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Episode 25: You Can't Beat the Apocalypse: On Survivalism and Prepping

Famous Fat Guy, Jacked Guy Preamble

So, I’ll be honest and say that I don’t have any personal connection to this topic beyond a very morbid curiosity with it. And I’ll say, I’m not so much interested in the act itself but with the people who participate in the act, the survivalists, the preppers. BUT something I’ve noticed about survivalism and prepping over the years is that it tends to come in and out of our mainstream consciousness.

I would say right now, I can feel it leaking in again. This was definitely not something I was conscious of as a younger person, but I look around at what’s going on in the world and I can see how survivalism and prepping is getting hot again. Not just hot as in there are a lot of people doing it and doing it for the first time, but also hot in the sense that there will soon be news articles on people who are prepping and it’ll become another thing to both examine and poke fun at in entertainment media.

Brother, do you remember the first time you heard of this concept? Like was there a movie or tv show or history lesson that tuned you into it?

It’s hard for me to say when I first heard about prepping or survivalism…I’m certain that we talked about bomb shelters and fallout shelters in school at some point, especially because in the early 1960s, the Kennedy family famously had a bunker built for themselves on Peanut Island, which is in Palm Beach County. For our history heads out there, you know that was because the Cold War was raging and the U.S. government was constantly on the asses of other countries that had nuclear technology. I remember learning this at some point at a very early age, BUT the memory that sticks out as the first time prepping and survivalism really registered as a THING for me was when some adult in my family took us to see Blast From the Past when I was 11. Have you seen Blast From the Past, brother?

Ok, yeah, so Blast From the Past is a movie about a family (Dad - Christopher Walken, Mom - Sissy Spacek, Son - Brendan Fraser) who live in a fallout shelter for 35 years. After 35 years, Brendan Fraser’s character has to go back to civilization to check shit out and also look for food and supplies. And obviously, he finds out quickly that the world is not in nuclear fallout as his father thought it was. They’ve been trapped underground for no reason. Antics ensue and he falls in love with a girl played by Alicia Silverstone, and they figure out a way to get his parents out of that bunker and back into real life.

The thing about Blast From the Past is that because it’s a movie, you know, the bunker is like this beautiful underground space. It basically looks like if you recreated an entire mid-century home underground. The father even worked out a way to simulate sitting outside on a porch with a “view,” there’s fake greenery…you know, the whole nine yards. It’s a place you can really live in if you had to or I guess if you wanted to.

The fallout shelter, itself, is kind of a mainstay in American media. There are lots of movies that hint to them or feature them for one reason or another. They sometimes show up in unexpected places, like in the movie Grease 2 where one of the boys lures his girlfriend into one and stages a nuclear warning in order to get her to give up her virginity to him. And then, I feel like, when we were teenagers, zombie media—movies, tv shows, and video games—kind of had a renaissance that really just ended a few years ago. And with the proliferation of zombie media, you get a lot of conversation around what people would do or not do in a zombie scenario. Of course, a lot of these conversations weren’t serious, many people had them just as a sort of strategic mind game they could do with their friends. But there are some people who take it to the next level, people who truly think we need to prepare for some kind of apocalyptic scenario where there are human flesh eaters on the loose. I remember in my late teens seeing books and internet videos of people giving ideas for how to survive a zombie apocalypse. And I get it, if you have some base level paranoia about the state of the world, latching onto the idea that a zombie apocalypse might happen makes sense. It forces you to think through some very basic things you’ll need to survive like weapons and food, a place to hide, and transportation for when that place you’re hiding in eventually fails you. All of that would be good to know/have in the event of literally any apocalyptic or nuclear situation, and I think that specifically in the early-2000s and after 9/11, there was a little collective paranoia about the world at large and that’s why those conversations and the media that was born out of them came roaring back into lives.

In the years before Covid, aside from some comments on the news about the various white supremacist groups who are survivalists, I didn’t seen any direct prepper or survivalism talk outside of when that memoir Educated by Tara Westover, which is about Westover basically escaping her survivalist parents as a teen, was really popular in like 2018/2019 and in Joe Pera Talks With You, where Joe’s girlfriend Sarah is an actual prepper who has a fortified basement in her home. It was actually in watching Joe Pera Talks With You that I really started to think about the kind of personalities and people that take on survivalism and prepping and where the hell that came from. And during Covid, you know, there’s been more talk of survivalism simply because a pandemic is one of the kinds of things that people would be prepping for.

