When I told my mum that I was writing about how the ultra-rich plan to live in bunkers to escape the apocalypse, her response was a little bit disappointing. “Oh,” she said. “That sounds quite a familiar subject.”
She then told me about a radio programme she’d recently heard about the pyramids, their alignment to the stars, and how the callers calling-in had wondered whether they had been built by aliens. No, they had not, the hosts reassured them.
As she continued talking about the Egyptians, I wondered briefly what she’d meant when she said my theme was quite familiar, but before I came to any conclusions as to why the bunker idea was so obvious, our conversation turned a corner.
After it had ended, I realised how she may have had a point after all. The bunkers of my subject-matter are designed to preserve the lives of their occupants. This is a perfectly apt description of the pyramids. The only difference is that the pharaohs were already dead when they moved in, but hey, try telling that to the pharaohs.
Preserving the occupants
In a sense, and with the assistance of a very elaborate eschatology [the part of theology concerned with death], the pharaohs were the first ever wealthy preppers, the term often used as a synonym for survivalists.
The bunkers of our contemporary pharaohs – tech titans et al - work on a similar principle. From the outside, all you can see is a reinforced concrete shell, partly camouflaged by flora. As for the inside, it depends what design you go with.
A company called Oppidum, for example, may be right for those of a nervous disposition. For an undisclosed sum – only genuine nobs need apply – you can buy a deluxe bunker your fellow billionaire preppers would envy.
One of their solutions, called L'Héritage, is described by its architect as "designed, ideated and created without compromise to be worthy of our clients and the objects they seek to enjoy, preserve and protect".
For good measure, he says that the project was "entirely beyond any brief we have received for a secure space". So, of all the many billionaire apocalypse havens, this is a standout.
The Futurist option, on the other hand, offers "an entire ecosystem… complete with subtle background noises to go along with stunning art pieces on display throughout". So, elevator music as you admire your Matisse. I hope to obtain a recording of these "subtle background noises" so I can better enjoy my next visit to the local gallery.
Beyond that, there are considerations given to fresh air supplies, food mountains, drink lakes, and simulated natural light. The Parisian architectsays reassuringly that he is aiming for "spaces of absolute purpose, engineering integrity and state-of-the-art technology", whilst also being "a beautiful and cosseting environment for the owner… function does not have to mean compromise in elegance and style".
Bunker is one of the few words Oppidum does not use, owing – one suspects - to its less-than-savoury associations. A sight of its interior hardly suggests a scene from Downfall, the film about Hitler's last days.
The company is Swiss, which doesn't surprise me. Years ago, I attended a lavish wedding in Switzerland, in a vast and rambling old place overlooking a lake. Seeking shade under the vast canopy of a tree, I found myself in stilted conversation with the father-of-the-bride, who owned the place.
Little of our small talk remains, but what I do recall is his assertion that the Swiss Air Force was ready for any eventuality, including nuclear attack, and that its fighter jets were housed in tunnels carved into the mountainside.
I didn't believe him, but years later I found that he was absolutely right - the Swiss did indeed store their best planes in the mountainside. Air Force Prep.
That same mentality and expertise must help when it comes to designing so-called "secure spaces". It may turn out to be even more lucrative than banking. Cognitively speaking, the elite are already leaving us.
The Swiss, not known as a poor bunch, don't have to mind-read to get into the bunker mentality. It's more a case of satisfying the same instincts as their own.
We talk a lot about the 'super-rich' these days. We follow them to Davos (in Switzerland) – where we write and talk about them. In their defence, many of the world's wealthiest are neither irresponsible nor indifferent to the fate of humanity - one millionaire attending the summit demanded that the government tax him.
Likewise, an open letter - titled 'the cost of extreme wealth' - was signed by Disney heiress Abigail Disney and some 205 other "patriotic millionaires", all urging a tax on wealth.
"There is only so much stress any society can take, only so many times mothers and fathers will watch their children go hungry while the ultra-rich contemplate their growing wealth," they wrote. "The cost of action is much cheaper than the cost of inaction – it's time to get on with the job."
Cognitively speaking, The elite are already leaving us, and not just for a few days in Davos
The image of hungry children preys on the minds of some high-net-worth preppers.
Ensconced within a building designed to survive the apocalypse, scene outside straight out of Saint John of Patmos, they might well hope the "subtle background noise" drowns out the screams.
Hiding from the Beast and the Dragon as they hold absolute sway over what's left of the planet will also mean excluding your fellow human beings.
