April 7, 2014 – The Capitalism of Catastrophe: Disasters happen. It is a fact as certain as income taxes. And when a solar flare erupts or a flu pandemic hits, there is only one question that will matter: Are you, or are you not, prepared? Pictured above, Brian Howard of PrepareNow Outfitters drank dirty water with a purification straw.
One could have found an answer — actually, many answers — here over the weekend at the third annual National Preppers and Survivalists Expo. A trade show catering to those with an apocalyptic bent, the two-day exposition was an opportunity for vendors of calamity swag to meet their clientele.
“We tried to gear our event this year to the ordinary person who wants to be ready for any situation,” said Ray McCreary, who organized the conference for the trade show company Expo Inc. Applicable situations, Mr. McCreary said, could include anything from an EF5 tornado to an economic collapse.
Ever since Isaiah, someone somewhere has been talking about the imminent demise of civilized society. Still, one could argue that today’s connected world of globalized supply chains and multinational banks is especially susceptible to a catastrophic failure. This is not the exclusive opinion of the fringe groups of society: Just last month, a study financed by NASA found that, because of financial inequality and environmental problems, the industrial world could suffer “a precipitous collapse” within decades.
And if, for instance, a devastating storm surge occurs or the banking system crashes, Alvin Jackson, a jazz musician from New Orleans, wants to be ready. Mr. Jackson, 66, was at the exposition Saturday morning, checking out the Ark 290: a month’s supply of freeze-dried food helpfully contained in a portable plastic bucket. He had already picked up a brochure for a rain catchment basin designed to be installed on gutters. Whatever the scenario, he planned to be prepared.
“People think that preppers, and I use that term with caution, are guys in beards who live in bunkers and bury ammunition in their yards,” said Mr. Jackson, a dapper man in a pageboy cap who had come to the conference with his wife, Marlane. “But I went through Katrina, and I’m not crazy. I know from experience that things go south, and it can happen just like that.”
Mr. Jackson’s cautions notwithstanding, it would be easy to assume that a prepper convention would be peopled with right-wing zealots with a taste for guns and gold, or what survivalists like to call “the bullet-and-bullion set.” But while there was one man standing at a booth handing out business cards for Operation American Spring, a movement to impeach President Obama, there was also a countervailing element of organic gardeners, homeopathic healers and publishers selling books on the commercial uses of hemp.
“I definitely expected more tin hats,” said Mike Vogt, president of the Staying Home Corporation, which produces tornado- and bulletproof safe rooms marketed as Hide-Away shelters. “I guess I’m proud that our product tends to appeal to both sides of the aisle.”
The exposition seemed to be less about politics than consumer economics and was, if anything, an exercise in modern-day capitalism. Apparently, there are endless ways to commodify catastrophe. There were tactical knives ($135), mass casualty bags ($250), solar-powered generators ($4,299), thermal rifle scopes ($5,500), reusable hand warmers ($5), automated defibrillators ($695), gravity-fed water filters ($150) and vacuum-sealed packs of alligator jerky ($15).
“Who’s going to drop 50 grand on a self-heating greenhouse?” said Josh Holleb, who was selling just such an item for a company called Ceres Greenhouse Solutions, based in Colorado. “Preppers will. They think the world’s coming to an end. They’re the ones who finally pull the trigger on a sale.”
Despite the families wandering about with credit cards and shopping bags, the exposition was more than just a market for survivalists. For those who wanted to learn the prepping arts, Mr. McCreary had set up several seminars, which took place on a stage in the back of the hall. There was, for example, a presentation on growing food and one on the medicinal effects of frankincense and other essential oils.
One well-attended demonstration was given by Bob Gaskin, who served in the Marines and is the founder of the Black Dog Survival School. Shouting into a microphone, Mr. Gaskin told the crowd that 80 percent of the population would not survive the first 100 days of the apocalypse. “If you don’t know now what you’re going to do then,” he said, “you aren’t going to make it.”
It is a matter of fierce debate in the survivalist community whether imparting such anxiety is a good tactic. There are those like Mr. Gaskin who find it useful to describe calamitous events in detail as a means of persuading people to prepare (and, of course, to buy merchandise like the year’s supply of freeze-dried food that he was offering, “at a special show price only,” for $1,300.) Others, like Amy Alton, a co-founder of the survival-medicine company Doom and Bloom, feel that fear-mongering is a less effective method than building a community.
Ms. Alton, a former Army nurse, is a purveyor of medical kits like the Stomp Supreme Trauma Survival Bag ($649) and the author, with her husband, Dr. Joseph Alton, of “The Survival Medicine Handbook.” Her latest project is the Doom and Bloom Survival board game, which she is financing through Kickstarter donations and envisions as a way to introduce the subject of prepping to children.
“Being prepared is only possible if families and communities take part in it,” she said. “The idea of the lone survivalist living underground in a bunker with his guns — it’s absolutely crazy.”
The way Ms. Alton sees it, living in a tight-knit community where you know and trust your neighbors is the surest way to survive a disaster.
“We have to get back to a time when someone had the cow and someone made the quilt and everyone worked together,” she said. “That’s how America was founded.” (Credits – Steve Hebert & Alan Feuer for The New York Times).
The Master of Disaster