For a small but fervid subset of Americans, weekends are devoted to preparing for the end of weekends. Whether it’s canning vegetables, stocking the bunker, or drilling the kids in target practice, survivalists maintain a constant state of readiness for whatever doomsday scenario—zombie attack, electromagnetic pulse, coordinated FEMA takeover—they believe will bring about the end of the world as we know it. It’s a pastime that rewards obsessives: Every detail, no matter how small, could wind up being a matter of life and death. “You can readjust the cans on your shelf, count the cans on your shelf,” says Richard Mitchell, a sociologist who has been studying survivalist subcultures since the 1980s. “Counting is very popular. Everybody loves to count.”
From the start, survivalism has been infused, either implicitly or explicitly, with a criticism of modern society. The movement’s first wave was sparked in the early 1970s by the Arab oil embargo and the growing fear of nuclear war. Since then, survivalism has been fueled by everything from avian flu and the Y2K computer bug to September 11 and climate change. The shared belief is that civilization faces imminent collapse; the shared goal is to survive the chaos and be in the best position to recover. It’s a story of doom, but also of hope: Survivalists, in the end, are the heroes who emerge to rebuild our shattered world. “Survivalism confronts modernity and finds trouble,” Mitchell writes in his study Dancing at Armageddon, “but trouble with possibilities.”
Now, however, survivalism itself is being exploited by the very forces it seeks to escape. In recent years, a growing number of companies have rushed to capitalize on the deep-seated fears that drive survivalists, hoping to cash in on the end of the world. Anxiety, after all, is one of the most fundamental drivers of commerce—and who’s more anxious than someone who is convinced that doomsday is near?
Survivalism’s push into the mainstream picked up steam in 2012, when the National Geographic Channel premiered Doomsday Preppers, a reality show centered on Americans preparing for what’s known as a shtf (shit-hits-the-fan) scenario. Preppers quickly became the most-watched show in the channel’s history, and spawned popular spin-offs like Doomsday Bunkers (think home-renovation show, but with armored blast doors instead of open-plan kitchens). The shows were part of a wave of entertainment that took a decidedly apocalyptic turn, from movies like The Road and World War Z to television shows like The Walking Dead and The Last Man on Earth, which depicts the lighter side of what survivalists call TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World As We Know It).
“Preppers,” as National Geographic dubbed them, are more of a market than a movement. If being a survivalist is about acquiring skills, whether it’s starting a fire without matches or defending yourself against marauding enemies, then being a prepper is about accumulating stuff. Ambient, insatiable anxiety makes preppers ideal consumers; they’re always scrambling to achieve a better state of preparedness.
Mass marketers have taken notice. Prepper-centric shows don’t just feature survival gear—they directly profit from it. Doomsday Preppers, for example, is sponsored by Wise Food Storage, a purveyor of freeze-dried meats and other “emergency foods.” On the show’s web site, there’s a quiz that purports to tell you how long you can expect to survive in a SHTF world based on how many MREs you’ve stockpiled and whether or not you have body armor. Even the advanced-level preppers featured on the show are never ready enough: At the end of each segment, they’re graded on their preparedness level, and few score more than 80 out of 100.
While many prepper products offer buyers the feeling of being prepared, their actual utility in a post-disaster world is questionable. The prepper’s essential accessory is the “bug-out bag”—a backpack you keep stocked with everything you’d need to survive for 72 hours. A cheap one that retails for $25 might come with an emergency blanket, ear plugs, and a fishing line. High-end ones, which can set you back as much as $700, include a Bear Grylls–brand fire starter, a crank radio, and a pocket chainsaw. If you want to stock your own bug-out bag, you can opt for gas masks from China that cost less than $20, or pay at least 20 times that much for one that ostensibly protects against nuclear agents. There are heated debates within the prepper community about what actually counts as a necessity. A lengthy article on GunsAmerica.com recommends stocking a bug-out bag with a computer tablet and micro-SD cards loaded with books and movies, because “survival is boring.”
The intrusion of corporate interests into the survivalist scene hasn’t pleased those who take their doomsday scenarios seriously. Rob Richardson, a self-styled survival expert based outside of Las Vegas, founded the web site Offgrid Survival in 2007. Over the next six years, he built Offgrid into one of the most popular survivalist sites, offering practical, real-world tips like “How to Protect Yourself from Violent Mobs of Criminals.”
Then, in 2013, a Los Angeles–based media conglomerate called The Enthusiast Network—the publisher of Motor Trend and Surfer—launched a glossy quarterly called Offgrid Magazine. On Richardson’s Offgrid site, TEOTWAWKI involves FEMA and Obama and Muslim terrorists. In Offgrid Magazine, all political content has been neatly excised. Its imagined Armageddons involve bipartisan disasters like alien attacks and plane crashes—the better to sell expensive water filters to consumers of all political persuasions.
Richardson took his corporate rival to court, claiming copyright infringement. As he sees it, the brand he built over the years with calls to prepare for martial law is being capitalized on—and watered down—by a bunch of urban wannabes who don’t even give good survival advice. “If you look at the magazine,” he fumes, “you can tell it’s written by people who have no clue about preparedness for survival.”
Richardson isn’t the only survivalist using the legal system to wage war against corporate intruders. Cody Lundin, a survival instructor, is suing the Discovery Channel for defamation after he was kicked off the show Dual Survival as a co-host. As Lundin explained to TV Guide, “You’re dealing with people who have no experience in my profession who are making a show on survival skills.”
But stoking people’s fears is what capitalists do best—even if they wind up scaring themselves in the process. The CEO of Overstock.com told BuzzFeed last year that he has a 30-day food supply and $10 million in precious metals hidden away near the company’s Utah headquarters, just in case the U.S. economic system suffers a total meltdown.
Whatever the prepper industry is selling—mini-crossbows, sailboats to withstand an electromagnetic pulse, a simplified fantasy of control in an increasingly complex world—people are buying. At a recent prepper trade show in Irving, Texas, hosted by the National Self-Reliance Organization, staff coordinators had to turn away would-be vendors due to overwhelming demand for space. “People are loving this stuff,” says Taylor McClendon, the group’s event management coordinator. “We emptied all the ATMs in the building.”