As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”
They are part of a burgeoning "prepper" movement that believes preparing for the end of civilization is more rational than ridiculing those who do. Once viewed largely as a practice by survivalists on the fringe, prepping has achieved cohesion and community in the Internet age through best-selling writers, bloggers, risk assessors, conspiracy theorists and companies that cater to preppers' needs.
On the opposite side of the country, similar awkward conversations have been unfolding in some financial circles. Robert H. Dugger worked as a lobbyist for the financial industry before he became a partner at the global hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation, in 1993. After seventeen years, he retired to focus on philanthropy and his investments. “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution,” he told me recently.
Before my trip, I had wondered if I was going to be spending more time in luxury bunkers. But Peter Campbell, the managing director of Triple Star Management, a New Zealand construction firm, told me that, by and large, once his American clients arrive, they decide that underground shelters are gratuitous. “It’s not like you need to build a bunker under your front lawn, because you’re several thousand miles away from the White House,” he said. Americans have other requests. “Definitely, helipads are a big one,” he said. “You can fly a private jet into Queenstown or a private jet into Wanaka, and then you can grab a helicopter and it can take you and land you at your property.” American clients have also sought strategic advice. “They’re asking, ‘Where in New Zealand is not going to be long-term affected by rising sea levels?’ ”
The funny thing about freeze-drying is it’s kind of an exception to the rule. Removing all the water from a floret of broccoli, for example, doesn’t turn it into something new; it simply transforms it into a slightly lesser version of itself. “Once you change the physical structure of something by drying it out all the way,” Allen said, “the texture is never really the same.”
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.”
Before fire season, move combustibles away from your house. Fences and dry vegetation give fires a place to grow, says Jonathan Cox at Cal Fire, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Hosing down your house won’t help much, either, he says: “The way a lot of these homes burn is through something called ember cast, when embers from the fire fly over and drop little fires everywhere. With a huge ember cast, hosing down your house doesn’t do much.”