Prepping is a great cultural example of the observations that led bio-cultural anthropologists to a hypothesis that suggests human brains are hardwired to use past experience and present observations to make projections of hypothetical future scenarios following a basic “if–then” logical model. Those practices, which are inherent in all of us, form the basis of storytelling— an art form that humans alone have the capacity to practice. They say it’s an evolutionary trait we adapted to guide our decision making, since the days of our primitive ancestors, through all those stages of change that hadn’t happened yet, or were only just beginning, to lead humanity where it is now: facing yet more change. Prepping shows us the stories we’re telling ourselves.
While they have their roots in this same human behavioral pattern, prepping and survivalism must be more than just telling ourselves stories and assuming character roles. You don’t just molt into an expert survivalist by changing into khaki BDUs and eating a few freeze-dried meals with a titanium spork. Ask any experienced combat veteran, law enforcement officer, or even a patchouli-wearing hippie with survivalist skills, and they’ll tell you that survival depends on much more than the right costume, the right equipment, and the right order of gestures. It requires acceptance, and that leads to habituation. The idea of preparedness, among maybe a handful of other things, implies accepting the possibility of being wrong at some point past, present, or future. However, our ideologies don’t adapt to that idea very well at all. Imagine any war currently happening on the planet, including the so-called War on Drugs. It’s guaranteed that whichever war you imagined is the direct result of failed ideologies whose patrons refused to adapt in advance, and I fear this is true of many of us, preppers, as well. We may be prepping for a preconceived end because it’s preferable to changing course. The thing history shows us about ends is that they always come anyway, and in the end, it’s always the widespread unwillingness to change the story that brings them about.
Emergency preparedness as a theme in American culture is now so broad in its scope that many factions and subcultures have arisen within it. Each one with their own customized story. While it’s promising to see the message of preparedness becoming so widespread and widely accepted, it is important to pay attention to a few potential pitfalls that inevitably come with popularity. Among the most important pitfalls to avoid in this case is fethishism. Prepping for whatever may come isn’t supposed to be purgatory. While it may prefigure imminent changes to our way of life in the everyday sense, it shouldn’t be thought of as a lifestyle or an identity theme, at least not in the superficial fashion sense. It’s supposed to be a means and manner for life going on after the ends. Underground bunkers aren’t built to be places where we bury the remains of unborn futures. They aren’t meant to be mausoleums where we worship and make our offerings to the apocalypse.
While the idea of adopting daily habits that mirror, or at least resemble, the daily habits we imagine adopting in the aftermath of TEOTWAWKI, prepping really shouldn’t become a dominant source of meaning in our lives, at least not nearly as much as it should be a method of preserving pre-existing forms of meaning. If it’s not that, it should at least be thought of as a means for preserving our manner of constructing meaning afresh. If you think about it, prepping can be rightly thought of as a version of sustainable living. Or at least an expression of the desire to sustain life, or maybe an experiment along the path toward that discipline. Also, if we can get our heads in the right space, prepping could be rightly considered a two-pronged approach to dealing with our double-edged sword. On the one hand there is prepping for the reason and rationale we all understand– to survive an emergency event and hopefully thrive in the aftermath. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that the widespread adaptation of habits and routines that alter our consumption patterns may serve to turn this big sinking ship we’re all aboard toward safer harbors. Shouldn’t that be the real focus of prepping? From that frame of mind, prepping can be turned toward a win–win scenario instead of lose–win.
Many of us talk about having the stuff of emergency preparedness or at least getting it and using it for practice or some form of recreation, all in the context of staged mock emergency events. It isn’t that these practice events are purely superficial. It’s true, most emergencies come and go in the form of events— ice storms, snowstorms, microbursts, minor earthquakes, wildfires, brief instances of civil unrest, and so forth. They punctuate the years of our lives as forms of counter-balance to holidays, as crests and troughs in a temporal wavelength. In a similar fashion they give us grounding points to remember eras and their eventual passing catalogued right alongside styles of trousers, television shows, and political regimes. All of it fades together in memory, blurred behind present anticipation of whatever comes next, and everything continues along the obtuse trajectory of the status quo. It’s that the so called big one– the one we store six months to one year’s supply of food for– though it may begin with an event, will be of the sort where we will, no doubt, remember the dominant style of trousers by a single word “soiled”.
TEOTWAWKI, in whatever form it takes, will be far more than just an event. Those of us who are considered informed and involved in prepping understand it will be a paradigm shift. If we understand that, then now is the time to adapt, because implementing day-to-day use of prepping supplies will keep the restocking of materials within the day-to-day revenue stream and acclimate preppers to their repeated use while making regular life less expensive and more sustainable in the meantime, and we should be rotating food storage through our regular dietary regimen. We should be integrating it into our monthly expenses, and we should be participating in forms of recreation that provide opportunities to role play in a paradigm that resembles whatever we imagine the future to be. We should also remember in the course of these practices to keep themes of death, destruction, and war counterbalanced against the most important themes of life, living, and rebuilding.
