I am unprepared.
When the world goes to shit, women are going to face our own set of unique and terrifying problems in the fight for survival. “You will be raped. You will be assaulted. Your belongings will be stolen.”
The person dispensing this litany of horrors is Eva Gonzales, a “disaster zone specialist” and survivalist who’s addressing a sparsely furnished, fluorescent-lit room of fellow preppers and survivalists gathered in a drab strip mall in Bowling Green, Ohio. In her 50s, with a shock of red hair, Gonzales is sitting cross-legged on a table, jabbing a finger in the air to hammer home a point.
“Women have different needs from men, and you need to know what to do to protect yourself.”
It’s hard, listening to this nightmarish vision of the future, not to feel hobbled by despair. I can’t even change a tire, let alone diagnose what might be wrong with a busted car engine and fix it. I would die in the woods almost immediately if I were to become lost. I can’t set a broken limb or stitch a wound. I couldn’t start a fire without matches. These are only a few of the things Gonzales lists as essential survival skills, along with knowing how to find and purify water in the wild — something else I know nothing about.
More to the point of this women’s survivalist seminar, populated by 11 women and four men, I couldn’t defend myself against what Gonzales assures us are the hordes of men who will pillage their way across the wreckage of society. I suppose I could wildly swing a pipe if it came to that. But I’m learning this would be wrong.
“You should have a gun and go to target practice,” she says emphatically. “Who thinks they could shoot a moving target? Let me tell you, almost no one can. But you can practice.”
If I wanted to buy a gun, this would be the place. There are hundreds for sale, of almost every variety. The Ohio Gun Show and Survivalists Expo is hosted here annually by the local Oath Keepers chapter. It attracts everyone from game hunters and recreational shooters to homesteaders and environmentalists to hardcore survivalists and rightwing separatists. And prepping conventions like this one have become a national pastime, with expos in nearly every state.
Ohio, however, is small fry compared with the annual national expo in Jacksonville, Florida, which attracts hundreds of vendors and many times more ticket buyers. In Bowling Green, the event attempted to distinguish itself as a family affair, with several seminars specifically for women and children, perhaps in an effort to offset the traditionally macho, male-dominated image of survivalism as typified by Bear Grylls, or the two surly dudes from Dual Survival.
The turnout is light, but everyone mingles enthusiastically in an odd amalgam of eco-left and far-right ideologies and their disparate conceptions of what the post-society future might look like.
The Oath Keepers themselves, according to The Southern Poverty Law Center, are a right-wing extremist militia group in the nebulous anti-government “patriot movement.” They self-report their numbers in the “tens of thousands,” but watch groups dispute that estimate. Broadly, they’re ex-law enforcement and military personnel who interpret their sworn oath to protect as a lifelong endeavor, not just a term of their employment. At the gun show, all of them are men, in their black, yellow logo-emblazoned T-shirts, and with handguns on their hips.
To untangle what the Oath Keepers say they stand for is to take a headlong dive into the confused and paranoid worldview that makes up the self-described patriot movement. It crosses over extensively with the views of sovereign citizens, who use a mix of conspiracy theories and nonsense interpretations of the Constitution to argue the illegitimacy of the federal government so as to not have to abide by any of its laws, particularly those involving paying taxes. (No court recognizes these arguments.)
Oath Keepers say that their allegiance is to the people, not the government, because they fear the government will enact martial law, imprison its own citizens and confiscate their guns. Yet, more than once, I hear their members speak glowingly of Donald Trump, and one pep talk reminds everyone that the patriotic thing to do is to support the president (even one who threatens to imprison journalists). They definitely didn’t support Hillary Clinton, who their founder Stewart Rhodes referred to as “Herr Hitlery” upon his formation of the group in 2009. Oath Keepers have since turned up armed at Trump rallies, as well as at anti-Muslim and anti-Black Lives Matter demonstrations. They have also appointed themselves the sworn enemies of anti-fascists.
