by Kezia Barker, Birkbeck, University of London, UK
The zombie apocalypse has become a kitsch and playful marketing tool that channels our contemporary atmosphere of fearfulness and sense of world-ending threats. An example of cultural appropriation, it is used to promote pretty much anything, from government preparedness advice, to gardening. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all just a joke.
Yet, we are constantly surrounded by messages of crisis and emergency. Activists have brought London to a standstill demanding politicians take the climate emergency seriously, arguing that we should all act ‘as if our house is on fire’. Threats seem to surround us, and we are told to be permanently on guard. Looking out for ‘anything suspicious’ on public transport is an everyday part of our daily commute, and a training course on how to react to a terrorist incident has recently been made available to the UK public for the first time.
We are increasingly made to feel individually responsible for preparing for possible future crises: for example, by having enough provisions at home to ride out crisis, or by packing a ‘grab bag’ if we need to flee our homes. Jacob Rees-Mogg – a UK Conservative MP – even suggested we bear individual ‘common sense’ responsibility for determining what course of action to take during an emergency, even if that means ignoring the direct instructions of the emergency services.
Crisis seems immanent and individual action necessary.
‘Preppers’ are a growing sub-culture in the UK, who do prepare for a range of possible crises. They stockpile supplies to ‘bug-in’, pack ‘bug-out’ bags to enable quick escapes and survival on the move, and develop survival skills. Yet, they are often the subject of ridicule, criticism and dismissal. Why?
‘Tin foil hat wearing loonies’
Preppers are represented as ‘tinfoil hat wearing loonies’ intent on barricading out the world, safe inside sometimes expensive and elaborate bunkers. In media depictions, they are shown to be obsessed with wacky expensive gear and comically low value items (e.g. spam, dog food, beans, toilet rolls and gravy granules). They seem to be irrationally preoccupied with improbable future catastrophes in ways that isolate them socially and politically from the present. And they seem to almost hope for an apocalypse, to live out their Mad Max fantasies.
These media depictions are often misplaced, with one prepper noting common misconceptions:
“one, we’re all waiting for something to happen; two, that we will be happy when it does.”
This image of the socially deviant and isolated prepper at the fringes of society has also been challenged recently by a surge in people stockpiling for Brexit (‘Brexit preppers’); as well as by leading sustainability experts revealing their own preparations for the ‘climate apocalypse’ (‘climate preppers’), and urging others to embrace ‘deep adaption’ to climate crisis.
Perhaps preppers are not so mad after all then, and maybe there is more we can learn from them.
Insecurities or inequalities?
In a recent paper published in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, I draw on qualitative research to challenge these media depictions of prepping. I argue that prepping reveals important factors that can develop our understandings of contemporary experiences and responses to crisis and insecurity.
Preppers in the UK are not really preparing for zombie apocalypse. They see their preps as something that can buffer them from both ‘ordinary’ and catastrophic crises. So becoming suddenly unemployed, being unwell and unable to leave the house, or experiencing unexpected delays in benefit payments, come to be linked through discursive practices with imagined scenarios of complete infrastructural collapse following a catastrophic event. Both can involve being cut off from public services and being left to fend for yourself.
Prepping therefore highlights the vulnerability that can be felt in the contradiction between, on the one hand, our dependency on complex networks and infrastructures supporting modern society, and on the other, a sense of the instability of those networks due to their weakening through lack of investment, and their embedded structural inequalities.
Rejecting the idea that authorities will ‘come to their rescue’, prepping demonstrates a lack of trust in the government to prevent or remediate the impacts of crises, as one prepper described:
What I’m saying to you is, they’re [the UK government] okay, they’re catered for – we’ve got nothing. We’ve got to look after ourselves. So, no, I don’t trust them. I don’t … believe what they say.
Prepping therefore highlights the inequalities that exist in emergency preparedness and response, as well as our vulnerabilities to crisis.
This fear is justified by past events including recent flooding in Yorkshire, Hurricane Katrina, and the Grenfell fire tragedy in London. These events show that state security protection is racialised, gendered, able-bodied, ageist and class-based. It’s no wonder that people decide that in order to protect themselves and their families from future crises, they need to take individual action.
In other words prepping in the UK must be understood as part of a social response to austerity and to neoliberal government.
How to Survive the End of the Future
I called the article ‘How to Survive the End of the Future’ in reference to the idea that the future has been foreclosed in two key ways.
First, through the possibility that catastrophic events – many of which are human-generated – mean we may not survive what the future has in store for us. Second, in the sense that our imagination of alternative futures has been shut down through the dominance of the capitalist way of life. This is captured in the famous dictum ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ By imagining and preparing for their own survival beyond the present and thus invoking alternative futures, prepping responds to both.
That response is not simply driven by or experienced as anxiety or fear. Getting out into wild spaces and testing your kit, cooking on a campfire, challenging yourself, learning new skills, quite simply, is fun.
What’s the big obsession with zombies and bunkers? Well, this is a diversion, a strategy to acknowledge and subvert media ridicule, as one prepper joked, feigning paranoia:
“Shhh, don’t talk about the bunkers!”
But, then again… if you’re prepared for the zombie apocalypse, you’re prepared for anything. Maybe we should all take note.
About the author: Dr. Kezia Barker is a Lecturer in Geography at Birkbeck, University of London, with research interests in how social, cultural and political life grapples with insecure environmental futures. She is currently researching prepping in the UK.
This blog is based on a recent publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: Barker K (2019) How to Survive the End of the Future: Preppers, Pathology and the Everyday Crisis of Insecurity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12362
Read the article for free here: https://rdcu.be/bYEsB
The cover image, by Backdoor survival, is taken from Flickr and licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0