Are you ready for TEOTWAWKI? Do you have plans for the PAW?
If you’re unfamiliar with these acronyms from the prepper community—the end of the world as we know it, the post-apocalyptic world—you’re either not worried about the potential end or you’re completely unprepared for it.
But a growing number of people are getting ready, and they’re building the infrastructure they believe they’ll need to survive whatever happens next.
Bradley Garrett, a professor of geography at University College Dublin, explores what preppers are building and selling in his new book, Bunker: Building for the End Times. It’s a multicontinent journey into the physical spaces people have built and stocked so they can survive TEOTWAWKI and thrive in the PAW.
From Texas to Thailand, Garrett meets people preparing for doomsdays of various stripes and the “dread merchants” who’ve started (sometimes shady) businesses to accommodate their plans for the end. He visits a fledgling community built in semisubterranean munition storage bunkers in South Dakota, ventures down a “geoscraper” luxury bunker built in a former underground nuclear missile silo in Kansas, and steps inside heavily armored “bug-out” vehicles ready to ride out society’s collapse, Mad Max-style.
An ethnographer whose previous work had led him into the underground world of urban exploration, Garrett spoke with Fast Company about what it means to build these spaces and how anxiety about the end doesn’t seem so crazy all of a sudden.
Fast Company: During the Cold War, the U.S. government was very vocal in showing people how they could build a bunker in their own backyard, sort of putting the responsibility in the hands of individuals. Was that the start of the bunker business?
Bradley Garrett: There was certainly a sense of betrayal that comes from the Cold War. People realized, only later of course, that the government had built bunkers for themselves and not for us. The efforts that the federal government made to save the civilian population from nuclear armageddon were embarrassingly slim compared to other countries, like Switzerland for instance. I think that period of time certainly triggered a lot of the anti-government sentiment that we now see jet fuel being poured all over. The more the government cannot assure our safety and stability, the more people inevitably are going to take it upon themselves to give themselves that stability, and they’re going to resent the government for not supplying it.
The frightening thing about this is it seems to be going only in one direction. We’re now seeing gated communities with hardened homes, with bulletproof windows, with private security guards, private fire departments, private roads. We’re descending into what eventually I think will be an archipelago of armored enclaves traversed by roads that no one’s willing to pay for anymore out of their taxes. And what’s really disturbing is it doesn’t really matter which political party ends up in office; it still moves in that same direction because all of these people are making a fortune preying on our anxieties. This is big business now. Whether we’re talking about driving larger SUVs and armored vehicles or hardening schools, selling freeze-dried food, stocking up for bad times, it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. I can’t see the state suddenly stepping in and saying, “We’re going to devote more time and resources to your protection.” And also, after decades of abandonment, I can’t imagine many Americans would trust that narrative at all.
FC: There’s a thread of skepticism running through a lot of the people you meet in the book. The people running these businesses and building these bunkers range from the fearful to the skeptical to the almost nihilistic. How diverse were these dread merchants?
BG: It’s really important that we understand that the dread merchants have to be cleaved from the preppers. The dread merchants are the ones who have turned this into an industry. They’re the ones selling the bunkers, the freeze-dried food, the ammo, and they’re making a fortune off selling the antidote to people’s collective dread. There’s a whole narrative of these bunkers being owned by wealthy elites who are going to check out of society. By and large, this is not who’s buying in to these communities. The people buying in are mechanics and IT people and nurses—people who have very valid frustrations and anxieties, and they’re trying to give themselves a little bit of peace. This is how they’re working through their anxiety. So I have a lot of sympathy for the preppers I spent time with, because what they’re acting on is a collective sense of anxiety that we’re all working through in different ways.
FC: There’s also a general uncertainty about the world, and the variety of crises that are happening, whether it’s the pandemic or climate change or political turbulence. For the people building bunkers or thinking about buying one, is this just a way to build some sort of solution to that uncertainty?
BG: It’s not a solution, and it’s not mitigating those factors either. You could certainly argue, people have argued, that the time preppers are spending building their redoubts would be better spent trying to fix these problems, trying to fix climate change or trying to work on nuclear disarmament. But the problem is these are existential threats. They threaten our very existence, so it’s really hard to know how to respond to that, because those threats have multiplied. During the Cold War, it was basically a singular threat we were concerned about.
We’re going through extreme economic turbulence right now. So what can you do about that as an individual? The answer is probably not very much if you’re not in a position of political power. So building these spaces or building a new kind of community to be able to cope with the greater potential for disaster in the future, it gives people a sense of calm. It’s not necessarily a solution. There’s no solution to nuclear genocide, for instance. But it does give them some agency, and I feel like that’s really crucial because so many of us feel like we’re no longer in control of our lives. People just want to build a space that’s rational, that’s ordered, that’s theirs, that’s something they can trust. And it’s interesting that it manifests in the way that it does. Because for one person that means building massive subterranean concrete bunkers, and for someone else that means learning how to garden and grow and understand seasons. But it always comes back to taking practical action in the face of what seems like a totally irrational situation.