In the interests of upholding the free-press stipulation of the Constitution, however, they’re very accommodating of the media. Nick Netzinger, local chapter leader and an Afghanistan war veteran, tells me over email that of course I’m welcome, but that many people will be wary of reporters. “We obviously have concerns of any negative propaganda since most of us are professional businessmen and women, first responders, law enforcement and former military.” Once there, however, I’m asked with overt friendliness at least a dozen times if I need anything, a gesture that makes me feel more discomfited than comfortable.
Saturday morning I find Netzinger at the mall on the edge of a vast parking lot, populated with almost as many closed as open storefronts. Vendors lay their stock on tables in the thoroughfares — re-enactment swords and replica civil war helmets; surplus Army rations; old copies of the NRA’s magazine; tent supplies and first-aid kits; smoke bombs and an assortment of outdoor and camping gear. The event is so sparsely attended that at almost any given time there are more sellers than buyers among the motley array of wares.
The store selling Gadsden and Confederate flags also hawks signs emblazoned with slogans over fists holding pistols: “I’d rather a gun in my hand than a cop on the phone.” And: “I‘ve been missing my ex-wife — but my aim is improving!” I counted two dozen people with visible sidearms walking around the mall. One of the Oath Keepers, a man in his 60s with a gray handlebar mustache, told me to smile whenever he saw me. An NRA recruitment tent sat across from an arcade where kids wielded plastic blasters and shot pixelated aliens. There was a large display dedicated to homeopathy and essential oils near a stand selling the raw materials of the Anarchist Cookbook. Beside this was a homesteading booth selling everything you could need for an off-grid, passive home, from solar cookers to water-purification systems and generators
The event seems to cater to whatever your vision of post-society is. The one common denominator, however: that the days/weeks/months/years after the apocalypse (whichever caused it) would be very white. In fact, I didn’t see anyone who wasn’t white in the whole three days I was in Bowling Green.
Netzinger has a bunch of wild stories to tell. He sometimes uses an electric wheelchair festooned with anti-Hillary stickers to get around. He says this is because he contracted both anthrax and cancer during his military tours. He also says that what he uses to successfully treat both is colloidal silver, “But I can’t say that, because of the FDA.” (The FDA doesn’t recommend the use of colloidal silver to treat anything, least of all cancer; if anything, using too much of it will turn your skin blue.)
Overall here at the expo, there’s serious distrust of not just the government, but of anything that reeks of the establishment, including mainstream medicine. “Big pharma” looms large as a boogeyman, and homeopathy and alternative medicine is touted as the cure for everything from acute infections to asthma. Eva Gonzales had made a point of emphasizing how crazed a huge percentage of the population will be if society collapses because they’ll have lost their access to psychiatric medication. “Americans are so over-medicated,” she says, by way of explaining why she doesn’t take her own children to see doctors. Better then not to rely on conventional medicine now, in preparation; just use natural remedies to treat your acute mental illness.
Even as many of their ideas remain extreme, preppers are in no way underground anymore. We’re now several seasons deep into National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers and a host of other extreme survival shows that sprang up in imitation. There also are ultra-rich Libertarian preppers like Peter Thiel, going so far as to buy citizenship in New Zealand, and left-leaning preppers who see the Trump presidency as its own end-of-the-world scenario.
The U.S. has always been, since the beginning of its colonial history, a country built on separatism in pursuit of utopia. Preppers sit somewhere on the scale of that history, with their obsessive focus on self-reliance and being able to survive in a society of their own making, even if that means a “society” of only your immediate family living in a bunker, where dystopia has replaced utopia.
