Last year, on assignment for Outside magazine, I headed down to South Carolina to hang out with a bunch of neo-survivalists who call themselves “preppers.” These preppers were basically ordinary suburban Americans who were obsessed with the prospect of civilization-annihilating disaster, anything from an economic collapse to a nuclear attack to a super-flu. So they “prep” – stockpile food, grow their own vegetables, learn first aid, install wells and wood-powered generators (they also tend to stockpile guns. Lots of guns. Frightening amounts of guns). The story is here, if you’re interested.

What fascinated me was how the preppers, who are largely (though not entirely) a right-wing bunch, have much in common with today’s crunchy neo-homesteaders. They’re both interested in self-sufficiency, both skeptical of government and institutions, and both worried about potential disasters (crunchy urban homesteader types tend to worry about global warming, etc, rather than nuclear war.). Though their ideologies are very different, their interests are the same – off-grid living, raising chickens, canning, learning old-fashioned homesteading skills.

I just got back from a trip to see my husband’s family in Salt Lake City, where we spent part of the time staying with my husband’s oldest brother and his wife and three kids and…their chickens, ducks and quail. Like so many people these days, my brother-in-law and his wife are urban farmers, raising their animals in the small backyard of their hip Salt Lake neighborhood. Several of my neighbors here in Chapel Hill are chicken-keepers as well (there are even a pair of urban goats wandering around!), as are many of the people I interviewed for the book. Most of the neo-homesteaders I interviewed were worried about health, food safety and climate change, and also got deep satisfaction out of living closer to the land.

There is also, I think, an element of wish-fulfillment in prepping and homesteading. As I point out in the end of the Outside article, there’s something primally appealing about being self-sufficient, free (or free-er, at least) from the constraints of civilization. Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Little House on the Prairie

Researching the Outside article made me realize that, cut off from grocery stores and municipal water supplies, I’d last about a week, subsisting on expired cans of tuna and tubs of chocolate-covered almonds. But I have a hard time thinking that “prepping” is a worthwhile use of time, and the ideology of self-sufficiency – whether it’s liberal or Tea Party conservative – strikes me as the wrong way of looking at things. If something’s broken or close to breaking, I’d rather see people put their energy into fixing it together, rather than adopting an “every man for himself” attitude.

From a foodie perspective, I would love to have my own chickens. And a huge garden. And a milking goat. If only someone else would take care of it all…

Thoughts? Any preppers/neo-homesteaders/aspiring off-griders out there?

About the Author

Emily Matchar

Emily Matchar is the author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.

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