There is a really common idea out there among people who accept the idea that we are going to face some form of social upheaval in the near future that I would like to question. In its most basic form it is the idea that survival is a thing that happens at an individual level. While it is true that we do all live or die as individuals, it is untrue that we do so at the group or species level. And, our human species, for better or worse, made social cooperation in groups its key strategy for individual survival a long, long time ago. Yes, this is ironic. Nevertheless, what we are looking at here in the idea that survival is an individual matter is actually an example of a category error or, more precisely, an error in the level of logical typing.
Logical typing proposes that there are nested levels of abstraction relevant to defining the concepts we are thinking about and that sometimes it is vitally important to be very specific about which level you are talking about. The example I like to use to explain logical types is things-to-write-with. The pen sitting on my desk is an actual object with specific and unique physical characteristics. These characteristics may or may not carry over to the next level of logical typing. The pen next to me is a retractable ball-point with black ink, for example. At the next logical level which we could imagine as all pens of that brand and type some of the characteristic of my pen will be transferable to the class and some will not. Some of the other pens in this new class may be out of ink, or have blue ink instead of black. Later at higher levels of generalization, even more general attributes become non-transferable. In the pens category there are gel pens and fountain pens with completely different types of ink for example, let alone the differences between a quill and a ball point. If we go up to even more general levels and start to think about the class of writing instruments, we now end up including pencils, crayons, markers, etc. with my poor ball point pen.
The problem starts when, while thinking, we switch between levels of logical typing without taking into account the transferability of specific traits. If I start talking about all ball point pens having black ink I have made an error in logical typing. Gilbert Ryle, who said this problem was an important issue also said that he felt that making an error of logical typing was the most common type of mistaken reasoning out there. Although, instead of using Bertrand Russell’s term logical types, Ryle called the error a “category mistake,” or “type error.” Why do type errors matter here? They matter because there are critical differences between individual survival, small group survival, survival of a culture, and species survival. At one point in human history our ancestor’s numbers were reduced to as few as only a few thousand surviving humans. But, luckily for us that small a number of humans remaining after some calamity were able to spread out, reproduce, and populate the entire planet. If we are talking about species survival, you can wipe out almost everyone on the planet and still end up with seven billion living humans later on. On the other hand if we are talking about individual survival the news is not so good. I can categorically say with 100% certainty that not one individual alive today will continue to survive indefinitely. And the difference between these two extremes is why category errors matter.
Now the category error I really want to talk about is the one, arguably, made by most preppers or survivalists. I would like to argue that most preppers when thinking about survival see it as essentially an individual thing, while in actuality they are preparing for the small group survival of themselves along with several others such as their spouse, nuclear family, or small group of friends. And, this common misconception is an example of the problems stemming from errors in logical typing I am talking about. I do not believe there are very many, if any, preppers out there who would maintain their individual survival at the cost of abandoning their spouse or family. Thus, while they tend to think in individual terms, they do not behave in individual terms. My interest here is that in a The S**t Hits The Fan (TSHTF) scenario, even a small group is not the wisest unit of analysis to use when considering maximizing individual survival. That is because, as a species, we chose long ago to maximise our individual survival prospects through group, collective action and cooperation, thereby also maximising our potential for species survival. We do not have big fangs, sharp claws, or protective fur, and instead have language, a big brain, and opposable thumbs. All these are adaptations for maximising social cooperation in groups as our particular adaptive strategy to the problem of species survival. Additionally, these biological adaptations are all geared to life in small hunting and gathering tribes.
Anthropologists distinguish between different types of cultures; hunter/gatherer, pastoralist, horticultural, and agricultural, on the degree of occupational specialization. Since hunter/gatherers have already solved the problem of how to survive in small groups without fur and fangs, the more complex forms of society have more occupational specialization because they support a more complex culture. When agriculture and literacy combine we end up with civilization – the culture of cities. And, any culture which aims to support cities must be a complex culture and must have a high degree of occupational specialization along with a lot of specialized knowledge that is not shared universally or widely among the members of the culture. However, in our modern complex civilization we have taken the size of our cities all the way up to their theoretical maximum of around 20 million inhabitants and have now passed into the realm of Joseph Tainter’s (1988) decreasing marginal returns on further increases in complexity and occupational specialization. In fact, I have a great story about the ridiculousness of this kind of extreme complexity. I once returned to Vancouver on a Saturday with someone who had suffered a detached retina on the journey there. We were lucky enough to find an eye doctor who was open that day who was able to confirm that it was a detached retina. We asked him if he was an ophthalmologic surgeon and his reply was priceless. He said, “Yes I am a surgeon, but I don’t do retinas.” And that folks, sums up pretty well the extremes of occupational specialization we have reached in today’s world. Consequently, there is a truly huge range of degrees of complexity in the survival strategies used by a group of hunter-gatherers on one hand and those needed by a society which includes doctors who specialize only in retinal surgery on the other.
