Auckland is a thirteen-hour flight from San Francisco. I arrived in early December, the beginning of New Zealand’s summer: blue skies, mid-seventies, no humidity. Top to bottom, the island chain runs roughly the distance between Maine and Florida, with half the population of New York City. Sheep outnumber people seven to one. In global rankings, New Zealand is in the top ten for democracy, clean government, and security. (Its last encounter with terrorism was in 1985, when French spies bombed a Greenpeace ship.) In a recent World Bank report, New Zealand had supplanted Singapore as the best country in the world to do business.
In building Reddit, a community of thousands of discussion threads, into one of the most frequently visited sites in the world, Huffman has grown aware of the way that technology alters our relations with one another, for better and for worse. He has witnessed how social media can magnify public fear. “It’s easier for people to panic when they’re together,” he said, pointing out that “the Internet has made it easier for people to be together,” yet it also alerts people to emerging risks. Long before the financial crisis became front-page news, early signs appeared in user comments on Reddit. “People were starting to whisper about mortgages. They were worried about student debt. They were worried about debt in general. There was a lot of, ‘This is too good to be true. This doesn’t smell right.’ ” He added, “There’s probably some false positives in there as well, but, in general, I think we’re a pretty good gauge of public sentiment. When we’re talking about a faith-based collapse, you’re going to start to see the chips in the foundation on social media first.”
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.
Like any emergency kit, the Pocket Survival Pak — which was developed by Doug Ritter, founder of the survivalist website Equipped To Survive — can help lost or injured explorers signal helicopters and planes, start fires, boil water, melt snow for water, catch fish, navigate through the woods, trap small animals, perform rudimentary first aid, and repair damaged gear.
Popular at this particular show were bug-out bags, the vendors tell me, because the casual interloper can purchase a lot of peace of mind all at once. For $449, Lenexa, Kansas retailer Game Plan Experts sells a bag with waterproof matches, a flint fire-starter, energy bars, utensils, a camp stove, water pouches and filtration, a first-aid kit, masks, a survival whistle, a pry bar, a folding shovel, an emergency blanket, toilet paper, a toothbrush, a hand-crank radio, survival candles and more. For the über paranoid, they’ll find a discreet contractor in your area to dig a hole in your yard and install a doomsday bunker.
Pense was born in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. He was 5 years old when the bombs fell over Pearl Harbor. His food was rationed. He got bronchiectasis during Black Sunday as an infant and “forgot to tell” the Army so he could serve; he stayed in the service until the doctors found out. He’s a product of a generation when people were prepared, not because it was stylish or social, but because it was what you had to do. He tells me all this as his still-strong arm puts another log on the fire, and I can’t help but wonder what the world will be like when resilient people like him are gone.
In his 2016 book, Can It! The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Foods, Gary Allen, a food writer and adjunct professor at SUNY Empire State College, traces the evolution of food preservation as a source of culinary innovation. “The original food-preservation methods—like salting and drying and all that—actually turned the food into something else,” he told me over the phone. “Cabbage sauerkraut is not the same thing as cabbage. Wine is not the same thing as grape juice.”
Monetary disaster investors believe the Federal Reserve system is fundamentally flawed. Newsletters suggest hard assets of gold and silver bullion, coins, and other precious-metal-oriented investments such as mining shares. Survivalists prepare for paper money to become worthless through hyperinflation. As of late 2009 this is a popular scenario. Many will stockpile bullion in preparation for a market crash that would destroy the value of global currencies.
We all know Zippo for their classic lighters, but that isn’t their only fire-starting product. In recent years, Zippo has introduced a number of survival supplies and they continue to refine their product line. Their new Emergency Fire Kit is a major upgrade from their older “lighter-shaped” fire kit. This water-resistant tube is made from tough ABS plastic, making the kit durable while keeping it light enough to float in water. The EFK features the same trusty Zippo flint wheel that is made in the USA for their lighters. It’s even replaceable, though you’d probably never have to swap it out. The flint wheel is rated for 1,700 sparks. The kit also comes with five wax-soaked tinder tabs that burn for five minutes each. These tabs will catch a spark, wet or dry, after shredding the end to expose a few fibers. You can also use the hole in the tinder to place it on a stick (easier to insert into a fire lay or move around). If you do happen to burn up all of your tinder tabs (during practice, which I would recommend), they are replaceable as well.
Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal. Philanthropy in America is still three times as large, as a share of G.D.P., as philanthropy in the next closest country, the United Kingdom. But it is now accompanied by a gesture of surrender, a quiet disinvestment by some of America’s most successful and powerful people. Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair.
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