It is easy to make fun of survivalism and its emphasis on durable goods that can provide the essentials of life, things like bottled water, crackers, blankets, matches. This are things that are set aside for later and, like the fire extinguisher that sits under my kitchen sink, always seem to go unused. As survivalists see it, those things are there for those rare situations when the familiar civil and economic order breaks down and you have to survive on your own for an extended period of time.
Survivalism seems an extravagance only until the survival supplies are actually needed. The situations that would require survival supplies always seem far-fetched until they actually occur. Imagine, for example, that the worst hurricane in U.S. history struck at the same time that the most repressive administration in U.S. history, determined to destroy the country by a thousand little cuts, occupies the White House. The weather disaster could result in simultaneous failures of electric power, water, and roads. A near-complete lack of government response could make the outages last for a year. With running water that is not safe to drink, no electricity, highways that can’t be driven or walked, and no effective law enforcement, suddenly you hope you have a hundred boxes of crackers and a hundred gallon bottles of water.
You don’t have to imagine this post-apocalyptic scenario, because this is the current situation in Puerto Rico this Christmas morning. Most of the island territory has now gone the entire fall without drinking water and electricity, and those services will not realistically be restored before the next hurricane season arrives. As for the roads and the commercial infrastructure of the island, that will certainly take longer. Life will not be back to normal in Puerto Rico or the dozen nearby islands most affected by this summer’s hurricanes — there is no need to add “until,” it just won’t happen.
Hurricane Maria will not be the last such disaster. If the fires in California were to grow to five times their recent size and destroy large parts of Los Angeles, there is no reason to imagine a proportionate government response — never mind the scale of damage that a major urban earthquake might someday cause. One day rising ocean levels will take away half of the Miami metro area. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency says people should no longer count on the government coming to their rescue in this kind of large-scale event.
We make disasters worse by not preparing. Instead of pretending that the next disaster won’t strike, we probably should build buildings with non-burnable frames and roofs, strip out the wallboard and carpet from lower levels of vulnerable buildings so that they are easy to clean after a flood, replace utility poles with underground electric service, take down the abandoned railroad bridges that will crumble in the next moderate earthquake, retire the most disaster-prone nuclear power stations — but all that will cost a fortune. In comparison, setting aside some dried fruit, batteries, candles, and waterproof containers costs almost nothing. In an era when our government tells us directly we’re on our own, not just for three days after a hurricane but potentially for months, we would do well to expand on our survivalist instincts.