For a time in the 1970s, the terms survivalist and retreater were used interchangeably. While the term retreater eventually fell into disuse, many who subscribed to it saw retreating as the more rational approach to conflict-avoidance and remote "invisibility". Survivalism, on the other hand, tended to take on a more media-sensationalized, combative, "shoot-it-out-with-the-looters" image.
Again, the reason we tend to look sideways at those who get a little too into prepping for an apocalypse is because of their smug optimism. People actually being realistic about a dangerous future would be better served joining the military or ingratiating themselves with high-level government officials than agonizing about a little mouth scuzz or foot fuzz, right?
Wherever readers planned to hide out, their safe space needed be stocked with useful items such as tools, fuel, first aid kits and Geiger counters, PSM advised. A month’s supply of food was also desirable. One advert even promoted a wine club, with vintages you could keep in your shelter. As one article put it, “You don’t want to be caught in a queue at the supermarket when the bomb drops!”
Religion, however, has everything to do with survivalism—there are things about your faith that affect the way you live, Fletch says, offering me an example. “Today, a great deal [on the menu] was the special you had,” he says. “Every one of the specials had pork in it. Well, depending on your belief system and where you’re coming from, Dan, you could’ve made several decisions about me.” He’s right; I could’ve thought he assumed the breakfast was on me, so he ordered the most expensive dish on the menu. And those assumptions, he says, can break up a group. “If 99 percent of the people in your group don’t eat pork, and you bring in some person eating a ham sandwich next to you, that’s going to cause some conflict.”
The reëlection of Barack Obama was a boon for the prepping industry. Conservative devotees, who accused Obama of stoking racial tensions, restricting gun rights, and expanding the national debt, loaded up on the types of freeze-dried cottage cheese and beef stroganoff promoted by commentators like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. A network of “readiness” trade shows attracted conventioneers with classes on suturing (practiced on a pig trotter) and photo opportunities with survivalist stars from the TV show “Naked and Afraid.”
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Tim Chang, a forty-four-year-old managing director at Mayfield Fund, a venture-capital firm, told me, “There’s a bunch of us in the Valley. We meet up and have these financial-hacking dinners and talk about backup plans people are doing. It runs the gamut from a lot of people stocking up on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, to figuring out how to get second passports if they need it, to having vacation homes in other countries that could be escape havens.” He said, “I’ll be candid: I’m stockpiling now on real estate to generate passive income but also to have havens to go to.” He and his wife, who is in technology, keep a set of bags packed for themselves and their four-year-old daughter. He told me, “I kind of have this terror scenario: ‘Oh, my God, if there is a civil war or a giant earthquake that cleaves off part of California, we want to be ready.’ ”
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.
Interest in the movement picked up during the Clinton administration due in part to the debate surrounding the Federal Assault Weapons Ban and the ban's subsequent passage in 1994. The interest peaked again in 1999 triggered by fears of the Y2K computer bug. Before extensive efforts were made to rewrite computer programming code to mitigate the effects, some writers such as Gary North, Ed Yourdon, James Howard Kunstler, and investments' advisor Ed Yardeni anticipated widespread power outages, food and gasoline shortages, and other emergencies. North and others raised the alarm because they thought Y2K code fixes were not being made quickly enough. While a range of authors responded to this wave of concern, two of the most survival-focused texts to emerge were Boston on Y2K (1998) by Kenneth W. Royce, and Mike Oehler's The Hippy Survival Guide to Y2K. Oehler is an underground living advocate, who also authored The $50 and Up Underground House Book, which has long been popular in survivalist circles.
And why shouldn’t they? National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers doesn’t exactly help viewers understand the plight of the average prepper, the one without 60 guns, scuba diving equipment, a bunker and an armored personnel carrier. “I knew going into it that they would try to sensationalize a lot of stuff,” says Allen, a Springfield, Missouri survivalist who refused to divulge his last name; he appeared on the show in 2012 showing off his aquaponics setup. “If Doomsday Preppers had shown typical preppers on a typical day, it would’ve been pretty boring.”
