How to Survive Societal Collapse in Suburbia
Preparing for a world stripped bare of modern conveniences has always appealed to cranks and extremists. But can it be sold as plain common sense?
November 16, 2012
By Keith O’Brien
On a clear morning in May, Ron Douglas left his home in exurban Denver, eased into his Toyota pickup truck and drove to a business meeting at a Starbucks. Douglas, a bearded bear of a man, ordered a venti double-chocolate-chip Frappuccino — “the girliest drink ever,” he called it — and then sat down to discuss the future of the growing survivalist industry.
Many so-called survivalists would take pride in keeping far away from places that sell espresso drinks. But Douglas, a 38-year-old entrepreneur and founder of one of the largest preparedness expos in the country, isn’t your typical prepper.
At that morning’s meeting, a strategy session with two new colleagues, Douglas made it clear that he doesn’t even like the word “survivalist.” He believes the word is ruined, evoking “the nut job who lives out in the mountains by himself on the retreat.” Instead, he prefers “self-reliance.”
When prompted by his colleagues to define the term, Douglas leaned forward in his chair. “I’m glad you asked,” he replied. “Take notes. This is good.”
For the next several minutes, Douglas talked about emergency preparedness, sustainable living and financial security — what he called the three pillars of self-reliance. He detailed the importance of solar panels, gardens, water storage and food stockpiles. People shouldn’t just have 72-hour emergency kits for when the power grid goes down; they should learn how to live on their own. It’s a message that Douglas is trying to move from the fringe to the mainstream.
“Our main goal is to reach as many people and get the word out to as many people as we can, to get them thinking and moving in this direction,” he said. “Sound good?”
The preparedness industry, always prosperous during hard times, is thriving again now. In Douglas’s circles, people talk about “the end of the world as we know it” with such regularity that the acronym Teotwawki (tee-ought-wah-kee) has come into widespread use. The Vivos Group, which sells luxury bunkers, until recently had a clock on its Web site that was ticking down to Dec. 21, 2012 — a date that, thanks to the Mayan calendar, some believe will usher in the end times. But amid the alarmism, there is real concern that the world is indeed increasingly fragile — a concern highlighted most recently by Hurricane Sandy. The storm’s aftermath has shown just how unprepared most of us are to do without the staples of modern life: food, fuel, transportation and electric power.
The survivalist business surged in the wake of 9/11, when authorities instructed New Yorkers to prepare disaster kits, learn how to seal doors and vents with duct tape and be ready to evacuate at any time. Threat-level warnings about possible terrorist attacks kept Americans rattled for years, and were followed by various disasters of other types: the financial meltdown, Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, drought, blackouts and concerns over everything from rising sea levels to Iran’s nuclear program.
Late last year, Douglas and his partners formed the Red Shed Media Group, a single corporate home for several endeavors: the Self Reliance Expo, conventions that Douglas founded in 2010, dedicated to showcasing survival gear and skills; Self Reliance Broadcasting, an Internet-based channel devoted to the cause; and an entity that controls the rights to publishing “Making the Best of Basics,” a popular survivalist handbook. The name Red Shed was symbolic for Douglas. “When your grandfather went and did a project,” he told me, “he went out to the red shed and pulled out all the tools he needed for the job.” Douglas wants his virtual red shed to be a single place where people can get all the preparedness information they need. Five expos this year have drawn 40,000 people who pay $10 each. The radio network has logged more than two million podcast downloads; in one day alone in July, it reported nearly 90,000 downloads. The book, which was first published in 1974, includes recipes for everything from wild pig (“they are easy to prepare”) to dove pie (“simmer for one hour or until doves are tender”). Douglas said it had sold about 20,000 copies this year.
But the goal isn’t just to sell to the same old preparedness crowd. Red Shed wants to attract liberals and political moderates to a marketplace historically populated by conservatives and right-wing extremists. “It’s not the end of the world,” Douglas told me last spring, making a bold statement for someone in his industry. “It’s not doomsday.” It’s about showing the gun-toting mountain man in his camouflage and the suburban soccer mom in her minivan that they want the same thing: peace of mind. “We don’t say, ‘Hurry up and buy your stuff because Obama is going to ruin the country,’ ” Douglas said. “We don’t get into the political crap. We just want to teach people the lifestyle.”
The first thing you notice about Douglas’s neighborhood in Frederick, Colo., about 30 miles north of Denver, is that it’s not particularly noticeable. He doesn’t have a mountain stronghold or a 20-acre spread. He doesn’t have a bunker or anything resembling a barn. Instead, he, his wife, Heather, and their six children, ages 4 to 16, inhabit a typical American suburban home. There’s an in-ground sprinkler system and a play structure in the backyard. The siding on the house is an innocuous beige. Pink tulips bloom in the flower beds come spring. The children can walk to school.
