Back in the mid-2000s, when it seemed that the world was still getting incrementally better, one of my favourite things to do was to watch documentaries about and read about crazy survivalists in America.
You know what I mean - picture an underground bunker made of thick concrete, and packed full of tinned food and guns, ready for the invariably eccentric owner to spend months in after a great cataclysm, as the world outside turns back to a Hobbesian state of nature.
Often, their predictions of doom would be linked to some sort of Millenarian cult that has used numerology to make grand and misleading predictions about the future.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, as we hurtle towards a “no deal” Brexit, these charlatans don’t seem quite as funny anymore. The only difference is that this time is that the self-styled prophets didn’t conduct numerology on the Bible - instead they did it on the side of a big red bus.
And this made me wonder - given that the cataclysm could be imminent, are individuals and families preparing? We’re increasingly hearing about how businesses are activating emergency Brexit plans, but what are people doing in their homes? Has Brexit caused Britain to have its own group of survivalists planning for the worst?
It turns out that, quietly, some people are getting ready.
Keep Calm And Carry On
“I mentioned it to my partner and she reckons I am being silly”, says Michael, “so I have quietly stored a few things in the garage”.
Michael is 36 and lives in Hampshire with his partner and three children. He wished to remain anonymous, so this is not his real name. He tells me that he has already stockpiled tinned mixed vegetables, carrots, sweetcorn, beans, tomatoes - as well as tinned beef, chicken and pies. He also has powdered milk and cereal. This, he thinks, should be enough to feed his family for a week - and he intends to add more over the coming months.
He hasn’t just been stockpiling food - he also has camping lights and batteries ready to go, just in case. “I plan to build a solar panel power unit that can charge a car battery. This can then charge camping batteries and phones”, he tells me.
So why is he preparing? “I have a business and employ three people. So I am not silly or given to panic”, he explains. He tells me that he doesn’t think that society will collapse - but he thinks there may be a three or four-week period where supplies are limited.
“I see [empty shelves in] Lidl on the Wednesday before their delivery on a Thursday or any supermarket at Christmas and it seems to me that all our food is delivered just-in-time. It wouldn’t take a lot for all that to be disrupted. Remember the heavy snow last year or earlier this year? Things grounded to a halt.”
“I can see how hard it will be to get supplies from our EU suppliers so am applying the same logistics issues to the food supply chain.”
“And then when it all turns out to be fine and I worried over nothing, I will quietly give it to a local food bank and keep my mouth shut about it.”
Duck And Cover
Nevine Mann, is similar to Michael. She lives in Cornwall with her husband and children, and has already made some significant preparations.
“The idea of not being able to feed, medicate and generally care for my family is a scarily real threat. We realised that there were things we could do relatively easily to buffer ourselves to some extent. So we started low key stockpiling of long term produce”, she says.
“We buy an extra bag of pasta, couscous, rice and bulgur wheat with every big grocery shop”, she explains, adding that she also buys various extra tinned foods - as well as a packet of paracetamol, ibuprofen and children’s paracetamol each fortnight.
This, however is only the beginning of Nevine’s preparations. She has recently moved into a new house and is busy turning it into somewhere where her family can live self-sustainably. She has three vegetable patches in her garden and a large water butt that can collect rainwater, which she says is the size of a medium-sized oil tank. She also has water filter bottles ready to use, and stockpiled bars of soap and bicarbonate of soda.
When I spoke to her, she was in the midst of getting solar panels installed along with a “black out support system”, which would have battery storage added to the system.
And it isn’t just the home Nevine has been thinking about. She’s also prepared what she calls “bug out boxes” - essentially bags or boxes that can be grabbed quickly in the event of a fast evacuation, and which contain essential supplies.
“We're also planning on getting everyone cycle-ready to save on fuel if needed”, she says.
Expect The Unexpected
The “48% Preppers” group of Facebook was founded by Steve Smith, who is 47, lives in London and works in IT. It currently has just over 1,100 members.
“I've always thought that No Deal had been the plan since May's initial speeches in 2016, but never quite believed it enough to do something”, he says.
The final straw for him - and the incentive to create the group - came from following the author James Patrick on Twitter, who has produced a PDF pamphlet titled “Getting Ready Together”, based on a similar document sent by the Swedish government to all of its citizens to prepare them for war. Patrick’s pamphlet contains a combination of advice on what supplies one should have in their home in the event of an emergency, and a mixture of doom-mongering and polemic about the potential causes of such disasters.
Steve created the group in July.
“I got my first tranche of cans back then”, he says. “Since then I've collected quite a few more tins, a calor gas heater, a freezer, a tilley lamp, started moving some savings into other currencies, and a water butt.”
“I'm pretty tame compared to some that have been prepping for years. But then our group is not preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse. We're a pretty tame bunch”, he explains, pointing out that talking about weapons or overthrowing the government in the group is not allowed.
“The word I like to use for what we do in 48% Preppers is resilience. We are improving our resilience to various upsets. So if the water goes out in the street, and we need to use standpipes I'm covered. If there's a power cut, I've got torches - all fairly normal mini-disasters that occur regularly across the country.”
“So we are all trying to improve our resilience, which is probably something our generation has been very lacking in.”
“When people call the police when KFC runs out of Chicken, you know there's a resilience problem.”
Famously the Mayans thought that the world would come to an end on the 21st December 2012. It didn’t, and at the time we laughed. But now we have a similar date looming, and this time we know that something significant will definitely happen.
When the clock hits 11pm on the 29th March 2019, Britain will officially no longer be a member of the European Union. Without a deal, overnight we will lose access to markets, ports will grind to a standstill, and there’s a non-zero chance that planes might not be legally allowed to take off.
In reporting this piece, I’ve heard a number of other similar stories of people quietly preparing, such as one transman who is getting repeat prescriptions earlier so that they can stockpile testosterone gel in case supplies are interrupted. This isn’t the only story I’ve heard of people doing this with medicine. I was surprised to hear from friends of mine - people I actually know - who are also quietly buying extra tinned food, and keeping crates of bottled water in their basements.
The common thread seems to be that only a handful of people are willing to talk about what they are doing publicly. Presumably this is because nobody wants to be the first person to mention it, for fear of sounding paranoid. But given the bleak political outlook as we head into the last six months of Brexit’s phony war… perhaps we should start wondering if the preppers are on to something?
James O’Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.