Where Most Preppers Fall Short: The Agriculturalist Mindset

I have been asked to write an article on prepping for some time.  It has been a challenge for me to try to identify the base philosophical difference between me and most preppers.  Be aware, the words that follow could be construed as yet another attempt to make preppers look like insane people.  But they aren’t.  I do have to commend them as they are making some attempt to prepare for economic instability, food shortage, conflict (civil or international), or severe weather that could interrupt goods and services from being available to the public.  Most people just go along with their business each day, never questioning the abundance of everything here in the United States.  “Normal people” (i.e., non-preppers) usually have no concept of the vast number of interconnected production centers, transportation systems, storage facilities, and governmental policies that need to operate to make everything available to consumers.  This entire system is easily interrupted.  At least preppers realize this (and some possibly hope for it).

That all said, the usual method of prepping is to accumulate most of the things they need—food, medicine, fuel, weapons, ammunition, and so on.  This method of prepping (accumulation) is based on the sedentary mindset of agricultural people, a strategy that was not possible for nomadic people.  It focuses (perhaps without realization) on the idea of wealth (or security) being synonymous with material possessions.  It outright fails in many ways for any extended disruption (which I will explain below).  I believe that preppers could seriously strengthen their ability to survive (and even thrive) by taking lessons from hunter-gatherers, the original self-reliant people who have inhabited this world for most of the time humans have existed.  Their wealth was in their ecological knowledge and wisdom, information about their landscapes that allowed them to acquire food through the seasons.  Accumulating necessary items simply builds a valuable cache that will be taken.  Preppers may believe that their firearms and tactical training will protect them and their stockpiles, but then they are forgetting the vast number of people that live in the US.  Will a family or small community of preppers be able to defend themselves from 1000s of armed people?  And if so, for how long?  The fact is, the cache will ultimately be taken and if the preppers escape, they will have none of the materials they have trained with and no ability to shelter, feed, heal, clothe, or protect themselves.   Any prepper who is reading this might be experiencing raised hackles at this point.  Remember, I’m not attacking you.  But I encourage you to read on—I believe there are valuable ideas that follow.

One of the most important things that preppers stockpile is food.  The issue isn’t that preppers are stockpiling food, it is the kind of food they mostly store—dried, dehydrated, easy prepared meals.  These foods, much like the canned foods that are also stockpiled, are almost completely devoid of naturally occurring vitamins and phytochemicals, are heavily oxidized (damaging essential fatty acids), and are only valuable in the short term (and only as calories).  You cannot live on such foods for any length of time and maintain vital health (I can elaborate, but it would seriously lengthen this article, a future piece will discuss appropriate foods for long storage).  Nor can you just supplement with vitamins forever.  Your immune system will ultimately suffer without a diverse offering of real, whole food.  And then how will you protect your much needed cache of foodstuffs and other items when you are ill?  If you are truly preparing for the end of the world (i.e., no return to organized society), do you really intend to stockpile decades of food (and protect it)?  And your children, what will they eat years after you have passed?  Relying on a stored food is an admission that you expect (or need) society to return to normal in the near term.  If society remains disrupted, fresh foods that don’t require cultivation and tending (i.e., wild food) are part of the answer, but with caveats (read on).

Many people assume they will retreat to the forest (a place most are as familiar with as would be visiting aliens) and hunt for all their food.  Using Maine (where I live) as an example, which has a rich hunting tradition, the upper limit of white-tailed deer density is approximately 17–22 deer per square mile.  This density is found in the coastal region, where the human population density mostly exceeds it (25 to 5000+ people per square mile).  And given that many families in this state have members who hunt, I will let you do the math.  Deer will be a source of food for only a short time before their extreme rarity, due to intense hunting pressure, makes them very scarce (if not completely absent in some areas).  The same will be true of other game animals (such as hare, turkey, bear, moose, waterfowl, grouse, etc.).  Without an ability to utilize foods that most people know nothing about (e.g., plants, fungi, invertebrates), there will be no way to survive the massive culling that will occur with prolonged disruption of food services.  Even if you succeed in shooting a deer with a firearm, the noise created by such a weapon will alert everyone to the possibility of food, including those who are willing to take from others.  And for those that don’t know, firearms with suppressors (i.e., silencers) aren’t that silent (they aren’t like in the movies).  The shot can still be heard at great distance. 

