Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love TEOTWAWKI

Global pandemic, mass unemployment, empty store shelves, governments in turmoil, frightened citizens sheltering at home … Doesn’t it feel like our lives have turned into the opening montage of a disaster movie?

This may look like a screenshot from CNN, but it’s actually from the opening of “Death Race: Beyond Anarchy.”

Faced with this maelstrom of uncertainty, people (at least in America) seem to have two responses: either they believe that the situation will get better and go back to normal within a reasonable timeframe; or they are worried that the worst is yet to come, and that it’s going to be very bad for quite a while.

Which way are you leaning?

From my observations, the main factor in determining which response a person will have is confidence. People with a high degree of confidence in the institutions that underpin daily life — government, the medical establishment, first-responders, municipal services — tend to believe that the people who are in charge of things won’t let it get too bad.

Conversely, people with relatively low confidence in “the system” tend to believe that the people who are in charge of things will either make it worse or be unable to make it better.

It seems to me that a growing percentage of the population is losing their confidence and moving towards Option #2. I call the people who have only recently slipped below the confidence threshold “reluctant preppers.” Reluctant preppers usually don’t want to be in the same category as the bunker-dwelling denizens of the TV show “Doomsday Preppers,” but they are secretly concerned that the aftermath of COVID-19 might be when TSHTF (prepper-speak for when The “Stuff” Hits The Fan).

If you’re a closeted RP, hoping to discreetly get up to speed on what you need to know to protect yourself and your family during TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It), you’re in the right place.

Let’s start with a little historical context.

These 1950s public service films had way cooler art than our current ones.

Fantasies of Apocalypse vs. Realities of Disaster

The last time that Western society was faced with a hazard of this magnitude was during the Cold War, when the threat of global nuclear armageddon sent Mr. and Mrs. America into a frenzy of canning food, building fallout shelters in their backyards, and obsessively checking on the latest news from Washington.

The title of this post is an homage to the Cold War classic, “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.”

By the time the 1990s rolled around, nuclear paranoia was a distant memory, played primarily for laughs in movies like “Blast From The Past.” In this charming rom-com, Brendan Fraser plays a clueless but lovable 35-year-old who romances Alicia Silverstone after growing up in the bomb shelter his parents locked themselves into in 1962.

However, while Americans were scarfing Cherry Coke and Junior Mints while chuckling at Alicia and Brendan, other parts of the world were actually dealing with TSHTF situations. From 1991 to 2001, the former country of Yugoslavia was ripped apart by a brutal civil war that left over 130,000 people dead, and entire cities in anarchy for years at a time.

If you want to learn more, Selco blogs about the lessons he learned as a civilian in the Balkan war

Around the same time (from 1998–2002), Argentina experienced an economic and social collapse that included 25% unemployment, violent riots, rampant crime, and widespread starvation.

Blogger and teacher Ferfal pulls no punches in his parallels between the Argentine collapse and what he observes in America today.

While both these conflicts took place in modern, developed countries, most Americans were only vaguely aware of what was happening, secure in the certainty that “it could never happen here.”

While the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 did shake that national sense of invulnerability, it also reinforced the hypothesis that we would be okay, no matter what. In the face of devastating violence, Americans came together to support and help each other. Although feelings were mixed about the Patriot Act and the military response to 9/11, the general feeling was that our domestic response had shown the strong character of the American people.

For many in the USA, that attitude changed when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, causing devastating flooding and killing over 1,800 people.

The sight of men, women and children who looked like our friends and neighbors packed into shelters with inadequate food, water or sanitary facilities was a shock to many Americans. Reports that police confiscated firearms from law-abiding citizens and then abandoned their posts, and that corrections officials left non-violent prisoners to drown in their cells were contrasted by news of the “Cajun Navy” — boat owners who ventured out into the rancid flood waters to rescue people trapped in their attics and on their roofs. For the first time in memory, a major American city was reduced to the level of a lawless, third-world country. The only first responders — indeed, the only responders at all — were not professional heroes, but everyday Joes and Janes who had the skills and equipment to help others.

Politicians were excoriated for their indifference to the danger posed by Katrina. In consequence, officials over-reacted to the threat of every subsequent natural disaster, routinely calling for mandatory shutdowns and evacuations, even as business owners objected to the economic impact to their livelihoods.

This trend has likely reached its peak with the response to COVID-19. An array of economists, doctors, and elected officials are emphatically arguing that the global shutdown intended to reduce the disease’s spread will kill more people than it could possibly save. News of interruptions in the food supply chain, and irreparable harm to the nation’s small businesses have increased the general level of public anxiety, driving confidence lower, and swelling the ranks of reluctant preppers.

