AFTER “the Crunch”—the total collapse of the global economy—trade seized up, the power grid shut down and paper money became worthless. Riots gutted city centres. Looters picked them clean. Americans went back to growing their own food and bartering with their neighbours. Those who had failed to stockpile beans and bullets were soon hungry and defenceless. The “Great Die-Off” hit Florida especially hard. Millions of suntanned retirees died of starvation or chronic diseases after the government stopped paying for their pensions and pills.
Jake and Janelle Altmiller survived. They were practical people, who knew how to clean a rifle and install solar panels on the roof. But even for them, life was stressful. Janelle’s sister Rhiannon was working as a missionary in the Philippines, which was being invaded by Islamist radicals from Indonesia. Neither telephones nor the internet worked properly any more. How could Janelle find out whether her sister was alive? And how would any of them survive in a world that was falling apart?
At first I was afraid
Readers have always enjoyed scaring themselves with post-apocalyptic yarns, from Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. What makes “Expatriates: a Novel of the Coming Global Collapse” different is that its author is not just telling a story. James Wesley, Rawles (he insists on the comma, for some reason) thinks modern society really is likely to collapse. He wants readers to take his novels seriously, and to be prepared.
No one knows how many survivalists (also known as “preppers”) there are in America. Mr Rawles claims that his “SurvivalBlog”, which offers practical tips for remaining alive after The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) has 320,000 readers a week. The American Preppers Network, an umbrella group for those who see storm clouds everywhere, claims 52,000 members; it is anyone’s guess what fraction of the total that represents. The movement is decentralised and full of people who value their privacy. “You don’t want to be known as the guy who has 3-4 years’ supply of food in the basement. Because one day you could see it confiscated by the government or stolen by neighbours like hungry locusts,” says Mr Rawles. “In the event of a disaster, I don’t want to wake up and see my yard full of teepees and yurts.”
If your neighbour is a prepper, therefore, you may not know it. Yet the stereotypical image of a survivalist as a loner in combat fatigues who hunkers down in a remote bunker is plainly inaccurate. Some do indeed live in rural cabins, but most have jobs, which means many live in cities or suburbs. Survivalists—a group that is at once characteristically American yet marginal and unloved—are much more diverse than you might imagine.
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I was petrified
Jason Charles, an affable African-American fireman in New York, leads a group of avid preppers who meet at weekends to practise survival skills and debate impending threats: as well as being more varied, survivalists are much more sociable than they are thought to be. Mr Charles started reading SurvivalBlog several years ago and quickly realised that “these guys don’t live in New York.” For example, Mr Rawles has a ranch; Mr Charles lives in a flat in Harlem. That rules out self-sufficiency: where would he plant corn or raise pigs?
A few weeks before the first Ebola victim in America died, Mr Charles and two dozen others met in a room above a church to discuss how to prepare for an epidemic. Mr Charles has done his homework: he talks of different strains of Ebola, of transmission modes and fatality rates. He takes it for granted that no one in the room trusts the media or the government to be of much help. He warns people to prepare for the worst. If Ebola hits New York, “at some point you’re going to want to bug in [ie, take refuge in your apartment] or bug out [ie, flee].” Practically everyone in the audience has ideas and questions. If millions of New Yorkers are dying of Ebola and you need to escape from the city, don’t go to Harriman State Park. “Every hiker and their mother will be there.” Better to have a bug-out truck packed, fuelled and ready, so you can drive to a pre-prepared refuge in the countryside.
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If you have nowhere to go, you should stay at home. And if so, you’ll need food, water, duct tape, garbage bags and sand (for using as a makeshift toilet). Have a blackout at night, so you don’t give your position away to prowling looters. Get plenty of entertainment—“I guarantee you’ll be bored out of your mind,” says Mr Charles. If a friend comes round, put him in your quarantine room. (Don’t seal if off completely or he’ll find it hard to breathe.)
Gruesome practicalities are confronted frankly. If you need to dispose of a corpse, for example, put plastic sheeting on the bed, wrap the body up, seal it with duct tape, and, if you have nowhere to bury it, leave it on the kerb with the deceased’s name and date of birth written on the bag. (Not his social-security number; that would allow someone to steal the dead man’s identity.)
Mr Charles’s group talks a lot about equipment. Should you buy a solar panel that straps to your back so you can charge your phone as you flee the city? Or a “waterbob”: a plastic bag that sits in your bath and can store 100 gallons of water. Should the group club together to buy gas masks more cheaply?
But I grew strong
Preppers love this sort of debate. Mr Rawles’s blog carries endless discussions of the merits of different ham radios or types of body armour, and the best way to build a safe room or smoke a fish over an open fire. It runs ads from GunMagWarehouse.com (“the largest selection of in-stock magazines anywhere”) and from SafeCastle.com (“Get ready seriously with a steel-plate Safecastle shelter”). His novels carry nearly as much advice as his instruction manuals, and similar disclaimers, such as: “some of the devices ...described in this novel are possibly illegal in some jurisdictions.”
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Many American cities have strict gun-control laws, which is frustrating. And urban preppers face other difficulties. “You have to adapt,” says Mr Charles. In the corners and cupboards of his apartment he has stacked tins of beans and sausages, bags of sugar, rice and ramen noodles and a variety of useful equipment. He has a tank of drinking water in the corridor, a first-aid kit, a portable stove and a crossbow he has not yet got round to assembling. He has more food in a storage unit nearby, and an inflatable raft in case he needs to escape across the river when the bridges are blocked or burning. His “bug-out bag” is always ready.
Mr Charles has written a short fold-out guide of his own: “Emergency Bag Essentials: Everything You Need to Bug Out”. His publishers had one complaint—the bag was too heavy. Mr Charles does not think it was, but this is perhaps because he is, even by the standards of iron-pumping firemen, enormous. Your correspondent tried to help him move a rucksack to his car. It felt like there was a piano inside. It turned out to be full of wet sandbags, which Mr Charles likes to carry up and down stairs.
Survivalism has a long history in America. The early settlers were survivalists, though they did not use the term. They built their own houses, grew their own food and filled their stores with whatever supplies they could, knowing that failure to do so might be fatal. The pioneers who trekked out West in the 19th century expected to meet hardship and danger. Those who went well armed and well prepared were more likely to survive.
Survivalists today draw inspiration from the pioneers. They look at modern civilisation, in all its opulence, and see a house of cards. Many have a puritan streak: letting other people grow your food and chop down trees for you is somehow unmanly. Ours is “a pampered, prissified society that doesn’t know how to revert to third-world living standards,” laments Mr Rawles.
There is a religious tinge to prepping, too. Americans are more religious than people in other rich countries. Roughly four in ten expect Jesus to return by 2050, and although the Book of Revelation is hardly crystal clear about the details, many think the Second Coming will be preceded by a “Great Tribulation” involving earthquakes, floods, famine, the rise of the Antichrist and the death of most of humanity. Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series of novels about the “End Times” has sold 65m copies. Preachers at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, argue that Barack Obama is the Antichrist, implying that the end is very nigh indeed.
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If civilisation collapses, Mr Rawles will be ready. He lives at an undisclosed location somewhere in the “American Redoubt”—a name he coined for an area that includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of neighbouring Oregon and Washington state. He argues that this temperate, sparsely populated region will be the safest refuge when order breaks down. He divides his time between preparing for the apocalypse and advising others on how to do the same. Besides his fiction and his blogging, he writes instruction manuals (such as “How to Survive The End Of The World As We Know It”) and offers one-to-one consulting. For security reasons Mr Rawles refuses to be interviewed face to face, but he is friendly and articulate on the telephone.
And I learned how to get along
The reasons survivalists give for thinking civilisation might be about to end have changed over time. Mr Rawles remembers nearly all of them. He grew up in California in the 1960s. His father worked at what is now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear-research facility. He mixed with the children of nuclear bomb-makers. His neighbours were acutely aware of the threat of nuclear war; many built fallout shelters. “I suppose it was inevitable that I would start to think [about] preparedness,” muses Mr Rawles. As a teenager, he packed himself a “bug-out bag”. “I thought I would disappear into the woods with a backpack and a pistol,” he says. “That’s not realistic, but at least I had a plan.”
As an adult Mr Rawles joined the Army Reserve, where he worked as an intelligence officer during the cold war. As he sifted information, he reached some alarming conclusions. Poor societies are fragile, but if the electricity fails, they carry on much as before, he observed. Rich societies, by contrast, are unprepared to function without grid power. “If the power went out for a week, people would be at each other’s throats,” he predicts. Without electricity homes in the north would turn into freezers; those in the south would turn into “sweaty saunas”.
America has grown too dependent not only on technology but also on long, complex supply chains, many of which stretch “beyond our own borders”, Mr Rawles notes darkly. To keep inventories low and cut costs, companies have come to rely on “just-in-time” delivery. If a disaster were to disrupt all this, people could quickly find themselves without diabetes drugs, oxygen for respirators and spare parts for more or less everything.
