BEYOND THE BRINK:
An apocalyptic toolbox
Johanna de Verdier
A prepper; sometimes called a survivalist, is a person who makes preparations for a possible catastrophe—often through investing in personal fallout bunkers, stockpiling supplies, or equipping their house with elaborate defense mechanisms. Predominantly a movement in the United States, its growth and fairly recent knock-on effect on mainstream culture can be connected to the Cold War's rise of paranoia about communism, fears about the atomic bomb, and post-9/11 anxieties of terrorism from within. Echoing much of American libertarianism, preppers often focus on being “free” and living independently from any state, aid, or intervention. This narrative often builds on the idea of what constitutes the “real” America, in which American history is seen as a series of repeated uprisings against the federal government (Crockford, 2018).
In the 2011 National Geographic reality TV series Doomsday Preppers, we get to meet a number of preppers. Their reasons for prepping range anywhere from terrorist attacks and nuclear fallout to sudden floods. One man turns to the camera and proclaims Charles Darwin to be his hero:
Survival of the fittest, right? he says.
Shortly thereafter he is teaching his 4-year-old daughter how to shoot a rifle for “parameter defense,” in case they would have to defend themselves from large groups of fleeing people suddenly descending on their rural part of Pennsylvania.
Apocalyptic fiction presents us with doomsday scenarios ranging from medical pandemics, climate change and war, to the slightly more creative killer drone bees, infectious mushrooms, etc. Recent examples such as The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, and Mad Max all encompass similar visual language—orange-tinted, dry wasteland where cities have been replaced by infinite stretches of sand, famous monuments crumbled into ruins and overgrown by tangled vines, and empty streets filled with people’s scattered belongings. In the midst of it all, is a 40-50ish year old man, most likely from a law enforcement background, driven by revenge and hardened by his loss of a close female family member—rugged, short spoken heroes whose sole purpose is to protect. Much like the prepper in the National Geographic series, these stories continuously focus on the nuclear family as a survival unit who has to fend off monsters and more often than not other groups of people who have formed into militia or gangs. Human “nature” in the face of disaster is assumed to be violent and brutal.
As we are saturated in these narratives, the 21st century is faced with the alarms of the rapidly shortening lifespan of our ecosystem. It has become more and more obvious that a change to our way of life is imminent. If we are going to have a future which is liveable, do people need to accept that societal collapse is inevitable? Perhaps preparing for “the end” does not have to be so entangled in fantasies of the sole survivor—the question is rather how we open up for a wider interpretation of what survival and preparation might mean and where the knowledge for these constructions will come from. I will attempt to untangle a few of these threads by looking at the ideological infrastructures of the prepper movement, as well as how our shifting expectations of necessity and ideas around who gets to be a part of nature informs the boundaries of our visions of the future.
Lately there has been a noticeable surge of interest in nature-based education and different types of alternative back-to-the-land lifestyles.
The promise of meaning in the rejection of modern conveniences has become ever more pressing as the world heats up.
The origins of these types of practices can be traced back to the outdoor cultures of the 1960s and 70s, defined by its craft revival and hippy homesteading which made thousands of young people leave their urban environments to start co-ops and communes in the mountains and woods. The “simpler” way of life came with a promise of meaning in the rejection of modern conveniences and often a somewhat romanticized, idealistic expectation of the rural and the countryside (Pollen, 2019). The beginning of this movement was characterized by the escapist fantasies of the metropolitan elite, which is potentially the reason why many of these communes did not survive past the 70s.
A perhaps less expected outcome of this movement is its influence on the early tech industry in Silicon Valley, where Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968) is often quoted as inspiration for many startup entrepreneurs. The catalog was a publication that aimed to provide a comprehensive guide to tools, ideas, and resources for living off the grid, emphasizing the importance of self-sufficiency and community. But many elements of the catalog are harder to swallow—it has a stark “pioneer” rhetoric, celebrates individualism, and expresses contempt for social institutions (Wiener, 2018). We can see streams of this reflected in the mindset of investors such as Elon Musk and his quest to colonize Mars—from this perspective, progress equals constant expansion into “unknown” territory. Whole Earth Catalog nurtured the integration of this ideology into the tech industry.
And here there is room to draw a connection to the consumerism of the preppers. As a part of the movement's growth there has been an emergence of survival-based expos, often hosting thousands of attendees and stalls stacked with survival goods such as freeze-dried foods and hi-tech camping gear (History Cooperative, 2019). As long as society is around, one can still make money on selling the idea that one day it might not be. Much like the philosophy of Silicon Valley, this expresses the idea of “man” being able to invent mechanical, technical solutions to every problem—with adequate gear you can “win” the apocalypse.
