Sometimes at second hand books stores I find myself with an armful of books, thinking “These will come in handy if … If the internet goes away, if there is no more electricity, if there aren’t grocery stories anymore.” I cling to the books, push the nightmare scenarios out of my head and make for the cashier.
I think I can mark the beginning of this strange coping mechanism with Donald Trump taking the highest office in the United States. I managed my discomfort and dismay — my anger and fear — by collecting books that helped me feel in control. I couldn’t control who was in the White House or how the world saw the United States, but I could grow a garden, raise chickens and dig a root cellar. True confessions: I expanded my garden and added six delightful feathered friends, but I haven’t dug a root cellar yet. I do know just where to look when it is time: Helen Nearing’s “Simple Food for the Good Life: An Alternative Cook Book” has a whole section on root cellars for beets and apples and potatoes.
The books store a kind of knowledge I am not quite ready to absorb. Between “The People’s Cookbook,” “What Cooks in Connecticut” and “The Tuna Cookbook,” I will be able to make pumpkin and watermelon rinds palatable, catch and cook locusts, crickets and termites and prepare canned tuna more than 100 ways.
It wasn’t until I was standing in line at the used bookstore with a $1 copy of “How to Build a Covert, Off the Grid Safe House Away from the Prying Eyes of the Government” that I saw my behavior clearly. I have been seeking to assuage my anxiety about everything from rising fascism to rising sea levels, peaks in the cost of fuel and the persistence of the pandemic by buying books. Not reading the books, mind you — just buying them. They stack up like the MREs a doomsday prepper might stock their bunker with. I find their pages full of still unlearned lessons comforting.
I imagine the sirens that signal a meltdown at the nuclear power plant down the road, or the storm surge pelting the house, while I frantically cram Tom Brown’s “Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival” into my bag beside the “Complete Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook.” Seriously, I bought those two books on the same day. The “Worst Case” book instructs you on how to survive an alligator attack and a plummeting elevator. Meanwhile, the three “Foxfire” books I have (there’s 14 in the series) share lore and skills from the people of Appalachia, including entries on butter churning, making moonshine, foraging for mushrooms and dressing hogs. So maybe those would be better to bring!
Call it an insurance policy, bibliotherapy or perhaps futile self-delusion, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying into the Survival Condo, which is built inside a decommissioned missile silo in Kansas.
Survivalist and educator Tom Brown notes that “to our ancestors, every day was an uncertain struggle. Survival was a way of life. Today our instincts are dulled and our survival knowledge has trailed off like the vapors from a steam engine. Most of us have traded our natural heritage for comfort and convenience.” My ancestors would have no problem trapping, killing and dressing a squirrel — and by dress, I don’t mean putting it into cute little outfits and snapping pictures for Instagram. I mean separate the fur, skin and bones from the meat and get it ready for eating. I look at the squirrels in our yard — fat from raiding our compost pile and eating the chickens’ food — and wonder if I could really do it. If push comes to shove, will I be able to see my neighborhood squirrels as a food source?
We can’t survive alone, or only with our immediate families, no matter how many skills and resources we possess. We have to figure out how to live together and take care of one another.
Instead of “if,” I should be saying “when push comes to shove,” because Doomsday is already here for lots of people. Many of us are insulated from the worst of it by wealth, skin color, nationality or geography, but it is still here. I don’t have to look far to see a horrific string of calamities that many people have not survived. There are the hellscapes of California and Colorado, where fires destroyed millions of acres and killed dozens of people. There’s the much less sweeping but horrific Bronx apartment fire that killed 17 people. The February 2021 cold snap in Texas killed more than 200 people, destroyed infrastructure and crops and left millions in the dark and cold for weeks. Just under a year later, a thin dusting of snow after a rain storm shut down one of the busiest highways in the country, stranding tens of thousands of people for more than 24 hours.
These are all different crises, far apart in time and geography. But, to me, they add up to fearfulness and a sense of foreboding. Futurist Alex Steffen defines discontinuity as the “shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.” Yikes. Whether in a yurt on a fiery hillside in California, a condo in Houston, or a clunky Toyota miles from an exit on I-95 in Virginia, I am not prepared. Nor am I prepared for much else that is already happening to my fellow humans around this country and around the world.
Of course, it is not enough to have these books, or even read them all, or even read them all and begin to implement their many practical lessons. As I consider the stack of books in my front room, I wonder what are my actual survival skills? I make a list on a piece of paper:
– I pay attention.
– I am not squeamish and have a high “gross out” threshold.
– I can grow food.
– I can dumpster dive and eat garbage.
– I can withstand discomfort and prepare for heat and cold.
– I can facilitate a meeting and help a group come to consensus.
– I can wait, I am patient.
– I am empathetic.
– I have fasted for periods of a week or 10 days, so I understand that my body can continue to function with little or no food.
– I can walk long distances and have run half marathons, so I have a sense that I can travel by foot.
It doesn’t seem like a very good list. There are a lot of holes here. I can’t speak another language. I don’t have a skill like engineering, chemistry or medicine. I don’t know how to trap and kill a wild animal or prepare it for eating. Really, all I’ve got is common sense, care for others and a rudimentary sense of how natural systems work.
I can’t really prepare for the apocalypse or completely prevent it, but we can integrate the reality of these changes into our lived realities — by resisting despair and being generous, and by building resilience and solidarity
But maybe that’s enough, now that I think about it. We can’t survive alone, or only with our immediate families, no matter how many skills and resources we possess. We have to figure out how to live together and take care of one another. Basic stuff, no matter where we are. So, my small survival skill set can be stacked alongside yours and theirs, and I’ll build mine up (leaving squirrel slaughtering until the very end), while weaving a tighter web of mutual aid and community concern. With all of this, I can now count Rob Hoskins’s “From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want” as part of my survival shelf, alongside everything by Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin.
There is a strong tendency within survivalism to separate from a society that is failing, or has failed. Mountaintop retreats, private islands, repurposed bunkers and the billionaire space race are all about securing a future for the very very few.
I’m not interested in retreat. I’m interested in resistance that also creates resilience and restoration, and I am not alone in that. All over the world — while working to hold nation-states and corporations to account for environmental pollution and destruction — groups are building systems of care, repair and resiliency that resist the despair and nihilism that can seep (or slosh or tsunami) into the work.
The zombies, aliens, invaders, ice storms, killing rain, computer viruses, real viruses — these nightmare images are in my head all the time and have probably fueled my book bingeing more than anything else. The terror-as-entertainment driven business aggravates in me a very real helplessness and despair, which easily turns into paralyzing apathy and vigorous nihilism. I never emerge from a “Walking Dead” bender feeling empowered or equipped for the post-apocalypse. Heck, I don’t even feel ready for tomorrow.
But the truth is, the apocalypse isn’t coming all at once, in a tidal wave or a new strain of disease. It won’t be cinematic, and there won’t be a soundtrack or a last minute techo-fix. We are living in an age of change — climate change, economic change, political change. These constant micro and macro upheavals are random, nonlinear and in flux. They are also persistent, plottable and pervasive.
I can’t really prepare for it or completely prevent it, but we can integrate the reality of these changes into our lived realities — by resisting despair and being generous, and by building resilience and solidarity. All of that feels like a huge privilege. I don’t want to prepare for the end of the world. I want to prepare for tomorrow, and I don’t want to do it alone. I want to do it with you, my family, our community and a few more people who know a little bit more than me about how things work. Tomorrow is definitely coming and that is all we really know about it.