But this kind of apocalyptic thinking is, to me, a strain of particularly ill-considered wish-fulfillment. It presupposes that we’re already doomed — this certainly may be true — and that the best way to prepare for life in a drastically altered world is to ensure the survival of only you and yours. In more generous interpretations, it’s possible to see these measures as the actions of people who feel so powerless in the face of the forces of global, carbon-powered capitalism that the only solution they see is to drop totally out of society and go it alone. For them, the repeated failure of local and federal government to adequately respond to an escalating series of devastating extreme weather events only underscores the feeling that they’re already on their own.
But it’s this same self-involved individualism creating the conditions where the mass mobilizations necessary to address runaway global warming become impossible. If we continue to see ourselves only as lone units of self-reliance separate from the body politic, we’re ensuring that we really are screwed.
In Ohio, however, all of this is moot. None of the preppers I encounter register climate catastrophe as even a blip on the plausibility scale for how they think the end of modern society will go down. Instead, they’re gripped by the familiar fears of conspiracy theorists: widespread economic collapse will result in martial law and the government imprisoning its own citizens (therefore buy gold and silver and a ton of guns); a hostile foreign actor will invade and terrorize the populace (buy guns); terrorists will bring down the power grid (buy guns); an EMP will be detonated over Washington (buy guns and a luxury underground bunker). There’s also palpable anxiety about the threat of nuclear war, which is admittedly more and more of a reality with the president of the United States threatening North Korea on Twitter.
In fairness, if we’re in the timeline where a Silicon Valley messaging service facilitates the apocalypse, perhaps we should all be keeping our eye on survivalist real estate.
Sunday I come back to take a shooting class run by children. I’d initially been drawn to the expo by the promise that there would be a ton of activities only for kids and teens — on how to build a bug-out bag, administer first aid and whatever else they needed to know about surviving in the wild (foraging, woodcrafts, etc.). I’d wanted to know what growing up as a prepper did to you psychologically, if being told every day that the world could end at any moment was far more abusive to children than it was character-building.
In reality, there’s such a thin turnout that the only kids around are the young members of the air rifle club. I arrive to find half a dozen of them ranging in ages from 8 to 16, an even mix of boys and girls, and their instructor, an avuncular bearded man in his 60s who clearly commands a mixture of paternal admiration and respect. They take an interest in me as soon as I tell them that I’d never before seen or touched a handgun.
In Australia, where I’m from, we have an almost nonexistent gun culture compared to the U.S. An amnesty was introduced in 1996 in the wake of a horrific massacre in which a lone gunman armed with high-powered rifles killed 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, including two children under 6. The government’s buy-back scheme saw 660,959 guns handed in across the country, and strict ownership laws were enacted. It’s now very difficult, outside of licensed recreational shooting, to acquire a handgun. So much so that the most recent statistics have the number of homicide deaths in Australia by handgun at one. One out of 23 million people.
This isn’t to say you can’t get a firearm at all. Rural farmer workers and competition shooters can apply for licenses, and after rigorous background checks, they have their gun — and their names added to the federal register. And there are still gun deaths from these kinds of firearms, many of them self-inflicted.
In Bowling Green, though, tweens and teens have set up an air-rifle target range — essentially a black wall stacked with hay bales covered with a tarp and pinned with targets — in an empty mall storefront. Two sisters who look so similar I mistake them for twins painstakingly walk me through the safety precautions we need to check off before the range is live. They’re excited less about firing guns than about being able to show off their knowledge to an interested adult. Aged 11 and 12, they’re a gangly collection of limbs, reading glasses and braces — things that might make them seem awkward and nerdy, but in the context of the firing range, they’re expert, calm and knowledgeable. Their instructor says that kids in rural areas are going to come across guns in their lives no matter what, so learning safety from a young age teaches them to be responsible, something that h he likens to being a member of the Boy Scouts.
Once we’ve been through the safety list and I’ve been shown how to hold the rifle stock against my shoulder and line up the sights, I take aim and squeeze off the 12 rounds without pausing, like I was shown. My aim is perfect. In two sessions, I hit the target with every round in the same place, just to the left of the bullseye, which the instructor says means the sight has to be adjusted.
