January 25, 2015

Prepping for doom: The civic Midcentury vs. the anarchic Millennial era

If you drop by an army/navy surplus store looking for, y'know, surplus stuff from the military, you'll be out of luck. In less than 20 years, they have changed from being the go-to place for getting an olive drab field jacket to Apocalypse Outfitters. They may even have some kind of zombie / prepper window display just to clue you in to the theme of the merchandise.

This shift in the nature of the surplus store is important because it shows how broadly the survivalist phenomenon is affecting our society. It's not just wackos on internet comment boxes, or colorfully paranoid subjects cherry-picked for reality TV shows. There's enough demand for this stuff in your own neck of the woods that they have managed to convert the surplus store into a preppers' emporium.

It also underscores one of the key differences about our age's doomsday survival movement, compared to the nuclear fallout shelter builders of the duck-and-cover era half a century ago. Today's preppers are going about their plans in such an individual-focused way that there aren't any well known suppliers, either public or private, whose central visibility would serve to warn the not-so-prepared and perhaps convince them to make themselves better prepared. You have to already be prepping-inclined to be in the know about surplus stores actually serving as intro survivalist stores.

Today's preppers are only trying to cover their own ass, and at most their nuclear family. (My impression is these folks are less likely to have children than normal folks are, but it's not as though they're mostly lone wolf Rambo wannabes.)

The preppers of the '50s through the mid-'60s had an entirely opposite plan -- to save the whole community, and hopefully the whole society, through establishing a social network of prep centers, which individuals and families could plug into.

Although they valued having a fallout shelter for their own private dwelling for the benefit of their nuclear family, they also made sure that there were communal protection spaces that could house hundreds or even thousands of citizens. These were mostly housed in public buildings -- churches, schools, libraries, and the like -- although a handful of private buildings, like local banks, signed on too. Such communal spaces carried distinctive signs on the outside to inform those who didn't already know.

Municipal governments allocated funds to supply the shelters with food, water, first aid kits, and so on. They also coordinated a wide communication network that would get the word out in case of emergency. Ordinary citizens volunteered to staff these local emergency communication networks.

In general, the Midcentury spirit was one of civic engagement to preserve the entire community, in contrast to the contemporary spirit of civic withdrawal to preserve Number One.

The main factor seems to be the status-striving and laissez-faire norms of our age, and the accommodating and regulatory norms of the Midcentury. If the goal of life is to climb as high as possible on whatever status mountain you've chosen, then everybody else's survival is their own concern. You may not specifically wish them ill, but hey, let them save themselves if they're not as awesomely advanced in survival tactics as you are.

The preppers give off such a strong air of trying to win a status contest amongst themselves, that it's hard not to link the trend to the status-striving trend. I can survive three weeks, not just two. Yeah, well I can recycle my compost into two different kinds of gluten-free muffins. Psh, you guys can't tie as many kinds of knots as I can. Yeah huh, and we've fired more guns than you have. You wish -- have you guys even raised chickens, or are you all just vegetable gardeners? And so on and so forth.

Browsing through old pictures and stories about the Midcentury fallout shelters reveals no trace of an atmosphere of one-upsmanship among their builders and owners.

You could also explain the timing by pointing to the strength vs. weakness of civic institutions, which parallels the accommodating vs. status-striving phases of the cycle. Maybe folks back then were more communal in their doomsday prepping because they had all kinds of thriving civic institutions to plug into and hit the ground running, while today's preppers look around and see an ever-decaying public system and figure why bother serving on the crew of a sinking ship?

That would confuse cause and effect. Civic institutions come from people, not the other way around (except on a long-term evolutionary time scale). Civic life was thriving back in the Midcentury because the people followed a norm of reining-it-in and making room for others, and civic life is so dilapidated today because people are too busy striving to boost their own status that things which benefit others will just have to wait until later (i.e. never, since status is a constant treadmill pursuit).

We also see the self-focused and striving nature of the prepper movement by looking at how it varies over geography. Looking through Wikipedia's summary of episodes for Doomsday Preppers, a reality show, you find very few subjects from the Deep South or Appalachia. They are far more likely to hail from the historically rootless areas farther west, beginning around Kansas and Texas, continuing on into the Mountain states, and extending all the way out to Alaska and Hawaii. It's striking how many preppers are from the West Coast.

Those places also tend to direct their status contests toward lifestyle pursuits rather than sheer wealth accumulation, which makes them more susceptible to a lifestyle contest like prepping.

Communities are more tightly knit in the Deep South and Appalachia, so they don't worry quite so much about a major disturbance. Not that it wouldn't send shockwaves through their communities, but the support networks are already woven tightly enough that they don't have to worry about being carried away by the flood. Some isolated transplant in California or Colorado, however, could see his entire line go extinct from the softest shift under the ground. He is a much more natural convert to the survivalist self-help movement.

