Behold the prophets – and profits – of doom

Fearing the worst: 22% of Americans believe that the world will end in their lifetime. © Survival Condo

Should we be preparing for the end of the world? Many people expect to see the collapse of life as we know it. A new book reveals how a multi-billion-dollar industry has grown around them.

If you were led into it blindfolded, you might take it for a particularly luxurious block of flats. The apartments, complete with marble-topped kitchen counters, sell for up to $4.5 million (£3.4m). One is designed like a log cabin, with a window looking out on snowy mountains. There is a cinema, a gym, a library, and a swimming-pool. But these are flats with a difference: they are all deep underground.

Created by veteran property developer Larry Hall, the Survival Condo apartments occupy what used to be a nuclear-missile silo in Kansas. Protected by nine feet of concrete and remote-controlled machine guns, and descending through 15 storeys, they are designed to keep a community of 75 people alive for five years after the world has collapsed into chaos.

Larry Hall is – in the words of Bradley Garrett’s book, Bunker: Building for the End Times – a “doom merchant”, profiting from people’s fear of catastrophe. The US alone is thought to have 3.7 million so-called “preppers”, preparing for doomsday by buying subterranean refuges and stocking up on arms and necessities. Between them, they spend $400 million a year on emergency food supplies. Thailand and New Zealand are among the destinations favoured by the ultra-rich.

The world’s biggest “survival community”, Vivos xPoint in South Dakota, covers 18 square miles, making it almost three-quarters the size of Manhattan. It contains 575 private bunkers, with room for 10,000 people, linked by 100 miles of private road.

Humans have long put their faith in underground dwellings. In Cappadocia, there are 22 complexes dug into the hills by the Hittites in around 1,200BC, with the deepest one accommodating as many as 20,000 people.

Bradley Garrett dates the modern “doom boom” from the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the US government encouraged people to build their own nuclear shelters. There was a further surge after 9/11, and now – thanks to global warming, civil unrest, and the pandemic – there is another. The creator of xPoint, Robert Vicino, claims that bunker sales have increased by 600% this year.

What you get for your money varies enormously. At Vivos xPoint, it is simply a concrete and steel bunker with plumbing and electricity, designed to withstand a 500,000-pound blast. For some, this is enough: “I just love my bunker,” IT consultant Milton Torres told Garrett. “I close the door and stay in there for a few days and then I can think again.”

Larry Hall, on the other hand, has worked with psychologists to make life at Survival Condo seem as normal as possible. “No one wants to be reminded all the time that they are basically living in a submarine,” he says. Hence the apartments’ “windows” – in fact, LED screens which display whatever scenes the owners choose. One owner, Garrett reports, has a series of videos of Central Park taken from her New York flat “during all four seasons, day and night, together with the cacophonous sounds of urban life”.

Should we be preparing for the end of the world?

Countdown to chaos

Some, including Bradley Garrett, say yes. The world is an increasingly unstable place in terms of politics, climate change, and health. The way in which our lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic is an indication of what might lie ahead. We will all have to rely on ourselves when the moment comes, so it is only sensible to take precautions.

Others argue that preppers are behaving as if society were bound to collapse and, if everyone cut themselves off in the same way, this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the pandemic has shown, the way for humans to get through a crisis is as a community, with everyone acting unselfishly. Taking an optimistic view will give us the courage to carry on and find solutions to our problems.

You Decide

  1. If you were in charge of a survival community, what rules would you impose to make life in it harmonious?
  2. Who is ultimately responsible for a person’s safety – the state or the individual?

Activities

  1. Design a bunker for your family, with everything you need to survive for five years.
  2. Write a one-act play in which people who have been living in a bunker debate whether the time has come to leave it.

Some People Say...

“This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

TS Eliot (1888-1965), British-American poet, from The Hollow Men

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that people throughout the ages have believed – often with the encouragement of religious leaders – the end of the world to be imminent. The painter Sandro Botticelli expected the end to come in 1504. In 1993, US police laid siege to a compound in Waco, Texas, occupied by members of the apocalyptic Branch Davidian sect that was thought to be stockpiling illegal weapons. Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormon religion, is a leading prepping centre.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how much governments can be relied upon to look after their citizens in extreme circumstances. During 9/11, members of the US Congress were evacuated to a giant bunker under the Blue Ridge Mountains, but ordinary people were left to fend for themselves. According to Garrett, only North Korea – “the most bunkered society in the history of the Earth” – and Switzerland have room in official shelters for all their citizens.

Word Watch

Condo
Short for “condominium”. It means a set of flats owned by different people.
Silo
Originally a pit or underground room for storing grain or vegetables. It can also mean a cylindrical tower built above ground.
Manhattan
An island formed by three rivers which is the centre of New York City.
Bunkers
Reinforced underground shelters. The term comes from an old Swedish word for boards used to protect the cargo of a ship.
Cappadocia
A large central region of what is now Turkey, consisting of a high plateau with volcanic peaks.
Hittites
A race that created an empire in Asia Minor in around 1,600BC. It was overrun by the Assyrians four centuries later.
Cuban missile crisis
The US and the USSR came close to war when the Russians tried to set up missile bases in Cuba. They agreed to remove them after the US Navy blockaded the island.
9/11
On 11 September 2001, terrorists hijacked four planes in the US. Two crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, one into the Pentagon in Washington, and one in Pennsylvania. Around 3,000 people were killed.
Cacophonous
Originally a Greek word, it means horrible to listen to.
Self-fulfilling prophecy
Something that happens because enough people are persuaded that it will.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.