When the pandemic hit last year, it didn’t take long for grocery stores to clean their shelves. Long queues arose as shoppers scrambled to stock up on cans, water and toilet paper. For some, however, preparing for the apocalypse is serious business. Doomsday preparers are more than just marginal survivalists. High-end luxury apocalypse shelters are increasingly popular among the mega-rich, and fueled by times of chaos and uncertainty, end times preparation has grown into a multi-million dollar industry. .
In “Notes from an Apocalypse, a Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back”, Irish author Mark O’Connell explores survivalist destinations around the world and examines why people feel the need to go to the extreme to prepare for “The End of Temps.” While survivalism has global appeal, he says America’s robust individualism is particularly suited to the prep movement.
Jonathan Bastian of KCRW talks with O’Connell about the necessity and the practicality of preparation, from luxury underground bunkers to garages full of cans, water and gasoline – and why ‘closing the hatches’ has so much to do with fantasy than with fear.
KCRW: Is survivalism a 20th century phenomenon, or something that goes way back in history?
Mark O’Connell: “Survivalism, as in the kind of apocalyptic genre movements that I examine in my book, is, I think, a modern contemporary phenomenon. But it has its roots in cyclical moments of apocalyptic fervor that have arisen throughout history. This is something that tends to pick itself up in times of particular social and political upheaval. Apocalyptic myths tend to be something people cling to to explain, I guess, the sense of chaos and uncertainty around the future. “
It seems that psychologically, the human mind is drawn to this idea of the end of time. Do you think this is a theme that is repeated over and over again?
“To put it in pop psychological terms, we are creatures who thrive and move around the world via stories. We are narrative creatures. And one of the things the apocalypse does is it creates a sense of the story. Literary critic Frank Kermode has an amazing book titled ‘The meaning of an end, ‘where he talks about the fact that we are born like, he says, in the middle of things, in the media res. And we have no idea where we’re really coming from, or where we’re going. And what the apocalypse does is it kind of allows us to project ourselves into an ending. So it gives a sort of sense of narrative coherence in times of chaos and uncertainty.
When you started this exploration of survivalism, did you find that those feelings were particularly strong in the United States, that this is where a lot of the action is?
“Yes of course. I started with the book by really looking at the whole scene of doomsday preparers, people digging bunkers and storing cans, and talking about the end of time coming. And that’s a international movement, there are a lot of preparers in Ireland, Britain and across Europe, but really, the most fervent and intense stuff tends to come, unsurprisingly, from the United States. has two reasons for this.
One of them is that America seems to me to be a country with a particularly intense historically and culturally relationship with the apocalypse. The United States, as a colonial enterprise, was born out of a moment of apocalyptic fervor in Europe, with pilgrims, etc. And there’s something about the preparers movement that sort of recaps this feeling of fervor of America’s early European colonizers and pilgrims, etc.
When the preparers talk about the collapse of civilization, they often talk about a situation where there is no more government, where you cannot rely on “society”, you cannot rely on your fellow human beings. And it’s just you, the tough kind of individual, pitting yourself against nature or other people, savages, and so forth. And there’s a feeling of going back to some of the darker mythologies at the heart of this moment in American history with the Prepper movement, I think.
When you started sampling these different prep movements across the United States, did you find that there was an archetypal figure or a certain personality that kept popping up in the landscape?
“Yes. To a certain extent it is a large church, but certain types of pre-existing ideological conditions have continued to arise. One of them is a real investment in the idea of the individual, as opposed to the community. So many people that I have examined in the book, and so many movements, are based on the idea that you cannot count on other people to help you through times of difficulty and disaster. Preparers therefore tend to take care of themselves, their families, to close hatches, to store as many things as possible, and to hell with everyone, but also to defend themselves against others.
It was a strand that I saw crop up in many types of movements that I watched. One of the things I did was spend time in a very remote part of South Dakota … on an old dairy farm that a guy called Robert Vicino, who is kind of a apocalyptic real estate entrepreneur, had bought.
He specializes, one might say, in luxury doomsday solutions. Very well laid out, sort of five star quality bunkers with things like private cinemas and wine cellars and hydroponic vegetable gardens etc. And he had bought this place in South Dakota and converted it into what he called “the greatest survival community in the world.” And really, that kind of sales rhetoric around that, and also some pretty conspiratorial political rhetoric, was that some kind of collapse scenario was brewing. You could almost take your pick of what you feared the most, or dreamed about the most, whether it was your nuclear war, or a viral pandemic, or whatever, but in those scenarios the government is not going. not protect you. . And you’re going to have to band together with a small group of other like-minded individualists, if that’s not too much of a contradiction in terms, and protect yourself from humanity in general.
All of these things seem to me to be implicitly political, in the sense that if you argue that you have to protect yourself, and others are what you have to protect yourself from, be it urban populations or whatever. do you have it, that seems to be a very political point of view. And this is no coincidence. I think most of the types of doomsday planners and doomsday aficionados that I looked at in the book tend, but not exclusively, to come from quite right-wing political circles.
You said that these people see many different ways of turning the world upside down and that they will have to rely on their own kind. Are there any other common theories you have come up with? Could it be a plague? Could it be some kind of civil war? What is the end of time like for many of these people?
“I started the book out of my own worry about the future for myself and my family. And for me, climate change, of course, is the big hotbed of the apocalyptic malaise. But what I started to discover was that in fact, the most fervent apocalyptic obsessive, for lack of a better term, tended not to care about climate change.
They tended to worry about the prospect of a nuclear strike from North Korea, for example. A viral pandemic is quite common. Asteroids hitting objects, electromagnetic pulse attacks, all kinds of things your average person wouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about. But if you have an anxious disposition, learning these things is quite a journey.
How big is the economy of the doomsday preparations?
“It depends on who you listen to. If you listen to the people who sell it, you will find that it is a booming area. I think that’s still enough niche. But things like wealthy individuals buying land in New Zealand, that’s a real thing. … The other thing is dedicated companies whose whole thing is to build these complexes with golf courses and defensive arrangements and so on. And there are quite a few of these companies. Not surprisingly, most of them tend to be Americans. And a lot of their clients tend to be Americans, but they have facilities all over the world, including Europe.
So Robert Vicino, who was the guy I spent time with in South Dakota, he has a number of these facilities. The place I visited was kind of less luxurious end of the line, kind of lower middle class doomsday fix. But it was a situation where you bought a bunker that’s essentially an empty shell, and you laid it out to your own specifications. And the idea would be that it would develop into a community of like-minded individuals. But there are all kinds of them, depending on your level of wealth, how much you want to spend, and the different levels you can enter.
Did you ever find something that blew you away, or something very weird, when you walked into some of these bunkers?
“The only bunkers I physically entered were these empty South Dakota shells. It is an extraordinary place. And I write a lot in the book about the landscape and the almost surreal aspect of the place. It was originally built during WWII as an ammunition storage facility. So it’s all these hexes, I think 550 of them, across the ranch, which is about three-quarters the size of Manhattan. … It almost looks like an alien landscape. Incredibly beautiful, and also very strange and a little strange. “