Doomsday Goes Mainstream

The progressive side of the prepper movement.

| Fall 2018

  • New York City officials began to remove nuclear fallout shelter signs from public buildings at the end of 2017.
    Photo by Getty Images/Alessandro Vallainc

At the tail end of 2017, New York City officials began to remove nuclear fallout shelter signs from public buildings around the city. The signs had been up since the 1960s, when President Kennedy urged the nation to build home bunkers and dedicated federal funding to the construction of public shelters, but such buildings have long since been converted back to other uses. The signs, with their three yellow triangles circumscribed in a black circle, went largely unnoticed for decades. But with President Trump exchanging provocations with North Korea and flinging around Freudian references to nuclear buttons, the Cold War relics suddenly don’t seem so antiquated. City officials didn’t want residents planning to arrive at a safe location to find the doors locked. All of which is to say: the apocalypse feels closer now, again.

At least, it feels this way to some. Doomsday prepping has long been associated with the right (the ethos is rooted in survivalism, a term that connotes far-right militias, and many preppers prefer not to use it). But in recent years many people with left and liberal politics have joined their ideological nemeses in getting ready for that moment when, in prepper parlance, the SHTF (shit hits the fan). There is something fundamentally conservative in the prepper impulse: to create a stockpile in one’s basement rather than work toward a system that could help ensure community-wide safety. Embedded in the prepper ethos is a deep distrust of public systems, fueled by the belief that we’re one cataclysm away from a Hobbesian state of unrestrained every-man-for-himself (and-his-family) competition. So why is it catching on among liberals?

One reason is obvious enough: the Trump administration is a circus of meanness and incompetence, and if you believe that the presidency is of consequence at all, you might well be worried about what this one means for your — or your community’s — survival. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Colin Waugh, a liberal voter from Missouri, started a Facebook group called The Liberal Prepper, as a place for likeminded people to prepare for the Trumpocalypse. The group started with invitations to some thirty of Waugh’s friends. Today the group has over 3,400 members, who share tips and tricks for the bunkered future. Members debate stocking up on a home supply of Tamiflu, share discount codes for giant tins of military-surplus beef taquitos, trade recommendations on freeze-dried foods, rainwater catchment systems, and permaculture techniques. And like any good online community, it has its own self-referential memes. One riffs on the idea of a glass of water as personality test: optimists see it half-full, pessimists see it half-empty, preppers stock 70,000 glasses in reserve.

For many new preppers the system they’re worried about failing is the planetary climate system itself. The editor of the popular online forum The Prepper Journal, an Arizona resident who goes by the pen name Wild Bill, says the community often discusses hurricanes and other natural disasters — his own interest in prepping arose after he experienced the 1971 Sylmar earthquake in southern California — but does not use the language of climate change. “We talk about weather events and natural disaster but when it comes to climate change and whether it is real or not, or whether Al Gore is right or not, or the polar caps are melting, I don’t get into that,” says Wild Bill. (It is; he was; they are.) His daughter lives in the Houston area and recently had to put her prepping skills to use when the meteorological S did HTF during Hurricane Harvey. Wild Bill has photos of his daughter and her husband kayaking away from their house, with their cats and bug-out bags aboard. Still, he says he stays away from discussion of climate qua climate. “When we post about weather it’s about what to do if you are in that situation.”



But for liberal preppers, the threat of climate change disasters is highly motivating. One told the prepper blog The Prepared that as it has become clear to her that the government will not effectively counteract climate change, “we are going to have to fend for ourselves.” She’s right. Decades of American politicians have failed to meaningfully combat climate change — Trump’s climate-denying administration will surely not be the one to reverse that course. But she’s also displaying the great ironies of the prepper movement: the imagined meltdown that lies ahead steals focus from the ones happening right now. Ask anyone in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where people are living under tarps and dealing with waterborne diseases and the power is still out months after Hurricane Maria — many groups already have to fend for themselves right now.

Prepping became something of a national spectacle in 2012 when the National Geographic channel started airing the reality show Doomsday Preppers. In each episode, cameras follow confident heads of households as they construct solar panels, build a sniper tower, outfit an RV with bee-keeping equipment to make a giant mobile hive, and train their children in marksmanship. The DIY projects are cool, but there is something disconcerting — to those of us without armed mobile hives to pollinate our post-apocalyptic orchards — about the glee in the eyes of the preppers as they deliver prophecies of mass destruction. “We still have a bit of a grudge against Nat Geo,” says Wild Bill. He wasn’t featured on the show himself, but takes umbrage with the show’s presentation of the prepper community. “They have many great programs, but like any reality show they looked for the odd, the bizarre, the really out there.” Wild Bill says his readers and followers aren’t so far out — they’re not hiding soldered tubes of camping supplies at the bottom of a lake — they’re “people who have a generator in case the power goes out.” For Wild Bill, who lives in Arizona, prepping isn’t an extreme position but a sensible one. “If something happens, for two or three days, you want to have enough food and water on hand for your family.”



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