By Brendan O’Neill
In the 1950s and 1960s, bunkers were a feature of many American suburban homes, populated by families fearful of the prospect of nuclear war. That threat has subsided, but now many reasonable people are stocking up on essential supplies in preparation for a new cataclysm.
When you hear the word “survivalist”, what image comes to mind?
Perhaps you think of a gun-toting loner in Mid-West America, who lives in a shack surrounded by tinned food and emergency water supplies.
Or maybe you think of end-of-the-world religionists retreating to a fortified camp with enough food and drink to last them until Judgement Day.
But today there is a new breed of survivalist – and they’re well-heeled, well-educated and more likely to wear an immaculately pressed suit than a camouflage flak jacket.
Barton M Biggs is about as far as you can get from the old John Rambo-style survivalist. Forget long, unkempt hair and a sweat-stained vest. Mr Biggs is a former chief global strategist for Morgan Stanley, who now runs the hedge fund Traxis Partners in New York.
Yet in his latest book, Wealth, War and Wisdom, he suggests that all right-minded people should “assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilised infrastructure”.
“The four horsemen of the apocalypse ride out every two generations, and they come in different disguises,” he says. “We are due to see the horsemen again some time in the next 10 to 20 years – and the prudent person with wealth should take out an insurance policy against them.”
The four horsemen in this instance could be any one of a plethora of threats.
It’s not been in the news for a while but there are scientists who believe that bird flu could shift so it could pass from human to human, resulting in a global pandemic that could kill 50 million people.
But there are threats that seem more immediate. The price of food is rising dramatically and oil is at record prices. Even brief periods of crisis can have severe consequences.
Mr Biggs cites the massive power outages that struck north-eastern and mid-western America and parts of Canada in 2003 – also known as The Northeastern Blackout – when for a few hours an estimated 50 million people were without electricity.
The outage led to massive problems with water supply as pumps were starved of electrical power. Many forms of transportation came to a standstill – electricity-driven trams and trains stopped working, and small airports had to shut down because they could no longer carry out effective passenger screening.
The outage is estimated to have caused financial losses of $6bn. Looting episodes were reported in Ottawa, Ontario and Brooklyn.
“That was a fairly brief blackout,” says Mr Biggs. “Imagine if the next outage lasted for four or five days… there would be a mass exodus from cities.”
The impact of a bird flu pandemic would be even worse, he says. It would put a “huge strain” on national health systems and leave a gaping hole in the economy as great numbers of people became too sick to work.
Then of course there are natural disasters, something that the US is more used to than the UK, which is largely immune from the more serious earthquakes and hurricanes.
And yet last year’s floods in Gloucestershire left 140,000 homes without running water for nearly two weeks.
A major global economic crisis or a dramatic oil shortage are also on Biggs’s mind.
If you want to make it through the breakdown, he says, you should build a “safe haven” which is “self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food”.
Well-off people are advised by Biggs to invest 5% of their income into creating a safe haven, which should be “well-stocked with seed, fertiliser, canned food, medicine, clothes, etc”. He labels this plan “sensible” rather than “survivalist”.
In a world in which people and systems are increasingly “interconnected”, the potential for infrastructure to collapse is great, he says. Political disturbances in Kenya, drought in Australia or crop disease in South America can quickly affect food prices in the UK. And globally, everything from modern mass agriculture to transport and industry is dependent on the availability of oil.
“I’m just suggesting,” says Mr Biggs, “that if you can afford it you should invest in a bolthole. A farm, perhaps, where you could live for a month and survive.”
“I am talking Swiss Family Robinson,” he says, referring to the famous 1812 novel about a Swiss family that survives after being shipwrecked in the East Indies. “You should have food, water, medicine, clothes. And possibly AK47s to fire over the heads of any guys, depending on how bad things become.”
The safe haven should be set up so that you can live it in comfortably for one month, he says. “Given the kind of crises I am talking about, a month should be enough for people and systems to recover.”
Biggs is not alone. New self-help books with titles such as Dare to Prepare! and When All Hell Breaks Loose advise readers on how to survive system breakdowns.
Alex Steffen, a journalist and editor based in Seattle, is one of those “daring to prepare” for a coming “tiny apocalypse”.
“The systems we rely on are brittle and facing strain,” he says. “Here in Seattle we are vulnerable to earthquakes and I also live near a big volcano. Climate change is causing more extreme weather events. There could be a global bird flu outbreak or some other pandemic.”
For these reasons, Steffen and his girlfriend have stocked six weeks’ worth of food in their basement and have invested in a water-purifying kit. “We are taking precautions,” he says, referring to himself as an “urban liberal survivalist”.
Lloyd Alter, a Toronto-based sustainable architect and writer for the green website Treehugger.com, has a “little cabin in the woods” where he can retreat if need be.
He believes the world could be rattled by a variety of crises. “There is the problem of peak oil, peak gas, peak food, peak corn, peak everything,” he says.
