Fear, COVID-19, and the Doomsday-Industrial Complex
by Anna Langlois
1- The Right Kind of Business
Daisy Luther’s father was about to die. She lived in Canada at the time, working a cushy corporate job. As her father’s health deteriorated in a hospital in the southern United States, Luther was determined to spend time with him. She burned through paid time off, sick days, and personal savings to make the long flight as many times as possible. He died in 2010.
That same year, the Great Recession set in. Luther was forced to shoulder a heavier burden at a significant pay cut – but she was grateful, as many of her coworkers lost their jobs. She and her two daughters lived on a frugal budget, but no matter how hard she worked and how much they scrimped, it wasn’t enough. “I spent my days grinding my teeth and pretending like I actually wanted to be at the office,” she writes on her blog. “Like everyone else, I had unfulfilled dreams.”
First, they lost their house. Then the car got repossessed. And then the remnants of Luther’s comfortable, tedious life were ripped out from under her. In late 2010, the father of her children died at just 40 years old, leaving Luther to care for her grieving daughters and pay an avalanche of bills alone.
“I couldn’t fathom the thought of sending them to a babysitter, or worse yet leaving them home alone to fend for themselves, while I busted my tail making ends meet,” she told me. Luther quit her job, fueled by dreams of becoming self-reliant, spending time with her kids, and writing books.
Luther cashed in her severance package and retirement savings, trading fashionable haircuts for messy buns and chunky sweaters. Her knowledge went from theoretical, supplied by other preppers and internet resources, to practical as she began homesteading. The family moved between middles-of-nowhere, from snowy Canadian cabins to Northern California farms. Luther learned to build fires in a wood stove, grow vegetables, and even care for livestock.
She chronicled her successes and failures on her fledgling blog, “The Organic Prepper.” Today, it is one of the top websites in survival and homesteading. She’d like to say it’s because of her “Pulitzer-prize-deserving mad writing skills and rapier sharp wit,” but Luther thinks it’s really because she’s curious, her tips are affordable, and she’s not afraid to admit failure. Her content reaches over 35,000 Facebook followers, with even more on Twitter, Patreon, and Pinterest. While her articles, like “How Dentists Can Be the Ultimate Saviors of an Economic Collapse,” are eye-catching on their own, she knows it’s partially a product of the times.
“I have the right kind of business for this thing,” Luther said. “I sound like I’m money grubbing or something like that, but it’s just kind of the right place at the right time.”
As COVID-19 strained finances for everyone, preppers had added resources to turn to–not just their stocked supplies, but profitable knowledge. As prepping shifts from an extreme fringe movement to the mainstream, the multibillion-dollar industry fuels opportunity – for fears to be amplified or assuaged, and for preppers to make a quick buck.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines preppers as those who can survive on their own without outside assistance, government or otherwise, for at least 31 days. Since the beginning of COVID, the number of preppers and their customers have increased across the board. Yet, an unexpected pandemic where you’re forced to stay inside doesn’t meet the benchmark for the traditional apocalypse – society hasn’t exactly gone out in a blaze of glory.
Finder, a financial advisory website, conducted a survey of “Doomsday Prepper Statistics” in 2021. They found that the number of citizens who spent money on prepping doubled since 2019 to an estimated 45% of the population. For the prepping industry, the pandemic was a boon – something that most other fields were not so fortunate to experience. But what exactly are they selling? And what are preppers buying?
The survey respondents funneled most of that money into expected, seemingly ordinary outlets. In contrast to the 72-hour buckets and bunkers we usually picture as prepping essentials, they invested in savings, home renovations, and “means of evacuation.” While these seem like the purchases of financially savvy Americans, these respondents do so with survivalist intentions – making these investments because of an uncertain future. But padding your savings account is not the most stylish option.
Go-bags, stuffed with multi-tools, rope, compasses and the like, are a convenient catchall for on-the-spot prepping needs. A good number of prepper markets sell them because of the immediate security they offer, drawing in newbie survivalists looking for a quick fix. But despite the market emphasis on go-bags, the average American prepper spent less than $100 on them in 2021– meaning that most bought one or none at all.
