‘Living in a bunker throughout some disaster would be an immense challenge … day after day, perhaps isolated with one or two people, would be an immense and psychological obstacle to overcome.’ – Dr Michael Mills
Amidst Russia’s war on Ukraine and a global pandemic continuing to spread; the looming nuclear war and the threats of climate change, all such news are building up to think about how people can protect themselves during world crisis. Individuals self-defense have shifted from the masks, vaccines and Covid isolation to bunkers, prepping for escape plans, looking for emergency fallout shelters and keeping anti-radiation tablets. The demand of bunkers in Europe and the sales in US are soaring as anxiety over Russia-Ukraine conflict continue on the rise.
But is prepping all so easy and is there a downside of being isolated in such bunkers and fallout shelters living entirely off the grid?
To learn more about the doomsday escape plans, how life in bunkers will look like and what behavioural, social and psychological impacts will be living underground, The Review of Religions Science team met with Dr Michael Mills, who is a Lecturer in Criminology in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at University of Kent. Michael is a member of the British Society of Criminology, European Society of Criminology, and the British Sociological Association. He is also on the Editorial Board for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology, and has peer-reviewed for several journals in Criminology, American Studies, Anthropology, Sociology and Geography.
Read on for the conversation between Dr Michael Mills and Musa Sattar, Deputy Editor of the Science and Religion Section for The Review of Religions. This interview has been condensed and edited for length.
Musa Sattar: Thank you very much, Michael for being with us and sparing us some of your valuable time.
Michael, I see that your current research interests centre on ‘doomsday’ prepping. Can you please tell us more about it?
Dr Michael Mills: Sure. I’ve been interested in doomsday prepping for around about a decade now. Sometimes more simply known as prepping or survivalism. What prepping essentially is, is a coordinated set of activities undertaken by individuals or small groups intending to prepare themselves to survive a major social collapse independently. Away from government support or away from the community support. I’ve particularly studied prepping in the context of the United States for the last decade. The research that I’ve been doing is about tracing people’s prepping journey over a number of years and seeing how that maps onto wider political changes as well. At the same time, the research I’ve done is also drawn on 2,500 survey responses conducted online with preppers across the US as well, just to give me a broader picture to contextualise the things that I hear face to face within that broader landscape. One of the things that a lot of preppers tend to believe is that very shortly after some sort of significant social disaster happens, if it happens, would be the breakdown of law and order. There’s even an acronym for this within prepper culture as abbreviation ‘WROL’, which stands for ‘without the rule of law.’ It is quite a common belief among many preppers that within three to five days of a disaster happening, what you’ll see is the breakdown of law and order, and therefore this is something that preppers need to be prepared for.
Musa Sattar: Just a week ago on March 14, 2022, Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres said that nuclear war is ‘back within the realm of possibility’, similarly, Ex-RAF chief warns the world could be only ‘a few steps’ from atomic weapons being used, so a daily dose of such news – feed a sense for a surge of doomsday bunkers. So, how do you envision a life in bunkers?
