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.”
Recently, I spoke on the phone with Tyler Allen, a real-estate developer in Lake Mary, Florida, who told me that he paid three million dollars for one of Hall’s condos. Allen said he worries that America faces a future of “social conflict” and government efforts to deceive the public. He suspects that the Ebola virus was allowed to enter the country in order to weaken the population. When I asked how friends usually respond to his ideas, he said, “The natural reaction that you get most of the time is for them to laugh, because it scares them.” But, he added, “my credibility has gone through the roof. Ten years ago, this just seemed crazy that all this was going to happen: the social unrest and the cultural divide in the country, the race-baiting and the hate-mongering.” I asked how he planned to get to Kansas from Florida in a crisis. “If a dirty bomb goes off in Miami, everybody’s going to go in their house and congregate in bars, just glued to the TV. Well, you’ve got forty-eight hours to get the hell out of there.”
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.
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?’ ”
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When I got into bed that night, I noticed I was feeling a little off. Though I’d technically consumed enough calories, my stomach was still gnawing with hunger, and when I woke up the next morning, I felt energyless. I phoned Dr. Lisa Young, a New York–based nutritionist and adjunct professor at NYU, with a question: Is it really possible to live off freeze-dried food?
“I’m actually responsible, indirectly, for the end of the meetups,” Dr. Shealy tells me inside his Springfield clinic off Chestnut Expressway, and not just because he thinks the earth is more than 6,000 years old. (Andrew: says you can’t trust anyone who believes that.) He sports a red crewneck, navy blue sweatpants, a stretchy metal watch and rectangular glasses. The 85-year-old—he’s more energetic than most people half his age—specializes in holistic medicine; the first thing he asks me is my birthday, and do I know what my astrological sign means. On my way out, he asks if he can hug me, and when I oblige, a toothy grin pulls wide the spritely doctor’s cheeks. “I believe it’s an important part of human contact,” he says.
How many wealthy Americans are really making preparations for a catastrophe? It’s hard to know exactly; a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. (“Anonymity is priceless,” one hedge-fund manager told me, declining an interview.) Sometimes the topic emerges in unexpected ways. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me. New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more. Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”
There are other ways to absorb the anxieties of our time. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Elli Kaplan, the C.E.O. of the digital health startup Neurotrack, told me. “I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.” Kaplan, who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, was appalled by Trump’s victory, but said that it galvanized her in a different way: “Even in my deepest fear, I say, ‘Our union is stronger than this.’ ”
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Common preparations include the creation of a clandestine or defensible retreat, haven, or bug out location (BOL) in addition to the stockpiling of non-perishable food, water, water-purification equipment, clothing, seed, firewood, defensive or hunting weapons, ammunition, agricultural equipment, and medical supplies. Some survivalists do not make such extensive preparations, and simply incorporate a "Be Prepared" outlook into their everyday life.
For now, he broadcasts Monday through Friday, 9 to 11 a.m., and Finelli invites “instructors”—doctors, dentists, survivalists, a man who carries no identification, an Australian woman who talks about seceding from the government—anyone who has something relevant to preparedness. To Finelli, there’s little that isn’t relevant. He doesn’t sell merchandise or accept donations, as fellow GCN hosts such as Jones do.
By his own estimate, Pense says there are a few thousand people in the Springfield area who have listened and who are ready. The preppers. Most don’t like to be called preppers because of the connotation that they’re crazy; Chicken Little wasn’t well-received by his people, either. Most don’t even like to talk about it, but a few of them do. So for three months toward the end of 2017, I sought out the doomsday survivalists to find out: Is it really crazy to live like the sky is falling?
Shields said that the company noticed an uptick in sales in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and, again last year, amid fears of nuclear escalation with North Korea. Like Wise Company's former CEO Aaron Jackson, whom Bloomberg previously dubbed “America’s Survival Food King,” Shields said he likes to think of Wise’s products as “an insurance policy.”
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:
You probably get it by now, but we're going to keep rubbing your face in the facts, nonbeliever. A bit of body odor might seem like a minor inconvenience, but it gets a whole lot more important when sneaking up on an animal that hasn't spent the last millennia losing its survival instincts means the difference between feasting and starving. Finally, an accidental fire near your ammo stores that could easily have been extinguished with a dose of nonflammable powder will certainly put a damper on your plan to make it through the end times in one piece.
No one thinks they’re going to be trapped by whiteout conditions or separated from their group as night falls but it happens with alarming regularity. Don’t make things worse by being unprepared. These advanced Mylar blankets cost less than 4 bucks each and weigh virtually nothing and yet can and do save lives. They’re waterproof, tear-resistant survival gear that comes in a pack of 5. As such there’s no excuse for not having them tucked away in your backpack or daypack when you set out. The very definition of essential survival gear for outdoorsmen of all stripes.
People who are not part of survivalist groups or apolitically oriented religious groups also make preparations for emergencies. This can include (depending on the location) preparing for earthquakes, floods, power outages, blizzards, avalanches, wildfires, terrorist attacks, nuclear power plant accidents, hazardous material spills, tornadoes, and hurricanes. These preparations can be as simple as following Red Cross and U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommendations by keeping a first aid kit, shovel, and extra clothes in the car, or by maintaining a small kit of emergency supplies, containing emergency food, water, a space blanket, and other essentials.
The wise outdoorsman always has a multitool with his survival gear just in case. They’re light, affordable, and in the case of the Leatherman OHT they’ll put the venerable Swiss Army Knife to shame. The OHT features needlenose pliers, spring action wire cutters, a high carbon blade, a serrated edge, a can opener, Phillips screwdriver, bottle opener and myriad other attachments.
What, then, needed to be done? More than anything, there was an obsession over acquiring or building a fallout shelter for your home. Every edition of PSM featured reams of advertisements from British and international companies offering to construct such a shelter, or send one that could be buried in your garden and accessed through a small hatch.
When I visited Johnson, not long ago, at his office on Park Avenue South, he described himself as an accidental student of civic anxiety. He grew up outside Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Park, the son of a doctor, and he watched his father’s generation experience the fracturing of Detroit. “What I’m seeing now in New York City is sort of like old music coming back,” he said. “These are friends of mine. I used to live in Belle Haven, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Louis Bacon, Paul Tudor Jones, and Ray Dalio”—hedge-fund managers—“were all within fifty yards of me. From my own career, I would just talk to people. More and more were saying, ‘You’ve got to have a private plane. You have to assure that the pilot’s family will be taken care of, too. They have to be on the plane.’ ”
Hate to break it to you, but your dog probably has a better chance of making it through a total societal collapse than you do. A quick Internet search of "dog survives" lists everything from drowning to being shot, from bear attacks to war -- whereas the closest you've ever come to "surviving disaster" is getting your wisdom teeth pulled, and even then it was only with the help of a cadre of trained medical professionals and a carton of the strongest painkillers on Earth.
The format is fairly standard for a "reality documentary". It does go with the more extreme folks rather than the more common folks who are just putting some things aside for rougher times. But that's OK, in most of the cases. I found many of the people to be pretty ingenious in how they've approached what they perceive to be The End Of The World As We Know It. Maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong. A few might even be slightly over the top (well, there are a few that I think put a step ladder on the top and went from there...) But they have what they consider to be valid reasons for doing what they're doing, so who am I to argue?
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