In recent years, survivalism has been edging deeper into mainstream culture. In 2012, National Geographic Channel launched “Doomsday Preppers,” a reality show featuring a series of Americans bracing for what they called S.H.T.F. (when the “shit hits the fan”). The première drew more than four million viewers, and, by the end of the first season, it was the most popular show in the channel’s history. A survey commissioned by National Geographic found that forty per cent of Americans believed that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter was a wiser investment than a 401(k). Online, the prepper discussions run from folksy (“A Mom’s Guide to Preparing for Civil Unrest”) to grim (“How to Eat a Pine Tree to Survive”).
Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal. Philanthropy in America is still three times as large, as a share of G.D.P., as philanthropy in the next closest country, the United Kingdom. But it is now accompanied by a gesture of surrender, a quiet disinvestment by some of America’s most successful and powerful people. Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair.
As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them. Justin Kan, the technology investor who had made a halfhearted effort to stock up on food, recalled a recent phone call from a friend at a hedge fund. “He was telling me we should buy land in New Zealand as a backup. He’s, like, ‘What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.’ ”
When you’re cold and wet and in desperate need of warming up you need a dependable way to get a fire started. The Gerber Bear Grylls fire starter is simplicity itself with one end providing a ferro rod to create a spark and the other a metal striker. There’s a lanyard running through both ends so you don’t lose track of anything and a powerful emergency whistle on that same lanyard that will allow you to signal for help. The whole thing tucks away neatly into a waterproof storage unit that measures a modest 4 ¾” in length. Mastery of fire is what separates us from wildlife. This piece of fire-related survival gear can ensure you walk out of the woods at the end of your ordeal.
When I started putting together my first survival kit, I just collected whatever weird stuff I could find—like tablets that would protect my thyroid from nuclear fallout. My mindset changed when my first daughter was born. I realized I needed a more practical end-of-the-world plan, with equipment that would be useful for things that might actually happen. Nuclear war is probably not in store for 2018, and if it is, I’ll just open a window. I don’t want to live through that.
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The helicopter eased down onto a lawn beside a putting green. The new luxury community will have three thousand acres of dunes and forestland, and seven miles of coastline, for just a hundred and twenty-five homes. As we toured the site in a Land Rover, he emphasized the seclusion: “From the outside, you won’t see anything. That’s better for the public and better for us, for privacy.”
Here are the latest news items and commentary on current economics news, market trends, stocks, investing opportunities, and the precious metals markets. We also cover hedges, derivatives, and obscura. And it bears mention that most of these items are from the “tangibles heavy” contrarian perspective of JWR. (SurvivalBlog’s Founder and Senior Editor.) Today’s focus is on Swiss Watches. (See the Economy & Finance section.)
Lindsay, a radio host and a supporter of the back-to-the-land movement is preparing for a total failure of the agricultural and food system with her family and some friends. Meanwhile Jim D and his daughter is preparing for a cyber-terrorist attack which can shut down today's technology and even cause the power grid to shut down. He is using his bug-out vehicle called The Behemoth.
I called a Silicon Valley sage, Stewart Brand, the author and entrepreneur whom Steve Jobs credited as an inspiration. In the sixties and seventies, Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” attracted a cult following, with its mixture of hippie and techie advice. (The motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”) Brand told me that he explored survivalism in the seventies, but not for long. “Generally, I find the idea that ‘Oh, my God, the world’s all going to fall apart’ strange,” he said.
For global catastrophic risks the costs of food storage become impractical for most of the population  and for some such catastrophes conventional agriculture would not function due to the loss of a large fraction of sunlight (e.g. during nuclear winter or a supervolcano). In such situations, alternative food is necessary, which is converting natural gas and wood fiber to human edible food.
One measure of survivalism’s spread is that some people are starting to speak out against it. Max Levchin, a founder of PayPal and of Affirm, a lending startup, told me, “It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.”
In practice, the process can be a bit tricky. Freeze-dried meals require that you have potable water lying around, which might not be the case in the event of a serious calamity (some Wise Company kits include water purifiers). The cooking instructions for the Wise products I tested call for using the entire four-serving bag at once, which means that you have to have a container on hand to store what you don’t eat, and a fridge to keep it from spoiling. Even at my office kitchen, the only way I could make it work was by pouring about a fourth of the packet in a mug, filling it with water, and putting another mug on top of it.