The fact that Douglas not only told me where he lives but also invited me to visit him would be considered a huge mistake by many in the prepping world. Revealing your location runs the risk of compromising your Opsec, or “operations security,” an abbreviation coined by the military and adopted by survivalists. “I don’t even mention what state I live in,” James Wesley Rawles, the editor of SurvivalBlog.com, a popular prepping Web site, told me. “All I’m at liberty to discuss, with consent of my wife, is that I live somewhere west of the Rockies.”
For Rawles and others, it’s a matter of security. Revealing your location gives the Unprepared a road map to the stockpiles of the Prepared, in the event of Teotwawki. “I don’t want to wake up and find out that I’m the go-to guy — literally,” Rawles says.
If civilization breaks down, Douglas’s house is definitely where you want to be. In his home office — the de facto headquarters for Red Shed’s six shareholders and two independent contractors — he keeps not only his iPad and his MacBook but also a ham radio and a C.B. radio. In his basement, there is roughly a year’s supply of wheat, rice and other staples. And outside, he tries to keep a year’s supply of chopped wood and, in his garage, 375 gallons of water.
If he needs to leave, Douglas has modified a Chevy Suburban so that it can travel 850 miles between fill-ups. If he stays, he’s ready to protect his family and his provisions. Douglas can’t even remember how many guns he owns. “Twelve?” he guessed when I asked. “Not as many as most.” But he knows his favorite: the Governor, a Smith & Wesson handgun that fires shotgun shells. “This is the home defender here,” he said. “You just point it in the right direction, and it’s over.”
Yet unlike others in his industry, Douglas doesn’t waste energy worrying about things like Opsec. And though he owns guns, he doesn’t push gun ownership.
At a meeting at an empty Hooters restaurant in Colorado Springs this year, Douglas listened impatiently as a salesman tried to get him to buy some ads on a local radio station for a coming expo. He was saying he could offer the same rates for a typical gun show. Douglas told the man that he wasn’t getting it at all. “I’m not just a gun show,” Douglas said to him.
The salesman’s confusion must be forgiven. The last time anything like Douglas’s expos hit convention halls was the 1990s. Y2K was coming. The threat of computers — and everything else — failing was a boon for a show called the Preparedness Expo. Civil rights organizations denounced the early incarnations of these gatherings, organized by a Utah man named Dan Chittock, as havens for political extremism and hate, an image that Chittock disputed even as he seemed to invite it. His biggest draw at the expos, Chittock told me, was James Gritz, known as Bo, a leader of the right-wing survivalist movement who offered paramilitary training and promoted Idaho as a refuge for antigovernment patriots. Dave Duffy, the editor and publisher of Backwoods Home Magazine, said: “I pulled out of Dan’s shows after awhile. It was conspiracy stuff. And it was making my magazine, along with the other vendors, look bad.”
Y2K offered a clearer threat; attendance at the expos doubled. But when the millennium dawned without widespread computer meltdowns, Chittock’s audience disappeared, and the expos disbanded. “It was kind of like crying ‘wolf,’ ” Chittock says. “Nobody wanted to hear it anymore.” Many small survivalist companies folded, while others struggled to carry on. Sun Ovens International, an Illinois company that manufactures solar-powered ovens, had sales fall to less than $200,000 in 2000 from $1.6 million a year earlier — a staggering 88 percent decline made worse by the fact that the company got stuck with $100,000 in unpaid invoices after the Y2K bust. “When Y2K was a nonevent, almost everybody in the preparedness industry declared bankruptcy,” Paul M. Munsen, the company’s president, says.
Sun Ovens limped along, critically wounded. “I refinanced my home three different times just to eat,” Munsen says. But in time, business began to improve, thanks in part to Barack Obama’s presidential victory four years ago, which alarmed many on the right worried about everything from his economic policies to his middle name. “The day after the election was one of the best sales days we ever had,” Munsen says. “Some people were just so upset about the election that they said, ‘We had better be prepared.’ ”
Ron Douglas wasn’t a part of the preparedness gold rush of the 1990s. He was working at the time as a corrections officer in Texas before moving to Colorado, where he bought a Critter Control franchise. Not long after Sun Oven sales began to rise, Douglas got out of the pest-control business. As a Mormon, he was taught the virtues of living a prepared life. He had been stockpiling food for years. But now, Douglas was beginning to sense a larger void — and a commercial opportunity — that needed to be filled.
He held his first Self Reliance Expo in November 2010 and tried to put a new spin on survivalism. Instead of lining up speakers to offer right-wing screeds, Douglas organized a homemade bread bake-off. The prize: a new wheat grinder. The products — and even the vendors at times — may have been the same from the expos of the past. But the packaging felt different, less threatening. Duffy says he noticed it immediately: “It was apparent right off the bat — no nut cases.”
