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Finding community to calm the chaos

<ve always been fascinated by how people react to disasters. They are such quick events in the grand scheme of things, but can expose systematic inequalities and deep-rooted beliefs. They force people to examine themselves and those around them, and decide if they are comfortable living in such a stubborn yet fragile world. For some, a belief in a higher power is enough to sleep at night. Some find peace of mind knowing that their government will protect them (as long as they are “productive” citizens that is). There is a small group, though, that does not want to take this chance. They are not cynical, though; they believe they can and will survive. Instead of relying on an outside force to protect them, they put their faith in their abilities. These abilities must be cultivated though, and the time and energy this takes makes community something many preppers lack.

I know what you are thinking: “Is this crazy Carl who I was pretty sure graduated a prepper?” The answer is mostly no. My survival skills are limited to mediocre Girl Scout training, my own searches down the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia, and some fishing lessons from my dad. Recently, however, I have found myself thinking more and more about whether I would survive a total earth catastrophe. I am still debating on whether I would actually want to, though. The events, or should I say Trump tirades, of this past year have made me think of my own vulnerability and how it compares to others. The environmental, economic, social, and political panics that climate change will cause was made more real when this past Monday the U.S. became the only county not to sign onto the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump calling the leader of a nation threatening us with nuclear war “little rocket man” at an international diplomatic meeting made science fiction a little too close to home. I now have a hiking backpack under my bed, and a list of items I need to fill it with. My family and I have talked about where we would run to; we did this before, but now this game feels a lot less fun. Our conversations could be the plot of some TV show, and this terrifies me. When reality inches closer and closer to fiction, that is when people become characters and start choosing sides. All good stories have villains, and sometimes the villains are everyone except yourself.

My demographic is no longer unusual for the prepper movement; even before the election, it was increasingly liberal. In his 2017 Quartz article, Matthew Sedacca discusses how while liberal, the movement rejects big government and its regulations (such as gun laws) in favor of individual freedom. It is just one example of the foundational democratic debate of how much freedom is worth giving up to the state for its protection. This explains why the prepper movement’s growth would not have stopped if Hillary had won, according to a 2016 Politico article by Julia Ioffe.

I saw a similar distrust in institutions last year when I did field research for my Comps. I interviewed residents of Dancing Rabbit (DR) Ecovillage in rural Missouri for 3 weeks. DR is based on the idea that social capital is the most important resource there is, so the average resident is not a traditional, individualistically-minded prepper. Residents must be self-sufficient, but neighbors live close together, everyone knows each other, and people are expected to use their skills to benefit the community. DR has its fair share of governance issues; it is not self-sufficient by any means and still relies on the external economy, and how it works in reality is different than in theory.

Since it was the first time I was exposed to one of these communities, I learned of the many types there are and the conflict that arises from people joining them for very different reasons. There are too many to list in this article, but people who chose this lifestyle often have opposing views on how society should be organized; some believe community is the best way to govern society, while others simply want to be free. I think it is too broad of a statement to say they joined out of fear, but most mentioned climate change as a major reason for joining. They believe that their best chance of survival is to live in a sustainable community. What makes DR so interesting is its focus on economic and ideological diversity, which gave me a broader look at the intentional community movement in general.

Having access to many different perspectives has forced the community to both innovate and stagnate. Homesteading, which is a lifestyle within the intentional community movement whose goal is self-sufficiency, is practiced to different extents by residents. While having an entire community homestead would be the most self-sufficient, residents still benefit from various other shared resources the community provides. While growing and raising your own food is the most commonly thought about form of subsistence, other forms of infrastructure such as a sewage system, electricity, roads, community buildings, and services and amenities are much more feasible with a group of people to pay the start-up costs and maintain it. What I find so interesting about the survivalist mentality of “everyman for himself” is how similar it is to what caused our environmental problems in the first place. While the main driver of climate change is economic, this is inextricably tied to society rewarding conspicuous consumption. According to a 2011 study by Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Ho of Cornell, and Yogesh Joshi of the University of Maryland, what gives people social capital amongst their socio-economic group are the goods they consume. Individual consumption is an inefficient yet rational strategy to gain acceptance, and therefore economic opportunity.

However, individualism is becoming less strategic in our uncertain world. America’s economy and institutions were built on this idea of rugged individualism, and national myths are difficult to break. This can be seen in preppers’ lack of community, which is due to their secretiveness. One prepper quoted in a 2017 Star Tribune article by Richard Chin believes the number of preppers could be as high as 10%, but says this is very much an estimate due to the secretiveness of the community. When it comes to survival, people do not trust others. This makes sense, considering the scary realities that cause people to become survivalists. This also corresponds with America’s low level of trust in institutions, with trust declining in business, media, government and NGOs for the first time in 17 years according to a 2017 Harvard Business Review article by Matthew Harrington. Unfortunately, this has not increased our trust in the morality of our fellow Americans. The scariest thing we stand to lose during the apocalypse is community.

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