PREPPERS AND SURVIVALISTS TIMELINE
1973: The oil shortage crisis took place.
1975: The term “survivalist” was coined by Kurt Saxon in his newsletter The Survivor.
1985 (April 16): The FBI siege on the compound run by The Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord group took place.
1992 (August): The eleven-day siege and shootout between federal agents and the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho took place.
1993 (February-April): The siege and destruction of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas took place.
1995 (April 19): The Oklahoma City Bombing took place.
1999: The Y2K bug scare took place.
2014: The standoff at Bundy ranch in Nevada took place.
2016: The occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Range took place.
2020: The Covid-19 pandemic began.
2021 (January 6): The siege of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC took place.
While not a religion in a formal sense, survivalism, or prepping, is a practice that occurs among groups that wish for various reasons to live outside of the modern state apparatus. Many of those reasons cooccur with the concerns of minority religions, particularly heterodox Christianity, and far-right politics. Survivalism is a way of living that emphasizes self-provision, either on one’s own, or those of a small cooperative group, and minimal reliance on complex supply chains or government-regulated infrastructure. The rejection of state provision leads to creating new, alternative networks that are at less risk from large-scale catastrophes and provide more acceptance of heterodox beliefs that are often at odds with, or even offensive to, the rest of society. It also implies the belief that the ability of the state to provide adequate resources is limited and will soon collapse entirely.
At its core, survivalism is the practice of preparing for the imminent collapse of society by stockpiling resources and acquiring skills for self-sufficiency. Survivalists are also known as “preppers” because of this focus on preparation for catastrophe. It is a modern American phenomenon that has spread beyond the U.S. to Europe, Australia, South Africa, and other parts of the world. Sociologist Philip Lamy (1996:69) traces the origin to the aftermath of the destruction of World War II and the advent of the nuclear age. The Cold War and the military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam spurred interest in disaster preparedness, from the simple “duck and cover” strategy to the more complex recourse of building nuclear bunkers. Yet survivalism goes a step beyond emergency management, predicting the imminent collapse of a functioning social order altogether.
As the complexity of society increased, particularly in supplying everyday needs, survivalism and prepping grew as a counter strategy. People wanted to know what to do if all the benefits and conveniences of society went away. Howard Ruff, John Wesley Rawles, and Jeff Cooper were among the writers producing pamphlets and other literature promoting a do-it-yourself approach to survival in the 1970s. Kurt Saxon coined the term “survivalist,” with the contemporary meaning of practicing survival skills in anticipation of the apocalypse or in fear of the government (Saxon 1980).
From the 1980s, survivalism has developed into a multibillion-dollar industry. Specialist publications such as Soldier of Fortune magazine and later websites were released. Expositions of survivalist equipment began to be held for those interested in amassing resources. With the emergence of the internet, online retailers sold survivalist gear to a worldwide consumer base. [Image at right] In 1983-1984 the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord group established a survivalist commune and tried to start a race war using guerrilla tactics until they were disarmed and disbanded after an FBI raid (Barkun 2011:655).
From the 1990s, survivalism became even more associated in the popular imagination with the militia movement and far-right radical politics. This association was born from incidents such as the eleven-day siege and shootout between federal agents and the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and the siege and destruction of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas. Those who died at Waco and Ruby Ridge were seen as martyrs for survivalism by some on the far right. They felt the government was attacking those who chose to fend for themselves, who then had to counter-attack (Lamy 1996:19-21). This spurred the organization of militias, such as the Montana Freemen, particularly in rural areas of the Western U.S. (Wessinger 2000:158-203). Timothy McVeigh perpetrated the Oklahoma City Bombing on the anniversary of the end of the siege at Waco, claiming he was fighting back against the government for this event through destroying a federal building and killing 168 people (Wright 2007).
