What programs like Doomsday Preppers have accomplished, or at least contributed to, is turning sometimes well-informed, sometimes totally unwarranted paranoia into a booming prepper-industrial complex. Each year, swap meets pack hundreds of convention centers and fairgrounds across the nation—they’re like camping shows with a dose of military surplus and hands-on instructional sessions. The September 2017 Kansas City Survival Expo & Gun Show, for instance, had tips on seed saving, “Overcoming 900 Health Diseases” and “A Devastating Street Self-Defense System.” The latter was taught by Norman Cantwell, who inspired Patrick Swayze’s character in Roadhouse. You get the feeling that he and Steven Seagal would be friends.
Zombie apocalypse: Used by some preppers as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for any natural or man-made disaster and "a clever way of drawing people’s attention to disaster preparedness". The premise of the Zombie Squad is that "if you are prepared for a scenario where the walking corpses of your family and neighbors are trying to eat you alive, you will be prepared for almost anything." Though "there are some... who are seriously preparing for a zombie attack".
About a month after I left meetup 2.0 at Pizza Hut, former attendee Garland Fitzhugh called to tell me it’s become more of an ‘eat-up’ than a prepper meetup—fair, considering there’s been no local calamity to keep the survivalist group on its toes. Allen emails meeting suggestions to a prepper listserv, asking them to focus on prepping situations they can actually influence. He may as well type in Wingdings. A former Navy technician, Allen spent most of the meeting on his phone; his ears only perk up when Andrew: says something about naval intelligence that piques his interest. “I try not to do that too much,” he tells me later.
He thinks that mainstream news organizations are biased, and he subscribes to theories that he knows some find implausible. He surmised that “there is a deliberate move by the people in Congress to dumb America down.” Why would Congress do that? I asked. “They don’t want people to be smart to see what’s going on in politics,” he said. He told me he had read a prediction that forty per cent of Congress will be arrested, because of a scheme involving the Panama Papers, the Catholic Church, and the Clinton Foundation. “They’ve been working on this investigation for twenty years,” he said. I asked him if he really believed that. “At first, you hear this stuff and go, Yeah, right,” he said. But he wasn’t ruling it out.
Mainstream economist and financial adviser Barton Biggs is a proponent of preparedness. In his 2008 book Wealth, War and Wisdom, Biggs has a gloomy outlook for the economic future, and suggests that investors take survivalist measures. In the book, Biggs recommends that his readers should "assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure." He goes so far as to recommend setting up survival retreats: "Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food," Mr. Biggs writes. "It should be well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, medicine, clothes, etc. Think Swiss Family Robinson. Even in America and Europe, there could be moments of riot and rebellion when law and order temporarily completely breaks down."
“That’s a major problem,” says Gene Louis, a New Jersey expat who attended his first meetup in 2013 after moving to Springfield to begin ventures in real estate brokerage and digital marketing. Plus, Jersey is expensive, and he doesn’t like the fact that its residents don’t pump their own gas. “You don’t know what people are going to define as a threat, don’t know what people at survival meetings are going to talk about,” he says. “You can’t prepare for 100 percent of what’s on that list—well, you’d need to be Donald Trump to afford to.”
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.
Another wave of survivalism began after the September 11, 2001 attacks and subsequent bombings in Bali, Madrid, and London. This resurgence of interest in survivalism appears to be as strong as the 1970s era focus on the topic. The fear of war, avian influenza, energy shortages, environmental disasters and global climate change, coupled with economic uncertainty, and the apparent vulnerability of humanity after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, has increased interest in survivalism topics.
Pense invites me to imagine a world turned lawless when the ninth transformer blows. Fifteen percent of the New Orleans Police Department deserted during Hurricane Katrina—imagine if the entire force lived where the levees broke. Big box stores killed off regional food distribution centers years ago; all we’ve got is what’s inside Walmart and Sam’s Club, and if you thought Black Friday was bad, imagine the crowds when it’s life or death. Drivers fleeing Springfield will hit roadblocks, where mobs will pull people from their vehicles like the LA rioters did to Reginald Denny. You might commit vehicular manslaughter, the preppers tell me, just to get out alive.
Hall, in his late fifties, is barrel-chested and talkative. He studied business and computers at the Florida Institute of Technology and went on to specialize in networks and data centers for Northrop Grumman, Harris Corporation, and other defense contractors. He now goes back and forth between the Kansas silo and a home in the Denver suburbs, where his wife, a paralegal, lives with their twelve-year-old son.
The 5-in-1 paracord bracelet slips on with ease and stays fashionably in the background until or unless the situation on the ground takes a turn for the worse. That’s when they spring into action. Should you need to get a fire going in a hurry there’s the fire starter kit comprised of flint and scraper. While you’re warming up by the fire take the lay of the land with the mini compass. There’s also what must be the world’s most compact emergency knife and should you need it a powerful emergency whistle that will project up to 100 decibels of life saving sound. Essential survival gear especially if you have the kids with you.
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There is, however, a pretty solid list of people you should be on the lookout for. If through your long-game recruiting process you come across one of these, snag them up, because they’ll be assets to your group and your cause. Many of these are merely the opposite of the “who you do not want” list, but they are worth specifically talking about. Keep in mind that you won’t generally find these guys from an internet forum or comment pool; then again, you shouldn’t be recruiting from the internet anyway, right?
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.