America is in a gloomy mood, and it’s not just us. A spirit of pessimism seems to have settled across the world in the last year: our divisions seem more unbridgeable than ever, the solutions to our problems increasingly receding out of reach.
In such times, it’s natural that people start fearing the worst. In a way, imagining the apocalypse is refreshing. It’s strangely comforting to ruminate on how we’d survive even if things got as bad as they possibly could. Plus, if everything comes crashing down, it holds the promise of making a clean start, rebuilding society the right way. (This has always been part of the appeal of zombie-apocalypse stories.)
For most of us, this will never be anything but a fantasy. We may buy a case of bottled water or grow some tomato plants, but we don’t have the money or the resources to make real preparations for an apocalyptic future. But if you’re a one-percenter, you can turn your fantasies into reality:
Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.
As the New Yorker article says, the world’s super-rich have caught the doomsday mood, and they’re increasingly buying land to serve as a refuge: remote ranches, mountain cabins, hidden vacation homes. (New Zealand is a popular location, being an industrialized, English-speaking country with striking unspoiled wilderness that’s also far from the presumed source of any turbulence, the U.S.) They’re building bunkers and helipads, stockpiling fuel, freeze-dried food and ammunition. Some are going so far as to take courses in archery or to get laser eye surgery so they won’t depend on glasses after the apocalypse.
Now, there are some obvious problems with these plans. One is pointed out by skeptics like the investor Robert Dugger:
He recalled a dinner in New York City after 9/11 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble: “A group of centi-millionaires and a couple of billionaires were working through end-of-America scenarios and talking about what they’d do. Most said they’ll fire up their planes and take their families to Western ranches or homes in other countries.” One of the guests was skeptical, Dugger said. “He leaned forward and asked, ‘Are you taking your pilot’s family, too? And what about the maintenance guys? If revolutionaries are kicking in doors, how many of the people in your life will you have to take with you?'”
People who’ve never truly had to fend for themselves are likely to underestimate how difficult it is, or how many subordinates it takes to maintain the lifestyle they’re used to living. Others, like the entrepreneur Max Levchin, castigate the cowardice and selfishness of those who care more about fleeing doomsday than preventing it:
To Levchin, prepping for survival is a moral miscalculation; he prefers to “shut down party conversations” on the topic. “I typically ask people, ‘So you’re worried about the pitchforks. How much money have you donated to your local homeless shelter?’ This connects the most, in my mind, to the realities of the income gap. All the other forms of fear that people bring up are artificial.”
Still, this hasn’t dissuaded the super-rich from trying to secure boltholes for themselves. One example is the Survival Condo Project, a luxury apartment complex built into a decommissioned ICBM silo in Kansas. Its multimillion-dollar apartments are already sold out. The developer touts its ability to survive a nuclear strike, as well as its many amenities:
Some levels are dedicated to private apartments and others offer shared amenities: a seventy-five-foot-long pool, a rock-climbing wall, an Astro-Turf “pet park,” a classroom with a line of Mac desktops, a gym, a movie theatre, and a library.
But if you were picturing luxurious living in a post-apocalyptic utopia blissfully free of intrusive government, well, there’s a problem with that. Your survival silo also has a prison, border control, forced labor, and a government issuing rules by fiat:
We visited an armory packed with guns and ammo in case of an attack by non-members, and then a bare-walled room with a toilet. “We can lock people up and give them an adult time-out,” he said. In general, the rules are set by a condo association, which can vote to amend them. During a crisis, a “life-or-death situation,” Hall said, each adult would be required to work for four hours a day, and would not be allowed to leave without permission. “There’s controlled access in and out, and it’s governed by the board,” he said.
If there were a real catastrophe and the buyers of these places showed up to claim the refuge they paid for, how long do you think it’d be before tempers started fraying and egos clashing? How long would it take for them to regress to feudalism or dissolve into civil war and butcher each other? I’m guessing about a week.
This dovetails with what I’ve observed about libertarianism before, namely that it’s a philosophy of the frontier. Libertarian thought experiments almost always start by assuming a blank-slate world with vast unclaimed natural resources and ample space – not a crowded, highly developed society with overlapping claims and a need for careful oversight of who gets what.
Few of them seem to have given thought to the much bigger and knottier problem of how people will get along with each other when moving away isn’t an option. Because they reject the idea of the state, they can’t make use of all we’ve learned through painstaking trial-and-error about solving problems of cooperation and coordination. As a result, they tend to inadvertently recreate a vision of society with all the worst flaws that states have solved.
We saw the same thing with the ludicrous “Freedom Ship” project I wrote about last year in my post on seasteading. Again, its founders envisioned a free-floating society in international waters beyond the reach of repressive law. But scratch the surface of a libertarian utopia and you find a dictatorship with armed guards, private prisons and an unaccountable government.
There’s a lesson here for millionaires and billionaires who are imagining a cozy catastrophe. Our societies and institutions, imperfect though they may be, are hard-won and better than most of the alternatives. It’s easier to conserve and protect what we have than to roll the dice and hope that everything goes well if we have to rebuild from scratch. And the people who are building these doomsday shelters are the ones who have the resources to help accomplish that. What’s stopping them from investing in green energy, or revitalizing poor and rundown communities with philanthropy? It would be a better, a more rational, and a more ultimately fulfilling use of their wealth than indulging apocalypse dreams.