As the previous columns in this series have illustrated, many Americans harbor unjustified fears about violence, and we spend a lot of money warding off grossly exaggerated or wholly imaginary threats to our lives and livelihoods. It is therefore curious that we’re so indifferent to the simplest way of facilitating a long, happy life: saving our money.
Americans are terrible at saving for retirement. A third of us haven’t saved anything at all, and those of us who do have retirement savings usually have nowhere near enough. Without Social Security and Medicare, most of us would spend our post-work years eating cat food and treating our angina with baby aspirin.
One sector of our populace, however, has enthusiastically embraced a certain version of retirement planning. The “prepper” movement is a growing cadre of Americans who believe that the collapse of civilization is imminent, and the only rational course of action is to dig a hole in the ground, fill it with dehydrated scrambled eggs, and defend it with automatic weapons. America being the capitalist wonderland that it is, myriad enterprising companies have sprung up to peddle the guns, the eggs, and the shovels for digging the holes.
Prepperdom is fertile territory for Fear, Inc. — a significant block of people living in daily expectation of terrorist attacks, earthquakes, electrical grid failure, hyperinflation, global pandemics, rising sea levels, overpopulation, martial law, nuclear war, the Yellowstone supervolcano, solar flares, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Some preppers blend a generous helping of apocalyptic religion into their theories, but many others do not. Whether their disaster of choice is natural, supernatural, or man-made, preppers all tend to assume that once “the shit hits the fan” (or “TSHTF,” as they have jargonized it), humans will turn on one another, competing violently for food, shelter, and whatever else still retains value after the day of reckoning.
The marketing opportunities are self-evident: anything a person values, or that might become valuable in a catastrophe, can be sold to preppers. Even better, it turns out that when people make purchases under the assumption that supplies will one day become scarce, they’re more willing to pay the kinds of prices you’d expect to see after supplies actually become scarce. As a result, security industry analysts have observed, “many traditional-use products are marked up when offered as part of a disaster survival kit.” It’s a sort of Doomsday Bonus for this sector of Fear, Inc.: price gouging somehow increases their products’ appeal. Armageddon may soon bring to Earth the total destructive force of God’s holy wrath, but in the meantime, it’s a solid profit generator.
Gauging the overall dollar value of the prepper market is tricky, since the movement’s adherents are characterized by mistrust of most social structures, and the companies who sell to them naturally reflect the same worldview. But prepper activity certainly surged after 9/11, and again after the 2008 election of President Obama. Residential generators, to take one example, are now a $17 billion annual market, and growing. Product offerings have diversified. A Google “shopping” search for “emergency water storage” yields ten pages of products, including 4-oz. pouches of water, available in lots of 96, approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Why store water in old milk jugs, Fear, Inc. asks, when for $29.95 (plus shipping) you can possess twenty-four 12-ounce cans of water (which “will stand up on flat surfaces”), with a guaranteed 50-year shelf life?
Of course, it’s wise to be prepared for a hurricane or earthquake if such natural disasters occur in your area, and even if they don’t, FEMA recommends keeping 72 hours’ worth of food, water, and batteries on hand for unexpected situations. But preppers disdain this low-key approach. Their all-out investment in prepping — both emotional and financial — has been portrayed in gruesome detail on television where programs showcase preppers building Burmese tiger traps, homebrewing biodiesel, and blowing off their thumbs during marksmanship practice.
These people may not understand the concept of self-preservation the way you or I do, but their zeal is undeniable. It’s part of a hallowed American tradition of preparing for the worst, rooted in our self-sufficient frontier heritage, and in the religious idiosyncrasies that forced many Americans to move to the frontier in the first place. Mormon families are still urged to store food in anticipation of lean times, and in fact many of today’s internet-based food-storage companies are headquartered in Utah.
Other religious leaders profit more directly from End Time fears. Televangelist Jim Bakker, who knows a thing or two about disaster, sells an entire line of survival products. “Preparing for Tomorrow Starts Today,” Bakker’s website advises, just in case we’re unclear on the meaning of “prepare.” His Morningside Ministry offers products (called “Love Gifts,” possibly to avoid jeopardizing the ministry’s tax-exempt status) like Morningside Fire NOW (price: $100), which is essentially Sterno (“Composed of recycled wood, inert minerals and shielded with a patented blend of paraffin, Morningside Fire NOW is inherently safe”). Or there’s the FUEL-LESS™ Generator 100-Watt Foldable Solar Panel (Maximum output 100W; $450), or the $350 EMP3 Bag, made of woven copper mesh and waterproof ballistics nylon, withstands lightening, solar flares, and even a full on EMP attack (currently out of stock). There’s also a first aid kit, with “over 500 quality emergency basic supplies,” like ammonia inhalant, Calamine lotion, Cayenne Pepper, a rain poncho, a scalpel, a stethoscope, a “Skin Stapler w/ Staples” and (thank heavens) a “Staple Remover Kit.”
