Are survivalists paying for better odds or just better amenities?
Newt Gingrich is very concerned about the end of the world. Electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs, which can happen as a result of nuclear blasts or solar flares, are according to him “the greatest strategic threat we face,” a catastrophe whose impact would be “so horrifying that we would in fact basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.” Sometimes Gingrich writes novels of historical fiction with a friend named William R. Forstchen. A few years ago, Forstchen wrote a novel about society crumbling after an EMP attack, and Gingrich wrote the foreword. He described the book as “a work of fact” and a “future history,” and he compared it to 1984. When he ran for president in 2012, Gingrich raised the subject of EMPs during forums and debates and was widely lampooned by the press.
An EMP is essentially a burst of electronic energy that can short-circuit any electrical system within range, including power grids, computers, and communication systems. In the film Ocean’s Eleven and the TV show 24, EMP-producing devices are used to cause temporary blackouts across limited regions. The EMPs that have Gingrich and others in a tizzy are different from these filmic versions. Gingrich’s EMPs would come from solar activity or from nuclear weapons; if a weapon were detonated high enough, some say, the resulting EMP could knock the entire continent off the grid, and the lights would not come on again. Cue high-stress action music: Computer screens would go dark. Cell phones would go dead. Any vehicle with a computer chip would stop running. Planes would fall from the sky.
It makes for good TV, but the EMP threat has been a hard sell in the real world. Noah Shachtman, a national security writer for Wired, points out that if Iran or North Korea decided to “nuke us,” it’s unlikely they would just “turn off our electricity” instead. In other words, a terrorist with a weapon powerful enough to produce a catastrophic EMP would probably just detonate it on the ground, where it would kill a lot of people instantly. And according to the Pentagon, the U.S. missile defense system is set up to intercept a nuclear weapon no matter how high it’s launched and regardless of its intended use.
Most EMP alarmists are white, conservative, and well-heeled. They’re former military officers; they’ve sat on missile defense commissions; they’ve advised Congress. They’re joined by conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which published two online articles on the subject in March alone. “Chaos From the Sky: Why the EMP Threat is Real” and “The EMP Threat: Just a Scare?” seem intended to bring skeptics into the fold. Still, most people are not freaking out.
My stepfather keeps his apocalypse supplies in the basement, on a set of plastic shelves next to the washing machine: jumbo packs of batteries, lanterns of various sizes and strengths, a tent and sleeping bags, two tengallon bladders of water, 100 servings of instant oatmeal, and a bunch of canned goods with an emphasis on processed meat. I’ve teased my stepfather mercilessly about the apocalypse supplies (why, in the case of a nuclear holocaust, does he think he’ll want to be eating weenie dogs from a can?), but it turns out his stockpile is nothing compared to the true survivalists. To them, my stepdad’s shelves look like nothing more than a Costco run. To survive for a year, he needs at least 700 pounds of preserved food — about 2200 calories a day — and double that if he wants to keep my mom alive too. He needs a 55-gallon reserve of water and a rain catchment system, a propane heater, and a ham radio. It wouldn’t hurt to have a fruit orchard, too, twenty percent of his assets in gold bullion and silver coins, and an underground safe house.
The survivalist community is large, its fears innumerable. Long considered the domain of backcountry militiamen and the mentally ill, the movement has seen a surge in popularity, first after 9/11 and again during the economic collapse. Add to that extreme natural disasters like Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami that caused the nuclear-plant meltdown in Japan, and survivalism begins to seem like a smart hobby to pursue. (Nevertheless, the movement got some bad press last winter when Adam Lanza killed 27 people and himself in Newton, Connecticut with his mother’s .223-caliber rifle. His mother, who was one of the victims, was reported to be a survivalist. She had six other guns in the house.)
For most survivalists, the ultimate goal is to be 100 percent self-sufficient for at least a year after a catastrophic event. They bill themselves as a group of proudly hardscrabble DIYers: They’ve retrofitted bug-out vehicles, wired off-the-grid electrical systems, and hauled thousands of pounds of rocks for avalanche booby traps. The dating website for survivalists, Survivalistsingles.com, boasts over 5000 members. Almost three-quarters are men. The site’s tagline reads, “Don’t Face the Future Alone.” A 62-year-old retired Navy medic lists his hobbies as “read in the winter, prep, clean my firearms, sharpen my knives etc. Warm weather, go shooting, ride my harley.” Another 62-year-old from Kentucky writes, “The bottom line is, I am going to live off grid with a self sustaining life style. I have been preparing for this for a while now... I AM A BAKER. I MAKE FRIED PIES FOR A LIVING.” If you’re a diligent survivalist, there is always work to do: replenishing food stores, keeping firewood stocked, cleaning the weapons, etc. Getting ready for the end times, it seems, is not so different from actually living in them.
