BEHAVIOR

The profits of doom at the edge of cataclysm

Survivalism becomes a multimillion-dollar business

Michael Posner March 16 1981
BEHAVIOR

The profits of doom at the edge of cataclysm

Survivalism becomes a multimillion-dollar business

Michael Posner March 16 1981

The profits of doom at the edge of cataclysm

BEHAVIOR

Survivalism becomes a multimillion-dollar business

Michael Posner

If, as is sometimes claimed, the index of best-selling books can be regarded as a barometer of the public mood, the current list is at once instructive and discomfiting. On the hardcover nonfiction list in The New York Times are The Coming Currency Collapse by Jerome Smith, billed as an “investment survival manual,” and Crisis Investing by Douglas Casey, which offers “opportunities for investing in the coming Great Depression.” Among the trade paperbacks is The Next Whole Earth Catalog edited by Stewart Brand, appropriately subtitled “Ways to survive in the ’80s.” Every week, it seems, brings new variations on this theme, all underwritten by the same premise: that because the system as we know it cannot long endure, one must act now to avoid being victimized when Armageddon comes.

Across the continent, in major capitals and in rural backwaters, a new survivalist ethic seems to be taking hold. The trend is reflected not only in the best-seller charts but in the dramatic growth of industries catering to practitioners: dehydrated foods, kerosene lamps, survival newsletters, guns and knives, and a panoply of survivalist esotérica. Various self-styled prophets have been predicting doomsday for centuries, but the army of current believers includes far more than the standard fringe elements of society. Whether it is salting away a few ingots of gold or building fallout shelters on some remote parcel of country property, no single group has been wholly immune to the spreading survivalist virus. While adherents wait for the big crash, survivalism is thriving.

Hard figures are elusive—most firms are privately owned—but by any reckoning survival is a multimilliondollar business. The continent’s leading distributor of specialized food and equipment, California-based S.I. Equipment Limited, formerly Survival Inc., recorded sales last year of more than $7 million. “And it’s growing every year,” says Vice-President Dennis Clarke, “doubling, in fact.” The S.I. catalogue, published three times annually and mailed to 250,000 regular readers, offers everything from waterproof matches to dried peanut butter powder to plastic cylindrical storage units designed to cache bullion, food or even a small handgun. One of its big sellers, at $19.95, is Life After Doomsday, which purports to explain how to survive a nuclear holocaust. If the book is insufficient, S.I. also mails a complete fallout ventilation system (worth up to $595) and a radiation emergency anti-contamination kit ($89.95).

Traditionally, survivalism has been practised by Mormons, who are required to be self-sufficient by storing at least one year’s food for their families. But suppliers of these reserves have found their market has expanded far beyond their original customers. “A year or so ago, 95 per cent of my clientele were Mormons,” says Milton Scott, owner of Scott’s Perma Storage Foods Ltd. in Aylmer, Ont. “Now 95 per cent of my customers are non-Mormons, frightened by fuel or food shortages, economic collapse or inflation of food prices.” Scott offers a year’s supply of food for one person for $715. The profits of doom are growing to the extent that Scott’s business has increased twelvefold in the past three years.

Economic shrewdness may outweigh fear of the apocalypse as the reason for the upsurge in Scott’s fortunes. When Mormons Gary and Gloria Llewellyn of Scarborough, Ont., were out of work for six months in 1972, they lived completely off their food storage. Their other savings were diverted toward making the mortgage and tax payments on a new home. Now, with three children, the Llewellyns have stored away about two years’ supply of food, as well as stores of toiletries and wood. “We don’t do it because of any sense of doom,” explains Gloria Llewellyn. “We do it to save money and provide ourselves with a sense of security that we could survive a snowstorm, blackout, economie breakdown or whatever.”

In the past year, observes Vesper McDonald, vice-president of Dallas’ Frontier Food Associates, the value of food has proved more reliable than gold or diamonds or real estate. Although the initial outlay for a dehydrated diet is high, the investment may look pretty shrewd as prices for meat, grain and fresh produce continue to soar. “I’m just a normal mother of four who worries what I’m going to do when they cut off the oil,” says McDonald. “The whole food industry depends on oil—harvesting, packaging, transporting. Prices must escalate.” In short, food may turn out to be the investment of the ’80s.