Couple this with the fact that, for the past two decades, end-times-angst has manifested itself in an endless stream of post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows, and you have a population very much on edge about the fabric of civilization unraveling. We’ve seen a dirty-bomb scenario in Jericho, a pandemic aftermath in Jeremiah, electricity-sucking nanobots in Revolution, the Christian Rapture in the Left Behind series, and more alien invasions and zombie viruses than you could shake a barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat at. While we know rationally that these programs are fiction, on some level they inform our expectations of what might happen — and what we’ll need — if things go terribly wrong.

For many people, “Doomsday bunkers” are synonymous with preparedness, even though preparedness actually exists on a wide spectrum.

The Spectrum of Independence

Although the “survivalist” movement (successfully rebranded as the “prepper” movement in the last 20 years or so) is often associated with cultism and anti-government activism, it’s important to realize that governments and mainstream religions actively encourage civilian preparedness.

Websites like ready.gov are loaded with resources and information that wouldn’t seem out of place on survivalblog.com, including advice on building emergency kits and training in emergency field medicine. Indeed, the CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training that is developed by FEMA and offered free of charge by municipalities throughout the USA covers many of the same topics (gunshot wounds, disaster communication, biohazard mitigation) as survival workshops that cost thousands of dollars.

“What will your family do if disaster strikes?” asks ready.gov

Many individual Christians, Jews and Muslims take preparedness as an article of faith, while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) considers preparedness, particularly food storage, to be the responsibility of every member, with the church providing resources throughout the country to assist in this.

In secular society, websites like SurvivalMom and HappyPreppers have helped to destigmatize the notion of preparedness, with normal-looking soccer moms chatting about canning and gardening with a light sprinkling of discussions about EMPs and precious metals.

This brings up an important point; just like every other activity, prepping exists on a spectrum. Just as in golf, hiking, stamp collecting, or bird watching, disaster preparedness can be a casual avocation, a life-defining mission, or anything in between. While fanatics (of any persuasion) will always sneer at part-timers, the most important question for any reluctant prepper to ask themselves is: “What am I comfortable with?” Does having an extra 10 cans of tuna in the pantry make you feel more or less comfortable? What about 100 cans? Would a can of pepper spray feel like a reasonable tool for defending your home against an intruder? What about a handgun? Would taking a CERT class be empowering or scary? There’s no right or wrong answer, there’s only what’s right for you.

How To Get Started

It is a cliché, but a true one, that nobody knows what their future will bring. A disaster can be as widespread as a natural disaster, or as personal as a car accident. With that said, anyone interested in increasing their level of preparedness for the unexpected and unwelcome should focus on reducing the fragility of their most important resources.

Water

There is nothing more important than water. A gravity-fed, high capacity system with long-lasting carbon filters, such as those made by Berkey, can provide peace of mind when bad news breaks about municipal water, and can also be used to filter rainwater in the event of an interruption in service.

Food

As the empty store shelves that accompany every emergency attest, food goes fast. While most forms of protein require canning, produce can be grown effectively in most climates, year round. A great primer for the beginning gardener is the Square Foot Gardening series by Mel Bartholomew. One tip: rather than build the 4'x4' garden that the author recommends, start off with 5-gallon buckets in which you’ve drilled drainage holes. Bucket gardens make it easy to move plants around as needed to adjust sun, shade and weather.

A note on cooking: if the electricity or gas is interrupted, campfires are impractical for most people. A folding camp stove that runs on liquid fuel is a smart choice for an emergency kit.

Power

Many products marketed as “survival gear” are flimsy, overpriced toys. Even worse, many vital products — such as flashlights — gobble multiple AAA batteries at a time. Not only is that wasteful, it guarantees that you’ll run out of batteries almost immediately in the aftermath of a power outage. You’re far better off buying inexpensive flashlights that work on only one AA battery, and then investing in some quality rechargeable batteries.

Alternately, you can get flashlights or headlamps that charge internally via a USB port, and use them with a solar phone charger.

Protection

Although it’s unpleasant to think about, disasters like Katrina have shown that, when the lights go out, you are your own first responder. People have strong opinions on firearms, so the only thing I’m going to mention is that there are non-lethal options such as OC pepper spray that are certainly better than nothing.

Money

In normal times, most of our financial transactions consist of computers shifting data from one place to another. In abnormal times, computers can’t be relied on, and neither can the places you go to buy things. As an example, if you were to buy food from a local farmer, you can’t be sure that they’ll take your credit card. However, you can be fairly confident that they’ll take cash. That’s why, in an emergency, cash is king. As the lockdown that followed COVID-19 showed, safety deposit boxes in banks aren’t available when the lobbies are closed, so you need to have a decent amount of cash at home, locked up somewhere secure. How much is a “decent amount”? That depends on your comfort level and ability to save money. This is definitely a case in which something is better than nothing.

Tip of The Iceberg

In this rather lengthy article, I’ve only scratched the surface of what it means to be prepared, and why one might choose to increase their level of preparedness. Let me know in the comments below if you’re interested in more information on any specific topics related to this subject. Be safe!

Digital media guru by day, writer by night.