Steve Braunias begins a new series on "prepping" – a worldwide movement of people who are taking mostly practical, sometimes extreme steps to prepare for global catastrophe.
New year, new resolve to protect my family against the chaos and disaster which could spell the end of civilisation as we know it. On January 8, I made my first plodding steps of 2018 to add to my modest store of supplies that might provide vital protection against whatever apocalypse is coming our way. I caught the 132 bus from Te Atatu to Henderson, and went shopping at the Warehouse and Pak N Save for items such as lentils, noodles, teabags, batteries, duct tape and three aluminum-coated emergency blankets.
All over New Zealand, likeminded survivalists were engaged on the same kind of mission. Prep NZ, a lively, mostly good-natured online board devoted to the subject of preparing for end days, featured comments from members who told of their New Year's preparations. "I learned Morse code." And: "Did some firearms training with my Crossman pistol in the back yard to teach my 10yr old son." Also: "The Warehouse has 20L plastic water containers, buy 1, get 1 half-price. So bought 10. Got some very strange looks from the sheeple wandering around with their coke, junk food and xbox games."
Cheer up, it might never happen. Doomsday has been on the cards since Nostradamus was in short pants. We've always lived in an age of anxiety but there's a growing sense that things are spiralling out of control and that some kind of epic disaster – military, financial, the ground and the ocean gone berserk - is imminent.
When was it, exactly, that my thoughts started turning towards the sudden need to stock up for Armageddon? I think it was just the gradual accumulated anxieties about the state of the planet, the sense that it was being crushed, pulverised, sucked dry, with the general looming threat of climate change and the specific actual threat of "weather events" – when was it, exactly, that term entered the language? As well, there was the devastation and tragedy of Christchurch. And then there was Kaikoura; I was cowering under a table in a hotel room in Wellington when that earthquake struck in late 2016, and the hotel swayed from side to side, as though it were wanting to liberate itself from its foundations and launch into space. A month later, something else happened, which seemed to rattle the whole world from side to side: Trump.
Trump, Kim Jong-un. Earthquakes, tsunamis. Financial collapse, bits and pieces of terrorism. And, last week, news of "an alarming heatwave in the sunless winter Arctic... which is forcing scientists to reconsider even their most pessimistic forecasts of climate change." As environmental writer George Monbiot put it, "This is more than just a temperature anomaly. It is an off-the-scale event."
Global warming, nuclear attack, a pandemic.... "Preppers", that is, people who wish to be prepared for the worst that could happen, have an acronym that works as a one-size-fits-all term for whatever constitutes the worst that could happen: SHTF. Shit hits the fan, what do you do? What can you do? The drab and reassuring services of everyday life are whisked out beneath our feet in no time flat – power, water, and roading were all taken out last month in areas hit by Cyclone Gita. The TV news showed pictures of a supermarket in Collingwood, in Golden Bay. The shelves were empty. Bread, milk, water, baked beans, toilet paper – all gone. A post on the Prep NZ board lists "11 bad prepper strategies"; they include the notion of hunkering down in a city, and scavenging: "This is a terrible idea on so many levels it's hard to know where to start." It started by pointing out that there'd be nothing left to scavenge. A city would be cleaned out as quickly as a supermarket in Collingwood, pop. 21,793.
The TV pictures of shelves stripped bare provided a little glimpse of life after the apocalypse, and that was just due to a passing cyclone. What would things look like on the ground if it were something far, far worse – the real thing, so to speak, of a nuclear attack? Bedlam and despair, going by the response to the false emergency alert in Hawaii in January that a nuclear strike was about to hit the island. According to the New York Times, "Within moments of the announcement, people crowded highways in scenes of terror and helplessness. Emergency sirens wailed in parts of the state, adding to the panic. 'I was running through all the scenarios in my head, but there was nowhere to go, nowhere to pull over to,' said Mike Staskow, a retired military captain." Matt LoPresti, a state representative, told CNN that he and his family headed for a bathroom: "I was sitting in the bathtub with my children, saying our prayers."
Meanwhile, Auckland novelist Charlotte Grimshaw, vacationing with her family, slept through it. The cellphone alert was raised before they woke up. They eventually got out of bed and realised they were abandoned. "Our hotel staff left us to die - lol - and ran off without warning us," she emailed at the time. "All the local cafe staff ran away. I talked to a waiter who said he and his mates sat on their balcony, cracked a beer and watched the sky, waiting for the end…."
Still, pointless to worry about a nuclear missile aimed at New Zealand. Death is elsewhere. Mostly. John Pilger's recent documentary The War on China warned of the likelihood of nuclear attack and retaliation between the US and China; Pilger asked Steven Starr, an expert on the environmental damage caused by nuclear war, "In one nuclear exchange between the US and China, what could be the consequences?" Starr's face was on camera as he began describing the likely devastation. His voice continued over the graphic of a world map. "When you combine all the smoke from these nuclear weapon detonations, millions of tonnes of smoke would rise into the stratosphere, heated by the sun, and that smoke will stay there for 10 years or longer," he said.