On Amazon, a basic go-bag costs $75. The “Everlit Tactical Backpack,” for instance, contains 23 items, including paracord, a multi-tool, a first aid kit, as well as a 2-liter water pouch. While the bag does not contain any food, and most of the items aren’t high quality, the item list is comprehensive, earning the bag 4.7 out of 5 stars from Amazon reviews. The company relies on selling thousands at low profit margins, which is by far the most common business model. But much like any other industry, prepping also indulges the other end of the economic spectrum: the very wealthy.
Black Umbrella, founded in 2009, is a luxury prepping company tucked into a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper (a few buildings over from Trump Tower). They outfit wealthy urban and suburban families who want to survive, and thrive, in a crisis. They believe in the “commonality of disaster” – that all these different catastrophes will affect the electrical grid. Thus, if you prepare for an electrical outage, you’re prepared for anything. “Do some training, do some planning, get some stuff,” Joel Smernoff, Black Umbrella’s chairman, listed off. “Because that’ll take 90% of the pain out and it’ll go from being a very dangerous situation to one that’s nearly comfortable.”
Instead of selling one-size-fits-all supplies, they cater to each family’s unique needs. The personalized experience comes with a hefty price tag. “We are a bit more concierge, more high-touch, and our prices reflect that,” Smernoff told me. “These are people that have a lot more money than time.” The ‘basic’ plan costs just under $2,000. It includes laser-engraved aluminum cards with contact information, as well as their bottom-tier, $375 go-bag containing 25 items, hand-picked and tested by Smernoff’s research and development team. The selection tends toward high-end products like a Lifestraw water filter, survival poncho, and an AM/FM radio. (On the other hand, the bag also includes a Sharpie.) He says each item is something he would feel confident using, and would ease his clients’ worries too.
Hardcore preppers scoff at things like go-bags and buckets. The resources inside can sustain one person for three days, but the instinct is to buy one and then never think about preparedness again: You’ve got the bag, what else could you possibly need? For Smernoff, that level of impact is not enough. “Do I think it’s better than nothing? Yes,” he says. “But I think it gives people a false sense of confidence.”
“The Organic Prepper” hosts links to many different products: canned food, CBD, knives and more. She earns ad revenue from prepper-run companies, like Berkey water filters and the Palmetto Armory, and outside sponsors alike. Luther also has affiliate links to products listed on Amazon, creating a curated prepper shopping experience for her readers. The most popular items? Freeze-dried foods, go-bags, and water storage.
For a new prepper, or someone “prepping-curious,” Luther doesn’t recommend investing in portable generators or hundreds of gallons of water. Instead, picking up extra basics, like a spare can of baked beans here and there, will go a long way without breaking the bank. But for a seasoned survivalist, the items she advertises receive her seal of approval: guns, CBD, and all. But her success in terms of ad revenue and commissions from affiliate links is limited. After posting one too many articles against the mask mandate, her site was reported for ‘disinformation’ and advertisers are pulling out.
“I’ve never even been one of those people that says ‘Oh, no [COVID] doesn’t exist’ or any of that crazy stuff,” Luther said with a chuckle. “I’m not really a proponent of anything mandatory – it’s the libertarian in me.”
To combat the lost income, Luther wrote more books. She reached out to other preppers and offered her marketing experience to sell their course materials. Now she’s selling the full contents of “The Organic Prepper” website’s archive on a thumbdrive. Amid multiple hacks and fears over her website (her life’s work and livelihood) being taken down, she’s not taking any chances. Especially when articles about controversial topics – world affairs, masks, gun control – usually earn her hate mail and hacking. “We had someone get mad about an article about homemade Kefir – the milk, the fermented milk. Go figure.”
For Dr. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, a professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the “apocalyptic mindset” and economics are connected. “As long as the current economy lasts, [preppers] consume, consume, consume,” she writes in her 2016 book chapter Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality.
Dr. Foster argues that prepping is a multibillion-dollar industry for wealthy white survivalists. It makes money by selling firearms, million-dollar underground condos, and other products that are hoarded for TEOTWAWKI – ‘the end of the world as we know it.’ As these ideas have become more mainstream, the market has expanded. “Prepper salespeople are eager to shake loose the idea that prepping is for kooks and extremists,” she writes.
