What to Do the Day Before the Day After Tomorrow: Climate Change Surivalism

What are ‘Preppers’?

While some people are still buying million-dollar land on Miami Beach despite the fact that it will be underwater in 50 years, others are taking individual measures to prepare for a changing world. Preppers, also known as survivalists, believe that they are likely to face a major catastrophe and take preparing for such an emergency into their own hands.  These catastrophes vary widely and include hurricanes and other natural disasters, nuclear war (most popular during the height of the Cold War), national economic and political collapse, the Rapture, and war with the government. Generally, preppers are skeptical of the ability of existing institutions to prevent or respond to disasters. Preppers focused on natural disasters call FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency), “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful Aid” and prefer to stockpile potentially useful skills and resources.

Preparation for a warmer and less predictable climate can take many forms. Unlike many of the scenarios for which preppers were previously known, such as an all-out war with the U.S.S.R., there is overwhelming expert consensus (97% of experts by most reckonings) that these preppers are readying themselves for an event that is certain to happen. While the specific impacts of long-term climate change are still unknown, it is certain that storms will become more severe and frequent, seas will rise, and droughts will threaten food security worldwide. In the face of this future, what are those most concerned with climate change’s effects and most skeptical of outside help doing to prepare?

Red Cross Preparedness Kit or “Bug-Out” Bag. Photo Credit: FEMA Photo Library

The Rich

Climate survivalism can fall into many of the same tropes as traditional doomsday prepping. Considerable concern focuses on the climate destabilizing national governments and leading to general anarchy. Those with the means to do so are securing isolated high elevation property. New Zealand faces climate gentrification on a national scale due to American and Chinese billionaires buying property to prepare for a world after climate change. After the national average housing price rose by 60% in 10 years, the government banned non-residents from buying most homes.

High-net-worth individuals have taken other extreme measures.  Steve Huffman, CEO of Reddit, got Lasik in preparation for a potential catastrophe, climate or otherwise. Prepared for anything, Mr. Huffman has also secured guns, ammo, food and “a couple of motorcycles” Private survivalist Facebook groups focus on prepping concerns particular to the rich. Though similar to public survivalist forums in many ways, these pages contain more discussion of investments, cryptocurrency markets, and the importance keeping one’s helicopter gassed up.

A 1931 bank run during the Great Depression. Photo Source: National Archives

The Internet Communities

Tech entrepreneurs and Reddit CEOs aren’t the only ones taking steps to prepare for the worst when it comes to climate change. The doomsday prepper subreddit (/r/preppers) has over 109,000 members.  The most upvoted posts related to climate change are from those who lived through recent natural disasters, including Hurricanes Irma, Maria, Harvey, and the California wildfires. These posts urge common-sense planning such as gathering light sources, making friends with neighbors, getting generators (if available), and gathering bug spray. More extreme advice occasionally appears, including “get a military grade tear gas/ pepper spray combo,” but these tips are far rarer than general disaster-preparedness advice.

A popular sentiment on the prepper subreddit. Photo Source: Reddit

The Reality

Will climate change lead to a global collapse of society and vindicate the most extreme preppers’ wildest dreams? There is no denying that the world will be a less hospitable place in the future for most people. Extreme weather, drought, and sea level rise are already happening in parts of the world and will continue to get worse. This reality alone justifies making a disaster plan and stockpiling supplies for short-term emergencies. Although prepping forums may seem alarmist, many people are struck with existential dread at the thought of climate change. The American Psychological Association has noted the toll climate change news exacts on mental health and has recommended mental and material preparation.

Although global economic and governmental collapse will not happen overnight, climate change increases the risk of destabilization in resource-strained areas and can lead to refugee crises when people must flee those areas. In 2016, the EPA released a document designed to inform the public about how to prepare and cope with extreme heat events that will be more and more common in the future. The American Security Project, a non-partisan organization run by many retired generals and the U.S. military, regards climate change as a threat multiplier. These experts connect climate change to the rise of Boko Haram, the Syrian Civil War, and political instability worldwide as food, water, and land become increasingly scarce. According to the IPCC, 3ºF of warming is essentially assured, and without drastic policy and economic changes worldwide, the increase could easily be 10ºF. While this is a far cry from Mad Maxbecoming reality, unchecked climate change has secondary and tertiary effects that will require worldwide structural changes in order to deal with the crisis in a humanitarian way rather than creating conflict.

There are several theories on how climate change could trigger a societal collapse. First, if food sources are strained, prices will rise. Preppers who fear this outcome grow their own food and keep a well-stocked pantry. Some believe that the switch from fossil fuels will lead to or even require the demise of capitalism. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on who you ask, but preppers focused on gold, cryptocurrency, or other tradable goods have some basis for their preparations. Other also worry what will happen when 143 million displaced people need a new home in a world where nationalism is on the rise.

The consequences of extreme climate change, such as weather events, lack of food, wildfires in arid areas, war, and government collapse, are the same thing many preppers have been concerned with for a century. Although the impending arrival of preppers’ vision may be frightening, it is heartening that preppers emphasize collaboration rather than dog-eat-dog competition. Online communities demonstrate that survivalism isn’t a lonely prospect. While they’re not giving up their bug-out bags, preppers realize that to survive, one must join with others and form something as close to society as possible. Or, if you have the means, you can check out FiveThirtyEight’s list of The Best Place[s] To Move If You’re Worried About Climate Change.

Further Recommended Reading

This Land Is the Only Land There Is | The Atlantic

Climate change: a survivors’ guide |The Guardian

Is it time to join the ‘preppers’? How to survive the climate-change apocalypse |The Guardian

Featured image:A photo of a family fallout shelter from 1957 that many during the Cold War would be happy to have in their basement. This shelter and its stock of food and water could theoretically keep a small family alive for up to 14 days. A shelter like this would commonly contain a radio, light sources, first aid and other supplies for surviving in isolation for a short time before contacting the outside world. Having ready-made shelters that can survive a natural or man-made disaster are a priority for many preppers. Photo From the National Archives, Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S).

About the author: Jacob Becker is a second-year master’s candidate pursuing a dual masters in City and Regional Planning and Environmental Sciences and Engineering. His research interests include mapping air pollution, climate change adaptation and transitioning to clean energy sources. For fun, Jacob takes his mind off the slow heat death of the planet by hiking around it and indulging in improv and sketch comedy. Jacob received his undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Chicago.