Individual survivalist preparedness and survivalist groups and forums—both formal and informal—are popular worldwide, most visibly in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany (often organized under the guise of "adventuresport" clubs), Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Hall got the idea for the project about a decade ago, when he read that the federal government was reinvesting in catastrophe planning, which had languished after the Cold War. During the September 11th attacks, the Bush Administration activated a “continuity of government” plan, transporting selected federal workers by helicopter and bus to fortified locations, but, after years of disuse, computers and other equipment in the bunkers were out of date. Bush ordered a renewed focus on continuity plans, and FEMA launched annual government-wide exercises. (The most recent, Eagle Horizon, in 2015, simulated hurricanes, improvised nuclear devices, earthquakes, and cyberattacks.)
Since then, the direction has been inauspicious. In January, 2016, after increasing military tensions between Russia and NATO, and the Earth’s warmest year on record, the Bulletin set the clock at three minutes to midnight, the same level it held at the height of the Cold War. In November, after Trump’s election, the panel convened once more to conduct its annual confidential discussion. If it chooses to move the clock forward by one minute, that will signal a level of alarm not witnessed since 1953, after America’s first test of the hydrogen bomb. (The result will be released January 26th.)
Regardless of whether everything is going swimmingly or you’re lost in a whiteout above tree line your boots are one of the most important pieces of survival gear you have. You need them to stand up to the elements and keep your feet dry and comfortable. Irish Setter Men’s Waterproof Hunting Boot is a fine example of the state of the bootmaker’s art.
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.”
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.
Is it stereotypical that the AARP crowd would be the ones to spend three hours talking about metal detectors and canning and caving at a Pizza Hut on a Monday night? Probably, but that’s what I bore witness to in this event room; its combination of exposed wood and stock-photo decor felt like an Olive Garden inside a pirate ship. Up front, the scraggly white-bearded, Bad Santa–lookalike Andrew: rested one foot on a chair, gripping the mic, just like Randall said he would be.
The growing foreign appetite for New Zealand property has generated a backlash. The Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa—the Maori name for New Zealand—opposes sales to foreigners. In particular, the attention of American survivalists has generated resentment. In a discussion about New Zealand on the Modern Survivalist, a prepper Web site, a commentator wrote, “Yanks, get this in your heads. Aotearoa NZ is not your little last resort safe haven.”
When you go back to the last depressing days when we were in a survival mode, the last one the Y2K of course, before the 1970s, what had happened was you only saw this one element of survivalist, you know, the caricature, the guy with the AK-47 heading to the hills with enough ammunition and pork and beans to ride out the storm. This is a very different one from that: you're seeing average people taking smart moves and moving in intelligent directions to prepare for the worst. (...) So survivalism in every way possible. Growing your own, self-sustaining, doing as much as you can to make it as best as you can on your own and it can happen in urban area, sub-urban area or the ex-urbans. And it also means becoming more and more tightly committed to your neighbors, your neighborhood, working together and understanding that we're all in this together and that when we help each other out that's going to be the best way forward.
For experienced preppers like Daisy Luther, founder of the blog The Organic Prepper and the online survival goods store Preppers Market, ready-to-go freeze-dried meals are more of a last line of defense than anything else. Though she insists these products “have their place,” her version of long-term food storage sounds more like a way of life, a process of slowly building up a pantry that will enable her to feed her family as healthfully and economically as possible. Sometimes that means stocking up on the freeze-dried stuff, or buying whatever’s on sale at the supermarket; but it’s also about living in sync with the seasons, growing food in her own garden and using timetested home preservation methods—like canning and dehydrating—to ensure she always has food on hand.
Doomsday Preppers is the perfect show for me. I'm a retired U.S. Army veteran and ever since being a Boyscout as a child I've believed in always being prepared. I still go camping & hiking in the mountains throughout the year and I am always over-prepared. I am not a Doomsday Prepper; however, I can admire the dedication that some of the families have for being prepared. Are most of their motivations behind their actions unlikely or even ridiculous? Absolutely. As many negative points that could be made about how these people live their lives, there are as many positives. The people are interesting, the show is interesting, and I'm inspired by many of the ideas. Those damn ZOMBIES will be coming any day now. Hahaha!
