A few weeks ago, I became convinced I ought to buy a compass. Also a tent, a LifeStraw, and solar chargers. Was I embarrassed about this 48-hour panic? Yes. But reading an op-ed at two in the morning about 40 percent unemployment predictions will do that to you—particularly after weeks of social curtailment. I had already started buying more groceries and not going to the office or social events. Most people were preparing in one way or another, some moving hundreds of miles to live with family, others stitching face masks out of old sheets. How do you decide what response is “too much,” when everything we’re currently doing would have been considered too much a few months ago?
When Mark O’Connell was writing his new book, Notes From an Apocalypse, the subculture he was examining—people who prepare for catastrophes—was still considered niche. Unsettled by a decade of worsening headlines and climate disruptions, O’Connell became preoccupied with the notion of looming crisis: What it should mean for individuals, and what it should mean for him as a parent. Looking for answers, he set out on a tour of prepper culture, from the bowels of internet forums to a South Dakota bunker community; from New Zealand, where Silicon Valley billionaires are busy setting up a country club for catastrophe season, to Los Angeles, where Mars enthusiasts prepare an even more drastic escape hatch; from Scotland, where intellectuals wax philosophical about nature and the end of human civilization, to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to see what the sudden disappearance of humanity actually looks like.
It’s a book that occupies an uneasy psychic space: The author is both attracted to disaster preparedness and repelled by it; both anxious about the future and inclined to dismiss people with similar anxieties as being motivated by distasteful personal politics and irrational fantasies. It’s hard to know the right tone for discussing odd people with extreme plans at a time when the sort of crisis they are preparing for seems increasingly likely. Is smirking at their more absurd notions a useful way to reassert reality and stave off panic? Or is it our way of holding reality at arm’s length?
A few months ago, it might have been easier to dismiss prepper culture and to read O’Connell’s book as an entertaining dispatch from the fringe. But to read it now is to reckon with the ways in which disaster stalks the everyday, ever capable of surprising us. Adapting to a catastrophic new normal—whether pandemic disease or global warming—can mean making drastic, nearly unthinkable choices. Even one of our deepest impulses—“I want to survive”—for many of us summons up another, contradictory impulse: “I don’t want to survive like that.”
How does one prepare to outlive catastrophe? The first place O’Connell explores is the internet. He becomes a regular reader of “r/collapse”—a sub-Reddit dedicated to signs of the end of civilization. He frequents forums and Facebook groups. “Survivalist,” as a term, may date back to the 1970s, but today’s “prepper” is less the product of midcentury Cold War militarism and more a product of twenty-first-century broadband.
A major source of information for O’Connell is YouTube tutorials, made by “guys named Brandon or Kyle or Brent.” In these videos, preppers guide the audience through their “bug-out bags,” knapsacks that contain items essential for survival “in any scenario whereby they needed to head out into the wilderness and fend for themselves.” Disaster is probably going to strike cities hardest, these folks reason, so prepping means being ready to leave one’s home at a moment’s notice and find self-sufficient safety in the woods. Most of the videos, O’Connell observes, are made by white American men, more excited by TEOTWAWKI—the End of the World as We Know It—than panicked by it. Their headlamps, Kevlar cord, and magnesium fire starters provide them with a kind of masculine retail therapy. The women in these preppers’ lives, O’Connell notes, don’t seem as psyched.
Nor, it turns out, is O’Connell. The preppers envision social collapse in crude terms: They foresee widespread looting and gang violence as supply chains break down, believe civilization is a “thin veneer” over humanity’s fundamental brutality, and think gun-toting Rotarians will restore law and order to the countryside when violent urban refugees arrive trying to steal resources. This disgusts O’Connell, who perceives its racial overtones and its pessimism about humanity. “This is a prediction of the future,” he concludes, “that could be offered only by someone who was never fully convinced by the idea of society in the first place.” And despite his own anxieties about the future, he is often moved to make flippant remarks about the preppers’ actual plans for survival. “If the choice on offer is between pasta primavera mix with freeze-dried chicken chunks and being among the first wave of deaths in the apocalypse,” he comments, “I hereby enthusiastically place my order for oblivion.”
Bug-out bags, however, are small-scale when it comes to end-times capitalism. In South Dakota, O’Connell meets with a man who once helped make the inflatable pilot for the movie Airplane! and is now head of a postapocalyptic real-estate company called Vivos. In the Black Hills, Vivos has developed a set of World War II–era bomb-storage facilities as $25,000-a-piece bunkers in which to survive various cataclysms. These, O’Connell explains, are for the “postapocalyptic petit bourgeoisie.” Unlike Vivos’s “flagship location” in Indiana (which features medical facilities, pet facilities, a “hydroponic miniature farm,” and a DNA vault), these Black Hills bunkers for the common man offer 2,200 square feet of customizable living quarters, the chief appeal of which seems to be that no one would ever think to drop a nuclear bomb anywhere near them. The facility also advertises a private security team.
