To answer that question, I found myself in the Siloam Cafe in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, seated across from Martin Fletchall, a disabled veteran who says God called him and his family to the Ozarks from Montana. He prefers to be called Fletch. Fletch is in his 40s, wears a white beard, a camouflage hoodie and matching hat and orders toast, eggs and steak, which costs less than $4. He agreed to meet me after a few weeks of exchanging emails and vetting that I wasn’t actually a “social justice warrior.”
But in 1961 John F. Kennedy encouraged “every citizen” to help build fallout shelters, saying, in a televised address, “I know you would not want to do less.” In 1976, tapping into fear of inflation and the Arab oil embargo, a far-right publisher named Kurt Saxon launched The Survivor, an influential newsletter that celebrated forgotten pioneer skills. (Saxon claimed to have coined the term “survivalist.”) The growing literature on decline and self-protection included “How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years,” a 1979 best-seller, which advised collecting gold in the form of South African Krugerrands. The “doom boom,” as it became known, expanded under Ronald Reagan. The sociologist Richard G. Mitchell, Jr., a professor emeritus at Oregon State University, who spent twelve years studying survivalism, said, “During the Reagan era, we heard, for the first time in my life, and I’m seventy-four years old, from the highest authorities in the land that government has failed you, the collective institutional ways of solving problems and understanding society are no good. People said, ‘O.K., it’s flawed. What do I do now?’ ”
The morning after I arrived, I was picked up at my hotel by Graham Wall, a cheerful real-estate agent who specializes in what his profession describes as high-net-worth individuals, “H.N.W.I.” Wall, whose clients include Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, was surprised when Americans told him they were coming precisely because of the country’s remoteness. “Kiwis used to talk about the ‘tyranny of distance,’ ” Wall said, as we crossed town in his Mercedes convertible. “Now the tyranny of distance is our greatest asset.”
Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of “Chaos Monkeys,” an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”
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”).
A number of popular movies and television shows[definition needed], such as the National Geographic Channel's Doomsday Preppers, have also emerged recently[when?] to capitalize on what Los Angeles Times' entertainment contributor Mary McNamara dubbed "today's zeitgeist of fear of a world-changing event." Additionally, doomsday ideas disseminated mostly online in relation to the 2012 phenomenon surrounding misunderstandings about the Mayan calendar fueled the activities of some survivalists during the run-up to the phenomenon's purported December 2012 date of the world's demise.
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.
Jack Matthews, an American who is the chairman of MediaWorks, a large New Zealand broadcaster, told me, “I think, in the back of people’s minds, frankly, is that, if the world really goes to shit, New Zealand is a First World country, completely self-sufficient, if necessary—energy, water, food. Life would deteriorate, but it would not collapse.” As someone who views American politics from a distance, he said, “The difference between New Zealand and the U.S., to a large extent, is that people who disagree with each other can still talk to each other about it here. It’s a tiny little place, and there’s no anonymity. People have to actually have a degree of civility.”
“Methamphetamine is 95 percent addictive the first time you try it,” Pense likes to say. “My gardening system is 100 percent addictive.” Pense gardened all his life, but when he moved to Springfield, the rocky Ozarks soil stumped him. “I discovered that you can buy land here and not get any dirt with it,” he says. So he experimented with gardening out of an 8-by-8 foot sandbox, mixing sand, compost and fertilizer. The plants grew, and with them, the idea for a raised-bed gardening system complete with top-notch soil that would enable people around the world to grow their own food.
Charles started prepping nearly four years ago after reading Newt Gingrich's introduction to the science fiction novel "One Second After." In the introduction, Gingrich wrote about the possibility of a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse attack. Such an attack, he said, would "throw all of our lives back to an existence equal to that of the Middle Ages ... Millions would die in the first week alone." To hear a public figure like Newt Gingrich seriously lay out what he thought was a plausible scenario convinced Charles that he needed to prepare.
Young’s observations rang true: Though the Wise Company meals would keep me alive in the event of an emergency, they were simply a lot more carbheavy, with a lot less animal protein and a lot fewer vegetables, than what I eat on a typical day (many of the Wise meals I bought substituted small globules of vegetable protein for actual meat). For the next two days, I supplemented my diet with freeze-dried vegetables, fruit, and yogurt I’d bought from another company, called Thrive Life, and felt the low-bloodsugar sensation dissipate. (Wise Company also sells individual ingredients, in addition to full meals, but I thought I’d diversify my sources.)
Before fire season, move combustibles away from your house. Fences and dry vegetation give fires a place to grow, says Jonathan Cox at Cal Fire, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Hosing down your house won’t help much, either, he says: “The way a lot of these homes burn is through something called ember cast, when embers from the fire fly over and drop little fires everywhere. With a huge ember cast, hosing down your house doesn’t do much.”