"Investing every waking hour in what I do leaves little, if any, room for making money for college tuition for the children. But there's some things that are...more important than that." - James Patrick Douglas, doomsday prepper
"It is not tough to make gourmet meals out of shelf stable foods...I'll be having freshly melted swiss cheese on homemade naan. Here's to eating well at the end of the world." - Kellene Bishop, fellow prepper
Premiering on Feb. 7 2012 on the National Geographic channel, each episode of Doomsday Preppers follows the lives of three different people committed to preserving themselves and their families in the event of some kind of civilizational breakdown. The show follows them around as they demonstrate the preparations they've made for the apocalypse; at the end of each segment, an anonymous survival "expert" rates how good their setup is and makes suggestions on how to improve it. These are not your "three days of supplies" type family emergency plans. One Phoenix-based prepper converted his backyard pool into a self-sustaining ecosystem, where hen droppings feed duck moss which in turn feed tilapia which are then harvested and eaten; another couple, based (naturally) in Texas, have managed to hoard 17 years worth of food inside their custom-built home, made out of shipping containers and fashioned like a Medieval castle with enclosed courtyard and defensive perimeter. They regularly shoot rifle rounds into it from close range to test its impermeability.
Although some have devoted their lives full-time to preparing for survival, begging the question of what precisely the point of their life is, many are normal workaday-types; the show features salesmen, business owners, investors and even a web developer among its colourful subjects. Each are united by a common conviction that the World As We Know It will end sometime in 2012 (or early 2013, to save face just in case), and the attendant anarchy and hunger that accompany it must be planned for and protected against.
How do they do it?
"That's my favourite thing about Doomsday Preppers. It not only documents this behaviour, it encourages it. Imagine how much cooler Hoarders would be if instead of trying to cure them, they went in and said 'these stacks of newspapers are good but you're missing some New York Times from 1977. Get on it!'" - Stephen Colbert
Most preppers fall into one of two distinct categories; the first, Burrowers
, try to squirrel away as much of contemporary civilization to last as long as possible post-event
. They hoard years and years' worth of dry goods, provisions, and ammunition
. They ingeniously engineer wood gas
converters to fuel cars and homes, and aggressively patrol their domains using trip wires, observation posts and infrared cameras. Burrowers
understand the value of redoubts
; most have a secondary location to evacuate to, if need be, and keep caches of food and shelter at strategic points along the way. Burrowers endeavour to preserve whatever shards of Western Civilization
that they can, as long as they can, using whatever force they can. Indeed for some, helping nurture the rebirth of civilization is part of their mission. Predictably, the "expert analysis" tends to focus on the inflexibility of their arrangements. One burrower, with an underground mountain hideout in Utah
, was forced to concede that his current occupation as travelling salesman
was a liability, should The Event occur while he was on the road. And fair enough.
Nativists form the remainder of the "preppers". For these people, operational flexibility is key; the instant shit hits the fan, they will be out with nothing more than a day pack, living off the land and roughing it while their pathetic compatriots fight over the last tin of corned beef hash from the supermarket. Those with the less-is-more philosophy emphasize physical health, communion with nature, and a back-to-basics mentality coupled with prodigious fire-making skills to see them through. Some have memorized the distress call of the robin as an early warning system; others harvest willow branches in search of salicylic acid. The most common criticism of them, by the "experts", is that they, predictably, haven't stored enough food. But that's kinda the point.
"We'll know when the Government takeover has happened when they actually knock on your door." - Becky, Salt Lake City prepper
The nature of The Event is open to interpretation and differs for each Prepper. The most common fear, by far, is of imminent collapse of the economy/hyperinflation/skyrocketing gas prices that threatens the supply chain of businesses - in particular grocery stores. Some of these Preppers served in Iraq and Vietnam and witnessed firsthand the consequences of the complete economic breakdown of society, and see parallels in American society today. For them the Hobbesian underbelly of civilization is a constant and unforgiving threat. Their extensive firearms training and expertise makes them formidable Burrowers, and they actively cultivate either trades for barter or hoard silver coinage. One prepper from Houston even mused about the possible need to offer, ahem, specialized services in the event of societal collapse.
Electrical Disruption is the second most common fear among hoarders, most of whom believe a sudden and intense solar flare (like the 1859 Carrington Super Flare) will fatally disrupt the electrical supply, with a minority believing that magnetic pole reversal will result in the same. Either way finding a way to generate and maintain electricity supply is of paramount importance to them. The Culver family of Georgia developed a wood gas converter attached to the engine of their 1964 Ford truck, while Dennis McClung of Phoenix harvests the droppings of his goats to produce odourless methane gas.
Natural phenomena forms the last major category of prepper paranoia, be it a San Andreas Fault earthquake levelling LA, a massive unpredictable seismic event along the New Madrid Zone, or an eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. These people tend to emphasize a Nativist, back-to-the-land approach, and aggressively cultivate their own food and consume edible plants in their vicinity.
The American proclivity for Governmental Paranoia comes through in Becky, of Salt Lake City, who lives literally in the shadow of the Utah State Capitol and worries that a governmental imposition of martial law would restrict vital water and food supplies to a chosen elite, and stocks her apartment with tote bags full of MREs ready to go on a moment's notice.
Nuclear holocaust, tellingly, is the fear of none but a single prepper.
It should be noted that all preppers believe The Event will occur sometime in 2012, and just in case it doesn't, they make it patently clear that 2013 counts as well. The clock is ticking...
By far the bulk of Doomsday Preppers live in Texas, the Mountain states and New England. Makes sense. Proud traditions of self-sufficiency and contrarianism in both regions with a healthy mix of don't tread on me second-amendment-fetishizing for good measure. Granted the sample size is too small to make broad, sweeping generalizations. Let's just say there is a strong correlation.
What to make of it?
"Some people think I'm obsessed with prepping, but you know, I hope they're right. I hope I AM crazy. That would be the greatest thing in the world." - David Sarti of Tennessee
Prepping is not something done for fun. These people have sacrificed careers, social lives, and in some cases the respect of their children in pursuit of what they consider a lamentable necessity. What's striking is how inclusive the Prepper community is, comprised of Texas wingnuts, New England liberals, California hippies, ex-Marines, stay-at-home moms, single women, working families, white and black. They all share a common belief that modern society has become far too interconnected and interdependent, slavishly relying on ample oil and electricity and with too little redundancy built in to shield it from serious shocks. In many cases, this is an obsession honestly come by, with Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Financial Crisis being a catalyst for many of them. Nor, it should be added, is the fear of societal collapse particularly farfetched. Brilliantly captured in Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March, every society experiences its own boom-bust cycles, periods where the established familiar order breaks down and gives way to a time of anarchy and devastation. What makes Doomsday Preppers extreme, perhaps in an inverted bit of American Exceptionalism, is their belief that this time, it's going to be so much worse and so much more destructive than any collapse that's come before.
Context is everything. Were this a show about sustainable living or ecologically sound energy, the people depicted would be paragons of virtue. So where to draw the line? Media is saturated with Be Green messages, but actually taking it to heart and living by it is verboten? One might assume its application is sound regardless of motive. The error, I think, is in casually dismissing Preppers as irredeemable wingnuts - after all, when people's children are starving, all bets are off.
Still, they sure are fucking crazy.
Doomsday Preppers airs Tuesday nights on the National Geographic channel