She thinks preppers are selfish and lack empathy. They look forward to the apocalypse. Implied in their fantasy is the idea that anyone who hasn’t prepared “deserves to die.” Like the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mantra, failure to do so is on an individual, moral level. Consumption is the perfect solution, because luckily “there can never be enough guns or prepping; it is a perfect industry of endless commercial potential.”
2- Preppers Were Kind of Right
Getting clearance to attend my first meeting of the New York Prepper Network was a process. In October, I reached out to Jason Charles, the group’s president, over email, cell phone, and Instagram with little luck. A few weeks later, I found the group’s account on Meetup, a platform for scheduling events, and sent a request to join, filling out a questionnaire about my “unique” skills and “what I hope to learn.” After agonizing over my responses for a few hours, I was admitted into the group.
Coincidentally, their next event, “What Might Happen in 2022?” was scheduled for the following morning. When I first envisioned one of these meetings, I pictured a version of the AA meetings I’d seen on TV: a semicircle of metal folding chairs in a moldy church basement. Instead, I opened up a Zoom to a tab of 12 black screens and Jason Charles staring back at me.
Jason Charles is a Black NYC firefighter with impressive biceps and a no-nonsense attitude. He has been prepping since reading the novel One Second After – a fantasy of a post- electromagnetic pulse (EMP) world, recommended to me by several different preppers. His Harlem apartment boasts enough ‘Meals-Ready-to-Eat’ and medical supplies for himself, his wife and two teenage kids. Prepping isn’t just a pastime – it’s his lifestyle. In addition to running the NYPN, Charles has his own YouTube channel and Instagram, where his posts often receive over 30,000 views. I felt I was meeting a celebrity.
He doesn’t fit the survivalist stereotypes, and neither does the NYPN. We assume preppers are white paranoid hicks, toting assault rifles and individualistic attitudes. Charles and most NYC preppers are nonwhite and focus on community. On the other hand, they too detest government impositions, like the COVID vaccine and mask mandates.
To start off the meeting, Charles reiterates his annoyance about convening on Zoom. He gripes about being unable to meet at the local church, or even a coffee shop. Charles and many other members of the group did not get COVID vaccines, and are barred from many communal spaces under the NYC vaccine mandate. Similar to the dismissal preppers face from their communities, Charles and others report feeling “ostracized” for not getting vaccinated – resulting in Charles’ suspension from his job, and others fearing the same fate.
But preppers are used to preparing in the face of fear. Charles suggests that we should use our survival skills in an untraditional way – starting our own businesses. He recognizes that there’s a market for invaluable prepper knowledge, and making a YouTube channel is a good place to start. While the NYPN claims to be apolitical, we discuss the vaccine mandate for most of the meeting.
A typical NYPN meeting (during COVID, at least) continues in the same fashion. Charles is the only one with his video on, answering questions from the chat and giving his thoughts on current affairs. It’s like a press conference on the disasters coming down the line – most of which seem outlandish. Charles is the only one with his video on, answering questions from the chat and giving his thoughts on current affairs.
He leads with the late 2021 supply chain issues. “We’re not gonna be the ones gathering shit at the last possible minute,” he tells us. As items are flying off the shelves, and consumers are urged to “ration voluntarily,” Charles claims that now is not the time to panic buy – we don’t have to.
Someone asks whether we should worry about war with China or Russia on the horizon (at the time, it wasn’t). Charles’ advice appears simplistic, but it’s comforting. He plainly says that war is “on the backburner,” but also to “continue to prep until you can’t prep anymore” – consume until you can’t anymore, in contrast with his previous sentiments. Another person brings up inflation skyrocketing in the near future, connecting possible war to the supply-chain. Charles predicts the economy will tank worse than it ever has, and society will inevitably sink into a “slow, boiling nightmare.”
While Charles insists he doesn’t deal in conspiracy theories, I find that hard to believe. Could these anecdotes be anything else? Looming war, vaccines as a mode of government control, aliens? I saw no difference. Railing against government impositions, like masks and mandates, fits common prepper libertarianism. But isn’t getting vaccinated another means of preparation for a pandemic? Apparently not.
