One-time preserve of anti-establishment loners, cultists and gun nuts has gone mainstream
Sick of worrying about the future? Then spare a thought for Jim Rawles.
Rawles, 48, is one of a rising number of "survivalists" -- Americans hunkering down for what they predict will be a nightmare of economic failure, mass terrorism, pandemics and social chaos.
"The movement's definitely growing," Rawles, manager of the site survivalblog.com, told AFP by telephone from what he described as a survival-ready ranch "somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains."
Survivalists have a long history in the United States. But what used to be the preserve of anti-establishment loners, cultists and gun nuts has gone mainstream.
Government agencies are encouraging citizens to prepare evacuation plans and food supplies in case of myriad disasters.
Firearms, gold pieces, and long-storage food are reportedly flying off the shelves, and the Internet is flooded with sites like survivalblog.com, where the like-minded exchange tips on everything from marksmanship to cheese making.
"We're seeing three times the number of readers we had just nine months ago," Rawles said.
"The cross section of the readership is changing too. Before, most of my readership was conservative Christians. We're seeing a lot more left of center."
Experts say sparks for this phenomenon include the 9/11 attacks of 2001, government incompetence during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and now recession: people are more afraid and less trusting in government.
The more radical survivalists are getting ready for what they call EOTWAA, the End-Of-The-World-Armageddon-Apocalypse, or the niftier SHTF, as in Shit Hits The Fan.
Some literally expect the world to end. They have a date: December 21, 2012, which is based on expiry of an ancient Mayan calendar and predictions of rare astronomical activity.
Others are readying for economic and social breakdown, the kind of anarchic existence depicted in the "Mad Max" films, or, more recently, in Cormac McCarthy's poetic, terrifying novel "The Road."
One hardcore survivalist reached by email via a specialist website told AFP: "The vast majority of such folks are simply trying to become less dependent... and not dependent at all on help from the government if a crisis/disaster was to ever occur."
Reflecting the secrecy, if not outright paranoia, common in the milieu, this survivalist ended the message abruptly: "We have no wish to continue communications."
A survivalist who agreed to answer emailed questions, but only gave his first name Jon, told AFP he has a farm and is moving into "a bigger, stronger, castle-type structure... in the immediate near future."
The survivalist, who said he is currently with the US military in Iraq, is stocking "arms, ammo, food, livestock, equipment, etc."
"SHTF could be a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, something which again would cause panic and rioting, lawlessness, and thus, put my family at risk."
These fears may seem over the top to some, but they are increasingly part of the social landscape.
National Geographic Channel runs a television series called "Aftermath: Population Zero," examining what the world would be like without humans.
"Imagine if one minute from now, every single person on Earth disappeared," the show asks. An interactive website lets you do just that, annihilating New York and other landmarks at the click of the mouse.
Publishers have also jumped in.
Among the many books on the subject is "Wealth, War and Wisdom" by Barton Biggs, a former chief global strategist for Morgan Stanley. He offers commonsense advice like setting aside money for medicine, seeds, and canned food.
Websites hawk vacuum-packed food, camping gear, medical triage kits and respiratory gear.
Many also feature information clearly aimed at beginners. Need to survive a tsunami? "Stay away from the beach," survival-warehouse.com helpfully advises.
Big government bureaucracies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security want people to prepare for trouble, even if there is no official mention of EOTWAA and SHTF.
The ready.gov website urges citizens to store at least three days' worth of water and food, to prepare an escape plan from their city, and to have means of filtering out contaminated air.
"Practice earthquake and tornado drills at home, school and work," ready.gov says, also warning that pets will not be allowed into public evacuation centers.
New York-based specialist Aton Edwards says the government's stand proves survivalists were right all along.
"People ran away from it at first, saying it was alarmist and fearmongering. They didn't realize that the government is saying much the same thing," he said.
Yet Rawles estimates that not more than five percent of Americans are ready -- at least by his high standards.
"I'm surrounded by national forest. A river runs through the back end of the property, so there's no shortage of water and no shortage of fish or game to shoot," he told AFP.
"If Western civilization were to collapse tomorrow, I'd have to read about it on the Internet. I just wouldn't notice."