We’re All Preppers Now

We’re all preppers now. Whether we want to be or not. It’s hard to think about, but we’re just in the opening credits to the apocalypse movie. As I write this, we’re in the calm before the storm. This is your moment to get ready. We can get through this. Remember: most people survive the collapse of their way of life, most of the time. The end of the world isn’t always, or even usually, the uh… end of the world.

Prepping has a bad name for a good reason. For as long as I’ve been alive, the public face of prepping has been strange old men with bunkers full of canned food who have more guns than they have friends. It’s not a good look. Don’t get me wrong, some of the best people in this world are strange old men with garages full of dried rice. If you’ve got someone like that in your neighborhood, now’s a good time to make friends with them. But that lifestyle is not a good representation of what being prepared looks like for most of us.

First and foremost, the bunker mentality will get us all killed. Even if a lot of us (myself included) are introverts and curmudgeons at heart, the human animal is still a social animal. We’ve evolved to take care of one another and be taken care of. We weather crisis better when we do it together.

When crisis hits, we work together. This happens naturally. Think about waiting for a bus at a bus stop with some strangers. There’s no reason to talk to each other. As soon as the bus is ten minutes late, though, the barriers of social isolation break down and everyone is friends. You’re all in it together, suffering the disaster of a missed bus. The social norms go out the window, and most of the time, what comes rushing in is a sense of togetherness.

Popular media about disaster shows us that crises drive us apart, that without the rule of law we all immediately turn on one another, trying desperately to get to the top. Yet actual studies of disaster show exactly the opposite. During Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, a large number of the looters were able-bodied, risk-tolerant young people gathering resources for those who were trapped at home by the floodwaters. It’s precisely the reassertion of authority (usually from the government, but sometimes from new, alternative power structures) that tends to disrupt the process of mutual aid.

The main exception to this is, of course, rich people. People who are used to being in control are the ones who freak out the moment anything goes wrong. There’s even a word for this: elite panic. Insisting on the norms of the now-failing status quo is exactly the wrong move.

So is choosing to self-isolate. If you go hole up with your ten friends in the woods when the power grid fails, that’s fine and good until your appendix bursts and none of you are surgeons. Or maybe you have a surgeon, and you survive that particular crisis. But while you were off hiding in the woods, someone stepped in to the vacuum of power, and you weren’t there to stop them or to organize something better, and society is reforming without your input.

Prepping has a bad name, for good reason. Prepping has such a bad name that I don’t always call what I do prepping.  Most of what is labeled prepping is this individualist mentality—what I call the bunker mentality. Instead, we’re going to talk about preparedness from a point of view that remembers we’re social creatures and that we’re part of a society, from a point of view that recognizes how disaster tends to bring people together more than it pushes people apart. We’re going to talk about community preparedness, even if we’re going to talk about what you as an individual, a family, or a small community can do to be prepared to participate in a broader community preparedness.

I used to feel the relationship between individual and community preparedness as a tension: I was one of the only people I knew who focused on prepping before Covid, and I wondered what the point of it was. I don’t believe in individualist survival, so what good is it if I, and only I, have a gas mask or a few months of dried food lying around? Then, come Covid, I learned what the point is. The point of being prepared, as an individual, is that you’re better situated to help your community. The more of my own shit I have sorted out, the less I need to rely on others and the more I’m able to help people. It’s one of those “please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others” things.

Besides, having enough to share, even just a little bit to share, is incredibly rewarding. My mother caretakes my grandmother. When Covid hit, and the supply chain on N95 masks dried up, I was able to say to her “I have a few extras and I’ll get you one.” In that moment, I understood the advantage of individual preparation.

