We’ve talked some on our blog about how, actually, prepping is not a new concept. If you think about it, over the course of human history, preparing for potential times of disaster or famine has been normal and even necessary. It’s only been in the last few decades that preppers have taken on a reputation of being paranoid or overly concerned about the future.
So what changed? How did we go from sustainable homegrown produce and livestock to self-checkout aisles and takeout food? Why did March 2020 catch us so off-guard and cause empty shelves of toilet paper and pasta at the grocery stores?
Lessons on the Importance of Preparedness
If we look at the last few periods in American history, it becomes pretty evident how the shift happened. There was certainly a shift when people started congregating in cities during the Industrial Revolution, and as agriculture began taking a backseat to industry, people started to rely on shops and shipping for their needs. However, this only begins to tell the story of how preppers shifted from the majority of the population to the minority.
The Great Depression taught people a hard lesson in relying on supply chains for their necessities. The Greatest Generation was shaped by the uncertainty of a crashed economy in their youth, and for that reason, gained a reputation for frugality and preparedness throughout the rest of their lives. Grandchildren of this generation shook their heads as adults at their grandparents’ habit of eating stale bread or living on cheap bulk foods like beans for dinner and oatmeal for breakfast. This generation’s unique experience of living through an economic depression and then World War II presented them with the stark reality that no one but you is responsible for your survival.
The next few eras in American history would continue to shape people’s mindsets when it came to personal responsibility for preparedness. People began to adjust to rationing during World War II, understanding that scarcity required strategy, and that feeding their families required some planning ahead and creativity. When Americans watched the London Blitz of 1940-1941, they saw the reality of the unpredictability of war, and the result was Roosevelt’s formation of the Office of Civilian Defense. This was created with the purpose of helping Americans prepare for war, and did so by educating and equipping local communities with preparedness resources. Thus preparedness kits were introduced, which were quite rudimentary, often a fireproof barrel with blankets, water, and crackers inside. The important thing is, disaster preparedness was touted as normal and important, with local communities prepared to resource one another in case of disaster. (Source)
On the heels of World War II, the Cold War took preparedness to another level with bomb drills, shelters, and prepped supplies. A 1961 episode of the classic series, “The Twilight Zone,” entitled, “The Shelter,” displays a family with a fallout shelter full of supplies who staves off their unprepared neighbors during threat of foreign invasion. We can’t be too quick to write this cautionary tale off as fantasy – the reality is, it’s a picture of the time. Some people took the possibility of war and nuclear attack seriously and prepared for the safety of their families. Others didn’t see the need to do so. The Cold War reached a climax in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which again proved to people the importance of being ready for a disaster beyond their control to strike.
FEMA Will Take Care of Us… Or Will It?
Preparedness took another hit in 1979 when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was formed under President Jimmy Carter. As the country healed from the barrage of threats of the previous decades, the country was looking for a way to centralize support for Americans experiencing natural disasters or large-scale emergencies that overwhelmed local relief agencies. With the founding of FEMA, disaster preparedness shifted from the responsibility of the individual to the responsibility of the federal government.
While FEMA became a valuable resource, they continue to recommend that all Americans prepare to be self-sufficient for at least three days. FEMA has recently incurred criticism repeatedly after disasters because they can’t arrive immediately, and supplies are often in short order. Observing these situations caused some to see the importance of taking preparedness into one’s own hands. Yet according to a 2015 FEMA report, although 80% of Americans live in counties that have experienced a disaster, around 60% of Americans have no emergency plan in place. (Source)
The Current State
If one were to make a timeline of prepping in America, 2020 would certainly command a prominent place. FEMA’s 2021 disaster preparedness survey reports that 2020 brought a 6% increase in people preparing for the unexpected (now up to 68%), with 81% of respondents reporting to have gathered supplies, 65% having sought preparedness information, and 48% have created an emergency plan (Source). More people have also reported preparing financially for disaster.
This may not reflect the number of people who would identify as “preppers”, nor represent people who are taking the level of action that the prepper community would expect a “prepper” to take. But the good news is that more people are accepting personal responsibility for their own disaster preparedness, and there’s a renewed interest and respect for those who take preparedness and self-sustainability seriously.
Prepping has lost much of its stigma following the lockdowns and quarantines that COVID-19 brought with it. People who mocked preppers before surely felt the panic of seeing empty shelves where toilet paper, pasta, rice, and canned goods had been just days before. The breakdown of the supply chain and the panic of wondering when goods would be restocked had many people understanding, potentially for the first time, the peace of mind that comes with being ready for anything.
One thing has rung true throughout history – prepping is not solely for the wealthy, the paranoid, or the overly cautious. Being ready for anything, and taking responsibility for the survival of yourself and your family is simply, as it has always been, the smart thing to do.