On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse.  At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity.  At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.

It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.

On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women.  On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.

survival school.JPG

Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida.  One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team.  Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.

He suddenly looks tired.  “No.”  I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them.  “I bought equipment for my son,” he says.  “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son.  My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…”  Bingo!  He begins another rant.

I interrupt him to get more details about his wife.  “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly.  “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”

For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.

“How does that make you feel?” I ask.

“What can I do about it?” he says.  “I love her.  Been with her 27 years.  But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”


While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.

710v76v5doLLewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.  Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization.  The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and because we’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.

If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.

The history of technology still matters, though.  Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.

763220016_3ed7cdeb06_bAmong most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly.  In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status.  In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.

And humans?  We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism.  The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%.  Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian.  Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news.  And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.

What went wrong?

PSM_V18_D469_Wheeled_plough_from_the_roman_empireIn our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit.  Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting.  But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.

Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field.  Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women.  The status of women in these cultures plummeted.  And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.

sapiens book.jpgIn Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.”  After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life.  Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible.  Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich.  After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse.  Inequality soared.

Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture.  Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes.  Tribes fight; people die.  But agriculture made war worthwhile.

And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women.  15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.

Let’s hope we never go through that again.

On Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling.”

On Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling.”

Though we inhabit the same space, we often live in separate worlds.

I’ve written previously about differences in perception and how these steer our interpretation of the world – these differences are dramatic between humans and other species, but can be stark between two humans as well.  Political discourse has been derailed in this country because large groups of people hold such distinct worldviews, and it’s become increasingly rare for either side to strive to empathize with the beliefs of the others.

I’m guilty of this, too.  I sometimes rail about the way science is taught.  But many people believe that our purpose in life is to reach communion with God.  From that perspective, public education that distances students from religious faith needs to be disrupted, whether with alternate curricula, charter schools, or budget cuts.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent depicts the devastating fallout that can accompany a merging of worlds.  Turtle lives in the wilds of Mendocino, California.  Her world is utterly distinct from the place where other characters live.  Her grandfather, for instance, lives in a world where his son is gruff, demanding, perhaps overprotective … but ultimately a loving father.

His world crumbles when he sees the deep bruises mottling his granddaughter’s legs – his son has beaten her with a metal rod.  He has to confront fourteen years of misconceptions.  It kills him.

Or, when Turtle visits a friend’s home, she looks around the immaculate space, puzzled.

“Where are your tools and things?’

There had been none in the garage.


“You know – tools,” she says.

“Oh, there’s a whole bunch of tools in Mom’s workshop.  Acetylene torches and things.” [The boy’s mother is an artist.]

She says, “So what do you do when something breaks?”

Jacob looks at her smiling, as if waiting for the rest of that sentence.  Then he says, “You mean, like – are you asking, like, which plumber do we call?  I could ask Dad.”

Turtle stands looking at him.

Evil Dave versus Regular Dave, circa 2009 — stoner types burble through My Absolute Darling, many of whom share a revulsion at the corporate devastation of our world … and tourists.

They are in the same room.  But they are living in separate worlds.  The boy was not raised by an apocalypse-prepping sociopath.  No one demanded that he practice marksmanship each day.

“It’s a precaution,” she says.

“Is it, though?” he says.  “Owning a gun, you are nine times more likely to be shot by a family member than by an intruder.”

She cracks a knuckle, unimpressed.

“I’m sorry,” he says, softening.  “I’m not challenging you, or criticizing – not at all – I just want to hear your perspective.  That’s all.  I don’t really think that you’re gonna be shot by a family member.”

By this time, though – barely a quarter of the way through the novel – it’s quite clear to readers that Turtle will be shot by a family member.  Her worldview is deeply tainted by the teachings of her father.

Which was grim for me to read, as a parent.  Tallent constantly reminds readers of the control that parents exercise over their children.  Parents’ philosophies permeate their children’s souls, perhaps distancing children from the world.  Turtle’s father shows up to a school conference and rants about the utter uselessness of what his daughter is learning – and I cringed to think how reasonable his arguments against spelling memorization sounded in a world that is actively crumbling around us.

Tallent makes it seductively easy to empathize with his monster.

The book is lovely.  Brutal, but beautiful.

Once Turtle befriends two boys her own age – lost in the woods, much worse at navigation than at spinning tales about patrolling their someday garbage kingdom atop mutant iguana steeds – we see that she has kept some fraction of her world safe from the corruption of her father.  Previously, no one has known Turtle’s name.  Her father calls her “kibble,” her grandfather “sweatpea,” her classmates and teacher “Julia.”

Those people are not in her world.  As far away as someone who’d look at a mushroom’s gills and call them “louvers.”

But when Turtle meets those two boys, she knows they will be friends.  She tells them her name.  “Turtle.”  She has a world.  She’s willing to invite others in.

She might just be okay.

Evil Dave versus Regular Dave, circa 2010 — as in Carrie, Tallent’s adolescents assume everybody’s problems are equivalent.  Some worry who to invite to the school dance; Turtle struggles to survive.