Preparing for the Worst

Most people, when they hear the phrase “preparing for the worst”, think about writing an insurance, or putting some money aside for rainy days. Something that most people do not, however, is to build their own bomb shelter.

National Geographic Channel has been highlighting this latter group of quite special people in their new series Doomsday Preppers. People who, for some reason, believe that the world will end within their lifetime and that they have to do something to protect themselves.

What struck me when I was watching one episode is that these people do not take small precautions, just in case something bad should happen. They spend a good portion of the money that they earn, a great deal of their time, and often drag their families in on it.

However, the most ridiculous part is the very specific scenarios these people believe will cause certain doom for all of mankind. Except for those who have lots and lots of tin cans with old food, obviously. I’ll walk you through a few scenarios, and do some ballpark estimates of their probabilities.

One participant claimed that a sudden polar shift could happen at any time, suddenly moving the magntic poles. If our poles moved very suddenly, it would probably seriously mess up the Earth’s magnetic field, and lead to an untold number of natural catastrophes.  Of course, this supposes that a polar shift happens very suddenly.  Polar shifts have most likely happened in the past, but over the course of millions of years, and with all the land masses gathered in one continent. Such gradual shifts would have very little effect on the climate. All in all, there aren’t any evidence that sudden polar shifts can happen, so this scenario is very unlikely.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, there was also one person who was preparing for a failure in the electrical grid, caused by an EMP attack. An EMP (electromagnetic pulse) is simply a burst of electromagnetic radiation, which can be caused by some types of high energy explosions, and might be able to knock out electronic devices. A directed explosion of this kind is then called an EMP attack, and the fear is that this could knock out all the electrical infrastructure, so that society falls apart (somehow). In this case, we know how EMPs work, and we know that the Soviet even tested such bombs over populated areas in Kazakhstan, to see how much damage they could do. The Soviet was a bit inconsiderate, in that regard. Even though an EMP attack would be possible today it is not very likely, for the same reasons that hindered nuclear attacks during the Cold War. Namely that many countries have a second strike capability, the capability to retaliate to such an attack.

The fear of a worldwide pandemic was also quite popular among the doomsday preppers. This fear is a bit understandable, as we have had the outbreak of both the avian flu and the swine flu during the last decade. Even so, these flus have only killed about as many as the regular influenza, and where dramatically hyped by the media. Periodically, really serious pandemics like the Spanish Flu pop up, with the potential to kill millions, but for the moment only HIV/Aids is serious enough to be called so. Generally, it would be really hard to defend against rapidly spreading airborne pandemic, because of how fast it spreads. Still, it is very unlikely that a virus would wipe out entire civilizations, as a virus spreading that fast would probably kill itself first. Even though this is the most likely of the presented scenarios, it isn’t something that will lead to the downfall of mankind.

Most of the preppers took precautions by stacking up on canned food and fuel, by building hideouts or reinforcing their homes, and by having lots of guns. The guns would – undoubtedly – be vital for survival in the post-doom society, as protection against the less-prepared trying to steal stuff from the prepared. To be fair, not all of the participants in the program seemed hell-bent on hampering their life as much as possible by preparing. One family – believing in sudden crop failures – where almost completely self-sustained. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong about growing you own crops; the world would have benefited if we turned all lawns into farmland. On the other hand, it’s possible to do right things for the wrong reasons.

All in all, many of the preppers seem to fix on specific ideas, and spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for made-up scenarios. As many people who are gripped by irrational ideas, they become  sucked in, and waste their money and life on it. Most of these aren’t very likely, and some aren’t even possible. So if you ever considered building a shelter in your back yard, just drop it and relax. Your life will most likely be normal, if a bit dull at times. But you should sign an insurance, just in case.

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Ine is a second-year university student who spends most of her time far north and in really, really bad weather. She has been interested in science for most of her life, and the enthusiasm for critical thinking has tagged along almost inevitably, which means that she often grumbles about creationism and other kinds of woo. When she has some spare time, Ine does taekwondo, draws and reads.


  1. October 29, 2012 at 11:46 am —

    I’ve taken a disliking to shows that exploit people and both Doomsday Preppers and Doomsday Bunkers seems to fill the bill.

    Many of the people being exposed on these shows clearly have had some traumatic experience in their past that they probably need counseling for. For example, the New York City fireman who is worried about the super volcano in Yosemite causing plumes of gas and ash to swamp the city.

    While the level of dysfunction may not affect some of the participants, in some it seems to be a serious restriction on their activities of daily living.

    I too thought that their specificity to a particular threat was a little strange until I started thinking about how the show was probably structured. I would be willing to bet that just like on Survivor, the producers are picking the people who are going to make the best T.V.

    I also wouldn’t be surprised if the participants were asked to pick one threat that they found most credible. At least one person listed a number of threats but then settled on his personal threat. So, a number of them are probably preparing for a wide range of threats but the show just focuses on one.

    Me personally? I’m preparing for the zombie apocalypse. It is probably just about as likely as the poles shifting over night causing all the continents to shift suddenly and radically (though, the movie 2012 had some great visual imagery).

    • October 30, 2012 at 6:34 am —

      I think that you’re raising some good points. Unfortunately, my post was already a bit long, so I didn’t get to discuss how these obsessions can affect their daily lives.

      As I see it, the shows aren’t just exploiting these people, but also enabling them in a way. Giving these people attention and telling them how good their preparations might make them sink deeper into their bubble.

      Also, as a non-American, I find their amount of gun-use quite horrifying. It’s hard to think that they sincerely believe that everyone is going to turn on them when the apocalypse happens. It makes them come of as very paranoid.

      Too bad the only way to prove them wrong is to wait and see.

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