Tech billionaires, on the other hand, head to New Zealand—another stop on O’Connell’s itinerary. New Zealand’s community of end-of-the-world investors includes Peter Thiel, who has bought 480 acres on Lake Wanaka—alongside his better-publicized investments in anti-aging and immortality research. (O’Connell is inclined to see both as facets of Thiel’s plan to survive while people with less money die.) In Thiel, O’Connell sees the embodiment of an explicitly individualistic, implicitly capitalistic survival fantasy. The prepper mentality is about preserving oneself and maybe a few loved ones, not the broader community. In practice, O’Connell argues, that means accumulating goods: waterproof matches for the plebs and vast land tracts for the billionaires.
Or we could ditch this world entirely. O’Connell attends a four-day conference of the Mars Society. This group believes that “sooner or later,” some kind of disaster will make Earth uninhabitable. The species will survive only if it has “established a human settlement elsewhere in the universe” by then. The idea gained legitimacy from Stephen Hawking, who in 2017 insisted that in order to avoid annihilation by asteroid, disease, or rogue robots, humans would need to colonize a new planet “within one hundred years.” And from Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, it has gained cash. O’Connell leaves the conference as suspicious of this interplanetary Oregon Trail approach as he is of Thiel’s New Zealand retreat. “There is something fundamentally male about this narrative of exit, of escape as a means toward the nobility of self-determination,” he muses. “The world, after all, requires attention. The world requires care.” Or as his small son put it at a science museum: “I don’t want to go to Mars.… It doesn’t look nice.”
O’Connell’s final stop is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which he tours with a friend who seems less inclined than O’Connell to wax philosophical about the detritus of human life and a little more worried about the radiation and asbestos poisoning. “It wasn’t until after I returned from Ukraine,” O’Connell writes, “that I began to imagine my own house a ruin, to picture as I walked through its rooms the effect thirty years of dereliction might wreak upon my son’s bedroom.” Passages like these make you wonder what sort of book O’Connell might have written had he leaned into such gloominess, resisting the (understandable) urge to dismiss quite so many of his subjects as quacks and villains. The very few like-minded preppers O’Connell encounters might have anchored this other book, debating what a morally engaged, soulful reckoning with life under threat of crisis should look like.
This is a book any self-respecting neurotic will appreciate. It also feels distinctly pre-pandemic in its approach. The toll of the coronavirus—suffered disproportionately by the poor and underprivileged—makes Chernobyl tourism feel more discordant than O’Connell already acknowledges it is. Then there’s O’Connell’s sometimes frustrating condescension toward his subjects: At a moment when practically all of us have become preppers on some scale, it’s hard to enter fully into the spirit of judging preppers for their anxieties. If I came across a serving of “pasta primavera with freeze-dried chicken chunks” in a nuclear wasteland, I would rather eat it than starve myself on aesthetic principle.
O’Connell is right to point out that preppers tend to be white, male, and libertarian. But he might be too quick to dismiss prepper culture as monolithic. Strikingly, he speaks with a woman who keeps a bug-out bag beneath her bed, and who points out that women “were already halfway to a dystopia,” unsure of the law’s interest in protecting them. Might there be more female preppers, who simply don’t broadcast it as widely as men do? What if women are acting out their anxieties in quieter ways that they find “vaguely embarrassing” and thus don’t talk about? Message boards and YouTube are not exactly known for drawing self-aware people into their community of power users.
As O’Connell chronicled prepper after prepper’s off-putting personal beliefs, from anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to toxic gender norms, I found myself thinking of one survivalist of my acquaintance: a gregarious retiree whom I’ve heard speak out for trans rights, who has strong feelings on the nation’s lack of affordable housing, and who nevertheless has quietly socked away enough food, wine, and ammunition to survive three years and possibly an armed siege. He might be unusual, but not every prepper is necessarily a bigot living out a frontier fantasy. In fact, there’s been a rise in liberal preppers since the 2016 election, though this group is barely mentioned in the book.
This much is true: Even if you strip the consumerism out of prepperdom and start accumulating survival skills rather than survivalist gizmos, you probably don’t get to become an expert wood-splitter, tent-pitcher, hunter, plant-identifier, home-builder, and self-defense expert while also getting good at guitar—or insert your secret dream here. It’s hard to prepare yourself or your immediate family for “bugging out” to an isolated location while fully opening to the range of relationships that enrich the human psyche. And, of course, billions spent locking down hundreds of New Zealand acres or on new space shuttles are billions not spent making the world a better place—one less likely to require an escape hatch. Preppers are right to worry about the future; but their plan to make it through isn’t a lot better than most of our other plans.
Remarkably, some of the most insightful lines in O’Connell’s book are delivered by a found-object artist at a wilderness retreat. “If civilization did collapse these men would be entirely useless to themselves, and worse than useless to everyone else,” she comments. “What they didn’t understand … was that the thing that would allow people to survive was the same thing that had always allowed people to survive: community.”
However many hatchets or bean cans a person might collect, individual preparedness is always going to run up against limits. The problem with prepperdom isn’t that its adherents lead unappealing lives or hold regressive social views—although many do. Its weakness is that it forgets that humanity’s strength, historically, lies not in individual stockpiles but in its capacity for empathy, communication, and cooperation. That’s still true at six socially distanced feet. Not only our best shot at surviving the crises human civilization has built, but our best shot at preventing them, lies with one another.