Regardless, it is important to remember that civilization as the complex culture of cities was pretty much fully formed in ancient Greece and that at the peak of Greek civilization, its premier city, Athens, boasted a population of only around 100,000 inhabitants. Furthermore, Athens was actually a city-state which means that the city and its surrounding environs was, in today’s terms, more like a nation-state or its own country. Hence, we can see from this example that we can go a really long way towards building a much less complex society without having to give up the trappings of civilization that are nice to have such as indoor plumbing and some kind of lighting at night. If all you want to do is to ensure physical survival in small groups like the standard prepper is thinking, you can actually do that almost at the nuclear family level. Although, in reality, even to ensure survival at the small group level of logical typing you need to emulate the band level of a hunter/gatherer culture, which implies an extended kin network of 30-50 people cooperating together as a unit of analysis.
And, this is exactly the problem with the standard prepper mindset. The classic expression of this mindset, especially among American preppers, is something along the lines of “I’ll survive because me and my guns and my well stocked bunker are all that I need.” I think we’ve all seen too many movies when it comes to thinking clearly about the prospects of surviving any kind of serious social upheaval. And, the movies never show what happens after you have used up all your ammo killing off the first set of Reavers who come and try and take your stuff away from you. Because the problem is that when collapses happen they usually lead to a little thing called a “dark age.” In other words, civilization doesn’t come back, the lights don’t come back on, the taps still don’t work, etc. Someone, I forget who, once characterized the post-collapse survival paradigm along the lines of ‘It’s like going camping – for the rest of you life.’ And as I mentioned in another posting, when the ammo is all gone, it's gone. So, you’d better have a sword and a bow already in your bunker and know how to use them.
But, the real problem with the ‘me-and-my-guns’ mindset is that you have to sleep sometimes. And, real predators, human as well as animal, are smart enough to wait until you are sleeping to attack your bunker. Or, pick you off with a ranged weapon when you are working alone in your garden without anyone keeping watch. Or, lay siege to you if your version of a-man’s-bunker-really-is-his-castle really has resources rich enough to make that strategy worthwhile. And, keep in mind even a medium sized band of Reavers can endure some attrition of personnel, while the nuclear-family level prepper can not.
No indeed, the ‘me-and-my-guns-and-my-bunker’ approach to prepping is, ironically, itself an artefact of the extreme individualism and alienation that only becomes possible in an extremely complex civilization. Only in a full-blown complex civilization, is it possible to live comfortably in a town or city and not know your neighbours well or have to rely on them for anything at all. In short, the individualist survival mindset is unsustainable in any real collapse scenario. Holy moly, it doesn’t even survive the temporary kind of collapse we see due to a natural disaster in a functioning civilization.
There is a thing called a Self Organizing Collective, which is what actually happens in many cases where there has been a social breakdown due to a natural disaster or big power outage. What happens is that the external circumstances combine with a pre-existing common vested interest to allow the rapid and spontaneous creation of a group survival response based on local conditions. For example, in one power outage previously non-cohesive neighbours spontaneously banded together and shared the thawed contents of their freezers in a big BBQ party so that the meat was not wasted. In another case a neighbourhood organized basically what was a home defence group to control access to the neighbourhood and prevent any looting or violence from leading to total chaos in the emergency situation. It turns out that random groups of people have the capability of banding together for a common purpose if the conditions are right. Furthermore, in such circumstances it is actually the extreme loner personality type, characteristic of the ‘me-and-my-guns’ type of prepper that stands out as a potential anti-social threat to the collective even if they themselves do not reject the idea of joining in the common cause of the self-organizing collective.
Consequently, when considering the idea of preparing for any collapse scenarios in a realistic manner consistent with the actual dictates of human behaviour, one must resist any romantic urge to go it alone in favour of an approach to survival rooted in being, or becoming, a part of a social group with an identifiable common cause and a defined locality. In fact, because of the phenomenon of the self-organizing collective, it is not even necessary to create or join a group prior to the onset of the TSHTF scenario. But, you do have to be a local person yourself embedded in a network of social relationships prior to the onset of any social breakdown. In other words, if your plan is to sensibly head for the hills to avoid the chaos and maximize the possibility of being a part of a self-organizing collective, you had better do it now. In fact, if you wait until TSHTF, it is already too late.
