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Some survivalists aren't hoping for society's meltdown, they just want to be prepared



He's wearing camouflage, head to toe. And body armor, because his enemies are everywhere. He's carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a look that says: "You DO NOT want to mess with me."

So why doesn't anybody invite him to sit at their table in the food court?


Survivalism has got a bad name in this country, largely on the backs of militiamen living in the woods and talking about insurrection. And after Y2K, when all the world's nuclear weapons utterly failed to explode in their silos because of a computer malfunction, the crazed food hoarders and ammo speculators started looking "¦ silly.

But there's a new breed of survivalist out there, the kind who aren't expecting (or rooting for) a crisis. They just want to be prepared. Just in case.

Folks are nervous. Forget running from one crisis to the next; we've got so many crises that we went to Ikea and bought a cheap, sturdy little armoire to store them.

People celebrate when the economy doesn't shrink "too much." Nothing we do seems to help the environment, at least not enough to make up for people who think everything's fine. And politics? Almost a year after his election, mobs of "Birthers" are trying to say the president isn't a citizen.

So we can forgive those few who, expecting the worst, have begun preparing. But far from the mental cases many associate with survivalists, these are families and college students and "city folk," all hoping to steel themselves for whatever comes next.

"Jake" is a pre-med student in Oklahoma City who asked that his last name not be used. Not because he's afraid of being robbed, but because he's afraid of being ostracized. Not everyone is ready to have a serious talk about the world's problems, he said.

"When I tell people my position, that we're heading toward environmental disaster and overpopulation, they don't want to argue the numbers " they just launch into ad hominem attacks," he said. "There's definitely a stigma. I'm a former military guy, so it's weird when I say, 'We should eat less meat, because it's not environmentally sustainable,' and people call me a hippie."

Jake likes red meat. He still eats it, on occasion. But the more he reads and the more he learns in environmental science classes, the more he sees that everybody needs to find a different way to get their food or even more people will be starving.

"The thing is, the planet's population growth isn't linear " it's exponential," he said. "By 2048, that means 13 billion people. That's double our current population. Meanwhile, we're having trouble feeding six billion people right now."

It might be easy for some to ignore a prediction nearly 40 years down the line, but Jake sees a crisis well within his lifetime "¦ and it scares him. (The United Nation projects the world population to reach 9.1 billion in 2050.) Scarier still, he doesn't have any idea how it can be avoided.

And so he's a little selfish. He keeps a supply of dried beans and oatmeal on hand. It's a surplus he works through, to keep them from spoiling, but he keeps it well-stocked. He's even considered testing out something from his military days " eating mealworms.

"They're cheap, they're easy to care for and they reproduce," he said. "Granted, they weren't the most appetizing meal I've ever had, but I'm trying to keep an open mind. I'd rather eat them than go hungry."

While some fend for themselves, Jeff Pennington has a family to look out for. And hopefully, a family that will look after him. The Tulsa resident is a third-generation Eagle Scout, and the recent run of environmental disasters and political unrest has reminded him to live up to the creed he once took:

Be prepared.

"You know, it's funny that so many people only consider the paramilitary aspect to it," he said. "I'm not a guy in camo, running around the woods. I just want to be prepared for the worst."

The feeling really took hold in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Watching the coverage, he found himself wondering why everybody was waiting for a handout when they could be doing things for themselves.

That's when he decided to teach his four children some self-reliance. If you need food, shelter, warmth and water, you ought to learn how to get them yourself. The world will not always provide for you, he said.

"It's easy to become complacent, so we decided to change things up. We got rid of the couch and the TV. You can't raise couch potatoes without the couch," he said. "Then we got them outside, taught them how to use hand tools, axes, hatchets and saws."

Those lessons culminated in a weekend without electricity. Pennington shut down the breaker box and said to his family, "What would you need to survive?"

The next week, the big ice storm of 2007 hit. The family was without power for eight days.

Pffft. Easy.

So easy, in fact, that once they took care of their own needs " ventilation, water storage and sanitation " they turned to their neighbors and started helping them.

"It was an eye-opener for my kids," he said. "We went to the grocery store and saw a guy with a basket full of propane, more than he was going to need for a long time. When they saw what panic did to everybody else, they really appreciated being prepared."

Can it go too far? Absolutely, Pennington said. Surviving isn't just about yourself or your family; it's about the community. You can't do it all by yourself. But if you take care of others, one would hope they would return the favor.

After all, nobody is itching to trade with the guy in the bulletproof body armor who is sure everybody is trying to steal from him.

But even if the world doesn't end, Pennington's family is taking precautions that will benefit them regardless. They're planting their own vegetables and fruit trees. They're considering learning canning. They're even learning how to cook bland but nutritious food.

"If it doesn't taste too good, maybe you won't eat so much," he said.

Ray Ridlen isn't too worried about people eating less. He just wants them eating food they've grown themselves.

Ridlen, who teaches horticulture and agriculture at the Oklahoma State University Extension Office in Oklahoma County, said it's a skill that more and more people want to learn.

"In February, when we do the early season vegetable garden classes, it's usually pretty slow," he said. "That's the potatoes and onions class, not the sexy warm season stuff that everybody wants."

February 2008: 55 people attended the class. February 2009: more than 180 came.

"A lot of people talked about losing their jobs or being worried about the economy," he said. "They just want to know how to do for themselves."

Any measure to save a buck has people interested, he said. Growing your own food is a big cash-saver, and the classes for lawn care also grew.

"Well, for one thing, the classes are free, so why not come?" he asked. "But really, it's about people trying to figure out how to live on less."

Which is kind of what survival is all about. "P.J. Fry

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