Article originally written by Paul Harris and published at The Observer
Tess Pennington, 33, is a mother of three children, and lives in the sprawling outskirts of Houston, Texas. But she is not taking the happy safety of her suburban existence lightly.
Like a growing army of fellow Americans, Pennington is learning how to grow her own food, has stored emergency rations in her home and is taking courses on treating sickness with medicinal herbs.
“I feel safe and more secure. I have taken personal responsibility for the safety of myself and of my family,” Pennington said. “We have decided to be prepared. There all kinds of disasters that can happen, natural and man-made.”
Pennington is a “prepper”, a growing social movement that has been dubbed Survivalism Lite. Preppers believe that it is better to be safe than sorry and that preparing for disaster – be it a hurricane or the end of civilisation – makes sense.
Unlike the 1990s survivalists, preppers come from all backgrounds and live all over America. They are just as likely to be found in a suburb or downtown loft as a remote ranch in the mountains. Prepping networks, which have sprung up all over the country in the past few years, provide advice on how to prepare food reserves, how to grow crops in your garden, how to hunt and how to defend yourself. There are prepping books, online shops, radio shows, countless blogs, prepping courses and prepping conferences.
John Milandred runs a website called Pioneer Living, which is one of the main forums for discussing prepping. It provides a range of advice for those who just want to store extra food in case of a power cut, to those who want to embrace the “off the grid” lifestyle of America’s western pioneers. “We get inquiries from people from all walks of life. We had a principal from a school asking us to talk to their children. We have doctors and firemen and lawyers,” he said.
Milandred lives in Oklahoma and, should society collapse around him, he is well placed to flourish. Indeed, he might not notice that much. His house has a hand-dug well that gives him fresh water. He grows his own food. He has built an oven that needs neither gas nor electricity. He can hunt for meat. “If something happened, it really would not affect us,” he said.
There are several reasons for the rise of prepping. The first is that, in the post-9/11 world, mass terror attacks have become a fear for many Americans. At a time when US diplomacy is focused on preventing Iran getting nuclear weapons and terror experts continue to warn of “dirty bombs” on American soil, it is no surprise that many Americans feel threatened. Added to that paranoia has come the recession. Suddenly, millions of Americans have been losing their jobs and their homes, reinforcing a feeling that society is not as stable as it once seemed.
Hollywood has caught on. A succession of films, such as 2012, The Road, The Book of Eli and Legion, have tapped into an American Zeitgeist that is worried about the end of civilisation.
“Prepping masks a wide range of stances and ideologies. But the more people are prepared, the more they are likely to have an apocalyptic way of thinking,” said Professor Barry Brummett, of the University of Texas-Austin.
Even government officials have accepted that the financial crisis posed a threat to social order. In recent testimony before Congress, treasury secretary Tim Geithner admitted that top-level talks had been held on whether the US could enforce law and order in the wake of a collapse of the financial system.
Certainly, Tom Martin agrees. He runs the American Preppers Network, which helps provide a wide range of resources. Martin, a truck driver who lives in Idaho, believes that more and more people will become preppers. “Millions of people now have the mindset that they want to be prepared for something, but don’t know what to call it,” he said.
That rings true with Pennington. In the 1990s, survivalism was the province of anti-government militiamen or loners in the woods. But preppers are more concerned with stocking up on food and water and relearning skills so that they can fend for themselves.
To that end, Pennington has set up a website called Ready Nutrition, which teaches basic food skills to prepare for a time when pre-packaged goods at a supermarket might not be available: “Prepping is not taboo, like survivalism. There is no negative connotation to it. We are not rednecks. In many ways, our ancestors were preppers. So were the Native Americans. It is just going back to being able to look after yourself.”