Happy National Preparedness Month! Though, as we take a good look around the world, you probably should have been checking your preps during last year's observance—or, honestly, maybe around 2019. After all, it's all about preparedness and not catching up with ongoing crises. But we do what we can with the situation we have. Around the world, in conditions that often seem inspired by apocalyptic novels, people from Stockholm to Shanghai are preparing for hard—or harder—times.
"National Preparedness Month is an observance each September to raise awareness about the importance of preparing for disasters and emergencies that could happen at any time," notes the U.S. government's Ready.gov. This year's theme is "a lasting legacy," with a TV ad featuring a family finding photos of grandma taken "after that flood wiped out the whole neighborhood." They agree to plan for disasters so their property can be passed to the next generation. For a government message, it's remarkably sensible and focused on personal responsibility with no bigger role for the state than to offer helpful hints. Then again, after several years of pandemic, shortages, war, inflation, and an energy crunch, you would hope they'd have accepted the important role played by self-reliance.
"When we started the post-apocalyptic and doomsday prepping beliefs project, we thought that holding these hypothetical beliefs might be important for understanding some general everyday behaviors," Adam Fetterman, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, wrote in April 2021 of his pre-pandemic research on preppers. "We did not think that they would be applicable to actual events. Then came 2020. Since we published our work in 2019 we have seen a global pandemic, mass protests for racial justice, a record-setting hurricane season, the storming of the US capitol, and a record-setting freeze in Texas that left millions without electricity or water for days, to name a few."
Fetterman, who began with the belief that preppers are irrational, grudgingly conceded that events have proven them "sort of" right and that "it is probably a good idea to be prepared to some extent." He was actually a little late to the game; by then, outlets from the BBC to The New York Times had conceded that those who had made preparations for social disruptions had a distinct advantage over those who assumed that good times would go on forever.
That was all before soaring inflation, war, and the weaponization of energy supplies. People everywhere have ample reason to see that the growing prosperity of recent decades wasn't inevitable. Yes, "prepping" for difficulties is something of a First World luxury—for much of the world it has always been part of daily life. But as the world becomes—temporarily, we hope—a bit more chaotic, we all rediscover that good times can be disrupted by disease, natural disasters and, especially, really terrible political decisions that diminish freedom, disrupt economies, upset trade, and create widespread hardship. In many places, that's meant big adjustments to an unpredictable world.
"In Sweden, interest in prepping is at an all-time high," Deutsche Welle reported in July. "Across all social strata, people are carefully stocking tins, training survival skills, and even learning how to shoot."
The precipitating factor for Swedes is Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But they have plenty of other things to keep them up at night, such as soaring energy costs. That's a major concern for Europeans, especially since Russia cut the flow of natural gas in retaliation for economic sanctions over the war. That leaves countries that hobbled their own energy-production abilities scrambling to make up the difference.
"Europe is struggling to contain an energy crisis that could lead to rolling blackouts, shuttered factories and a deep recession," according to PBS. That may mean no heat for many, while others are cleaning out neglected fireplaces and installing wood-burning stoves.
"From Italy to the U.K., governments are racing to replace natural gas supplies from Russia and curtail the higher costs for industry and households. But consumers, too, are having to adapt, from cutting back on showering to firing up the chimney," notes Quartz. "The lion's share of firewood used in Germany—80% according to the association—is typically sourced domestically. Now German firewood suppliers are buying from Poland, leaving some residents in both countries to collect brushwood. "
Others are purchasing portable heaters, warm clothes, and electric blankets that might or might not do them any good, depending on the state of the power grid.
Across the planet, in China, concerns are focused on the government's draconian COVID-19 policies. Time and again, millions of people have been confined in their homes with minimal access to food and medical care. This week, authorities in Guiyang apologized after a snap lockdown left many residents stuck at home with nothing to eat. But they keep doing it and that leaves people to fend for themselves.
"Zxy lives with her husband in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. Seeing Shanghai (which is only 270km away from Nanjing) under lockdown for months prompted her to stockpile necessities in the event of an emergency," That's magazine observed last month. "The Shanghai lockdown has spurred the circulation of various versions of 'hoarding lists' or survival guides on Chinese social media platforms."
Not every crisis for which people prepare is the result of terrible decisions by powerful people. Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, was an important reminder to many of the fragility of supply chains and power grids; the more recent big freeze in Texas was another. Weather will always be unpredictable. But it is worth noting that the lockdowns, wars, shuttered nuclear power plants, and economic disruptions that have plagued life in recent years were the avoidable results of bad government decisions. So, there's a certain irony in observing a National Preparedness Month created by a government agency. But, if the powers that be are determined to remind us that we should rely on ourselves in tough times, it's worth taking them at their word, and people seem to be listening.
"Extreme preparedness is logical, not common, but logical," U.S. Army preparedness expert Christopher Ellis wrote in his 2021 Cornell doctoral dissertation. "I find a minimum of 11.4 million people in America in 2018 professed at least 31 days of preparedness; a number far more extensive than previous estimates."
Others around the world have obviously also seen the logic of preparing for bad times, however those times are created. It would be nice to get back to the recent normalcy of reliable power, abundant food, and spreading prosperity. But long after National Preparedness Month ends, a little readiness will remain a good hedge against the surprises the world just seems to keep throwing our way.