The picture showed a thick, black smoke falling over the southern hemisphere beneath China. "And it would become so cold that within just a couple of weeks the temperature would fall below freezing every day for one-three years, and it would be too cold to grow food crops for at least 10 years." The smoke tumbled in an inky menace over Australia, and then engulfed – always good to see we've been put on the map – New Zealand.
There are two gross stereotypes of preppers, and both have a passing resemblance to reality. There's the idea of the angry gun-nut with a head full of conspiracies and a dislike of immigrants, tax collectors, and news media; there's also the vision of the wealthy, paranoid American whack-job with a bunker in Queenstown and a vault stocked with bitcoins.
The latter character was popularised by a famous article in the New Yorker last January, which claimed to identify "hedge-fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway." A similar investigation, published last month in the Guardian, found that the rich were indeed eyeing up New Zealand property, but that "apocalyptically motivated buyers represented a small proportion of the market... the end of the world tended not to be a particular factor in their purchasing decisions."
As for local preppers, it's true that the NZ Prep board has a current of violence and general distrust. There is talk of arms, and talk of ways and means of self-defence. "Bought a new combat helmet." And: "Placing ammo into ammo tins for long-term storage." There was also a spirited, self-mocking but reasonably serious discussion about the merits of wearing medieval armour.
Some of the chat about guns is to do with hunting – killing live meat is always a favoured option for outdoor survivalists – but more to do with the concept that a post-apocalyptic society will quickly and inevitably descend into something lawless, feral, dangerous. The argument follows that the best way to counter such a threat is to be armed to the teeth with dangerous weapons….I don't know whether that argument stands up or is just pathological nonsense, but I thought it couldn't hurt to wander along to the Waitakere Small Bore Club's "Have a Go Day" in Swanson on Sunday and get my eye in.
The dark side of the NZ Prep board is its quasi-military seethings. In the main, though, the board is a fun place to hang out. It's a gallery of amusing, ingenious Kiwis who have a wide range of practical skills, and like to do things on the cheap. I have no practical skills, but like to do everything on the cheap. The bill for backing up my emergency supplies in January at the Henderson Warehouse: $54.77. At Pak N Save, that same day: $77.20. A few days ago I splashed out on my single most expensive prep investment – about $400 – on a 200L rainwater tank. The supplier has sold 18,000 tanks in Wellington these past four years, and estimates about 90 per cent are for drinking water in the event of an earthquake.
To prep is to establish some kind of control over a potential crisis. I have the bare essentials - water, food, gas cylinders, firewood, petrol, torches, radio, first aid kit, dried catfood – to hold the fort. The majority of preppers seem intent on what's called "bugging out", that is racing off to some rural, off-the-grid bolthole, equipped with solar panels and long-lasting food and a water tank and all the rest of it. They're going camping, really. But I've got no place to go. I'm bugging in.
The list of survival needs as recommended by master preppers can be daunting. I get what I can, and replenish as and when, but I'm missing a lot of items. That's not even counting more ambitious things like generators, a spare diesel truck, and the so-called Faraday cages, which resist electrical magnetic pulses (EMPs) created by a nuclear blast. "Any electrical wiring in the path of an EMP will burn out," writes a particularly noxious US prepper known as Just In Case Jack. The cage is essentially a box wrapped in aluminum foil. It protects electrical devices including cellphones. Good idea, but not up there with biscuits and toilet paper as an immediate need.
Too busy to stock up for Doomsday? A number of New Zealand mailing companies deliver emergency kits containing long-life food and other essentials. Consumer magazine rated seven suppliers in a report in April last year, and concluded, damningly: "Our main finding was you're better off building your own getaway kit. All commercial kits either lacked key items or performed poorly in our tests. The exercise of putting together your own survival gear offers better value for money. It's also a great spur for you and your family to discuss what to do in an emergency."
St John's was shamed with the lowest mark. The highest mark and most praise went to Prepare.co.nz, based in Morrinsville. It offers a three-day survival pack for $205, containing items such as torch, batteries, ration bars, water purification tablets, dust masks, whistle, and playing cards. I phoned company director Jo Schumacher. It didn't go well. She slammed down the receiver after I asked her about her own prepping.
She said, "I have a light survival kit. Plenty of back-up food. Water. Gas cookers. Yep. All sorts."
I asked, "Would you settle in at home, or run for it?"
She said, "My personal thoughts doesn't matter. I just sell things. But it depends. You make your decision when it happens."
I said, "But isn't the point of your business to be prepared?"
"You've asked enough questions! I've actually got to go," she said, and hung up.
Things were a lot different when I called Glenn Thomas of Emergency Food NZ ("Long life freeze dried & dehydrated emergency food solutions") in Auckland. Glenn was very friendly, very... loquacious. He was an enthusiastic prepper, approached it with zest, and had developed a compact philosophy about it.
He said, "I'm definitely way more prepared than the average person I know. I have actively thought about it. Prepping comes with all sorts of connotations, and people who do it get laughed at, but the point of it is really just being self-sufficient and not relying upon the kindness of strangers or the government to be there for you. It gives you some peace of mind. It's an insurance.
