Since then, the direction has been inauspicious. In January, 2016, after increasing military tensions between Russia and NATO, and the Earth’s warmest year on record, the Bulletin set the clock at three minutes to midnight, the same level it held at the height of the Cold War. In November, after Trump’s election, the panel convened once more to conduct its annual confidential discussion. If it chooses to move the clock forward by one minute, that will signal a level of alarm not witnessed since 1953, after America’s first test of the hydrogen bomb. (The result will be released January 26th.)
What programs like Doomsday Preppers have accomplished, or at least contributed to, is turning sometimes well-informed, sometimes totally unwarranted paranoia into a booming prepper-industrial complex. Each year, swap meets pack hundreds of convention centers and fairgrounds across the nation—they’re like camping shows with a dose of military surplus and hands-on instructional sessions. The September 2017 Kansas City Survival Expo & Gun Show, for instance, had tips on seed saving, “Overcoming 900 Health Diseases” and “A Devastating Street Self-Defense System.” The latter was taught by Norman Cantwell, who inspired Patrick Swayze’s character in Roadhouse. You get the feeling that he and Steven Seagal would be friends.
People who carefully and painstakingly prepare for mass extinction don't exactly seem like the type of people who plan great parties. At least, with those vast collections of guns, ammo, and other terrifying armaments, I certainly hope not. Then again, I suppose everyone will need a drink or 10 to get through the inevitable horrors of forever navigating the "what's for dinner" question without Seamless or, you know, realizing that your urban-dwelling family members will probably never arise from the blasted pit of rubble where their apartments once stood.
Still, as I sat at my desk one afternoon, eyeing the colorful salads my coworkers were having for lunch, I realized the absurdity of my experiment: I live in a city with 24/7 access to fresh food and work a job that affords me the privilege of eating healthfully most of the time. Even quibbling over the nutritional content of these freeze-dried meals was something of a luxury, because I wasn’t in a position where I actually needed to eat them. Then again, you never know what’s going to happen.
In the early ’80s on a job for the State Department to reinforce U.S. embassies and consulates following the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, Pense says he and other government contractors around the U.S. converged on CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. The consortium of engineers traded notes and decided that the U.S. power grid was vulnerable. Inadequate, Pense says, compared to everything that’s been hung on it, and that was three decades ago. Three high-altitude electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) could take the whole thing down. Like New York City’s 1977 blackout, looting and pillaging would rule the streets, and that’s if they can get the lights back on quickly enough—if the power stays off for too long, order is lost forever.
What’s on the list depends on which faction of preparedness you practice, pre-Y2K prepper and Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor Craig Wiles tells me. There are preppers, who anticipate an event like an ice storm or an EMP; there are survivalists, who arm themselves to face an enemy like a tyrannical government; and there are homesteaders, who grow their own food and practice self-sufficiency.
Every year since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a magazine founded by members of the Manhattan Project, has gathered a group of Nobel laureates and other luminaries to update the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic gauge of our risk of wrecking civilization. In 1991, as the Cold War was ending, the scientists set the clock to its safest point ever—seventeen minutes to “midnight.”
The morning after I arrived, I was picked up at my hotel by Graham Wall, a cheerful real-estate agent who specializes in what his profession describes as high-net-worth individuals, “H.N.W.I.” Wall, whose clients include Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, was surprised when Americans told him they were coming precisely because of the country’s remoteness. “Kiwis used to talk about the ‘tyranny of distance,’ ” Wall said, as we crossed town in his Mercedes convertible. “Now the tyranny of distance is our greatest asset.”
I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. “I would guess fifty-plus per cent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home. Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ” The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.) “I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”
When I started putting together my first survival kit, I just collected whatever weird stuff I could find—like tablets that would protect my thyroid from nuclear fallout. My mindset changed when my first daughter was born. I realized I needed a more practical end-of-the-world plan, with equipment that would be useful for things that might actually happen. Nuclear war is probably not in store for 2018, and if it is, I’ll just open a window. I don’t want to live through that.