I've been preparing an emergency bag lately. It's a boring little pile of dollarstore treats and employer-supplied disaster goods. I used to be big into camping/wilderness survival as a kid, and going through the motions have really brought those memories back. Playing out scenarios in my head, logging shopping lists, drawing out neighborhood plans. The idea is to stock PPE, important documents, and a couple days' worth of food in preparation of evacuating to a school or community center. You'd think god himself hates Japan, as the weather is relentless. Every year there's hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, a joyful salad of horror splashed across news screens. Last year's hurricane got me shitting my pants, and apparently my sister's friends did come home to a flooded apartment.
The contrast between the US and Japan is really interesting within the context of disaster preparedness. Disaster relief is a very centralized affair over here, dependent on government and NGO resources in a particular location rather than local cooperatives (not like US preppers have that in mind either). As such, emergency bags are much more focused on personal protection and hygiene for when you're stuck in a stadium with other evacuees, like an unpleasant open air hostel. There's no fire starters, water filters, or animals traps for this reason: it's presumed that it will be provided by institutions or organizations. I think the moment Japanese people are necessitated to stay at home for long periods of time without relief, it's time to call off the whole "country" thing. You saw the same centralized relief effort patterns after the Hanshin and Tohoku earthquakes. To presume otherwise means that the disaster is severe enough that the state,military, and NGOs are completely unable to provide relief or outright evacuations to a centralized location, at which point it's right to assume that Japan has ceased to be a pleasant, functioning society.
So everything in my bag is short term; a bridge between disaster and settling at an evacuation center. In contrast, US preppers have a rabid preoccupation with the "rugged individual," really a perfect allegory for the uniquely American "fuck you, got mine" ideology, one twisted into scenarios where someone is joyfully protecting their property through force. The fantasies go that after a disaster all services and utilities cease to function, therefore all needs have to be met on an individual level at home. Stockpiled food, power generators, water carboys, and guns are analogous to American prepping. Does this have a basis in reality? Only partially. Katrina and Puerto Rico come to mind where the state was utterly unable to provide for citizens following a disaster. Both are also populated by black and brown people, strange how that goes. Anyway, you almost never see gas stoves or tents in American bugout bags for this reason; everyone figures they can just collect brush or firewood for use at home. Everything is in bulk and set for long-term settling before disaster relief in the US. There's several fundamental issues this perspective retains, mainly a lack of historical contemporary precedent other than unverified Serbian civil war interviews. Events tracing conventional TEOTWAWKI scenarios unravel rugged survivalist rationalizations endemic to American preppers.
Turns out pandemics, like most disasters, aren't terribly sexy. Everyone's stuck indoors because it's the sensible thing to do and the benign issues of spotty internet and boredom gloss over any fears about total societal collapse. (Unless you can't afford to stay at home, perish instead.) Cultural norms have not unraveled into barbarism either, people panic buying paper goods at the supermarket will still grimace at your CBRN katana cover. Governments also tend to be more inept at mobilizing 1984 fantasies, even the outwardly fashy ones. Flat out denial seems to be trending among world leaders from America to Brazil in the most depressing cultural intersection since slavery.
I get it though, there's a definite allure to the level of agency during a dire situation. Fantasizing about a disaster is a refreshing contrast to our numbers' based day-to-day of productivity, consumption, and death. A plane crash or shipwreck exists as a vacuum of value systems. I'd love to be a Crusoe or Robeson, blazing my own trail of self-determination free from the long-winded conventions of modern society. The thrill of being intimately involved in your daily life is why primitive technology videos and wilderness survival shows are so popular, and why Anarcho-Primitivism is so memeable.
A big axis to that contradictory freedom is money. "Time is money," despite the milieu of cultural attitudes it occupies, pretty well sums up the intimate bond between capital and human morality. Time, any time, can be spent on producing capital. The one enveloping force behind everything in our daily lives, reduced down to "productivity." If not producing you're occupied with something surely lesser, a childlike value system ubservient to cold hard cash. Getting an education is increasing your human capital. Learning a new language is increasing your human capital. "Experience" adds to your human capital. Forgo the interactions that make you a better informed, more well rounded human being, that is secondary to your value to the enveloping economic system we live under. You don't match up? You are inherently worth less as a human being.