This group focuses on surviving brief encounters of violent activity, including personal protection and its legal ramifications, danger awareness, John Boyd's cycle (also known as the OODA loop—observe, orient, decide and act), martial arts, self-defense tactics and tools (both lethal and non-lethal). These survivalist tactics are often firearm-oriented, in order to ensure a method of defense against attackers or home invasion.
You don’t need a huge space to store emergency supplies if you plan wisely. Use every inch of your storage space for efficiency and necessity. When buying emergency supplies, look for stackable items with minimal packaging or that serve multiple purposes (multi-function items are great because you get the benefits of multiple tools without using up all that storage space). For example, MREs don’t take as much space as individual ingredients. Buying freeze-dried food instead of ready-to-eat foods lets you store even more in a smaller area.
I don’t know about you, but I find that I am troubled by the concept of free will, because I wonder if it still exists. In order to use our free will, we must have alternatives from which to choose. Is it possible to make a choice if we are only presented with one side of an argument, position, or direction and there is no other? If there is only one apple on a tree, what choice do you have if you need an apple?
Though its light weight and long shelf life are ideal for navigating harsh conditions, freeze-dried food is probably most famous as a cultural curiosity: Like many Americans, I discovered it in a museum gift shop, gawking at the styrofoam-like ice cream that astronauts used to have for dessert. More recently, I encountered it at a disaster preparedness convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, where smiling, gray-haired preppers manned tables piled with plastic bags full of vegetables, meats, and stews.
The fears were different in Silicon Valley. Around the same time that Huffman, on Reddit, was watching the advance of the financial crisis, Justin Kan heard the first inklings of survivalism among his peers. Kan co-founded Twitch, a gaming network that was later sold to Amazon for nearly a billion dollars. “Some of my friends were, like, ‘The breakdown of society is imminent. We should stockpile food,’ ” he said. “I tried to. But then we got a couple of bags of rice and five cans of tomatoes. We would have been dead if there was actually a real problem.” I asked Kan what his prepping friends had in common. “Lots of money and resources,” he said. “What are the other things I can worry about and prepare for? It’s like insurance.”
When he gets up to show me about his cabin, Pense stands with the height and permanence of the dignified trees that encircle the property. He doesn’t say “um,” or “well”—the slow, deliberate syllables that emanate from his jowls feel like historical record, perhaps with a sprinkle of Americana, but not quite jingoism. Listening to him talk about his life is like having R. Lee Ermey recite your high school American studies textbook, but gentler.
“Next thing I see is, they hanged the colored boy, ’cause they caught him stealing. And they had established, I think, about 1,000 trees in the forest out in Mark Twain to hang people from if they catch them stealing or whatever. And I had a big dog—my dog died of bone cancer of all things two years ago. Buddy was half-Rottweiler, half-German shepherd. He was a dog, and he was with me in this. And I also have a police riot gun, a 12-gauge, that holds eight magnum shells. So I’m seeing all this stuff happening, and then I look around, and my dog’s gone. So I picked up my shotgun and went to look for my dog, and I found five men, and they were already skinning him to eat.”
I also found that I absolutely detest the rating system that Practical Preppers apply at the end of every segment. Not because they may or may not be right about aspects of that individual's preparedness, but becuase they fit that rating into a "box". Many preppers have to think outside the box, due to circumstances, finances, whatever, but the rating system seems to ignore that. In a few cases, even I found it insulting. I know they carried it over into season 2, but I'm hoping that if there is a season 3 that either gets changed or dropped entirely.
What’s on the list depends on which faction of preparedness you practice, pre-Y2K prepper and Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor Craig Wiles tells me. There are preppers, who anticipate an event like an ice storm or an EMP; there are survivalists, who arm themselves to face an enemy like a tyrannical government; and there are homesteaders, who grow their own food and practice self-sufficiency.