I felt singled out and embarrassed in my own apartment, thinking that somehow, Charles and the others could sense that in this way, and many others, I was different. I had minimal intentions of stuffing every spare inch with water storage, or going beyond making sure my flashlight had batteries. And I was definitely going to get my booster shot.
I decided to attend the NYPN meeting after reading Dr. Anna Maria Bounds’ ethnography of NYC’s vibrant and diverse prepper population, Bracing for the Apocalypse. Dr. Bounds, a sociologist and Queens College professor, is a renowned voice on the intersecting economic, political, and social challenges New York City faces, which are often reflected in the fears of preppers. Her personal interest in prepping sparked after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, cutting off power and trapping many in their apartments with water pooling in the stairwells.
“In the blackout, [I was] the person who had the peanut butter but no bread, and the flashlight without batteries or batteries I couldn’t find,” Dr. Bounds said to me.
To write her book, she became a participant-observer in the NYPN. On top of interviewing group members, Dr. Bounds curated her own prepper closet, sheltered in her apartment, and practiced wilderness survival skills on a weekend “strategic relocation” trip with strangers. This immersion garnered intense reactions from friends and colleagues. Pestering, they would insist that Dr. Bounds admit that preppers were no more than the common stereotype: fanatic survivalists and rabid conspiracy theorists. She realized that this was not solely a reaction of prejudice or disdain. Her peers, she writes, were afraid: not just of doomsday preppers, but of being unprepared.
“Originally, people were afraid of some hypothetical disaster… and that made it easier to laugh about,” she said. “But now that we have a crisis of [COVID-19]’s scale, suddenly it’s not funny anymore. Preppers were kind of right.”
According to a 2018 FEMA study, most preppers have high school diplomas, are able-bodied, and save twice as much as others. (But if you ask some preppers, FEMA is not a reliable source – it stands for “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful Aid.”) They are almost evenly split between men and women, and represent every race. However, the most prepared citizens are overwhelmingly middle-aged white men with conservative politics. And this group receives the most attention from journalists and academics. Even entertainment, as with National Geographic’s popular reality show Doomsday Preppers, often portrays preppers as rightwing gun lovers.
Season 3 Episode 11, titled “No One Will Ever Know,” features Kenny, an insurance adjuster from Gun Barrel City, Texas. He is the mustached picture of American masculinity as he opens the episode performing a wistful country song. As he sings into the microphone, the video cuts to him with an assault rifle slung across his pastel yellow button-down shirt, stretched taut by his gut. Kenny’s “doomsday” is the Second Amendment coming into jeopardy, and the government hunting down righteous gun-owning citizens – a fear shared by many of his compatriots.
“When I talk about a civil war, it’s not gonna be the North versus the South,” he says with a thick Southern drawl. “It’s gonna be the people versus the government.”
His vast collection of firearms will protect his sprawling Texas property from a tyrannical government set on infringing on his – a wealthy white man’s – freedom. When that day comes, he won’t need the help of his neighbors. Kenny will provide for his family, and maybe some like-minded “resistance fighters,” with no sympathy for “cityfolk,” often used as a codeword for people of color.
In Casey Ryan Kelly’s 2016 Text and Performance Quarterly article “The Man-pocalypse: Doomsday Preppers and the rituals of apocalyptic manhood,” she describes the movement as “ a boiling cauldron of white rage,” and warns of its “potential to legitimize extreme acts of masculine violence.” She argues that fantasies of gun-owning, rightwing preppers create a positive feedback loop, valorizing their methods and giving ideas to like-minded counterparts watching at home. Feeling vindicated, they watch more. The show receives higher ratings, preppers consume more, and the cycle continues.
“One overarching lesson of doomsday programming is that the future is indefinite, but hegemonic masculinity—aggression, self-reliance, stoicism, competitiveness—remain necessary,” Kelly writes. Maybe even inevitable.
