives of sapient individuals is something we value for another reason still.

  • http://t-a-w.blogspot.com/ Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    By preparing to save themselves under various disaster scenarios, survivalists also tend to make their culture, ethnicity, and world a bit less likely to die.

    Evidence for this being? There have been many severe disasters of local scale – in how many of those survivalists made a difference? I estimate this to be 0% (via total absence of evidence and Bayes rule). Do you have any evidence to the contrary?

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Re: “By preparing to save themselves under various disaster scenarios, survivalists also tend to make their culture, ethnicity, and world a bit less likely to die.”

    References seem to be needed here – since there are a multitude of mechanisms that appear to act the other way. For example, DOOM enthusiasts may convince others that the world is about to end – possibly leading to fear, apathy, hedonism, looting and the failure to make long-term plans. DOOM enthusiasts may also suffer from the “crying wolf” syndrome: by ringing the alarm bell too often, sensible people will quickly learn to ignore them – and then subsequently are more likely to miss a real alarm… and so on.

  • http://causalityrelay.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Nesov

    These crazy survivalists expect doom and survival. A survivalist initiative justified by expected utility is something different, and would be more efficient. Even though they might in fact do good, they are still wrong in their reasons to do it.

    • andrew kieran

      they don’t expect catastrophe, they crave it. Call it the Rapture, call it the Communist Revolution, call it Eco-Catastrophe, call it Race-war. The things the groups that call for or expect these catastrophes have in common is that they expect society to be wiped clean in an orgy of violence and destruction, leaving them left in a position of power.

      The root of this desire for a wiping of history and society is percieved powerlessness in the face of real or imagined forces beyond their control, whether Corporations, International Zionism, Global Warming or whatever.

      Just my opinion, based largely on my experience in the Marxist movement and the environmentalist movement, both of which have a voluble proportion of adherents who openly wish for a catastrophic collapse of society.

      i don’t see the parallel between survivalists and cryonicists here.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        Hmm, I’m not sure if you would have grouped me with the survivalists for my y2k preparations… If so, re craving a catastrophe: I was never so glad to be wrong as when 1/1/2000 rolled around and, not only did the lights stay on, but y2k turned out to be a non-event. As to the extent of the preparations: I had water, food (we still have some leftover pasta…), fuel, but no firearms.

      • http://kazart.blogspot.com mwengler

        My preparations for y2k were to go to our timeshare in Kauai for the new year. Had the technological world stopped functioning, I would have found myself in a tropical paradise with buttloads of fresh water and food growing on the trees, and a bunch of, but not too many, people like me to band together with.

        As to craving disaster, I remember reading a post years ago bemoaning the fact that some percieved financial crisis had not come to pass. I think there is a valid point, if you put way more resources into something than is justified by a rational utility theory, then your bias will be to want to turn out to be right.

        Finally, whether they crave disaster or are putting too much into their survival or not is independent of the value they bring to rational people around them. The point isn’t to be swayed by their emotionalism, but to look at their technologies and their arguments, made at great expense in some cases, and pick and choose those that make rational sense. Its not so much that good information is hard to find, but rather that it is expensive to create.

  • http://www.infoaxe.com/ Vijay Krishnan

    Roko:

    > Similarly, not-yet-existent individuals don’t really have any interests to protect, because they can’t suffer or feel pleasure.

    Isn’t it a good job that the people before you didn’t take this attitude?

    Ultimately, the attitude of setting zero value on future persons leads to untenable positions in normative ethics. Our payment for the gift that the past gave us is to pass that gift on to the future.
    —————————————————————-
    Robin Hanson:
    By preparing to save themselves under various disaster scenarios, survivalists also tend to make their culture, ethnicity, and world a bit less likely to die. An effort for which future generations should be quite grateful.
    ————————————————————
    @Roko:
    Why is it particularly good, that people before didn’t take this attitude? It would suck if people before us turned the earth into a hellhole, but humanity nonetheless survived and suffered.
    What is so untenable about this position?
    ————————————————————-
    @Robin:
    Why on earth should future generations be grateful for this, who aren’t yet born and do not suffer the slightest inconvenience from this? I can potentially see current people of the same culture being grateful that survivalists increase the odds of their culture surviving.
    ——————————————————————-
    A lot of refutations to the “Beethoven fallacy” can be readily used against these two lines of thought.

    http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2010/02/the-great-beethoven-fallacy.html

    • Roko

      Surely you value existing in the first place?

