National Geographic's Doomsday Preppers - causing mass hysteria?
National Geographic TV Channel advertise as follows: "Doomsday Preppers explores the lives of otherwise ordinary Americans who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it. Unique in their beliefs, motivations, and strategies, Preppers will go to whatever lengths they can to make sure they are prepared for any of life's uncertainties. And with our expert's assessment, they will find out their chances of survival if their worst fears become a reality."
It would seem that over 3 million people in the USA and countless unknown numbers elsewhere in the world are feverishly preparing for the end of civilization as we know it. But are they prudent and smart people, or are they suffering from Doomsday Phobia? Is there a growing doomsday mass hysteria fuelled by the TV series Doomsday Preppers? In this article I look at the phenomenon of Doomsday Preppers and ask the question: Are these "otherwise ordinary Americans" mentally disturbed, or are they the smart ones?
Doomsday phobia is nothing new. It is a broad category that can encompass any fear of the end of the world as we know it. What lies behind the phobia is not just the fear of dying (which it is ultimately) but includes a fear of suffering a period of severe deprivation and individual suffering that will culminate in the end of civilization as we know it. This is a fear of a global holocaust or a fear that locally the establishment will break down and everyone caught up in the disaster will eventually perish.
These fears stem from a single source or a combination of different sources ranging, for example, from global financial meltdown to a devastating pandemic disease. From an asteroid hitting the planet to nuclear holocaust.
Doomsday phobias are surprisingly common, occurring in some form in virtually every corner of the world. Basically, it is a fear of the unknown leading to death. Since doomsday phobias are relatively common, they are often exploited by the writers of sci-fi and horror stories. The best-known example is the 1938 radio broadcast "War of the Worlds". This live radio broadcast claimed to follow an alien invasion that was occurring in New York City. The broadcast was heard across the United States and lead to mass panic. In the 1990's, the TV movie "Without Warning", also about an alien invasion, caused fear and panic but on a smaller scale. The 2008 movie "Doomsday," focused on the aftermath of a deadly virus outbreak, preying on our collective fear of an unstoppable epidemic.
Preppers — Historical
Doomsday Preppers make provision to prolong their lives by storing up food, weapons and by fortifying their homes to protect themselves from the horrors they firmly believe will happen. Throughout history, people have done the same thing. This is why people built castles to protect themselves from an enemy and possible annihilation. If you lived in a castle with a good supply of food and water you had a better chance of survival than a peasant living in a hut in a field with only enough food to last a day or two.
Modern day governments made preparation to survive a nuclear holocaust. Central and regional government had their own underground bunkers, for example, at the former Cultybraggan camp in Scotland, a massive bunker constructed in secret to house up to 150 staff, sealed away from the outside world and protected from nuclear, biological and electromagnetic attacks. With its own BBC studio, canteen, telephone exchange and dormitories, the residents' main role would have been planning for and overseeing the re-building of a post apocalypse Scotland. English government had a massive underground complex in Wiltshire and several other secret locations. All these bunkers have now been sold off, or are currently on sale, along with bunkers built for the Royal Observer Corps and various missile silos. All remnants of the Cold War. The threat of nuclear attack hasn't gone away, despite the end of the Cold War, but government in the UK obviously realized that in a post-apocalyptic society, there wouldn't be much left to govern and they would not be capable of doing much to help any survivors. Most of those who survived an attack in a bunker would perish eventually and there wouldn't be many people left to govern anyway and certainly there wouldn't be a taxable population!
Which brings me back to today's Doomsday Preppers. I watched several episodes on TV and as a survival expert and as a psychologist, I felt my concern growing that something was happening here that wasn't so healthy — at the same time I wondered if these people had a point. What the series clearly demonstrated to me was a total lack of trust in government at all levels to protect and care for its citizens.
So do the Preppers have a valid point? Will central and regional government, the law enforcement agencies, rescue services and the armed forces abandon the civilian population and leave their survival to chance? Will these authorities be in a position to make even the basic provisions for the survival of the general population? Chances are they won't and there is a risk that, should the worst happen, the general public will be left to fend for themselves for a varied period of time depending on the magnitude of the disaster and the ability of those in charge to organize themselves and help the general population.
If we accept that the general public may be left to fend for themselves, are the Preppers then right that human nature will quickly plummet to primitive levels of survival with armed gangs taking what they want, roaming around killing and looting at will? Or, will the best come out in people and will they help each other in a time of collective need?
