News & Politics

Why You Don't Have to Be Libertarian A-Hole to Survive a Worldwide Catastrophe

We assume disaster makes us selfish and mean. That's just not true.

The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.

Units in a new luxury condo development in an underground Kansas bunker are being rapidly snapped up by rich clients. The eager buyers are willing to put up non-financed millions to ensure their security during an end of times-style disaster. Project developer Larry Hall explicitly hocks this fear: “it’s not a matter of if, but when” a cataclysm could trigger this necessity. I cried foul on the idea that hunkering down in a former nuclear missile silo is the best strategy for survival—in fact, the impulse strikes me as profoundly cynical and conservative.

"Doomsday prepping," after all, is a response to fearing the worst in others. Prepping enthusiasts tend to rule out any possibility of peace and cooperation in the new world order. It strikes me as obvious that community initiatives would be preferable to individual ones in the event of a legitimate disaster, but prepping ideology is unflinching in its assumption that a life-threatening cataclysm would inevitably lead to anarchy and violence. This distrust of others galvanizes their efforts to stockpile food as well as weapons to fend off would-be looters. Fortunately, evidence suggests that this premise is faulty - community-based relief efforts really are humanity’s best bet in times of calamity, and we already have plenty of the tools it would take to face one. It’s not tough to envision what mass cooperation could look like. 

Materials Engineer Joshua Pearce has spent years considering the ways in which humans could lessen the impact of a global disaster by reimagining their interim food supply until the worst effects have passed. His book Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe, co-authored with fellow engineer David Denkenberger, explores many of the answers to these questions. Pearce and Denkenberger lay out a variety of potential crises that could conceivably necessitate survival measures. Climate change, deadly pathogens, or weeds and pests could all trigger mass crop failure, and a debilitating loss of sunlight could be sparked by something like a super volcano or asteroid. But they agree that the most likely and most frightening scenario is no act of God. Pearce and Denkenberger place the probability of a so-called “nuclear winter” at one-in-1000. Even if a war were to result in the use of only a few of these weapons, the subsequent soot and dust released into the atmosphere could lead to a significant blockage of sunlight that would represent a threat more dire than any other doomsday scenarios taken alone. 

Ultimately, sustaining ourselves and the planet through an apocalyptic scenario will take creative, multi-tiered efforts. Prior to Pearce and Denkenberger’s work, most writing on disaster planning focused on food storage, which isn't sustainable for much longer than a year. They argue that their plan could keep the planet fed for up to five by tapping into unconventional food sources and converting industrial capacities to help with the cause. I talked to Pearce on the phone about what that might entail, and what those efforts might look like. For one thing, we’d be forced to rely on one abundant plant that we don’t usually eat now but easily can: trees. Trees’ leaves are often edible and nutritious, and can easily be made into tea. But more importantly, Pearce said, the majority of trees are likely to survive in the short term after a nuclear winter - and can be hacked up and ground into fibrous, edible material. Scaling this method to reach billions would likely take the cooperation of industry. Pearce points out that the American auto industry lent two-thirds of its production capacity to the war effort during World War II, and could be a potential ally in emergency efforts as well: in short, the auto industry could effectually become the wood chipping industry. 

Of course, trees aren’t the only resource we could harness to bridge the gap until recovery. Many sources of nutrients and protein could easily be cultivated for human use. Pearce and Denkenberger discussed how insects, mushrooms and even bacteria could be scaled up for widespread consumption. In Western cultures, Pearce admits they’d have to confront a few cultural biases, but sees the “ick” factor as a surmountable issue: “if people have a choice between starving to death and eating mealworm soup, I think that’s an easy choice!” he quipped. Besides, as he told Nautilus Magazine, plenty of bugs can even be pretty tasty. (Alas, the same cannot be said for the bacteria that could conceivably be made into a slurry for human consumption - sure enough, the book’s photo of it looks an awful lot like like muddy water.) Still, Pearce claims that all the methods presented in Feeding Everyone No Matter What at least cleared the bar for being palatable enough to be endurable. Yum! 

So Planet Earth does have the resources necessary for many people to get through a period of five years or less, if not deliciously. But will we be able to implement the proper measures to distribute them? Making it work will obviously require what Pearce and Denkenberger refer to “the elephant in the room” - large-scale, international cooperation. It’s exactly what the “prepping literature” prior to Pearce and Denkenberger says you can’t count on. “It’s actually quite frustrating,” Pearce said. “The biggest assumption the survival movement makes is that you’d be out for yourself. But all it would take to save everybody is a modest amount of cooperation.” 

Pearce also concedes that in the United States, our individualist perspective may be biased against community. “In the end, community will make us more resilient,” he said. “Preppers should be working within their communities to make them more resilient. But the U.S. idea is much more ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps and look out for yourself.’” 

This “every man for himself” attitude is especially detrimental in light of the fact that most evidence suggests that the popular conception of anarchy inevitably following a disaster is largely overblown. On the contrary, many researchers argue that the opposite is true - there are many reasons to believe that cataclysms yield surprisingly civilizing effects, in contrast to the gloom-and-doom we imagine. As Katy Waldman noted in Slate, grassroots initiatives sprang up in New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy: people offered up their homes for people to charge their phones, and businesses offered free coffee and bread to those left without power. Studies conducted on evacuation patterns of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 also show people in danger behaving calmly. In fact, the phenomenon is so commonplace that author Rebecca Solnit turned it into a book called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, in which she describes humans as naturally “altruistic, communitarian and resourceful.” 

This is a far cry from the chaos that “doomsday preppers” collect rifles to eventually defend against. So what’s behind the persisting assumption that violence and disorder necessarily accompany calamities? Many sociologists see this irrational paranoia as a phenomenon deeply connected to societal inequality, and have dubbed it “elite panic.” Here’s what Solnit has to say about it in her book: 

“Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface -- that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn't actually happen; it's tragic.

But there's also an elite fear -- going back to the 19th century -- that there will be urban insurrection. It's a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the '85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.”

In other words, the suspicion that people will respond to a destabilizing event with barbarism could very well be rooted in the acknowledgement that society is structurally unjust and that those clobbered by it have legitimate grievances. In that sense, our culture’s pervasive but erroneous beliefs about the darkness in others may be better understood as an admission of the darkness in ourselves. 


Natalie Shure has written for the Atlantic, Gawker, Slate, Metro, New York Observer and the Awl.

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