Steve Braunias talks to the world's leading authority on Doomsday prepping as The Plague drives us all indoors to await an uncertain future.
So here we all are at the end of the world, barricaded in our homes, hoping for the best, fearing the worst, and pretty much the only people who are totally and entirely secure are the people we all mocked and loathed for years and years – Doomsday preppers, snug in their bunkers, immune, armed, hidden. Right now they're the sane ones. They'll live. We're taking our chances. We're going to have to go out sometime but they won't. They're under the ground and they have everything they need.
The man who knows more than anyone in the world about the bunker people and their bunkers – who they are, where they are, what they're doing right now – is Bradley Garrett, a very cool, very smart and very adventurous American who terms himself a "social geographer". His book Bunker: Building for the End Times will be published by Penguin in August. I met him a couple of years ago in Sydney when I was there to interview Ian Clarry, a Kiwi who claimed he was selling Doomsday bunkers to the rich; I wrote a very mocking feature about this rather manic and apparently bizarre character for the Herald, and the only person who came out of the story looking good was Garrett, then with the University of Sydney. I interviewed him, too, and we stayed in touch. We had numerous beers last year at Circular Quay, and a few months later we had dinner in Herne Bay. He's now back in the US, looking after his mum in LA.
Garrett spent several years travelling the world, going down into bunkers and talking to their owners and tenants. His book is an incredible record of that journey, and also functions as a philosophical or psychological disquisition about space, about freedom, about survival. (One of his best friends is author Will Self, who has also worked in the psychogeography genre.) Bunker is an incredible read and will surely sell in quite enormous numbers, assuming the human race remains intact and can still read.
We exchanged emails this week for an interview about his research and his views on Doomsday bunkers in the time of The Plague.
Mate, the entire world right now is experiencing intimations of mortality. Your book anticipated that dread, with its amazing tour of underground bunkers designed to withstand social and economic collapse. Did you find any credible evidence that bunkers exist in New Zealand?
What a red herring New Zealand is! It's a great bug-out location and a lot of people, including some in Silicon Valley, have bought property there that they can escape to if things kick off. I have no doubt it's a great place to self-isolate and practise social distancing. But there is no need to build some massive subterranean lair under the countryside in New Zealand and the countless news articles that have suggested this is taking place are clickbait trash.
The people selling bunkers, the guys I call the dread merchants in my book, are happy of course to perpetuate those rumours because it sounds elite and sexy and helps their sales, but I'm really sick of journalists publishing articles based on CGI renders or promise-laden interviews about facilities "under construction" without evidence to back up claims.
You went to the world's largest bunker complex, in South Dakota. Room for 575 people, I think. What's it got down there? How on earth would they stay sane? Are they sane in the first place?
The xPoint – as it's called – was one of my favourite places to hang out. The place is three-quarters the size of Manhattan, way off the grid, with no mobile reception or internet. There are about 30 or 40 preppers set up out there in a row of semi-subterranean concrete bunkers. The first time I went out there was in 2017 and three years later it's beginning to look like an emblematic suburban cul-de-sac, with fences surrounding the front "yards" and American flags flying over the blast doors.
A property developer named Robert Vicino sold them for $35,000 a pop. He now calls the place the xPoint to suggest that it's the point from which humanity will crawl out of the post-apocalyptic ashes to start again. It does actually feel really safe there. I wish I were there right now.
What kinds of provisions did that bunker and others make for Doomsday? Did they stock up adequately on the new gold – toilet paper?
Oh man. Toilet paper is the tip of the iceberg. These people have food for years, solar panels, generators with thousands of gallons or litres of diesel fuel, battery back-up systems, TVs with hard-drives full of movies, tools, weapons – anything you might want or need. I like to think that their bunkers are defined by time more than space, they're like little Earth ships that are stocked for time travel. The destination is some point in the future.
So you find three-week bunkers, three-month bunkers and three-year bunkers, all kitted out with a kind of manic rationality. When Trump was on TV the other day saying this coronavirus might last until the summer, I mentally pictured these preppers shrugging their shoulders – staying inside for three or four months is a breeze in terms of resources for many of them.
The tricky thing, as you hinted at before, is having the mental fortitude to withstand that much isolation. I mean, hell, I've been self-isolating in a very well-stocked house in Los Angeles for eight or nine days now and I'm already starting to think about packing up the car and leaving. I have absolutely no reason to go anywhere and am caring for my 78-year-old mother, who just had surgery, so it would be callous to jet, but I'm getting really edgy and I'm not even two weeks in.
Preppers have been telling me for years that an "Event" would be a blessing in the sense that it acts as a forceful corrector of our priorities. I think they were right in that. Having my plane tickets and talks cancelled was ultimately a relief. Being stuck here, with my partner Amanda, taking care of elderly family members and getting paid to read and write remotely has been relatively productive and low stress. It's forced me to realise how much of what I was doing was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
There have been reports of queues of people in LA – and Auckland, too - outside gun stores. Bunkers demand armed security, right? Doesn't the one in South Dakota have an armed guard?
