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If U.S. Society Collapses, This Is All We’ve Got?

Allison Stewart’s new photobook is a frank look at preppers’ caches. It reveals a Divided States of America infected by fear.

Author’s note: This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in Bug Out Bag, a book by Allison Stewart of photographs of the contents of hold-alls stored by different Americans in the event that power, communications, emergency services and/or social order fails. Stewart’s images got me to thinking about fear, how it festers in society and how we must overcome fear through togetherness.

“There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.”
— Hunter S. Thompson

Not content with merely imagining disaster; preppers lurch toward it. They play out fearful futures, buy survival goods and stockpile basements with supplies. They have bought in — spiritually, financially and politically — to the worst worst-case scenarios. From the Northeast coast to the Southwest deserts and from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Northwest, photographer Allison Stewart met more than thirty preppers. When asked what was they were prepping for, almost without exception, they responded with ‘Well, I’m afraid that…’. Then named the thing. Then furnished details. Motivated by an array of politics and theories, preppers do seem to be united, at least, by anxiety and alarm.

If Bug Out Bag is a national portrait then, in aggregate, it is a portrait of fear.

A national portrait? That might seem a grand claim for a collection of birds-eye-view photos of arranged items. But Stewart’s simple methods shouldn’t fool you into thinking that these images are simple to read. Sure, they function at a literal level (wittingly mimicking the common, fetishistic ‘What’s In Your Bag’ profiles of industry photog mags) but more crucially these photos serve as a window upon the caprice of American culture. Bug Out Bag contains clues to the (sometimes noxious) misinformation circulating in the U.S. Social collapse is not as close as preppers think, but preppers are closer than you think; Bug Out Bag shows us a booming industry. The issue, for me, is not really whether preppers’ fears are warranted but rather what it means for doomsday delusions to be increasingly part of the American psyche.

On a first pass at the photos, we see rudimentary items. Quite static. On second look, there are survival essentials: a hunting knife, emergency blanket, water filter. Quite urgent? On third look, there a roster of high school students, wine (to counteract radiation?!), a dog leash, and baby wipes. Quite familiar. As good photography does, Bug Out Bag reveals more and more with each view. Not all preppers are tin-foil-mad-hatters forecasting the end of days; some are just hyper-cautious people with children, pets and home comforts to take care of. As good art does, Bug Out Bag chips away at prejudice and false assumption.

To face ones fear is considered, generally, a brave and positive thing. Yet, most Americans openly mock those who gear up with canned food, flares and fire-starters. Preppers are often cast as conspiracy theorists with insular world-views and self-inflicted paranoia. But Stewart met pilots, public school teachers, military veterans, civil war re-enactors, loners and couples, men and women, city dwellers, country folk, New Yorkers, Georgians and Texans. Like it or not, preppers are more like you and I than we might think.

In and of itself, prepping does no harm. One might argue it’s an unfortunate waste of energy and time, but prepping is ultimately benign. One might argue preppers hold anti-social views that do damage, but then again, so do non-preppers. It’s interesting that we deride, dismiss and Other preppers because of their ideas, or what we perceive their ideas to be. Bug Out Bag interrupts that Othering.

While there are countless personalities and politics behind these bug out bags I think it is helpful to distinguish between two main types. The first group tends to be individuals that would most likely be judged as mainstream; in the aftermath of disaster, they anticipate a serious but brief failure in infrastructures (power, water, roads), but ultimately a return to the same set of social relations. The second group, on the other hand, could be fairly described as survivalists. These people predict the imminent collapse of society (anarchy, authoritarian take-over, resource wars) and plan to be best situated after the chaos. How is it we have, on the one hand, citizens who are readying for collective resilience in the face of natural disaster and, on the other, citizens who prepare for an every-man-for-himself scarcity battle?

What If?

We can’t accurately say what will happen in the aftermath of future disasters, but we can pay mind to past disruptions to get an idea. We can even envision our own responses amid the catastrophe. Rebecca Solnit has a lot of faith in people and less faith in government. In her book A Paradise Built In Hell, Solnit looks at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax munitions cargo ship explosion of 1917, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. She argues that when survival is priority, so too is care and altruism. In the immediate aftermaths, communities rallied and organized to search, rescue and feed one another. People ensured the safety of others. Also, looting is not crime, it is for need. Looting only emerges when government buckles and leaves citizens to fend for themselves. Solnit’s is a bullish and buoyant view of humanity.

