The fears were different in Silicon Valley. Around the same time that Huffman, on Reddit, was watching the advance of the financial crisis, Justin Kan heard the first inklings of survivalism among his peers. Kan co-founded Twitch, a gaming network that was later sold to Amazon for nearly a billion dollars. “Some of my friends were, like, ‘The breakdown of society is imminent. We should stockpile food,’ ” he said. “I tried to. But then we got a couple of bags of rice and five cans of tomatoes. We would have been dead if there was actually a real problem.” I asked Kan what his prepping friends had in common. “Lots of money and resources,” he said. “What are the other things I can worry about and prepare for? It’s like insurance.”
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You can tour this slice of underground history today. After the Southwicks visited the bunker recently, they said they felt even more strongly about the need to prepare. Their family reflects a new preparedness instinct that has been growing since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After that shock, the government urged people to store food, buy duct tape and roll water barrels into their basements.
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Young’s observations rang true: Though the Wise Company meals would keep me alive in the event of an emergency, they were simply a lot more carbheavy, with a lot less animal protein and a lot fewer vegetables, than what I eat on a typical day (many of the Wise meals I bought substituted small globules of vegetable protein for actual meat). For the next two days, I supplemented my diet with freeze-dried vegetables, fruit, and yogurt I’d bought from another company, called Thrive Life, and felt the low-bloodsugar sensation dissipate. (Wise Company also sells individual ingredients, in addition to full meals, but I thought I’d diversify my sources.)
“I started saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, what does the government know that we don’t know?’ ” Hall said. In 2008, he paid three hundred thousand dollars for the silo and finished construction in December, 2012, at a cost of nearly twenty million dollars. He created twelve private apartments: full-floor units were advertised at three million dollars; a half-floor was half the price. He has sold every unit, except one for himself, he said.
Stories like this, according to Charles, happen often when "sh—t hits the fan." One prepared person warns others in the run-up to a potentially dangerous event and others don't listen, expecting someone — the government or a friendly neighbor — to provide during a disaster. It's what Charles calls "the entitlement problem," a phenomenon talked about ad nauseam on prepper blogs and websites.
Charles started prepping nearly four years ago after reading Newt Gingrich's introduction to the science fiction novel "One Second After." In the introduction, Gingrich wrote about the possibility of a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse attack. Such an attack, he said, would "throw all of our lives back to an existence equal to that of the Middle Ages ... Millions would die in the first week alone." To hear a public figure like Newt Gingrich seriously lay out what he thought was a plausible scenario convinced Charles that he needed to prepare.
The growing foreign appetite for New Zealand property has generated a backlash. The Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa—the Maori name for New Zealand—opposes sales to foreigners. In particular, the attention of American survivalists has generated resentment. In a discussion about New Zealand on the Modern Survivalist, a prepper Web site, a commentator wrote, “Yanks, get this in your heads. Aotearoa NZ is not your little last resort safe haven.”
Others featured on Doomsday Preppers are more out there — literally. Robert and Debbie Earl, retired Florida chicken farmers, worry about the seas rising. So they are building a home constructed of old tires and sand-filled bottles near Alpine, Texas. Robert Earl describes himself as "Mad Max meets Rube Goldberg with a little bit of Al Gore thrown in."
One measure of survivalism’s spread is that some people are starting to speak out against it. Max Levchin, a founder of PayPal and of Affirm, a lending startup, told me, “It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in their "If You See Something, Say Something" campaign says that "the public should report only suspicious behavior and situations...rather than beliefs, thoughts, ideas, expressions, associations, or speech...". However, it is alleged that a DHS list of the characteristics of potential domestic terrorists used in law enforcement training includes "Survivalist literature (fictional books such as Patriots and One Second After are mentioned by name)", "Self-sufficiency (stockpiling food, ammo, hand tools, medical supplies)", and "Fear of economic collapse (buying gold and barter items)".
I called a Silicon Valley sage, Stewart Brand, the author and entrepreneur whom Steve Jobs credited as an inspiration. In the sixties and seventies, Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” attracted a cult following, with its mixture of hippie and techie advice. (The motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”) Brand told me that he explored survivalism in the seventies, but not for long. “Generally, I find the idea that ‘Oh, my God, the world’s all going to fall apart’ strange,” he said.
If the fire is around you and you can’t escape, you don’t have many options, says Shane Hobel of the Mountain Scout Survival School. If there’s a pool or a pond nearby, jump in and try to wait it out there. Otherwise, if you have time, dig a trench that’s two to three feet deep and long enough for you to lie in. Soak a blanket in water, wrap it around yourself, and lie down in the trench. It’s risky, but at least you’ll have a chance.