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?”
To Levchin, prepping for survival is a moral miscalculation; he prefers to “shut down party conversations” on the topic. “I typically ask people, ‘So you’re worried about the pitchforks. How much money have you donated to your local homeless shelter?’ This connects the most, in my mind, to the realities of the income gap. All the other forms of fear that people bring up are artificial.” In his view, this is the time to invest in solutions, not escape. “At the moment, we’re actually at a relatively benign point of the economy. When the economy heads south, you will have a bunch of people that are in really bad shape. What do we expect then?”
When I visited Johnson, not long ago, at his office on Park Avenue South, he described himself as an accidental student of civic anxiety. He grew up outside Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Park, the son of a doctor, and he watched his father’s generation experience the fracturing of Detroit. “What I’m seeing now in New York City is sort of like old music coming back,” he said. “These are friends of mine. I used to live in Belle Haven, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Louis Bacon, Paul Tudor Jones, and Ray Dalio”—hedge-fund managers—“were all within fifty yards of me. From my own career, I would just talk to people. More and more were saying, ‘You’ve got to have a private plane. You have to assure that the pilot’s family will be taken care of, too. They have to be on the plane.’ ”
The increased inflation rate in the 1960s, the US monetary devaluation, the continued concern over a possible nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, and perceived increasing vulnerability of urban centers to supply shortages and other systems failures caused a number of primarily conservative and libertarian thinkers to promote individual preparations. Harry Browne began offering seminars on how to survive a monetary collapse in 1967, with Don Stephens (an architect) providing input on how to build and equip a remote survival retreat. He gave a copy of his original Retreater's Bibliography to each seminar participant.
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.”
Preppers don't buy that. Jay Blevins, a former deputy sheriff and SWAT officer in Berryville, Va., says social unrest from a financial meltdown could be devastating. He has formed a prepper network of family and friends, people with varying skills such as knifemaking. They'd help one another in such a calamity. He says his Christian faith drives him to help others prepare, and although he is not certain the end is near, he thinks getting prepared is an act of personal responsibility.
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Historically, our fascination with the End has flourished at moments of political insecurity and rapid technological change. “In the late nineteenth century, there were all sorts of utopian novels, and each was coupled with a dystopian novel,” Richard White, a historian at Stanford University, told me. Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” published in 1888, depicted a socialist paradise in the year 2000, and became a sensation, inspiring “Bellamy Clubs” around the country. Conversely, Jack London, in 1908, published “The Iron Heel,” imagining an America under a fascist oligarchy in which “nine-tenths of one per cent” hold “seventy per cent of the total wealth.”
Huffman, who lives in San Francisco, has large blue eyes, thick, sandy hair, and an air of restless curiosity; at the University of Virginia, he was a competitive ballroom dancer, who hacked his roommate’s Web site as a prank. He is less focussed on a specific threat—a quake on the San Andreas, a pandemic, a dirty bomb—than he is on the aftermath, “the temporary collapse of our government and structures,” as he puts it. “I own a couple of motorcycles. I have a bunch of guns and ammo. Food. I figure that, with that, I can hole up in my house for some amount of time.”
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