There are still many groups of racist right-wing millenarians who practice survivalism, especially those holding beliefs related to Christian Identity, Neopaganism, and Odinism (Barkun 1994, 2003, 2011). Among the most recent far-right survivalist groups to emerge since the 2008 American election are the Three Percenters, the name referring to the number of gun owners who would refuse to disarm if required by the government, and the Oath Keepers, a group of former and current law enforcement officers. Both are antigovernment and pro-gun ownership (Tabachnick 2015; Sunshine 2016). The Oath Keepers and Three Percenters were both present at the January 6 attack and siege of the U.S. Capitol Building, alongside new militia groups that practice survivalism, such as the Boogaloo Bois, who predict and prepare for a second American civil war (Diaz and Treisman 2021).
However, survivalists can also hold left-wing politics. Many of these come from a New Age rather than Christian background, especially those primarily concerned about potentially apocalyptic effects of climate change. Survivalism in this context has its origins in the 1960s-1970s’ communitarian movements of back-to-the-landers and voluntary simplicity. Survivalists inspired by these historical roots tend to place greater emphasis on ecology and sustainability, and less on stockpiling resources. Helen and Scott Nearing were the founders of the “modern homesteading movement.” They were vegetarians and socialists with a background in Theosophy; they set up an off-the-grid homestead in New England and aimed to provide for all their needs self-sufficiently (Gould 1999, 2005).
A notable New Age group practicing survivalism is the Church Universal and Triumphant, whose beliefs combine Theosophy, Christianity, and Eastern religions. In 1990, their leader, Elisabeth Clare Prophet, prophesied nuclear war, and so the group stockpiled weapons and resources in their Montana ranch as preparation (Lewis and Melton 1994; Stars and Wright 2005; Prophet 2009). The predicted attack failed to come about; the group was subsequently raided by federal agents but has continued as a church.
Like more religiously oriented millenarians, survivalists read current events as signs of impending catastrophe. At the turn of the century, the Y2K bug scare provided fresh impetus for survivalism, highlighting the reliance of modern society on computers, as it was feared that a coding glitch would cause all computers to cease functioning. The 9/11 attacks renewed the threat of external enemies that had diminished since the end of the Cold War, whilst the responses of official agencies to Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami led some to perceive governments as poorly prepared for large-scale disasters.
Recent events have exacerbated fears of terrorism, climate change, and nuclear war, all of which feature as imminent existential threats to society in the minds of survivalists. Since the 2016 American election, groups of “Liberal Preppers” emerged who feared the Trump administration would bring on an end of the world scenario (Sedacca 2017).
In the U.S., the first settlers are seen as “survivalists,” although they themselves did not use the term. They are the inspiration for modern survivalists (Lamy 1996:65-66). Being American is associated with self-sufficiency and self-reliance; the early pioneers epitomized this in popular culture. This idea is an imaginative reconstruction rather than an evidence-based assessment of what life for the early American settlers was like. It provides the mythological history of contemporary survivalists, what sociologist Richard G. Mitchell calls ‘the romantic notion of autonomous frontier life’ (2002:149). Early American settlers are assumed to have lived without recourse to complicated networks of supplies for their subsistence. Settlers on the American frontiers were largely responsible for growing their own food and protecting their own land.
Contemporary survivalists are anxious about modern dependence on social networks of supply for subsistence. If supply chain networks are disrupted, there will be significant problems in ensuring safety and food for large populations. Survivalism becomes a way to buttress against this potential calamity. Survivalists try to be prepared for the impacts of changes to networks beyond their control. It is a reaction to the interdependence and complexity of modern society. The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 disrupted supply chains globally and sparked incidences of “panic buying” and stockpiling resources as lockdown orders were imposed in various jurisdictions (Smith and Thomas 2021)
Survivalists prepare for a future where governmental and civic infrastructure fails. In most imaginings, this failure might be caused by ecological disasters, economic collapse, civil war (especially along racial lines), nuclear attack, and foreign invasion. The focus in survivalism is most often on practical steps required for surviving disaster without functioning infrastructure. The survivalist focus is on how to survive these events through stockpiling resources, planning escape routes, and buying remote properties in which to “bug out.” Some survivalists have already moved to remote locations and live “off grid.” Others continue with mainstream lifestyles but invest in different levels of preparation for a future apocalypse.