Modern arrangements of labor are incredible. Living in a core country I can sit around in a cubicle shifting around numbers on a spreadsheet and pay for a meal in an hour or two even after a millionaire takes a cut of my economic productivity. My breakfast every morning is a great big amalgam of production, logistics, and retail that somehow manages to employ thousands and drive down prices.
And yet the insistence on nickel-and-diming so prevalent in the US dispels any sense of reverence for this well-oiled machine. When we moved we had two equally derisible options for home internet thanks to decades of unimpeded corporate mergers. A 15 minute ambulance ride resulted in a $2000 bill. Dental fillings cost us $600 each even after the tooth-pulling exchanges with insurance.
Today you don't construct dwellings, you pay rent. Why do you even have tools if you have a desk job? Why interact with your food when you can just drive to the corner store? Why buy things when they will surely depreciate in value? Just like that, directly rewarding interactions are replaced with numbers. Your work is worth this much. You're existing here? That costs this much. That item on the shelf? That took this many hours to produce. Not in this country of course, one where human life is inherently worth less. Preagricultural societies did not have these distinctions, and the line between adolescent play and work simply did not exist, the former would transform into the latter as the child took on greater responsibilities:
"The hunter-gatherer way of life had been skill-intensive and knowledge-intensive, but not labor-intensive. To be effective hunters and gatherers, people had to acquire a vast knowledge of the plants and animals on which they depended and of the landscapes within which they foraged. They also had to develop great skill in crafting and using the tools of hunting and gathering. They had to be able to take initiative and be creative in finding foods and tracking game. However, they did not have to work long hours; and the workthey did was exciting, not dreary. Anthropologists have reported that the hunter-gatherer groups they studied did not distinguish between work and play—essentially all of life was understood as play."In sum, for several thousand years after the advent of agriculture, the education of children was, to a considerable degree, a matter squashing their willfulness in order to make them good laborers. A good child was an obedient child, who suppressed his or her urge to play and explore and dutifully carried out the orders of adult masters. Such education, fortunately, was never fully successful. The human instincts to play and explore are so powerful that they can never be fully beaten out of a child. But the philosophy of education throughout that period, to the degree that it could be articulated, was the opposite of the philosophy that hunter-gatherers had held for hundreds of thousands of years earlier." - Peter Gray, Ph.D.
And purpose is alluring. I can live my life utterly uninvested in my surroundings and the globalized economy will pander to my apathy offering morally questionable commodities at similarly questionable prices. Practicing "ethical consumption" today requires a frankly neurotic level of awareness in slavery, outsourcing, production methods, unionbusting, and monopolies that most leaded-gasoline tainted boomer neurons are incapable of retaining. The conditions at which you live and die feel less proximate, your agency under a set of qualifiers. Self-indulgently thinking about the end of days is a strange fantasy but it pairs well with the dystopian nightmare the US is currently living under.
/r/preppers, finding itself rejuvenated with justifiably concerned people, has been lit ablaze with righteous masturbatory posts about peering over sickly bodies panic buying. And yet posts about donating PPE to hospitals and reaching out to neighbors dot every other post in between post apoc fantasies by posters itching for a justification to shoot someone.
But no matter how intimate communities become, wider issues like this pandemic transcend packages of rice and wet wipes. Reality has made Contagion seem like a civil servant's optimistic fever dream. This crisis, through all the stunning headlines and statistics has shown that the roots of our cultural anxieties should lie not in the darwinian barbarity of desperate people, but the structural violence of normalized life. With 783,000 dead globally we have entered a new phase of life, one not profoundly deviant from the norm but one that is rapidly accelerating towards an exaggerated parody of reality. Inequality is widening further with $637 billion thrown to the world's wealthiest. The 108 million Americans who are unable to work from home are explicitly threatening their own lives by commuting. In August the S&P hit its all-time high while unemployment hauled its corpse over 10.2% Eviction estimates rocket into the tens of millions while both houses of congress sits on their hands. The preexisting conditions of American society are beginning to take shape in a way that cannot be dismissed simply as "minority issues." Juxtaposed with the spectres of police violence and an administration largely unresponsive to 180,000 dead, the pandemic has shown Americans that the current arrangement is not just intolerable to the poor and the brown. Like their persistent failures to provide an effective answers to global terrorism, financial crises, global warming, and wealth disaprities, institutions have unsurprisingly failed to contain coronavirus.
Originally published in volume 1 of the zine EARRATMAG on 4/17/2020
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