The American suburb is rooted in doomsday. Take the prototype of Levittown, modeled after the workers’ compartmentalized homes at the Oak Ridge Manhattan Project compound. Or, a decade later, Ike’s Interstate Highway System, which nurtured the modern suburb by enabling brisk commutes between city centers and outskirts but was mainly built to facilitate mass evacuation in the event of atomic war. There’s a reason the indivisible suburban unit’s called the “nuclear family.”
So, how far can one go in fashioning one’s suburban or rural home into a bulwark against apocalypse? We find out in Doomsday Preppers, a documentary mini-series debuting on the National Geographic Channel February 7th and scheduled to run 10 episodes, in the unlikely event that we last that long.
Every week on Preppers, an invisible camera crew follows a handful of households who’ve cast off the shackles of complacency hobbling the rest of us and are instead hoarding food, firearms, and other essentials in advance of world’s end. Whether the end nearing is by pole shift, earthquake, catastrophic fuel embargo or a general 2012 prophesy, the preppers proudly outline the precautions they’ve taken against starvation, exposure, roving bands and the like. Then a panel of Nat Geo-supplied expert “practical preppers” evaluates these precautions and gives advice. Inadequate water supply is a common infraction. In the view of the folks at National Geographic, it’s also pretty hard to have enough firearms.
Finally, each segment closes with a “Doomsday Preppers Update,” in which the apocalyptarians outline which of these suggestions they’ve chosen to heed or ignore. It’s an engaging format that gives each segment a rudimentary dramatic arc and helps keep the material from getting too repetitive. After all, there’s only so many ways you can sex up corrugated-metal paramilitary compounds for TV entertainment purposes.
Nat Geo didn’t invent the practice of planning for Armageddon, of course, which has doubtless been around as long as calamity and religion. Neither did it coin the term “prepper”: this appears to have its origins on the Internet. Preppers abound on YouTube, where they trade tricks for surviving in debris fields, suggest useful ways to pack your “bugout bag,” and praise certain politicians (typically, Ron Paul) while excoriating certain others (typically, everyone else in public office).
The term shares sibilance with others that have adopted fringe connotations (“truthers,” “birthers”), and Doomsday Preppers can’t seem to help occasionally taking a jab at the undeniable eccentricity of prepping, or generally making light. So, for instance, the program is mostly respectful in following fun-loving Houstonian Megan Hurwitt as she divides her time between drinking margaritas with her friends and honing her kill skills with her AR-15, but can’t resist repeatedly showing incongruous footage of her pole dancing. Likewise, it lets San Antonio catastrophists Paul and Gloria Range list the virtues of their earthquake-proof compound — thus reinforced, at great effort, because of the continental drift they assume will result from an anticipated global pole shift — before pointing out in an aside that pole shift is a magnetic event, not a physical one, and so is unlikely to cause any such seismic events.
These moments are the exception, however. For the most part, it lets its subjects present their worldviews without explicit editorializing. It delves a bit into the politics of prepping: statistically, devoted preppers tend conservative, but Nat Geo treats us to the occasional lefty. Unlike their prepping brethren, who generally prefer hoarding, the “New England liberal” Kathy and Bruce Harrison and the naturalist Chris Nyerges focus more on sustainability and renewability. Of all the preppers, Kathy is the only one to have thought of keeping a bee farm for honey and wax; she also keeps a garden for most of their food. Nyerges has opted instead for a nomadic existence, learning which naturally growing fauna are edible. “I eat what most people would call weeds,” he tells us.
The political leanings of the other preppers are never mentioned, but at least two of them — the Evars and Bishop families — have been driven to tune in, drop out, and prep up by the federal government’s wanton printing of money, a fear voiced more often on the right than the left. Preppers also typically focus more on security, some sporting an impressive arsenal of firearms. The Ranges, for instance, rely for “perimeter defense” on two burly vets, one a Marine and the other an Army volunteer who fought in Iraq, whose enormous muscles twitch as they pop off rounds from assault rifles on a private shooting range. This is a far cry from the Harrisons, who demur when the practical preppers advise them to give in and get guns, “It just doesn’t fit who we are ethically.” Nyerges goes as far as including a sling in his “bugout” — he prefers the term “survival” — bag for downing the occasional wild bird for food, but otherwise he too turns up his nose at the idea of arming himself.
If you’re a statistically average person, what are your chances of following these people’s lead and successfully preparing for social collapse? Well, pretty long, unless you have quite a few acres of land lying fallow in the country and a couple hundred thousand extra dollars. You’ll also need a fair amount of free time. Megan keeps to a quotidian four-hour workout. (When the shit hits the fan, “I’ll be fitter than you,” she threatens.) Kellene Bishop, amateur chef and food hoarder, spends six to eight hours a day dipping cheese in wax and oiling eggs so they’ll stay edible for years. “There are a lot of people,” Kellene’s husband admits, “who think that the extent we go to is, let’s say, insane.”
Now, he picked that word, not I. But in using it, Kellene does convey that most of us would consider this lifestyle unusual. The show allows that such judgment is increasingly not because the prediction seems far-fetched. At the end of each segment, the “experts” evaluate the likelihood of the doomsday scenario the preppers predict, invariably deeming it remote. But they don’t have much of an answer for the Bishops and the Evers, who foresee financial collapse. The good people at Nat Geo assure us that though financial collapses have happened in the past, “Most economists do not believe the United States is currently at risk.” Okay. Any particular reason?
Ultimately, it’s the length to which the preppers go, and not their goal, that makes me uneasy, and if I look down on them in some ways, this probably masks an undercurrent of jealousy on my part. As a committed non-prepper — if one morning I found I was suddenly outside pizza delivery range, by the end of that day, I’d probably have resorted to cannibalism — I get nervous when the preppers toast the end of the world or rehearse the victory dances they plan to perform while the huddled masses are starving all around them.
Who doesn’t watch The Road or The Walking Dead and assume they’ll play the role of beleaguered, resourceful hero with the child and the shopping cart, or ragtag survivalist guardian of humanity’s legacy? According to Doomsday Preppers, unless you’ve already been busting your ass for years, it’s much more likely you’ll be among the desperate, ambling imbeciles, a luckless sap to be dispatched with a round to the head.