Earlier this year the hands of the Doomsday Clock moved to two minutes to midnight, as atomic scientists announced that the world is closer to annihilation than it has been in decades. Is it any wonder then that the worldwide phenomenon of prepping, in all its camouflaged, gun-toting, canned-food-hoarding glory, is spreading as global anxiety about everything from thermonuclear war to climate change takes hold.
When we think about the worst-case scenarios that could play out on the planet, most of us fit somewhere on the sliding scale from wilful ignorance through sensible precaution to paranoia. Yet for some, the zeitgeist is trending towards a bleak future.
And while Australians differ from the god-fearing libertarianism that keeps its finger on the trigger in the hinterlands of the US, we have our own preppers who are ready to bug out, hunker down and skill up ready to face the unthinkable.
Take Jim Greer, an IT worker from Rockingham, Western Australia, who expects the world to fall apart sometime soon. He is not sure exactly when but he has an eight-tonne truck ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“If something happens, I think there will be far too many people standing around with their jaws on the ground,” he says.
As a child, Greer learned to tie clove hitches and reef knots with the Scouts; as an adult he served in the navy. The motto Be Prepared is in his blood and he has been gathering survivalist skills for many years.
To better understand how to live off the land, he spent time with Aboriginal people who live traditionally. The Anangu Luritja people of central Australia taught him how to make weapons and hunt, and Greer can now make an Indigenous-style traditional spear.
And, in his travels, Greer has found the holy grail of prepping: a “bug out” location that can sustain him when TSHTF – prepper lingo for when the shit hits the fan – complete with a 10,000 year-old stream.
“Even if there was nuclear radiation, the spring is underground and would still be safe,” he says. “There is also plenty of wildlife that would hang around it and provide food.
“I could effectively just walk out to the bush and be OK. I can build a house from the ground up. I can do my own mechanics. I can cook and clean. I have trained myself to be able to cope with almost anything.”
Greer has a palpable certainty that some kind of shit is going to hit some kind of fan and he believes his prepping is a commonsense reaction to that. He believes the threats could come from AI (artificial intelligence), economic collapse, an atomic bomb or even an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) – and the resulting chaos will see him hit the road to get out of the city.
“The truck holds enough fuel that I could get 1,200km away,” he says. “I have a handful of friends that have also been prepping for a while and they know exactly where I am going.”
Greer sees complacency in people whose worries don’t extend further than a supermarket closing for a few days. “Imagine how quickly things would go to shit with two and a half million people not being able to get what they need. There are not enough people prepared but there are certainly more preppers now than five years ago.”
He believes prepping is key but having the mental strength to survive is the unknown factor. “It doesn’t matter how many containers of food you have or what you have organised, if you are not mentally ready for it you probably won’t survive either,” he says. “Some people have an instinct to keep going but even preppers could turn around when it all happens and fall in a heap.”
Mel, a geography teacher from West Perth, offers courses in prepping and has been reassuring panicked callers that there are a range of skills that are useful to have, apocalypse or no apocalypse.
“I want to break down that stereotype that all preppers are paranoid,” she says. “There is a middle ground. A lot of people are living this but they might not want to call themselves preppers.
“They are stockpiling food; they are concerned about climate change and they are worried about what would happen if Trump pushed the button. People do want to know what to do and how to survive.”
Mel calls herself a “latte prepper” because if she is going down, it will be in style and may include chocolate. Her business Chilli Preppers has been going for about five years and she runs courses including food cultivation and preservation, and doomsday prepping.
Many of the skills she teaches are those our grandparents knew but current generations have lost, she says. They knew scarcity and so they grew their own food, preserved it, and fixed things themselves. The consumer generation – not so much.
Mel doesn’t subscribe to the “every man for himself” philosophy that is a hallmark of many preppers’ Cormac McCarthy-styled nightmares. “My grand plan is that I will build a community around me, rather than think that I will be in a post-apocalyptic bunker where I have to do everything. You don’t want to be scared of your neighbours and worry about whether they will take your stuff."
“We all have different skills and, in a real-life situation, how much better to talk to each other and pool our resources. Society would have to rearrange. We couldn’t all just lock ourselves away and, if we did, we wouldn’t last for very long.”
She believes there are two main courses of action in a an apocalyptic situation: one is to bug out and the other is to hunker down. People who choose to bug out have a location somewhere hidden or remote that they are prepping with equipment and supplies.
“I’m not so much of a bug out-type of person but I do have family members who have things stored on country properties,” Mel says. “I also have my house prepped so that it would last for a few days with supplies of water and food.”