The Internet is full of advice about how to work the stockpiling of emergency food stores into a budget. I would add that for several reasons budget isn’t the only aspect of life that prepping needs to be worked into. If we’re convinced that prepping is necessary– we are, and it is— then we might want to reconsider the notion that it’s something extra. Prepping forums all over the Internet approach food storage from just about every angle. The centerpiece of that conversation is the advice to store the kinds of food you typically eat. While I wouldn’t argue against that approach outright, I think that a balance could be struck between storing food to accommodate tastes and adapting tastes toward sustainable, storable, and accessible foods. Ultimately, the idea of prepping centers around sustainability, which I admit seems kind of strange, and if your lifestyle isn’t sustainable right now, then how much adapting will be forced upon you in an emergency or SHTF situation?
“Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less but are more. Where we lose our machines, but gain our feet and pounding hearts. Then what is to be done?” asks Charles Bowden, author of Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America
Don’t get too caught in the paradox of this statement, but implementing the regular and habitual use of food storage supplies is a deeper form of prepping itself. Emergency event and TEOTWAWKI prepping involve far more than just food and water. They involve a wide range of behavioral changes, many of which might be uncomfortable to adapt to at first. Who really knows how the scenario will really play out? Even though many preppers have pushed their chips all in on a specific scenario and designed their prepping efforts around that one scenario, it’s really anybody’s guess what the critical tipping point might be. Anything is possible, including nothing. What’s certain is that radical paradigm shifts introduce all kinds of stressors, and surviving depends largely on how well we cope with stress and adapt ourselves to the demands of a new environment. That’s why the military trains its personnel in the practice of “war gaming”. Backpacking is a great practice for adapting to the rigors of a less comfortable lifestyle. Lightweight and minimalist are the most crucial values of efficient backpacking, but right alongside those two are strong bodies accompanied by adaptable personalities. That’s because even with the lightest, most minimalist equipment and food, backpacking is a lot of hard work. Slinging bedding, clothing, food, and shelter onto your back and moving across wild, and uneven terrain in total exposure to climatic conditions can be very taxing on a body. Under those conditions, people’s true character comes right to the surface. Some people find the experience unpleasant; some find it cathartic, but pretty much everyone finds it enlightening on some level. Family backpacking trips are great exercises in solidarity and collaboration that give people the experience of cooking and eating dehydrated food, while under physical stress. The real leaders emerge while the ones who require extra help begin to lag behind. However, best of all, backpacking is terrific recreation. Backpackers get an intimate interaction with wild country and their traveling companions. They are the only people who get such an up-close view of the deep wilderness. Like soldiers in boot camp, backpackers learn their strengths and weaknesses. They learn what talents they have that lend themselves to survival skills, and they develop awareness of areas where they need to improve. This kind of knowledge gives individuals a more accurate idea of how to model emergency preparedness plans around the skills and talents of a family unit.
Five days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Bowden was in an Italian bistro in Houston. All 200 seats in the room were filled with evacuees from New Orleans who Bowden described as dazed and disheveled but bearing a new kind of fellowship that suddenly crossed race and class lines. They had all lost their homes and entire livelihoods. He noticed how the entire cook and wait staff was made up of dark-skinned Hispanics from the Mexican south. In a fairly stark reversal of circumstances, the people whose lives, homes, and livelihoods had been destroyed in the past were now the ones employed, probably in control of their own lives and fortunes for the first time and rendering aid to the more recently displaced. Evacuees were feeding other evacuees. A few weeks later the migrants started showing up in New Orleans looking for work in the rebuilding efforts. Since then the reconstruction and resettlement of New Orleans has been done largely by migrant workers. Half the conversations you hear on the streets there now are in Spanish. It is believed that the tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants now living, working, and building lives in New Orleans is just a trickle compared to the floodgate that would open if serious reconstruction efforts were undertaken. Say what you want about illegal immigration. Under circumstances like New Orleans’, it’s pointless, since the government wasn’t acknowledging the needs of its own naturalized citizens nor was it assuming responsibility for it’s failure in dealing with the disaster. It was doing the bare minimum in the reconstruction. New Orleans shows us that the marketplace of human capital, outside the ideologies, doesn’t care about distinctions like illegal immigrant vs. legal citizen. In the wake of disaster, the ones who flourish are the ones who are prepared, physically capable of survival, and not devastated by the story that didn’t play out. Instead, they are adaptable to the one that did.