You know who doesn't need to join the survival movement? The Amish. Not because they're already used to a lower-tech, off-the-grid way of life. But because they're all part of an interconnected and humble community, whose complexity can support a fairly decent standard of living by global standards. You can't get that complex of a group when everyone is looking out for themselves, or at most their nuclear family.

Who were the best prepared nation during the nuclear fallout shelter craze? The Swiss, whose Sonnenberg Tunnel (built in the '70s) could have protected over 10,000 citizens not only from the radioactive fallout but the initial bomb blast as well. Public shelters like that were an extra backup layer in addition to the household shelters that were required of new homes at the time.

The Amish are just a splinter group from the Swiss and broader Alpine German population, so this is no coincidence. If we want to survive like the Swiss, we ought to interact like the Swiss, not by turning every activity into a self-promoting status contest.


  1. Man, this is so true.

    Today's prepper movement is focused on the individual family, as opposed to the 1950's/1960's fallout shelter program which was focused on communities, because the perceived threat has changed. In the 1950's, people were worried about external threats, namely a nuclear attack by the Russians. Today's preppers are worried about an internal breakdown in social order -- the economy collapses, the welfare system starts working, and the people in the ghetto start becoming bandits.

    The whole premise of today's prepper movement is batshit crazy because social order will never break down to that degree. It doesn't take THAT much for the government to provide a minimal degree of law and order.

    And even if the government somehow collapsed, what the peppers fail to see is that notwithstanding the breakdown in social trust that has occurred over the past 50 years, if the apocalypse ever actually happened (and it won't), people would organize THEMSELVES and secure their OWN neighborhoods. Peppers might be weird, suspicious misanthropes, but they do have friends, relatives, and neighbors.

    The truth about the breakdown in social order/race war/whatever scenario is that it would be over in about 5 minutes. If ghetto street gangs and white trash bikers ever began invading middle-class suburbs, the pasty white cubicle dwellers would spontaneously respond by organizing themselves into local militias. The kakis and polo shirt types would wipe out the Crips and the Sons of Anarchy in about 5 minutes, notwithstanding the fact that many of the suburbanites have never fired a gun before and have had aggression and violence conditioned out of them. It doesn't matter if the suburbanites are heavily outnumbered, either, because they have traits like future-time orientation, discipline, and loyalty, that the ghetto dwellers and white trash bandits lack. Once basic law and order was restored they'd elect a mayor; reach out to adjacent towns with similar governmental structures; and voila - civilization would be restored.

    I have never understood why the Preppers do not see this. Our civilization may be decadent, but there is no way that it can completely collapse.

    Also, if you look at this from a historical perspective, has a complete civilizational collapse ever happened? There are occasional riots, sure, but even places like Bosnia never descended into total anarchy, to the point where there was mass starvation. So while it's a good idea to have a gun and some extra food on hand, there is no need to fortify a mountain redoubt and have years and years of food, ammunition, and medical supplies stored up.

    The Prepper demographic seems to be comprised of late Boomers in their 50's, people with no social trust, and little virtue or empathy who project their own lack of compassion onto their neighbors. Younger people don't seem to participate in the Prepper movement, probably because they have a greater instinctive understanding that we are all in this together and greater empathy for their fellow man.

  2. Katrina was a watershed (pun) moment in that regard. Mid-century, Americans were wary of a foreign state's attack on their homogeneous communities. Katrina and also the race riots before that) made it clear to all that their biggest concern is not the disaster, but their fellow citizens after the disaster.

  3. Degree of racial danger plays little role in motivating the preppers, although for some of them it may be a convenient rationalization. Most of them don't live near blacks, the most dangerous non-white group, and also don't live near sizable Hispanic populations.

    Those in California and Texas are obvious exceptions, but who else completes the prepper map? It's the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, northern Rockies, and Utah, which are still largely white, and if anything have more Asians than blacks, and maybe or maybe not a handful of Hispanics.

    California / Texas preppers are not joined with the Deep South, Mid-Atlantic, or Industrial Midwest, where blacks are concentrated. The latter regional cultures are already prepared to deal with a SHTF scenario starring black mobs -- form their own lynch mob, property-trashing posse, etc., as they always have.

    Everyone knows about the periodic revival of the KKK and the like in the Deep South, but the major race riots during their peak circa 1920 actually blew up more in the eastern half of the Midwest (with the greatest eruption in Chicago), where blacks had been pouring in to snatch up industrial jobs during their Great Migration out of the South.

    And back then, there were no Midcentury norms of niceness and accommodation, so the whites bulldozed over the blacks. I expect that to happen this time around, too, for the same reasons -- white people don't control their emotions and anger like the white people from the world of Father Knows Best, I Dream of Jeanie, and The Ed Sullivan Show.