Since 2001, New York City has been slammed by terrorist attacks, natural disasters, major blackouts, gas explosions, and a pandemic. These events disproportionately affected people of color, and in turn the preppers within those communities. While the popular narratives around prepping focus on white paranoia, irrationality, and violence, Dr. Bounds’ ethnography shows this doesn’t have to be the case.
New York City preppers go against the stereotype: they aren’t overwhelmingly white or wealthy, they help their neighbors, and because they’ve lived disaster, they simultaneously expect it and don’t want it to recur. While there is no shortage of fearful, violent aspirations, there’s necessity, too. But just as there are contradictions within the larger prepper community, the beliefs of the NYPN, and individual preppers, contain gray areas, too.
“We are Rome and we are collapsing,” Jason Charles told us before closing the November meeting. “But I don’t want it to be a shit show.”
3- Don’t Even Bring it Up, Don’t Scare People
Nat Foster loved being a boy scout, and he aimed to do wilderness survival forever. He quickly realized, however, that working in recreation, or as a “glorified camp counselor,” didn’t pay anything. He found emergency management – combining his love for preparedness with a profession that pays “exceptionally well,” but ultimately has left him unsatisfied.
Foster’s job entails managing the response to and cleanup of disasters, like toxic spills or fires, sometimes onsite. But on an ordinary day, he sits hunched in front of a computer updating emergency response protocols for companies.
“What does that look like?” I asked him.
“I joke about it,” he started. “That there’s only one emergency operations plan, and everybody’s just been coughing up whatever the first one was.”
While he kids about the protocols, Foster believes they are important. Not only do they provide companies with peace of mind, but they smooth difficult situations by creating clear order. But the cookie-cutter methods are not always enough. “[They] are very top-down, policy driven,” he told me. “[It] doesn’t account for people’s social disparities, individual economic differences or individual circumstances.”
These differences were exacerbated during COVID-19. As the pandemic ravaged the U.S., varying economic, social, and health consequences (spurred on by the government’s lackluster response) left many unprepared. He reiterated that emergency managers, too, are not as prepared as you’d expect. In early March 2020, Foster recommended that they wear masks or respirators in his office. Instead of preemptively embracing these procedures, his coworkers said ‘don’t even bring it up, don’t scare people.’
Foster did not think the federal and local emergency management efforts were enough, and in August 2020, he acted. By day, he maintained his office job. By night, he started a website and YouTube channel, becoming “The Preparedness Guy.” He wanted to remove that stumbling block of inaction in an individualized way in which FEMA, the CDC, and emergency management departments cannot.
He earns from affiliate links and ad revenue on his website and sells a $30 preparedness basics course. He also offers a free family emergency plan, intending to make prepping accessible for anyone who downloads it. People usually panic and make uninformed purchases at the last minute, and Foster believes his plan will help people shift to “needs-based” preparedness. Instead of fearing, imagining, and making preemptive purchases for “every possible destruction,” they can anticipate interruptions to their needs – a system Foster finds far more sustainable. Not only in terms of saving money, but continuing preparedness into the future.
“Fear is a terrible motivator for long-term change,” Foster noted. “People return to their normal lives, they adapt to the changes in the world around them, or they just get burned out.”
Cookie-cutter, government-led emergency management campaigns have seen mixed results since beginning in the Cold War. To educate the public and assuage blossoming fears of a Soviet Union nuclear attack, the National Security Resources Board, a precursor to FEMA, was established. They created informational cartoons for children (like friendly Bert the Turtle) and loud emergency radio broadcasts. Unfortunately, according to University at Buffalo and Alfred State University professors Daniel Baldwin Hess and Alex Bitterman, their efforts didn’t go much further.
In their 2020 article for UBNow, “Cold War-style preparedness could help fight future pandemics,” Hess and Bitterman argue that federal preparation efforts placed the onus on local leadership and citizens. A nuclear attack would most likely target important federal officials, meaning a centralized response would never come. This logic sparked ideas of “civil defense,” which encouraged Americans to stock up and develop traditional survival skills. The emphasis was on active preparedness from the ground up – a far cry from the state of civil defense today.
