My husband is a whiz at fast-forwarding through television commercials. I am not so quick to the button. When he travels, as he’s doing now, I see a lot of random advertisements while I’m watching Jeopardy! or the news. There is an ad running now that is both relentlessly terrifying and ridiculous.
It’s an ad for something called Wise Food Storage. It opens with an extreme closeup of a man staring into the camera and declaring: You may not be a prepper now…but you will be! It goes on to show a montage of catastrophes—wildfires, floods, tornadoes, drought—playing over a foreboding musical score. Post-montage we’re treated to a shot of two children who look plucked from a casting call for Village of the Damned. The children spoon reconstituted food into their smiling mouths. Whatever they are eating, we are led to believe it’s delicious. Mom is happy too, because it’s so easy to prepare (Just add water!). Dad is out doing something important, I assume. Perhaps shooting the hungry, greedy, unprepared neighbors.
Look, I understand the value of being prepared for natural disasters. I’m from Mississippi, land of hurricanes and floods, tornadoes and heat waves. I now live in Colorado where a blizzard could box us in for a week. Power outages happen. But most of us have enough canned goods in our pantry to keep us going for a while. You may not enjoy a steady diet of cold beans, but it will sustain you. The bigger problem in case of disaster is access to fresh water. And there is a limit to how much fresh water any one family can reasonably store. Purification systems are great, but they require a reliable water source. So where is mom getting the water to rehydrate all this food during the apocalypse? The commercial doesn’t address that.
Even without a disaster (natural or manmade!) American cities have a water crisis. Flint, Michigan, is the poster city for our water woes, but there are plenty of American communities where the water is tainted thanks to old and failing infrastructure (lead pipes, improper filtering) or as a result of modern industry (fracking, chemical runoff). I’m not sure it makes sense to store a bunker’s worth of dry food when you’ll be dead within a week if you run out of potable water. (Side note: read Jennifer Haigh’s novel Heat and Light for a complex, compassionate look at fracking.)
I write this on the Fourth of July, a day when Americans celebrate freedom and independence by gorging on nitrate-laden foodstuffs and setting off explosives. All across America people are cueing up the Sousa and icing down the beer. But if we are plunged into the future predicted by the preppers, it will be a future without beer or wine or water parks or swimming pools or city fountains or reservoirs or window boxes full of flowers or popsicles or ice. And I wonder, if that’s the world we’re faced with, how many of us would really want to survive?
It seems to me we’d do better to actually prepare for the future rather than stew in a fantasy of post-apocalyptic paranoia. We should be updating the infrastructure for our municipal water sources and vigorously monitoring and regulating the industries that threaten the purity of our water. All of that costs money, of course. It means spending tax dollars on scientists and engineers and inspectors and plant maintenance. It means big industry will have to sacrifice by not dumping its runoff into our creeks and rivers or polluting the groundwater with chemicals. The people who build bunkers and store a few decades worth of tasteless food are the same people who gripe about paying taxes and the perils of government overreach. But if these people were serious about survival, they would worry less about their own food shortage and more about the nation’s water supply.
Whether we can survive is not the issue. The question is whether the world remains a place where we want to live. If the very freedoms we celebrate today no longer exist, what’s the point? What makes America great is not our ability to survive, it’s our determination to thrive. We won’t continue to be a great country if we allow the infrastructure we’re built upon to crumble. Future generations deserve more than a pile of freeze-dried platitudes. We can and must do better.
I love this country. I love that we have the freedom to elect our leaders and also the freedom to criticize those we elect. I love our daily newspapers and our country music, our apple pie and our gluten-free snack cakes. I love our hot dog eating contests and our protest marches. I love our optimism and determination and wacky contradictions. I don’t want to live in doomsday America. If, as the preppers predict, our country devolves into a place of violence and chaos where the only thing we have to look forward to is a plastic pouch of dried stroganoff, someone should feel free to shoot me and feast on my remains. I guarantee I’ll taste better than whatever they are serving in the bunker.
Happy Independence Day, y’all.