And if you think that you will grow your own food, you are still (clearly) thinking like an agriculturalist.  After you have committed an entire growing season to the raising of crops, along will come an armed group of people and either disrupt your harvest (to force you out of an area) or steal your harvest (and then you starve).  There are going to be millions of people leaving the urban areas of the United States.  They will be starving and their morals will be cast aside.  It will be like a zombie apocalypse, except you won’t be safely watching it happen on the big screen.  No amount of training or stockpiling of ammo can protect you from these numbers.  Surviving direct confrontation with thousands of people isn’t realistic.  Unless you can join the ranks of such hordes (and then share all of your food), retreating to wilderness (or at least less populated) areas where you can conceal your presence will be one of only a few viable options (assuming you can truly live there).  People will be your biggest threat (though the right people will be your biggest asset).  Being completely honest here:  most people I know that train in survival skills are very poor at acquiring food from the wild.  Their knowledge of the landscape is just too poor.  It will be important to be familiar with as many food sources as possible.  If you can’t locate, identify, gather, and process well over 100 species of wild plants for food, you are deluding yourself that you can survive indefinitely.  If you don’t know what phytic acid is and how to render it inert, how you will acquire preformed vitamin A (retinol) in your diet, what cofactors are needed to help vitamin C operate optimally in your body, or which fat-soluble vitamins are critical for a strong immune system (to keep you from getting sick), you are like most Americans—nutritionally ignorant.  You’ve gotten this far because you have access to lots of food, which allows you to get the bare minimum nutrition you need to live (even if with too many calories).  Serious disruption to society will change all of this.

Of course, the prime weapon of preppers is the firearm (of various kinds), and with good reason.  These are highly lethal weapons that can operate at great distances (for both food acquisition and violent conflict resolution).  There are several things to consider with these weapons.  Can they be repaired if the users don’t have access to tools and spare parts?  Usually the answer is no.  Firearms represent a technology that cannot be replicated without industry.  These weapons are also loud and, as previously mentioned, signal the possible presence of food to other people (and maybe lots of other people, who also may be armed). Ammunition is a finite resource.  It will eventually run out (or you will lose access to your stockpile due to armed invaders).  All of these facts again suggest that hunter-gatherer technologies may offer real answers. Traps, fishing lines, wooden bows, barbed spears (for aquatic life), and other such items can be constructed in the field with simple tools (even stone tools) and are completely silent.  However, one can be skilled at construction and efficient use of such tools only if they are well practiced.

We could go on with so many topics.  Answer the following questions honestly.

Do you know how to gather and prepare potent antibiotic medicines from the wild?  There are loads of them, though some work better for gram-positive bacteria vs. gram-negative bacteria vs. fungi vs. viruses. And if you believe you already possess this knowledge, how many times have you treated serious infections using wild-gathered remedies (to garner valuable experience with dosage and delivery)?  It would be a shame to lose a limb or die from a staph infection (which is completely treatable with wild plants, fungi, and lichens).

Can you ultimately make clothing for yourself?  You can’t just keep stealing clothes from rotting corpses.  And animal hides require a special process (tanning) to make them supple so they can function as garments.  Footwear is one of the most critical and difficult to make pieces of clothing.  How many pairs of shoes, moccasins, mukluks, and/or sandals have you made?

Can you make fire … without any manufactured items?  Can you do this even in the winter?  Your lighters, matches, and fire steel won’t last forever.  Remember, fire is more than a source of heat for staying warm; it is a tool for detoxifying wild plant foods, bending wood, making earthenware containers, sterilizing water, creating medicine, forming strong adhesives from plant sources, and so on.

Do you know where to find wild food and which kinds of habitats produce the most food in any given season?  You need to stop thinking solely about animal nutrition here.  The world will be inherited (in the event of serious food disruption) who know the most kinds of food and how best to process them to maximize their nutritional potency.  Remember, even indigenous people, who were master hunters, relied extensively on plant resources for their nutritional needs.

There is almost no end to the questions that could be asked to illustrate how little contemporary people can actually do for themselves.  Most people (including preppers) are so unable to do anything without modern tools and materials that they never even consider how to survive without such items.  It is much harder than most realize, especially if you have no experience with making and using tools you can manufacture yourself from your surroundings (or from abandoned items).  Further, many don’t have a viable community of skilled people to be part of (I haven’t focused of this aspect of hunter-gatherer living, but it is crucial and deserves its own article).  I don’t pretend to be the expert or someone who has all the answers.  Rather, I feel I have asked myself some of the most important questions for realistic scenarios that could occur during prolonged food shortages.  I’m glad preppers are thinking about unstable futures, but I do not consider their strategy to be the best solution to this potential dilemma.  Remember, there are many people who plan to survive any such situation by taking from others (using force).  I have no illusions about defending my home from large numbers of armed people—I will not succeed.  My only hope of surviving the great culling is to rely on wild resources that a heavily domesticated populace knows nothing about.  I consider it vitally important for people to be able to feed themselves from a diversity of ecosystems using a variety of quiet tools, the way indigenous people have fed themselves for millennia.  Stay in your home or encampment as long as you can (that is perfectly sensible) and, by all means, stockpile—just don’t rely on that strategy exclusively.  And when the horde arrives, abandon the agriculturalist mindset and become nomadic.  Learn to embrace hunter-gatherer technologies.  I am thankful for my ethnobotanical skills, which include a depth of edible and medicinal plant knowledge.  Hopefully, this will be valuable enough to a community that I may be allowed (or even asked) to join.