But once the basement food locker is filled, the true survivalist is launched on a long, perhaps endless, journey. “It’s a black hole,” admits Paul Urquhart, a medical social worker in Asheville, N.C. “You can never be over-pre-

pared.” After food, there are tools, guns, medicine and fallout shelters. Urquhart has already sunk several thousand dollars into survivalism and spends most of his free time reading from the small library of survival books he has purchased in recent years. Two years ago, he felt socioeconomic collapse was not far off, a theme repeated in Howard Ruff’s best-selling book How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years—a kind of Bible for some survivalists. Now, after Iran and Afghanistan, and with Poland on the brink, Urquhart says “the spectre of atomic conflagration has reared its head again.” More than most of the breed, Urquhart recognizes that a law of diminishing returns governs his investment and “many times I have wished that I collected stamps.” Yet he is committed. He and his wife chose Asheville after careful deliberation, believing that it offered the best balance of present needs and future considerations.

The Ruff book, which last year sold more than 2.5 million copies in paperback, has spawned a tidal wave of facsimiles, newsletters and survivalist study groups. Dozens of such groups have sprung up in Canada, but in the U.S. the topic has become an obsession. In Maryland’s Montgomery County alone, seven Ruff-inspired gatherings meet regularly. “I used to be a wideeyed liberal,” says Milton Popeck, an accountant who attends one such group. “But I really have turned conservative. I wouldn’t build a bomb shelter, but I would buy diamonds and rental property in the country.” Ruff’s newsletter—at $145 per annum—boasts 160,000 subscribers.

Apocalypse around the corner is the driving force of several lesser-known newsletters, including one published in Rogue River, Ore.(population, 1,200),by Nancy Tappan. Her late husband, Mel Tappan, authored a guide to survival

guns in 1977; it still sells 5,000 copies a year. In Harrison, Ark., self-styled historian Kurt Saxon earned $150,000 last year from sales of his monthly newspapers, The Survivor and Victoria, the latter aimed exclusively at women. Most articles are reprinted from 40year-old copies of Science Monthly. “It’s an encyclopedia of 19thand early 20thcentury technology,” Saxon explains, so that “when civilization collapses people will know how to adapt to the older forms of technology.”

Like Saxon and Tappan, many survivalists distrust large cities, believing that what Soviet missiles do not destroy, roaming mobs of urban marauders will. Hard-core practitioners say any city larger than 5,000 people is probably unsafe, and an outfit called the Center for Survival Research in Mount Vernon, N.Y., will pinpoint the 18 safest areas in the U.S.—for $19.95. “No matter how severe the attack . . . how dirty the weapons ... some sections of the country will miss the devastation,” the promotional literature reads.

The possibility of urban chaos prompted Mississauga’s Fawn Currey and her family to buy a winterized cottage 160 km north of Toronto. “It’s a place we could live,” says Currey. “We have a supply of food, ample wood, arable land,” and plans to solarize, in order to become totally self-sufficient. The Curreys were among a quarter of a million Mississauga suburbanites forced to flee the November, 1979, derailment of a train carrying chlorine gas. That experience “gave us a taste of what

collapse could be like.”

Although most survivalists are investing against economic cataclysm, the numbers of the nuclear warfare element too are growing. In La Verkin, Utah, 480 km south of Salt Lake City, a company called Survive Tomorrow Inc. is selling $39,000 condominiums. The sales feature: all 240 units are underground and come furnished with a fouryear supply of food. Calls are coming in by the hundreds. One Florida community has built an elaborate island retreat, complete with underground telephone and power supply; in the event of an emergency, they plan to blow up bridges to the mainland. Another clan is studying Hopi Indian farming methods on a 250-square-mile tract in Colorado. And a Dallas-based firm, Stormaster Tornado Shelter, says it sold 75 fallout units last year alone.

“I liken survivalism to a form of insurance,” says Paul Urquhart. “I carry life and fire insurance and I don’t feel fringy about that. If you read the newspaper, it’s difficult not to become concerned. At least I feel I’m doing something—not ignoring the problem.”

Diane Francis