Dr Michael Mills: In prepping culture, ownership and preparation of bunkers is actually rarer than one might think. The stereotypical image of preppers is a bunker-owning, fairly obsessive individual. But in reality, my own surveys suggest, as I mentioned, that I have surveyed 2,500 preppers, suggest that only 5% own a bunker or a bunker-like shelter. When we talk about preppers-owning bunkers, that’s quite a small minority. And one of the things a lot of prepper say to me, in having thought about the implications of trying to survive like a nuclear winter or really prolonged disaster, is that they don’t think they’d be able to handle living in the bunker for very long. Based on their own self-assessment is more common for me to have heard from preppers the idea that they would rather get things over with. And if a bomb was landing near them they’d rather sit on the back porch perhaps with their romantic partner, raise a toast and that will be the end of it. Rather than entertaining the idea that they could endure through by psychologically surviving within a bunker context. That’s one thing to add. What that suggests is that among preppers, those who think about disaster more than the rest of us is a keen awareness that living in a bunker throughout some disaster would be an immense challenge. Particularly the monotony of it, day after day, perhaps isolated with one or two people, would be an immense and psychological obstacle to overcome. And of course, even within the Cold War context of the 1950s-60s, which is really when prepping got started in the USA. Most of the shelters being built then, were fallout-shelters. They weren’t intended for long-term survival, but rather to allow a suburban middle class nuclear family, pun intended. To survive a short-period before perhaps normal order could be restored by government leading recovery efforts. Of course, nuclear weapons are a lot more powerful now, and the quality of shelters that can be built have scaled up as well, but still, most preppers don’t own bunkers, and most I’ve spoken to even they acknowledge the challenges of living in a bunker environment. And from my perspective, as someone who doesn’t prep and who thinks about disaster, perhaps less than the prepper, I’m willing to take their word for it. And believe them that it would be immensely challenging.
Musa Sattar: It is said that in the USA bunkers have been made with state-of-the-art facilities, some of which range from 1.5 million to 4.5 million dollars to purchase. Wealthy people are buying these bunkers, in anticipation of a world war. But what benefit will they serve by just a handful of wealthy people surviving and the less well-off all perishing?
Dr Michael Mills: It’s sort of really interesting development. There are quite a lot of ‘elites’ people who we could say are interested in prepping. That includes CEO’s from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. They are not only investing in bunkers, but also investing in a remote land in New Zealand under the premise that they could fly there if something terrible would happen in the US or Europe or elsewhere. As you collectively observe a lot of bunkers that are for sale, there are a few complexes. In the US, those that have been widely reported on the media are very, very expensive. What this tends to suggest is in many ways the culture or state of prepping is a mirror image to present day inequalities or rather if we envision who might be able to survive some catastrophic events, perhaps it intensifies dynamics of inequality. What we can observe in society today, particularly economic inequality is access to having the means to survive. It’s possible. Who knows – hypothetical – but it’s possible that the main survivors of something truly catastrophic nuclear winter or war could be as elite class left with another famous preppers and the rest of us are left to perish, heaven forbid.
Musa Sattar: Your studies are more in US, right? Do you think these bunkers or these preppers exists in Europe or in other areas as well?
Dr Michael Mills: The history of it, very much is that, this has been a primarily American phenomenon. There are currently estimated to be millions of preppers in the US, upwards of three million, although those estimates are always somewhat vague and are unreliable. However, recently there has been an uptick of prepping in other national contexts as well. That includes the UK in particular where post-Brexit, there was a bubbling up of a more left-liberal centrist prepping movements, particularly among people who were concerned about the prospect of them no-deal Brexit and the economic upheaval that might bring. That inspired a smaller wave of, not necessarily extreme prepping, but preparation amongst people concerned with that. The COVID pandemic is almost inevitably going to have had some impact on prepping in the UK and elsewhere; having opened a lot of people’s eyes to potential problems with supply chains and the threat posed by pandemic diseases going forward. For instance, if a more deadly and infectious disease were to occur in the future, I think we all have some sort of an imagery of how that might play out and be extremely troubling. These things have developed and the war in Ukraine again is hardly unlikely to do any harm to the vitality of prepping culture in the UK or elsewhere. There are other countries where prepping has a bit of established history. Australia would probably be the largest one outside of the US. They do have in common that they’re colonial settler societies and it bound up in their national mythology is this idea of conquering the environment, living self-sufficiently in remote locations. Those shared histories likely have some impact on the ways that contemporary Americans and Australians think about self-reliance and kind of valorise it and celebrate it. Which plays into prepping culture to some degree.
Musa Sattar: Due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we are now seeing a looming possibility of nuclear war. But Michael, you mentioned that you have been doing this research for decades. I’m just curious, how do you think that this prepping culture came out?