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    There’s another major reason for snickering at survivalists which is addressed implicitly in what you quote but is worth stating explicitly: They are nutcases with no understanding of science, evidence or almost anything else useful to rationality. Case in point is the fact that the people selling to them think that having a countdown to 2012 is at all useful, or that Nibiru is something to be taken seriously. Now, you might argue that they acknowledge with the word “even” that they consider that to be a lower priority issue, but that doesn’t deal with the pole shift which is the first one they list and is also in the realm of complete fruitcakiness.

  • blink

    To me, the movie 2012 unwittingly exemplifies the social status aspect of anti-survivalist sentiments. The movie actively demonizes those who take pro-active steps and goads us to applaud when the leaders cave to peer pressure and let many extras in, likely dooming everyone. Yes, it is fictional evidence, but the psychological inertia rings true. It is ironic that Vivos uses this to encourage survivalists.

  • UserGoogol

    I tend to think that survivalists could quite plausibly make things worse rather than better. The survivalist strategy is (in general, and of course there is a broad spectrum of survivalism) to pull out of society and try to pull together enough resources to make it on your own. This has all sorts of negative consequences in a crisis situation. There would be massive financial dislocation as people try to pull their assets out of the system. Human capital would also be removed, thus preventing people from being able to put their heads together to try to solve the problem.

    In a doomsday situation of the sort that survivalists (in general) tend to talk about, infrastructure would collapse. Such infrastructure failure would lead to a massive die-off of the vast majority of the population. Only through modern technological infrastructure is society able to provide the resources for people to be able to survive at the population densities we occupy. Disease would be rampant and even the best prepared survivalist would quickly run out of resources. The fight for what arable land could be procured would be quite fierce. The more reasonable strategy is to do everything one can to try to keep the infrastructure running, and if that is truly hopeless then to just die as painlessly as possible.

    • http://causalityrelay.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Nesov

      You are failing to embace the hypothetical.

    • http://timtyler.org Tim Tyler

      Concentrating on personal survival could easily decrease communal survival. A plausible way of increasing group survival is to contribute to the enterprise of getting living systems off the planet. A typical survivalist project involves digging an underground bunker and keeping it’s larder well stocked. Depending on the details of the odds involved, the average survivalist effect could easily be to reduce funding, manpower and mindshare to projects that would help the whole of society – rather than just the survivalist.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        “A plausible way of increasing group survival is to contribute to the enterprise of getting living systems off the planet.”

        This is stretching extrapolations of future technologies every bit as much as cryonics does. Under this version of “plausible”, cryonics is plausible too.

        Also, what do you mean by “group” survival??? At anything resembling current technology, we’ve got no way to get more than a handful of people off the planet, let alone keep them alive independent of the Earth. There are more survivalists than all the astronauts who have ever flown in space. If you want to complain about small numbers of people surviving, but the society as a whole expiring, launching people into space is a worse option.

  • mattmc

    Noah?

  • quanticle

    The problem I have with both cryonics and the extreme survivalist ideologies is that they’re both essentially rephrasings of Pascal’s Wager.

    For cryonics, replace “God” with “successful thaw”. For survivalism, replace “God” with “successful transition through apocalypse”. Given that Pascal’s Wager is considered to be a flawed argument for religion, how is it useful in justifying either cryonics or survivalism?

    • Luke

      No hell. Also, empirical data.

    • Roko

      Pascal’s wager involves an infinite utility and a tiny probability, cryonics involves a finite utility and a medium-sized probability.

      Pascal’s wager is a fallacy for several reasons, most importantly that humans don’t have infinite utility functions.

  • albatross

    I suspect a lot of the comments here are judging survivalists by the weirdest and most visible fraction, as highlighted by media sources looking for some weirdos to laugh at/kick around.

    The reality, though, is that even a little bit of disaster/survival preparation can make a huge difference in whether you, personally, are one of the guys the Red Cross or National Guard needs to save, vs one of the guys who’s quietly riding out the disaster. That is, you’re likely having a positive impact even on the other people in the disaster. (This tracks with the usual advice about helping someone else after an accident, or a drowning person, or whatever–your first job is to not add to the list of victims needing to be rescued.)