Scott Valencia, a business developer from the video-game industry who formed Red Shed with Douglas last year and owns a stake in the company, helped see to that. He instructed vendors to avoid fear tactics and improve their displays while also making sure that the venues were welcoming and well lighted with wide aisles — the better to fit baby strollers and families. There was to be no more doom and gloom. “We lost some vendors when we told them that we weren’t doing it anymore — and Ron worried about that,” Valencia says. “But I said, ‘You’re going to pick up new ones.’ And we have.”
At an expo in May in Colorado Springs, at least a hundred people were waiting to get inside when the doors opened for the day. Some bought water filters; others learned fire-building skills. An audience gathered at the main stage to listen to Alan Madison talk about his reality TV show on the National Geographic Channel, Doomsday Preppers, whose second season began this month. “To me, it’s like a giant American studies project,” Madison, an executive producer of the show, told me. “I think it captures America at the beginning of the 21st century.” By the time the first season finished in April, the show had become the channel’s highest-rated series ever.
Not everyone at the expo was a fan of “Doomsday Preppers.” Terry Browning, a 41-year-old Army veteran, said the show unfairly depicts people like him as “militant psychos.” “Half the people here are probably not even thinking about the bunker underground or the 10,000 rounds of ammo — stuff like that,” he told me. “Most of these people just want to be safe in their homes with enough supplies to get them through whatever may be.”
In other words, they’re a lot like Linda Thrower, a home-health nurse from New Mexico. She and her husband, Troy, started prepping only recently, and they hesitated to even attend the expo. “We didn’t want to be inundated with a bunch of way-out-there radical followers,” she told me. Yet once inside, she was pleased with what she found. Yes, there was ammunition for sale and classes to help people obtain concealed-weapons permits. But Thrower, 59, left the expo that weekend with canned cheese, baking supplies for her Sun Oven and some practice in emergency suturing, the subject of one of the expo’s many seminars. “I think that’s a good thing for me, as a nurse, to be able to do,” she said. “Because if we have a disaster, whether it’s natural or man-made, there’s not going to be enough doctors.”
Just across the aisle from the Tea Party booth at the expo stood EnerHealth Botanicals, a Colorado company whose signature product is a “super green energy drink” that is organic, gluten-free, caffeine-free and G.M.O.-free. As a founder of the company in 2005, Steve St. Clair, EnerHealth’s chief executive, was focused on health-minded liberals. In the spring of 2011, however, St. Clair bought a booth at one of Douglas’s expos. “People just ran over us,” St. Clair told me. “They just loved the stuff.”
Since then, EnerHealth has sold products created for the preparedness market, especially its Survive2Thrive Organic Preparedness Pail. It sells for $270 and consists of 40 days’ worth of vacuum-packed organic food, including five pounds of rolled oats, four pounds of millet, three pounds of garbanzo beans and so on. Business at EnerHealth doubled last year. “And it looks like it may do it again this year,” St. Clair said. Sales were brisk before Hurricane Sandy. And natural disasters always help the preparedness industry.
The week Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, Douglas was getting bombarded with e-mail from exhibitors asking him to organize an expo in the Northeast. To date, the farthest east he has been is Hickory, N.C. The demographic for preparedness generally tilts Western and rural. But since Sandy, Douglas has been considering putting on an expo in New York or New Jersey. “This is exactly what we’re trying to prepare people for,” he told me. “Everybody talks about doomsday, the end of the world — apocalypse nonsense. This is New York’s doomsday right now.”
One night last spring, Douglas invited friends and neighbors to his house in Frederick for what he called a “modern-day barn-raising.” The tasks for the night included clearing the back corner of the lot, erecting new garden boxes for the season and chopping wood. Everyone was well fortified for the work; Heather, Ron’s wife, had cooked a large dinner of spare ribs in a Sun Oven. And the weather was perfect for the chores. Within 90 minutes, the garden boxes were ready. Heather served homemade root beer and store-bought ice cream, and the men gathered in the driveway to talk as the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains.
“You’re coming to my house next week,” Chad Tone, one of the men, told Douglas, joking.
For months, Tone had been talking to Douglas about wanting to be more prepared. He bought canned goods at Costco, and he figured his family could live off them for months, if necessary. But Tone wasn’t canning food or growing his own food; he had no garden. Douglas knew Tone still had a lot of work to do and, standing in the driveway, he asked his friend a cosmic question of great importance.
“Are you ready?” Douglas said.
“No,” Tone replied.
Douglas just shook his head and smiled. “Gotta get ready,” he said.