In a long Guardian article last year, Marxist media theorist Douglas Rushkoff recalls his invitation to give a talk in the desert to five such wealthy preppers, and quotes security expert JC Cole. "Honestly, I am less concerned about gangs with guns than the woman at the end of the driveway holding a baby and asking for food," says Cole. "I don't want to be in that moral dilemma."
Where to for the end?
Cole's solution is locally owned sustainable farms. It is unclear whether these doomsday watchers – the "upper echelon of the tech investing and hedge-fund world", according to Rushkoff – would be so inclined. Their presenter almost didn't give his talk because he did not want "to help these guys ruin what's left of the internet".
After some run-of-the-mill forecasting - Bitcoin vs Ethereum, Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality, China vs Google on quantum – they inch towards their real interest: New Zealand vs Alaska. Where will be the least affected by the coming climate crisis, where will be safest?
Now, as any fool knows , the correct answer is New Zealand, despite Cyclone Gabrielle having battered the east coast in February, leaving at least 11 dead and displacing thousands. If biological warfare is the problem, Alaska may have the edge, the extreme cold being a less receptive environment for germs.
The questions kept coming. How long could one survive with no outside help? Should a shelter have its own air supply? What was the likelihood of groundwater contamination? How best to maintain authority over a security force after 'the event', a euphemism for "the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, solar storm, unstoppable virus, or malicious computer hack that takes everything down".
The questions grow increasingly sinister. There will have to be security guards, obviously, to deal with the dystopian surroundings, but this is a world where money really can't buy you love – can't buy anything - so what's to prevent the guards from choosing their own leader? They consider using special combination locks on the food supply that only they know, or fitting guards with "disciplinary" collars in return for their survival. It's all very 'Story of O'. Perhaps robots could replace guards.
Their euphemism for environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, solar storm, unstoppable virus or anything else that takes everything down?
Rushkoff listens with growing alarm. He tries to make what he calls "pro-social arguments for partnership and solidarity" by suggesting they cultivate good relations with the guards now, in order to inspire loyalty later, but the preppers are Machiavellian to a man: they assume there will be a chronic scarcity of love in the aftermath of the event and opt for fear to make up the deficit. Rushkoff only succeeds in sounding like a starry-eyed hippy.
Preparing to look away
It is hard to imagine any of these men bolting awake at night, haunted by the apparition of a hungry child. If it was a thing, compassion insomnia would have changed the world long ago. The children of the apocalypse will only have power if they are seen. If not, hard-hearted preppers won't feel the faintest twinge of guilt.
Far from being friendly, the very act of building a refuge for oneself and a handful of your mates is a form of proleptic genocide. "Never before have our society's most powerful players assumed that the primary impact of their own conquests would be to render the world itself unliveable for everyone else," Rushkoff says.
"Nor have they ever before had the technologies through which to programme their sensibilities into the very fabric of our society. The landscape is alive with algorithms and intelligences actively encouraging these selfish and isolationist outlooks." He adds, darkly, that "those sociopathic enough to embrace them are rewarded with cash and control over the rest of us".
Never before have our society's most powerful players assumed that the primary impact of their own conquests would be to render the world unliveable for everyone else
Who are these ideologues of Dark Enlightenment? And how has New Zealand – that blameless setting for fantasy films and zero-Covid policies – become such a Prepper Mecca? Even a billionaire of agnostic disposition regarding the destruction of the planet has bought a property over there and then, through force of habit, almost destroyed that too.
Tony Malkin, who heads the company that owns the Empire State Building, spent vast sums on a firework display, only to ignite an NZ hill.
Neighbours were annoyed that he went no further than to praise the fire service, but it was self-evidently an innocent mistake. Billionaires seldom apologise for the destructive effects their excessive wealth can have on the planet, so why would they apologise for setting fire to part of it?
Individual above all
A book called 'The Sovereign Individual' may have forged the path to places like Dalefield, where Mr Malkin hunkers. Written before the turn of the century by William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson, it successfully predicted the advent of crypto currencies. Rees-Mogg's son, Jacob (an English MP and former minister) appears to have inherited the prophetic gene, his nickname being 'Mystic Mogg', as well as 'The Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century.'
It was Rees-Mogg père whotook the deepest draughts of the oracular vapours. He and Davidson predicted the twilight of democracy and the decline of what they called the "nanny state".
A cybereconomy would emerge and egalitarian economics would come to an end, they said. No more nations. Tax would become so difficult to extract that seeking to do so would lead to violence. The individual would be sovereign.
