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Pop culture’s survivalist moment: stress-test for the future

Like other interests driven by enthusiasts connecting with like-minded peers over the Internet, survivalism is evolving into many trends, some of which attract attention and inspire replicas worldwide.

When former Facebook and Paypal art director Chris Robinson found himself with finally some time for personal projects, he decided to turn his Palo Alto suburban backyard into a tiny shipyard where he set to build “Tsunamiball,” a floating dwelling half houseboat half submarine.

Robinson had envisioned his tiny, self-enclosed, and reinforced arch after the 2011 tsunami violently hit Japan, a place where he’d lived and met his wife. He had been working at the time with very skilled people, including an astronaut, who had all sketched some tsunami-proof shelters in their spare time.

With no boat-building nor sailing experience, Robinson began the project behind his house and, two years later, he showed us by his 22-foot-long, 10-foot-wide and 8.5-foot-high plywood and epoxy tsunami-proof pod, AKA Tsunamiball.

Echoes of other eras

Survivalism is a part— and a growing one— of pop culture, becoming a genre in social media, movies, video games, and even the tourism industry. The genre promises heroic, personal salvation from extreme scenarios through a conscious, skillful effort.

Wired for survival, human cultures have dealt with disaster through the transmission of endurance stories, often inserted as parables within epic poems or religious rites, but postmodernity seems wired for tales around preparedness.

Behind the scenes of the movie “Giant” (1956), shot in Marfa, West Texas

As in other eras of geopolitical instability, today’s perceived significant threats feed an immune response in the collective unconscious. The atomic doom of the Cold War, followed by the oil crisis and “stagflation” of the seventies, brought new types of bomb shelters and the first decentralized communication networks such as ARPAnet, but also cultural byproducts, from Godzilla to doomsday religious cults.

Testing our limits

DIY enthusiasts such as Pacific Northwest’s polymath Paul Elkins have designed inexpensive survival shelters with homeless and other underserved people in mind, from “wearable” gear that can deploy into an essential, simple nomadic dwelling to inexpensive micro-campers on wheels that can be pulled by a walking person or a bicycle. Others, such as the makers specialized in creating survival bunkers for anxiety-prone citizens.

When we visited Ron Hubbard in the factory outside Dallas, Texas, where he makes metal-clad underground bunkers, he was on a phone call with Mira Ptacin, a New York Times reporter working on a similar story. Hubbard’s round structures out of gigantic, corrugated culvert pipes would seem unreal if it weren’t because he can barely keep up with the demand.

Once finished, his survival shelters (usually finished in accordance with the customers’ particular demands) include a toilet, shower, complete kitchen, dining table, bunk beds, and supplies to stay for weeks at a time. Hubbard’s keeps his clients’ list secret, though some of them are, according to him, notorious. They install such dwellings, which seem to belong to other eras (such as the peak of the nuclear threat during the Cold War escalation), under homes, sheds, swimming pools, or empty fields.

When things get “discovered”

In a time of extreme inequality, some neighbors trapped into the hamster wheel of conspicuous consumption to keep up with their relations don’t only show their preferences with traditional status symbols but are becoming more interested in bugout shelters and other commercial products displaying post-Apocalyptic allure.

To some extent, we culturally live in the seventies over again, though social media allow for easy commercialization (and banalization) of artifacts that purport collective anxieties; such is the case of survival and doomsday shelters, some of whom have been transformed into boutique hotels and short stay rentals. Escapism propels some in search of the new “pristine” desert island in the world— imitating the late Marlon Brando—, but also anyone capable of purchasing a ticket to Southeast Asia and following others into the Gulf of Thailand, as explored by the writers Alex Garland (The Beach, adapted by Danny Boyle) or Michel Houellebecq (Platform), among others.

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab (John Huston’s Moby Dick cinema adaptation, 1956)

Is there such a thing as sustainable travel? Is it possible to balance human impact and the economic benefits to locals that visitors bring? Can our experience mapping the world be compatible with the rights of the last uncontacted human populations? With no easy answer, we document our adventures in solitary areas already reached and integrated into our collective memories.