“Americans’ expectations have shifted from being ready to respond to passively waiting for help from a centralized, bureaucratic federal effort,” they write. “The lack of civic coordination shifts responsibility away from citizens working collectively – and in fact has left people seemingly less prepared to respond to a crisis.”
In recent years, government agencies have pursued many routes to make preparedness appealing to the individual again. Before hurricane season every year, the CDC attempts to raise awareness for how citizens can prepare themselves. “There [wasn’t] a lot of pickup on the message,” David Daigle, Associate Director for Communications, told the Washington Post. “Preparedness and public health are not the sexiest subjects.”
In 2011, the CDC Communications Department came up with “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” – a welcome shift from past serious, dry campaigns. The CDC refrained from suggesting a zombie apocalypse would happen, but claimed that employing their suggested survival methods would help in any disaster.
“Zombie Apocalypse” drew wild engagement to the CDC website. Usually, blog posts receive 3,000 hits in a week. This post got 30,000 in one day and crashed the server. Before the “Zombie Apocalypse,” the CDC had 12,000 Twitter followers. That number increased hundredfold to 1.2 million overnight. However, the attention it garnered was not solely directed towards emergency preparedness – questions and discussions degraded into discussions on weaponry against the undead hordes.
Civil defense sparked from individual and collective fears, yet modern campaigns see success from sensationalized depictions of doomsday. With today’s concerns over collective issues like pandemics, climate change, and personal financial security, what might convince today?
Near the end of my conversation with Nat Foster, the supply chain issues came up. Stores were just catching up with the toilet paper and meat demands of late 2021, and panic-buying was gradually subsiding. Foster reminded me of a 2021 tweet from the U.S. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, advising consumers to buy only what they needed in preparation for winter weather and to leave some for others. They also mention the empty shelves, but encourage restraint all the same.
“In the same breath, [they] acknowledge that it’s a vulnerable system that can’t provide for everybody’s needs,” Foster said. “And then they say, ‘but also you don’t have to worry, there’s no need to provide for your needs.’” It’s a balancing act of being afraid but not too afraid, prepared but not too prepared.
4- Someone Who Knows What She’s Talking About
My father is a white man who lives in Wyoming. With his curly mop of salt-and-pepper hair and his usual footwear of choice (old leather cowboy boots), he stands at 6’2’’. He doesn’t believe in wearing shorts, camo, or walking too fast – those are all “undignified.” And even though he regularly indulges in zombie video games, stores well over 20 gallons of water in the basement, and maintains a well-stocked “apocalypse trunk,” he disdains preppers. In his mind, they “have no idea what they’re talking about.” When we talk about my thesis, our conversations sound like this:
“I’m not a prepper,” he says.
“You’ve got a trunk full of supplies and at least a month’s worth of food stored up,” I counter.
“That’s just thinking ahead. I’m not buying guns or building a bunker. I’m not crazy.”
So what better place to drag my father kicking and screaming into self-awareness than a prepper convention, just six hours from his house? With vendors, classes, and an interactive emergency preparedness area to boot, the Be Ready Utah Expo is a comprehensive dive into preparedness for both preppers and everyday citizens. However, unlike most other prepper events, it is hosted by the very government preppers tend to dismiss and decry.
“[It] seeks to help Utah’s residents become more aware of the importance of emergency preparedness and to take some action towards achieving [it],” reads their website. For the prepper community, adamantly against relying on government aid, enthusiasm about an event like this seems out of character.
Be Ready Utah fills a convention center-sized room in Sandy, Utah’s Mountain View Expo Center. The parking lot is filled with hums and revving engines as pickup trucks and Chevy Tahoes file in. The number of cars is the first surprise for my father: he didn’t imagine so many showing up. Walking through the entrance, we stop dead at the back of a line. In the distance – over a sea of balding heads and baseball caps – there’s a barrel full of red raffle tickets. You can enter to win a barbecue grill. Once inside, it feels like an amusement park pre-pandemic.