Some basic rules of preparation

  • The goal of being prepared is that, by having your own shit together, you’re more able to help others.
  • Gear is less important than skills. Skills are less important than relationships. All three matter and all three interrelate.
  • An abundance mindset will beat a scarcity mindset in the longterm more often than not. The best thing you can do for yourself, for your own self-interest, is build resilient communities.
  • Encourage people’s natural desire to work together during crisis. Err on the side of inclusion, not exclusion.
  • Having more of something that is good enough is better than having the single best, most expensive thing. The best way to upgrade your med kit is to get your friend a med kit so that there’s someone else around with a med kit.
  • Stockpile perishables that you use, and use what you stockpile.
  • Learn to favor practical clothes and tools.

Gear, skills, and relationships

I love triangles. Strong shape, the triangle. Need an emergency shelter? Build a triangle. More importantly, it’s easier to avoid getting caught up in binary thinking when you think about ideas as sides of triangles instead of as opposite ends of various dichotomies.

So here’s a triangle—preparation is built on three sides: gear; skills; relationships.

Gear are physical resources: everything from backpacks and boots to water purifiers and dried rice, solar panels to power tools, quilts to cars. Gear is important. It’s not as important as people make it out to be, but it’s important. A lighter in your pocket and a knife on your belt can be the difference between life and death in any number of situations. In our consumerist society, preppers tend to fetishize gear: the lightest camping spoon, the most expensive rifle scope, the sharpest chainsaw, the strongest rope, the most tactical shoelaces. These things matter, sort of, but also they don’t. When you get gear, think about what is affordable, sturdy, and effective.

It’s okay, and useful, to gather physical resources while you can. The trick is to anticipate the next disaster rather than always just responding to the current one. Ideally, you want the respirator before the pandemic worsens and you want an electronic air filter before the wildfire smoke reaches your city. You want the backup generator or the solar setup before the grid fails. You want dried food stores before the stores run dry. 

Skills matter more, of course. A tourniquet won’t save your life if no one around you knows how to use it. Yet preppers tend to dangerously fetishize skills as well. Most people will not become “preppers” full time. Most people will pursue new skills (and they should!) but won’t learn how to use everything. None of us will learn how to do everything. The thing people forget is that sometimes it’s okay to own gear you don’t know how to use. This isn’t universal, of course: don’t buy a gun to just keep it around, because owning a gun you don’t know how to use is more dangerous than not owning a gun. But maybe buy a tourniquet, or better yet an IFAK (individual first aid kit… the kits used to deal with massive trauma like gunshot wounds). Your IFAK is so that you can use it, sure, but it’s also so that the medic who responds when you’re shot can use it. Some stuff, it’s okay to get and learn how to use later. Get buckets full of dried beans while you can. Learn how to cook them later. Still, skills matter an awful lot.

Some skills relate to using or fixing gear, but other skills have little to nothing to do with gear. Conflict deescalation and group facilitation are as important as first aid and radio communication. Learn many skills to a basic level of competency, then dive deeper into certain skills as interest you, are underdeveloped in your community, or feel particularly relevant to the sorts of crises you think you might encounter. For example: if you can’t drive a car, maybe learn how to drive a car. If you can already drive a car, consider learning to drive stick, or a motorcycle, or commercial vehicles. If you want to step it up even further, learn evasive driving. Wouldn’t be cool if you knew how to fly a helicopter you find abandoned after the zombie apocalypse? Skills are useful at all kinds of different levels.

Relationships might matter the most. No one person can know everything, and even the most rugged individualist would fare better in most circumstances when working or coordinating with other people and larger structures. What people sometimes overlook is that building relationships is also something that involves work: learning how to communicate clearly and deal fairly with people, building trust and camaraderie, and learning to compromise and build consensus all take time and attention. Despite what capitalist society has led us to believe, healthy and genuine relationships are not transactional: preparedness relationships are not based on simple exchange like “I made him dinner, so he’ll fix my radios.” It’s closer to “I made him dinner while he was busy doing childcare for several people in the community, and some of those people help me fix my car when it breaks down.” Even at this larger scale, it’s still not transactional: maybe you’re just making dinner for him because he’s hungry and you hope he eats. There’s no need to keep track of who is contributing what, and cold calculations like that do not make for strong communities. Cold calculations make for competitive, instead of cooperative, interpersonal relations.