    Around Y2K, there were all sorts of media reports of crazies preparing for the fall of civilization. But a hell of a lot of people I knew contrived to be in places where a power outage similar disruption wouldn’t be a disaster when the clocks rolled over. A fair number that I knew made sure they (we) had some extra stored food and water, a full tank of gas, etc.

    None of that was necessary. But if it had been, having an extra 10% of the population prepared would have been a benefit for everyone, both in terms of not taking up scarce resources for rescue or assistance, and in terms of being able to help friends and family and neighbors.

    • T

      My thoughts as well.

      I would consider myself a survivalist-lite. I keep fresh water available, made sure I know how to grow some basic foods, etc.

      I also am not a nutjob convinced the government is about to get me or that the world is going to end in 2012.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      “The reality, though, is that even a little bit of disaster/survival preparation can make a huge difference in whether you, personally, are one of the guys the Red Cross or National Guard needs to save, vs one of the guys who’s quietly riding out the disaster.”

      Well said! In fact, in earthquake-prone or hurricane-prone areas, it is common for the government to be the ones advocating that everyone keep a 3 day supply of water, food, medications, etc.

  • Roko

    I wonder what the optimal level of food stores/survival gear it is for me to get, in case some kind of disaster did happen?

    • Roko

      About $50 will buy a month’s worth of food and water. So pretty clearly at least that much. The greatest threat would be bioterrorism, so maybe get a gas mask or something? They sell them on Uk Survive. Seriously, has anyone done an analysis?

      • IVV

        Roko:

        I’m sure part of it depends on the kinds of disasters that are likely in your area. Food and water are good in most scenarios, so having some more on hand makes sense in many situations. Otherwise, if, for example, a flood is more likely than a bioterrorism attack, then it makes more sense to have gear to survive a flood before having gear to survive bioterrorism.

        Depending on the scenario, it may make more sense to increase social connectivity instead of decreasing it. Floods are easier to survive if people can inform each other of how the waters will rise and evacuations can occur in advance of the water.

        The key is to understand what the value of your neighbors in a disaster scenario are. In most of the more common situations, from as personal as a car accident to large-scale disasters like earthquakes and floods, an ability to coordinate efforts is very effective and leads to survival of a larger portion of the community.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think you have to be fairly rich before survalist investment is a rational resource allocation. In that way I think survivalists are like undiversified entrepreneurs. Good for society’s overall diversification, bad for many of the individuals engaging in the behavior.

    • Roko

      You mean that $50 on spare food and water is only a rational investment if you’re rich?

      • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

        Roko,
        Not sure, to be honest, whether most Americans would rational optimizing by spending $50 on food/water reserves. My intuition suggests that if they had my aspirations, and already had a cryonics plan, that $50 would be better invested in something else like optimizing their insurance or investments with higher rates of return than food or water. But I think they earn enough that they shouldn’t waste much too much time thinking about $50.

      • Roko

        What probability-of-revival increase do you think an extra $50 on top of your cryonics insurance gives, if the insurance is already $50,000?

      • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

        Roko,
        Like my last comment implies, not only do I not know, I think I’d be an idiot for spending much time trying to figure it out.

  • Will Pearson

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the other type of people preparing for a possible collapse. Things along the lines of the long now foundation and the rosetta disk seem like a potentially useful precaution for big disruptions as well.

  • DisillusionedSkeptic

    It seems to me that many of you are ‘pigeonholing’ survivalists as one entity. Imagine where we would be if we did that with religion or ethnicity…

    There are different types of survivalists and many of these are only interested in making sure that they and their loved ones survive whatever disaster/catastrophe may occur.

    It is the most natural (and oldest) human instinct to want to survive and the only reason this is not the case with a good 90% of the population of this planet is because these skills and instincts have been lost in time.

    As Benjamin Franklin once said “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail…”

  • http://www.slcval.com Josh

    I agree with a lot that has been said here. Survivalist as a whole is very hard to generalize. I don’t think you can exactly take an event and say all or even most survivalist will react this way. Just my belief though.

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