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The ‘new survivalists’

Survivalism is going mainstream. In the wake of Sept. 11, an increasing number of Americans are turning to the techniques of survivalism to prepare themselves for terrorism and disaster.
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Survivalism is going mainstream. In the wake of Sept. 11, a growing number of Americans are turning to the techniques of survivalism to prepare themselves for terrorism and disaster. But this “New Survivalism” isn’t just about self-preservation. Instead of plotting retreats into mountain bunkers, the New Survivalists are living normal lives while trying to protect family and friends from threats that now seem very real.

In our new world order, where terrorists may strike anybody anywhere; where The New York Times Magazine declares a nuclear attack to be not a question of if, but when; and where survival of the fittest may no longer be just an evolutionary theory but the linchpin of modern-day living, Americans are seeking new ways to ensure that they are fit enough to survive.

As a result, survivalism has undergone a revival since Sept. 11.

Interest in survivalism plummeted following the end of the Cold War, but terrorism has spurred a renewed participation in groups such as Live Free International.

“Since Sept. 11 our preparedness message seems to be more mainstream,” says Jim Jones, president of the Illinois-based group. “There is definitely an increase in responsible survival preparation.”

Unlike stereotypical survivalists — renegades focused on self-preservation at the expense of the community — these New Survivalists are adopting a more practical, responsible approach.

Rather than simply preparing for extreme scenarios like all-out nuclear war, Live Free is helping people become more self-reliant by teaching basic emergency preparedness skills. The group encourages individuals to do “home hazard and preparedness analyses” to determine what emergency situations they are most likely to face and how to best prepare for them.

“You can prepare for a meteor hitting, but what’s the likelihood of that compared to a fire burning your house down?” Jones says. “Of course, there is some basic stuff everyone should do, such as storing water, building up a stock of food, learning first-aid, learning basic nuclear, biological and chemical protection.”

Others have flocked to Tom Brown’s Tracker School in the New Jersey countryside, one of the premier wilderness survival schools in the country. The training school has seen more than a 10 percent increase in sign-ups since Sept. 11, attracting “everyone from executives in the city to farm boys from Minnesota,” Brown says.

“The government told everyone to be aware and be prepared, but didn’t tell people what to do or how to do so,” Brown says. “Most people wouldn’t know what to do if they were cut off from mainstream society in an attack. So we got a lot of people calling wanting to learn what to do.”

Jerry Karp, a free-lance writer living in San Francisco, signed up because he was looking for “an antidote to all the madness.”

“I hate the idea of living in fear,” says Karp, who took one of Brown’s traveling courses in San Francisco in March.

“I learned the survival skills necessary to hunt and feed my family if I have to. But for me, the best survival skills I got were learning how to be better aware of what’s around me, which brings me peace of mind.”

Brown, the author of 16 books, including “Tom Brown’s Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival,” teaches survival skills that can be applied to any situation, be it a hurricane in a remote coastal area, an earthquake in the suburbs or an urban terrorist attack.

He concentrates on the basics, such as purifying water and building shelter — and offers tips such as advising people to always keep their cars’ gas tanks half-full, because disasters generally lead to gas runs.

And he suggests keeping a hand-cranked radio around in case of power outages because communication and teamwork are crucial in a crisis.

“You’ve got to be a tribal community,” Brown says. “That’s the way tribes have survived for generations. When you’re alone, that’s when things get tough.”

So it’s not surprising that the New Survivalists are focused not just on self-preservation, but on community survival.

Angela Beegle of Bothell, Wash., has enough wheat, beans and rice stockpiled to feed her entire neighborhood — and she intends to do so if necessary.

“In the event of the big bad, people need to band together and help one another,” Beegle says. “I may not have medical skills, but I have food to offer. And I am not going to lock myself in my house and hoard my food, because when people band together, they’re stronger.”

But that’s not the only reason for this new community-minded survivalism, says Jones. It’s also driven by the desire to be a responsible citizen and by common sense: “Why would anyone want to survive alone?” he asks.

Others have taken more drastic steps to ensure their survival in the face of further terrorist attacks. Rebecca Lundberg was living in the Washington, D.C., area on Sept. 11 when she saw the smoke billowing out of the Pentagon after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it. “Everything in me was screaming to get the hell out of Dodge,” she says.

Two months later, the 38-year-old computer programmer moved to Greenville S.C. “Yes, there are nuclear power plants down here, but I’ll take that any day over where I was.”

Lundberg, who now considers herself “a gentle urban survivalist,” was thrilled when she found a house by a lake. “No water worries!” she says. “And the lake has lots of fish.” Not wanting to be beholden to the “unpredictability of society,” she’s also looking into getting a solar heating system. “I want more responsibility for myself. I want away from the terrorist attacks. I want away from the angry and violent people of the world. Who’s going to bomb my cabin in the woods?”

But for most, escaping society is not a viable — or attractive — solution.

“Some people might view survivalism as bugging out for the woods to survive at any cost on nuts and berries,” Beegle says. “But I’m not prepared to do that. What kind of life would that be?”

The New Survivalists want to do more than simply survive. They want to make sure they have something to live for.