Rewilding is Not Survivalism. So Why Do People Confuse the Two?
Hunter-gatherers lived horrible, short lives, aimlessly wandering the landscape in search of food to quench their ever present hunger, just barely surviving… Or so the myths of our culture would have us believe. These myths are so pervasive, that they infiltrate all aspects of rewilding. Both outsiders looking in, and those new to rewilding, often conflate wilderness survival skills and survivalism, with rewilding. This is partly because we think of hunter-gatherers as “surviving” the horrible reality of nature, rather than living comfortable lives deeply embedded in a culture that takes care of them with ease. Later, when we realize that hunter-gatherers weren’t starving to death, the thinking goes, “Hunter-gatherer’s aren’t barely surviving… they are experts of survival!” This is faulty, as it still sees hunter-gatherers through the lens of “survival.”
Survival, in the context of “wilderness survival,” means staying alive long enough to be rescued and returned to your culture, or make it out of a life-threatening situation, back to your culture. The key component that defines a “survival situation” is that you have been removed from the safety, security, routine provided by your culture. Without that culture (of food production, shelter from the elements, clean sources of water, etc.) you will die. Life without culture is uncomfortable and hard. It’s why humans became pack animals: strength in numbers. Survival skills are not meant to keep you alive indefinitely (this is why survival is uncomfortable and undesirable), they are meant to keep you alive just long enough. Survivalism (aka Prepping) is a subculture of people preparing for a crisis. It is a culture of survivalists, who carry the mentality of survival. It is a short term crisis plan of action, not a long term cultural commitment to the land. They can’t see beyond the culture of civilization, and so prepare for its return after an emergency, rather than creating a more resilient culture.
Hunter-gatherers did not live in constant state of survival. Rather, they had (and still have today–where they persist in spite of civilization’s genocidal lunacy) an intricate, comforting culture. They have seasonal routines of food procurement and production. They don’t have to wander in search of food, they know exactly where their food is. They know how to stay dry and warm, and have proper shelters and clothing that match weather fluctuations in their bioregions. They don’t have to make everything from scratch all the time (such as a fire making kit), the way a survivalist does. They are not living in a crisis of starvation and discomfort (though they are facing eradication from civilization, but that is a separate issue). First world people who grow up with hot showers and a McDonalds on every corner imagine that living without their iPhone constitutes a survival situation.
Rewilding is about returning to a hunter-gatherer lifeway, in its wholeness. It is also focused on understanding the mechanisms of how civilization came about, how it domesticated us, and how to dismantle it and break through the barriers to the wild. Survival skills are a low priority to rewilding. Those recently introduced to rewilding will often focus on these, simply because they are still working through these myths and think the survival skillset is more relevant to rewilding than it really is. Ancestral living skills require more effort and energy than you would expend in a survival situation. These are things like hide-tanning, long term shelter building, bows & arrows, basket weaving, pottery, etc. Yet, rewilding is also more than learning ancestral living skills. It is more than learning to track animals and identify and process edible plants. It is more akin to learning to garden than learning to forage or hunt. Reciprocity with the land is not emphasized in survival skills. This is central to rewilding. Serving the land, living in reciprocity (rather than extraction), is what separates the wild from the domesticated. Survivalists are not concerned with reciprocity, they are in crisis mode and in need of rescue. Survivalism is a reflection of survival mentality: stockpiling canned food instead of relationships. Arming yourself with guns and self-defense weapons instead of the knowledge of how to live with the land, and in a community.
Over the years I have had many reality television shows contact me. Two of which wanted to make shows with me as the host. None of these ever panned out, because none of them really understood what rewilding was. They wanted me to go out and hunt with a bow and arrow, as though that was the ultimate aspect of rewilding. This frustrated me, and continues to do so today. Without a culture, you don’t have a wild existence. Rewilding is culture-building, not a solo activity in the woods. That’s certainly part of the rewilding journey, but it’s not the wholeness that makes rewilding, rewilding. It would have been easy for me to have sold out the vision of rewilding, and made a superficial show about picking berries in the woods and hunting with a bow and arrow, but I would have had to throw my integrity as a rewilder in the trash.
Survival instructor, author, and television star Cody Lundin, did a fantastic interview when he left “Dual Survivor.” In the interview Cody talks about how television survival shows are produced on a whim by unknowledgeable producers, and enthusiastic actors with a few skills. He calls these shows “Survival Entertainment.” The lack of real knowledge from the creators of these shows mean that the shows often don’t teach real survival skills. Sometimes they teach you to do really stupid things that will kill you. The best example is always the bow and arrow. Aside from being a survival skills instructor, Cody is a proficient primitive skills practitioner and hunter. The show’s premise is that they dump Cody and another guy in the woods and they must survive while making it back to civilization. Throughout his time on the show, the producers, knowing his skills, asked him to hunt with a primitive bow and arrow. Cody, a survival instructor and person with integrity, refused to do so, because bows and arrows have nothing to do with survival skills. If your goal was to make it to civilization alive, you would not care about food. You will not starve to death in a week, for example. Producers, actors, and the public conflate so much of these different fields, and take these skills out of their context, that they all get wrapped up into being the same thing. Here is a quote from Cody:
Modern survival is different from primitive living skills, which is different from urban preparedness, which is different from homesteading, which is different from wilderness living or “bushcrafting.” They all revolve around various aspects of self-reliance, just like all of the different doctors revolve around dealing with the human body. But one does not go to a foot doctor to remove a cataract. Even many survival instructors are unaware of the differences, and the media, not knowing the difference either, puts out whatever they think is valid.
We could easily add “rewilding” to Cody’s list. Although, while there are aspects of self-reliance within rewilding, it is founded on creating a community of resilience. I would add, similarly to Cody, that many rewilders are unaware of these differences as well. This isn’t to say that bows and arrows aren’t tools for rewilding, or that survival skills don’t overlap into the realm of rewilding. Obviously they are, and obviously they do. Many people come to rewilding by first getting into survivalism. The problem is that they draw focus to the superficial aspects of rewilding (the material culture) and away from the central themes, of how and why. If you are only looking at the superficial aspects, you’re missing the core elements of reciprocity, culture-building, resistance, and resilience. These are what separate survivalism and rewilding. While this may be more broadly appealing and draw a larger audience, it ceases to be rewilding, and instead, becomes a shell of rewilding. Which, to most people, looks a lot like survivalism.
Great read! Unfortunately most of the primitive skills community is just a replacement for the wasteful (and sometimes costly) survival school mentality. It’s even quite sad how many “survivalists” can fail at doing their jobs, especially when anyone with land, money, and time can set up their own “survival skills” school. And then it becomes even more confusing when primitive skills practitioners call themselves rewilders without any rewilding intent. I guess the word has a nice ring to it.
One other thing to add, though– you state that Cody left Dual Survival, but he actually was fired by Discovery, simply because he refused to do pointless and unsafe things that the media wanted him to do. Survival TV seems to have no skilled people left.