It's an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon for December in Marietta. Don Staples is perched on a wooden stool, hands between his knees, next to a television screen that reads, "Why prepare?" The graphic is the title page for a PowerPoint presentation he's about to lead in his "Prepping 101" class on surviving worst-case scenarios of societal catastrophe. His comfortable demeanor seems at odds with the stockpile of knives, gas masks, books on hunting and emergency field dentistry, and rows of freeze-dried food lining the racks around him at the TruPrep Emergency Preparedness survival store. A dozen or so curious men and women from all walks of life have filed into the makeshift meeting room at the back of the store, where they sit in rapt attention. With the calmness of a Hindu cow, Staples leans forward and says, "When society falls apart, you cannot rely on your government to save you. You will not be able to count on the police or the fire department to help you. They'll have their own families that they're going to make sure are safe before they do anything else. You will have to defend yourself."
Heads nod silently in agreement. He's clearly struck a nerve with everyone in the room. The attendees eyeball each other with suspicious approval as heavy tension fills the air. A few seconds pass and the silence is broken by a blast of machine gun fire from the speakers of a counter display advertising automatic weapons in the far corner of the store.
The exact number of Americans who call themselves preppers is unknown as secrecy is a fundamental part of the lifestyle. Staples claims that around 20 percent of Americans are preppers. A poll conducted in September by the National Geographic Channel, home to the show "Doomsday Preppers," revealed that 28 percent of Americans at least know someone who preps. Few are willing to talk about their prepping, especially with a journalist, let alone have their photos taken, their voices recorded, or their identities disclosed.
There is a social stigma that comes with calling oneself a prepper that fuels the inclination to be secretive. "You can very easily come to be seen as the guy in your family who wears a tin foil hat," one meeting attendee explained before offering up another, more paranoid, take on the situation. "If something happens, people will know who has food and supplies and where to go to get them," he says. "If you have $10,000, you don't go waving it around in a bad part of town. And if you have supplies for your family for a year, if everyone around you knows this, and they have not prepared, and something happens, where do you think they will go first?"
A map of the country on the American Preppers Network website shows that groups like the one that gathers at TruPrep are common around the country. In the Southeast, Georgia and Florida in particular seem to foster the most activity. Staples' class isn't exclusive to the Marietta Preppers Networking Group. People from various groups around the city attend as well. Throughout metro Atlanta, groups in Canton, Woodstock, Ball Ground, Fairburn, and more are connecting via the Internet and expanding their networks. A second TruPrep store recently opened in Roswell.
The modern prepper lives by five principles, according to the American Preppers Network: "thrift and frugality, seek to be independent, become industrious, strive towards self-reliance, aspire to have a year's supply of every needful thing." The concept of prepping is nothing new — the phrase itself has been tossed around since the Cold War — and the roots of its prudent ideals derive from the Depression-era lifestyles of our grandparents and great grandparents. Neglected skills such as gardening and canning food are lamented among preppers as they foster a back-to-the-basics movement, albeit sometimes a bit manically.
Despite preppers' strong inclination toward privacy, the lifestyle has found itself in the spotlight in the last year. The recent popularity of shows such as National Geographic Channel's "Doomsday Preppers" and Discovery Channel's "Doomsday Bunkers" has created a sensational allure around the prepper lifestyle. That and the Mayan calendar's impending December 21, 2012, expiration date. But there aren't many people in the Marietta Preppers Network Group concerned about prophecies, comets slamming into Earth, or the Greenland ice shelf melting and flooding us all back to the Stone Age. Rather, most of the people at Staples' classes are concerned about more practical manifestations of societal upheaval, such as economic collapse, peak oil, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters, including superstorms, like Sandy, which seem to be happening with more and more frequency. Self-reliance in the face of disaster is first and foremost on modern preppers' agendas. They're willing to sacrifice leisure-time activities today in order to safeguard their futures.
In Staples' recent class on firearms, one prepper summed it up best when he invoked Aesop's fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper" to make his point: "The ant works hard to prepare for winter, the grasshopper just plays and sings. When the winter comes, the grasshopper has nothing to hold him over, while the ant, who sacrificed fun for work during the summer, has enough to survive on. The difference between this fable and real life, however, is that when the human 'grasshopper' comes around, will he ask for your help or will he just come and take what he wants?"
TruPrep's "Prepping 101" course is one of the smaller gatherings that Staples has led in recent weeks. Upward of 30 people regularly show up for his bimonthly Thursday night meetings that cover such topics as choosing the right firearm, radiation detection, hygiene, sanitation, and what to do with all of the dead bodies following a catastrophic event. As dramatic as it all sounds, what's perhaps most striking is the workaday ordinariness of those in attendance. The crowd's world-weary faces include a stay-at-home mom, a paralegal worker, a veterinarian, and an elected city government official. They could be your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, or your representatives, and they're all harboring a secret: They are preppers.
Although Staples and everyone else in the store foster a healthy distrust of the government, he explains that by no means are his classes meant to be taken as anti-government rants. He intentionally leaves politics and religion out of his discussions, mostly to maintain civility and avoid long-winded arguments. "I would say, though, that only about half of 1 percent of the people who come into the store would call themselves politically liberal," he says. "I say that only because I think of the discussions that I've had with my liberal friends, and they seem to think that the government is all, and that they'll have the situation under control when something does happen."
It's true, politics and religion don't come up during his talks, but after class, it becomes apparent that most of the attendees don't identify with cut-and-dry conservative values, either. Most folks who attend these meetings have a Libertarian bent, and place their personal independence above everything else.
A prepper at Staples' firearms meeting explained that last year he found himself out of work and with zero job prospects. But because he was prepared, he was able to live off of the food supply he'd been storing in his home, while using the unemployment funds he received to keep up with his mortgage payments.
Staples offers a more extreme scenario by bringing up the recent riot that broke out at a Walmart in Moultrie, Ga., over Black Friday smart-phone deals. "That was over a cheap phone ... Imagine if we're talking about a serious situation, or about survival," he says. "That part of human nature is going to make people really desperate."
Staples is one of the few that has no problem allowing his name, his likeness, and his prepping ways to be known. He considers it a public service, so to speak. "The way I see it, the more people that we can get into prepping now, that's just less people I'll have to shoot later on."
He isn't joking, either. "What's more believable: Nothing happens and everything goes on just fine, or when something does happen the government will show up and save the day?" he asks. "Ask the people who lived through [Hurricane] Katrina and the people who are still dealing with the effects of Sandy how that worked out for them. ... That's the whole point of prepping, it's to be prepared for whatever might happen, because anything could happen."