We’re Preparing for the Wrong Apocalypse

Red book with title 'The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival' and older caucasian man with beard and glasses wearing denim shirt posing with arms crossed
Alicia Calton

We worry about the future, and we prepare for the worst. The stories we create about upcoming catastrophes reveal our fears, but they also reveal our fantasies: our desire for a change, maybe a return to an idealized past. Our imagination is wrong, though; we prepare for the wrong apocalypse.

I am an archaeologist, and I teach wilderness survival skills. I see how things fell apart in the past. The skills I teach seem useful to survive the next apocalypse. Surely, knowing how to start a fire, build a shelter, purify water or find your way would be exactly what we need to know.

Judging from the past, we need more than that. Unlike our apocalyptic fantasies, where small groups head out to the hills with their gear and skills and make a rustic but satisfying life for themselves, real societal declines look different. People persevere as a community. The lone wolf approach has never worked.

Survival kit. Man and a woman viewed from behind hiking along a trail among green plants and yellow flowers with a snow-covered mountain in the distance

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Why is our vision of the next apocalypse so wrong? Maybe it reflects our desire for a simpler life, where the tasks might be hard but the decisions are easy. We could deal only with people we choose. Encoded in the stories we create are all sorts of clues to the life we want, not just the life we fear we will lose.

Our view of the future also comes from the myths we create about our own past. Rugged individualism will not help in a crisis. We must respond as a community; any other solution is short term. To feed ourselves, to educate our children and to have a life beyond harsh subsistence requires a community. Even an unimaginable catastrophe will leave billions of people, many times the global population, when our ancestors abandoned hunting and gathering for farming.

Survival skills will get us through the first days, perhaps, but the skills that build a strong community, including fairness, empathy and generosity will be key to rebuilding a future after a collapse.

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