Dr Michael Mills: In the context of the US. The story of prepping is intertwined with a longer history that goes back further than the term prepping has been used to describe it. It goes back to the Cold War building the fallout shelters. In the late 20th century, quite an extreme right-wing survivalist subculture gained momentum. A lot of survivors’ activity was premised on conspiracy theories about the United Nations, New World Orders, about the idea of race wars as well and there’s a lot of anti-government and white supremacist thinking imbued within it. Nevertheless, the financial crash of 2008, I think was a significant watershed moment for the growth of prepping. Something that, for various reasons, would have spooked a lot of people who have been involved in prepping since 2008. Also significant event and a few years prior to that Hurricane Katrina I think had these significant effect of undermining a lot of Americans faith that government disaster relief and emergency management efforts would be effective. One of the things about prepping, those important to understanding how it’s being sustained since then is that it’s not fundamentally in most cases about fear of one particular scenario. Rather the way of looking at disaster that most preppers subscribe to involves a broad anxiety about a very wide range of possible risks. Risks of economic collapse, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, even more mundane personal emergencies like job loss or the loss of a relative, as well as scenarios like nuclear war, nuclear accidents. Most preppers never bought into the idea that one particular scenario was going to happen, but rather they’ll embrace this precautionary way of looking at risk and then when events like the war in Ukraine do happen, that provides going further backing to this idea that anything can happen at any time, perhaps quite unexpectedly. And the general philosophy of preparation is therefore valuable, insensible.
Musa Sattar: Speaking about those privileged people who might have access to the advance bunkers and living isolated lives underground, how psychologically effected they’d be? Do you see any psychological issues currently among preppers that you speak to?
Dr Michael Mills: Perhaps, for those who are members of elites with bunkers, the idea of having bought this protection is something that alleviates a certain degree of fear or anxiety. The case for most preppers outside of those elites, perhaps, is more complex because becoming part of prepper culture and taking prepping seriously not only involves investing in means to protect oneself, both investing in buying things; but also investing in the time required to develop survival skills. And fundamentally, we might think about how that investment might allay anxiety or allay fear and bring a sense of existential peace that one can deal with most situations. At the same time, being a member of prepper culture means widening one’s eyes to a wide range of risks, and things that can happen that perhaps the general public at large don’t even think about or know about. There are quite a sort of niche prepping concerns about electromagnetic pulses which can be emitted from the sun virus, solar flare, and potentially knockout power grids in US, and other infrastructure here as well. Prep as well go in researching pandemic and diseases perhaps be aware of other strains and other developments that may be most of us don’t know about. For most preppers, there’s this strange dynamic of the preparation alleviates anxiety, perhaps, but also that the level of anxiety was being experienced as a result of being part of prepper culture and a part of the process of researching into different things that can happen. It might be more straightforward for someone like CEOs of large companies, who probably doesn’t research all these kinds of disasters or they know things can happen, and they’re probably very, very confident that they have the material resources to navigate whatever situation might be thrown up. Whereas, everyday preppers are more aware of their vulnerabilities and doing things to protect themselves or be it at the same time knowing that they could be in a precarious position should disaster transpire.
Musa Sattar: I was reading one of your papers and a very interesting point was highlighted that preppers keep their bunkers and their stuff hidden to avoid the risk of others trying to steal one’s supplies in a desperate post-disaster context. This draws a very grim situation of human nature. Could you please elaborate on this?