The focus on preparation for and survival of the end of the world (as we know it) leads sociologist Philip Lamy to categorise survivalists as “tribulationists” (1996:5). This means that they focus on the catastrophe preceding the millennium and their ability to survive it through physical and spiritual preparedness. Some survivalists have a specific theological eschatology, most often Christian. This suggests the world is currently, or soon will be, in a period of Tribulation. The Tribulation is the period of hardships and troubles suffered by believers preceding the Millennium, the return of Christ and 1,000 years of his peaceful rule on Earth. However, there are also many secular survivalists.
The central unifying belief of survivalism is that social collapse is likely and imminent. Society will break down and then it is up to individuals or small groups of individuals to fend for themselves. Since the breakdown of the current social order is on the horizon, it is necessary to prepare for life without it through various practical steps.
Survivalism has developed to a large extent through online communities; as such, there are numerous acronyms and abbreviations used to sum up the main premises. TEOTWAWKI means The End Of The World As We Know It; the frequently used term by survivalists as a catch-all for imminent social collapse. WTSHTF is When The Shit Hits The Fan, and refers to the same idea. WROL, Without Rule of Law, refers more specifically to post-apocalyptic scenarios when the legal system and law enforcement functions of society have ceased.
Survivalist beliefs revolve around end of the world scenarios that are survivable, and so they refer to the end of the world as we know it, which is not the same as total destruction of the world or the end of the world in certain forms of Christian eschatology. Their beliefs suggest fear of dependence on the modern nation state and urbanism, the associated amenities and supply chains, without which there would be chaos. They focus on a way to cope with this chaos. Much of the discussion among survivalists focuses on what to do when the post-apocalyptic chaos occurs.
The main strategies are termed as either “bug out” or “bug in.” Bugging out is escaping, often retreating to a rural or sparsely populated area where a safe place has been established. Bugging out requires a means of escape, referred to in online communities with the acronyms BOB, BOV, BOL standing for bug out bag, bug out vehicle, and bug out location. Bugging in is staying in one’s own home, which requires amassing stockpiles of resources and potentially setting up fortifications. [Image at right]
Survivalism is focused on individual salvation, there is not a messiah coming to save anyone. This emphasises self-reliance; survival lies in one’s own hands. There is a focus on anthropogenic apocalypses, especially economic collapse, ecological disaster, and race war. Each of these eventualities is believed to cause the partial or total breakdown of the social order resulting in chaos. The idea of an “ecoapocalypse” has become a particular focus due to projections of catastrophic climate change undermining the current economic configuration of society (Lamy 1996:84).
Survivalism rests on a philosophical basis of autarky, political and economic self-sufficiency, where an entity survives without recourse to outside assistance or trade. In the U.S., the focus is on land use disputes, distrust of federal government, self-reliance, importance of local governance over federal, and a general anti-statism.
Survivalism is inherently millenarian because it proposes the imminent collapse of society, the end of the world as we know it, and emphasises the importance of preparing to survive this. This is why Lamy defines survivalists as Tribulationists because they are preparing to survive the end times or believe themselves to be already living through times of suffering prior to the final destruction of this world (1996:6).
Lamy calls survivalists “secular millenarians” because the focus is on a human-made apocalypse and survival of it is also in their own hands (1997:94-95). Unlike in Christian eschatology, there is no elect who will be saved by divine intervention in the Rapture. It is every person for themself in a brutal form of social Darwinism. The survival of the fittest in this context meaning those with the foresight and best preparations will survive.
By contrast, those who do not prepare are called “zombies,” everyone who thinks some wider social system will come to save them during a crisis. [Image at right] These are the “non-believers” in this context. This separation of the prepared from the non-prepared, zombies from awakened preppers, can slip easily into chauvinistic Aryan philosophy: that those who prepare are superior to those who do not. This is perhaps one of the reasons survivalism appeals to so many on the far-right.