But not all survivalists are interested in roughing it now or in the post-apocalyptic world. For those with means, survivalism can look a lot like planning for a very comfortable retirement. The National Geographic Channel’s reality show Doomsday Preppers is the highest rated show in the cable channel’s history. In November, 1.3 million people watched the Season 2 premier. “Preppers” is another word for survivalists; some might say “prepping” is survivalism for yuppies. Here are some samples from the Doomsday Preppers episode guide:
Kellene Bishop, a self-described foodie, amazes her friends by whipping up a dinner party entirely from shelf-stable foods, proving she won’t sacrifice the finer things in a financial disaster.
Real estate developer Larry Hall is creating luxury survival condos in an old missile silo.
To prep for life after the EMP, Brent has constructed a medieval-style castle that will serve as the ultimate bug-out fortress.
Capt. William E. Simpson, has spent six years singlehandedly building his perfect bunker, but it’s not underground: it’s his sailboat.
These people are anticipating the end of capitalism; meanwhile, capitalism is happy to help them prepare for its demise. The luxury prepper market depends on people who want to spend money instead of time. Freezedried gourmet meals take the place of bulk food storage, high-tech water systems replace rain barrels, disaster-proof domes replace the everyday yurt.
Zeb Gear, one of these up-market survivalist retailers, is located in Fort Mill, South Carolina and online. It’s owned by Laura Kunzie, an ex-Coast Guard survivalist, and sells “solutions” (not products) for the discerning prepper. For $2,558.73, a Ham Radio solution. For $2,490.93, a one-year meal plan solution for two, including 18 gallons of oatmeal, 42 gallons of soups, powdered milk, and six gallons of Taco Supper. For $14.84, a device that lets women pee standing up, because apparently women will not be able to squat post-Doomsday. For $149, a Bartering Bucket that combines four “top barter trading commodities”: sea salt, cane sugar, matches, and coffee. For those unfamiliar with the concept of bartering, the website helpfully expounds: “Bartering is the free exchange of goods or services. This system of trade is practiced all over the world today, except in the United States, where it is the exception to the rule of money.”
There are dozens of stores like Zeb Gear that are devoted entirely to high-end survival equipment. The National Geographic Channel just debuted a new reality show called Apocalypse 101, which centers around the owners of Colorado’s Forge Survival Supply, the purveyor of $2700 pre-loaded backpacks and a $10,000 water catchment device. Forge, like plenty of other survivalist retailers, is owned by survivalists, and there’s no reason to fault them for turning a hobby into a livelihood. But there’s something unpalatable about appending the word “survival” or “emergency” to basic camping gear and selling it at a very high price. Places like these invite people to justify all manner of extravagance in the name of being prepared. But, thrust into an end-of-days scenario, will the survivalist with the $150 portable toilet have a better chance of staying alive? Or will she simply be more comfortable?
Sid Morris is a businessman in Davidson, North Carolina, a short drive north of Charlotte. One of his hobbies is aviation: He owns a plane and a helicopter and has a custommade heli-pad on the dock behind his home. Morris made his money doing marketing campaigns with NASCAR in the 70s and 80s. According to his company’s website, he wrote what is still considered the Bible of Motorsports Marketing.
A few years ago, Morris read a novel called One Second After. It was a terrifying account of a catastrophic EMP attack, with a foreword written by Newt Gingrich. Frightened into action, Morris began to research the potential of a real-life EMP event and determined that the government and the military were woefully underprepared and, furthermore, were doing nothing to protect people. So Morris tracked down a few well-connected EMP activists as well as William R. Forstchen, who also happens to be an aviation enthusiast. Morris flew his plane to Forstchen’s house for the Fourth of July and they ate hot dogs.
With Forstchen on board, Morris founded The NOAH Project. The mission of NOAH, Morris told me in an interview, is “coming up with workable solutions that any family can implement to survive a catastrophic event.” Here’s how it works: For a $250 fee, you get to take a survey, which assesses your preparedness level. Then you get a personalized list of “solutions” that have been tested and approved by NOAH experts. Through a partnership with Zeb Gear, everything NOAH recommends is available to buy online.