Maskless adults and children run amok, some indulging in soft-baked pretzels or “nachos” (yellow tortilla chips and a plastic cup of lukewarm cheese). Over the sound of their excited chatter, a loud rumbling echoes every few minutes. It’s an “Earthquake Simulator,” what looks like a vibrating tractor trailer, up against the left wall. In that corner, kids shriek as they tear around on go-karts, labeled “Seatbelt Safety Demonstrations.” The convention center’s left side boasts a disaster-themed escape room and demonstrations on wilderness first aid and knot-tying.
Toward the back is a sea of vendor booths at long plastic tables, vendors hawking their wares. Most of these are online companies, and prepping conventions are their only chance at a storefront. Each table could be a carnival game or a science fair project – the exhibitor brimming with excitement at sharing their product, and the visitor eagerly listening and ready to invest. But are they selling the next big innovation in prepping, or is it a rigged game?
One booth, PrepMe, is staffed by two middle-aged women and has a feminine vibe. They hand me pamphlets lauding their “comprehensive” PrepMeKits. What makes them comprehensive? The company keeps in contact, and as perishable goods expire (often years from now), they promise to send out replacements. They imply they’ll be around in 5, 10 years to fill the order. Another booth, a few stands over, pushes plastic cups of cardboard-colored crumbs into people’s hands. “It’s a ration bar,” the man selling them says. “3000 calories per serving. All the protein and nutrients you’ll need.”
I don’t get to read the nutrition facts, but I give it a taste. It’s bland and chalky, almost as dry as a Saltine. Still, I could see myself eating it in the apocalypse. And that’s exactly what he’s selling. The profitable language is not hypothetical: it’s not ‘if’ something happens to you, but ‘when.’ And when it does, you’ll need to be ready.
One of Be Ready Utah’s many classes focuses on pandemic response. This is the side of Be Ready Utah where the government’s hand is most visible. While the vendors and activities represent the sensationalized, attractive side of prepping, this is more palatable to everyday citizens. My father included.
We file into what could be mistaken for a classroom, with long tables and folding chairs in orderly lines. The presenter, Annie George, is an infectious disease epidemiologist in charge of monitoring COVID-19 for the Salt Lake County Health Department. Before she starts, I look around the room. Out of the 40-odd people interested in COVID-19 preparedness, only seven are wearing masks, and I’m one of them.
George begins her lecture with the “Swiss Cheese Model.” While no method of preparedness is perfect, she says, partaking in many will ensure the best protection – masks, handwashing, and of course, vaccines. Someone coughs pointedly, and several shift in their chairs. A man on the right side raises his hand.
“I’ve read a lot of articles about how the vaccine doesn’t work,” he starts in a surprising Southern drawl. “How am I supposed to know if it does anything or not?”
“It doesn’t,” someone mutters from the left.
“The CDC website has a lot of resources on vaccine efficacy, sir,” George says. “Now–,”
“What if I don’t trust the CDC,” another chimes in. The bickering continues and begins to escalate. My father huffs in annoyance. He rarely yells – he favors passive aggression over raising his voice.
“How about,” my father booms from the back row where we’re sitting, “we hold our questions for the end and listen to the woman up there who has come all this way to teach this class. I know I came here to listen to someone who knows what she’s talking about. Thank you.” Everyone quieted down after that.
Be Ready Utah is special: it represents the amalgamation of prepper consumerism and capitalism with government-driven preparedness. It partners with Home Depot, the Red Cross, and the University of Utah, not to mention several prepping companies like Harvest Right, Sophos Survival, and Food Storage Depot. They sell everything from bulk dehydrated food to essential oils to emergency backpacks – all staples of the doomsday prepping economy.
Today, at the height of prepping’s mainstream popularity, the number of conventions has dwindled. As I looked for events to attend, many of the websites hadn’t been updated since the pandemic began. Whether that can be attributed to COVID-19, changing prepper demographics, or otherwise is hard to tell. Instead, most prepper events merge with their related interests – from outdoor gear and homesteading to gun shows. (The Mountain View Expo Center hosted a combined gun-prepper show the week after Be Ready Utah.)
“It works to elicit the notion that Americans should live in constant fear, that no preparations are ever good enough, and the only way to survive in the face of disaster is to continuously buy overzealous items,” Jennifer Drissel writes in her 2015 book chapter Fear and Consumption in the Face of Disaster.
