Preppers, Guns, and Environmentalism


I know next to nothing about guns, aside from what the odd video game has to say. I’m a west coast liberal, a progressive, and I chuckle with wry agreement when Europeans refer to the “sick gun culture” in America. They’re right, of course. There are too many guns. But I’ve never been an ardent gun control advocate, and I only just realized why.

As unlikely as it sounds, guns and green have a lot in common. Modern environmentalism aims for the same psychological sweet spot that shows like The Walking Dead – in all their high-caliber glory – target for high ratings and repeat views. I’m referring to the strain of millenarian end-of-the-world environmentalism that lies beneath every viral article on melting permafrost, oceanic die-offs, and refugees from submerged cities. When it comes right down to it, the green movement needs the apocalypse as much as the gun lobby does. Which brings me to the American prepper.

I’ll admit to a fascination with the prepper phenomenon. The stereotype of rednecks hiding out in bunkers belies an active and earnest subculture of regular folks (often from the “heartland”) who prefer self-reliance in the face of major catastrophe. A whole cottage industry has sprung up, especially online, marketing specialized survival goods, manuals, and assorted bric-a-bric to preppers. There’s even a TV program about the subculture (American Preppers), which I haven’t had a chance to see.

The lengths to which some of these individuals pursue their hobby is impressive. In the event of TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it), preppers prefer to own a rural “bug-out” location already stocked and ready to serve as home for the long-haul. They mull over ways to keep their families away from the “Golden Horde” of panicked non-preppers. (It’s always families: apparently the single person is rare in prepper-land.) They often accumulate a vast array of canned food, survival equipment, and, of course, weaponry. If a sudden TEOTWAWKI event does occur, I’m certain they’ll have the last laugh.

As mass shootings dominate the news, tired old arguments for and against gun control get dragged back and forth, achieving little. I wish more critics would brave the liberal-conservative border fence and acknowledge the real issue: we Americans love us some autonomy. And we love being able to say that we have more autonomy than those drones on the other side. The prepper movement is the face of a powerful undercurrent in the collective American psyche.

What’s funny is that most preppers are sustainability advocates. Their love of autonomy and self-sufficiency – being “off the grid” – drives them to solar energy, recycling, composting, and conservation. And their predilection for the end of the world (as we know it) sounds mighty similar to the torrent of articles about climate scientists and their worst fears. Guns, like household solar panels, symbolize the common person’s power in the face of global threats.

The fact that modern environmentalists align so closely with “liberal” positions like gun control, queer rights, abortion rights, and the like is a recent fluke of political history. Previously, conservation environmentalism embraced hunters, cowboy enthusiasts (Edward Abbey), and assorted wild men who’d laugh out loud at Dick Cheney’s famous steady hand. The modern pivot toward a progressive environmentalism has attempted to forge common cause with successes in identity politics, letting some of the previous generation’s prized autonomy slide.

It’s been said before, but I think we need to take another hard look at the green movement’s inherent conservatism. As in “conservation,” not “Republican.” Too often, those of us caught up in the fervor of today’s identity movement (a heroic and worthwhile endeavor) see the past as a dark stain, a pit of obscene human rights violations, of racism, of misogyny, of homophobia. Amid all this valid criticism, we miss the fact that the neoconservative/neoliberal agenda cares nothing for tradition, autonomy, or identity. In a blind quest for maximization and growth, silly human notions like “love” or “religion” mean very little.

For all its tragedies, the past is a fertile field for useful stories. Stories that explain things like conservative and progressive, liberal and authoritarian, capitalist and corporatist. It’s up to each of us to look at those stories and decide which labels are good and bad, and in which circumstances. What I can say is that the current global system is fundamentally at odds with both environmentalism and autonomy. We have allowed most of our ideological markers to fuse and blend into meaninglessness.

Sanders’ and Trump’s populist campaigns prove that autonomy remains a viable force in the American mind. They also prove how divided we have become. Through shotguns or solar panels, I hope our love of self-reliance can help us find some common ground other than liberal capitalist progressive authoritarian conservative libertarian corporatism. (I choose the solar panels.)