The ground smolders with the charred remains scattered across once-green fields now turned black from cinders and dried blood. An electric pole lies on its side across an abandoned road, menacing with the occasional buzz and spark. Your home is gutted, shredded like a soft chunk of cheese. A stack of crisped tortillas lie uneaten on the hearth, abandoned in the chaos. The air is fowl and acrid though silence has now settled after the screams and destruction of the night before.
You were lucky, though. Living on higher ground, you heard the mobs coming and you had time to hide in your nearby cornfield. You pray for your children, but you prepare yourself to find them among the scattered bodies. Knowing the subtle trails only traveled by farmers like yourself, you weave your way through the hillside, clinging to any hint of normalcy and structure. You are trying to stay calm, determined to avoid going into full out panic yourself. You WANT to survive. You HAVE to survive to tell your story and work to rebuild your life. You start taking inventory of your food, your clothing, your memories…everything you will take with you as you flee and search for other survivors. Your name is Juan, and your world has ended as you knew it.
This isn’t the opening to a novel on a future apocalypse, but one of the many stories I heard from actual survivors of civil war. Juan’s story is not unique, but it is a true survivor’s story. While studying anthropology, I had the chance to live in rural Guatemala, site of some of the most gruesome civilian and military guerilla forces in modern history. Lasting more than 3 decades, the Guatemalan civil war razed villages, crippled the country’s economy, and essentially drove the entire population of 10 million people to live in ‘survival mode.’ During this time, the country also faced increasingly devastating earthquakes, mudslides, sinkholes, and drought. Human disasters coupled with natural disasters should have spelled doom for an isolated agrarian country. But, against this backdrop, life somehow continued. Markets adapted to new distribution channels, educators flopped down in the fields instead of schools, and religious networks united people in a common hope for change.
Through the prolonged instability, some survivors fared better than others. Some foraged the donated goods from aid organizations but still lived precariously day-to-day. Some learned to adapt to their changed environment and actually learned to thrive in it. Those that had strong networks adapted to this changed reality and endured all the subsequent threats. They developed local versions of goods no longer available for import. They planted small gardens in their patios when vegetable trucks were being ransacked on the highway and never made it to market. They wove their own clothes and patched old clothes to extend their wear. They repaired roads and maintained infrastructure when the government refused to. And, they did this by strengthening their small communities and tapping into what I call a survival network.
Building a Survival Network
What tips can we take from survivors of modern-day disasters? How should we guide our prepping to not only survive an initial catastrophe, but participate in the rebuilding and restructuring of the future? If there is one overarching theme to survival on a budgets, it is to connect with the people around us. Guatemalans (and many Americans, for that matter) don’t have the resources to stockpile food, water, weapons, and tools. Most work the fields to stock up for winter and live season-to-season. But, if they don’t own a chainsaw, they know a neighbor who does. They choose not to buy their own pickup truck because they can pay the 30 cents to hitch a ride down the hill to market instead. Simply put, they learn to identify resources in their vicinity and build relationships of reciprocity to maximize those resources.
I know this point may be criticized—preppers feel that anarchy will reign and pit neighbor against neighbor, so you have to amass everything for yourself and not count on your neighbors to help you. I understand that argument, and I think it IS prudent to prioritize your own personal supply of survival gear. I realize that thinking of networking as prepping may be more unnatural to Americans raised in an individual-centric mentality.
But, no matter how elaborate your preparations are or how extensive your budget reaches, no one person can live unaided forever. As the saying goes, no man is an island. I believe the exact opposite is true. Those people who build trust among neighbors and promote greater self-sufficiency among a strong community is much less vulnerable to attack, much more adaptable to changing threats, and much more likely to survive long-term. And, frankly, who wants to live alone in a post-apocalyptic world?? I think prepping should include reaching out to people you care about and help them prepare to survive with you.
This is NOT adding more friends to your Facebook account, this is in-person, relationship building. So, how exactly should you network for survival? The good news is, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to figure out what a successful network looks like. As with any network, you should start with yourself and work your way out to larger circles of family, friends, community leaders, and neighbors.