Monetary disaster investors believe the Federal Reserve system is fundamentally flawed. Newsletters suggest hard assets of gold and silver bullion, coins, and other precious-metal-oriented investments such as mining shares. Survivalists prepare for paper money to become worthless through hyperinflation. As of late 2009 this is a popular scenario. Many will stockpile bullion in preparation for a market crash that would destroy the value of global currencies.
Over the years, Huffman has become increasingly concerned about basic American political stability and the risk of large-scale unrest. He said, “Some sort of institutional collapse, then you just lose shipping—that sort of stuff.” (Prepper blogs call such a scenario W.R.O.L., “without rule of law.”) Huffman has come to believe that contemporary life rests on a fragile consensus. “I think, to some degree, we all collectively take it on faith that our country works, that our currency is valuable, the peaceful transfer of power—that all of these things that we hold dear work because we believe they work. While I do believe they’re quite resilient, and we’ve been through a lot, certainly we’re going to go through a lot more.”
Yishan Wong, an early Facebook employee, was the C.E.O. of Reddit from 2012 to 2014. He, too, had eye surgery for survival purposes, eliminating his dependence, as he put it, “on a nonsustainable external aid for perfect vision.” In an e-mail, Wong told me, “Most people just assume improbable events don’t happen, but technical people tend to view risk very mathematically.” He continued, “The tech preppers do not necessarily think a collapse is likely. They consider it a remote event, but one with a very severe downside, so, given how much money they have, spending a fraction of their net worth to hedge against this . . . is a logical thing to do.”
Business titans grew uncomfortable. In 1889, Andrew Carnegie, who was on his way to being the richest man in the world, worth more than four billion in today’s dollars, wrote, with concern, about class tensions; he criticized the emergence of “rigid castes” living in “mutual ignorance” and “mutual distrust.” John D. Rockefeller, of Standard Oil, America’s first actual billionaire, felt a Christian duty to give back. “The novelty of being able to purchase anything one wants soon passes,” he wrote, in 1909, “because what people most seek cannot be bought with money.” Carnegie went on to fight illiteracy by creating nearly three thousand public libraries. Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago. According to Joel Fleishman, the author of “The Foundation,” a study of American philanthropy, both men dedicated themselves to “changing the systems that produced those ills in the first place.”
Modern-day survivalists aren't generally regarded as the most sane people on the planet. A quick look at any one of the disturbingly common and frighteningly thorough shopping lists they post online drives home the fact that anyone who self-identifies as a "prepper" most likely went off the deep end a long time ago. Sure, it's fine to keep a few extra cans of food and cases of water around for an emergency, but if you start adding body armor and butt paste to your stash, you might want to tell George Miller that it's time to see other people.
Your run-of-the-mill shoe stank might not pose much of a survival threat, but trench foot certainly will; baking soda is great at absorbing the moisture that might otherwise literally cause your feet to rot off your legs. As for the health of your teeth -- it will be pretty hard to get through your day's rations of homemade jerky and hardtack without some high-quality chompers. And you certainly don't want to rely on that pesky fluoride that will "kill your brain over time" (um, what?).
Still, as I sat at my desk one afternoon, eyeing the colorful salads my coworkers were having for lunch, I realized the absurdity of my experiment: I live in a city with 24/7 access to fresh food and work a job that affords me the privilege of eating healthfully most of the time. Even quibbling over the nutritional content of these freeze-dried meals was something of a luxury, because I wasn’t in a position where I actually needed to eat them. Then again, you never know what’s going to happen.
Tyler Smith, the leader of the "Marauders" featured in this episode, was arrested and booked on two counts of second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm because he was a previously convicted child sex offender and was legally barred from possessing firearms. During the episode, Smith also described his plans to commit armed robbery in the episode. Asked for comment on Smith’s arrest, National Geographic issued a statement stating: "We are aware of the arrest, and have decided not to air this episode until all legal matters are sorted out." The episode was eventually aired.
Based on this crude but honest assessment of the general public's affinity for the common bicarbonate, you'd be surprised by how much survivalists are into it (#2 on the list of "things for preppers to hoard"). They must expect some pretty serious hankerings for tasty leavened baked goods, or they have extensive phobias about the funkiness of their nuke survival backup plans.