FC: In the book you meet middle-aged women running a survivalist store in Appalachia, a Canadian oil worker building a compound in Thailand, Mormons stockpiling food in Utah, and Texans building emergency bunkers out of huge metal pipes. What unites them?
BG: I encountered a huge spectrum of groups and individuals from totally different social, political, ideological backgrounds. And what they all shared was a lack of faith in the world that we’ve built. They all shared a sense that the infrastructures that keep us alive, the infrastructures that have made urban density possible are fragile. And they would point to historical precedents and say look, we’ve been through disaster after disaster and unfortunately we have a very short memory for disasters. The school shootings that were all happening before the pandemic feel like a lifetime ago. It’s almost hard to remember what that felt like to be dealing with that on the news every day. So they all shared a sense that disaster is inevitable, that the society we’ve built can’t possibly hold together in the shape that it has roughly for the past few decades, and they also shared a hope that if we start restructuring the way that we live our lives a little bit, we will have a much better ability to make it through difficult periods. So the resiliency that they were building into their lives, whether that was by building a bunker or stockpiling food, that resiliency came from a sense of hope about the future, which I didn’t actually expect.
FC: The sense of hope was surprising. What do you think we can learn from that?
BG: We tend to think of [prepping] as something new, but actually I think of it as going back to the old ways. This is how people lived 150 years ago, 250 years ago, a million years ago. We stockpiled and prepared, we thought about the future, we anticipated the unexpected, people were ready for harsh winters. People thought about making sure they had the supplies needed in case they got snowed in or a wagon wheel breaks or whatever it is. And it’s only been in the past couple of decades that we have given up on being resilient. What we’re seeing right now, what social scientists are calling COVID flight, where people are leaving cities in droves, often people who have a newfound ability to do remote work, this is totally reshaping geography. And this has happened before. It happened at the beginning of the Cold War, when people developed what the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn called prime target fixation syndrome—people became terrified that if they lived in a city with more than half a million people, they undoubtedly had a nuclear warhead pointed directly at them. And people fled cities in droves. Time moves in circles, and we’re going through one of those periods of reconfiguration. This is just part of the cycle of hope and rebirth, and society is transforming into something else, and we don’t quite know what that looks like, but it’s an interesting time to be alive.
FC: One of the people you talked to said he was investing in his bunker not so much for himself, but for his family. It was a way to help others before helping himself. But then there’s a quote, from before COVID, where he says, “If there’s a pandemic, nobody can come in, period.” How do you think the pandemic has changed the motivations of people prepping or building these bunkers?
BG: I expected to feel a sense of vindication at the beginning of the pandemic when I called everyone and asked, “What’s the plan for this?” I imagined they were going to say, “I planned for every eventuality, everyone else can get screwed, I’ve got my space.” And that’s actually not the narrative I got from most of these people. What they told me was that if they could rely on their stockpiles or they could retreat into their small communities, they would take strain off other public resources. So they wouldn’t end up on a respirator, they wouldn’t have to go to the grocery store and infect somebody or become infected. They actually saw it as kind of a communal benefit that they had constructed their own separate infrastructure that was self-sustaining, so they didn’t need to lean on society. And that obviously is a condemnation of how society functions in the first place, that if you have the resources you’ll be able to deal with this stuff.
FC: You started doing your own low-level prepping during the course of writing this book. Has that stuck with you?
BG: It certainly has. On my previous research with urban explorers that were sneaking into off-limits infrastructure, I became acutely aware of the existence of that infrastructure, but also started to get a sense of how things function. This all happens in the background. We flush the toilet, we turn on the tap, we turn on the light switch. We expect it to work, but we don’t actually know how it works. So urban exploration revealed the code behind everything. And that made me think a lot more about how much maintenance is required to keep all that stuff going.
And in the same way, hanging out with preppers and thinking about what could go wrong, working through those thought experiments inevitably gets you thinking about restructuring elements of your life to get a little more resiliency into it. Like most people, I didn’t really need to go crazy and go buy a $25,000 bunker or something. But I did do a bit of practical prepping where I just kind of keep camping gear in the vehicle ready to go and stock up on a few extra supplies, things I would use anyway. I think all of that is useful, and it’s a process that a lot of people are going through right now as they leave cities to move into rural areas to get away from what they now see as a biological petri dish in urban areas. And that’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it’s also going to cause people to start thinking through some of these scenarios a lot more. What if X were to happen, where do I want to be? And for me, I think the biggest effect of thinking about crises over the past three years and now going through a global catastrophe is I really want to be closer to family. The idea that I would be in Europe and something terrible would happen on a global scale and I wouldn’t be able to get home to my family is not a situation I want to be in. So I’m thinking a lot harder about how I can leverage the remote work that has become available to try and build a life that stays a little bit closer to my core values and isn’t so dependent on those global infrastructures.