I think the reasons for doing it are obvious enough: these people legitimately believe there will be a situation where our civilization will come crashing down in a way where they will need to have a hidden place and lots of resources in order to survive. More interestingly, actually, they truly believe they will survive…like they think they can outrun the apocalypse. So, I’m going to focus more on the history of survivalism and the culture of prepping because I think that’s what a lot of us are unfamiliar with.

Let’s start here: what is survivalism? What is prepping?

Tell me what your perception of it is, brother.

  • Yeah, so prepping is a wide range of things.

  • We generally think of preppers and survivalists as loners who are building these bunkers and spaces on their own below their homes or on their properties somewhere, but there’s actually lots of different kinds of preppers.

  • Very basically, survivalists are just people who are proactively prepared for literally any emergency you can think of including natural disasters, nuclear destruction, and social and political fallout.

  • The main tenet of survivalism, from what I can see, seems to be: every person for themself. The vibe I get from reading about it is very “you need to acquire the skills and resources to take care of yourself in every way a person needs to be taken care of.”

  • They gather tons of food and water in order to be self-sufficient should an apocalyptic situation happen.

  • Often, survivalists also learn emergency medical stuff and they take self-defense classes. As we know, a lot of them are proficient with guns and other weapons.

  • All of this is in the name of making sure the survivalists and the survivalists alone will actually make it through.

  • There are many different scenarios that they might be preparing for but there are some common ones. Most preppers have their own specific reason for prepping so I’ll just get into a few of those right now:

    • Safety-preparedness-oriented - just wanna be prepared for whatever the fuck may come!

    • Wilderness survival emphasis - obvious enough…they think they’re going to get stuck in the wilderness and will have to survive it.

    • Self-defense-driven - they just wanna be able to beat ass if they have to!

    • Natural disaster, brief - people who live in tornado, hurricane, flood, wildfire, earthquake or heavy snowfall-prone areas and want to be prepared for possible emergencies. Most Floridians are preppers according to this standard.

    • Natural disaster, prolonged - concerned with weather cycles of 2–10 years

    • Natural disaster, indefinite/multi-generational - considers an end to society as it exists today under possible scenarios including global warming, global cooling, environmental degradation,[24] warming or cooling of gulf stream waters, or a period of severely cold winters caused by a supervolcano, an asteroid strike, or Nuclear winter.

    • Bio-chem scenario - concerned with the spread of fatal diseases, biological agents, and nerve gasses

    • Monetary disaster investors - prepare for paper money to become worthless through hyperinflation

    • Biblical eschatologist - pre-Rapture period will make it hard to survive

    • Peak-oil doomers - we will run out of oil so society will collapse

    • Rawlesian - followers of James Wesley Rawles, this group anticipates a near-term crisis and seek to be well-armed as well as ready to dispense charity in the event of a disaster.

    • Legal-continuity-oriented - primary concern with maintaining some form of legal system and social cohesion after a breakdown in the technical infrastructure of society (The Postman by David Brin).

  • So, you can see, the term prepper and survivalist is kind of loosely thrown around now because a lot more people than you’d expect are into it. There are people who stockpile food and medical supplies in their small New York apartments, there are people who do prepping by just working on their actual physical form, there are people who just practice hunting, and there are people who simply just stockpile lots of weapons. All of this falls in the definition of prepping because at the end of the day, what these people want is complete autonomy from whatever scenarios they imagine can and will happen eventually.

Where did prepping come from?

  • In the U.S., prepping has really been around since after the bounce back from the Great Depression. Stock market crashed, led to widespread poverty, and so when the economy started to get back to normal, people were like “we have to be prepared in case this shit happens again” and some did.

  • After WWII, the Cold War began and that’s really where the prepper shit hit the fan because people were scared of being attacked with nuclear bombs all the time.

  • The Cold War era civil defense programs started and these programs really pushed for the use of public atomic bomb shelters, personal fallout shelters, and training for children in schools, such as the Duck and Cover films.

  • It’s in the 60s that survivalism really became much more of an individualistic endeavor. Nuclear war was still thought of as a threat but because of fluctuations in the global economy, the perceived vulnerability of cities, and different things happening with the supply chain for goods, people started pushing for much more personal preparations.

  • At this point, these kinds of preppers were calling themselves “retreaters,” not survivalists, but the concept was exactly the same.

  • In the late 60s, a retreater named Harry Browne kind of rises to some level of prominence within this community and begins touring around teaching people how to survive a monetary collapse with his business partner Don Stephens (an architect) providing input on how to build and supply a survival retreat.

  • Browne would give out books he wrote on the subject at these training sessions, and they made the rounds and people really began to follow Browne’s lead.

  • Early 70s: Howard Ruff warned about socio-economic collapse in his 1974 book Famine and Survival in America.

