2012, December 21: Apocalypse how?

By Rebecca Davis 23 December 2012

If the Mayans were right, we hope you appreciate the fact that most of the Daily Maverick team spent their last week on Earth in a swelteringly hot tent in Mangaung. The Ancient Mayans reportedly said the world will end on 21 December 2012. Scoff all you like, but a Reuters poll suggests at least one in 10 people is feeling slight anxiety today. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way. Yes, the Mayans apparently didn’t actually predict that the world would end on 21/12/12. Instead, we’re just entering a new 400-year cycle, or something. Apparently there’s a Mayan site in Mexico which features an inscription describing an event which takes place in the year 4722, so we should be safe for a while. And as every comedian on the block has pointed out, if the Mayans were so damn good at predicting stuff, how come there aren’t any of them around?

But the point is, the date of 21/12/12 has become, to quote the BBC, “the most widely-disseminated doomsday tale in human history, thanks to the Internet, Hollywood and an ever-eager press corps.” In Russia, the minister of emergency situations (daunting job title, that) reportedly had to issue an official denial that the world would be ending. In China, almost 1,000 people were arrested on Thursday for spreading rumours that the world would end the following day. 

In southern France, authorities have had to bar access to the Pic de Bugarach mountain, because it is believed by some to be the one area on Earth where you stand a shot of surviving the apocalypse. That’s because the mountain has magical powers, and UFOs will arrive on the top of it to sweep lucky locals off to safety. (If you’re thinking that in that case, it seems churlish of the authorities to bar access to the mountain – a special parliamentary committee warned that it might be a location for mass suicides.)

If we agree to pretend that the Mayans were right, though, there are two types of people who would probably have a chuckle as the apocalypse arrived on 21/12/12. The first is Kgalema Motlanthe. The second are “preppers”: members of the survivalist movement who are prepared for the breakdown of society at any point. If that word rings a recent bell, it may be because the mother of Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza was reported to have been a prepper. Nancy Lanza’s sister-in-law told the Chicago Sun-Times: “Last time we visited her in person, we talked about prepping – are you ready for what could happen down the line, when the economy collapses?”

Nancy Lanza owned five guns. Adam Lanza used three of them to carry out his deadly attack. Five guns is actually fairly modest for hardcore American preppers, who consider being armed to the teeth an essential criterion for survival after social collapse. Prepper James Rawles, the author of How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It, describes his personal gun collection on his blog: “Our home armoury consists of twelve gauge pump shotguns, identical service rifles and forty calibre semiautomatic pistols”. 

Preppers need arms because they foresee a situation in which humans turn on each other in competition for scarce resources. Their vision of what exactly the apocalypse will look like doesn’t get much more detailed than that, though. To quote the website of the American Preppers Network, “Preppers are ‘Ready for Anything’. The Prepper philosophy dictates that you prepare for anything that might come your way.” This makes preppers ideally poised to make it through whatever calamity the Mayans had in mind, because the Mayans, too, did not specify exactly what form it would take. 

“It” is what in prepper circles is known as TEOTWAWKI, a special acronym pronounced “Tee-ought-walk-ee” which stands for The End Of The World As We Know It. Others call it The Great Collapse, and some term it SHTF – Shit Hits The Fan. The name isn’t important; what matters is your readiness to withstand it. If you spend a few hours trawling through prepper website, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that you are terribly badly equipped to face TEOTWAWKI. How long could you survive on the food you have in your house right now? A few days? A few weeks, maybe? Not good enough. Ideally, you need enough food for a minimum of six months; preferably enough for a year. 

Most prepper end-of-days scenarios involve a massive power outage, so you’ll also need to start making preparations for living off the grid. On James Rawles’s blog, he provides a host of practical tips to would-be preppers, including lengthy instructions on how to deliver a baby. (Let’s hope you have either committed them to memory or printed them out when the crunch comes, since there’ll be no web-surfing for you.) Rawles also suggests the use of instant mashed potatoes to stem a bleeding wound, and advises using clay pots to make a rudimentary fridge.

