How to survive the survivalists

On the same page announcing that "Fer Sends Dow Down," the New York Times reported: "Business of Survival Grows." It appears that in California, our national frontier of excessive hopes and despairs, a company named Survival Inc. does a $500,000-per-month business, peddling radiation suits ($90), a year's supply of prepackaged food ($1,525), and 2,000-gallon tanks for water or fuel, depending on the customer's favorite panic.

Worried about economic collapse, multiple commuv nist invasions, or just an old-fashioned urban riot? Companies like Survival Inc. will (for $300) provide you with a crossbow to go with your radiation suit, or even a German air rifle, as well as an arsenal vault ($1,500) to store a dozen such weapons.

One profiteer of the doom boom confesses that he "gets up in the morning and hopes that something goes wrong." Sales -- roughly double over a year ago -- prosper with "every spurt in the worry quotient."

Not to worry about that "worry quotient" as long as Apocalypse publicists the other half of the surival industry -- keep reciting the alleged woes to come. The best-surviving survivalist, Howard Ruff, has already sold 2 1/2 million copies of "How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years." He is expected to gross Times, and a syndicated television program, Ruff House.

There is something admirable about survivors -- those robinson Crusoes who, once shipwrecked, ingeniously make do, utilizing their smallest asset, persisting. There is something less appealing about survivalists, obsessed with shipwreck before the event, outfitting life-rafts-for-one, complete with firearms, or crossbows, to keep the rest of the world off.

The cruder strategies of 1980 survivalists have the opera-bouffe quality of the survivalists of the 1950s who bought hard hats and poured a couple of inches of concrete into backyard shelters to make themselves impervious to World War III. At their most innocent they seem to be rehearsing to parry H-bombs with shields of recycled cardboard.

Even if survivalists are correct to take the future more pessimistically than the rest of us, the risks of nuclear disaster or air pollution are hardly threats one can escape by taking to the h ills in guerrilla fashion. The most thorough cooperation thas produced the post-technological world, and only the most thorough cooperation can save it from itself.

Survivalism is a reduction to absurdity of rugged individualism -- the American doctrine of self-reliance. "It is only as a man puts off from himself all external support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail ," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in a classic essay on the subject. But he was speaking of intellectual self-reliance -- of thinking for yourself.

Social self-reliance is another matter, full of proud confusions -- and a psychological impossibility anyway for everybody but the most ardent hermit. Emerson was more gregarious in life than in print. Even the austere Thoreau emerged from Walden with some regularity to join the Emerson dinner table -- presumably chatting about self-reliance.

The pathos of survivalists is that they plan so cheerfully to act in isolation -- every man for himself. They seem too satisfied with the prospect of "surviving" -- negative word once reserved for emergencies only, now applied routinely to everyday life. "How to Survive Your Marriage," "How to Survive Your Job" -- the verb casually graces the spines of books and the covers of magazines.

There is a dubious tendency for all of us to stand ready, if not eager, to settle for the worst. Howard Ruff has remarked of the extreme survivalists, "If Western civilization doesn't fail, they will be terribly disappointed."

Could any hope be sadder? Pity the poor survivalists. By their own scenario they may have the last laugh -- though humor does not appear to be their strong point. But to whom will they say, "I told you so?" The taste of being "right" will be in their mouth as ashes -- or a survival biscuit.

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