Stories like this, according to Charles, happen often when "sh—t hits the fan." One prepared person warns others in the run-up to a potentially dangerous event and others don't listen, expecting someone — the government or a friendly neighbor — to provide during a disaster. It's what Charles calls "the entitlement problem," a phenomenon talked about ad nauseam on prepper blogs and websites.
The stories of alcoholic beverages historically being safer to drink than unfermented ones are apocryphal at best; however, as any 17th-century sailor would tell you, the addition of some spirits to potable water that's been sitting around for too long will make it much more palatable. Liquor distillation was originally invented in part for medical purposes, and alcohol can be used as a solvent to dissolve medicinal herbs -- and also to knock out patients during good old-fashioned fallout-shelter surgery. High-proof alcohol can be used as an antiseptic, and it does a great job of cleaning wounds and preventing infection.
As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”
“One misconception about prepping is that you’re always thinking there’s going to be some kind of epic disaster,” she told me over the phone from Virginia. “The most common disaster that we prep for, or that happens to us, is a financial problem.” A longtime single mother, Luther said her interest in food storage grew out of a period of “abject poverty” following the 2008 recession. Lisa Bedford, a Texas-based writer who runs the site The Survival Mom, told me she got into disaster preparedness around the same time, when she wasn’t sure if her husband’s construction business would survive the downturn. (Bedford also works as an independent consultant for Thrive Life, meaning that she promotes their products online, and receives a commission on purchases from customers she refers to the company, as well as a discount on products she buys herself.)
Freeze-dried food is nothing new. As early as the 13th century, the ancient Quechua and Aymara people of Bolivia and Peru pioneered a form of the process by exposing potatoes to the freezing temperatures of the Andes overnight, then drying them in the sun. In 1937, Nestlé used industrial technology to create the world’s first freeze-dried coffee, and in the 60s and 70s, the US military shipped freeze-dried food rations to the troops in Vietnam.
The magazine’s issues, many of which are retained at the British Library in London, present a very clear picture of what its makers thought the future looked like. A family dressed in protective suits and gas masks, outside an English country house, was featured on the cover of the first edition. A later issue showed a happy mother tending her baby – in a fallout shelter. And another presented huge missiles waiting to be launched somewhere in the middle of decimated nuclear waste. The surroundings are red and black. On the horizon, a mushroom cloud glows.
Doomsday Preppers has received varied reviews. Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times condemned it as an "absurd excess on display and at what an easy target the prepper worldview is for ridicule," noting, "how offensively anti-life these shows are, full of contempt for humankind." Nevertheless, "The program has been a ratings bonanza, with a 60-percent male audience, with an average age of 44." "Doomsday Preppers is the network's most-watched series". Brooklyn Bagwell, casting director for the second season, claimed it was the highest-rated show in the history of the National Geographic Channel.
PSM once reported on a Cornish family’s two week experimental stay in their own fallout shelter – cut off from the outside world, role-playing a new life after the annihilation of civilisation. Robert and Margaret Farmer, along with their 11 year-old daughter Sarah, emerged triumphantly at the end of the experiment, which PSM described as a “complete success”. It did record, however, that “Sarah was a little bored around day three”.
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.
Many books were published in the wake of the Great Recession from 2008 and later offering survival advice for various potential disasters, ranging from an energy shortage and crash to nuclear or biological terrorism. In addition to the 1970s-era books, blogs and Internet forums are popular ways of disseminating survivalism information. Online survival websites and blogs discuss survival vehicles, survival retreats, emerging threats, and list survivalist groups.
Survivalists maintain their group identity by using specialized terminology not generally understood outside their circles. They often use military acronyms such as OPSEC and SOP, as well as terminology common among adherents to gun culture or the peak oil scenario. They also use terms that are unique to their own survivalist groups; common acronyms include:
Adherents of the back-to-the-land movement inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing, sporadically popular in the United States in the 1930s and 1970s (exemplified by The Mother Earth News magazine), share many of the same interests in self-sufficiency and preparedness. Back-to-the-landers differ from most survivalists in that they have a greater interest in ecology and counterculture. Despite these differences, The Mother Earth News was widely read by survivalists as well as back-to-the-landers during that magazine's early years, and there was some overlap between the two movements.