The Rise of the Preppers

In an insightful online piece (that includes historical analysis from Bulletin contributor Cathy Gutierrez), we learn of “a growing subculture of Americans who refer to themselves informally as ‘preppers,”’ that is, folks stockpiling food and firearms alongside innumerable other supplies in hopes of surviving the troubled times they see on the horizon.  “Some are driven by a fear of imminent societal collapse, others are worried about terrorism, and many have a vague concern that an escalating series of natural disasters is leading to some type of environmental cataclysm.” In contrast to the survivalists of the 1990s, however, self-identified preppers are not so easily discerned. “You could be living next door to a prepper and never even know it. Many suburbanites are turning spare rooms into food pantries and are going for survival training on the weekends.”

While the emergence of “Prepperism” (if you will) surely represents a financial boom for marketers of survival goods and those offering daily apocalyptic visions by way of radio, TV, and online programs (see, for instance, Survival Blog, The Coming Economic Collapse Blog, and of course Glenn Beck TV), what strikes me about this movement is its rather gnostic character, and how this relates to its ability to satisfy adherents. For, the cognitive and ritual worlds of preppers would seem to contain more than simply apocalyptic expectations, but also esoteric knowledge and practices that offer safe passage through the gates of catastrophe. Only the preppers know what is coming, and only they are engaged in the proper sort of mercantile and home management practices that ensure survival, and perhaps even flourishing in a post-civilizational world. Those who do not possess this knowledge and fail to perform these practices are, essentially, doomed to suffer and perish.

That a significant number find prepper imaginative, ritual, and social worlds enormously satisfying should hardly be surprisingly. They offer knowledge of the future that only the few are capable of grasping, a set of authoritative practices for establishing one’s shelter from the coming storm, and also a sense of evangelical urgency: if we can get this truth out to as many others as possible before it’s too late, they might be saved from the coming apocalypse as well.

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7 Responses to The Rise of the Preppers

  1. Matt Sheedy says:

    Interesting piece. While I am in agreement with your analysis and intrigued by this phenomenon, it strikes me that one angle that is missing here is how the “preppers” are simultaneously trading in both fantasy and reality. Along with the gnostic overtones of “special knowledge,” many of these fears are fact-based (e.g., economic and environmental troubles *are* happening in many parts of the world and *could* lead to serious food shortages in the US or at least parts of it) thus lending an air of credibility to such precautions, despite the apocalyptic dimensions. One question that begs to be asked, then, is how to account for this fantasy-reality dimension, which, it seems to me, is part and parcel of most movements, save for the most extreme. Perhaps Stanley Stowers definition of religion as a matter of “more and less” would be helpful here? In this case, the claims of the “preppers” could be seen as an add-mixture of “more and less”–more fantasy and less reality and vice versa as the case may be.

    • Kenny Paul Smith says:

      Matt,

      You raise some superb points here! Thanks so much. I’ll check out Stowers’ work as well. You should consider submitting something to the Bulletin.

      • Matt Sheedy says:

        Hi Kenny,
        I’d certainly consider submitting something to the Bulletin, though I wasn’t aware that it’s an open forum (i.e., there seems to be a few staple contributors, which I had assumed were a select group). In any case, I really like these short posts as they nicely balance a critical provocation with obvious time constraints that we all face. As for Stowers, the essay I had in mind is “The Ontology of Religion” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith.

        • Kenny Paul Smith says:

          Matt,

          Many thanks for the reference, and especially for your very kind words! We are interested in contributions from scholars involved in the historical, sociological, anthropological, etc., study of religion. Some contributors prefer to write longer essays, while others like the brief 250+ word posts that do (or at least attempt) precisely what you describe: linking a concrete piece of data to a broader theoretical point that has caught our attention. How about you write one of these and send it to me (kpsmith2009@hotmail.com)? The data may come from any genre whatsoever – I prefer contemporary culture b/c that’s my area, but others here (e.g., Phil Tite) work in other historical areas and base their essays/posts therein. Interested?

          • Matt Sheedy says:

            Hi Kenny,

            I am most certainly interested, thanks! I’ll dig into my grab-bag and see what I can come up with, most likely along contemporary cultural/political lines, which is my main area of interest.

  2. Kate says:

    Hi Kenny,

    As always, fascinating vantage point! I can’t help but think of 1950s bomb shelters when reflecting on this group. I’m excited to watch the upcoming reality show… does anyone else detect an inkling of glee in the attitudes of those that promote these dire prophecies? Perhaps the popularity of this prepperism resonates due to a nostalgic longing for a ‘golden age’ in America’s supposed past… a mythic time when social Darwinism weeded out the weak? Could this prepperism be a response to the rapid pace of technological advancement?
    Great food for thought- thanks for writing on this Kenny,
    Kate

  3. Pingback: Liberal Apocalypticism | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

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