At home, Mel has aquaponics and a big vegetable garden. She also has solar panels and solar lights. “If we had to grow food inside, we could. We have tried it and it is hard. Plants are clever and they like real sunlight so, until the button is pressed, we won’t move the grow beds inside.”
“It may never happen and that will be fantastic,” she says. “I may never have a house fire but I do have insurance.”
The blogger and author Nick Sais from Australian Preppers has seen downloads of his prepping manual jump exponentially week by week. He sees the increasing traffic on his site as a sign of a collective frame of mind. “It is a way to gain some control where the big picture is out of control,” he says.
Sais is an electrician who spent a number of years in the army reserve and has always had an interest in survivalism, but over time his hobby has become something more. “I don’t think people understand just how fragile the system is,” he says.
Where there used to be occasional forays into the bush with minimal equipment to test his mettle, now there are several buried caches in specific but remote bug-out locations on public land. The caches include dried beans, rice, water purification and fire-starting devices. “Some people say – well, what if you never use it. But it doesn’t cost much and, if we do need it, it is there.”
He has also taught himself to hunt feral animals using traps and bow and arrow. “Whatever I kill, I will eat, I don’t waste anything. I realised that I had to learn how to, to have any chance of surviving.”
“When I was growing up, we went through the cold war. It was a tense time but there wasn’t the feeling that it was going to end in nuclear war,” he says.
“But I’m not so sure now. With some of the people in power at the moment, you can’t pick the endgame. I think we are on the brink of war … whether that is nuclear or boots on the ground, it is not going to be nice.”
For Sais, it is a family affair. He and his wife don’t have children but their wider family of nieces and nephews often go out to the bush to learn how to build shelter and start fires. They’re fun camping trips but also survival training. His parents also know the bug-out locations. Whether they are willing or not to go there in the event of a “situation”, he’s not sure. “We have had conversations,” he says.
“Some people want to do whatever it takes to survive the holocaust. You need to ask yourself if you are ready to be in a world that you won’t recognise or would you prefer to go quickly? It is morbid but it is a valid question. I know my wife has turned around at times and said no, but I think I can.”
Sais stresses that it is not all about prepping for the armageddon. The idea is that if you plan for the worst, and then something small happens, you are good to go. His prepping website and manual gives practical tips for people in rural communities who might be affected by fires or floods, for example.
He acknowledges there might be stigma attached to the word “prepper” but stresses it is just about being prepared – whether that is for the armageddon or just for a flat tyre is up to the individual.
Associate professor and author Mick Broderick, who has a decades-long fascination with atomic-age doomsday scenarios, says every generation has worried about the “end times” but acknowledges that we are the first generations to know that a thermonuclear exchange could extinguish most life on the planet.
“Before the nuclear age, it was thought that only a wrathful deity or natural force (pandemic, planetary collision, etc) would bring about the end of the world,” he says. “But some time in the 1980s, it became clear that there were so many nuclear weapons on the planet that we could literally bring about the end, not only of Homo sapiens but pretty much extinguish most life on Earth through a nuclear exchange,” he says.
“We live in an era that, within 15 minutes’ notice, nuclear weapons could be crossing the continents bringing about great devastation. Yet we deny this, go about our business, we go on teaching, we drive our cars to work. We repress to the point where we don’t give it any real conscious thought.”
Broderick says governments present the idea of survivability based on tropes from the 1950s (duck and cover, anyone?) but any prepper worth his dried beans knows that heading rural is the gold standard of survival. He explains that in a global thermonuclear war, if you are in a city you are probably toast.
He says there are some preppers who embrace a fantasy of emerging into a new environment where there will be fewer people and where they will have the necessary skills to be the elite. But that comes from the centuries-old idea that in a catastrophe the unjust will be smote and the old guard will be swept away.
He also sees a regular clustering of things in popular culture, including Bear Grylls-style survivor shows on television and the proliferation of zombie apocalypse movies, which lead to peaks and troughs of prepping behaviour. “If you take a step back and look, you can see that there is an underlying yearning that is met by these behaviours,” he says.
“Our increasing urbanisation has largely removed us from the need to get our hands dirty – yet there is an almost primal desire to understand how things work and to embrace the materiality of things.”
Broderick isn’t sure if the doomsday preppers have a point. “Are they narcissistic or are they just wise? Is there merit in their capacity to project on to scenarios and to plan to survive them? Well that is for others to judge.” Yet for those still on the fence, he points out that things don’t generally work out well for those who fail to heed the signs.
You have been warned.