Why American individualism is perfectly suited to the prepper apocalyptic movement


When the pandemic hit last year, it didn’t take long for grocery stores to clean their shelves. Long queues formed as shoppers scrambled to stock up on canned goods, water and toilet paper. For some, however, preparing for the apocalypse is serious business. The preparers of Doomsday are more than just marginal survivalists. High-end luxury apocalypse shelters are increasingly popular among the mega-rich, and, fueled by times of chaos and uncertainty, end times preparation has grown into a multi-million dollar industry.

In “Notes from an Apocalypse, a Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back,” Irish author Mark O’Connell explores survival destinations around the world and examines why people feel the need to go to great lengths. to prepare for “The End of Time.” While survivalism has global appeal, he says America’s robust individualism is particularly suited to the Prepper movement.

Jonathan Bastian of KCRW chats with O’Connell about the necessity and practice of preparation, from luxury underground bunkers to garages full of cans, water and gasoline – and why ‘closing the hatches’ has so much to do with the fancy that she does it with fear.

Mark O’Connell. Photo by Richard Gilligan.

KCRW: Is survivalism a 20th century phenomenon, or something that goes way back in history?

Mark O’Connell: “Survival, like in the kind of apocalyptic prepper-type movements that I look at in my book, is, I think, a very modern contemporary phenomenon. But it has its roots in cyclical moments of apocalyptic fervor that have arisen throughout history. It is something that tends to arise at times of particular social and political upheaval. Apocalyptic myths tend to be something people cling to to explain, I guess, the sense of chaos and uncertainty around the future.

It seems that psychologically, the human mind is drawn to this idea of ​​the end of time. Do you think this is a theme that is repeated over and over again?

“To put it in pop psychological terms, we are creatures that thrive and move across the world through stories. We are narrative creatures. And one of the things the apocalypse does is it creates a Sense of Narrative Literary critic Frank Kermode has an astonishing book called “The Sense of an End”, where he talks about the fact that we are born as, he says, in the midst of things, in medias res. ‘have no idea where we’re coming from or where we’re going. And what the apocalypse does is it kind of allows us to project ourselves into an ending. So it gives a kind of narrative coherence to the times. of chaos and uncertainty.

When you began this exploration of survivalism, did you find those feelings to be particularly strong in the United States, that this is where a lot of the action took place?

“Yes of course. I started with the book by really looking at the whole doomsday scene, people digging bunkers and storing cans, and talking about the end of time coming. And it’s an international movement, there are a lot of preppers in Ireland, Britain and all over Europe, but really the most fervent and intense stuff tends to come, unsurprisingly, from the States. “United. And there are several reasons for that.”

One of them is that America seems to me to be a country with a particularly intense historically and culturally relationship with the apocalypse. The United States, as a colonial enterprise, was born out of a moment of apocalyptic fervor in Europe, with pilgrims, etc. And there’s something about the Prepper movement that kind of recaps that feeling of fervor of America’s early European colonizers and pilgrims, and so on.

When the preparers talk about the collapse of civilization, they often talk about a situation where there is no more government, where you cannot rely on “society”, you cannot rely on your fellow human beings. And it’s just you, the tough kind of individual, pitting yourself against the wilderness or other people, wild people, and so on. And there’s a feeling of going back to some of the darker mythologies at the heart of this moment in American history with the prepper movement, I think.

When you started sampling these different prepper movements across the United States, did you discover that there was an archetypal figure or a certain personality that kept popping up across the landscape?

“Yes. To a certain extent it is a large church, but certain types of pre-existing ideological conditions have continued to arise. One of them is a real investment in the idea of ​​the individual, as opposed to the community. So many people that I looked at in the book, and so many movements, are based on the idea that you can’t rely on others to help you through difficult and catastrophic times. So the preppers have tendency to take care of themselves, their families, to close hatches, to stock up on things they can, and hell with everyone, but also to defend against others.

It’s a strand that I have seen appear in many different types of movements that I have watched. One of the things that I did was spend time in a very remote part of South Dakota… on a former dairy farm that a guy called Robert Vicino, who is kind of a apocalyptic real estate entrepreneur, had bought.

He specializes, one might say, in luxury doomsday solutions. Very well laid out, sort of five star quality bunkers with things like private cinemas and wine cellars and hydroponic vegetable gardens etc. And he had bought this place in South Dakota and turned it into what he called “the greatest survival community in the world.” And really, that kind of sales rhetoric around it, and also pretty conspiratorial political rhetoric, was that some kind of collapse scenario was coming. You could almost take your pick on what you feared the most, or fantasized about the most, whether it was your nuclear war, or a viral pandemic, or whatever, but in these scenarios, the government won’t let you know. will not protect. . And you’re going to have to band together with a small group of other like-minded individualists, if that’s not too contradictory in terms, and protect yourself from humanity as a whole.

All of these things seem implicitly political to me, in the sense that if you claim that you have to protect yourself, and that you have to protect yourself from others, be it urban populations or whatever you have, that seems like a point of view. quite political. And it is not a hazard. I think most of the doomsday preparers and doomsday aficionados that I have examined in the book tend, but not exclusively, to come from fairly right-wing political backgrounds.

You said these people envision many different ways the world could be turned upside down, and that they will have to rely on their own kind. Are there any other common theories that you have come up with? Could it be a plague? Could it be some kind of civil war? What is the end of time like for many of these people?

“I started the book because of my own anxiety about the future of myself and my family. And for me, climate change, of course, is the big locus of the apocalyptic malaise. But what I started to discover was that in fact, the most fervent apocalyptic obsessive, for lack of a better term, tended not to be that concerned about climate change.

They tended to worry about the prospect of a nuclear strike from North Korea, for example. A viral pandemic is quite common. Asteroids hitting objects, electromagnetic pulse attacks, all kinds of things your average person wouldn’t spend so much time thinking about. But if you have an anxious temper, learning these things is quite a journey. “

How important is the economy at the end of the world?

“It depends on who you listen to. If you listen to the people who sell it, you will find that it is a boom area. I think it’s still pretty niche. But things like wealthy individuals buying land in New Zealand, that’s a real thing. … The other thing is dedicated companies whose purpose is to build these complexes with golf courses and defensive arrangements and so on. And there are quite a few of these companies. Not surprisingly, most of them tend to be Americans. And a lot of their clients tend to be Americans, but they have facilities all over the world, including Europe.

So Robert Vicino, who was the guy I spent time with in South Dakota, he has a number of these facilities. The place I visited was of the less fancy kind, the kind of lower middle class doomsday fix. But it was a situation where you buy a bunker that’s essentially an empty shell, and you set it up to your own specifications. And the idea would be that it develops into a community of like-minded individuals. But there are all kinds of them, depending on your level of wealth, how much you want to spend, and the different levels you can access.

Did you ever find something that blew you away, or something very weird, when you walked into some of these bunkers?

“The only bunkers I physically entered were those empty South Dakota shells. It is an extraordinary place. And I write a lot in the book about the landscape and the almost surreal aspect of the place. It was originally built during World War II as an ammunition storage facility. So they’re all hexagonal, I think 550 of them, across the ranch, which is about three-quarters the size of Manhattan. … It almost looks like an alien landscape. Incredibly beautiful, and also very strange, and a little strange. “

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