The prepper movement is also bound up with a specific worldview that reproduces biblical eschatology of a grandiose, imminent end of times which puts its devotees in the midst of a selected few, chosen because of their faith in themselves and their ability to prepare. Early settlers are looked at as pioneers, the first survivalists who provided only for themselves. Withdrawing to more rural parts of land is common as a part of the narrative in which nature is viewed as a free space, but it also reproduces the idea of the nature which they inhabit as empty. Their version of history rarely includes land grants such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the following violent removal of America's native population from their ancestral land (Crockford, 2018). These violations are often overlooked within survivalist ideology in favor of a self-centered agenda, where the survival of the individual is put above all else.
What constitutes simplicity is shaped by historic conditions, changing manufacturing practices, and shifting expectations of necessity. A new market for hiking and natural health, abundant with commercial products, has influenced and enabled these dreams of living close to the land. The countryside is not only a geographic location but an idea in our public imagination. The methods of survivalism and back-to-the-land living are very much influenced by consumer practices as much as the moral codes of each period of time during which these practices are executed. We repeatedly shape our idea of nature, and part of the reason that we are in this situation is that nature has been perceived as enduring and external (Pollen, 2019).
It is important to understand the historical influences of both survivalism and environmentalist back-to-the-land groups, especially how they are bound up in a political slippage between left and right as well as capitalist consumerism, racism, and classism. As the interest for these practices is once again becoming more prevalent together with the growing environmentalist movement, it is worth considering these problems as part of the reason why this movement has not always been successful and why it has received much justified criticism for its lack of awareness of said problems.
The idea of utopia is a key part in framing techno-capital pursuit as the solution to all problems—learning survival skills and DIY processes can be an important step to counteract the sleek interface of the future we are often promised. Capitalism will not be able to provide a liveable future, it is barely providing a livable present. Therefore, instead of asking what the future will be like based on how society looks now, a more productive inquiry might be what should the future look like? To refuse the “realism” imposed by capitalism which is essentially only telling us to endure, to hope for the best, could be a meaningful political act. There are constant calls within the media that totalize every action as destructive, leading to a state of paralysis—for example the idea of a carbon footprint. By linking people’s everyday consumption to climate change we are caught in a state of immobilization that makes change unimaginable. If everything we do on an individual scale is destructive, how can we form resistances that dare imagine a sustainable future?
The history of non-conforming people has continually been one of problem-solving in societal structures which refuse to center their needs, constantly putting them at the forefront of ecological disaster.
The forces of capitalism, racism, ableism, transphobia, and homophobia may have cornered us into a vulnerable position in this unprecedented moment in our planet’s history, but the wisdom we’ve gained along the way could allow us all to survive in the face of climate chaos. (Berne and Raditz, 2019).
An intersectional climate justice movement must look at nature through the lens of a queer biodiversity—to see our own diversity reflected in the ecology of this planet (Berne and Raditz, 2019). Perhaps with this in mind, we can get a hint of what post-capitalist organization might mean and trace the outlines of what survival can be in a contemporary context.
The word “apocalypse” is connected to the lifting of a veil, an unfolding of things not previously known. In a way, the apocalypse has already been revealed and begun taking place. What is considered a collapse from the view of the dominant, could mean emergence for others.
Berne, P. and Raditz, V. (2019). To Survive Climate Catastrophe, Look to Queer and Disabled Folks. [online] Yes! Magazine. Available at: https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2019/07/31/climate-change-queer-disabled-organizers/ [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].
Crockford, S. (2018). Thank God for the greatest country on earth: white supremacy, vigilantes, and survivalists in the struggle to define the American nation. Religion, State and Society, 46(3), pp.224-242.
Doomsday Preppers. (2011). [tv-series] National Geographic Channel.
History Cooperative. (2019). History of the Prepper Movement: From Paranoid Radicals to Mainstream. [online] Available at: https://historycooperative.org/history-of-the-prepper-movement-from-paranoid-radicals-to-mainstream/ [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].
Pollen, A. (2019). Annebella Pollen on Anorak. [online] Spacestudios.org.uk. Available at: https://spacestudios.org.uk/exhibition-programme/anna-chrystal-stephens-anorak/annebella-pollen-on-anorak/ [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].
Weiner, A. (2018), The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog. [online] Newyorker.com. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-silicon-valley/the-complicated-legacy-of-stewart-brands-whole-earth-catalog [Accessed 28 May, 2023]