Twilight from a remote lake cabin

Such is the case of our visit to a tiny floating cabin with integrated sunroom and kayak access only in Lake Saint-Jean, Quebec’s third largest lake. To reach the floating cabin in the summer of 2019, our family had to drive five hours north of Montreal, but we knew few details of how to access the Iloft, so when we finally got to the lake shore, it was getting late. Hugues Ouellet, our host, quickly explained that there was no time to lose since we had a kayak trip ahead of us if we wanted to safely reach our destination.

With a storm approaching and the day heading to a magical twilight, we finally spotted the blinking light of the amphibious shelter awaiting us before it was too dark, plus we could have contacted Hughes (who had come on a boat to check on us half an hour before) if the promised blinking light had not shown up in front of us a bit later. That said, finding your way to your stay in a remote Canadian lake would have been a too-uncomfortable experience for most people just a few years ago.

Propelled by our current societal issues— real and perceived— feed a response of apparent resilience that could explain our fascination for entertainment around survivalism and preparedness from different perspectives.

So we get to choose our own adventure and level of engagement: by borrowing the eyes of an anonymous couple of father and son migrating amidst the societal collapse after a disaster we don’t know much about (the post-apocalyptic story The Road); by reflecting on our collective inability to confront defuse menaces (the apocalyptic Don’t Look Up); or by testing our own abilities surviving in the bush by subscribing to (or even creating) social media channels on the topic.

From abundance to garbage

The long tail of content and merchandising about the topic also reaches niches in the tourism industry that, for good and for bad, are no longer minority. As if we wanted to feel slightly vulnerable and uncomfortable (but, in many cases, not too much), we look for adventures bringing us off the beaten path but want to secure our safety.

But the massification of extreme sports and experiences also brings extreme outcomes for remote places and their wilderness. The transformation of the world inspired Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard to write his autobiographical book Let My People Go Surfing: after decades of visiting remote areas of the Americas’ South Cone and Southeast Asia in between rock climbing attempts of El Capitán in Yosemite, Chouinard experienced the fast deterioration of all kinds of ecosystems. And, if mass tourism’s appeal for the most remote areas and experiences could raise awareness about the fragility of natural environments, it also accelerates our impact.

Ahab fighting the Leviatan (John Huston’s Moby Dick cinema adaptation, 1956)

Decades later, issues such as massification and garbage disposal have reached remote beaches, the Arctic and Antarctic polar circles, or even Mount Everest and other legendary peaks in the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes, or the harshest and remotest desertic areas.

Appreciating the essentials

In Sweden, Andreas Ahlse, who had spent some time in the army, wanted to blend his predilection for forest survival with a few basic tools with his own career path in middle age, so he founded Kolarbyn, a collection of primitive huts made from mud, stone, and living grass, each with just two slim beds and a fireplace in between them.

Ahlse built the huts the same way locals did for hundreds of years to maintain the traditional charcoal industry. There’s no running water nor electricity but an outhouse and candles, yet the place is as busy as it can be.

“I think people are getting more and more interested in the old history and want to come out here and test how it was.”

In the era of all-you-can-eat streamed entertainment and digital experiences getting more and more immersive, there’s a growing interest in promises of back-to-basics experiences such as the one Ahlse provides in his remote hamlet: a bunch of tiny huts to enjoy the basics in a Swedish forest, where one can chop their own wood, start a fire, collect drinking water, bathe in the cold lake, visit the floating sauna, or go pick some wild blueberries.

Like in extreme sports, trips of initiation and self-discovery can bring unexpected outcomes. Literature and cinema have exploited extraordinary stories of survival or reaction to dramatic situations as we seem wired to learn from such extreme quests: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe sets all the tensions and threats revived by the movie Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000) confronted by Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a FedEx troubleshooter stranded on an uninhabited island after a plane crash.

