We mocked preppers and survivalists – until the pandemic hit

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With America near breaking point, survivalists deserve some vindication. The rest of us might even learn from their example

You’ve heard of preppers, right? Survivalists? If you’ve watched TV shows like Doomsday Preppers, you know about their strange, apocalyptic beliefs: that a disaster could strike at any time, overwhelming first responders and the social safety net; that this crisis could disrupt supply chains, causing scarcity and panic and social breakdown; that authorities might invoke emergency powers and impose police curfews. Crazy theories like that.

In fact, many perfectly reputable organizations – including the US federal government and the Red Cross – recommend Americans maintain extra food and emergency supplies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) advises keeping a two-week supply of food, as well as water, batteries, medical masks, first-aid supplies and a battery- or hand-powered radio, among other things.

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World news | The Guardian

You’ve heard of preppers, right? Survivalists? If you’ve watched TV shows like Doomsday Preppers, you know about their strange, apocalyptic beliefs: that a disaster could strike at any time, overwhelming first responders and the social safety net; that this crisis could disrupt supply chains, causing scarcity and panic and social breakdown; that authorities might invoke emergency powers and impose police curfews. Crazy theories like that.

In fact, many perfectly reputable organizations – including the US federal government and the Red Cross – recommend Americans maintain extra food and emergency supplies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) advises keeping a two-week supply of food, as well as water, batteries, medical masks, first-aid supplies and a battery- or hand-powered radio, among other things.

In mainstream society, however, interest in prepping usually invites ridicule about bunkers and tin-foil hats. Preppers have spent years as the objects of our collective derision.

Until now. Today, we’re all preppers – or rather, wish we had been. Non-preppers have been caught in a rain shower without an umbrella. I don’t know if preppers are laughing right now, but perhaps they’re entitled to some vindication.

Now, I’m not a prepper. I am an effete quasi-intellectual with no practical skills of any kind. My current “emergency supplies” are some Hungry-Man Dinners and a liter of bourbon. If things get really bad I will finish the bourbon, lie down and wait to be eaten by stray cats.

But I’ve come to respect the preppers’ ethos of survival and preparedness. One of my friends is one, or at least on the spectrum. When coronavirus hit, he wasn’t one of the millions of people scrambling for surgical masks; he already had them in his survival kit. He kept a few and gave the rest to elderly people.

It has become fashionable to arguenot entirely accurately – that there are “no libertarians in a pandemic”. Certainly, this crisis has been a stark reminder of the importance of collective action. We’re all on this ship together; Covid-19 has laid bare the pathetic inadequacy of the US social safety net, our lack of investment in the common good, and our government’s short attention span for preparing for crises that don’t involve terrorism or war.

But collective action also requires some level of individual responsibility and preparedness, too, at least for those with the ability and the means. You can’t aid your elderly, immunocompromised or poorer neighbors if you haven’t taken the bare minimum of preparations. There’s a reason that airplane safety demonstrations warn passengers to put on their own air-masks before assisting others.

We’re right to be angry at the people stripping supermarkets bare and hoarding desperately needed supplies. Those people aren’t preppers, however. Preppers don’t engage in panic-buying. That’s the whole point. That’s why it is called prepping.

“Prepping is a choice that occurs before a panic, not during,” a prepper recently complained on Reddit. “If you didn’t stock up over time, you are a hoarder or, perhaps worse, an opportunist. In times like these we need to come together and support one another. That doesn’t mean giving away your supplies, but it does mean living in a society.”

Another added, “We aren’t the reason that elderly or immunocompromised people can’t find hand sanitizer, masks or toilet paper. We bought things in small increments when it made zero impact on the supply.”

Yes, some preppers are individualistic to the point of being antisocial. Rightwing survivalists, in particular, are often motivated by paranoid, apocalyptic, and racist or conspiratorial beliefs. A massive doomsday industry caters to their fantasies with expensive survival supplies of questionable utility.

The preppers we encounter in popular culture are invariably the worst examples - religious or political zealots, eccentrics, middle-aged men suffering crises of masculinity, and, in the case of shows such as Doomsday Preppers, caricatures selected for entertainment value.

But not all are gun and gear fetishists with delusions of grandeur; many are apolitical or even leftwing. Global warming, environmental degradation and anxiety about the Trump administration have spurred liberals and leftists into the fold. Websites such as ThePrepared offer useful, non-alarmist advice on disaster preparedness.

The more sophisticated practitioners have always understood that prepping is a matter of both individual and collective wellbeing. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, operates a massive network of grain silos and food depots. People undergoing hardship receive food and household goods, for free or in exchange for volunteer service, at the church’s Costco-style warehouses. The system is vertically integrated, with food supplied by church-owned farms. All Mormons are also encouraged to maintain emergency stockpiles in their home – not only for their own sake, but to assist neighbors when a hurricane or flood strikes.

When disaster strikes, not if. The problem is that disasters always look like remote possibilities before they occur, and historical abstractions afterward. Even the coronavirus, as insurmountable as it seems, will eventually pass; we will return to normalcy, and then complacency, and maybe even go back to ridiculing preppers.

Yet global warming probably means more and more of these kinds of crises – natural disasters, but also economic instability and possibly more pandemics, as thawing ice releases long-dormant pathogens.

I suspect the real reason many people instinctively recoil from prepping is psychological. Prepping comes across as pessimistic or even cynical. But perhaps it is better to think of it as pragmatism. We should prepare for disasters for the same reason we buy life insurance or back up computer files: hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Recently, while doing some quarantine cleaning, I found several books I acquired during younger – less lazy, and more idealistic – days: The Boy Scout Fieldbook; The US Army Survival Manual; Living Off the Country. It seems unlikely they’ll prove too relevant here in Brooklyn, New York, but I’ve decided to brush up anyway. I also found a book called Home Brewing Without Failures, by the unimprovably named HE Bravery. The utility of that one should speak for itself.


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