The girls are very impressed, “You did such a great job!” one says, giving me a high-five. The other says I should join their team. “I mean, if you were allowed.”
This experience has given me a very dissonant feeling. I’m pleased and satisfied that I can do something well, and it makes me feel powerful to be good at shooting a target. I consider for a moment that maybe I should take up regular practice. Maybe I should, as a woman, know how to do this?
Mainly, though, I feel repulsed for feeling that way about a gun—one that even a child can use.
Leaving the firing range, across the way from Janie’s Dance Studio (closed), is a pavilion with dozens of vendors selling everything from antique pistols to high-powered rifles laid out on tables, tied along metal cables. Signs warn against letting minors near them: The misuse of handguns is the leading contributor to juvenile violence and fatalities. Some of the guns are marketed specifically at women, small-caliber models at miniature size in fluorescent bright colors — emergency orange, fluorescent pink, mint green.
I pick up a full-size Glock, which even without the clip is much heavier than I’d imagined. It feels cold and leaden with inchoate violence, and the overwhelming feeling it inspires is a desire to put it down. But it was also exerting a strange pull. Would I really need to know how to use one of these if I were going to defend myself in some kind of doomsday scenario? Would I even want to be alive in that world?
The vendor asks me if I’m buying, and I tell him, “No, I don’t have a license.”
“You don’t need one,” he says. All I’d need, he explains, is a state ID and to sign a waiver stating that I’m not a felon. Then, for a few hundred dollars, I could walk out lethally armed, with no idea how to handle a sidearm.
There is a speaker listed as “Patriot and Author” Challice Finicum Finch. Her father was LaVoy Finicum, the Mormon anti-government rancher from Arizona who was killed by police in the Oregon occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. She is one of his 11 children, and since LaVoy was fatally shot on January 2, 2016, she’s toured the country as a “motivational speaker,” preaching her father’s gospel of armed resistance.
At a dinner of roast chicken and pink lemonade, Challice addresses the room. She’s slight of stature, with long red-blond hair, and she quickly holds her audience in rapt attention. Her delivery is highly emotive, breaking down at the memory of her childhood and lectures from her father about the evils of the government. She exudes a kind of evangelical charisma as she talks about self-reliance and never taking handouts for her four children.
She uses two familiar sovereign citizen interpretations of the law to make her case to an already receptive audience. One is an inflammatory analogy about how taxation works: She asks for a five-dollar bill and a one-dollar bill from the audience, and two volunteers. One is a working man; the other is a welfare recipient. The worker earns five dollars for his labor and the government, played by Challice, takes it from him. She then dispenses one dollar, as if from the five, to the welfare recipient who “has done nothing for it!” The working man then has nothing; somehow the government has taken 100 percent of his earnings and given a fifth away to someone else.
“Does this seem right? Does this seem fair?”
Hell no! someone shouts back.
Next, she goes into how easy it is for ordinary citizens to end up in prison, and then, as felons, to have no rights: unable to vote, get a loan, sign a lease or find a job. She says this can happen just by taking a photograph in a national park, on federal lands. She says this is illegal, a felony. (It’s not. It is illegal for commercial photography to be taken in national parks without a permit — you can’t just go and shoot a car commercial in one, for example — but any citizen or tourist is completely free to take as many photos in national parks as they like.)
Throughout her speech, Challice has been making regular eye contact with the person sitting next to me — the youngest person in the room, a ginger-headed 17-year-old. He’s hanging on her every word. When Challice clarifies that when she says “BLM” she means the Bureau of Land Management, “not Black Lives Matter” he laughs along with a few other people in the room. The BLM is this movement’s sworn enemy; they believe that in having purchased indigenous land generations ago, they own it and that’s it. They shouldn’t have to pay any grazing taxes on it, and it should be the purview of states to decide what taxes are owed. Washington shouldn’t be able to impose federal law over them (it can and does), and that’s all right there in the Constitution.
