What I saw at the doomsday prepper convention
FORTUNE — More and more Americans are spending money to get ready for an uncertain future — gathering food, water, tools, and skills to help them weather anything from a hurricane to a pandemic. Contrary to images of deluded or gun-obsessed “lone wolves,” many preppers are average consumers reacting to concrete worries, and their way of thinking is spreading, fueling an emerging lifestyle trend. That lifestyle is generating demand for a broad spectrum of products offering survival — or even comfort — when large-scale systems go down.
An array of preparedness expos and conferences have cropped up around the country to serve this emerging and fast-changing market. To get a closer look, I visited Life Changes, Be Ready!, or LCBR, a new expo that held its second event on the weekend of November 2nd and 3rd, in Lakeland, Fla. LCBR gave an immediate sense of one big way that the preparedness crowd isn’t marginal at all — economically. The show floor was packed with a dizzying array of small businesses and products that defied stereotypical “prepper” classification — not just ammunition and crossbows and camping gear, but also seed banks, beehives, financial planning, and acupressure.
According to many of the entrepreneurs on the floor, business is trending upwards. John Egger of Self Reliance Strategies has been producing and selling prepackaged seed banks for nearly four years and sees his market expanding. “It’s definitely picking up. It’s not just country people anymore. We really cater to a suburban market … We call it suburban homesteading.” You can see this broadening of the market in the range of price points, from the $5,600 portable solar charging stations flogged by Alternative Energy, Inc., to the $649 “Stomp Supreme” field medic kit offered by Doom and Bloom, LLC. (“This is the one recommended for people expecting civil unrest.”) Clearly, LCBR’s vendors saw a crowd ready to drop major cash today to assuage their worries about tomorrow.
The diversity and type of products on offer was also remarkable. Egger’s seeds, for example, were prominently labelled “Organic” and “Non-GMO” — and so were all the other seeds on sale at the show. Those are distinctions you might not think were important to the same crowd in the market for a crossbow, but according to Egger, “you don’t have to explain to people anymore” why eating organic matters. That was just one element of the unique mix of gritty survivalism, back-to-the land self-sufficiency, and outright hippie dream-science on display at LCBR. There were earthworm farms and beehives for sale, and two different companies dealing in essential oils. In a back corner, Mike Mah, or “No Stress Mike,” offered $30 pain reduction sessions using his “Hoy Chi” energy healing techniques. Mah’s flyers proudly advertised that he attended every Tea Party event he could, and he manipulated the spines of dozens of willing customers with a pistol tucked discreetly in his waistband.
There are still uncertainties in the preparedness market, some driven by ideology, according to Charley Hogwood of Personal Readiness Education Programs. “All last year it was up and up and up. But after the [presidential] election, it flattened out.” Hogwood thinks that some in the market were overwrought over doomsday scenarios surrounding the reelection of Barack Obama. “Last year, I heard 100 different conspiracy theories” about what a second Obama presidency might mean. But when the election wasn’t followed by martial law and FEMA camps, both the rhetoric and the market cooled off a bit. “I rarely hear the crazy theories now. Now everyone’s worried mainly about the collapse of the dollar,” says Hogwood, referring to widespread prepper fears of hyperinflation triggered by the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing.
Hogwood, friendly and round-faced, reflected the resolute averageness that permeated the show. He snorted derisively at conspiracy theorists, and also acknowledged some of the ironies of a preparedness trade show. “Sometimes it’s like a toy store, and people buy stuff because they like it.” But in a real survival situation, “the more you know, the less you have to carry. A lot of people don’t know much and think they can buy their way out of it.” He sees some of the extremism surrounding the prepping industry as hype, maybe even fearmongering. “It’s so much more fun to worry about martial law than a hurricane. People like zombies as a marketing tool.”
In fact, I spot more than a few zombie-themed rifle targets at the show. But Hogwood is also emphatic that, the image aside, prepping is about skills — not guns. “You see some cool weaponry … but who needs a grenade launcher?” Despite the presence of at least five booths of firearms and accessories, many exhibitors are equally dismissive, even derisive, toward guns, gun shows, and the culture surrounding them. John Egger tried to sell seed kits at a gun show once and won’t be returning. Gun show attendees are “a different breed of people. They don’t want to learn.”
Learning was a big part of the LCBR experience — two large lecture halls, frequently packed, ran the duration of the show. In addition to seminars from well-known preppers and security experts David Kobler and James Wesley Rawles, attendees got gardening advice from local expert Tom MacCubbin, and a Q&A from author David Crawford. Crawford is the author of Lights Out, a preparedness-themed novel that he has successfully self-published to an eager audience. The premise of Lights Out is a large electromagnetic pulse (EMP), knocking out electronics across the U.S. and causing a slow decline of society. Crawford and a business partner were at LCBR as part of an effort to raise funds to turn Lights Out into a trio of feature films. The EMP scenario (or a “grid down”) was a recurring concern at the expo — and, at least technologically, it’s plausible.
Life Changes, Be Ready! was the work of Cindy and Jim Thompson, who have been organizing real estate expos since 2004 — “Back,” Jim jokes sardonically, “when that was still profitable.” But LCBR is as much a calling for them as it is business. Cindy, thin and blonde, and Jim, gray and fit, have been preppers themselves since the mid-1990s — though they don’t like that word. “We prefer ‘sustainable living,’” Jim says. “Less consumption.” Cindy was asked to speak about her lifestyle at a Tea Party event in 2012, and the response was so staggering that the two put together the first LCBR in a few weeks, ultimately attracting over 4,000 attendees. Almost all of their first batch of vendors returned the second time around, and with better planning, they were expecting much higher attendance numbers.
Jim is emphatic about the mainstream audience he’s catering to. “Our core audience is 40-75 years old. Eighty percent have college degrees. Twenty percent of those have advanced degrees,” he said. He attributes his success in attracting a higher-end clientele to the educational bent of LCBR. “When you bring in a higher caliber of speaker, you attract a different group — more disposable income, more moderate in their thinking. That [extreme] element of the preparation mindset, they still show up, they come in, but that’s not what we’re about.”
The event also has strict ground rules to produce a nonthreatening environment. “If you go to the speaking engagements, you won’t hear any racist crap, you won’t hear any discriminatory talk. We don’t allow it.” Jim is proud of what they’ve achieved in that regard: “I’ve seen homosexual couples walking around the show,” he says. “Who am I to discriminate?”
Still, it was impossible to completely ignore the presence of an element many would consider reactionary. Political and social initiatives represented at the show included the Polk County Libertarians and the admirable entrepreneurship mentoring program Patriot Mission, Inc. — but also the marginal, conspiracy-minded John Birch Society. After a relatively measured primer on the threats of inflation, featured economist Dr. Kirk Elliot encouraged me to look into how the Rothschild and Rockefeller families continue to own the Federal Reserve — a common canard among New World Order conspiracists of the Alex Jones stripe.
Finally, at the end of my conversation with John Egger about the rise of “suburban homesteading,” a man with a white shock of hair interjected himself into the conversation. “You know what chemtrails are?” he asked, referring to another conspiracist trope that sees chemical tampering in jetstream vapor trails. “They’re changing the weather, then selling drought tolerant seeds. George Soros and Bill Gates are behind it.” Egger nodded politely and smiled, tolerant of a potential customer’s eccentricities.
While normalcy and centrism may be the goal for businesspeople like Cindy and Jim Thompson, it seems the preparedness lifestyle hasn’t completely shaken loose its extremists and kooks.