Disaster in the ‘burbs

August 27, 2011

Years ago, when I was living in New Hampshire, my father took me camping out in my backyard. I spent the night holed up in an old chicken coop, while my father heated up a pot of soup over an open fire. I remember feeling so free and pioneering, despite being yards away from my house. Just my dad and I,  surviving the elements, living like frontiersmen. Trying to make do on rations of soup, hotdogs and a loaf of Wonder bread. It was exhilarating. Until I realized that I was missing my nightly glass of warm milk before bed.  “We’re surviving out here,” my dad told me. “There’s no glass of milk in the wilderness.”

I wasn’t much of a survivalist then and I’m still not. And in a deep-rooted, guilt-ridden sense, I am ashamed of myself and  people like me who, sadly, are creatures of comfort. Whose disaster mentality has translated not only into buying up a gazillion water bottles and stock piling food like it was the end of the world, but purchasing rain boots, generators and a month’s supply of romance novels. I am embarrassed that our survivalist instinct has turned into a consumerist instinct, and that we even have all this crap for purchase to begin with. And, I regret to admit that extreme conditions, cautioned about incessantly on every TV channel and every radio station and every online newswire, incite us to run out to Wal-Mart as if our life depended on it.

I’m kind of disappointed too that we desperately fear adversity. Oh sure, we love it in movies. But reality’s another story. What happened to our fore fathers’ pioneering spirit? Has our DNA transmuted so severely that no one wants to be that guy whose power goes out for a week; or whose house blows away; or whose stuff sinks into biblical flash floods and everything he owns is stripped from him in a matter of 24 hours?  The guy who didn’t heed the governor’s warning to “prepare” or “evacuate.” And even though, you know as well as I do, that the power will be back on within 24 hours, it’s a little disheartening  that we’re all purchasing with such fury and devotion.

I’m not saying that I don’t think the storm will do damage. Or even that lives or possessions are at risk. I’m not even upset that, after the 5.9 earthquake where the extent of destruction was an overturned plastic chair,  Wolf Blitzer finally has something to talk about.

What I am saying is that our survivalist instinct has morphed into some weird excuse to shop.

And while  The Dominican Republic, or some of the smaller islands of The Bahamas  watch their lives sink into oblivion, we on the East Coast are buying up two-hundred cans of Chicken Noodle soup for a ten-hour power outage.

Forget about the coastal towns, where homes are truly in the path of the eye of the storm. There are spots from South Carolina to Maine that need to take extreme caution. I’m not talking about those places. I’m talking about right here– 40 miles inland, where my local grocery store’s shelves are bare and where Target has sold out of not only batteries, but rain boots (Rain boots? Really?)

What bothers me is our desperate tenacity to avoid any kind of deprivation. We fear being without. Without electricity. Without power. Without water. Without food. Without peanut M&Ms, a pocket full of cash and about twenty DVDs for weekend movie watching. Being without has become unpatriotic. “Stuff” and the possessing of it is as American as apple pie. Sure, there are necessities that we should not go without during a hurricane. An emergency preparedness kit is a great idea. But hoarding and stockpiling massive quantities of food and useless commodities like rain boots is, quite frankly, insane. Especially when you consider that PSE&G will have “6000 employees supporting the restoration effort, including 840 linemen and 540 tree contractors available to respond to outages once the hurricane pulls away.”

You know as well as I do that the power will be back on–if your home is still standing– within 24 hours. And if your home isn’t still standing, then a can opener won’t do you much good, will it? Remarkably,  the diner down the road can take care of your needs.

Wawa will re-open. Shop Rite will be restocked. Roads will clear.

This is the suburbs. It’s not Nunivak Island off the Yukon River delta in Alaska. I’m not sure of any disaster scenario in Cherry Hill, NJ which might necessitate a three-day supply of non-perishables when Whole Foods is in walking distance and will reopen for business the day after the storm. No one will starve. No one will go hungry. And no one, technically, will go without.