The goal should never be to specifically seek people out for their skillsets, but rather for who they are as people. You are not building a Dungeons & Dragons party: your goal isn’t to make friends with one surgeon, one veteran, one mechanic, and one farmer. Your goal is to develop healthy relationships with the people around you whether that’s your family, your neighbors, or those who share your values. Your goal is to foster their own preparedness, and together figure out what skills and capacities you have and are lacking.

Decolonialists and herbalists remind us that relationships are not just with people, but with the land, with plants, and with animals. Learning to listen to the environment is vital to survival and to avoid replicating the problems with mainstream society that have led us to this crisis in the first place—dominating the land (or your neighbors!) is not nearly so good as learning to be in relationship with it.

Not all of us are equally equipped to develop each of the three sides of this preparedness triangle. If you work all the time, leaving scant time for developing skills or even relationships, you can acquire gear—and use the few relationships you have to disseminate the gear more widely. If you are particularly non-social, you might be able to work on skills that allow you to be more independent. If you’re experienced at bringing people together, then maybe you can focus on relationships—and in particular, in tying people into community who might not normally have access to community.

When “the shit hits the fan” (it’s such a cliche that I have a hard time saying it outside of scare quotes: the shit is always hitting the fan for huge chunks of society. Poverty and marginalization are their own forms of apocalypse. And even the breakdown of larger society is rarely a fast event with clearly demarcated moments of “the shit hitting the fan.”) social and property relations become a lot more malleable. People who’ve never had community are likely to find themselves with community. And people without much access to financial resources can suddenly find themselves substantially more capable of getting the things they need—whether through looting, scavenging, or voluntary redistribution of resources. Skillshares become more common as well. So while preparedness is good, it’s important to remember it isn’t everything. The unprepared have a chance of surviving as well. Preparedness isn’t a magic bullet. Those who cannot prioritize it should not despair.

Scale

Here’s another thing that is neither a hierarchy nor a dichotomy: scale of preparedness. Don’t think about “individual” or “short-term” preparedness as less important than larger scale and longer term preparedness. Conversely, don’t think only about yourself, or your immediate community.For me, because I like threes (an easy way to avoid dichotomies), I think about preparedness at three scales:

  1. emergency: individual, short term;
  2. off-grid: community, medium-term; and
  3. grid reclamation: federation of multiple communities, long-term.

These three scales ought to each be considered for any given need. Take water for example. One ought to be prepared to store or filter water in case clean water becomes harder to come by. At the emergency level, you might have water storage tanks (or even your hot water heater and bathtub) or you might have various means of water purification. This could get you and your immediate circle through a short-term crisis. At the off-grid level, if municipal water stays unavailable, you might want to set up various gravity filter systems or stills to process rainwater or creek water. If you’re on the coast, you might look into homestead-scale desalination. These systems could last you months or years if setup and maintained properly. Yet it’s also worth thinking about how to restore water infrastructure more broadly, and move it from places where it is plentiful to places it is scarce. It’s worth reclaiming or rebuilding the grid.

This framework applies even better to food: for an emergency, maybe you’ve got stored food and a sense of what you can hunt or forage. For an off-grid life, you can garden. Yet there are vast fields of wheat and corn in the midwest of the United States, and there are trains, and tracks, and there are people alive who know how to get those hard-to-garden carbohydrates into those trains and there are people who can drive those trains and there are people who can repair railroad tracks, and there are people on the coasts in higher population density who need that food. The mutual aid and anarchist slogan “we keep us safe” applies. We who desire to be prepared need to stop thinking small—or rather, we need to stop only thinking small.