The series, Doomsday Preppers, portrays the US culture as a gun-toting, lawless and extremely uncaring and selfish population hell-bent on personal survival at all costs. Possibly, because the people featured in the documentary are doomsday phobics who have become totally obsessive with doomsday preparation and have a secret desire for the worst to happen, which would be the ultimate justification for their obsession with personal survival.
Many of us growing up in the 1960's, the Cold War Period, were exposed to the horror of the threat of a nuclear attack. Schoolchildren being drilled what to do if the 4-minute warning sirens went off — lie down and cover your head — resist looking at the flash as this reflexive glance would lead to certain blindness. I lived through the tense few days of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a young man at university. Many people thought nuclear war was imminent and that fear left its mark on many. Young children faced with thoughts of death; of perhaps surviving on one's own with no family to care for you, totally vulnerable with a limited chance of surviving, these are heavy concerns for a child. This is one of my main concerns about the modern day Doomsday Preppers.
Watching the TV series and seeing young children being drilled what to do if "disaster strikes" has a sensible element to it if you subscribe to the Doomsday Prepper philosophy, but it also has a macabre side to it. Instead of helping mom to make more preserved foods ready for the day when the world falls apart, going through gas mask and "bugging-out" drills, they should be out playing with friends and enjoying the carefree days that end soon enough anyway. Many Preppers on the series go to great trouble to explain that they present their Doomsday preparations as "play" to their children, but it is obvious watching the children that it affects them. Is it right that these children grow up fearing the world will end, that civilization will break down? That they may end up having to handle firearms and fight alongside their parent to defend stores of food and equipment? Is it right that these children think they may have to live in an underground bunker for days on end, fearing what sort of world they will come out to? A Doomsday Prepper would say it is. If you don't subscribe to their philosophy, one could say they are seriously damaging their children psychologically.
Doomsday Preppers — Conclusion
Becoming self-reliant is a good thing. Life is uncertain, and depending on any form of government to provide for a struggling population following an apocalyptic event is ignoring the realities of the situation. The better equipped and prepared any household is to face a situation of hardship is only being prudent.
The danger with Prepping is that it can become an obsession, and obsessive thinking can derail a person's life. Not only that, it can negatively affect the lives of everyone in close contact with the obsessive person and is particularly damaging psychologically to children. Children are in danger of growing up with anxiety and becoming obsessed with doomsday preparation, which is unhealthy to put it mildly.
Defending one's family, home and possessions is everyone's right. The danger is paranoia. Once a person has built a personal fortress stocked with food and water, dare they leave it? Even for a short while? How far will the paranoid personality go to defend his or her possessions? Shoot unarmed women and children trespassing on their property? Assume that anyone approaching the front door is looking to take away their possessions and shoot to kill?
A doomsday phobia, like any phobia, can fill a person with morbid dread. There is a danger that the strongly-held belief or delusion (that doomsday is imminent) may sufficiently influence people so that they subconsciously desire it to happen, which in turn worsens the phobia.
Stockpiling water, fuel, food and seeds (to make a post-apocalyptical garden) brings with it a massive work-in-progress rotating food supplies and ensuring that seeds remain viable so they will germinate, keeping fuel supplies safely. What does one do with quantities of food that has long passed its shelf life? How does one ensure that self-canned foods do not contain botulism toxins? Seeds take a long time to produce edible crops. There are many consideration in having a personal food store, the question being, is this what you want to do with your life?
Has the National Geographic series Doomsday Preppers sparked off a mass hysterical reaction? Well, according to published statistics, over 3 million people in the US alone have become Preppers. This could be a craze, a trendy fad, or it could be hysterical. At the very least, it shows a lack of trust in any form of government by a country's citizens. There is a thin red line of paranoia and fear running through each episode in the TV series. Paranoia that marauding armed gangs will seek out and attempt to loot Prepper homes. Fear that the Preppers will have to "bug-out" and flee from their strongholds leaving their precious stockpiles of food and water behind.
One thing must be clear by now to the unscrupulous elements of society — if you want to find food, water, fuel and weapons in a post-apocalyptic society simply find the home or shelter owned by a Prepper. After a short gun battle, you can have all the supplies you need and you didn't have to invest any time, money or effort to get them. However well armed Preppers are they will be unable to withstand a sustained and determined attack by a superior force of equally well armed and hungry people. So is Prepping worth the effort? Only you can decide that!
Let's hope that someone in the future will say, "My Great, Great, Great Great, Great, Great Grandfather was a Doomsday Prepper."
© James Mandeville December 2012