In some green discussion circles, those concerned about “peak” problems – that is, the potential for the production of things such as oil and food to peak and then to start declining – are now referred to as “Peakniks”.
But there are plenty of experts who are dismissive of the Peakniks, particularly the fear that peak oil has already been reached. They point out that new oil reserves are being discovered frequently. For example, at the end of last year, the Brazilian government announced the existence of a brand new offshore field that could provide eight billion barrels of oil.
Frank Furedi, the British-based author of The Culture of Fear, says people should calm down.
For all the talk of a global bird flu pandemic, in the past five years there have been 200 human deaths from bird flu. In the same period more than six million people have died from diarrhoeal diseases and more than five million in road accidents – these would seem to be more pressing, practical problems to solve.
“What’s interesting about the ‘new survivalism’ is that its focus is everything,” says Prof Furedi.
“Unlike previous alarmist responses to a crisis which focused on one main threat – for example, nuclear war – today’s survivalism is driven by an unbounded imagination of anxiety.”
“The new survivalism can also be seen as a highly ritualised affectation,” says Prof Furedi. “Through self-imposed restraint and expressions of concern for the future of humanity, the individual sends out signals about his own responsible behaviour.
“The affectation of survivalism is one of the most interesting features of our ‘culture of fear’ today.”
Below is a selection of your comments.
How pointless. The starving, thirsty masses will come and find Biggs and the other bunker dwellers, and after all their ammunition is exhausted, will flush them out steal all the food. There is no hiding place in little Britain. Better to work now on the prevention before it happens.
After the panic and stupidity of some people here after the flooding, fighting over food in shops, hoarding water? That was a real wake up call for me. Not overdoing it, but have a few tins put by now…
Humans have had a macabre fascination with the breakdown in order for a very long time. St John of Patmos encapsulated all this in Revelations thousands of years ago. In our lifetime, the great dream of apocalypse was centred around the Cold War. The last few years has seen compelling drama centred around global annihilation by meteors, the greenhouse effect, floods, the much-mooted “Millenium Bug”, viral plagues, and so on. Each is essentially the same fantasy: what happens when (to quote the book) All Hell Breaks Loose, and how we’d regroup as a species. The fact is that, even in times of world war, the rudimentary fabric of societies (no matter how politically wrong these may be) have not broken down.
My suggestion is not to build bunkers, but to build relationships and find effective ways to minimise economic and sociological risk on a national and international scale. Mr Biggs should, in my opinion, spend his money in promoting effective sociological policy, rather than stockpiling beans and assault rifles.
J Mann, London
Being that we live on the Gulf Coast of the US, my wife and I are very well prepared for hurricanes etc. In the past, I’ve dealt with having the roof from my house torn off by a tornado and have gone without electricity for weeks in the middle of summer. This has translated into being very well prepared as an adult and I suggest that everybody have some supplies and a plan. I do feel sorry for those of you whose government has denied your right to self defence. It will be difficult when only the criminals have weapons.
Mike L., Houston, TX
The comment about the 2003 power outages in Canada and the US causing havoc is absurd. I lived in Toronto during the blackout and nowhere was there any sense of panic at all. My memories of the blackout were candle-lit pubs on the street where throngs enjoyed lukewarm beer, where ice cream vendors gave away ice cream for free, and where people took time out to enjoy the unique experience. Panic? Hardly.
Mike, London, England
I think it’s important to say to anyone who a) isn’t a hedge fund manager and b) doesn’t have loads of cash to put into creating a “safe” haven that having lots of “stuff” in an emergency means also being prey to any less well off, hungry people that don’t have it. But a basic skill like first aid or being able to grow vegetables etc can’t be taken off you, and if it’s a long term thing like an economic collapse or war, it’s a much better investment, and probably a pleasant hobby in the meantime.
Alejandro, Bristol, UK
Another example of the rich taking the “I’m alright Jack” attitude. Instead of using their wealth and influence to prevent world problems, they just want to stick their heads (and the rest of their bodies) in the sand (or in this case nuclear-proof self-contained survival pods) while the poorer people of society suffer the consequences brought about by the greed of the rich.
PS, Newcastle, England
Its irresponsible to play down the the potential effects of a global bird flu pandemic. The 1918 pandemic killed in the region of 20 to 100 million people. And a repeat is considered by many to be overdue.
Ian Worthington, Southampton
As the Trotters pointed out in Only Fools and Horses, a retreat is only as good as your ability to make it there. Unless you spend your entire existence only a few yards from your bolt hole, chances are (a) you won’t be able to make it there in time due to the masses also trying to escape and (b) if you do get there in time, you’ll probably find someone else has already beaten you to it and barricaded themselves inside.
TS, Bromley, England
“Given the kind of crises I am talking about, a month should be enough for people and systems to recover.” How exactly will they recover if we are shut up in bolt-holes and eating cold beans in the middle of nowhere? Our society has been created by people mucking in, getting their hands dirty and struggling against adversity. If we all sat in a bunker and waited for things to blow over, nothing would ever get done.
Rich Williams, Loughborough