The business of preparing for disaster is still going strong
Ron hubbard sells high-end fallout shelters, and business is booming. Just $144,999 (fiat currency, not gold), buys a 500-square-foot, sandblasted, tar-coated, modular fallout shelter with a bulletproof hatch, decontamination shower, gas-tight interior doors, L-shaped entry “to attenuate gamma radiation”, kitchen, bathroom, sleeping space for a family and, of course, the chance to upgrade it as far as the buyer’s wallet will allow. Shouting down the phone in his Texas twang, Mr Hubbard says that “people are buying [my shelters] because they think the shit’s going to hit the fan in this country! Eventually a hard-core socialist liberal’s going to take control, and they’re not going to let that happen. People are preparing for civil war.”
Preparing for disaster—“prepping”, as practitioners tend to call it—is nothing new. At the height of the cold war, people built fallout shelters in their yards, and governments installed them under public buildings. Moscow’s immense subway stations double as fallout shelters; Switzerland’s network of shelters can house the country’s entire population.
But the prepping business is still going strong, even as the threat of great-power nuclear conflict has receded—and the difference now is that disaster no longer need mean discomfort. Former nuclear-missile storage facilities across the Midwest are being refurbished and sold as places to wait out disaster with plush couches and screening rooms. Websites flog years’ worth of freeze-dried gourmet meals to those who quail at the thought of surviving on tinned beans and lukewarm water (though the post-apocalyptic bar for “gourmet” is low—your correspondent sampled some freeze-dried sausage, and found it hauntingly reminiscent of dried cat food).
Fifty years ago, Americans feared nuclear fallout or destruction; today, the list of disasters to be prepared for is much longer. Over the course of four seasons, “Doomsday Preppers” became the then-highest-rated show on the National Geographic channel; it featured people preparing for electricity-grid failures, the collapse of America’s food-distribution system, martial law, Fukushima-style irradiation, earthquakes and other catastrophes.
Some see prepping as a mainly right-wing, male phenomenon. On first glance, the recent Panhandle Preparedness Expo—held in northern Idaho, the heart of the American Redoubt, a region that attracts people who believe civilisation’s collapse is fast approaching—did nothing to alter that view. Many of those attending carried handguns jammed in their waistbands or in holsters wrapped around their legs. Preppers could buy little plastic bags of bullets and shotgun shells, bone-handled knives (“imported from Pakistan,” admitted the vendor), t-shirts reading “My gun is lubricated with liberal tears” and, alongside a picture of Donald Trump in sunglasses, “Two Terms—Deal With It!”
Bucking that stereotype was a left-leaning scientist from Washington, who bought a palletful of rice, beans and water. He watched New Orleans “descend into anarchy” after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and his brother barely made it out of New York as Sandy approached in 2012. Those disasters piqued his concern about “a period of relative societal collapse…It would be utterly unprecedented in terms of human history and biologically in terms of species on Earth not to have a downturn. The question is when. I think it’s not that likely in my lifetime. I think I won’t have to use those rice and beans. But do I think it passes the 2-3% threshold that I buy home insurance for? Yes.”
Several dozen well-armed folk packed a seminar on home canning and food preservation. A stall selling essential oils would not have been out of place outside a Jill Stein event, though the vendor warned: “You need to know how to use this stuff, because after the collapse the pharmacies will all be robbed; all the businesses will be shut down.”
Other well-attended talks centred on communication and community-building. One speaker referred to a “Map My Neighbourhood” initiative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema), which encourages people to know their neighbours and have an emergency plan. The speaker noted that he “trust[s] fema as far as I can throw them, but they’re not collecting data on this”. John Jacob Schmidt, a pseudonymous podcaster who gave one of the emergency-communication talks, stressed that he was “pro-government—they have the bulldozers; they’ve got the resources. We’re just supplementing it.”
Patiently awaiting the collapse
Prepping means different things to different people. The liberal scientist, for instance, is particularly exercised about “eco-prepping”—prepping in ways that minimise his carbon footprint while restoring land he owns in West Virginia, where his family has a tiny, solar-powered home, to forest. What shone through in Idaho was a deep distrust of political systems and a mild, pervasive pessimism about human nature—or more specifically, the nature of unknown humans—but a devotion to community. Mike Bullard, a retired pastor now active in disaster assistance, says, “If my neighbour doesn’t have food or a way to take care of himself, I’m not safe. Being able to trust your neighbour is the most important preparation.”
And because someone might not believe that collapse is imminent does not mean they may not want a shelter—just for fun. Pressed on whether enthusiasts for imminent bloody conflict might perhaps comprise an inadequate customer base, Mr Hubbard’s voice grows quiet, and his accent seems to soften. “I have a new shelter out…It has this incredible temperature of 56 degrees; that’s perfect for wine.”