It's true, we went to get ammo the other day and they're sold out. Obviously people aren't going to fight the invisible viral enemy with AR-15s, they're stocking up for the potential chaos if those fragile supply lines go down and the grocery stores, which are already half empty, suddenly shut their doors. Or if the stock market doesn't level out at some point and the whole financial system collapses in on itself.
People tend to respond to disasters predictably. First, people panic – hence the rush on toilet paper, water and hand sanitiser – then, you have a period of altruism where everyone helps each other out, reminding everybody that 'this is only temporary' and hoping that the favour will be remembered when order is restored.
Then, the third phase kicks in, which preppers call WROL or the world Without Rule of Law. That's when people start cracking and turning on each other.
Given that we haven't even seen the peak of this pandemic, I have no doubt we're going to reach phase three. And of course, if the grocery stores are closed, and you have supplies stocked up, you don't want to become a grocery store for other people. Hence the need for a bit of deterrence.
Your view is that bunkers are built not so much for an event – war, pandemic, whatever – but for a period of time. That they are fortified for however long – months, a year, five years. Is it possible some of these bunkers will sustain a population for that long?
That's right, bunkers are about making it through a temporal bottleneck, they're spaces built with time in mind. And it's completely feasible that many of them will function as intended.
For my book, I visited a bunker in Kansas called the Survival Condo. It's the most lavish and sophisticated private bunker in the world. It was once a US government Cold War Atlas F missile silo with a nuclear-tipped ICBM 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki inside it. A doomsday prepper named Larry Hall bought it in 2008 for $300,000. By 2010, he had transformed the 60m-deep silo into a 15-story luxury bolthole, an inverted skyscraper, where a community of up to 75 individuals can weather five years.
He took me to level eleven, about 50m underground, into a well-appointed full-floor 167sq m condo. It had a cushy white living room set, and a stone electric fireplace with a flat-panel TV mounted over it. A marble countertop extended to a bar that separated the living room from the kitchen, which was filled with high-end appliances. It also had "windows", vertically-installed LED screens that could pipe in a live feed from cameras on top of the bunker or pre-recorded scenes. It was surreal and confusing. When I left the bunker, I felt like I'd exited a video game level into another level and was really disoriented for a few hours.
You wrote in the Guardian last year, "Preppers anticipate war, nuclear disaster, pandemics …" Right now, do you expect most of these will already be full, with customers who booked ahead?
I began writing this book about "prepper" culture as part of a three-year research fellowship at the University of Sydney and to be perfectly honest I initially saw it as an opportunity to get paid to hang out with a quirky subculture and write a kind of erudite Hunter S Thompson travelogue.
But about halfway through the project, I realised that the preparations I saw people undertaking were resonating with me. I had been living with low-level dread for years – it was a background hum that would sometimes come to the fore, a gut-feeling that my life was over-complicated and that I was teetering on an unseen edge. It wasn't a survival instinct or fear of mortality as much as a frustration with the pace of my life, a feeling that despite my outward success as an academic, I had very little control over anything happening to me. It was a fear of the unknown that haunted me. I realised that these preppers I was hanging out with, they weren't wracked by the same malady, they were calm, cool, and collected, just quietly stocking up their supplies and building redoubts they could retreat to if needed.
And yeah, many of the preppers I have worked with over the past three or four years while I was writing this book are now calmly retreating into their well-stocked bunkers. After all, not only were they prepared for exactly this kind of event, they almost all suggested to me that it was inevitable.
Now that the majority of the world's population lives in cities, and those cities are not able to sustain themselves, since they rely on relatively tenuous infrastructural supply lines, it really does not take much to send contemporary life into a tailspin. That's what we're seeing now, a virus that is killing thousands of people and crashing the global economy.
What I'm waiting for now is a compound disaster, a hurricane or more out-of-control wildfires, or a dirty bomb going off in a big city. If that happens, we're going into full apocalypse mode.
The virus is making obvious that we have all been living inside a fragile fiction. I think we all knew that on some level, we all had that gut feeling that the way we were living would at some point it would implode. The history of our species is a roller-coaster of crises, whether we're talking about natural disasters, war, ecological breakdown, or indeed, pandemics. The fact that we're now "modern" is meaningless in a cosmic frame.
In terms of the timing of the book, I'm actually glad it's not coming out until August. After years of living in the future tense, always looking to the next thing, I expect that as this pandemic ramps up we're going to be spending a lot more time watching news and social media feeds to stay on top of the present moment. When we all emerge from our literal or metaphoric bunkers, my book will be waiting to help make sense of it all.
Your book is about private bunkers. What about government, though; doesn't the White House etc have their own escape hatch?
