Doomsday Preppers are people who, in one way or another, prepare themselves for doomsday. Some build elaborate bunkers deep underground, others seek refuge in the wilderness. Some are preparing for environmental disasters, others for the widespread civil unrest. What they have in common is a desire to survive the apocalypse. In this article, we explore the philosophy of doomsday prepping, arguing that even if Doomsday Preppers are right that we are approaching an apocalypse, it isn’t clear that trying to survive it is the right answer.
Who are the Doomsday Preppers?
Doomsday preppers are individuals who take active measures to prepare for catastrophic events, such as natural disasters, economic collapse, pandemics, or other apocalyptic scenarios. In recent years this motley crew of survivalists and bunker builders have become increasingly visible in popular culture thanks to reality TV shows such as National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers and investigative reporting about the doomsday escape plans of the super-rich by Vice News, The Guardian, and The New Yorker.
Doomsday Preppers engage in various forms of preparation, depending on what sort of apocalyptic event they are preparing for. Those who fear civil unrest and the breakdown of the monetary system tend to hoard food, water, alcohol, ammunition, and precious metals like gold and silver. Some seek to build underground bunkers to insulate themselves from the dangers above ground. Others remove themselves from populated areas entirely, move to the countryside, and focus on becoming self-sufficient by living off the grid and growing as much of their produce as possible.
Depending on how rich they are, doomsday preppers’ contingency survival plans can be extremely elaborate. For instance, in his book Bunker: Building for the End of Times, geographer Bradly Garret visits a refurbished cold-war era missile silo in Kansas, now called Survival Condo, in which the well-off can purchase luxury underground apartments in a community. This luxury living facility boasts swimming pools, a supermarket, an armory (for defense), rock-climbing walls, games rooms, a pet park, a cinema, a shooting range, a library, and a sauna. Retailing at between 2-5 million dollars each, however, post-apocalypse luxury doesn’t come cheap.
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Those of more modest means will have to make do with less spacious bunkers. For instance, Vivos x Point sells small ex-military bunkers in South Dakota for 35.000 USD, which buys you an unconverted concrete shell. For those unable to travel to South Dakota in a rush, back-garden bunkers are also available from companies such as Atlas Survival Shelters, who will build and bury a bunker on your property.
Surviving the Apocalypse: Is It Worth It?
Regardless of what type of catastrophe doomsday preppers are preparing for, what they all have in common is a strong desire to survive the apocalyptic event. At first sight, survival seems like an obviously valuable goal. We all engage in some form of activity aimed at self-preservation: we go to the doctor, we might try and eat healthily, we might avoid dangerous pursuits such as sky-diving, we put money away for a rainy day (or retirement), we keep an extra bag of dried pasta and some tins in the cupboard just in case we can’t make it to the shops for a few days. Doomsday prepping could be seen as a rational extension of this basic desire to survive, albeit one that has been taken a lot further.
However, it could be argued that doomsday preppers are making a philosophical mistake by overvaluing survival. Granted, in general, surviving is better than not surviving. If we live longer, healthier lives, we will be able to do more of the things we enjoy. This, however, doesn’t necessarily imply that trying to survive the apocalypse is always a worthwhile pursuit. It all depends on what life would be like after the apocalypse.
With the possible exception of the bunkers of the super-rich, living in an underground bunker for extended periods of time is likely to be a dire experience. Cramped quarters, nothing much to do, extended periods of time with the same group of people, and eating preserved food for years on end are few people’s idea of fun. Sure, we might survive, but at what cost? Is it even a life worth living?
Furthermore, once the catastrophic event is over and we can finally emerge from the bunker, we will most likely be faced with the gargantuan task of rebuilding society. Most of the things that give value to our lives (e.g. art, good food, contact with other humans) will be either lost or severely diminished. In the words of Thomas Szasz:
“Survivors would emerge into a bleak world, indeed surfacing to death, chaos, and despair. They would find themselves isolated on islands of survival, with devastated areas […] between them. Cut off for an indefinite period”
(Szasz, 2009, p. 42).
This begs the question: What is the point of surviving just to witness this?
One group of preppers, however, might be able to escape some elements of this objection. The off-grid preppers who have chosen a life of rural self-sufficiency seem to be on the right track. Surviving in a bunker is likely to be vile. Living in a remote area, surrounded by organic vegetables, farm animals, and beautiful wilderness, is quite a few people’s idea of fun.
That said, there would still be costs. Living a rural, off-the-grid life is made significantly easier against the backdrop of a working civilization. Need a new chainsaw and some more fuel? Need some strings for your guitar? As of now, these items can be easily purchased. Want some reading material? Libraries and bookshops still exist. Post-apocalypse, none of this will be available, to the detriment of any survivor’s quality of life.
The lesson from all this is: there might no point in surviving the apocalypse if it means ending up with a life that is barely worth living. However, burrowing underground seems more likely to be unbearable than heading for the hills.
The Opportunity Costs of Doomsday Prepping
Doomsday preppers sometimes argue that prepping is like life or health insurance. You prepare for the worst so that you can go about living your life carefree, knowing that if the worst happens, you are covered. The problem with this analogy is that doomsday prepping seems to have much higher opportunity costs than purchasing insurance.
Doomsday prepping can become an all-encompassing pursuit. Shopping for long-life food, organizing one’s haul, canning fresh goods, reinforcing the bunker: these are all expensive and time-consuming activities. Unless one is extraordinarily rich (in which case all of this can be outsourced), all of this has opportunity costs. Money spent on more tins of beans is money not spent going out for a nice meal.
Doomsday preppers are at risk of paying too high a price in the present for the chance of survival in the future. It is like spending most of one’s income on insurance aimed at staving off the worse, leaving little income to spend on enjoying the present. This seems to be a philosophical mistake. While it is true that it is prudent to prepare for the future, we must not undervalue well-being in the present. After all, it is far from guaranteed that the catastrophes doomsday preppers are preparing for will ever come to pass.
This objection, like the one before, applies less to those preppers who focus on homesteading in a rural environment, growing their own food, and living off-grid. Unlike their bunker-building brethren, the day-to-day activities they engage in seem like meaningful and valuable pursuits in and of themselves. Granted, there are opportunity costs, but the choice is between two valuable (but multiple incompatible) goods: living in the city and living rurally. This arguably isn’t the case with hoarding tinned food and spending a fortune on a bunker. That will only turn out to be a valuable pursuit if the worst comes to the worst.
The Political Consequences of Doomsday Prepping
At this point, one might object: so what if people waste their lives preparing for something that may not occur? So what if doomsday preppers over-value survival? And so what if they miss out on other valuable pursuits by doing so?
One answer to this is that preparing individually for the apocalypse generates negative externalities. In his recent book Shopping Our Way to Safety, Andrew Szasz argues that doomsday preppers, by focusing their energy on maximizing their individual chances of survival, make it harder to achieve collective solutions to our problems. If one spends their time and money hoarding food and burrowing underground, there will necessarily be fewer resources to devote to pushing for egalitarian policies that make civil unrest less likely or participating in the environmental movement as a way of averting climate disaster; thus making these outcomes more likely.
Garrett, Bradley. (2021) Bunker: Building for the End of Times. Penguin, London.
Szasz, Andrew. (2009) Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Krulos, Tea. (2019) Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground with America’s Doomsday Preppers. Chicago Review Press, Chicago.