My current research project is a multi-year ethnography with groups and individuals who are ‘prepping’ for calamity, disaster, and even apocalypse. This project is being undertaken as a University of Sydney Research fellow, and with the support of Penguin Books in the UK and Scribner in the USA, who will be jointly publishing Bunker: The Architecture of Dread in 2019.
These prepping activities, though similar to the back-to-the-wilderness survivalism of the past, are also a reflection of contemporary society. It has recently been estimated that three to four million Americans are preppers, and in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters of society and well beyond America. From wealthy Russian oligarchs buying whole pacific islands, to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs purchasing swathes of land in New Zealand, to the Vivos Group’s recent acquisition of 575 derelict munitions bunkers in South Dakota, prepping today takes place on a broader scale and appeals to a wider range of actors. Their preparations also seem more rational with each eye-watering news cycle.
What is more terrible than the unknown? During World War II and the Cold War, people around the world lived with fear and anxiety about particular dangers – from aerial bombings to potential nuclear annihilation. Today however, we are paralyzed by dread, flailing in every direction to fend off the unknown, the undiscernible, the intangible and the boundless. Today, the elevation of fear onto the level of the sublime has filled us with inveterate dread.
If the four horsemen represent Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death, all indicators of chaos visited upon the world, then the fifth horseman is dread. Amorphous, chimeric, porous and insidious, the fifth horseman has embedded himself deep in the collective psyche, stimulating mental disorders and triggering waves of activities – desperate attempts to stave off the fermenting affects. In prepping, I argue, contemporary survivalists are not actually preparing for speculative calamity but are instead are trying to control the present by building a solution for a problem they have not yet identified, one perpetuated by dread, the fifth horseman.
Preppers, however militant and exclusionary they may appear at first blush, deserve to be responded to with empathy and given space to articulate their motivations, particularly in the context of much recent research around the Anthropocene, which makes quite clear that we are past the tipping point and that the world we knew is undergoing rapid transformation. As such, adaptation is overtaking mitigation in climate change discourse, and understanding the motivations of preppers may play an important role in understanding that shift, if we see their activities as being rooted in a form of existential dread that is undertheorized and understudied yet all-too-familiar. Respect or despise their ethos, they may also provide us with key solutions, since their cultural practices hinge on solutions and action; on the production of space.
Bunker will follow both the builders and buyers of survivalist architectures. Unlike many journalists, I am less interested in the newsworthy-nature of the constructions and more interested in the philosophy behind the construction, the characters involved, and the ways the environments and communities they build in will take shape over the next few years.
If you are a prepper or involved in prepping activities and would like to get in touch, please email me.