Has 2020 vindicated the doomsday prepper?

Zadie Smith considers herself to have no survival instinct. I stock survival guidebooks on my bookshelf. But are we really that different?
November 6, 2020

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who passively fear disaster, and those who plan for it. During this crazy year—especially the time when supermarket shelves were empty and borders were closing—I think we all found out which kind we are.

While reading Zadie Smith’s recent pandemic-inspired collection of essays, Intimations, I was intrigued to discover that she considers herself to have “no ‘survival instinct,’ nor any strong desire to survive.” Especially, she adds, thinking shiveringly of grim post-apocalyptic fantasies like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, “if what lies on the other side of survival is just me.” In a crisis—Smith imagines armed men marching up the stairs, fighter jets strafing the ground behind her—she might just lie down and wait to die, she writes.

Plenty of others—and, in the past, I have considered myself among them—flatter themselves that such a disaster might be the moment when they come into their own. With a little preparation, a bit of planning and timely practice, perhaps we would be able to bring things back under control, at least on a domestic scale. To think so requires, as became obvious to me in March, an inflated sense of one’s own abilities. But this fantasy of ourselves as eternally capable, calm and effective is, I think, why preparing for hypothetical disasters is such a satisfying thought exercise in calmer times.

What else could explain the mega-bestselling survival handbooks by woodsman Ray Mears and his ilk? Rich and I keep a copy of Mears’s Essential Bushcraft on our bookshelf. I consider the guide, a handbook of sorts for outdoor survival, a guilty pleasure. When life feels dull and static, or when I’m overworked, I like to flick through its pages and remind myself of the best way to build a solar still, distil drinking water from seawater, or snare a rabbit. Just in case. These particular “skills” of mine are strictly hypothetical, although I do know from experience how to start a fire in the rain, rig a tarp shelter between trees, and dig a snow hole (for shelter in extremis).

But in what conditions, exactly, might these skills come in useful during a real-life, modern disaster? My handiness with a hatchet, for example, proved of very little value during the first lockdown. And here’s the other thing: once you’ve prepared, aren’t you invested in such an event actually coming to pass? You could see it in the glee with which so many people this year have begun referring to the “before times,” or to the “apocalypse” in our midst. A friend of mine who will go unnamed (and who wouldn’t go so far as to call himself a prepper) strongly believes in stocking up at the first sign of crisis. He found no need to beat a path through panic buyers this March—he had packed his pantry with cans so tightly after the Brexit vote that he had no space for any more. A reason to crack open the emergency rations was a vindication, of a sort.

Still. That is the same man who taught me how to fire a gun and to field dress a fallen deer. His partner keeps livestock, grows vegetables, rides horses with a baby on her back. I know exactly whose house we’ll be heading to when shit hits the fan—or SHTF, as they say on the survivalist forums. Because if the chaos of 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that—come the end of days—I’ll barely be able to think straight. I’d better find a place to hunker down.