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So how might TEOTWAWKI come about? The biggest threat, says Mr Rawles, is a huge solar flare. The last big one, in 1859, known as the “Carrington Event”, disabled telegraph lines. A similar disaster today would “fry the circuitry” of electronic devices and take out the power grid “from end to end”. It would take years to reactivate. Perhaps 60% of the American population could die, predicts Mr Rawles. And that is only one terrifying possibility. The others listed in “How to Survive The End Of The World As We Know It” include: hyperinflationary depression, deflationary depression, biological terrorism, nuclear war, an oil embargo, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and an asteroid strike-(Must Watch This Video)
Even this list is not exhaustive. Survivalists often listen to the news and extrapolate. When the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked riots this year, many decided to buy another gun, in case the lawlessness spread. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and looters ran wild for a couple of days in 2005, many concluded that Western civilisation was a veneer that might suddenly give way to chaos.
Did you think I’d lay down and die?
Survivalists vary politically—just as they are dispersed geographically—and their views colour their apocalyptic imaginings. Many are conservatives, worried about crime, terrorism and hyperinflation and sure that the state cannot be relied upon to protect ordinary citizens. But a fair number are environmentalists, convinced that the planet can only take so much abuse before it becomes uninhabitable. The movement is broad enough to encompass anyone who suspects that disaster is looming, for any reason. It used to be mostly “Bible-believing Christian conservatives”, says Mr Rawles, “But now we have a lot of alfalfa-munching Birkenstock-wearing leftists.” He adds: “The more the better.”
What really differentiates survivalists from each other is not why they prepare, but how thoroughly. Urbanites who fill a cupboard with military rations are at one end of the spectrum. Mr Rawles is at the other. He thought hard about where to build his retreat. He found somewhere isolated, with a good supply of fresh water and in a state with permissive gun laws. It is 25 minutes to the nearest small town, and two hours to the nearest place with good shopping. He is surrounded by forest: “You can saddle up a horse, ride for miles and see no one.” He raises livestock, including Tibetan yaks. His children are home-schooled. He has solar panels for when the power fails, and three years’ supply of food in his stores. The average American family has only three days’ worth, he says, barely masking his scorn. He is also well armed.
When civilisation collapses, he predicts, the world will go back to barter. Buy silver, he advises; gold is too valuable for small transactions. And buy lots of different kinds of ammunition to barter with, because the guy you want to buy petrol or poultry from may not use the same calibre of gun as you do.
One of the most common problems that preppers face is “resistance in their own family”, says Mr Rawles. Many “have a spouse who is dubious, or at best puts up with preparedness as a hobby”. On this, he and Mr Charles in New York concur. When he first starting prepping, Mr Charles blew a load of money on long-lasting ready meals “and got yelled at” by his wife. If the balloon goes up, however, she and the children would bug out with him. So would the dog, which would carry its food and collapsible bowl in its own strap-on doggy-bug-out-bag.
Oh no, not I
Some Americans find survivalists sinister. After Adam Lanza shot 26 people in a school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, the media made much of the fact that his mother was a gun-stockpiling prepper. Yet there is no evidence that preppers in general are more dangerous than their compatriots. On the contrary, when natural disasters strike, it is useful to have neighbours who know how to stormproof a house and have bandages to spare. Tom Martin of the American Preppers Network, a trucker who delivered aid to victims of Hurricane Ike in Texas, was amazed to see people who were not poor lining up for bottled water. “Why weren’t they prepared? Don’t they realise there are 30 gallons in their hot water tank?”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency urges everyone to have a disaster-preparedness kit containing enough food, water and other supplies to last 72 hours. This is sensible advice, and preppers have a point when they mock those who ignore it.
However, stockpiling several years of supplies is expensive, and to avoid wasting it you will have to eat a lot of tinned ravioli. Time spent building a looter-proof bunker or learning how to grind your own flour is time not spent reading Shakespeare or playing tennis. If you enjoy grinding flour more than playing tennis, fine. If practising survival skills in the woods thrills you, go ahead. But if not, you might weigh the opportunity costs of prepping against the likelihood of apocalypse.
An asteroid could of course strike the Earth and kill everyone. And a terrorist might let off a dirty bomb in a big city. But the idea that modern society is just one shock away from collapse seems far-fetched. The financial crash of 2008 was catastrophic, but it led neither to starvation nor bloodshed. Ebola has ravaged parts of west Africa, but rich countries seem quite capable of containing it. Even a tsunami followed by a nuclear meltdown in Japan, awful though it was, did not cause the global economy to buckle.
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Civilisation is robust because it depends first and foremost on what is in people’s heads. That is why Japan and Germany were able to rebuild so quickly after the second world war, even though their cities had been reduced to ashes. It is why New York recovered swiftly after the attacks of September 11th 2001. It is why New Orleans today is perfectly safe (and rather wonderful) to visit.
Still, if the optimists (such as your correspondent) are wrong, the preppers will have the last laugh. But “laugh” is perhaps not the right word. “In a post-collapse society,” says Mr Rawles, “I won’t know what’s going on beyond my own line of sight on my ranch.” The fear, uncertainty and doubt will be overwhelming.