All the time people ask me how we can continue to make this or that object (eyeglasses, let’s say, or antibiotics). The answer is deceptively simple: we’ll just continue to make those things. Our economic system is not what grows and distributes food, nor conducts research, nor builds houses. People do. If anything, economic systems based on growth (like capitalism, or state communism as we’ve seen it) get in the way of people doing these things. By and large, the world has enough stuff in it to last quite some time, especially if our effort goes into maintaining and repairing the existing objects instead of mass-manufacturing more of them.

All of this is to say: revolution, and the radical restructuring of society, is absolutely a survival skill.

Dependence, independence, interdependence

By now, you’ve probably picked up on how much I hate dichotomies. This one, though, I’m not replacing with a triangle. This one, both sides are absolute bullshit. Dependence on people on one side, and independence on the other side. Individualism on one side, community on the other side. No, no, no, no. This is all wrong. When we build this kind of dichotomy, we are fracturing the world. Some of us will be naturally more drawn to one side or the other of this dichotomy if you draw it, and for ethically defensible reasons. Some people, for good reason, look at the horrors and purges of Lenin and Stalin and say “never communism” (to reject communism because of state communism is to misunderstand communism, I would argue, but that’s besides the point). Others look at the horrors of capitalism and say “capitalism is a nightmare” and therefore embrace the authoritarian communism they perceive to be capitalism’s opposite. These people correctly understand capitalism, but they too misunderstand communism, or at least they misunderstand what it means to be an individual in a community.

Rather than being something that limits my liberty, participating in society is a precondition of my liberty. Freedom is not best understood as “me alone in the woods with no interference from anyone else.” If I was alone in the woods forever, I would die. Freedom is not a static thing, it is not “the lack of interference in our lives by others.” Freedom is instead a relationship between people. Freedom is something we give one another. If I want to be free to pursue my life as I best see fit (which I do), I am most capable of doing that when I’m part of a society that fosters not dependence of the individual upon “society” as an abstraction (as is the problem with some strains of authoritarian communism), nor one that fosters independence from society that puts me in competition with others in that society (as is the problem with capitalism), but one that fosters interdependence.In a healthy society, we rely on each other while also working to preserve each other’s autonomy. We create a culture of solidarity, in which we freely help one another, rather than a culture of competition or subservience.

Generalize and specialize

To be useful to yourself and others, to foster interdependence, I recommend seeking to both generalize and specialize (another bullshit false dichotomy!). Study a lot of fields, and gather the basics of a lot of trades. Gathering a general education of practical skills is worth your time. From there, let yourself deep dive into what interests you more specifically.

By knowing the basics of cooking, you reduce your reliance on others. Reducing your reliance on others isn’t meant as a way to distance yourself from society, but instead to allow you to minimize your impact on others. Reducing your reliance on others, when you can, is itself a way of giving to the community. So if you can, learn the basics of cooking, of first aid, of survival, of conflict resolution, of self-defense, of transportation, of gardening, of mental health.

We’ll always rely on specialists as well. Feeding large crowds, or cooking extravagant and luxurious meals, is a specialized skill and it’s good some that some people develop those skills. Knowing how to stop bleeding is a generalist’s skill, while sewing people back together after the bleeding has stopped is a specialist’s skill. Surviving an overnight hike is a good generalist’s skill, while leading an expedition across a closed land border in winter might take a specialist.

Centralization versus decentralization

While I’m talking shit on dichotomies, let me talk shit on centralization versus decentralization. Let’s break that one apart into another triangle: the self, the community, the society. This is not a hierarchy, of course. The needs of one side of this triangle do not outweigh the needs of another side.

Rather than demand centralization, for the sake of efficiency, or decentralization, for the sake of some misguided understanding of “freedom,” we ought to see how these three sides can find balance with one another—a balance that will be different for each person or each community and might shift from day to day, from year to year.Each of us has some things that we are capable of providing for ourselves and some things that we rely on our community, or society at large, to provide. The things we can provide for ourselves as individuals, we should. The things we can provide for our own community, we should. Some things we need to provide to people from society at large, and that’s fine. One small community might lack access to the ability to grow grain. Rather than demand decentralization, and that they either meet all their own needs internally (rugged individualism expanded to the small community level) or enter into some competitive system of capitalist exchange, they might have their needs met by society at large, through a system of mutual aid.