Dr Michael Mills: Yeah, it does reveal a certain view of human nature. Most preppers do keep their preparations secrets. The idea is that anonymity and safety are interdependent. There’s also another reason that preppers might keep their preparations secret, which is to avoid stigma. To avoid negative judgments from other people who might assume that preparation is indicative of mental illness of the pathology or some delusion. But yes, most preppers subscribe to a view. But the social order is relatively fragile that shortly after some disaster happens, violence is likely to break out. That embedded within their view. This is a view of social supply systems being very fragile as well. It’s a catchphrase that has some currency in prepping culture that ‘society is only 9 meals away from anarchy.‘ By which it is meant or assumed that most people only really have about three days’ food supply in their homes on average, and thereafter that food supply runs out. People will become increasingly desperate for food and will engage in desperate acts of violence to feed themselves and feed their families. At the root of it, this is one of the things that preppers really fear. It is not just the causes of a disaster itself, but it’s that aftermath, that society without rule of law that they experience. But the view of human nature is to assume the worst in people. It really reflects, I guess, what hundreds of years ago, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes talked about in his book, Leviathan, is the idea that without some overarching government institution, life would be nasty, brutish and short. As Hobbes put it, that is the view of human nature. And sometimes it is possible to suspect maybe that, that view is premised on how preppers understand they might act in those scenarios. What seems to be discounted, potentially overlooked is the notion that people might band together in cooperative efforts in those situations. There’s plenty of stories in the history of disaster people doing so. There is this book written by the journalist called Rebecca Solnit. The title of it is [A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster] and it’s a really interesting historical overview of things like the London Blitz, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, drawing forward, these kind of cooperative stories. These are somethings that the preppers do tend to overlook and tend to assume the worst in people. That is partly also reflective of preppers’ not natural tendency, but established tendency towards worst case scenario thinking. You assume disaster will happen even though you’re not necessarily sure is going to and consistently assume that people will behave in the worst way possible and then you can’t be negatively surprised by them behaving that way. And that’s the approach to ensuring their survival is planning. Hoping for the best, planning for the worst. As many preppers put it, and that involves assuming the worst about people.
Musa Sattar: The ongoing news about Russia-Ukraine war shows that civilians are staying underground in subways for days and weeks now. Which is very sad. But when food is not available to buy, basic utilities are interrupted, and many people may be dead or dying due to illnesses. Do you think a social collapse might trigger within those underground societies or there is still a possibility of enduring psychologically tolerable environment?
Dr Michael Mills: I choose to be more optimistic. And maybe it is a choice; a matter of belief. I think one of the most remarkable things about the Ukrainian situation so far is that idea of collective solidarity, particularly under Ukrainian national identity, the idea of people really sacrificing themselves. Particularly men, perhaps, for instance, in most instances removing themselves from their families to fight and resist the invasion. That doesn’t preclude the possibility of tensions rising of some sort of truly ugly situations which we might associate with novels like ‘Lord of the Flies’ and these human behaviours that we would all recognise. I’m sure everyone has a certain breaking point when it comes to those things. But, yeah, I choose to believe, perhaps without being able to prove or demonstrated that the patience and the tolerance, and endurance of people in Ukraine has some way to go yet, based on what’s being seen with tremendous acts of courage and collective unity so far. And of course, that extends also beyond the Ukraine. Things, supplies, materials being sent to help those in need. I guess perhaps typical prepping way to look at this situation might be to focus on the negative and might be to focus on the self-reliant individual and what they can do. Conversely, we can look at forms of international solidarity, enacted both by governments and citizens and see how they are helping to sustain people through generous acts of giving and relief as well.
Musa Sattar: What about children who might be with or without their families underground; what consequences do they have to face to survive? In your studies do you come across the fears of preppers’ children?