And, interestingly, this is exactly the conclusion one notable pioneer of the prepper mindset reached. In the late 1970s, Mel Tappan became a well known proponent of the then titled “survivalist” movement when in 1977 he wrote an instant classic called Survival Guns and started a newsletter called the Personal Survival Letter. He also authored a column in both Guns & Ammo and Soldier of Fortune. Later, shortly after his untimely death in 1980 at the age of 47 the book Tappan on Survival was released based largely on his magazine and newsletter articles. Significantly, both of his books are currently in print having been reissued by Paladin Press due to their enduring merit. One thing that made Tappan notable was his use of cold hard logic and the fact that he concluded early on that, one, our current culture was irredeemable and doomed to collapse, and two, the only logical answer to this problem was to leave the city and retreat to a small rural community long before the collapse. Furthermore, Tappan had the integrity to act on his convictions, moving to rural Oregon several years before he died. In his book Tappan on Survival (1981) he outlines the reasoning he based this conclusion on.
“isolated wilderness retreats are virtually indefensible by an average family; group retreats
sound good in theory but once you begin investigating actual examples, serious problems
become apparent. There are too many rules and regulations, or too few; there is great
difficulty in getting a good balance of needed skills in the group since awareness of
the need for retreating does not even roughly coincide with a cross section of
occupations in a balanced community (too many doctors and lawyers, for example, and not
enough plumbers, electricians or carpenters). . . . Whether utopias or group retreats, artificial communities have a tendency not to work out” (Tappan, 1981, 21).
Tappan is correct that artificial communities tend not to work out, with one notable exception – monastic communities organized around a clear common purpose. Additionally, the monastic community addresses the one thing that, in my opinion, Tappan failed to take into consideration. The clue is in his conclusion that:
“Although the problems I observed with existing group retreats invalidated them from
practical consideration so far as I was concerned, I remained convinced that only a
community of reasonable size with a balance of vital skills would be both workable for
the long term and proof against attack by the determined bands of well-organized looters
that would doubtless emerge from the crisis period” (Tappan, 1981, 23).
Now while it is true that a small rural community is likely to offer a balance of vital skills and defensive capabilities, Tappan’s version of long-term survival seems to remain focussed on individual survival rather than a period spanning several generations. The unfortunate reality that Tappan does not seem to take into account is the inevitability that over a protracted period of collapse in any central authority, the character of any rural small-town would necessarily change over time. Obviously, it would not take more than a year or two at the most before the primary focus of such a community became food production and storage, just as it was for millennia prior to the nineteenth century invention of mechanized agriculture based on the use of petroleum products. Thus, the problem for the small rural community, like the rest of the survivors of a collapse scenario, becomes one of how to maintain a reasonable level of civilized creature comforts for as many people as possible. Yes, Tappan’s rural community will undoubtedly survive and possibly even prosper, but like its historical counterparts, would likely end up after only one or two generations becoming a peasant-based community lacking literacy and any significant degree of occupational specialization.
It is for this reason that I, instead, turned to the one historical example of an artificial community that has proven its ability to maintain social cohesion and material success over an extended period as my model for maximising long-term survival prospects. That one example is indeed the cloistered monastic community embedded in a local external community. Only this social arrangement offers the possibility of arresting the later decay of specialized knowledge and occupational specialization in order to maintain even the most basic trappings of civilized life over the long term. While such a social arrangement is admittedly hierarchical, it offers much greater possibilities for maximising individual freedom and egalitarian living arrangements than the other form of social organization likely to re-emerge spontaneously. And, that is the feudal lord with a monopoly of coercive force over a local population of exploited peasants. Therefore, In addition to rejecting the ‘me-and-my-guns’ approach to prepping, I argue that the best way to ensure long-term group survival in a post-collapse world is to think about building cloistered communities based on the monastic model where literacy and some modicum of civilized ways of living may be maintained through the coming dark age.
Oh incidentally, speaking of dark ages, it turns out that award winning science fiction author Jerry Pournelle wrote the foreword to Tappan on Survival and mentions in it that “If you have any doubts about the possibility of civilization's collapse after reading this book, try Roberto Vacca's The Coming Dark Age” (Tappan, 1981, 2). Good advice indeed.