  4. You'd think that whites in the northwest quarter of the country, including Alaska, would be the least paranoid about a race war. Their stated reasons have more to do with the breakdown of law & order, economic collapse, and other things that aren't explicitly racial.

    I highly doubt that they're just giving more palatable reasons in public to avoid an attack by the PC forces if they gave their true reasons that had more to do with racial conflict. I mean, you're already putting yourself out there as a severely paranoid and misanthropic hermit -- what do you care if polite society thinks you're also a closeted racist?

    The simplest explanation is that these people in largely white areas are not actually concerned about the racial angle of the zombie apocalypse. It's true that they're worried more about an internal breakdown than an external invasion, but that also means they're not very worried about an invasion of black or Mexican thugs from distant states where those mobs would originate.

    By implication, the preppers even in California and Texas, where a racial threat is far more likely, are still not concerned primarily about an invasion of other-race mobs. The hordes would certainly include blacks and Mexicans, but middle-class Texans are also paranoid about roving mobs of lower-class white outlaws, which there are way more of in Texas than in Minnesota.

    Ditto for tattooed and drug-using white hordes in southern California. Or in the West in general. It's Wild West heritage is still there today, owing to continued rootlessness and transience. The highest incarceration rate for whites is in Arizona. Middle-class preppers in Arizona have plenty of lower-class white meth-head types to worry about, on top of the Mexican invasion.

    It looks more like a paranoia about class war, should the government weaken enough to not be able to keep the have-nots placated, and who would then turn on the haves directly through robbery rather than indirect welfare. It would only appear to be a racial conflict due to the moderate correlation of race and class.

    But the prepper movement is not primarily about class war either, since most of the West is more egalitarian than the East Coast or Deep South. I'm just saying it's more about class than about race.

    The main factor seems to be communal cohesion vs. rootlessness. Can you rely on your neighbors to lend a helping hand at some cost to themselves, or is everybody turned inward in the pursuit of individual advancement?

    The Frontier has always been more rootless and transient, and that has worsened over the decades and centuries, as those remaining in the eastern half are those whose genetic disposition inclined them to stay in an existing community rather than strike out on their own.

  5. The main factor seems to be the status-striving and laissez-faire norms of our age, and the accommodating and regulatory norms of the Midcentury. If the goal of life is to climb as high as possible on whatever status mountain you've chosen, then everybody else's survival is their own concern.

    It means no such thing. It merely suggests that these people do not take seriously whatever disaster they think is going to befall us. Think about it. If you really think some kind of disaster is going to happen, you want to encourage as many people as possible to prepare to survive it. Why? Because the more people who survive the more people there are to help rebuild things. Your chances of surviving such a disaster is proportional to the size of network (of others) you get to survive along with you. That current preppers are nothing thinking this way clearly indicates that they do not take it all that seriously.

  6. No, it means that preppers are planning for a scenario where it's possible, or even likely, that they will be WROL -- without rule of law. Every man for himself.

    If that means they will be without a large, close-knit social network -- they aren't stupid. They know that. That's just the way the cookie is going to crumble.

  7. I saw a reality TV show (Wife Swap?) where a prepper couple interacted with a normal couple. The one thing I remember is the preppers where ok with buying things on credit and not really having a plan to pay it back. Really, who cares about bill collectors? I do wonder if a small part of the personnel finance problems are related to prepper psychology. Keep up the interesting work.

  8. "The truth about the breakdown in social order/race war/whatever scenario is that it would be over in about 5 minutes."

    Right. Unless you live in a super-remote area where utilities are unreliable to begin with, there's really no reason you'd need to be able to live totally off the grid for more than a week, tops. A reasonable person might prep for a disaster lasting three days, but three months is absurd.

  9. "The one thing I remember is the preppers where ok with buying things on credit and not really having a plan to pay it back."

    I hadn't thought about that angle to preppers, but it's true that apocalyptic groups generally don't value the future very much. Not exactly the orientation you expect from conservatives. (I don't know if they would use that term for themselves, but the mainstream media would definitely lump them with the cons rather than the libs.)

    Where is the apocalyptic group like the Jesus movement? He thought the Kingdom of God was going to come within their own lifetime, but that didn't lead him to run to the hills like the hermetic and puritanical Essenes.

    Several of his key messages make sense more in an apocalyptic framework -- like turning the other cheek, giving thy cloke as well as thy coat, and so on. Almost no one will behave that way when they expect an at least somewhat stable future. It allows the wicked to wipe out the good. But if the Kingdom of God is coming any day now, why worry? Keeping the accounts balanced in mundane matters is sweating the small stuff.

  10. Turn off the electricity for a few days in any urban area and see how long before order breaks down completely. Your urban neighbor is usually not your friend just someone on the street. The elevators don't work, the doors don't open, the heat cuts off and food rots. You can cripple any city by stopping the food trucks. When the people that run the grid are gone, who is going to turn it back on, you?


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