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Preparing for the apocalypse the rational way

If your doomsday plans don’t involve your neighbours, they are bad plans, writes Margaret Killjoy

5 to 6 minute read

People sitting in front of a help station run by the Common Ground Collective mutual aid network in New Orleans, Louisiana

Preparedness, especially when it’s called ‘prepping’, has a bad name, and for good reason. The prevalent image of the prepper is a right-wing, white, middle-class cis man in his 40s or 50s who stockpiles guns, food and ammunition, prioritised in roughly that order. You can watch reality TV shows about this guy, or YouTube channels made by him that might as well be titled How to Survive the Apocalypse Alone in the Woods with a Hatchet Eating Squirrels You Hunt With the Aforementioned Hatchet.

Which, I’ll be real, makes for good YouTube watching. It just doesn’t make for very good preparedness. Or more to the point, it doesn’t present a particularly accurate picture of what preparedness actually looks like for most humans on the planet.

Because most people, in most places and most times in history, have concerned themselves with preparedness whenever they can. The right-wing doomsday prepper isn’t even representative of the vast majority of preppers, even under that name.

I would be a hypocrite and a fool to make fun of rural people in the US who dry their own food, keep their pantry as stocked as they can afford to, keep an extra five gallons of gas in a can in the garage, catch their rainwater for their garden, own and train with and maintain firearms, and pay attention to potential disruptions in infrastructure. I’m one of those people. I do all of those things. Most people who do those things aren’t living in some right-wing fantasy world – they’re applying values passed down through the generations.

Prepping from the right

Western societies present an illusion of stability to their inhabitants, so people who prioritise preparedness stand out, seem different, and are therefore mocked. But regular disruptions in services – the electrical grid, grocery supply chains, potable water infrastructure, access to gasoline, everything – are already here. And throughout most of the world, the stability of infrastructure has not been taken for granted. Therefore, all sorts of people have been and are preppers, whether under that name or not.

The far right represents a fringe, albeit a prominent one, in preparedness culture. No reasonable person is excited about being in company with people with swastika tattoos and confederate flags, and plenty of us are not safe around such people.

High-profile, right-wing approaches to preparedness focus on individual and family-level preparedness above all else. They’re ‘I’ve got mine, fuck you’ in the same way that right-wing politics tend to be. This act of excluding others is perhaps the core of right-wing ideology, and differences within right wing ideology could perhaps be understood as differences in scale of this exclusion. A right-libertarian might focus on the individual and family level of ‘I’ve got mine, fuck you’ while a right-wing nationalist extends their exclusion out to the national level: ‘We’ve got ours, fuck you.’ The armed, fortified and angry homestead versus the armed, fortified and angry nation – the latter being familiar to both US and UK readers, I suspect.

Neither of these strategies of exclusion, at the personal or the national level, are ethical or strategic ways to handle crisis. Mutual aid is and has always been a better strategy during times of crisis than any top-down organising or isolationism. During times of crisis, the social barriers between people break down, as do the laws. Rather than competing for scarce resources, study after study shows that when faced with crisis, people’s natural inclination to work together to solve shared problems wins out.

Anarchist prepping

The anarchist, or leftist, approach, or, I would argue, just the rational approach to preparing for crisis is to include other people – friends, family, neighbours, and strangers alike – in your primary plan and your contingency plans.

Imagine two cities in the apocalypse. One builds walls to keep people out and hoard and defend its resources, while the other lets in refugees. The walled city would have the short-term benefit of fewer mouths to feed with limited supplies. The open city, however, would have a far more valuable resource – people. People, when organised (especially horizontally), are capable of, well, basically anything. More people means more farmers, more engineers, more organisers, more medics, even more military might if it comes to that.

The same is true on the smaller scale. If you and your five best reasonable sounding plan will have a disproportionate impact on how the chaotic situation resolves. So first and foremost, what behoves the anarchist prepper is to learn organising, or work with those who do it. Learn how to interject horizontal organisational ideas, such as consensus decision making, conflict mediation, general assemblies and federations, into chaotic situations.

Some of that work can be done ahead of time, of course, whether formally by setting up mutual aid organisations or federations of activist groups, or informally by just getting to know your neighbours. This kind of work pays off even if there is no dramatic crisis – mutual aid and community enrich anyone’s life.

Mutual aid is and has always been a better strategy during times of crisis than any top-down organising or isolationism

This isn’t to say that individual preparedness – stored supplies and tools, learned survival skills, and the like – aren’t useful. They are. Staying alive as an individual or family is a fine goal on its own (although easier in the context of a resilient community), and of course the prepared individual is in a better place to be of help to their community and requires less in return.

Anarchist preparedness differs too from the state-level approach, which has, at its core, the priority of the continuation of its governance rather than the continuation of human life. Police protect property from those who would redistribute that property to those in need. Complex bureaucracies make decisions from the top down, which both slows down decision making (as orders must move through the chain of command) and leaves those with less on-the-ground experience calling the shots. Anarchist preparedness, and disaster relief, is organic and is built with solidarity and mutual aid as its core principles.

We cannot let the right or the state control the conversation about preparedness. Preparedness is a reasonable thing that we should all be doing as best suits our skills and access to resources. Because the crisis is already here, and it’s just a matter of where and when it is and isn’t more severe.

This article first appeared in issue #237, Autumn 2022, Power in Unions. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Margaret Killjoy is an anarchist author, musician and host of the Cool People Who Did Cool Stuff podcast

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