However, historian Eckard Toy suggests that survivalists and right-wing political extremists are separate subcultures that share some common ground, such as paramilitary training, interest in secrecy, and apocalyptic beliefs in the inevitable destruction of modern society (1986: 80). There are many different ideologies within the rubric of survivalism. It is an open question as to how to categorise survivalists in relation to “religion;” since survivalism is decentralised and non-institutionalised, it is not linked to any specific religion in a formal way. However, it is more common amongst Christian sects, especially those that espouse a far-right political philosophy.
Survivalism is above all a practice, arguably more than it is a movement or even a system of beliefs. Survivalism is something groups and individuals do; a way to prepare for the end of the world, summed up as a verb: “to prep” and “prepping.” If a movement as such does exist, it flourishes most strongly in online communities; many are merely interested, reading articles and blogs, and/or commenting on forums, whereas others take practical steps to prepare, sometimes making substantial financial investments.
For those who do begin investing in survivalism, the first step is buying, storing, amassing, and even concealing supplies such as fuel, medicine, food, tools, and weapons. This may be simply packing a “bug out bag” with essentials like a first aid kit, compass, Swiss army knife, and some MREs (meals ready to eat). Storage of essentials can expand to fill available space, a spare room, the garage, a shed in the garden.
Some survivalists are concerned with protecting their cache from “zombies,” the unprepared masses who will be a threat after a catastrophe, and so they go to elaborate lengths in creating hiding places for their stashes. The concern is that food stores, hospitals, and petrol stations will only have reserves for around three days, so even a small disaster could result in lack of access to necessities. Survivalists often try to maintain a certain amount of resources through calculating how much they will need, twenty-four hours, seventy-two hours, three weeks, or more, depending on the space they have to stock it. Survivalist stores sell “bundles” advertised as containing essentials for a specified amount of time.
Stockpiling resources is predicated on having space to store them. Increasing storage can segue into building emergency shelters or bunkers that also provide a safe place to which to escape, a transition from “bugging in” to “bugging out.” Some survivalists buy retreats in isolated rural locations; this is the somewhat stereotypical image of the prepper hiding out in a cabin in the woods. However, properties can be bought as tax write-offs, rental or vacation use, retirement homes, and then double as retreats. Some buy whole tracts of land for communal shelters or selling bunkers, such as the Survival Condo Project in Wichita, Kansas, a fifteen-storey apartment complex built in a converted underground missile silo where units were sold for between $1.500,000-3,000,000 (Osnos 2017).
Religious groups that practise survivalism, such as the Church Universal and Triumphant and the Branch Davidians, built whole retreats in isolated locations to live as a group and communally share resources, providing a feeling of safety in numbers and a survivalist community of like- minded believers.
In the U.S., survivalism dovetails with rural living off-grid, practising self-sufficiency without recourse to government services or utilities in areas where they are already limited. The sociologist Richard G. Mitchell suggests this is the reason for the popularity of survivalist retreats in Southern Oregon (2002:33). For those who are unable to move to a remote, rural location, urban prepping has now increased in popularity, bringing different considerations of bugging in vs bugging out, what to stock and where, and likely dangers in case of societal collapse (Bounds 2021).
Alongside shelter and resources, financial preparedness is another important aspect. Dislike of dependence on social institutions and distrust of banks in particular leads many survivalists to avoid indebtedness. As well as storing foodstuffs, some have three months’ worth of outgoings in savings, or one month’s expenditure in cash on hand. For some, having gold or silver is important in case of sudden and massive devaluation of paper money in an economic collapse. However, this is worthless in the case of a total social collapse. Mitchell reports that some survivalists try to establish alternative monies and economies, particularly barter and trade, in order to obtain essentials that they cannot make themselves or have stored (2002:38).
The ability to prepare is mediated by access to economic resources. The very rich can buy land in New Zealand or the Pacific Northwest, have a private plane or boat ready as a “bug out vehicle,” and store months’ worth of supplies in a special purpose location as reported in a New Yorker article about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who were also survivalists (Osnos 2017). The poor are more limited in their means to prepare. Furthermore, prepping is itself an economic activity; it requires a job in society to pay for buying and storing rations. Sometimes prepping can become a means of subsistence, but for most continued engagement in the economic life of society is required.
