Thoughts About Minimalism and Survival

Learning a thing or two from the past…Part 1, 21st century Westerners are not the first to minimalize.

How much stuff do we really need to lug through life?

“The things you own end up owning you.” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

There’s a lot of recent talk about Minimalism as a social movement and this fits well with my personal philosophy and my interests in preindustrial technology and survival.  Not long ago, minimalism was mostly associated with artists, aesthetes, wanderers, mystics, and philosophers.  That is to say, the fringe element, outsiders, and weirdos.  These things come in cycles and I think, as a backlash against generations of sell-out philosophy and the creation of a professional consumer class, many people are reaching for something new.

We come to learn that everything old is new again.

I’ve been pondering history and prehistory on a full-time professional basis for several decades now.  As hard to believe as it may be, I even get paid a salary to do it.  One of my professional interests involves the tools, tool-kits, and strategies for surviving that various people have come up with for dealing with the world.  As a sometimes primitive skills-survival instructor and full-time frugalist I think it important to not reinvent a lifeway when we have millennia of ancestors who dealt with most of the same issues we do today.

A San bushman demonstrating fire-making.  Ostrich egg canteen in the foreground. These people probably resemble our ancestral way of life and have very few possessions, even in their harsh environment.

For most humans, for most of our history, owning too much stuff has never really been an issue.  We had what we needed and either made what we needed or did without the things we didn’t have.  It brings a smile to my face to know that more than 2,500 years ago, various thinkers people in China, India, Greece, and the Middle East were contemplating the nature and evils of acquiring stuff; some were even writing about it.  That’s not to say that I have immediate plans to become a wandering mendicant like a medieval friar (as appealing as that might sound to some) but I do have an interest in lightening my material load and some very specific goals for the coming year.

Medieval European mendicants represented by a pilgrim and a friar.

My foundation as a minimalist (and I may not be very good at it)-

I have been thinking about what stuff a person needs to survive since I was a teenager who enjoyed backpacking and travel.  Like virtually every young boy, I had grand ideas of escaping the family and traveling unhindered across the world.  My family weren’t exactly readers but I devoured Jack London and Mark Twain stories as a kid.  I loved the extensive and well-thought out gear lists provided in the Boy Scout Handbook, the Explorer’s Handbook, and the Philmont Guides.  I read Larry Dean Olsen’s great book of Outdoor Survival Skills and Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker again and again.  I read about the mountain men of the fur trade, and always, took note of what they carried or didn’t seem to need.  I would copy lists into a notebook and revise them while sitting in some boring high school class, making my own lists of what I have, what I need, and what I want.  This thinking encouraged me to work and save money to buy a better knife, backpack, or camping stove.  I was probably the only kid I knew who wanted, and got, a file and whetstone for Christmas one year (my grandpa was good that way).  My friends and I spent our teens and early twenties hiking and camping year round, mostly in the woods of the Ozarks in southern Missouri testing our mettle at that time in life time when all teenagers know they are invincible.  Some of us even made it to Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond.

A few of the many books I ended up possessing on a quest toward fewer possessions.

In a modern sense of survivalist, many people look to the military or the loonies of the social media.  Often, military service is the time when young men and women are introduced to such things for the first and only time in their lives.  Realistically however, the military itself acknowledges it’s shortcomings on a personal basis as (with the exception of a few special operations units) its entire system is dependent on lengthy and complex supply lines, support chains, and de-emphasis of the individual and personal decision making.  Military survival is generally approached as a means of keeping alive until help arrives.  Great for fighting a war, but not always so good when you are turned loose into the world.  This sort of survival strays from our point here anyway.

More (and less) to come soon.

* here are a few links to modern Minimalists of various ilks and philosophical merit.  A journey through these links will hint at the breadth and depth of people on different paths but moving in the same direction.

Read, research, think, and enjoy!

3 thoughts on “Thoughts About Minimalism and Survival

  1. We had the good fortune and good luck to live in an area of Honduras that had subsistence
    dwellers. They owned so little that it did not have to be protected. A thatched roof and some
    woven reed mats for walls. Clay pots and comals (clay pizza stones) for food prep. The ocean
    and lagoon along with everything that grew in the jungle was their pantry. A machete was a prized
    high tech tool. When I was a Boy Scout we took more camping than these Amer-Indians ever
    acquired in their entire life. Extreme.
    Waiting for the “rest of the story” George.

    1. That’s great Bob. In my travels, I have met some similar people and I’m always impressed. We just seem to acquire “stuff” as it is so easy in this society. Keeping on the move helps keep down the clutter though.

  2. In the Yucatan I met Mayan Indians who also essentially did not participate in the money economy at all. They hunted and fished and lived in thatched huts.They only had machetes and small knives for tools. They probably would have been naked but the Catholic Church gave them clothes. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, there was polio in the local area, and when the going got tough they ate their dogs. But they seemed happier than most, although cattle ranchers where moving in, and some of my Mexican friends worried for their safety. Ranchers regarded the Maya as subhuman pests.

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