    • The book championed the claim that precious metals, such as gold and silver, have an intrinsic worth that makes them more usable in the event of a socioeconomic collapse than fiat currency.

    • He later wrote another book called How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, which was a best-seller in 1979.

  • Other newsletters and books followed in the wake of Ruff's first publication. In 1975, Kurt Saxon began publishing a monthly tabloid-size newsletter called The Survivor, which combined Saxon's editorials with reprints of 19th century and early 20th century writings on various pioneer skills and old technologies. Kurt Saxon used the term survivalist to describe the movement, and he claims to have coined the term.

  • In addition to hardcopy newsletters, in the 1970s survivalists established their first online presence with BBS[16][17] and Usenet forums dedicated to survivalism and survival retreats.

  • The 1980s kind of saw a downturn in the popularity of survivalism, but these communities were still communicating with one another and sharing ideas and having seminars and publishing books. Some notable ones being Life After Doomsday by Bruce D. Clayton and Ragnar Benson's Live Off The Land In The City And Country.

  • The second of which actually suggested rural survival retreats as not just being for disaster preparedness but also as a conscious lifestyle change.

  • 1990s: Interest in the movement picked up during the Clinton administration due in part to the debate surrounding the Federal Assault Weapons Ban and the ban's subsequent passage in 1994.

  • The interest peaked again in 1999 triggered by fears of the Y2K computer bug. Before extensive efforts were made to rewrite computer programming code to mitigate the effects, some writers such as Gary North anticipated widespread power outages, food and gasoline shortages, and other emergencies. North and others raised the alarm because they thought Y2K code fixes were not being made quickly enough.

  • More books were published during this time: two of the most survival-focused texts to emerge were Boston on Y2K (1998) by Kenneth W. Royce, and Mike Oehler's The Hippy Survival Guide to Y2K. Oehler is an underground living advocate, who also authored The $50 and Up Underground House Book, which has long been popular in survivalist circles.

  • Another wave of survivalism began after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and this resurgence of interest in survivalism appears to be as strong as the 1970s era focus on the topic. The fear of war, avian influenza, energy shortages, environmental disasters, and global climate change, coupled with economic uncertainty and the apparent vulnerability of humanity after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, have increased interest in survivalism topics.

  • Following the Great Recession of 2008, blogs and Internet forums are popular ways of disseminating survivalism information. Online survival websites and blogs discuss survival vehicles, survival retreats, emerging threats, and list survivalist groups.

  • The recession, changes in climate and increased climate disasters, and the Swine flu of 2009 all kind of coincided to raise more interest in survivalism. So much so that Gerald Celente, founder of the Trends Research Institute, marked it as a TREND and called it "neo-survivalism". Neo-survivalism was a little different than the survivalism of the past as it seemed to begin to emphasize the importance of prepping with and for your community.

  • As you can guess, though, like most trends the community aspect of this got lost as we got further into the 2010s and shit just kept getting worse.

    • Weird fact: Survivalists were scared they would get some flack after the shooting in Sandy Hook

  • From 2011 to 2014, the National Geographic Channel aired a show called Doomsday Preppers that chronicled the lives of families who do this shit which you would think might cause another wave of popularity, but actually that didn’t swing back around again until now…during the pandemic.

  • Since the pandemic began, new prepper groups and services for people who are preppers have been popping up all over the place, even in places where prepping seems hard or impossible. One article I read mentions a group in Harlem called the New York City Preppers Network. According to this article, “The people met at the prepper meetups weren’t stockpiling bunkers with military-grade supplies—they shopped at REI and Costco, and learned the ropes with books found on Amazon”

  • There are companies called Preppi and Judy that sell prepping supplies with a kind of stylish twist, which feels really ridiculous to me. Even more ridiculous is that celebs like Kim Kardashian, Oprah, and Gwyneth Paltrow promote these companies on their websites and on social media.

  • Survival schools in nearly every state teach off-grid living, homesteading, and wilderness skills. Prepper Camp USA offers three days of classes and camping in the Appalachian Mountains. And conventions like PrepperCon in Salt Lake City draw thousands of people with speakers, booths, and classroom trainings.

Prepper Websites

Wrapping Up

  • That takes us to now. You can probably guess where I’m about to go now…

  • One thing I didn’t mention about prepping is that it is an enormous monetary investment….one that a lot of people simply can’t make….

  • To me, prepping culture is kind of a microcosm of the world we’re currently living in…it directly reflects…people who can afford to play, do and people who can’t are fucked…..

Final Questions

  • As I said, I’m really interested in the people/personalities who think this is a legitimate thing to do…why do you think people do it, brother? What’s the draw?

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