Reflections on Middle-Class Prepper culture and visions of apocalypse.
This is an essay by Calla B. Martin.
January in Minnesota is typically a time to hunker down, do projects, and what I love most: read. While the temperature dips up and down, those of us fortunate enough to spend warm hours at leisure have time to reflect and contemplate this world we live in (that is, if we aren’t too distracted by social media). I digress. It turns out that reading speculative fiction about the catastrophic failure of our social and physical infrastructure alongside recent news articles about the real systemic vulnerabilities of that infrastructure is…kinda a bummer and not just a little anxiety-provoking.
Besides reading both The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I live among and am friends with a number of people who might be dismissed as “preppers;” people preparing for the potential collapse of society. Some of them simply have an interest in the sustainable infrastructure. Many see the “cracks in the wall” that Butler and McCarthy’s characters witness, prepare for, and react to.
The Dangers of empathy and the end of the world while being black and female: The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
In The Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina is the main character. Living in suburban LA of 2025, she is beset with a disability; hyperempathy, which causes her to feel the pain of those around her as if it were her own. She is also a tall black woman. Being a woman, being black, and having a disability are all things that present special challenges today, as well as in this future scenario. She doesn’t have special powers. What she has is life-long practice of hiding her true vulnerability, her belief in something greater than herself, her ability to speak to others with conviction, and her extensive education that is both self-led and led by well-informed parental figures. When her fortified middleclass enclave is dispersed by violence, she begins a trek that she had prepared for in worst-case scenario planning. Not everything goes to plan. Change is sudden, sweeping and final.
I don’t want to give away the whole plot because Butler’s exposition builds well. The important lessons that I took to heart from this book were the observations about the older generation not being able to let go of their vision of the stillborn future, how to teach and prepare without spreading fear, how to adapt and create security by aligning with those similar to yourself, and listening, as an educated middle-class person, to the real-life wisdom of people from different class backgrounds.
Lauren Olamina, with all of her vulnerabilities, aligns herself with others who seem even weaker, but together they form an interdependent working unit that includes women and children.
Middle-class protectionism and preparation in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
The Road is stark and bleak. A man and his young son travel through a post-American wasteland with no sun, no plants, no animals. Nuclear winter is intimated as the cause of the present situation. The writing is stripped-down, the landscape is dark, lifeless, and oppressive. The story is punctuated by moments of glory when the scavenging pair discover food or shelter, and horror and depravation of their fellow humans in this desolate new world.
McCarthy envisions survival from the standpoint of middle-class protectionism and preparation. His main character, “the man” doesn’t ally with anyone but “the boy.” At the center of the story is a father nurturing his child, literally his only reason to survive, his only semblance of faith in anything. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the cover of my copy declares it a “masterpiece.”
I’m sure that many suburban dads can imagine themselves as the main character in this novel, prepping, surviving, and caring day-in and day-out for a young child. The portrait of the child, supposedly born at the advent of the extinction event, is the portrait of a sensitive protected little boy. He’s mewling and upset by things in the environment even though he’s got no frame of reference for anything less harsh. He’s whiny and seems weak, even though he wouldn’t have had the tenderness and protection of a middle-class family life to shape him into this character. Only once in the novel do the pair share the food that they have, because the boy begs to be allowed to share the food with an elderly blind wanderer. Every other human being encountered is immediately assumed to be the dangerous “other” cannibalizing, raping, and subjugating. This is the ultimate macho prepper fantasy: Strong men and those under their protection are the only ones mentally and physically strong enough to survive such harshness. This is the epitome of the so-called traditional structure of the nuclear family with the man at the forefront; the idea of a male to lead his lesser to salvation is left intact.
As traditional and “ancient” as such ideas may seem, the nuclear family is a very recent middle class structure created by industrialization and capitalism. Even in our current American society, when people are faced with the scarcity of resources that we see amongst the lower classes, they work together in larger family networks to take care of each other. In more recent immigrant families, even those not impoverished, this is very common—grandparents, aunts and uncles, support parents raising the younger generation.
It seems unlikely, to say the least, that years into an extinction event “the man” is still holding onto his middle-class head-of-the-household ideology, and supporting a young child with no help whatsoever. With the world as we know it turned inside out, would people really cling to one-dimensional roles put into place by capitalism and industry?
Further reflections on apocalyptic fiction and preppers for the end of the world:
The fantasy of widespread chaos and being saved by a traditional alpha male in the face of governmental collapse as portrayed in The Road is a lot of what I see wrong with “prepper” thinking.
This sort of thinking ignores the harsh reality that there are people in this country already living in scarcity that have done so for generations. They survive due to networks of interdependence. They don’t thrive, though, because the middle and upper classes exploit what little they have—their time and their physical ability to work (For more on this subject, read Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, or if you have something better, please suggest it because her tone is SO condescending). Hundreds of years of labor were exploited from some people’s lineages, with the benefactors still reaping the rewards (see The Atlantic on the case for reparations).
Anyhow. I digress. Much prepper stuff is centered around “survival” and aligns conceptually with “social Darwinism” and “evolutionary psychology.” These theoretical frameworks’ assumption of genetic predetermination and a natural order that places white man at the top of a pyramid, lording over his environment, is the essence of these bastardizations of Darwinism. These “theories” are used to judge people in a ableist way to determine who is the “fittest” for surviving a potential apocalypse.
Forget the fact that working together, staying together, and committing to the group are essential skills for survival. They’re seen as soft “feminine” skills. Ignore that to thrive, a community needs women, children, and elders as active participants. Put aside the wisdom that can be reaped from individuals with disabilities.
End of the world fantasies, where surprise, surprise, a white man saves the day—hold little truth and less appeal for those of us who have already been surviving in a hostile environment that was built by and for “the man.” It has been suggested to me that the preservation of innocence, beauty and childhood is perhaps the point of The Road. But I ask, at what cost is the innocence of “the boy” and middle-class America maintained, even today?