Why I am Not a Doomsday Prepper

My first real exposure to the world of prepping came in 2008, when I became a new father and we moved to San Francisco, an earthquake zone. A lot of people in the Bay Area keep stockpiles of food and water on-hand for when The Big One hits, and since my wife was super nervous about earthquakes and I’m a former Boy Scout, we picked up a few cases of MREs and a water barrel.

Later, I added double-barreled coach gun for defensive purposes, making it my first time to live with a gun in the house since I left home for college at 17. But after that I called it a day. As far as I was concerned, we were ready for an earthquake, and that was that.

I didn’t take things much further for a few years. I didn’t even own anything that qualifies as a “survival knife” until 2012. I had dipped my toe in the waters of prepping, and I started to read more about it online. Prepping has two peculiar aspects that I found completely compelling: 1) it involves shopping for and acquiring Really Cool Gear, and 2) it has a community that longs for a world where we’re no longer compelled to work jobs we hate so that we can buy Really Cool Gear that we don’t need. In other words, prepping is hyper-consumerist in practice and anti-consumerist in outlook (sort of in the way that war is frequently justified by the desire for peace). Both aspects appealed to me, especially the gear part.

But this isn’t a treatise on prepping. Rather, it’s about why I don’t prep for The End Of The World As We Know It, TSHTF, the apocalypse, the collapse, or whatever else you want to call it. Yes, I do keep an excessive amount of long term storage food on hand–my urban-dwelling family of five is prepared for roughly three months of loss of access to basic services, but I’m not even remotely interested in doing any more. Of course, by most people’s standards, having three months of dehydrated food on hand is just completely insane, but by prepper standards I’ve basically given up and will just die in the second wave rather than the first.

While I think that prepping for a few months loss of access to basic services is a little nutty but theoretically justifiable, I am convinced that prepping for a Hollywood-style apocalypse is totally pointless. Here’s my case against Doomsday Prepping.

Population, Population, Population
If an apocalypse of biblical proportions were to take place, and by “biblical” I mean literally out the book of Revelation, where one third of the globe’s population is wiped out, then the US would be home to as many people as it was in the early 1970’s. Now, the ’70’s were bad–so bad, in fact, that they gave this country its first full-blown survivalist wave, the predecessor to the one that we’re currently in. But that decade was by no means the Thunderdome.

Wiping out two thirds of the population would bring us back to the opening decades of the 1900’s, the era of the early seasons of Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire. Neither of these two shows look anything like The Walking Dead to me.

Killing off a whopping 90% of the population would take us back to 1860, the year that Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th president of the United States. I also saw the movie Lincoln, and it, too, did not look like The Walking Dead.

Losing 99% of our population would take us back to the post-Revolutionary War period of the 1780’s. At that point, Harvard University had already been operating for about 150 years. Again, Rick Grimes’ group of survivors would be out of place here.

My point is this: with only 1% of our present population, humanity had arts and letters, transatlantic trade, a thriving stock market (in London, at least, and a few years later in the US)–in short, we had civilization. It was not a Hobbesian “state of nature.”

Sure, the immediate aftermath of a sudden event that wiped out 99% of the population would look pretty much like a textbook “state of nature,” but before long we’d be back to doing our thing. And I’m pretty sure the stock market wouldn’t take more than a few days off, at most. Which brings me to my next point.

The Stock Exchange
People in the west have been trading securities in some form or fashion since the 1600’s. The NYSE got its formal start in 1790, and trading has continued more or less uninterrupted since then. In other words, the stock market kept going through the Civil War. Think about that. The country was split in half. We were shooting at each other. Armies marched on towns and burned them, right here on US soil. But corporations continued to operate, they continued to be worth money, and Wall Streeters continued to trade their shares.

The Civil War was about as bad as it gets, but yet again, it was not TWD. Students still went to school and university. Stores were still open. The trains still ran. And in general, the machinery of modern life and civilization chugged on. The coverage was spotty in places, but it was still there, and things sprung back pretty quickly once the shooting stopped.

Farming is Hard, Hunting is Impossible
Let’s say that we truly do end up in a TWD-style total apocalypse. If this happens, my only hope is that me and mine die very quickly. I buy groceries for my family periodically (my wife does most of the shopping), so I see first-hand how many calories it takes to feed all of us. It ain’t pretty, and the kids are all still little (the oldest is 6). Once they start eating like teenagers, then things will really get crazy.

I grew up hunting, so I know how hard it is to take game. There’s a reason why Native American tribes would routinely have winters where they lost half or more of their people to starvation. It’s insanely hard to get calories by killing animals, even for people who are taught to hunt and trap from the time they can walk.

Farming is a much better option, but it’s also really hard, takes experience and specialized knowledge, and is notoriously unreliable. Crops can and do fail, and people who do subsistence farming can and do go hungry.

Sure, there are survivalists who live off-grid and maintain fully functioning farms with livestock, produce, and the whole nine yards. These people will likely do okay (although even many of those guys are kidding themselves because they’re still dependent on gasoline), but that doesn’t matter to me because I am not one of them, nor am I ever going to be.

If things don’t snap back after our freeze dried food runs out, then we’re goners. But I’m not going to uproot my entire life to prepare for the (essentially zero probability) scenario that Hollywood is right about what the End of the World looks like.

Real Prepping is No Fun
So, there you have it: I am not interested in prepping for doomsday because I think it’s totally pointless. Doomsday is just not coming, at least not in the Hollywood sense.

And if a Hollywood doomsday were to arrive–an asteroid strike or some other cosmic catastrophe-then we will all just die. But we will also die if we catch a deadly disease, get hit by a drunk driver, get cancer, or any one of a million other things that are vastly more likely to befall us than an asteroid strike. Which is why for me, “prepping” looks like this: I wear my seatbelt, I don’t smoke, I eat my vegetables, I try to get some exercise, I have a stand-up desk, and other lame and un-fun things.

Like the doomsday prepper crowd, I still dream of a world where we’re not defined by where we work or what we buy, and where the Internet doesn’t suck up 110% of our time and attention with pointless trivialities. But if that world comes about, it’s going to happen because we all got fed up enough with the status quo to make major changes. No diabolus ex machina is going to smash Weber’s iron cage and magically transport us back to a simpler, less hectic time where we all sat on the porch in the evenings playing guitar and having real, face-to-face relationships with our neighbors. No, we’re going to have to do that stuff all by ourselves.

Story by Alex Aylar