If whiling away the post-apocalyptic hours playing doctor makes you hungry, you can sustain yourself with the survival food Bakker sells, packaged in convenient buckets. For a hundred dollars, you can choose the Italian Variety Bucket, the Family Feast Bucket (“includes 62 servings of fixin’s for a satisfying home cooked meal including freeze-dried turkey, mashed potatoes, bread rolls, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie mousse!”), or the 30 Day Fiesta Bucket. For a mere $3,500, you can purchase the Time of Trouble Tasty Food PLUS Meal Multipliers, which nets you twenty-eight 90-Day Emergency Food Buckets, and will set you up for seven years of troubled times — almost twice the duration of Bakker’s stint in federal prison for mail and wire fraud.
The food in these buckets, despite the language of homey comfort and abundance used to describe it, is unappetizing to the point of being inedible, and like many of Fear, Inc.’s disaster-branded products, it’s overpriced (frankly, I wouldn’t pay $80 for a box of pancake mix even if it was the last one on Earth.) Yet Bakker claims his food will, after the apocalypse, be “more valuable than gold.” If he’s right, you’d better be prepared to defend your stash from the hordes of people who find themselves stuck on Earth after the Rapture with nary a Fiesta Bucket laid by.
Morningside Ministry doesn’t sell weapons (which are admittedly difficult to frame as “Love Gifts”), so anyone wanting to safeguard their $9,660 investment in pasta marinara will have to turn elsewhere. Fortunately, armed defense is integral to prepper culture, and the internet is full of helpful lists of weapons every prepper needs. Stocking your arsenal properly won’t be cheap. The gun assortment recommended by Freedom Preppers, prices out at $4,452.84 if you buy from online retailer Impact Guns, not including shipping and fees. And keep in mind that Freedom Preppers recommends buying two of each weapon (in case you need to “cannibalize one for parts”), so your total bill would be $8,905.68. Then of course you’ll need some specialized magazines and bullets; Freedom Preppers provides a helpful example of how they accessorize their AR 15s for practical dystopian use: “In a battle scenario, we would carry 30 round mags filled with 28 rounds to limit jams. The last three rounds would be tracer ammo to warn us the mag is being emptied.” They also recommend hiding a few extra .9 mm handguns around your property (perhaps in a spare Family Feast Bucket) so they’re “available when needed.”
Preppers’ fantasy-driven purchasing behavior is a godsend to many sectors of Fear, Inc., but especially to gun manufacturers, who increasingly rely on repeat sales and hoarding for their profits. You could argue that preppers who buy a bunch of guns and hide them all around their private Boy Scout camps aren’t really hurting anyone, as long as they keep to themselves. What business is it of ours if people want to waste time, money, and food preparing for something that will never happen? Plenty of young women, back in the days of hope chests, poured heart and soul into laying up linens for weddings that never transpired. It’s a bit tragic, but people get to choose their own dreams.
Except that people planning for an imaginary future will often end up terribly unprepared for the future that does come to pass. How many Morningside Ministry customers can really afford to spend $70 on a pound of freeze-dried chicken breast chunks? Wouldn’t most of them be better off saving or investing that $70? You could easily pour a lifetime’s worth of disposable income into prepper merchandise, and still end up effectively eating cat food in your old age, treating your angina with cayenne pepper.
I won’t try to argue against the charm of self-sufficiency and battle scenarios. I’ll just point out what we know from many past events: That cooperation, not competition, is what increases your odds of survival in a disaster. So the “Survival Tips” offered by the Happy Prepper (“Use up all your cash,” “Do NOT alert neighbors and friends,” “Gorge on the contents of your refrigerator”) aren’t just selfish and petty, they’re bad practical advice.
Prepping isn’t a new phenomenon. End-of-the-world cults always flourish during times of social anxiety. What’s new is the existence of an entire suite of industries working assiduously to maximize the profit potential of this anxiety. By diverting the average American’s already scarce income to fantastic survival schemes, prepping increases the real risk of poverty in old age. By feeding our fears of social collapse, this sector of Fear, Inc. is encouraging more and more Americans to be paranoid, detached, selfish, misinformed, violent, and armed.
The prepper industry may in fact be nudging us toward a society that’s more likely to collapse. It’s certainly selling us a society whose collapse we’d be unlikely to mourn.