The C.E.O. of another large tech company told me, “It’s still not at the point where industry insiders would turn to each other with a straight face and ask what their plans are for some apocalyptic event.” He went on, “But, having said that, I actually think it’s logically rational and appropriately conservative.” He noted the vulnerabilities exposed by the Russian cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee, and also by a large-scale hack on October 21st, which disrupted the Internet in North America and Western Europe. “Our food supply is dependent on G.P.S., logistics, and weather forecasting,” he said, “and those systems are generally dependent on the Internet, and the Internet is dependent on D.N.S.”—the system that manages domain names. “Go risk factor by risk factor by risk factor, acknowledging that there are many you don’t even know about, and you ask, ‘What’s the chance of this breaking in the next decade?’ Or invert it: ‘What’s the chance that nothing breaks in fifty years?’ ”
The movement received another boost from the George W. Bush Administration’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. Neil Strauss, a former Times reporter, who chronicled his turn to prepping in his book “Emergency,” told me, “We see New Orleans, where our government knows a disaster is happening, and is powerless to save its own citizens.” Strauss got interested in survivalism a year after Katrina, when a tech entrepreneur who was taking flying lessons and hatching escape plans introduced him to a group of like-minded “billionaire and centi-millionaire preppers.” Strauss acquired citizenship in St. Kitts, put assets in foreign currencies, and trained to survive with “nothing but a knife and the clothes on my back.”
Still, these extraterrestrial-looking foodstuffs seem to be having something of a moment: For the past four years, Costco has been selling pallets of shriveled vegetables, fruits, grains, and meats that promise to feed a single family for up to a year—and if you’re not a member, you can purchase similar survival kits, many of which boast a 20- to 30-year shelf life, at Walmart and Target. One top seller, Wise Company, saw its sales nearly double over the past four years, reaching around $75 million, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story last November. The company’s CEO, Jack Shields, told me he estimates the industry as a whole generates between $400 and $450 million annually in retail.
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Before I headed back to Wichita, we stopped at Hall’s latest project—a second underground complex, in a silo twenty-five miles away. As we pulled up, a crane loomed overhead, hoisting debris from deep below the surface. The complex will contain three times the living space of the original, in part because the garage will be moved to a separate structure. Among other additions, it will have a bowling alley and L.E.D. windows as large as French doors, to create a feeling of openness.
Pense just sold his company, Gardening Revolution. For 20 years he shipped the proprietary iron, zinc, manganese, copper, sulfur and boron soil blend. Each bed costs $800, after you buy the cinder blocks and mat. On his best year, he shipped $580,000-worth of them. The magazine John Deere Homestead featured him. He’s taught classes on raised-bed gardening and survival in his cabin ever since. “The record on tomatoes is 274 pounds for one plant. Think about that,” Pense says. “That’s a lot of ’maters for one plant.” More than the ’maters, he’s proud of teaching people younger than him to grow their own food.
Hall led me through the garage, down a ramp, and into a lounge, with a stone fireplace, a dining area, and a kitchen to one side. It had the feel of a ski condo without windows: pool table, stainless-steel appliances, leather couches. To maximize space, Hall took ideas from cruise-ship design. We were accompanied by Mark Menosky, an engineer who manages day-to-day operations. While they fixed dinner—steak, baked potatoes, and salad—Hall said that the hardest part of the project was sustaining life underground. He studied how to avoid depression (add more lights), prevent cliques (rotate chores), and simulate life aboveground. The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. “windows” that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park. “All four seasons, day and night,” Menosky said. “She wanted the sounds, the taxis and the honking horns.”
Also in 2011, Finelli started running the Get Prepared Expo series at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds, bringing in hundreds of exhibitors and more than 70 preparedness seminars. Before doors opened, he’d host a get-together at Ziggie’s Cafe on North Glenstone, which he soon moved to Jimmy’s Egg on East Battlefield to accommodate the crowd. At Jimmy’s Egg, Finelli found another platform from which to preach preparedness. He started drawing a crowd—more than 330 on expo weekends—so Finelli made Jimmy’s Egg a weekly affair. On Monday nights, his radio instructors showed up or Skype’d in to mold the minds of 50 to 100 students. The meetups—a name borrowed from Ron Paul’s 2012 community get-togethers—were also social events, although Finelli kept the BS to a minimum.
People who want to learn are worth something, because they WILL learn if taught. They’re hungry for knowledge, and they don’t allow their ego to get in the way of their training. If you know more than they do on a subject, they’ll want you to show them what they don’t know, regardless of who you are. You won’t hear their arrogance drowning out the mission; instead, you’ll see someone who is humble and willing to work. Even someone with no skills, who is eager to put in the work and learn is better than someone with a skill who refuses to learn anything new. The flip side of that is someone who brings better skills than you have to the table in a certain area. If they’re willing to teach you, be willing to learn yourself as well.