Anthropology, Survival, and Emergency Preparation

Mike Peters, with Ultimate Bunker stands at the doorway of a 100% steel underground bunker during the PrepperCon expo Friday,
Mike Peters, with Ultimate Bunker stands at the doorway of a 100% steel underground bunker during the PrepperCon expo Friday, April 24, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. Hundreds of survivalists and "preppers" are gathering in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy for the first annual PrepperCon, featuring demonstrations of underground bunkers, food storage, and armored vehicles. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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 the grid," but too many people have a vested interest in society to abandon it forever.

What are the highest-risk emergencies? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lists hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, major fires, and water/electric system failure. Crucial survival skills during such short-term emergencies include thermoregulation (coping with extreme heat and cold), managing fire, making water safe to drink, applying basic first aid, and knowing how to signal for help. These skills aren't as sexy or as entertaining as those you see on reality TV, but they're easily taught, readily learned, and if practiced regularly, they save lives.

The most important survival skill of all, however, is being able to work well with other people. Cooperation is part of our evolutionary heritage. Humans are primates, and primates are social beings. Humans are more "prosocial" than other primates. We seek out opportunities to cooperate with strangers. Our ancestors were strong, smart people who observed nature closely, who experimented with technology, and who worked together to solve problems. That archaeologists find similar distinct artifact designs across whole continents shows ancestral humans shared their solutions to problems requiring tools through extensive social networks long before email or Facebook.

Learning survival skills well enough to use them under stress requires practice. A course I teach at Stony Brook University shows one way of learning survival and cooperation skills together. "Primitive Technology" examines the origins of science by learning and practicing Stone Age survival techniques. Early in the autumn, when the weather is warm, the students try to make fire by rubbing dry sticks together. Few succeed, but all manage to create fire using some other modern-day technique. Later in the semester, they repeat this exercise when it is cold and raining. Individual students can go indoors once they have made fire; but they don't. Instead, they remain outside and help their classmates, until all have made fire and all can all go in together. The students think the exercise is about making fire; but, it is really about prosociality, about transforming empathy into cooperative action.

For anthropologists, learning survival skills and effective teamwork has obvious benefits. If one lives and works in remote areas long enough, one will eventually need these skills. The benefits might seem less obvious to people who live in cities and suburbs, but low-income urban and suburban areas are often the worst-hit by natural disasters and among the last to receive relief. To prepare for the next most likely emergency, people living in urban and suburban communities should learn about thermoregulation, water security, fire management, first aid, rescue strategies, and how to work together cooperatively.

Many communities suffer from civic disengagement, from what Robert D. Putnam calls "bowling alone." Survival skills courses taught at local schools, colleges, and Boy/Girl Scouts can help people reconnect with their communities. How better to build civic engagement than by enabling citizens to help neighbors in their hour of need? Learning survival skills will not prevent disasters, but doing so will help communities affected by high-risk disasters recover more quickly.

John J. Shea is Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. He is an expert on stone tools and human evolution who has directed archaeological excavations in Eastern Africa and the Near East.