Naomi Klein’s version of post-disaster dynamics is less optimistic. While Klein would never deny the power of the people, she observes in her book The Shock Doctrine that in the aftermath of both man-made and natural disasters, vacuums of information and power can allows for nefarious state forces to seed and to consequently control political (and military) infrastructures. In Klein’s view there’s less opportunity for citizen agency. In that regard, Klein argues, disaster doubles its challenge to the ordinary man. Would you survive and if you did, would you forge bonds or retreat from others?

In the wake of disaster, both authors identify a wide-open space into which compassion, if we let it, can pour. Solnit urges us to imagine such connectedness to others and to wield it as often as we can: “The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human.”

How and why does prospective trauma inspires altruism in some and mercenary tactics in others? The answer has little to do with any objective appraisal of the robustness of systems and more to do with the blindspots of individual perception. We see the world differently and we see possible futures very differently. If this difference is not respected, or negotiated sensitively, it might spell trouble. Healthy societies work to avoid the exclusion of groups. A recent Princeton University study found that people who are socially excluded are more likely to buy into dangerous theories. As they seek meaning in their lives, they are more likely to attribute their exclusion to unproven forces and in so doing glom onto conspiratorial beliefs. Without common ground, we lose grounding.

“Attempting to disrupt this cycle might be the best bet for someone interested in counteracting conspiracy theories at a societal level,” said Alin Coman, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton.

Earlier studies, too, showed increased antisocial behavior among those excluded. Once sidelined, people are increasingly aggressive and are less able to exercise self-discipline.

Freeing people from conspiratorial belief systems is as good for you and I as it is for those trapped by them. However, it is a task made more difficult when the president entertains conspiracy at whim. During his campaign, Trump sat for interviews with Alex Jones, the founder of rightwing conspiracy website InfoWars. Jones believes Supreme Court Justice Scalia was assassinated; climate change is a hoax invented by China; President Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya; the government has a weather weapon that “can create and steer groups of tornadoes”; and (the most vile of all Jones’ claims) that the Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax that employed crisis actors.

“Jones is nuts,” wrote Ezra Klein for Vox, “but he’s the kind of nuts Trump listens to, at least when convenient. […] And Trump takes these ideas and bases his approach off them.”

I admit, when the President of the United States relies on media outlets committed to misdirection and fallacy, there is an element of wrongheadedness about my call to see preppers’ fears in perspective. How do you reason with these people? But what choice do we have? Sidelining them only exacerbates the problem and the distances between us. Compassion for others with far-out beliefs is a lot more difficult when the White House feeds on, and validates, crackpot narratives. Ugh.

Fear? There’s Good Reason

For all the rhetoric of aspiring politicians, flashy businesspersons and people’s movements alike, Americans are not united. To the contrary, the U.S. is propelled by the tensions vast economic inequality and by partisan pride. The persistence of the gender pay gap, the SCOTUS-sanctioned curtailment of voter rights, the ongoing assaults on LGBQTI rights, and old men legislating on the reproductive rights of women suggest that many discriminations are routine in U.S. society. No wonder divisions exist; we fear for our safety among one another.

Public education is underfunded; prisons and policing disproportionately abuse poor communities; access to health care rests on ones means to pay more than it does on ones need for treatment. Often, just getting along comes, crudely, down to money. If you’re guilty and rich, you’ll do better in the courts than if you’re innocent but poor. Underperforming institutions undermine democracy and our ability to care for one another. Crime is in decline but craven politicians tell us the opposite. Why are fake threats demoting very real ones?

Today, among all demographic groups of the 99%, it is increasingly felt as though society is rigged. Furthermore, renewed culture wars, climate change denial, market deregulations and religious intolerances only add to the sense of brokenness. It is understandable that people are thinking about running for the hills. It is equally understandable that people are steeling themselves to fight for communities in which they’ve invested and survived. On the spectrum between those who are ready to abandon ship and those who are devoted to our social contract, there are tens of millions of other people. The same forces shape us.

Bug Out Bag is a portrait of fears, fears born of uncertainty.

In his famous 1933 inauguration speech, President Roosevelt spoke of fear as a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”, one that “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He encouraged Americans to identify and own their fears and, crucially, their own agency too. History has shown that political actors can exploit fear and uncertainty among the populace. Roosevelt knew federal dollars and public works alone wouldn’t pull America from the Depression; the U.S. needed a bold, fearless and empowered citizenry.

