Here in the Pacific Northwest, the smell of woodsmoke is in the air and fall is prodding us into preparations for the snow that’s sure to be here before we know it. The rural communities are finalizing their firewood stockpiles and getting propane tanks topped off to last the long winter ahead. With colder temps in the forecast, most of us are getting our yards cleaned up and ready for the approaching winter months.
An American hedge-fund manager in his forties—tall, tanned, athletic—recently bought two houses in New Zealand and acquired local residency. He agreed to tell me about his thinking, if I would not publish his name. Brought up on the East Coast, he said, over coffee, that he expects America to face at least a decade of political turmoil, including racial tension, polarization, and a rapidly aging population. “The country has turned into the New York area, the California area, and then everyone else is wildly different in the middle,” he said. He worries that the economy will suffer if Washington scrambles to fund Social Security and Medicare for people who need it. “Do you default on that obligation? Or do you print more money to give to them? What does that do to the value of the dollar? It’s not a next-year problem, but it’s not fifty years away, either.”
We stopped in a condo. Nine-foot ceilings, Wolf range, gas fireplace. “This guy wanted to have a fireplace from his home state”—Connecticut—“so he shipped me the granite,” Hall said. Another owner, with a home in Bermuda, ordered the walls of his bunker-condo painted in island pastels—orange, green, yellow—but, in close quarters, he found it oppressive. His decorator had to come fix it.
Some preppers have considered ramping up efforts since President Obama's re-election last week, convinced it means the economy will soon collapse in a cascade of debt. Some are convinced Iran or another enemy is developing an electromagnetic pulse weapon that would wipe out the power, communication and transportation grids, rendering useless any device with a microchip.
Tim Ralston — A survival tool manufacturer (the Crovel), loses part of a thumb during firearms practice for the show; Jason Charles, a New York City fireman-turned-prepper, demonstrates urban survival skills; Jules Dervaes is preparing for the collapse of the industrial food system; Pat Brabble insists on surviving hyperinflation by planning ahead.
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.
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.
In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.”
Jack Matthews, an American who is the chairman of MediaWorks, a large New Zealand broadcaster, told me, “I think, in the back of people’s minds, frankly, is that, if the world really goes to shit, New Zealand is a First World country, completely self-sufficient, if necessary—energy, water, food. Life would deteriorate, but it would not collapse.” As someone who views American politics from a distance, he said, “The difference between New Zealand and the U.S., to a large extent, is that people who disagree with each other can still talk to each other about it here. It’s a tiny little place, and there’s no anonymity. People have to actually have a degree of civility.”
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