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Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

The end is near—are the burbs the best place to live through it?

Photo: Daniel Krall, License: N/A

Daniel Krall

Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

By Wendy Brown

New Society, softcover

In these years of war, high gas prices, political upheaval, economic meltdown, and frightening weather, Americans find themselves united across party lines in a way that many people don’t realize: Right or Left, Republican or Democrat, we’re all waiting for the Big Collapse, “TEOTWAWKI”—the end of the world as we know it.

Sure, Lefties like to laugh at the nutjobs who were waiting for the May 21 rapture, the dittoheads who hang on the Beck/Limbaugh narrative of American decline and fall, or the paranoids on YouTube who rant about the New World Order. Meanwhile, the Left has its own prophets of doom—and it seems that many of them are named Jim: James Howard Kunstler, who gives his prediction of a peak-oil apocalypse in The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand; climatologist James Hansen, who has sounded the alarm on carbon emissions and coal; and James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia theory, who has predicted that billions will die in the coming environmental meltdown, to name a few. Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Jared Diamond and self-aggrandizing author Michael Ruppert each put out works sounding the alarm for the coming Collapse. There’s Vanity Fair’s Cullen Murphy, who has wondered Are We Rome? There are zombies: The immense popularity of The Walking Dead and other zombie media reflects our anxiety about a future where civilization has broken down.

Since Americans long ago traded manual skills and practical know-how for consumerism, many of us feel we need an instruction manual or two to play around with survivalism while life is still easy and Walmart is still open. There is no shortage of such books, but Wendy Brown’s Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs (New Society, softcover) has to be one of the more entertainingly titled, if not one of the more substantive. Over the course of 22 chapters, Brown addresses topics in a “survival list for the thrivalist”: stocking the pantry, growing food, collecting tools, and preparing for education in an energy-starved world, among others. It reads like Brown’s blog or journal about discovering self-sufficient living. But the book offers little in the way of technical details—and one would think that details are what you want if you’re trying to build a composting toilet. Surviving the Apocalypse might have value as an eye-opener for people who had never considered converting their yards to gardens, making soap and reusable sanitary napkins, or raising rabbits for pelts, food, and fertilizer. But for those who are really intent on surviving the apocalypse, book purveyors like Rodale, Chelsea Green Publishing, Storey Publishing, and New Society have released many far more useful tomes.

What’s interesting about Surviving the Apocalypse is what it says about our collective anxiety—that there is actually a market for this kind of manual. New Society tends to publish nice Lefty books about sustainability and community building. But a section on the economic problems of the country has a populist tone—complete with complaints about sending jobs overseas—that could appeal to both Blue Dogs and Tea Partiers. “There was a time when people did meaningful work for an honest day’s wages. That’s the ‘economy’ I would like to restore,” Brown writes. The chapter on home security takes it further, with shades of Soldier of Fortune: “A semi-automatic assault rifle is a battle weapon and might not be the best choice for home defense. If one is going to invest in a weapon for self-defense, a smaller handgun is a better choice.” Brown advises going to the local sporting-goods store to “heft a few” and making a decision after doing research—to be found outside of her book, of course. (Later, she discusses the benefits of owning a guard dog and lauds the attack-dog prowess of her chow chow. This is truly the burbs.)

As a life-after-peak-oil book, Surviving the Apocalypse is provocative in ways that the uninitiated might not perceive: In a world short on oil, the suburbs are often considered doomed landscapes, dependent as they are on giant shopping malls and endless motoring. The suburbs represent rampant consumerism and waste—the very things that got us into this mess—so the politically progressive homesteading movements have tended to focus on the alternatives: dense urban areas or remote countryside.

Who knows how everything will shake out when the world goes to hell, but the suburbs may be well positioned to thrive with fewer resources, as Brown points out. Suburbs are close enough to the city to be convenient and encourage community building, yet spread out enough to offer yards and substantial garden space. (Suburban soil is also usually less contaminated than urban soil.) The houses are large enough to accommodate multigenerational households and cottage industries, which some demographers predict as coming trends. Right now, the main barrier to sustainability in the burbs is not the resources or layout of the communities, but a mind-set there: Until recently, the suburbs have been spared the socioeconomic breakdowns that have hit both urban and rural communities, and many suburbanites want to maintain that bubble. A kind of conservativism—in lifestyle, if not always politics—thrives in the burbs. And that tension pervades Surviving the Apocalypse, like in a section that discusses how to establish an edible landscape in a neighborhood with strict aesthetic covenants. Unfortunately, Brown has few solutions for readers.

The fact is that we may well be headed for tough times—and the suburbs, which were built on prime agricultural land closest to the city and which house a substantial portion of the population, will have to go through a transformation to be sustainable. The real work to be done here is in persuasion, and already there are dreamers: Some of the New Urbanist architects and planners have designed ways to resurrect dead shopping malls into viable, walkable communities, for example. Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs had an opportunity to continue that conversation, to help the suburbs join a resilience movement that is underway in cities and rural areas. But it seems hemmed in by that suburban conservativism. For the ambitions Brown had, Surviving the Apocalypse might have worked better as a manifesto rather than a manual.

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