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22 March 2022

Laugh at survivalists all you want, but maybe they have a point

Prepping for emergencies such as famines or nuclear war suddenly doesn’t seem so unhinged after all.

By Louise Perry

When it was built in 1952, the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Essex was intended as a base for the British government in the event of a nuclear attack. Designed to house up to 600 military and civilian personnel, the bunker was hidden beneath a drab bungalow on farmland originally owned by the Parrish family. In 1992, when the fear of nuclear war had waned somewhat, the bunker was decommissioned and sold back to the family. Mike Parrish now runs it as a tourist attraction.

Occasionally, Parrish gets inquiries from people who are interested in renting the bunker for its original purpose. This month, following the invasion of Ukraine, there has been an uptick in those, Parrish told the Telegraph. Indeed, “the same thing happened after 9/11”. People will sometimes offer large sums to rent the facility for several years, but so far Parrish has declined all offers – though he might be willing to consider a sufficiently generous one, “if someone like the Beckhams rang up” for instance.

It’s tempting to laugh at the would-be tenants of the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker, and indeed the mock reviews posted to Google (“Please refer to the new opening hours when WW3 starts: Monday – Closed, Tuesday – Closed, Wednesday – Closed…”, etc). But the facility acts as a physical reminder of the seriousness with which the British government once prepared for nuclear war. And perhaps it ought to encourage lackadaisical preppers like me to take the task more seriously, especially now that we seem to be re-entering a period of global tension that, in 1992, was assumed by many to have passed.

Google the word “prepper” and you come up with a lot of kooky images of men with big beards, gas masks and a stash of guns. Reality TV shows such as Doomsday Preppers further embed the idea that the survivalist movement is composed of cranks who have a thing for weaponry. In America, the historical association between prepping and the right (or even the far right) is likely a consequence of this preoccupation with guns, combined with the fact that in order to prep seriously you need to be rural – and rural areas lean Republican.

The political reputation of preppers is also partly a consequence of the historical origins of the survivalist movement, which crystallised in the US during the 1970s and 1980s, in response to fears not only of nuclear conflict but also societal collapse caused by famine or hyperinflation. Preppers of this era did not trust the Russians one bit, but nor did they trust their own government to protect them. There is a particularly mistrustful style of thinking that has always flourished in America, and particularly on the right. As Mark O’Connell writes of prepper psychology in his 2020 book Notes from an Apocalypse: “there is no one cause, no single locus of apocalyptic unease. It’s all horsemen, all the time.” 

In the UK, preppers are less likely to be gun enthusiasts, for the simple reason that getting hold of guns is much more difficult. Nevertheless, our preppers are still often caricatured as “Walts”, in British Army slang – a term derived from the fictional character Walter Mitty, a weedy man who fantasises about military heroism. Walts are tubby blokes who dress up in army surplus gear and play at being survivalists. When the threat of catastrophe – or, in prepper speak, “SHTF” (s**t hitting the fan) – seems unlikely, it’s easy to laugh at them.

Sometimes the laughter is merited. For instance, there was much hilarity on Twitter last year in response to a viral story about a group of Walts who had been prepping in the Texan desert and found themselves affected by power outages. The group were extremely well equipped with guns and ammunition but, although they had lots of canned food, they had forgotten to acquire a non-electric tin opener and so couldn’t eat much of it. 

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There is a masculine side to prepping – involving guns, camouflage and hunting – that typically attracts both attention and mockery. But there is also a feminine side to it, which is just as important but usually features less prominently in post-apocalyptic films. I’m in touch with two mothers who have established homesteads with their husbands and young children – one in America, one in Uruguay. These families are motivated more by environmentalism and localism than they are by survivalism, but the effect is much the same: they have become remarkably skilled at growing and preserving food, and so will fare extremely well if the war in Ukraine causes supply chain disruption worldwide, as it is expected to. 

Prepping doesn’t have to be associated with the Walts, or even with nuclear conflict, which remains mercifully unlikely even if the current crisis is bringing back old fears. The kind of emergencies that are far more likely to occur within our lifetimes are those related to climate change. In Britain that means flooding, heatwaves and increased food and fuel costs, all of which can be reasonably prepared for on both an individual and a national level. 

I’ve always found it odd that so many of the people who say they are extremely concerned about climate change do not live as though they are actually expecting disaster, choosing instead to reside in urban flats with barely enough food in the fridge to last the weekend. 

Admittedly, I’m not much better – we have lots of bottled water at home, and a decent supply of food, but we’re a long way from living off-grid. In the coming years, our intention is to gradually change that, and for a multitude of reasons, including environmental ones. Solar panels and suburban chicken coops aren’t very exciting for the Walts of the world. But they are, I think, a wise investment.

[See also: With gambling reform there can be no happy medium]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain