Demolishing the Prepper Survival Fantasy

Are you thinking of building a bunker where you and your family can ride out the apocalypse? Think again.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of articles about remodeling for the apocalypse. What I mean by that is that there’s a pervasive and growing belief that we’re all doomed (Millennials believe this by an overwhelming margin) and that the best chance we have is to create some kind of “bug out” hideaway, where we can wait out society’s meltdown in relative safety and comfort as the zombie hordes kill each other off.


But if you ever saw the documentary about a nationwide power outage by PBS in 2015, titled “Blackout,” you might have an idea how easily this scenario could go awry. In that program, the prepper family met the terrifying truth about their vulnerability just 9 days after “bugging out” to their hidden compound in the woods.

States taking Katrina refugees

When catastrophe strikes an urban center, refugees fan out for hundreds of miles. No “secret” hideaway will remain so for long. Source: AP


Pernicious Paranoia with a Marketing Spin

In any disaster scenario where a large group of people are displaced, there’s literally nowhere to hide–no safe haven that can’t be breached by large bands of unprepared survivors. Note that I did not say “looters” or “scavengers.” That’s a negative stereotype about human behavior in crises that plays into the fears of preppers, and the marketing materials of the bug out industry. Some researchers have dubbed this “The Myth of Panic.”

A lot gets grouped into this scary world vision, they explain. It’s a shotgun list of potential ugly human responses to adversity:

“Behaviors described as panic include lynch mobs, suicidal epidemics, individual and collective anxieties, plundering troops, spy hysterias, military retreats and surrenders, social unrest, war, psychotic behavior, mass hysteria, animal stampedes, confused voting behavior, orgiastic feasts, the activities of war refugees, and group tensions.”

The reality of how people behave in a crisis, however, tends to be less extreme, and can even be collaborative

“Consistent empirical research from social scientists and disaster researchers has shown that the concept of “panic”, and the belief that individuals naturally engage in other anti-social behaviors during disaster scenarios, is, at best, over-exaggerated. Some social scientists even advocate the removal of the concept of panic altogether, believing that other psychological and sociological concepts account for “panic” behaviors more thoroughly.”

Yet the lone survivalist in a hostile world meme lives on. It’s an idea that has spawned untold numbers of video games, magazines, chat rooms, and memes.

And for better or worse, the Covid-19 Pandemic vastly broadened the prepper demographic. According to

“Since Covid 19, Preppers have become a much larger group than the ‘Survivalists’ of old. Survivalism was historically associated with gun-toting, right wing American militias, whereas today’s Preppers include ecologists, left-leaning ‘home schooling’ families, zero growthers, homesteaders, and everyday’ self-sufficiency’ couples, growing their own organic or macrobiotic food to become less dependent upon corporate food supply chains.  Some preppers turn holiday homes into safe houses, while others create fortified city homes. Some invent scientific systems to give themselves self-sustaining cycles of crops and fish, while others hoard a year’s worth of food and medical supplies in hidden bunkers.”

Survivalist Reality Check

Let’s pause for just a moment and roleplay how an ideal bug out plan might unravel:

Say you’ve got deep, deep pockets. You buy an old silver mine in the wilds of Pennsylvania, spend $250,000 putting in an elevator, an emergency stairwell, a fallout-filtering ventilation system, stocking it with food and water. 

You arm yourself and your family with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons, a thousand dvds to while away the endless days, some penicillin and a greywater recycler. Let’s say you figure out a way to operate a generator and store gas for six months underground with only an exhaust pipe above the surface. 


A global catastrophe sends New York City’s population of 8.5 million souls spinning in every direction.

Within a week, thousands of refugees are roaming through your area, looking for food, shelter and safety. Many die. Ultimately, they discover your generator exhaust pipe. They call down to you, speak into your hidden security cameras, beg you for help. When you don’t respond, they fill the pipe with rags. Your generator shuts down. Now what?

I’m sure if you’re a hard core prepper, you’ve got a “there’s a better way” answer for this, some trick to make your hideaway “undiscoverable,” but unless you’ve invented a compact nuclear fusion generator, you have no way to make power below ground without above-ground infrastructure such as pipes and ducts. It’s technologically impossible.

Community: A More Viable Survival Option

Now let’s look at a different scenario. What if, instead of embracing the go-it-alone mentality of the preppers, we were to take a community-wide perspective? How would my community and my neighbors support each other in a dire crisis?

Let’s take the same scenario described above. You live in a town such as Ithaca, N.Y., when things go haywire. But your community has developed a resilience strategy, “forging predisaster strategic partnerships with individuals and organizations that recognize and value the need for planning.”

They have invested in localized solar fields and long-lasting, salt-based battery storage, so your power grid keeps operating. The city has a thriving local food economy, mass transportation in the form of electric trains that runs on electricity, no fossil-fuel dependency whatsoever. Water from local rivers and rainwater collection are purified at the local water/sewer plant. Wastewater is separated into blackwater and greywater, so reuse can be optimized. At the same time, citizens are psychologically prepared to deal with a crisis.

As groups of desperate refugees show up on the outskirts of town, local “ambassadors” are there to help them. They’re given temporary food, water, and offered a place in the community, if they’re willing to do the work required. They can pick crops, prepare foods, build simple homes and otherwise “join” the community, at least until a more permanent situation can be created.

Could the community become overwhelmed? Of course. And yes, there may also be some bad actors and the need for armed policing. But the odds of survival of a community like this far outweigh the almost certain failure of an isolated prepping homestead.

Why Taking Down the Prepper Myth Matters

Belief in the idea of a lone wolf getaway has obvious negative implications for our communities and society at large. For those who believe there’s an “other side” of an apocalyptic event such as nuclear war, deadly plague, existential climate change, a Chinese invasion or whatever, there’s little incentive to stay involved In the much harder work of changing the status quo.

Taking a community-centric focus, on the other hand, has no downside. Not only will it help fast track the conversion away from fossil fuels, it’s likely to ease conflict between neighbors, build lasting friendships and relationships, result in better, more secure food, and generally make us better people. 

If things really do melt down, we must ask ourselves, is living in a bunker, paranoid and fearful any way to while away our priceless time? Better to step outside, meet our fellow citizens with kindness and compassion, and perhaps trigger the same response from them.