Trump, during his inauguration speech, said “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” The rhetoric fell flat. Trump had already shown fear and discord were part of his bombastic style. He’d already drawn out his ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. He convinced only his hardcore support. By turning away refugees from Muslim-majority countries, vilifying Mexicans, and destroying peace-loving families with mass deportations, Trump showed there’s plenty of room in his patriotism for prejudice. Trump’s campaign, and presidency thus far, has exploited division. His administration feeds on fear and fury.

In Trump’s world, we don’t all rise together and we cannot all be empowered; we’re pitted a zero-sum battle in which for every winner there is a loser. He and his supporters are out to win, which makes everyone else a loser. President Trump’s “America First” isolationism extols the same ‘Us-and-Them’ logic that many of the most anti-social preppers carry.

Playing On Fear

One might point to the fear narratives common in modern America and argue that there was enough to suggest Trump’s brand of shouty politics would prosper. But while hindsight is crystal clear, seeing the future is nothing but a murky enterprise. Some long-standing fear narratives hold a semblance of potential danger (nuclear threat, trade embargoes, avian flu, Y2K computer-bug, government corruption) but other perceived threats are the stuff of fantasy (vaccines, Commies, secularism, super predators, UFOs). Either way, conjecture and make-believe will always sucker people with little to lose and no trust to give. The current creep of fake news into the public sphere complicates matters further. People of every political stripe are susceptible to fake news. It has moved the realm of conspiracy theory into the mainstream. Fake news exploits existing divisions, winning over people with the most feckless bias and reckless prejudice. We’re seeing more and more entrenched views founded on misinformation.

How we respond to fears — both real and imagined — shapes how we get along in life.

Fear is an evolutionary vestige. It is an automatic response to perceived danger causing change in metabolic functions which in turn spur changes in behavior — fleeing, hiding, fighting or freezing, for example. Crucially, in humans, processes of cognition and learning modulate fear. We are not captives to our worst fears but rather we can reason, express and counter them. Fear is situational and the development of an individual’s set of fears is emotional, psychological and largely biographical. As an auto-response, fear itself is not the thing to be addressed, but rather the behaviors that result from the fear. The racism that comes from hate that comes from fear should not and ideally must not exist in society. Destructive fears well in all individuals but the community can allay them.

Bug Out Bag reveals to us the lengths that people will go in order to serve their fears. There’s too much division in the United States. Do not engage with Bug Out Bag to confirm a divide you already feel between you and others. Rather, use these photographs to witness the incredible, and often confounding, diversity of thought. Employ these photos to imagine bridges not walls. Stewart’s work is all about politics, but it doesn’t carry a hardline political message. It can and should function as a window to, and opportunity to connect with, folks previously inaccessible or spurned.

Non-preppers may see preppers as fools? They may balk at what they perceive preppers’ sick pessimism. Alternatively, one might argue that preppers’ pro-action makes them empowered? Preppers might see others as fools who have needlessly abandoned even simple safeguards for them and their loved ones? Allison Stewart never imagined she’d be an honorary member of Zombie Hunters, but surprises abound if we are open to them.

We all have our own baggage. It’s just that preppers fill theirs with stoves, fuel, water and first aid kits. For me, Stewart’s photos speak to an America that doesn’t fully understand itself or trust itself. Therefore, Bug Out Bag is an opportunity to learn about one another. At the end of the day, if the shit hits the fan, and if a prepper has it to offer, I’m confident you won’t be turning down the iodine needed to clean up your kid’s drinking water.

Bug Out Bag dissolves the space between us and them, it addresses the flux between the individual and the collective, and it presages massive events that may unite or divide us. We needn’t wait to find out though. We can start the work of existing together now. Surviving catastrophe is about food caches and back-up generator power, but it is more about people power. Your survival depends less on what is in your bag and more on what is in your heart.

Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear is a photographic journey into America’s obsession with guns, prepping, and the apocalypse, featuring the belongings of thirteen preppers kept at the ready to survive the first 72-hours of a disaster.

The book includes essays by the artist Rachel Monroe, Max Presneill, and myself. Edited by Alyssa Coppelman.

$40. Limited edition, hardcover with wire-o binding, 106 pages, 42 plates8.75" x 11" vertical.

All images: Allison Stewart.