"Genius will be unleashed, freed from both the oppression of government and the drags of racial and ethnic prejudice," they write. "In the Information Society, no one who is truly able will be detained by the ill-formed opinions of others.
"It will not matter what most of the people on earth might think of your race, your looks, your age, your sexual proclivities, or the way you wear your hair. In the cybereconomy, they will never see you. The ugly, the fat, the old, the disabled will vie with the young and beautiful on equal terms in utterly colour-blind anonymity on the new frontiers of cyberspace."
Within this creative mayhem, the authors singled out New Zealand as the "domicile of choice for wealth creation in the Information Age". For some wealth creators, it is.
It is well known that Peter Thiel, the educated libertarian's educated libertarian, has a penchant for Lord of the Rings. He is also a big fan of 'The Sovereign Individual'.In a 2009 essay, he demonstrates his absorption of its arguments, supplementing them with some of his own devising, including - roll of drums – his summation that capitalism and democracy had become incompatible.
In this envisioned creative mayhem, the state disintegrates, the individual is sovereign, and New Zealand is the domicile of choice for rulers of the information age
I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual," he wrote. "For all these reasons, I still call myself libertarian."
It is quite a thing to stand against "the inevitability of death", since this is something that none who have ever died have ever succeeded in doing. To progress to describing that anti-inevitability stance as "an ideology" is, in many ways, to cross the prepper Rubicon.
The Age of Information
Thiel feels that he has been duped all along – by his pet hamster, life insurers, priests, Dutch still life painters, an ossuary he once mistook for the exit, a sly old codger named St Jerome, warfare, plague victims, slaves whispering into the ears of triumphal generals, cemeteries, sick jokes and gallows humour, obituary columns, catafalques, and by the entire undertaking profession – into thinking that he would inevitably peg out. The belief that no-one need ever have died may just be the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories.
Apple founder Steve Jobs once said: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart." Some saw Jobs as the king across the water, the future monarch of an independent California, blessed with godlike powers and a devout belief in the divine origins of profit. But didn't Steve Jobs buy the farm back in 2011? Behold, through no fault of his own, yet another victim of the death ideology.
Thiel has also tried to buy a farm, so to speak, that borders a lake. The tech investor's tribulations Down Under far exceed those of an accidental arsonist. Indeed, he must regret not opting for Alaska instead.
As far back as 2011, he went to some trouble to achieve NZ citizenship, spending no fewer than a dozen days down there, just to show willing. Usually, the government would require an applicant to take up permanent residence in the country for at least 1,350 days in five years, but they waived that requirement on the basis of his entrepreneurial and philanthropic activities.
Party at Thiel's place
So far, so good, but then Thiel set about designing a bunkerto occupy a scrap of land roughly the size of lower Manhattan on the banks of Lake Wanaka.
Local conservationists and bureaucrats were appalled by the drawings of an undulating partly-hidden empire, embedded in the hillside, comprising "a series of stand-alone buildings, including a lodge for visitor accommodation for up to 24 guests, accommodation pod for the owner, together with associated lodge management buildings, infrastructure, landscape treatment, water features and meditation space".
The bit about the meditation space was later scrapped, presumably because the entire landscape leant itself to meditation, and on the well-known principle that the most beautiful views are always to be had from the ugliest building.
As the writer Marc O'Connell put it, New Zealand is "the furthest place from anywhere… a kind of new Ararat, a place of shelter from the coming flood". (Guardian, 15 February 2018). The views are secondary. The primary objective here is to slip away as gracefully and as comfortably as one can during the End Days.
It is a video game, where the winner gets to be "the last of us". Ultra-rich preppers are working out what Rushkoff calls "the insulation equation", whereby they seek to earn enough money to insulate themselves from the reality they are creating by earning money in this way.It's like trying to drive fast enough to escape one's own exhaust fumes, he says.
These endgamers would strive to avoid us anyway, he thinks, regardless of the planet's fate. "Maybe the apocalypse is less something they're trying to escape than an excuse… to rise above mere mortals and execute the ultimate exit strategy." Yeah, right! Hey, who you calling a "mere mortal"?
Survival of the Richest, by Douglas Rushkoff, is published by Scribe. Eleanor Catton's new novel, Birnam Wood, has just been released by Granta. Coming ten years after she won the Booker Prize, it is the story of a group of guerrilla gardeners who clash with a billionaire prepper. It is set in New Zealand, naturally.