Survival kits and disaster preparedness used to be something out of the mainstream. After a brief (and heavily-mocked) period of fallout-shelter construction in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the notion of private disaster preparedness retreated from the mainstream. Survival kits and equipment were available, but mostly through military surplus stores and other specialty sources.
But now that seems to have changed. As I noted on my weblog last week, both Eddie Bauer and Target are selling survival kits, and a reader emailed to note that survival preparation has gone even more mainstream:
You know survival kits are mainstream when Costco is selling them. And last weekend at my local Costco, in the food section, there was a front of the aisle display of survival food buckets. They were going for $110 and had about 275 servings of freeze dried vegetarian meals.
10 years ago, this was the stuff of Soldier of Fortune.
That seems exactly right to me. The kind of survival-oriented disaster preparedness thinking that once flourished in subcultures like Soldier of Fortune seems to be going mainstream. And why is that?
There are some obvious reasons, of course. The Y2K runup got some people interested in the subject, and although those fears amounted to nothing, I imagine it gave the whole survival-supplies industry a big boost. More recently, the 9/11 attacks, hurricanes like Katrina, and the New York and Memphis blackouts, along with scary stories about avian flu and bioterrorism, have served to remind people that things do go wrong, that the government can't always help them, and that fortune tends to favor the well-prepared.
The federal and state governments have been pushing this, too. The Department of Homeland Security -- see its www.ready.gov site -- is pushing survival kits, (there's even a special preparedness page for kids, complete with fuzzy -- but prepared --cartoon animals) and so are many states. My brother recently got a mailing from the State of Ohio telling him to have a month's worth of food put away, in case of avian flu And the government is pushing Community Emergency Response Team training. (September was National Preparedness Month). Most such things wind up being ignored, of course, but enough people pay attention to make a difference.
There's also a political angle. Back in the 1990s, it was the Soldier of Fortune crowd that was preparing for some sort of apocalyptic scenario. Back then, the Democrats were in power, and much of the apocalypticism we heard was from the right. Now, with the Republicans in power over the past six years, the apocalypticism has shifted leftward. A quick perusal of Amazon demonstrates this: Where once people on the right were worried about the shock troops of the socialist New World Order or the breakup of America into racial enclaves, now it seems like it's mostly lefties worrying about self-reliance in the face of collapsing unsustainable technology, and the dangers of suburban extinction in the face of high oil prices. As with some of the righty books from the 1990s, there's a curious push-pull here: Though these are warnings of catastrophes to come, there's a sense that to some extent those catastrophes involve society getting what it deserves for its sinful ways, perhaps coupled with an opportunity for purification in the wake of the crisis -- with the virtuously prepared having the upper hand, of course.
One reason this kind of thinking may have become more mainstream lately is that, for better or worse, what the left is thinking has more impact on mainstream culture and media than what the right is thinking. Today's media are more diverse than they used to be, but the big cultural bullhorns are still controlled by the left, so that when lefties are talking about something, everybody is talking about it, while when righties are talking about something, well . . . righties are talking about it. In this case, it's just as well that this mood has gone national: It seems clear, as I've argued here in numerous columns, that America could do with more preparation on the part of its citizens. But I do think that political factor is giving it extra resonance right now.
I predict that if Democrats do better in coming elections, much of the lefty apocalypticism will diminish. Unfortunately, that may lead to a loss of consciousness about the importance of disaster preparation among the larger populace. But maybe not. It's a dangerous world out there, and there are lots of reasons, beyond politics, for doing what we can to be ready for it. Perhaps that message will persist, regardless. It should.
The author is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor.