The point is this: everything you know and everyone you love is vulnerable.
That’s just a fact. The defining question though, is this: What do you do with that certainty? If you’re like most of us, you spend your life not really thinking about the fragility of existence. After all, you’ve got bills to pay, kids to take care of, TV shows to watch. Besides, if catastrophe were to happen suddenly, what, exactly could you do about it? For others, though, the idea of that kind of disruption is very much a question for the here and now. There are certain situations where a stockpile of a few weeks worth of food could make the difference between death and survival and where a means to filter water becomes a matter of life itself. And there are those who believe that a stash of gold and an armory of guns will be essential in establishing a new social order in the after-times.
At the Prepper Expo USA, which took place in the Creative Arts building at Expo New Mexico on the weekend of Oct. 24, representatives of all varieties of the doomsday-inclined were on hand. Men and women, mostly middle-aged and above, wore fatigues and T-shirts that read “Patriotism isn’t illegal,” and browsed tables filled with gleaming bullets and military surplus gear. Knives, camping equipment, water filtration systems and even heirloom seed kits abounded. Posters for zombie themed television shows hung from the partitions between booths and mannequins decked out in military grade armor and weapons leaned against pillars.
“I just found out what the zombie apocalypse is!” she said.
Beneath the balloons, several computers were set up showing patches of arid looking land. After I’d browsed for a few minutes a woman came over and introduced herself as “Char the Explorer” the owner of Smile 4 U Land Sales, a company focused on selling small parcels of land in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. This was Char’s first experience at a preppers expo, and she seemed to be having a great time. “I just found out what the zombie apocalypse is!” she said. “These are definitely my customers, I love talking with them. There’s such a movement across the country to go rural, to live off the grid. Not everybody’s a prepper, of course.”
I asked her if she’d encountered any strange people. She laughed and pointed to my recorder “You’re the scariest person I’ve seen here yet. But no, most people are just fine.” She told me about the pitfalls of purchasing land for self-sufficiency, how there are often laws and regulations that prevent a person from doing just what they want on their own acreage. Finally, she begged off, “If you’ll excuse me, I've got some customers. Maybe you should talk to that guy over there.” She pointed to a booth directly across the aisle. A crowd had formed in front of a stall where a number of small metal cages sat on a folding table. A banner on the partition behind announced “The Ultimate Pocket Pet.” I walked over.
“Well,” he said in a Texas drawl, opening his hand to show one of the tiny creatures nestled into his palm. “Basically, we have several friends who have PTSD, soldiers who came back from the army. And what we found was that these little animals completely take away their anxiety … I have high blood pressure and I found these little guys help me get my blood pressure under control. And a lot of soldiers come to these shows, so we want to help them.”
We chatted about the creatures for a few more minutes. He told me the one in his hand was named “Tribble,” that they were fairly hardy and that they wouldn’t go feral and infest the US because they only have one baby a year. By that time the crowd was growing again, and I said goodbye.
I walked by some booths selling “exotic ammunition,” including shotgun shells that would burst into flame when they hit a target. A man selling military surplus let me hoist a bazooka to my shoulder and sold me a pamphlet on how to say important phrases in Arabic like “Drop to the ground!” and “Surrender!”
A young, vaguely hipsterish couple was browsing at an heirloom seed stand nearby. They stood out among the crowd of mostly-middle-aged expo attendees and I soon found myself talking to them. They had driven down from Colorado to visit family in New Mexico, but were interested in the offerings at the expo. The man, Marco, told me “We’re just checking it out, looking around. We’re always interested in storing food ... We’re moving to an off-grid place. We’re in the process of going out there.“
“We’re mainly trying to get away from the city,” he answered. “Just the crowds and everything.”
“But it’s always good to be prepared,” his partner answered. “Just for anything that might break the grid. Something could happen.”
Most of the people I spoke to seemed to take a similarly general “Be prepared” attitude. But a few offered up a more specific set of worries. One of these was a man whom I’ll call Eugene, an energetic older fellow in a Panama hat. He was charasmatic and obviously intelligent. I ran into him in the line for the seedbank where he was vigorously discussing the pros of a zombie-apocalypse. “I mean, zombies would be cool!” he announced.
