I have always loved adventure books. My favorite story as a child was about a family on a car trip in the desert. The un/expected happened – they had a breakdown on a lonely road, and were reduced to eating white glue and collecting dew in a tin can… powerful stuff to a 9-year old. The Worst-Case Scenario books came too late for me; I was already an avid collector of bizarre tricks for survival.
We have all imagined being adrift in a world with few remaining people. The circumstances may change – nuclear war, shipwreck, zombies – but the story doesn’t vary. There will be survivors, and you are one. Who else do you want with you, and what tools do you have in your possession? (Rolling Stone asks what music you would take, book journals ask what books you would carry, but these luxuries won’t feed you.)
Survivors must have skills. To build a shelter, you need a Carpenter. To clothe the few, there must be a Tailor (or Seamstress). To feed the hungry, there will be many Farmers, and maybe some Hunters. But before everyone in Mississippi applies for that job, remember there won’t be much ammunition. At least, not until the next industrial revolution. So the Hunter must be really, really accurate, and use renewable killing methods – spear, bow, and trap.
Your band of survivors must have more than skills, they must be planners. They must look ahead to the days when the fish don’t come near shore, and find a way to follow the fish. They must find a way to preserve food for times of bad weather which inevitably arrives. They must develop a reliable source of fresh water, preferably multiple sources and a storage system.
Food, clothing, and shelter. These stymied the children in Lord of the Flies, and so they turned to other pursuits. Other dystopian fictions follow the same pattern – resources become scarce and humans turn upon each other. There must be an Ambassador, one who can evaluate individual arguments and determine the best course of action for the group. There is also a job for a Gleaner, who will sift through the wreckage or the abandoned settlements or the forest, and return with useful bits and pieces for the Carpenter or Water Resources Manager or Boatbuilder.
In this society, everyone would have multiple jobs, and everyone would learn many skills. The cult of specialization has reduced our ability to survive. The Architect is no longer the builder; the Engineer cannot find water. To feed and clothe ourselves, to build and maintain a roof over our heads sounds less like utopia than like a hard slog, with endless work and few rewards. Maybe our great-grandparents did it, but we expected that the world had changed; we could spend our time in loftier pursuits and simply purchase the essentials without the backbreaking labor of production. Without machines we are helpless to transport goods or do the work of construction. And without fuel, machines will be simply ornamental.
We are less fit for survival than ever before. We are overweight, overdiagnosed, and overmedicated. Most of us do not spend many days out of doors, and are unfit to meet the daily challenges of the climate. We do not walk long distances, or plow, or climb. Our children have a lower life expectancy than their parents for the first time in history. Start compiling your list of friends for your desert island survival team… and then consider your own contribution to the continuation of the species. Are you ready?