In addition to the opportunity to spend more money, members also get a signed copy of One Second After and a PDF called “Timeline to Disaster,” a five-page narrative written by Forstchen in which he imaginatively describes what will happen in the days, weeks, and months after an EMP attack. By the end of day one, he writes, the social order will already be disassembled: “For those among us who have no regard for law and order, it will be a signal that all restraint is down, such as we witnessed in the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and again, post Katrina, New Orleans.”
Forstchen’s timeline reveals a deeper truth about the EMP cohort. The true nightmare, for them, isn’t the disaster itself; it’s the disorder and anarchy the disaster spells, the eruption of longstanding socioeconomic tensions. In this way, prepare for an EMP becomes code for protect the status quo. “The America we know, cherish and love, will be gone forever,” warns Gingrich in the foreword to One Second After. When he says “we,” it’s clear who’s included and who isn’t: He’s not talking about most Americans. For them, after all, the system has already failed.
When the end comes, some of the wealthiest and most powerful survivalists will be together, somewhere in the Appalachians near the Virginia-North Carolina border. High Mountain Lake and High Mountain Camp are private resort communities; they are also completely off the grid. This is a gentler form of self-reliance. “Surviving in style,” as the High Mountain Lake website announces, residents live in 3000 square foot cabins, eat from working farms, and hike along miles of scenic trails. Visiting experts teach skills like foraging, pottery, and gardening. Everyone is guaranteed a year’s worth of food in the case of a catastrophic event.
“It’s easier to get into the Augusta golf course than it is to get into a NOAH community,” Morris told me. The NOAH Project owns High Mountain Camp and High Mountain Lake, where Forstchen and Gingrich both have homes. The operation is the second, less-talked-about wing of the business, although NOAH stands for Neighborhoods of Alternative Homes. It’s essentially a private community for Morris, Gingrich, and other “like-minded individuals,” as Morris put it.
If you’re interested in living at one of the properties, having money is only the first criterion. You’d first have to be a NOAH member, then be interviewed, and then go through a battery of tests, including a family and personal history, a medical screening, and a psychological profile.
“We’re trying to build a sociological scenario,” Morris said. “These places are not for the average guy in terms of money or mindset. The kinds of people who come to us don’t sweat about dropping the check. These are very unique individuals.” Many of the residents have their own planes, so Morris put in an airfield. There are stables for residents who want to bring their horses too. And although he wouldn’t provide any numbers, Morris said that interest in the communities has been “substantial.” He has plans to create more communities for survivalists at the highest of the high-end.
It’s unclear where The NOAH Project makes most of its profits — memberships, product sales, or real estate — and how that money gets distributed. But the overhead costs for basic membership services seem marginal compared to the High Mountain properties. The NOAH Project’s business model could look a lot like a familiar political strategy: Maintain a wide base of values voters but keep the money at the top. In this case, maintaining the base means continuing to sell $200 survival flashlights. Paranoia is a profit-driver, and the customers are loyal to say the least.
That’s not to say that Morris is lying when he says he thinks that an EMP is the greatest threat facing mankind today. Morris is scared: He has not one but three homes on the resort properties and a couple of planes to get him there when the time comes. It makes me think that my stepfather doesn’t have a chance, not with his small lantern collection and cans of roast beef hash. And this, of course, is how the survivalist industry works. It makes Doomsday seem like zerosum game in which the people with the right stuff win, and everyone else is, well, doomed.
But the so-called winners might do well to take another look at Forstchen’s predictions. In the history of societal collapse, hiding out with one’s money has rarely ended well. Consider the French flight to Varennes; consider Tsar Nicholas II. The EMP survivalists are right to be worried. After all, they’re outnumbered by citizens who aren’t very happy about the way the system works now. And, if history is any guide, there’s not a lot these elite survivalists can do. The High Mountain Camp may give them electricity, but it probably won’t save their power.
Say, for the sake of argument, that an EMP occurs. Say it does exactly what Gingrich and his friends claim it will do. When that time comes, the elite survivalists will get in their bug-out cars, their planes, their boats, they’ll retreat to their missile silos, they’ll check in to their mountain retreats where they’ll survive in style on oatmeal and Taco Supper. As for us — what O what will we do without them?