Drissel, a Pennsylvania State University PhD student, has an “infatuation with things that go bump in the night.” Her research has covered French horror films, and now turns to doomsday. She notes that the mainstream media uses our society’s real-life anxieties about natural disasters for profit by using “fear as a selling tool.”
When we get to the very back of the convention hall, we spot a six-wheeled, lime green Jeep with the tires of a monster truck. The ZMBEKLLR (pronounced “zombiekiller”) was created by Steve Prueitt, founder of Urban Survivors – a prepper company which specializes in self-defense and weapons training. The severed torso of one zombie is parked under a back wheel, arm jutting out towards my ankles. A plastic severed head dangles from the grill.
Mock missiles line the roof and mounted machine guns perch in the backseat windows, ready to be fired at an unsuspecting horde of the undead. Today, there are no bullets in them – just business cards. Maybe my father would find something noteworthy at Be Ready Utah – despite his determination to be uninterested.
I drag him over, assuring that “he’s going to get a kick out of this.” My father makes a slow circle of the truck, shaking his head and laughing to himself. He steps back and whispers (a bit too loudly): “None of these guys have girlfriends or wives.”
5- Life is About Preparing
In one of the last conversations Daisy Luther had with her father before his death, he asked her what she planned on doing with her life. Despite her stable job, Luther made no mention of climbing the rungs of the corporate ladder. She said she was going to be a writer – not that she wanted to be one, but that it would happen. Luther’s father shook his head and said: “No, you’re not. Writers write. You just talk about writing. If you want to be a writer, you have to write.” So she did.
Luther’s writing now encompasses less traditional forms of prepping, including nomadic lifestyles and urban prepping in small spaces. Luther’s most recent work, Beyond the Prepper Stockpile, turns ideas of endless consumption and preparedness on their heads. More stuff, she’s found, isn’t always the answer. Besides, she told me that “life is about preparing and adaptability.”
All the troubles with censorship and defunding aside, Luther is proud of her work and the community it’s created. Contrary to popular belief, she (and others, of course) want more people to be prepared – both to reduce strain on government resources and ensure humanity’s best chance when ‘shit hits the fan.’ Luther sees the educational resources she offers as a balm to soothe that anxiety. “It can be really overwhelming. You have to prepare for this, you have to prepare for that, and then there’s an earthquake!” she said towards the end of our conversation. “People are overwhelmed by the barrage of advanced information.”
What I first thought to be an incredibly niche topic spans thousands of websites, social media accounts, companies, and books – a bona fide doomsday-industrial complex, partially driven by fear and consumerism. As more people join the prepper ranks, its true value remains unseen. Will these new recruits fall in line with Doomsday Preppers pedagogy, or build community and help their neighbors? Will they form positive lifelong habits, or hoard until they inevitably burn out?
My friends frequently ask if I’ve been ‘converted’ by writing this thesis. Am I a prepper now? The answer, regrettably, is not really. I know that being ready for an emergency would not only ease my anxieties now, but also make me a reliable member of my community when ‘shit hits the fan.’ Nevertheless, I have no intentions of bulk ordering MREs. For now, I’m content to refill and hoard a small army of water bottles, keep some cash stocked, and consider buying a knife. I don’t believe I’d survive the zombie apocalypse, but I won’t lay down and die either. And that balance is good enough for me.
There’s no all-encompassing answer for what preppers hope to gain by participating in the doomsday-industrial complex. Sponsorships, ad revenue, and book sales are all profitable, but preppers tend to have day jobs. They’re firefighters, emergency managers, and freelancers. Many, like Daisy Luther and Nat Foster, enjoy the financial benefits but value the human side more. “I really, really love to see people getting involved in the community,” Luther told me. While it isn’t the most lucrative part of her business, it’s the “most rewarding.”
Once every few months, Luther holds a sale where each of the 17 books she’s written is marked down to one dollar each – all in the name of providing those resources equitably, regardless of profit. She’ll even send you a free PDF if you can’t swing the discounted rates. “I think anything that makes it more accessible to people and acceptable to people is wonderful,” she said. “And I want everybody to feel welcome.”