Sometimes, I like to play a little game. This game is called, What The Crap Would I Do If The Apocalypse Happened In the Next Twenty Minutes? I’ve used this game to size up apartments for zombie-proofing (my old place in HumboldtPark would have withstood a siege), pass the time at work (where would I hide if aliens attacked downtown?), and weigh my options at the grocery store. Brown rice or cans of tuna? Plantain chips or dried mango? Which would I rather be forced to meagerly ration at the end of civilization?
There are a lot of arguments to be made, as demonstrated by any “prepper” website or forum. Sugar or honey? Honey doesn’t go bad, and bonus points for being able to keep your own hives. What about bread? Make a sourdough starter or get used to flatbread. As for flour, DIY a hand-cranked grinder, and learn to make do with alternative grains.
I know I’m not alone in these thought experiments. Casually imagining mass destruction has been the foundation of an astounding number of blockbusters this past decade. Enthusiasm for the apocalypse has become a fad, and a well-paying industry, lining the pockets of survival “experts” who cater to the rich and paranoid. There are also plenty of mild-mannered suburbanites who are LARPing their own doomsday fantasies, building fortresses with closed water supplies and training their family pets to be attack dogs.
“If the grocery shelves are empty, we’re only nine meals away from anarchy,” a serious-faced white guy tells the camera on National Geographic’s depressingly popular Doomsday Preppers. “What will happen then?”
(Having known a lot of anarchists in my life, there will probably be a really long discussion on what to do next, which will eventually devolve into rhetorical arguments. Then everyone will make out.)
In a later segment, he admonishes his son, who’s away at college, to keep prepping for the end of civilization. “You’ve seen the news?” he says. “What’s happening in Greece?” Presumably, since he cited “civil unrest after an economic meltdown” as his reason for becoming a prepper, he’s not talking about the police force targeting immigrants and sex workers. All that stuff is just business as usual. But OMG, protesting austerity measures and general strikes? HEAD FOR THE HILLS, MARTHA.
My disaster preparedness plans definitely include removing myself from the proximity of Tea Party suburban commandos and their lethally-guarded stockpiles of V-8.
The apocalyptic craze strikes me as very individualist and egotistical. There’s a smugness to advertising hooks like “NOT EVERYONE WILL SURVIVE THE INCREASING NUMBERS OF DISASTERS, BUT YOU CAN EVEN THE ODDS WHEN YOU [subscribe to Survivalist Magazine].” It plays on fear, sure, but also on the certainty that you will be one of the survivors, no matter how hare-brained your scheme is. And who cares about all those other assholes, anyway? They’re just extras in your own personal disaster movie.
One of the ironic parts of this survival craze is that it seems to be produced for and by folks that have never actually faced much hardship. In the many, many disaster movies I have watched, it’s rare to see the apocalypse happening to anyone but a white middle-class nuclear family. In 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow (in which climate change causes a sudden new ice age due to… uh… HEY LOOK A GIANT TIDAL WAVE), a homeless man stuffs newspaper into his jacket, explaining that it’s a way of keeping warm.
This is literally the only thing in that movie that is remotely realistic. It was also very exceptional. Despite the fact that those mired in poverty are often the most vulnerable to natural disasters, most people don’t care about how the poor deal with catastrophes.
It’s very hard to take people seriously who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on complicated methods of surviving supervolcanoes and polar shifts, instead of doing something like, I don’t know. Investing in a community garden? Instead, we get forum threads like How long do you think the unprepared would really be able to survive and be a real threat to those of us who are prepared? or Anyone else have neighbors that will become a liability WTSHTF?
Most scenarios that doomsday preppers expect seem to be lifted directly from Hollywood blockbusters. They ignore the history of recent calamities–9/11, Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti–in favor of a more exciting narrative. Looting! Rape gangs! Anarchists with molotovs! In fact, community organization of mutual aid has saved many more people than hoarding food supplies or vigilantism has. Occupy Sandy, for instance, organized immediate disaster relief, at first delivering hot meals and flashlights, eventually organizing donation distribution and rebuilding efforts more efficiently than FEMA.
In conclusion: You wanna survive the apocalypse? Make friends with your neighbors. Start a community garden. Self-reliance is great, but being a self-serving asshole will make for a long, sad apocalypse.