Years ago, Michal Zalewski wrote a widely-circulated essay titled “Disaster
planning for regular folks”.
I read it because I was a fan of his 2011 book, “The Tangled
Web” and because I
retained an interest in emergency preparedness from my scouting days. It was
entertaining and informative, and it inspired me to make some substantial
improvements to my own emergency plans. When Zalewski announced Practical
Doomsday last year, I pre-ordered it immediately.
It’s no secret that hardcore survivalists face a lot of stigma (in the US,
anyway). Practical Doomsday taught me that even more moderate preppers endure
the judgement of their peers. Zalewski unfortunately kinda flubs this one. In
general, he takes pains to distance his recommendations from stereotypical
precautions by stressing rationality and providing statistical evidence. That’s
a necessary and effective editorial strategy, even when it somewhat glibly
reduces the out-group’s concern to a “zombie apocalypse.”
Things get awkward about two-thirds of the way through the book, when the
author shifts focus and begins “crossing the line between household items and
survival gear.” Zalewski writes that these supplies,
may come in handy during disasters but that could invite probing questions if
kept in plain view. Your chances of getting grilled by friends or relatives
will vary: a pry bar in your garage may make perfect sense if you just
finished remodeling a deck, but will look out of place if your proudest DIY
accomplishment is hanging a picture on the wall. The bottom line is that as
you accumulate more equipment, you might eventually have to come out as a
full-fledged survivalist–and if you want to keep your friendships, you’ll
need to be careful not to bring up extraterrestrials or zombies on day one.
For all his warnings against alarmism when it comes to disasters, Zalewski
really sensationalizes the social repercussion of following his advice. It’s
tough to interpret the placement of this content: is it tucked away here
because it’s actually not a big deal? Because he wants to downplay the problem?
Because it’s a repressed outrage? Whatever the case, it makes those wry
references to a zombie apocalypse seem fraught.
Addressing this directly could have made for some fascinating reading. I’d love
to know more (read: anything) about the history of survivalism and its
portrayal in mass media. That would be a great opportunity to advise on how to
prep with dignity and authenticity. Instead, we only get one apologetic
paragraph, reluctantly included at the moment where the recommended emergency
preparedness techniques become too ostentatious to hide.
(Coincidentally, Zalewski occasionally channels the self-centered nature of the
survivalist trope: he sometimes motivates altruistic behavior by explaining the
potential for personal gain. That said, it’s too infrequent to seem
pathological, so I’m willing to let it slide.)
When it comes to informational content, though, Practical Doomsday really
delivers. It’s clear that the author has been walking the walk for many years.
His risk assessment is cogent, his research is solid, and his advice is,
The distribution of writing feels like it was informed by the relative
importance of the topics being discussed. Obviously, that’s generally the goal
with, you know, books, but it has some unique implications for this one.
Personal fitness and home safety have an outsized impact on well-being relative
to the amount of attention they receive in public discourse. Zalewski gives
them their own (short) chapters. Even with statistical evidence on your side,
though, it’s tough to keep advice about ladder safety from feeling like filler.
Then again, the lengthy investigation about the myriad ways to store and save
money feels simultaneously arcane and potent. It’s how I imagine I’d feel
reading a book of spells. (I wonder if it’s possible to draw a nerdier
If you’re on the fence about this book, you should definitely give “Disaster
planning for regular folks”
a try. Both works are sure to include information that doesn’t fit your
personal risk profile (a fact that Zalewski himself anticipates, just by
encouraging readers to write such a profile), but even those subjects are
entertaining. You can chalk that up to Zalewski’s solid prose and approachable
tone. For my part, I picked up plenty of improvements to my emergency
preparedness plans, and I generally feel a little less fearful and a little