Doomsday preppers: paranoid nutjobs or eco-visionaries?

Andy Mason on the lessons we can find in an underground bunker

Recently, in order to avoid doing any actual study about environmental issues, I’ve been binge watching National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers. It follows US families who’ve devoted themselves to preparing for any number of doomsday scenarios – everything from natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes to a nuclear attack or economic collapse. Many have invested tens of thousands of dollars or more in any number of elaborate schemes to protect their family from catastrophe – underground bunkers, home-made tanks, surveillance systems, booby-traps, you name it. Of course, most are also obsessed with stockpiling as many guns and as much ammunition as possible so they can defend themselves and their families from the hostile masses should society go belly-up.

It’s easy to dismiss the “preppers” as paranoid nutjobs, and I suspect this spectacle is the primary appeal of the show. Preppers seem like the ultimate proof of the absurd individualism of American culture – so convinced that the government is either incompetent or out to get them, and so distrustful of everyone else in their communities, that they have become obsessed with total self-reliance. Most of the protagonists are suburban white men, and I’m sure you could write essays for gender studies about prepping as performative masculinity, a macho façade which hides a deep sense of insecurity.

However, there is more beneath the surface. Many preppers are interested not only in defence, but in ensuring they can provide for themselves after the collapse. This has led many of them to ingenious DIY green designs in their attempt to ensure self-sufficiency. There are lots of examples of excellent home gardens built along organic/permaculture principles, rainwater collection or water purification systems and home-made renewable energy setups. One guy has even built an apparatus like a giant magnifying glass using the screen from an old television, which enables him to cook and even melt steel using only sunlight.

One of the most interesting examples I found was in season 3 episode 3, where Arizona family man Chad demonstrates both sides of the prepper universe. Chad is convinced that the US government is eventually going to wage nuclear war on its citizens, so he is building a bunker in his backyard and giving his young daughters firearms training. However, Chad has also developed an aquaponics garden which easily produces enough food for his family. Aquaponics is a combination of fish farming and vegetable gardening, where the water (containing nutrient-rich fish crap) is pumped through the garden beds and then waste plant material is fed to the fish, forming a closed system that requires no other inputs and allows fish and vegetables to be grown very quickly and efficiently. The only waste produced is algae, which, in a further stroke of genius, Chad is able to convert into a natural fuel called biodiesel, enabling his family to be self-sufficient not only in food but in fuel as well.

As an environmentalist, I wonder if there isn’t something to be learned from people like Chad. Ultimately the environmental movement must be focussed on broad social change, not just celebrating people who’ve cut themselves off from society, but the preppers have many important lessons to share about how to do more with less. They show us that other ways of doing things are possible – maybe if we can convince them that Bush didn’t do 9/11, we can get somewhere.