As well as amassing resources, survivalists emphasise developing skills. This can involve learning basic first aid, wilderness survival skills such as fire-starting, navigating without maps, hunting, building shelters, taking courses in bush craft and other skills for surviving without society. Courses offering these skills are places preppers congregate, as well as prepper “fests,” military equipment auctions and expos, “war games,” or training exercises (Mitchell 2002:57). There is a focus on firearms and paramilitary training in media accounts of survivalism.
However, it has been argued that the vast majority of survivalists tend to be law-abiding and conformist (Mitchell 2002:149). Much of the talk about weapons and survival skills is dependent on society ending; it is what they would do after society is gone, not before. Mitchell emphasises the creativity and crafting of survivalists; they are not reactionary. They are trying to create new economic and social spaces. In rejecting passive consumerism, they have an active, entrepreneurial form of association and sociality. Due to the strong connection with paramilitary groups and extremist violence in the media and popular imagination, some will go to lengths to try to emphasise that this is what they are not.
Survivalism is a loose network of practitioners. While there are some militia-style groups with formal leadership structures, many preppers stay by themselves and connect with others primarily online, especially through forums for sharing tips and tactics. Exchange networks of preppers operate through websites, expos and niche publications that allow them to purchase goods from each other. [Image at right] Survivalism is not a coherent movement with a leadership hierarchy but rather a loosely structured set of philosophies, beliefs, and practices that individuals and groups engage with to varying extents. It is most common in the United States of America but has also spread to Europe, South Africa, and Australia. Numbers are therefore hard to estimate. There are few organisations related to survivalism and no formal membership to count. Moreover, for most survivalists, privacy and secrecy are central in order to protect caches of stockpiled resources and deflect prejudice against what is often perceived as a marginal and suspicious practice.
There are in-group differentiations between preppers and survivalists. Survivalists may claim that they focus on skills, whereas preppers just stockpile resources without knowing how to use them. A common claim among self-identified survivalists is the more skills learned, the fewer resources and tools are required. All they need can fit in a backpack. On the other hand, preppers argue that “survivalist” is a pejorative term with associations of violence and white supremacy. Preppers are more likely to form groups or at least work cooperatively with other preppers, whereas they see survivalists as more individualist. However, others can use the terms survivalist and prepper interchangeably, especially those writing from an external viewpoint. There are broad similarities between preppers and survivalists in terms of a self-reliant lifestyle that rejects the premise of collective governance as a useful form of social organisation, particularly in emergencies, that make the differentiations seem minor. It can be confusing to understand the terminology used without first understanding the position of the person deploying terms within the discourse on survivalism.
Survivalists are closely associated with violence in the public imagination because of the historical connection with militia movements and far-right groups. More broadly because non-governmental entities amassing large amounts of weapons are treated with suspicion, and often subjected to raids and surveillance by government agencies. While most survivalists focus on waiting and preparing for the end, some decide to act upon their expectations as “forcers of the end” and bring about the apocalypse by, for example, not only stockpiling weapons but also taking up arms against the government or trying to start a race war (Barkun 2003:60). Sociologist Richard G. Mitchell suggests that the media over-reports the actions of a violent few, who are taken as representative of “all” survivalists, and the crucial “what if” proposition is left out (2002:16).
Survivalists are collecting weapons and other resources so that they are prepared for what happens if society falls; very few move towards trying to actively make society fall through violence. [Image at right] The overrepresentation of violence mirrors the media and public attitude towards millenarian groups more generally, where the violent few stand metonymically for the whole. In the U.S., stockpiling guns in order to defend oneself from the federal government can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The act of acquiring the guns causes federal agencies to pay attention to individuals and groups and even raid them for this reason, which was the scenario with both the Branch Davidians and Church Universal and Triumphant.
Image #1: A Prepper shop in the United Kingdom.
Image #2: Prepping and Survivalist resources.
Image #3: A Zombie Apocalypse tee shirt.
Image #4: Books in a Prepper/Survivalist shop.
Image #5: Knives in a Prepper/Survivalist shop.
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13 March 2022