“Sure,” I said. “But not very likely. What do you think could actually happen to bring about the end of the world?”
He wheeled toward me and fixed his intense blue-eyed gaze on me. “Zerohedge.com published it last night,” he said. “All the indicators are there. The market collapse is not a possibility, but a certainty.”
“So you see it as an economic collapse?”
“Of course. There is no liquidity, there is no movement of debt and China is dropping trillions of bonds. This is not conspiracy. These are high end economists who are pointing this out.”
A swirl of information and statistics followed, all factors, he said, that pointed to a coming mega-recession. No economist myself, I was worried by how reasonable his arguments were. After all, recessions, depressions and full-on collapses have happened in the past and could certainly happen again.
“We’re on track to hyperinflation and that means economic death…There will be no way to prepare yourself economically except with gold, silver and poor man’s gold,” he finished.
“What’s poor man’s gold?” I asked.
“Firearms! Ammunition! You’ll need them to protect your family!”
“Do you mean like, for hunting food?” I asked, seeing a vision of myself in the woods of New Mexico in the post-collapse future, stalking deer through snow-covered hills.
“No! To protect yourself from those who are rapacious,” he said, and his tone became very serious. “He who has the firearms will make the rules. If hyper-inflation happens, that’s what you’re looking at. Because our society is, unfortunately, a Wal-mart society. It’s all about ready availability, instant gratification. And this extends to foodstamps and welfare,” he continued. “The average welfare and foodstamp recipient is going to look at their welfare check and go, I have to feed my family. This is stereotyping, and I’m sorry. But unfortunately, if you read sociology, stereotypes are 90% correct. You’re going to have Ferguson. It will explode. It will explode here.
“And most people aren’t going to be able to survive it, whether they have weapons or not. Most people are going to be too afraid to take the knife out and stick it in somebody and twist it, jerk it out, drop it and walk away,” he said, instensely fixing me with those blue eyes. I had no response to the sudden dark turn the coversation was taking. I stood there with my mouth open, visualizing what he was saying in gory detail.
“Most people who use a knife will go with a stab. That’s not going to kill a person, that’s not going to stop a person,” he continued. “They are not ready or willing to stab, twist, maybe break it off or jam it in. The people who are willing to do that are the ones who will survive.”
We talked about firearms for a few minutes after that and his vision of how the communities of Albuquerque would come into conflict, but my heart was no longer in the conversation. As I walked away, I decided I’d had enough of the end of the world and left the expo. Truthfully, I was shaken to the core by what he had described, and wondered if his nightmarish vision was possible. Did I need to buy a gun to protect my family? Would I have to stab, twist and walk away in order to survive?
The scenario he described had started out so reasonable, although my lack of economic knowledge meant that I couldn’t poke holes in his assertions without doing some research of my own. But at some point, his tone had changed. He suggested that the biggest danger was his fellow man, that unless one were willing to kill in order to protect oneself, survival would be impossible.
That unsettled me. Do I need a gun? I wondered again. Certainly, I accepted the possibility that society could be disrupted, though I do not pretend to know when that might be or how. But if it did, would my neighbors turn into my enemies?
I couldn’t accept that, and I wondered if that might be at the root of my differences with this man. Because I knew that if I found, one morning, that the government had collapsed or that the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed, that I would not take up a weapon. Instead, I would seek to help and be helped by my fellow Albuquerque citizens. Eugene, on the other hand, would take up arms and seek to preserve himself against them. Whose path would be correct? I don’t know. Maybe I was naïve and would find myself unable to survive. But I also wondered if someone like Eugene would become the very kind of person he was most afraid of.
Then I thought back to the man with his sugar gliders, who came to the show not to sell items for protecting and defending, but pets that could help those in need. True, peddling sugar gliders is probably not a survival skill in a post-apocalyptic world, and maybe my desire for community would be similarly useless. But I wondered if maybe trying to do good now, to protect and help others in our community, might go some way toward making life better even after a world-shaking disaster occurred.
I hoped so, because the alternative is a world that might not be worth saving.