Doomsday Preppers: Crazy or the Right Idea?

Dear Dr. Hurd:

What are your thoughts on the so-called ‘doomsday preppers’? As you probably know, these are the people who build bunkers, stockpile food, practice survival skills and the like in the event of a financial collapse or terrorist attack.

Are such people rational, given the real problems our society is facing, and the evasion or stupidity of our elected leaders? Or is it some form of non-reality based insanity?

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

I think of the preppers as a symptom of the underlying evasions of our society. Most people don’t understand economics. Nor can they grasp the mentality of a systematized effort, based on religion, to bring down Western civilization via biological warfare (or whatever else).

Nearly everyone—not just the preppers—sense, even on some unidentified level, that we’re in trouble. They recognize that these multiple trillions in debt can’t be a good thing, that the government cannot inflate the currency indefinitely, and continue to avert its gaze (and turn its cheek) away from 9/11-type events and whatever else comes next from Islamic militants.

Most people choose to accept the fact that they can’t do much about this, turn their minds away from politics or national events, and hope for the best. If you ask me, this isn’t exactly the best approach, but it’s the one most technically sane people take. We are, after all, still a free society in key respects, still possessing the right to think, read, consider, speak out, and vote for alternatives. But a majority, at present, simply will not do this.

The preppers don’t fall into one fixed category. Some of them, as individuals, are likely paranoid types and would see trouble and disaster around the corner no matter what the circumstances. Others insist they’re more rational. Consider the following excerpts from an article entitled “‘Doomsday Preppers’: The Survivalists Next Door,’ in the March issue of Men’s Journal online:


Members of the doomsday community don’t like to be called survivalists. It conjures conspiracy theorists, militias, Ted Kaczynski holed up in Montana. “Prepper” just sounds better — sensible (who wouldn’t want to be prepared?), even upbeat. Some have taken NatGeo [television network] to task for their depiction on the show [entitled “Doomsday Preppers”], calling it skewed: “They present a bunch of crazies…and get the largest viewing audience they’ve ever had,” wrote Phil Burns on his popular site, American Preppers Network. Still, for all his worrying, Southwick doesn’t seem that crazy, or even especially paranoid — more like an anxious dude who loves his kids and wants to do whatever he can to protect them.

“Everything we do is practical,” Southwick says. “I use all the fuel I store outside. We enjoy the cabin all summer. We’re preppers through and through, but I still love to have fun, and I want my kids to do the same. I’m not a guy hiding up in the woods, scared that the government is watching me.” And on that possibly not-so-remote chance that something catastrophic actually happens? “You’ve gotta listen to the crazies. They know what they’re talking about.”


The outright paranoid/delusional; the more reasonably concerned such as Southwick; and even the average American who laughs at the preppers, can all agree on one thing: Something has gone wrong and nobody in charge seems able or willing to do anything about it.

The main error of the prepper mentality is their assumption that doom and disaster are metaphysically inevitable. Many get this from biblical prophecies and the like, that sooner or later man is doomed anyway, probably by his own fallen nature. This is the primary reason to dismiss such ideas. A proper view of man should show us that human life is very sustainable and survivable, if we adopt the right principles and the right system of government. Look at what America did for itself, and the world, over the last two centuries. If man is doomed, then how did we ever get to the moon, to the microchip, to heart and brain surgery? From a material point-of-view, who wouldn’t rather live in 2013 rather than 1813? The American experiment with freedom, individualism and private property rights — on an unprecedented scale — is what made this possible. It was no accident, and it was no “will of God,” either.

Yet from a rational point-of-view, just as doom is not inevitable, neither are success and survival. On our current course, something bad is going to happen. Disaster or catastrophe, in one fell swoop? Possibly. But looking at world history, it doesn’t usually happen that way. Ancient Greece and ancient Rome fell gradually and slowly. Those were very different places and times. The specific issues were very different. There was far less freedom and prosperity than we currently have now. But the common theme in the fall of a great civilization, if you identify it, involves the evasion of its leaders—usually involving financial recklessness, e.g. devaluing the currency through government spending for political reasons—combined with the indifference of the people. Or perhaps the ‘learned helplessness’ of the people, who kind of throw up their hands and say, ‘What can you do?’

Much of the problem which gives rise to the preppers is fear of the unknown. Aside from the fact that most have not studied world history, world history cannot give us a complete guide. Nothing is truly inevitable. The United States, in particular, is a nation without precedent. It’s the first nation in history to consciously and explicitly uphold individual rights, especially (initially) in the area of private property. Nothing like that was ever seen in human history before, and that’s why the incredible growth and improvement in human life over the last several hundred years is so stunning—and, to date, so very rare. There’s no historically pre-determined reason why America cannot reverse course—unlike past declining civilizations—and move towards the pro-individualism approach to government which originally built it up, in the first place.

Fear of the unknown: What will a continuing decline of the American economy look like, left unchecked? Nobody really knows. No civilization as massively prosperous and progressive as the USA has ever existed, so there’s no record of such a decline. The economic upheaval of 2007-08 and the subsequent actions of a frightened people and government are only part of the story. The rest of it is still unfolding. Nothing is fixed, and nothing has fundamentally changed, either. I think that nearly everyone senses this, and their struggle is more of one not to know it. The preppers are the ones who cannot or choose not to hold it all in.

Societies are like human beings, because society, after all, consists of individual human beings. The dominant trend (in a person or a society) can be one of evasion and irrationality—like the last several years—or it can switch to an intelligent and reality-oriented confrontation of the problems. This last is kind of like the Tea Party attempted, but without any sort of coherent base or program—just a reasonably based anger and frustration. The quick rise and fall of the Tea Party reminds me of the social-political equivalent of a person resolving to go on a diet, and soon forgetting about it and slipping back into his old habits. But the pounds will nevertheless keep accumulating.

These preppers are symptoms of a wider and deeper social problem. The root problem is evasion, psychologically automatized now as denial. You might say the preppers are the ones ‘acting out’ the conflict in exaggerated or overly dramatic forms—even irrational, in some respects. But as I said, it’s only a symptom. The symptoms come from a cause that neither our leaders nor the majority of voters care to identify or name—at least not yet. In the place of rational solutions and confrontation of facts, the preppers serve as a somewhat distorted voice of what might yet be, if the rest of us continue to avert our gaze away from the obvious problems we’re ignoring.


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