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How Not to Survive Doomsday

Garth Brown |

If Evan Osnos, writing in the latest issue of The New Yorker, is to be believed, a significant portion of the wealthiest among us are preparing for the apocalypse by purchasing bunkers, guns, and land in New Zealand. If and when society collapses, they will rush to their private planes, helicopters, and motorcycles (unless they’ve purchased an apartment in a converted ICBM silo, in which case an armored car will fetch them), and hurry off, each to his own safe haven. I exclusively use the male pronoun here because, based both on this article and my other encounters with the topic over the years, this sort of delusional disaster planning is an overwhelmingly male pursuit.

It is delusional in a very particular way. The sorts of societal breakdown most of these contingencies would actually address are quite specific. They rely on our protagonist to foresee the coming instability just early enough to whisk his family and perhaps his closest friends off to a remote western ranch or mountain hideaway. Once ensconced, by day he will use his guns to fend off the marauding hordes and by night he will dine like a king on MREs. After a vague, unspecified amount of time, things will stabilize. In other words, these sorts of measures - bunkers, guns, canned goods, all stored in remote locations - assume a breakdown in social norms that is widespread enough to cause massive upheaval and such an uptick in violence that staying in a major city is an unacceptable risk, but an upheaval that is not so massive as to actually permanently ruin society. In other words, it’s an imaginary scenario that resembles nothing so much as a hackneyed movie, right down to the happy ending.

A few people seem to have the longer term in mind. The creator of ICBM apartment community says that it has five years of canned food, and that it could provide for itself indefinitely by raising both hydroponic greens and tilapia in tanks, a claim which is so obviously ridiculous I laughed out loud when I read it. The people who plan on running to New Zealand must believe not only that it will somehow remain viable as a nation even as the rest of the world is consumed by chaos, but that their palatial vacation homes/disaster compounds will force the government and the locals to accept them. The presumptions underlying these long term visions of the future are, if anything, even more specific and ridiculous than the action movie fever dreams harbored by run of the mill preppers.

To Osnos’s credit, he gives voice to the skeptics who point out the narcissistic insanity of these kinds of preparations. It would be a better use of resources to attempt to address the underlying dynamics that promote instability rather than to anticipate what instability will look like. Instability, being inherently unstable, is quite difficult to predict. It is both more reasonable and more ethical for those blessed with exceptional resources to try to fix the world than to simply try to survive its breakdown.

The article doesn’t go into the details of what most of these survival plans would look like from one day to the next if actually carried out, and I suspect most of the bunker owners don’t have any realistic idea of what they’d be in for. I don’t consider myself an expert on surviving the end of the world as we know it, but, since I don’t believe anyone actually has firsthand experience with the topic, I’ll add my two cents, based on growing all my own food for a year and altogether too much time thinking about how humans should live in the world. Stockpiling is obviously a short term solution, but growing enough food to survive over the long term takes skill, experience, and luck, and inevitably outside resources. Hunting is a crapshoot even if you’re good at it, and raising livestock requires a separate set of skills. Leaving San Francisco for the mountains of Idaho to live off canned goods for a year before seamlessly transitioning to a diet of homegrown beans and wild elk is not a realistic plan, and aquaculture in a missile silo is even less viable.

A better course would be to become a part of a community. A group of people already bound to a place and each other are more resilient than any individual. The ability to produce food and other goods is worth much more than a cache of either. Of course, even rural, reasonably self-sufficient communities are more stable and productive when they exist in peaceful relation to other communities. Perhaps these communities could then agree on some sort of broader law to govern trade and norms, and call themselves a state…

To put it another way, as I’ve gotten older, the idea of revolutionary change has appealed to me less and less. Part of the problem is that it's so rare it's nearly impossible to work towards, but the bigger issue is that revolutionary change isn’t often change for the better. Instead, put me down for boring, imperfect, incremental progress towards a society that treats both individuals and groups justly, that accommodates the wonderful variety of human experience and expression, that cares not just about borders but about the land itself.

The doomers discussed in the article largely hail from the technocracy of silicon valley, and Osnos points out their incoherent vacillation between visions of a Utopian future and visions of utter collapse. I’m betting on something in between those poles, and I’m betting that if disaster ever does arrive, all the canned soup in the world won’t be good for very much. Of course, I could be wrong. There are many examples, some recent, others further back, that remind me I’m not particularly good at seeing the future. Maybe a few years from now the prescient thought leaders of the internet age will all be in bunkers, chowing down on Soylent or the 1392nd consecutive meal of tilapia and microgreens, congratulating themselves and each other while the world outside burns. If that's the alternative, I'll take my chances with the apocalypse.


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