I’m no economist, and I could not tell you with any kind of certainty the exact model by which one person or community ought to relate economically to others. It’s probable that there’s no single right answer that ought to be applied on a worldwide level. You also don’t need to agree with me about the exact blueprint that some future society might hold. These are merely the ways that I like thinking about these things. I offer them to you so that you might decide for yourself which parts are useful and which parents aren’t.

Fuck the rugged frontiersman

I hope, by now, I’ve convinced you to rid yourself of the bunker mentality, the “I’ve got mine, fuck you” approach to disaster preparedness. At the very least, I’m certain I’ve convinced you that I have no love for such an idea personally. Let me present to you another level of the same critique: fuck the rugged frontiersman. Fuck the extractive mentality. Settler culture in the US, which I’m absolutely a product of, has always maintained the myth, the archetype, of the rugged frontiersman. Armed with nothing but a hatchet, and a musket, and a bowie knife, and a broken treaty with the inhabitants of the area, and the might of a colonial army at his back, and maybe some people he’s enslaved, he sets off into the wilderness to conquer the aforementioned wilderness. All by… himself…  sort of… not really.

The words “conquer” and “tame” appear quite often in tales of the rugged frontiersman. It’s a strange and terrible idea, to be so in love with wildness yet dedicating your life to “taming” that very wildness. Destroying what you claim to love.

Right up there with the bunker mentality, of unchecked individualism, is the rugged frontiersman mentality, of an unchecked extractive mentality.

The extractive mentality is the mentality, imposed upon us to varying degrees by western colonialist and capitalist thinking, that the world and its inhabitants are ours to be done with as we see fit. It’s this mindset that stripmines, it’s this mindset that factory farms. It’s this mindset that clearcuts. It’s this mindset that enslaves people, through chattel slavery or prison labor. It’s this mindset that colonizes lands and peoples. And importantly to our understanding about survival and preparation, it’s also this mindset that over-harvests wild medicinal plants and over-hunts game animals.

The inversion of this, of course, is a reluctance to ever make use of anything from nature. But the raw inversion of a bad idea is not in itself a better idea. Personally, I’m vegan and have been more than half my life. My veganism is a response to, and yes perhaps a dangerously raw inversion of, the extractive mindset as forced upon animals. I see a system of captivity and exploitation and I want to have nothing to do with it. So within the society we currently live in, that sees animals as nothing more than meat and fur waiting for death, I choose personally not to partake. This is a decision each of us must make on their own, and one that all of us will reach different conclusions about. Me being vegan does not solve the problem. Even the entire world going vegan doesn’t solve the problem, because the problem that I’m responding to isn’t “people kill and eat animals” but “some people treat animals like they treat everything else in this world: as resources to extract for value.”

The solution to extractive thinking is not abstinence. It’s okay to cut down trees when we need shelter. It’s okay to eat plants or animals when we’re hungry. The solution to extractive thinking is to avoid being wasteful, especially in the name of economic efficiency. The solution is to build relationships with the land in a similar, but not identical, way to how we build relationships with people. The solution is to see that we are in community with more than just other people, but with everything living and nonliving around us. Being in community means giving and it means taking. It means relating.If that sounds real weird to you, you’re not alone. It’s a hard transition to make, and it begs questions that no one, least of all myself, can offer you easy answers to.

Yet I offer to you that alongside the image of the man in the bunker, you must abandon the image of the man with a musket and a wilderness to tame. These are two sides of the same bad coin. On one side, the prepper who dreams of isolation, of making himself safe and free at the expense of his own connections to community. On the other side, there’s the prepper who dreams of a post-apocalyptic landscape because he sees it as a return to wildness—a wildness that he and his AR-15 and his night-vision goggles can tame.