· Start with YOU. Identify your OWN skills inventory that may be of value to these people in order to build reciprocal relationships. Just as self-interest can motivate looters to rob a cache, self-interest drives trade. In order to acquire goods and services from others, you need to have equally valuable items yourself. Remember, trade can include expertise and labor, not just supplies. Strategize what vocational skills you can build up to make yourself a more valuable member of a survivor community.
· Once you’ve learned more about what you have to offer, get more informed about the people in your immediate surroundings. Be informed of groups that share your values and build relationships with preppers in your state and city. A well-networked person is also a well-informed person and one that can identify warning signs early on. Prepping isn’t just about preparing for an unknown future. It’s about learning from the recent past.
· Get out and about in your neighborhood--study the geography, the layout of the neighborhood, the areas that are more likely to stay dry in a flood or stay erect during an earthquake. If you need to flee your home during an emergency, having strong relationships with people in these areas could save your life. Study exit routes using back roads or footpaths. Identify possible hideouts if your home and bugout shelter are compromised.
· Build a “skills inventory” similar to your physical goods inventory and identify people in your community with these skills. Some key skills are: hunting, fishing, first aid administration, auto mechanics, blacksmithing, architecture and drafting, construction, HVAC systems, organic gardening, herbal medicine, electrical engineering for radio and surveillance equipment, sewing, and more. If you don’t know anybody that has one of these skills, find one!
· Try to build stronger relationships within your existing circle of friends to identify individual skills that could fit better into your survival network. Learn about the personal lives of your coworkers or fellow worshippers at church. Become better friends with your auto mechanic and others with practical skills that will be valuable post-catastrophe.
· After getting closer to your existing network, expand! Join your local Elks Lodge or Rotary chapter. Start a preppers book club. Host community seminars on various survival skills or even basic interests such as canning fresh fruit or tending heirloom seeds. Try to create venues where you can meet new people but also learn about their skills and strategize how they might fit into your survival network.
· Don’t limit your network to only include active preppers. A glass-artist may not currently be interested in prepping, but would have valuable craftsmanship skills that could translate to other types of materials when factories shut down and all goods are made by hand.
· Participate in local politics. Yes, politics. One of the primary roles of government is to build a sense of community and understand constituencies. You will learn your community’s demographics, economic class structure, current issues being debated, and priorities. This will help you navigate various group dynamics and build stronger relationships with diverse groups. This can also help you tap into informal distribution channels and alternative communication channels that will survive when electronic media and big trucking are destroyed.
· Open yourself up to examination. No, you don’t need to give a guided tour of your bugout camp, or reveal how many pounds of food you have stored. But, your prepping should be part of a conversation so you can brainstorm ideas and strategies with others. Isolation can be dangerous. You may not know your weaknesses and prepping deficiencies until it’s too late. Instead, you should work to entrench yourself in a network of equal give-and-take. Offering expertise and services will make you a trusted member of a community rather than a selfish, isolated target.
Guatemala is a small country most can’t place on a map. Reports on its civil war didn’t make it onto many American newsstands. But, its people have lived through some of the exact conditions the prepper movement is warning of. Just as Juan was able to utilize his knowledge of hidden footpaths and hiking trails, we should work to extend our prepping beyond physical goods and tactical training. I was privileged to hear Juan’s story because he was able to escape the destruction and live with numerous sets of neighbors until he was able to rebuild his home and retake his land. Juan did various jobs from carpentry to transporting avocados, exchanging his time and talents for food and shelter. He wasn’t a prepper in the traditional sense of amassing survival goods. But, his experiences forever changed the way I view a future catastrophe. I work not only to increase my family’s self-sufficiency but also to become more integrated into our community and more connected to local resources. I learned from Juan that merely staying alive through disaster is not truly surviving. Instead, you can actively shape the new structure and community that is rebuilt afterwards. But, you have to be part of the community first if you ever hope to participate in a new one.