Preppers, survivalists, paranoid boy-scouts who never grew up – whatever you choose to call them – represent a startlingly growing number of people in the U.S. who are actively preparing and planning for the coming collapse, whether that be through war, civil unrest, or environmental disaster. While it is important to note there has always been a survival culture in the U.S., it is the growing popularity, acceptance, and normalcy that accompany this current movement that is raising eyebrows. Whether it’s TV shows like “Doomsday Preppers” and “Survivor-Man” or the increasingly common sight of ‘survival’ products at big-box stores, it is clear that the role of the Prepper is no longer confined to the stereotype of the “Rambo” figure, but is now a regular and socially acceptable part of our society. And while this has huge implications for us in regards to our culture’s collective unconscious and what our unsustainable lifestyles are creating, for the purposes of this article we will critique the dominant philosophy and ideology of the current Prepper culture and examine what the practical application of their ideas in a true apocalyptic setting would look like.
As a wilderness-therapy guide, survival school teacher, and naturalist educator who has been living and working in the harsh deserts of the American Southwest for the last several years, I feel that I have a unique outlook on this topic in that I understand what it would actually take to survive and thrive in a post-apocalyptic scenario. I also have many friends who are very “in to” wilderness-living skills and prepping, and who regularly solicit my services in teaching them such various skills as tracking, trapping/hunting, friction fire, edible and medicinal plants, simple structure building, hide-tanning, and many other such facets of living simply off of the land. In experiencing firsthand this world of Preppers and survivalists, I have realized a startling and discomforting aspect of Prepper culture which has only grown more prominent since I first noticed it. I call it the “defend what’s mine” phenomenon.
The “defend what’s mine” mentality states that the moment “shit goes down,” every other human in the world instantly becomes either a resource to be used or a threat to be eliminated. Whomever you designate as “your tribe” are the only people with any value – all others are simply mindless sheep to be picked off with your shiny new AR-15. Proponents of this mentality frequently either have or wish to have underground bunkers ready to hide in and defend themselves from “invaders,” often with such brutal methods as land-mines, flame-throwers, electrically charged fencing, and of course, big guns. They regularly speak of their intention to protect “their land” and to destroy anyone else who would dare want to share that land. Never have I encountered someone who is prepping for the purpose of building a post-apocalyptic community or offering a haven of help and support for other less-prepared people in the event that something terrible does happen. No, the dominant formula for Prepper success seems to be: build a bunker, store a lot of food, water and guns in there, and kill anybody else who wants what you have.
That’s pretty terrifying, especially considering the fact that there are nine registered guns in America for every ten people , and that’s not even factoring in unregistered guns or guns owned by the National Guard or Military forces. To make the forecast even darker, consider the incredible amount of violence our culture is saturated in: our endless foreign wars, gang and street violence, State violence in the form of the drug war and the militarization of our police forces, record-levels of suicide in the U.S., regular school-shootings and mass-shootings in public places, normalized domestic violence, as well as the violence that is thrust upon us from every facet of the media: the news, movies, TV shows, video games, music, etc. With such volatile, compounding factors of the dominant “defend what’s mine” mentality, the incredible amount of guns in the U.S., and the inherent violence of our culture, it is understood that our country would quickly turn into a bloodbath in the event of a catastrophic incident.
Given the above reasons, it is very reasonable to see why many people are attracted to the “defend your own” mentality and look upon anybody who is not a part of their “club” as a threat to be eliminated. However, although this mentality may appeal to the Mad-Max fantasies and egos of the Preppers, it is not very realistic.
In my experience working with youth and adults in extreme wilderness settings, I have noticed that most of my students – coming from upper to middle class American families – come in with what I have described as the Prepper philosophy. They are very excited to learn the skills and “master the wilderness.” These students, while very enthusiastic and motivated, quickly succumb to the harsh realities of living in a barren desert and become, just as quickly, frustrated with themselves, their guides (me), and the “stupid desert.” However, every once in a while I notice a student who comes in with a different attitude. They are humble, honest, quiet, and patient with themselves and the process they must go through. They do not rip up entire patches of Yucca to harvest a small root with which to make soap, but instead carefully and respectfully harm the plant as little as possible while they remove just as much root as they need. They do not carelessly thrash through the bushes while loudly talking and laughing, but rather move as quietly as possible in order to observe and notice the wonder and beauty of the natural world around them. They do not see their fellow students as competition, but as a vital resource for their own survival, as each person has unique gifts and abilities which they can bring to their community. These students do not get tired or distressed as easily, for their approach, while not near as “effective” or “successful” as their more excited counterparts, is sustainable; in that they are not so much worried about the destination as they are about the journey.
Ultimately, these students express an attitude which exists in direct contradiction to the Prepper philosophy – an attitude that sees the natural world and all its inhabitants as interconnected and interrelated, an attitude that values sustainability over immediate success, self-sufficiency over fancy gadgets, and cooperation over competition. Sometimes, if a group of students is lucky to have more than one of these gentle souls in their group, or if the group is made up of less-egotistical members than we usually see in our program, this attitude will proliferate and infiltrate the dynamic of an entire group. Out of the hundreds of groups of students I have worked with, by far the most joyful, content, and ultimately successful groups to graduate are the ones that adopt this model. These groups take the time to learn each other’s stories, backgrounds, and talents – they each find their role in the group dynamic. Instead of spending their day competing for the scant resources which are provided to them by the desert, they learn to cooperate and share. Rather than seeing each other as threats to one another’s autonomy and independence, they see each other as members of the same community who need each other in order to survive. Becoming bored of petty, artificially-constructed notions of competition, they begin to enjoy each other’s company and willingly sacrifice food or resources for the good of their tribe.
When this happens, it is a beautiful thing to behold. Sadly, even the students who ‘get it’ eventually graduate the program and must move on to the rest of their lives, dutifully fulfilling their role in the industrial machine, back to world of competition, scarcity, rugged individualism, and violence. I can only hope the lessons they have learned will sink deep into their hearts and minds, and they will begin to see themselves and their world a little differently.
“Great ideas,” a Prepper might say, “but totally impractical in the real world. You can only be peaceful and loving to a certain extent, or else people will take advantage of you – there’s no way that everyone will just work together and form a giant cooperative farm. It’s either kill or be killed. If I’m going to survive a catastrophe, I need to plan to protect and defend myself.”
Yes, I agree, given the violence of our culture, our dis-connectedness from each other, and the level of unpreparedness of most people, I do think it is impractical to simply expect people to want to work together. I, personally, have seen the drastic effects that starvation can have on people. I have seen good friends betray and hurt each other for a piece of soggy bread, and I know the level of violence that some people will employ in order to feed themselves and their families. However, in studying and teaching survival courses for years, and in studying the aftermath of hundreds of disasters that have occurred around the world, I have consistently seen that people who are able to work together and form communities have a much better chance at survival, as opposed to those who go it alone.
I very strongly believe that, in the coming collapse, those who are able to build communities and work together – abandoning their childish, apocalyptic fantasies – will have a much better chance of survival than any Prepper I have come across. Besides, what is “survival” even worth if you are encased in a concrete bunker for years, eating MRE’s and drinking recycled piss water, living in a constant state of paranoia that someone will “take what’s yours?” Not me, I would much rather live my last days actively doing meaningful work with people I love, creating a more beautiful world than the one we left behind; a world that is based on egalitarianism for all species and types of humans, a world built on cooperation, sustainability, simplicity, and freedom. You can keep your bunkers.