Written by Steve Eberlein
“Why don’t people prepare?” is the most frequently asked and debated question in the preparedness industry. It’s a good enough question, but it fails to acknowledge how troubled our cultural relationship with preparedness really is. Preparedness is not the second helping of mashed potatoes that we politely refuse at Thanksgiving. Our ambivalence runs deeper than that.
My live preparedness presentations conclude with an unplanned but predictable ritual. A line forms, and each person in that line brings a question too specific or too personal to ask in a public forum. Interspersed with inquiries about securing bunk beds and treating well water, I hear a statement as predictable as the line itself: “My (husband/children/neighbors/friends/in-laws/co-workers) have always made fun of me for preparing.” I hear it everywhere I go, including the places facing the highest disaster risk in the United States. To understand why people don’t prepare, we need to get curious about our curious reaction to common-sense, life-safety practices. Why do we mock preparedness?
Like most social phenomena, there’s more than one answer, each squishy and immeasurable, but good for debate. So let's debate. Here are four reasons that people mock preparedness.
Preparedness is unsexy. Despite some higher tech entrants into the preparedness field, like Harbor’s gameified preparedness app or my Yeti 150’s ability to keep my office connected during a power outage, preparedness is largely low-tech and unchanging. When Apple rolls out the iPhone 30, I’ll still be touting industrial soy sauce containers as improvised earthquake toilets. Even though preparedness is about the future, it feels like a backward-facing pursuit. Put another way: iPhone – 1 ; earthquake toilets – nil.
Preppers aren't great spokespeople. Years ago, Todd DeVoe of EM Weekly hit me with a tough question. Is the show Doomsday Preppers good or bad for preparedness? I argue endlessly that visible acts of preparedness are the needed kindling for preparedness culture. You’d think that Doomsday Preppers would be up my alley. But this show only highlights the problem. We need to see relatable people preparing. I think preppers and survivalists would agree that they are motivated by beliefs that are not widely held. Some of those who prepare the most zealously can make preparedness seem, well, weird.
We dislike worriers. Worry is the wet blanket that stunts adventure and ambition. “Let’s build a snowman!” “But, where are your gloves?” “Let’s fly to the moon!” “But, is that safe?” “Let’s go to Brazil!” “But Steve, you don’t have a visa.” (I could have used a worrier’s input before that misadventure). Preparedness is evidence of one’s investment of time and money into something we dislike and would rather avoid: Worry.
Now that I’ve unfairly implied that the preparedness community is full of luddites, weirdos and wet blankets, I’ll address what’s really going on. The true source of our disdain for preparedness doesn’t lie in garden variety shallowness, but rather deep reservoirs of vulnerability. (Brene Brown – this one’s for you).
Preparedness is meant to minimize our physical vulnerability. But before we can take that step, we have to maximize our exposure to some emotional vulnerabilities. We have to imagine the struggle of obtaining drinking water, the consequences of running out of a critical medication, the terror of not knowing how to reach our children. To prepare is to accept uncomfortable possibilities in a culture that suffers from a phobic aversion to discomfort. The people who do prepare find themselves the unwitting emissaries of realities that we’ve chosen to not face. And what do we instinctively do to comfort ourselves when faced with scary realities that make us feel small? You got it. We mock.
For those who have been mocked, perhaps this explanation makes you feel a bit vindicated, and maybe it even helps you empathize with those who have mocked you. But the mocking itself should not be tolerated. Let’s stand up for ourselves and each other. Let's define preparedness in our own terms. To prepare is not a hysterical act driven by paranoia – it’s a commonsense, reality-driven act that takes courage. When you are mocked, you're bearing witness to someone's unacknowledged fear. I encourage you to meet that fear with the courage and conviction of your preparedness example. We all need an inspiring example to face reality. For someone, that example is you.
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