The government bunkers from the Cold War were the seed of the idea for the contemporary prepping we're seeing. You've seen the bunker that the New Zealand government would have retreated into during a nuclear exchange. You'll find bunkers like that in most developed countries. They're subterranean cities, where you have all the food, water, fuel, communications infrastructure, kitchens, and documents you need to keep the state alive during a period of unimaginable horror.
A decade ago, the US Department of Defense estimated that there were more than 10,000 underground facilities around the world. Given that digging has only accelerated since then, I would imagine there might be 15-20,000 underground facilities today. It's like a second world underground, one that we, as private citizens, have very little grasp of.
What's interesting to me though is that you see a huge difference in who these government bunkers are built for, based on the underlying ideology of the culture. In Switzerland, for instance, they have shelter for every single citizen. In the USA, bunkers are built for the military and government officials, but people are left to fend for themselves.
After the Cold War, a lot of the old government bunkers were abandoned and new ones were built. That's when preppers, who had long been convinced that their personal survival was in their own hands, started thinking about buying these facilities and turning them into private doomsteads.
You also don't need to necessarily have a bunker. Consider our current situation. I've been holed up in a house for about a week now, sheltering from an invisible bug. I'm reasonably well supplied, but if I'd spent a thousand dollars six months ago on supplies and put them in the garage, instead of blowing it on dinners out, I would feel more a little more secure in knowing that even if the grocery deliveries stop, I'd have what I need. That low level prepping, what people call "practical prepping", is something we should all be doing. The idea that our lives would carry on as they have been in late-stage capitalism is magical thinking. Realistically, we should all expect a bit of breakdown every once and awhile.
You once said to me, "I keep hearing bunker people say, 'I want to be in there with like-minded individuals.' They imagine it as a kind of cleansing: you go down there with people who you agree with, and then you emerge and repopulate with your ideology intact." But these sound like the worst kind of people imaginable – right-wing, militaristic, ruthless. Am I right in thinking that?
It's a mistake to think that all these communities are full of politically conservative, violent ex-military types. That's a holdover from the days of survivalism, the practice that arose during the Cold War that was rife with anti-government sentiment. I would also point out that the frustrations of US-based survivalists were valid, given that their government had abandoned them to a speculative nuclear holocaust under wholly dubious rationale. It turns out the survivalists' "conspiracy theories" about deep underground military bases were spot on.
Contemporary prepping is, for the most part, much more focused on practices and methodologies than it is on religious or political ideologies. Sure, I met Mormons who saw disasters as an opportunity for missionary work, evangelicals who thought the next great disaster was foretold in Revelations, and a lot of MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters, but I also met a lot of very kind, generous preppers who were honestly more like geeky gearheads who spend all their time learning how to wire solar panels to battery systems and fixing up old pre-computerised vehicles.
I learned a lot of practical skills that I now feel embarrassed to never have known in the first place. I mean, most of us no longer even know how to forage or grow food – that's the most basic premise for survival and we're totally dependent on systems we don't even understand to sort all that stuff out for us. The way we live is as naive as it is dysfunctional.
We met in bizarre circumstances in Sydney, when I came to town to interview a bunker salesman for a story in the Herald, and we hung out together with this salesman, a Kiwi called Clarry, who was representing a group called Hardened Structures, which claimed to be building bunkers around the world. Neither of us found these claims to be credible. Did you ever discover any sign that people really are buying bunkers from Kiwi Clarry?
I've met a lot of people who are serious, committed and who are building really impressive spaces. I've also met a lot of people who remind me of timeshare hucksters.
We both knew at that meeting that we were being sold a stinky pile. I have no doubt those guys are making money, but I think it's mostly coming from drawing up construction plans and doing assessment reports for existing properties.
To my mind, that stuff has little more credibility than stock trading – until you build something material, it's just financial speculation, some wealthy person's wet dream that has no basis in reality. It's cool that they've found a niche market to make their wad in, but I asked them repeatedly to send me to an actual place they'd built and they never came through, despite my making clear I had a research budget that allowed me to fly anywhere in the world. I've seen a lot of wicked places over the past three of four years, and those guys we met together seemed like total bottom feeders in comparison.
Final question: so what do you think? Are we doomed?
Our species will survive, but if you track the explosion of our population alongside resource extraction and technical advancement, it's pretty obvious that we've shot ourselves in the foot. Think about it, man, 150-200 years ago we were just figuring out how to build municipal sewers and urban electric lighting and how to dig tunnels underwater. Now we're all hyper-dependant on a mess of infrastructure that I'm confident no single person has a handle on, stretching from deep into the earth out into the solar system.
It was inevitable that it was going to break down and unsurprising, at least to a cynic like me, that it's a little halo of spikes under a ball in a microscope has been our undoing. We should take it as a lesson in hubris: we were never the masters of the universe.
Bradley Garrett is a social geographer currently based at University College Dublin. His new book Bunker: Building for the End Times will be published by Penguin in August.