As her talk wraps an hour later to enthusiastic applause and a prayer of thanks, Challice comes to give my young neighbor a signed copy of The Law by Frederic Bastiat. Bastiat was a 19th-century French economist whose ideas informed classical libertarianism, particularly ideas that opposed welfare and government intervention, and above all, associated freedom and liberty with absolute property rights: Everything that undergirds the modern patriot movement.
“You have to read this,” she says, handing it over with deep sincerity. “It changed my life.”
Eventually, a dark thought wormed its way into my mind: Not everything the preppers are saying is deranged. And not everyone who preps is fond of separatist rhetoric, though plenty of them are. Buried beneath the xenophobic fears of invasion and a nearly sociopathic dedication to the American myth of self-reliance are small kernels of truth. Believing in the healing power of colloidal silver and essential oils for the treatment of cancer, as one seminar insisted on in a rambling, fact-free diatribe, is dangerous and stupid. Figuring out how to convert your home into an energy-efficient, zero-emissions dwelling is not. Thinking that the federal government is illegitimate so you don’t have to pay taxes and that you’ll defend that “right” with armed resistance is illegal domestic terrorism. Knowing how to perform basic first aid and change a tire are sensible life skills we should all cultivate. Stockpiling 10 years’ worth of canned goods is extreme; reducing our reliance on mass-market food and disposable consumption is necessary if we don’t want to blow the carrying capacity of the planet.
And the world has only felt more precarious and deranged in the weeks since I went to Ohio. The night I left, the NRA released an incendiary and unhinged recruitment video nakedly designed to stoke political tensions. Soon after, armed militias faced off against police in Charlottesville, defending the rights of white supremacists in violence that took the life of a peaceful protester opposing them. The largest ever recorded hurricanes destroyed swaths of Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico within weeks of each other, and the government has not adequately responded to the mounting crises. Mexico was devastated by two giant earthquakes in short succession, before a volcano erupted on the outskirts of the capital. Rainforests, long thought to be carbon sinks, were found to be releasing enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. California wildfires burned out of control in one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history, killing 17 people. North Korea was said to have tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike the U.S. All the while, there was still no one in charge of the Energy Department, the sprawling, $30 billion apparatus that’s responsible for safeguarding the integrity of the power grid and the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Then a man killed 58 people and injured 489 others in Las Vegas in the deadliest single shooter mass killing on American soil.
In this context, prepping might be a form of what psychiatrist and environmental activist Lise Van Susteren has called “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” It mainly affects climate researchers who, Cassandra-like, are warning of the imminent catastrophe that awaits our inaction while no one pays attention. It also has started to affect the rest of us, to the extent where some women are electing not to have children in a world of uncertain sustainability.
Viewed from here, the “preparedness” part of prepping can start to look like an extreme version of what everyone should be doing. For example, FEMA and the CDC recommend that every American household have a basic survival kit at the ready as well as supplies to last at least three days in case of any kind of major disaster.
For hardcore preppers, that things are someday going to go terribly wrong is a foregone conclusion. They think about it to such an extent that it almost feels like they will be disappointed if society doesn’t collapse. And if it does, they’ll be there to say they told us so, or at least to shout it down at us from the top of the highly secured tower they’re manning with a sniper rifle. (Lording over those of us who didn’t get ready is a big part of prepping’s going-it-alone appeal.)
While the preppers I met in Ohio might doubt its veracity, the Defense Department puts climate change near the top of the world’s security threats and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cited climate change as a key impetus for setting the Doomsday Clock’s hands at 2.5 minutes to midnight. Meanwhile, domestic terrorists have caused more damage and killed more people on American soil than any “foreign invader” ever has. To wit, Stephen Paddock killed 58 people in Las Vegas with guns he purchased perfectly legally.
In other words: We don’t need fevered visions of the end times to understand that we have to drastically change how we are living if we’re going to survive.