The Wall Street Journal had an amazing article out a while ago, entitled, The Fantasy of Survivalism, which details our inherent need to experience real disaster. That need showcases itself every where–in apocalyptic movies like 2012, Armageddon and Doomsday; in our media outlets, news channels and social networking sites; and in our own “disaster mentality,” which compels us, as a society, to stockpile, hoard and accumulate goods when rationally, it doesn’t make sense to do so.

Virginia Postrel writes, “…the survivalist instinct mostly plays to a perverse fantasy. It’s both comforting and thrillingly seductive to imagine that you’re completely independent, that you don’t need anyone or anything beyond your home, that you can master any challenge. In the survivalist imagination, a future disaster becomes a high-stakes opportunity to demonstrate competence and superiority.”

But sadly, there’s a rather large disconnect between the fantasy of surviving and the reality of it. For one, we’re not really surviving. We’re weathering a storm. You survive the Isreali-Palestinian border. You survive trekking through Tibet. You do not survive affluent Haddonfield.  Second, we’re failing to make logical, rational judgements in the face of “What if…” The Weather Channel reported that “28 million are under threat of a hurricane watch.” It sounds devastating. It sounds catastrophic. And it sounds like I better get 100 bottles of water instead of ten. In other words, my perspective on where I am located, my socio-economic status, the strength of my home and the resources surrounding  me don’t play into my  judgement about what will probably happen, as opposed to what could happen (side note: at the height of this thing, they’re calling for 40 mph winds for Medford, NJ). Lastly, if you want to know the truth, most of us are ill-prepared for true survival anyway. “Our society is full of ignorant urbanites who don’t know how to make what they use,”  Postrel quotes, “That ignorance makes us vulnerable.” And that ignorance  leads us to believe that  consumption of goods is the next best thing. I, for one, couldn’t tell you how to find edible berries in the woods if my life depended on it.

Which leads me back to my argument about the suburbs. Do we really need to forage for food anyway? Do we really need to prepare for three days of isolation and internment when, within minutes after the storm,  Krispy Kreme will reopen and we can once again pig out on donuts? Has anyone ever eaten cold soup from a can anyway???

Sometimes we are so wrapped up in our  disaster mentality that we “play out the steps taken ‘before, during, and after a natural disaster’. These include ‘predictions of impending doom’, overreactions, the ‘institutionalization of threat’, rumour, false alarms and at times mass delusion” (Cohen 1972: 144-8 in Goode & Ben-Yehuda 1994: 29). And speaking of impending doom, I made sure to shave my legs this morning in the shower, lest I am cut off from a water supply for several days.

All this brings me  to Bangladesh. Every year in Bangladesh monsoons come and wipe out everything along the river. Every year people lose their homes, their possession; some lose their lives. But they’ve become so adapted to this way of life that they can collect all their belongings in one bag and stick it in a boat. They can float down river for days until the floods cease. And then, they rebuild–year after year after year.  Postrel quotes Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution as saying; “Those who, in extremis, are able to produce their own food and shelter are far more autonomous, and far better able to react to adversity,”

And I agree. We give up something of ourselves and forego our deeper potential to “survive” when we turn our power over to credit cards and to nonsensical stockpiling of things as nutty as “freeze dried delights which can be easily stored for 7-25 years.”(Suburban Survivalists Begin Hoarding Food, Water and Weapons).

Look, who am I kidding. I went out and bought up water bottles and canned goods just like everyone else. I have my fancy little crank radio, candles and matches ready to go. And without anyone knowing, I secretly checked to make sure our sleeping bags were readily accessible. For what, I don’t know. And there is a part of me, deep down inside, that functions, like Postrel suggests, on a “survivalist imagination” and wishes to experience an epic event where I actually get to use all this stuff. But the reality is, I am well taken care of. Trees will blow down around me. Maybe even some power lines will fall. Maybe I’ll lose electricity. If I’m lucky, dinner will be a can of beans that I’ll open with my manual can opener.  I’ll feel like I’m a frontierswoman again. And in the morning, just like everyone else, when the storm’s over,  I’ll go back to the grocery store and restock– or I’ll eat my words. Let’s hope for the former.

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