“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, buying survival goods and stockpiling basements with supplies. They have bought in — spiritually, financially, and politically — to the worst worst-case scenarios. Motivated by an array of politics and theories, preppers do seem to be united, at least, by anxiety and alarm, and Allison Stewart’s Bug Out Bag puts this national portrait of fear on display.

A “national portrait” might seem a grand claim for a collection of bird’s-eye photos of arranged items. But Stewart’s simple methods shouldn’t fool you into thinking that these images convey something simple. Sure, they function at a literal level (wittingly mimicking the common, fetishistic “What’s In Your Bag” profiles of industry photography magazines), but more crucially, these photos serve as a window upon the caprice of American culture. Bug Out Bag shows us both clues to misinformation circulating the U.S. as well as a booming industry. The issue, for me at least, 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 is 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 one’s 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 worldviews 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 me 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 who would most likely be judged as mainstream; in the aftermath of disaster, they anticipate a serious but brief failure in infrastructures (power, water, and 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, and resource wars) and plan to be best situated after the chaos. It’s fascinating that we have both citizens who are readying for collective resilience in the face of natural disaster and citizens who are preparing 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 to a catastrophe. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit seems to fall on the side of having a lot of faith in people and less faith in government. 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 a 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. She asserts looting is not crime, but that it is for need and 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 in her book The Shock Doctrine. While Klein would never deny the power of the people, she observes that in the aftermath of both manmade and natural disasters, vacuums of information and power can allow for nefarious state forces to seed and to consequently control political (and military) infrastructures and there’s less opportunity for citizen agency. Klein argues that disaster doubles its challenge to the ordinary man: Would you survive, and if you did, would you forge bonds or retreat from others?

How and why does prospective trauma inspire 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 blind spots 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. Earlier studies, too, showed increased antisocial behavior among those excluded. Once sidelined, people are increasingly aggressive and are less able to exercise self-discipline. 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.

Freeing people from conspiratorial belief systems is as good for you and me as it is for those trapped by them. However, it is a task made more difficult when the president entertains conspiracy at a whim. Compassion for others with far-out beliefs is a lot more difficult when the White House feeds on and validates crackpot narratives.

Good Reason for Fear

For all the rhetoric of aspiring politicians, flashy marketers, and people’s movements alike, Americans are not united. To the contrary, the U.S. is propelled by the tensions of vast economic inequality and by partisan pride. The persistence of the gender pay gap, the Supreme-Court-sanctioned curtailment of voter rights, the ongoing assaults on LGBTQ rights, and old men legislating on the reproductive rights of women show discrimination is still routine in U.S. society. That public education is underfunded, prisons and policing disproportionately abuse poor communities, and access to health care rests on one’s means to pay rather than need for treatment means that getting along often comes, crudely, down to money. 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.

In his famous 1933 inauguration speech, President Franklin 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.

Donald 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” and had shown there’s plenty of room in his patriotism for prejudice.

In Trump’s world, we don’t all rise together and we cannot all be empowered; we’re pitted in a zero-sum battle in which for every winner there is a loser.

Playing on Those Fears

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. Destructive fears can exist in all individuals, but a 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. Stewart’s photos speak to an America that doesn’t fully understand or trust itself. These images shouldn’t be used 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 political message. It can and should function as a window — and an opportunity — to connect with 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.


This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear, 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 thinking about fear, how it festers in society, and how we must overcome fear through togetherness.