It’s cold and flu season, and your friendly neighborhood Go Big Read blogger took a sick day earlier in the week and spent the afternoon on the couch. Buried under blankets, I ended up catching a few episodes of the show Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel.
|An underground fallout shelter. Image source.|
In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss recounts an interview with Vic Rantala, president of Safecastle, LLC. Safecastle is a major seller of “prepping” materials, from meals-ready-to-eat to body armor to portable solar power generators to full-blown fallout shelters. Vic Rantala describes how his personal experience, working as a “designated NBC – Nuclear, Biological, Chemical – specialist” in Germany during the Cold War, led to his personal belief in preparing for worst-case scenarios. “You don’t have to be a wacko,” he says. “You don’t have to be a gun nut. You don’t even have to suspect the government of any conspiracies. It’s logical to have a plan. […] What I’m selling is not necessarily protection. What I’m selling is peace of mind. Whenever something big happens, it’s going to be something that no one expected.” (Redniss 149)
Doomsday Preppers explores the lives of people who have taken Rantala’s philosophy to heart, and are busily preparing for the end of the world, whatever form it happens to take. Preppers stockpile food, water, and other resources; they build fallout shelters in their homes or maintain shelters elsewhere; they practice “bug out” drills (bugging out refers to quickly leaving home for a safer location in the event of an emergency) and outfit themselves with body armor, hazmat suits and, yes, weapons. You can view clips of the show on the National Geographic Channel website, and you can even take a quiz to determine your own “prepper score.” (Your score is determined by the length of time you would likely survive in a worst-case scenario. If that’s not anxiety-inducing, I don’t know what is!)
As bizarre as this might seem to some of us, however, prepping is certainly not a new phenomenon. Anyone who studied the Cold War in high school or college will probably remember the famous Duck and Cover video, put out by the Federal Administration for Civil Defense in 1952. Below, a clip from the film.
Federal Administration for Civil Defense, 1952.
These were the scariest years of the Cold War, the height of the McCarthy era, when every stranger was a potential communist and it was assumed that the Soviet Union could be deploying its nuclear weapons at any moment (weapons built, of course, on the foundation of the Curies’ research on radiation—though neither of them lived long enough to see where their research had led). At this time, citizens were encouraged by civil defense organizations to build fallout shelters in their homes and to stockpile food, water, gas masks and other resources to help them survive in the event of a nuclear war. Today’s Doomsday Preppers are only following in a long tradition. Though the Communists with their atomic bombs may no longer be the “Big Bad” of our collective cultural imagination, there are other things to fear: global warming, government conspiracies, bioterrorism, a zombie apocalypse, the supposed “2012 prophecies,” and more.
Certainly, there are things in this world that are frightening, and preparation for certain disasters and emergencies is wise. As Vic Rantala points out, peace of mind is a valuable thing. However, sixty years from now, these prepping extremes might seem as silly and antiquated as Bert the Turtle and his “duck and cover” technique—or maybe the preppers will have the last laugh after all.
To learn more about modern-day prepping, head over to the American Preppers Network, and check out their guide to getting started in prepping. Or visit either of these sites for more information. You can also check out Vic Rantala’s company, Safecastle, LLC.
Doomsday Preppers airs Tuesday nights at 8pm CT on the National Geographic Channel.
Brooke Williams, Go Big Read grad student