Preppers – people who believe a disaster or emergency is likely to happen in the near future and actively prepare for it – have long been caricatured in the media. Pictured wearing head-to-toe camouflage gear, armed with weapons (always, inexplicably, crossbows) and crawling around in the woods, they have been portrayed as the Doomsday endgame of all our private end-of-the-world anxieties.
For the last year, stories about stockpiling have made mainstream headlines. Whether that’s the NHS amassing medicines that we might not be able to access readily in the event of a no-deal Brexit, or individuals leaving Sainsbury’s with trolleys full of tinned food.
Slowly, what would have seemed like scaremongering Project Fear hyperbole in the run-up to 2016’s EU referendum started to seem remarkably reasonable, everyday – even practical. Which perhaps says more about the state of our politics than whether prepping is something we should all consider.
Official Whitehall documents were leaked, detailing concerns about the effects of no deal on our supply chains. And then Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May as prime minister. Our nation’s catchphrase went from “Brexit means Brexit” to “Let’s get Brexit done” but we remained bogged down in political uncertainty.
Polls found that a quarter of people were bulk-buying household items – in particular tinned and dried foods like rice and pasta – and more than 10,000 people joined an anti-Brexit Facebook group called 48% Preppers.
Forty-four-year-old Dr Sarita Robinson is a principal lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire’s School of Psychology. She specialises in psychobiology and looks at how our brains and bodies respond to external threats in survival situations. She’s a survivalist herself but resists the clichés.
Sarita is at once matter of fact about the need to plan ahead, keeping in mind that the worst-case scenario is never impossible, and resistant to hyperbole.
“I think people have the ability to think that the time they’re living in is terrible regardless of when they are living,” she explains. “You think back to the early 20th century – you’d have the end of the Great War or the Spanish Flu pandemic. I can’t imagine what it was like to be living through those two huge events when vast swathes of the population were just dying. And then we had the 1930s and the Great Depression so, if you look back through history, we’ve actually had it pretty good for a long time.”
Recent history, she says, has been almost too good to us. Particularly in the West. So, if anything, our fascination with people who prep is testament to how comfortable life has become. “I think people get used to things rolling along quite nicely very quickly,” she says, “so natural disasters and political upheaval almost catch us by surprise now.”
Sarita has a “go bag” under the stairs in her home. It’s full of essentials like a first aid kit, easy-to-prepare food like couscous and a pop-up emergency shelter made from foil and plastic.
“There’s also some teabags, a little stove and a tiny kettle,” she jokes. “You’ve got to be able to make a cup of tea! Oh, and not forgetting my Kendal mint cake!”
Sarita also has a five-day supply of food and bottled water in the house, just in case there is a breakdown in supplies.
“People go, ‘Oooh you’re a prepper’,” Sarita laments, “but I’m only doing what we all do really. How many parents who have taken their kids out for a Sunday stroll also have a go bag? They just call it a nappy bag – it’s got a change of clothes in it, some water and some food. It’s about having the essentials in case there’s an emergency.”
In total, Sarita thinks she has spent around £200 on her supplies. “It’s cost-effective, it’s not intrusive. It’s hidden under the stairs. If people think it’s weird, I’d say it didn’t cost me that much in terms of time and money and I know it’s there and ready if there is ever an emergency.”
Sarita completely rejects the idea that there’s anything wrong with preparing for the unexpected or, indeed, that prepping is anything new.
If you think about it, she says, “humans have always prepped. If you go back to prehistoric times, we would store nuts for the winter. Our grandparents lived through world wars – they would have had stores of wood and supplies of food. So it’s almost like we got a bit lazy – especially in the West – because life did become more convenient and relatively easy.”
In my lifetime, in Britain, I have never once questioned whether fresh, clean drinking water will come out of the taps in my home so I can top up my refillable eco-friendly bottle. It’s so easy to take for granted something which, when you put it in context, is a relatively new historical phenomenon.
When I reflect on how easy my life has been, Sarita says: “This has happened within one or two generations. And so now there’s a slow realisation [because of all the turmoil of recent years] that taking things for granted might not be the best idea. But suddenly we call it prepping, when it’s actually just what we’ve always done.”
Much has been said about this. In many ways, the 1990s provided some respite from history in that it was a relatively peaceful and prosperous decade which came after the Cold War and just before the so-called War on Terror. A documentary has even been made about the decade for Radio 4, called The ’90s: A Holiday From History.
“The last 30 or 40 years have really been atypical,” Sarita adds. Embarking recently on a coastal survival course to test her own skills, she was forced to confront what life would be like without fresh water.
“It was a really dry time of year,” she recalls. “It was astonishing for me how quickly I became dehydrated. I genuinely thought, Oh, I’ll be able to manage, it’s not too much of an issue – but 36 hours later, finding water was my top priority because I was feeling the physiological effects of not having enough to drink.”
“I think we’re very complacent in the UK,” she says, “just thinking we can turn on the tap and there will always be water.”
For Sarita, prepping isn’t about allowing climate anxiety or fear of political unrest to take over. Nor is it about allowing external events to govern our every move. It’s simply about thinking ahead, just in case.
“My philosophy is that everybody should be preparing,” she says. “But you don’t want it to start interfering with your life. It should be fairly low cost and unintrusive. Otherwise you’re going to spend all your time in a bunker and not enjoy life.”
Ultimately, for Sarita, prepping is about peace of mind. “It falls under something we term ‘active coping’ in psychology,” she explains. “People with active coping styles tend to manage well in the face of trauma – you’ve seen that there is a risk, you’ve worked to ameliorate that risk and you feel better afterwards. That said, denial is also a coping mechanism because you can just go into denial and it’s a very safe place to be but, if things do go wrong, it’s not very much help.”
Sarita has made me question my own complacency. Would I be ready if there were any sort of disaster, whether natural or Brexit-induced? The short answer is no, not at all.
And while I’m reluctant to endorse the extreme end-of-days thinking of some preppers who opt out of society in favour of living in closed-off communities, there’s something to be said for Sarita’s approach to how we relate to the world around us – at the very least, not taking it for granted.
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