Those impulses are not as contradictory as they seem. Technology rewards the ability to imagine wildly different futures, Roy Bahat, the head of Bloomberg Beta, a San Francisco-based venture-capital firm, told me. “When you do that, it’s pretty common that you take things ad infinitum, and that leads you to utopias and dystopias,” he said. It can inspire radical optimism—such as the cryonics movement, which calls for freezing bodies at death in the hope that science will one day revive them—or bleak scenarios. Tim Chang, the venture capitalist who keeps his bags packed, told me, “My current state of mind is oscillating between optimism and sheer terror.”
Ten months after the election, “Hillary For Prison” shirts have yet to go out of style, but what sells at any given show largely depends on what’s going on in the world that week. “I have noticed the radiation guys across from us this week,” says Mike Nocks, owner of Lebanon’s White Harvest Seed Company and one of the show’s guest speakers. “In years past, I haven’t seen much radiation stuff, but since the Korean guy has been doing more nuclear stuff, I’m seeing more interest in nuclear detectors.”
“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.”
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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.
He points to the cash registers over his left shoulder. “I’ll bet you there’s not one thing you bought today that didn’t use electricity in the transaction,” he says. Before Y2K, Finelli says he owned a small computer manufacturing company and personally upgraded 8,000 operating systems so the dates would roll over from 1999 to 2000. “Because they wouldn’t,” he says. “There was a defect. I know that computer systems are frail because I built them.” He says a widespread power outage would cripple us—no electricity, no trading debt portfolios, no buying wholesale taquitos on credit.
The funny thing about freeze-drying is it’s kind of an exception to the rule. Removing all the water from a floret of broccoli, for example, doesn’t turn it into something new; it simply transforms it into a slightly lesser version of itself. “Once you change the physical structure of something by drying it out all the way,” Allen said, “the texture is never really the same.”
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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.
Remember 2012? The Mayan calendar predicted the world would end in December. Doomsday Preppers premiered in February. The country was in an apocalypse mood, and thanks to Finelli, Springfield’s former Boy Scouts and ex–Tea Partiers came out of the shadows to mix it up with doctors and dentists. They had little else in common, but to borrow Finelli’s term, they were preparedness-minded. Springfield, MIss community was born.
Who cares if you spent your entire life savings on survival supplies instead of taking vacations with your family or sending your kids to college? They got a real education when you took them into the woods every weekend to teach them how to set booby traps for when the zombie neighbors invade! They can pass on that knowledge to their children! See, it wasn’t a waste!
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.
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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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.”
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.”
Kevin lives in eastern Washington and is prepping his family for a volcanic eruption using multiple bug-out vehicles. We also meet Captain Bill Simpson, who has built a bunker sailboat, made mostly of iron so that he could retreat out to sea in case of a massive solar flare which could send an energy wave, in the form of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) which could damage today's technology.
As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them. Justin Kan, the technology investor who had made a halfhearted effort to stock up on food, recalled a recent phone call from a friend at a hedge fund. “He was telling me we should buy land in New Zealand as a backup. He’s, like, ‘What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.’ ”
You can tour this slice of underground history today. After the Southwicks visited the bunker recently, they said they felt even more strongly about the need to prepare. Their family reflects a new preparedness instinct that has been growing since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After that shock, the government urged people to store food, buy duct tape and roll water barrels into their basements.
“If you’re using it for emergency survival, the fact is you’re going to buy it once, and hopefully you’re not going to use it,” Shields said. “But it’s there as a safety net for you and your family.” That’s what intrigued me about freeze-dried food: You can wait up to a quarter-century to use it, but in an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to eat it at all.
What if you could turn virtually any water bottle into an effective water filter? The Lifestraw Universal kit comes with a 2-stage filter, two different sized caps and a leak-proof lid. Compatible with most Nalgene, Camelbak, Klean Kanteen, Hydro Flask, Under Armour, Gatorade and other standard bottles, the replaceable microbiological filter removes 99.999999 percent of waterborne bacteria and 99.999 percent of waterborne protozoan parasites. If that wasn’t enough, a replaceable activated carbon capsule removes a number of chemicals and improves the taste of the water. All materials are FDA approved, made from food grade silicon, Polysulfone and ABS plastic. The kit includes a wide mouth cap, standard mouth cap, sport mouthpiece, standard mouth piece, 2-stage filter, and carry bag.
Business titans grew uncomfortable. In 1889, Andrew Carnegie, who was on his way to being the richest man in the world, worth more than four billion in today’s dollars, wrote, with concern, about class tensions; he criticized the emergence of “rigid castes” living in “mutual ignorance” and “mutual distrust.” John D. Rockefeller, of Standard Oil, America’s first actual billionaire, felt a Christian duty to give back. “The novelty of being able to purchase anything one wants soon passes,” he wrote, in 1909, “because what people most seek cannot be bought with money.” Carnegie went on to fight illiteracy by creating nearly three thousand public libraries. Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago. According to Joel Fleishman, the author of “The Foundation,” a study of American philanthropy, both men dedicated themselves to “changing the systems that produced those ills in the first place.”
Rohrstaff, who co-owns Legacy Partners, a boutique brokerage, wanted me to see Tara Iti, a new luxury-housing development and golf club that appeals mostly to Americans. The helicopter nosed north across the harbor and banked up the coast, across lush forests and fields beyond the city. From above, the sea was a sparkling expanse, scalloped by the wind.
However, if some tales of survivalist stockpiling are to be believed, our nutty neighbors have enough of the social lubricant squirreled away to hold the most epic end-of-the-world-party of all time outside of Edgar Wright's social circle. It might not be practical, but who needs practical when you and everyone you know is doomed to die from radiation poisoning or cancer?