Humans at the abyss

The narrative trick seems to work one time and another: when we follow the steps of Christopher McCandless or Cheryl Strayed across the North American wilderness, we encounter old tales of self-discovery amid personal crises with an allure of Nietzschean high-stakes self-actualization, and so it happens when we have to choose between ethics and survival in books and movies whose story arcs remind us of the desperation of the pioneers of the Donner Party trapped in the snow of the Sierra Nevada, or in similar macabre survival dilemmas, like the one affecting an Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the Andes after a 1972 plain crash, which inspired Alive, (1993), a movie by Frank Marshall.

With such stories, we ask ourselves what would do if pushed to the limits: would we amputate our own arm to liberate ourselves from a remote boulder within a Utah canyon in which we are trapped, as 127 Hours protagonist Aron Ralston decided so he could run for help before it was too late? Or, what would happen if an accident left a family dangling from a rope whose clamps can’t handle the weight and the only way to survive is to sacrifice one family member by cutting the rope short, as in the movie Vertical Limit (Martin Campbell, 2000)?

The Internet brings us closer to the lives of simple living pioneers carrying a fulfilling existence under harsh conditions for contemporary modern standards; our friends Jenna and David Jonas, a young couple growing a family and their dogs in a self-built log house in the midst of the Alaskan wilderness, revive everyday the stories some of us had only known by reading Jack London stories and dreaming about them.

Abundance against the odds

We also get to know the endeavors of Russ Finch, a retired mailman turned-entrepreneur in his late eighties that has found the way to outflank harsh winters in rural Nebraska by designing sunken greenhouses where he grows oranges in the snow: Winter temperatures in Alliance, Nebraska can drop to 20°F (the record low is -40°F/C), yet he draws on the earth’s stable temperature (around 52 degrees in his region). Russ Finch is an Earthling version of The Martian‘s extreme survivalism: the character created by Andy Weir (Matt Damon in Ridley Scott’s 2015 film adaptation) potatoes in Mars don’t sound as amazing as Russ’ oranges in Alliance’s winters once one has visited the place.

As space exploration or flying cars become a reality in the coming years, the seek of simplicity could intensify. Panoramic rides on steam trains in places such as the Pyrenees or Ardèche, in France’s southern tip of the country’s central plateau, the Massif Central, become popular activities to celebrate smartphone-friendly yesteryear, whereas remote, desolate towns of the US West, such as West Texas’ Marfa become mainstream, perhaps to the despair of enthusiasts of sculptor Donald Judd, who back in the seventies had turned the place into his art sanctuary.

We’ve come to know Marfa quite well across the years. On our first visit to the place, we were so tired and stupefied by the heat after camping for a couple of nights in the area that we ended up writing over the memory card storing the video of a story we had dedicated an entire day to, ended up coming back in 2016 to talk to George Sacaris about his little adventure transforming an alley barber shop into a skinny row house: maybe the tiniest townhouse in Texas.

Big sky and little else

Marfa is the place one imagines with one big sky capable of replicating that of classic Hollywood epic movies such as Giant, the 1956 Western drama film by George Stevens for youngsters James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor to display their acting. Also a place of experimentation and RV motels with a mid-century modern decadent touch with a name such as El Cosmico, not to talk about post-Apocalyptic experimentation in building, such as architect Candid Rogers’ corrugated-steel microhome, now owned by entrepreneur and Jupe’s cofounder Jeff Wilson.

Discomfort and survival seem to go hand in hand, and only by embracing vulnerability can we reach conceptual and physical places we didn’t know existed. Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt put it this way:

“Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity because his freedom is always won in the never wholly successful attempt to liberate himself from necessity.”

Necessity stimulates adaptation processes that can involve generations, although sometimes it just takes the curiosity and stubbornness of one individual to transform unconventional conjectures into real outcomes. Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi, states that “all living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be life-saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

From reusable space rockets that land in drone platforms drifting in the sea to extreme-weather-proof dwellings or robotized technologies that inspire the first conceptual iterations with a potential to turn into reality on the moon and Mars, naive inventors and pop culture keep exploring the boundaries of the environments that will keep pushing our survival tolerance as a species.