"So for sure, I've definitely spent time thinking about it. I've sat down with my wife and our daughter, we've sat down as a family, and we've talked about it. We've planned, and prepared, and sorted out where we will meet and where we will go - but I'm not obsessed to the point where it controls my life."
He said a lot more about all sorts of things. One of the things that scares me most about a disaster is the need to form some sort of bond or community with the survivors; what if I was thrown together with Joanne, and nice Glenn who wouldn't stop talking? How would that work? How would any of it work, after a missile attack or some other annihilation?
Novelists and film-makers continue to be fascinated with imagining the various shapes, dynamics, and disorders of a post-apocalyptic society; they usually run along garish lines – slave colonies, military zones, zombies wandering the mall – but Eleanor Catton offers a twist in her upcoming novel Birnam Wood, her eagerly awaited follow-up to The Luminaries. It imagines a pre-apocalyptic society.
Set in New Zealand, in the immediate future, it's described as a psychological thriller. Leftists roam the countryside, tilling the earth; billionaires stockpile an arsenal in anticipation of a global catastrophe. According to advance publicity, the book "questions how far each of us would go to ensure our own survival". Prep lit. I'll be wanting to read that.
Red Cross national disaster management officer Andrew McKie of Wellington has another role – he's the kind of de facto go-to guy for media wanting to talk to a prepper. He makes prepping sound simple and achievable, not at all daunting, more like a habit, something that might come in handy.
He preps for the home: he has a 250L rainwater tank, fully stocked pantry, about $500 in coins (in a power outage, ATMs will go down) in a piggybank shaped like a turtle. "Oh and duct tape. Lots of duct tape." He preps for the car: first-aid kit, blanket, torch, eight-pack of bottled water, torches. "Oh and a fire extinguisher in the glovebox." He preps for the morning train commute from his home in Tawa to downtown Wellington: a backpack containing two bottles of water, food in Tupperware containers, a headlamp. "Oh and a pair of heavy duty gloves in case there's debris."
The gloves, the headlamp, the rolls of duct tape – McKie's stockpile had an ulterior motive that went beyond saving his own skin. He was equipped to offer help. Even his voice was calming. I asked him to imagine the scenes of extreme panic in Hawaii during January's false nuclear-attack alarm, and he said, "I saw on the TV news people opening a manhole, and putting their children into storm drains."
I asked, "Is that ideal?"
He said, "Not really."
I asked, "What about the people who drove to motorway tunnels, and parked there for protection - is that a good idea?"
He said, "I wouldn't recommend it if there was like a tsunami alert. Most of the people killed in Japan [at the 2011 tsunami] died in cars, where it would have been easier to walk to a high point. Cars were nose to tail, and stopped. They were just swept away by the water."
McKie was describing an end of the world for the more than 15,000 people killed in the tsunami. It was all very well to mooch around shop aisles in Henderson, buying Palmolive lime and mint anti-bacterial handwash in the event of an emergency; an actual emergency is fast, out of nowhere, overpowering.
I called my friend Dr Jarrod Gilbert, not in his professional role in the sociology department at the University of Canterbury, but as a volunteer fireman who was engaged in rescue operations at the Christchurch earthquake. He, too, described an end of the world: he worked through the night with a rescue and recovery crew at the CTV building, which collapsed and killed 115 people.
Jarrod said, "CTV at that time looked about as close to the apocalypse as I can imagine. It was smokey. It was dirty. And most of all, it was an unknown, because I hadn't seen any media to that point, and you didn't really know if the whole of Christchurch was like that. It just so happens I was dealing with the worst of it. But I couldn't be sure if that was just the norm.
"We'd heard whispers from other firefighters that other buildings had come down. There was a lot of confusion. Enormous amounts of confusion. You were just doing it blindly."
I asked, "What were you doing?"
He said, "It was just – it was just trying to – well, you just pulled out bodies. They were all recognisable. They weren't particularly damaged. They were all young. All Asian. All female, actually. It was an English language school. The third body we pulled out – I'll absolutely never forget this - she had a takeaway coffee cup clasped in her hand. It was this completely outrageous situation but here was this everyday thing - a coffee cup. An everyday thing mixed with this scene from hell."
And then he said, "I hate that story, man. That's a haunting story. Having said that, it's not one that I dwell on. I mean, during the memorial days and stuff, I don't read the papers, I don't watch the TV news. I'm pleased and heartened that people remember it because a lot of people died. But for me, I'd rather forget it. I don't want a bar of it. It was a terrible time. A horrible time."
Then he told another story, about going to another firefighter's house three days after the earthquake. The mate's swimming pool was bust. They took soap and a couple of beers, had a bath in the pool, and sat at poolside in deckchairs. "We lounged around and if you squinted your eyes you couldn't see any destruction and it felt like you were on holiday. It was the first time in three days you could breathe. The first time you could feel clean, the first time you could relax. It was the most glorious half an hour of my life probably."
He was describing a scene after an apocalypse: things busted and broken, a rare and special moment of grace. But it frightened me more than his story of pulling out a body from the rubble. It put me in a place where the worst was over, where it was too late to buy more supplies. Rubble, smoke, silence, darkness: had I done enough to protect my family, or had I failed them?