The return to wildness itself, there’s something to that. But it’s not so that we can tame it, that we can colonize the burned-out 7-11s. So that we can relate to it. That we can see what it needs, and what we need, and how we can work together.

Threat modeling

You aren’t going to be able to prepare for everything bad that could possibly happen. Trying to would destroy your mental health. Yet preparing is still worthwhile. So how do you decide what to prepare for?

The fancy word for this process is “threat modeling.” It just means thinking about the threats you face, and about what forms they might take, so that you can more rationally decide how to prepare yourself. If you live in Wyoming you shouldn’t worry about hurricanes much. If you live in North Carolina you might be more concerned with thunderstorms than earthquakes.

Sometimes good threat modeling means balancing your preparation based on your current active threat. For example: when you decide whether or not you want a gun, you need to think long and hard about what threats a gun helps keep you safe from and which threats it makes worse. If you struggle with depression, then the risk of self-harm might be higher than the risk of home intruders who want to kill you. (Even if you don’t struggle with depression normally, if anything happens to change that balance, you should be aware of it—even if you’re being threatened by fascists, if you go through a gnarly breakup, you might want to take the bolt out of your gun and give it to a friend for safe keeping). Are you more likely to be raided by the police for protest activity (in which case, having a gun might lower your chances of survival) or attacked by fascists (in which case, having a gun might increase your chances of survival)? Is it more likely that you will have to scare off wild hogs or that neighborhood kids might break into your remote cabin and accidentally hurt themselves with your gun?I’m using gun ownership as an example because it’s one of the more complicated questions for threat modeling, and one that requires active and ongoing thought. But the same might apply elsewhere. Do you push yourself to practice survival in dangerous situations, so that you can use those skills later? It likely depends on what sorts of threats you see yourself encountering.

Once you’ve thought about the threats you’re likely to face, and how you’d likely handle those threats, you can prioritize how you’d like to prepare. If you live in a remote area, you might be more concerned about shoring up your home preparation. In crowded areas, you might be looking how to stay on the move. If you’re worried about fascist takeover, you might prioritize community defense skills, or evasion, in ways that you wouldn’t if you are primarily concerned about natural disaster.

Of course, there is plenty that you can do to get prepared that applies to a wide number of scenarios. A half-mask respirator with particulate and organic vapor filters is effective against a lot of threats people have faced this year, such as wildfire smoke, airborne viruses, and riot control chemical weapons. A full-face gas mask with a CBRN filter is effective against all of those things too, plus biological and radiological crises. But in lieu of nuclear war, it might be overkill. So you might want to start with the half-mask respirator.

Peace of mind

Done right, prepping can alleviate anxiety. Done poorly, it makes anxiety worse. The point of keeping a to go bag in the corner, packed and ready, is so that you don’t have to worry about what you would do in the case of a forest fire anymore. You know what you would do. You’re at least somewhat prepared. Done poorly, prepping leaves you constantly worrying about this or that disaster. It leaves you probing your strategies for any possible weaknesses, staying ever-vigilant. Hypervigilant. This isn’t healthy.

Prep so that you’re ready enough and then learn to forget about it.There’s a lot of criticism one can lay on gear, or skill, fetishism. But one advantage of talking about prepping, about thinking about gear and skills and talking about them with friends, is that you can move from worrying about disaster to geeking out about preparation. You really, really don’t need the super cool newest survival watch with built-in altimeter and a blood oxygen sensor. But geeking out about it is a natural method our brains use to turn something stressful to ponder into something enjoyable to ponder.

So if you can set-it-and-forget-it with your preparation, do that. But if your brain wants to linger on it, geek out about it. Pondering the insulation factors of various sleeping bags turns the horrors of imagining hypothermia into something abstract and interesting. It’s dangerous to turn everything into an abstraction, of course: watching people geek out and get excited about what bullets kill people the fastest and most effectively is disconcerting. Yet, when approached in a balanced way, that might be healthier than letting ourselves worry and stress instead.