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Alone? As interest in survival skills surge, the wilderness is getting pretty crowded

Some are motivated by fear that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Some just want to know themselves away from the safety net of technology and household comfort. Whatever the reason, a growing number of Australians are asking themselves: Are you ready for anything? Coco Veldkamp reports.

Alone? As interest in survival skills surge, the wilderness is getting pretty crowded

“We live in a world with finite resources in a system that demands endless cyclical consumption, economic growth, and expenditure. It's completely at odds with the natural world," says survival expert and Alone Australia consultant Gordon Dedman. Photo: Coco Veldkamp

Story by Coco Veldkamp

Gordon Dedman knows how to hold a crowd captive. With a splay of knives laid out in front of him he first carves a mallet, then a tent peg, and then a spearhead, each fashioned with quick, strong strikes of his blade against the wood.

Each movement is etched with the muscle memory of his years in the military and extensive bushcraft training.

Australians are hungry for survival know-how and bushcraft skills, Dedman says. Since he founded his outdoor bushcraft survival skills school in 2017, he has witnessed a surge of enthusiasts clamouring to join the expanding waitlist for his courses.

“We live in a world with finite resources in a system that demands endless cyclical consumption, economic growth, and expenditure. It’s completely at odds with the natural world,” he says.

“When I ask people what they want to get out of our courses, the number one thing they say is they want to learn some life skills, they want to get away from technology”.

Dedman says he has observed a shift – survivalism is no longer the preserve of doomsday preppers or extreme adventurers. Certainly for some, the motivation is around a palpable sense of disaster anxiety – assisted by images of people hoarding toilet paper as if it were currency during the COVID-19 pandemic burnt into the national psyche.

But out of this apprehension, a new wave of self-sufficiency is rising. Feeding into this is a growing cohort of people wanting to find ways to connect with nature, to understand their capacities when stripped of the accoutrements of technology.

The upshot is that the survival industry is booming as more Australians seek the skills and resources to thrive off the grid.

Dedman is the survival consultant for the spectacularly successful Alone Australia, the nation’s most-watched TV show on SBS, with over 812,000 Australians watching the first episode of season 2 within the week of its release.

Dedman says his involvement in the show has attracted upwards of 300 people to join the waitlist for his courses, and ignited a nationwide conversation: Could you survive?

Kate Nottingham, the director of the annual Off-Grid Living Festival in northeast Victoria, attests to this burgeoning trend. She’s observed surging enthusiasm for the festival since its debut in 2018, prompting its relocation to a larger venue in Chiltern for this year’s festival to accommodate for its 280 exhibitors.

In April this year, more than 2000 people gathered to engage with exhibitors and stalls offering insights ranging from sustainable energy solutions to wilderness survival tactics.

Nottingham herself resides off-grid on a so-called “bush block”, characterised by its untouched native vegetation.

“Personally, I think there’s a resurgence in survival skills and off-grid living because we’re now living in such a modern world with so many conveniences and screens that people are drawn to reconnect with nature, go back to basics and feel the empowerment of being self-sufficient,” she explains.

And the proof is in the numbers. The global survival tools market is predicted to soar to  $2.46 billion by 2030, according to Zion Market Research. Alan Wood, the general manager at Survival Supplies Australia, is reaping the benefits of Australian’s growing interest in survivalism.

“There’s a palpable sense among consumers to reassess and bolster their survival skills amidst increasingly frequent environmental calamities and social uncertainties,” he says.

“We’ve witnessed a significant upswing in sales, with a particularly strong interest in our bushcraft and preparedness collections.

“Specifically, we have seen an increase in sales figures by well over 350% since the beginning of the pandemic period.”

Some people believe that the survivalist trend is emerging as a response to discontent with current social and political systems.

“It is about thinking seriously about what we really need to be happy and secure, and the silver lining to the turbulent times we live in is that often, less can be more,” says Dr Samuel Alexander, a researcher at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne.

His expertise is in degrowth – the school of thought that sees capitalist systems to be destructive and calls for the shrinkage of global economies. Alexander believes that western societies’ obsession with consumerism has been disastrous for the planet and does not satisfy human needs.

“Even if a broad social movement never emerges to fundamentally change the nature of the existing growth economy, many people are still drawn to embrace lifestyles of voluntary simplicity and increased self-sufficiency,” he says.

According to Alexander, movements like degrowth, voluntary simplicity, and permaculture, are not only becoming more mainstream, but are now vital.

“If humanity is to make it through this century without destroying the life-support system called Earth and thereby impoverishing the world, then these types of alternative cultures need to become the norm”.

What’s driving Australian’s interest in survivalism, he says, is the breakdown of existing systems, which will continue over coming years. And “then those who are prepared to live simply will be best place to manage the deepening crises that most likely lie ahead”.

“Let’s aim for sustainability, but we may have to settle for resilience”.


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