Rawles became a prepper thanks to his experiences working in law enforcement. “I always had a ‘storm kit’ ready as I lived in an area that is prone to summer tornadoes and severe winter storms,” he writes. “But after working a security and anti-looting detail in a city of 35,000 people that had been devastated by a tornado, I rethought my preparations and increased the food, water and medical supplies that it contained. I saw first hand that rescue, recovery and a return to normalcy takes time. In addition, after 9/11, we were required by our agency to keep water and emergency rations in our patrol vehicles.” 

The 9/11 attack is credited with being one of the major triggers turning Americans towards prepper-dom. Nonetheless, there’s a broad prepper streak running through American history: the same qualities that make good pioneers – self-sufficiency, resilience – are those which go into the makeup of a prepper, just with the volume turned up a whole lot. During the Cold War, the federal government built a massive underground bunker to protect all members of the US Congress and their aides in the event of nuclear war. It was a prepper’s wet dream: carved into the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, it was equipped with 75,000 gallons of water, an electricity system and medical and food supplies.

But regular people have bunkers built too. There’s a US company that specialises in them – Deep Earth Bunkers. “Most of the bunkers we do are almost like a house,” a builder tells the camera in a TV clip on the company’s website. Occasionally, people want more simple bunkers, suitable for only short-term emergency living. These would house little more than a generator, retractable bunk-beds, and storage space for food and water. Others ask for a “tactical bunker”. That’s one that can “defend itself against predators”, CEO Scott Bales is filmed explaining. Most importantly, they must be able to withstand any external heat or pressure. 

It isn’t known exactly how many preppers there are in America, but a National Geographic Channel poll undertaken in September of this year showed that 28% of Americans knew one. Preppers aren’t limited to America, however. There is also a South African prepper movement, one of the members of which has gone to the trouble of drawing up a detailed list explaining where you can bulk-buy dried legumes and ammunition for Doomsday. If anyone asks you directly why you are bulk-buying dried legumes and ammunition, the author advises you to say you need them for “camping/off-road trips, farm security or one of [your] own businesses”. 

The Daily Maverick tracked down a South African prepper, who would only be identified by his first name, Giles. Giles runs a website called the SA Preppers Forum. Communicating via email, Giles made it clear that he did not buy the Mayan prophecy for 21/12/12. “I don’t believe for one second that the world is about to end,” Giles wrote. “That’s for some time in the murky future. I do, however, feel that life as we know it is about to go through some very heavy change. Absolutely everything seems to be coming to a head at the moment. Everything that I look at is in crisis, from fossil fuels to pollution and global warming to world economies, with a whole lot of stuff in between.”

Giles believes that we are heading for a “system breakdown”, with the first tremors already being felt in the global economy. When asked what preparations he had carried out, he replied: “Not enough, I’m afraid. But, in anticipation of a breakdown, I feel it is vitally important to have a source of potable water and means to obtaining fresh food available. This will probably mean distilling water and growing veggies. I’m working at both. If the system breaks it will not help to go to Checkers for your food.” He fervently hopes that others will take similar precautions.

“I wish they would listen,” Giles wrote. “But there are too many people. The only way that a few people can survive is if our numbers are greatly reduced. Sorry if that seems callous. But it’s true.”

If you believed that a total social collapse was imminent, wouldn’t that cause you to act more recklessly; to take more chances? The opposite, says Giles. “If anything it has caused me to act less recklessly. I want myself and my children to survive. I feel I need to tackle this situation in a cool, calculated way. The future holds many perils.”

Of course, if the Mayans were right, it’s too late for you to start making any preparations at all. Then again, if the Mayans were right, you likely won’t be reading this anyway. In that case, thanks and goodbye. DM

Read more:

Photo: A figurine of Itzamana (C), the creator of writing, knowledge and the Mayan calendar, is seen as part of the archaeological exhibition “Society and Maya’s Time” at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido 


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