A couple of years ago, Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media and digital economics in New York, was asked to give a speech at a swanky resort in a remote American desert. Rushkoff presumed he would be talking to investment bankers about a book he had written about the internet. When he arrived at the venue, however, he was shocked to find himself in front of half a dozen ultra-rich tech and hedge fund luminaries, instead of a conferenc.
The men — yes, they were all men — were collectively torn, they said, over a particular choice: New Zealand or Alaska? They feared the world was heading for what they termed “The Event” — some kind of “environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, solar storm, unstoppable virus or malicious computer hack that takes everything down”, Rushkoff says. And they wanted to know which region would be safest to retreat to.
Other questions that preoccupied them included: was climate change scarier than biological warfare? How long would they likely need to remain in a bunker for anyway? And, crucially, how could they stop their own security forces from murdering them? They sought these answers from Rushkoff because he had previously written Present Shock, a well-regarded book about the future of tech.
Rushkoff admits he did not have many answers to offer, except for noting that if the billionaires wanted to avoid being murdered by the help, they should start being extremely nice to them now.
His tale is intriguing for two reasons. First, it shows the degree to which serious money is fretting about a looming disaster. This has long been a feature of the modern world. As the author Garrett Graff described in chilling detail in his 2018 book Raven Rock, the US government created a vast network of bunkers in the late 1940s for its key officials in case of nuclear war.
What has changed in recent decades is that increasing numbers of private individuals have started prepping for disaster too. A series of events, from 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to rising tensions between North Korea and the west, and the spread of conspiracy theories online, have fuelled fears of societal collapse.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the threat of nuclear war back into public consciousness. This week the French insurance group Axa released a survey showing that four-fifths of people in western countries feel significantly more vulnerable than they did five years ago. Climate change, for the first time, is deemed the top threat in Asia and the US as well as in Europe (where it has been seen as such for a while), followed by geopolitical instability (ie war).
The survey also revealed a sharp decline in the number of people expressing faith in the ability of policymakers or scientists to tackle such threats. “There is a feeling of powerlessness,” says Thomas Buberl, Axa’s CEO. As Ian Bremmer, head of Eurasia Group, puts it, “There is no [effective] institutional framework for addressing these issues… or even slowing the proliferation of dangerous weapons.” This situation has sparked not only the growth in survivalist — or “prepper” — activity among the population at large, but also prompted the ultra-wealthy to seek refuge, whether in luxury bunkers, superyachts or both.
The second reason why Rushkoff’s tale is intriguing is that this scramble to organise the logistics of bunker life may make the underlying problems worse. The more that the ultra-rich think that they can escape Armageddon, the less they may need to feel the necessary desperation to prevent it. This is particularly depressing, Rushkoff argues in his new book, Survival of the Richest, since these are the same people who have exacerbated problems such as climate change, social conflict and inequality. “They have this mindset that you become this sovereign individual, above everybody else,” he argues. Bunkers enable them to check out.
Of course, some of the super-rich who are seeking out bunkers would say that this criticism is unfair. As one pointed out to me recently, the impulse to protect yourself and your loved ones from threat is a universal human instinct.
Many of the world’s wealthiest people believe they are trying to counter such threats. Bill Gates, for instance, is pouring billions into healthcare and climate change causes. Elon Musk claims that he wants to prevent nuclear war in Ukraine (though his tactics leave many Ukrainians horrified).
But the grim truth is that no billionaire on their own can fix the catastrophic risks of climate change, pandemic or war. We need collaborative action between the public and private sectors.
So let us hope that today’s swelling mood of fear will shock us all into looking for solutions. If not, the future looks scary — even from a bunker.
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first