Dr Michael Mills: I’ve encountered amount of lot of family units that are engaged in prepping and there’s some variation between them. One thing that a lot of preppers do talk about, that I’ve met, is that providing for family members is a big part of their motivation for prepping. That perhaps if they were single or a younger age before they had children, they wouldn’t be as motivated to prepare as they had been at the time they took on parental responsibilities. So that’s part of it. And within prepping families, I’ve seen children react in different ways to their parents’ preparations. Some kind of over enthusiastic participants if prepping particularly aligns with other interests that they might have. If they’ve been – particularly in the US scout system – developing survival skills anyway, then prepping in many of its activities might be something they already feel competent in. At the same time, there are definitely children in the prepping community that don’t have much patience. So much time for preparation would much rather be doing other things. I have been present in sessions where we’ll be going through everyone’s emergency bag that’s kept in a prepping household, repacking it, making sure it has everything in it. And I’ve seen a lot of rolled eyes from teenagers. Teenagers that would rather be doing anything else with their weekends than that. But one thing that most preppers do try and pass it on to their children – it’s not necessarily always gratefully accepted – is at least the mind-set of being alive to different risks about having backup plans for X, Y & Z, whether it’s knowing how to get home from any location in more than one way of knowing a certain survival skill. Which is being alive to everyday dangers, the risks of being violently attacked or anything along those lines. I’ve seen those kinds of context, thankfully not had to live through any disaster with any children or anything like that, I’ve not seen those relationships and those dynamics tested to the fullest. But yeah, most kinds of children within prepping families will have inherited something from their parents, even if it’s for grudgingly or even if enthusiastically. Be at some element of physical preparations, maintaining a bag themselves. Having certain skill sets or having this mind-set. Being attentive to things that can go wrong, is such a distinctive trait of that prepping mind-set, as opposed to the broader population, perhaps.
Musa Sattar: What are your views, will post-war-life be the same for survivors of war living in nuclear fallout shelters?
Dr Michael Mills: It’s very hard to say, I guess because we’re fundamentally engaging with a hypothetical future that’s not really happened to any of us. Only 2 nuclear weapons have been detonated in anger in human history, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Things have changed significantly since then. In terms of the power within nuclear weapons, they are many, many more times powerful than they had been in the past. It’s almost something that as a prepper’s research and maybe a lot of preppers, think about this as well; that you almost don’t want to think about the aftermath of an event like this. Needless to say many of us would have been able to look back in history and see those images of scarred, utterly ruined Japanese cities at a time when nuclear weapons were really in their infancy. And the possibility of surviving something much more intense or devastating now, and something that doesn’t necessarily bear thinking about. If you want to maintain some form of psychic peace. I don’t really know what world would be inherited by those who did survive. But it wouldn’t be a pleasant prospect, I’m sure.
Musa Sattar: Lastly, how can we address the wider risk associated with living in bunkers and what advice would you give looking at your research?
Dr Michael Mills: Well, I think and maybe this is a reflection of my politics and my differences with a lot of preppers. I think their individual preparation is something that most people should engage with to some extent, but it’s no substitute for good governance. When we think about situations with nuclear war, most of us can prep till our hearts content, but the impact of that preparation is incomparable to the influence of international diplomacy. Government and the actions of those who are going to really have power in the wider world. One important thing that’s not necessarily discussed a lot in prepping culture is, what pressure citizens can exude upon their leaders to achieve good governance, to achieve safety through collective means, through collective mechanisms, those things are profoundly important. And if we’re seduced into only thinking about what the individual can do to survive, then we lose sight of those issues in the ways that we can come in and impact upon them. That would be the main thing that I would emphasise. To survive a long-term situation such as war is arguably folly. We need to be attentive both to what the individual and broader society can do to manage and really impact various disaster risks, whether natural or man-made, or a little bit of both.
Musa Sattar: Yes, I agree Michael, this is very worrying and alarming situation, that even if we do try to prepare ourselves for these nuclear fallouts or nuclear wars, we can only prepare to a certain extent and for a limited period of time. But what is the ultimate result and how can we prepare ourselves, for a better and a peaceful world? What will life look like on the other side after the war? For this, the Worldwide Head of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) has been warning and writing letters to our leaders about the devastating consequences of nuclear war.
His Holiness, has directed on numerous occasions, the only peaceful solution to the current state of the world is that ‘we must all fervently supplicate before Allah the Almighty, praying for a peaceful resolution to this current conflict.’
Thank you Michael it was pleasure having you.