Doomsday Bunker – book review

Bradley Garrett’s tour of bunker sites and the people who own them is a snapshot of the way the most paranoid react to the pandemic.

A “bunker mentality”  means a refusal to look around and change opinions in the light of changing facts. However, it is possible that the rational response to the current state of the world is to retreat into …. a  bunker?

In his book Bunker: Building for End Times, (buy it in UK)Bradley Garrett, an American “experimental geographer” and “urban explorer”, visits people whose response to the proliferation of threats these days by digging in.

In Switzerland, says Garrett, there is bunker space for 8.6 million people. And North Korea “is the most bunkered society in the history of the Earth”.

In America we meet families rushing to buy access to underground bunkers at Fortitude Ranch, a growing community of doomsday preppers. Established a few years ago by former air force intelligence officer Dr Drew Miller, who has a PhD from Harvard in operations research, the 50-acre ranch is guarded by watchtowers and barbed-wire fences. It stockpiles tinned food, face masks, loo roll, antibiotics and – this being America – guns and ammunition. Their experts track “trigger events” – cataclysmic incidents that might spark a collapse of society.

At various other bunker sites, a handful of families even decided that it was the right moment to descend underground. Most emerged after just a few weeks, once they realised that Covid was not causing the sky to fall. But their willingness to abandon their day-to-day lives at a moment’s notice is evidence of a “second doom boom”, says Garrett.

“In 2020, we’ve had a taste of what it means to have our lives upended,” says Garrett from his home in Los Angeles.

“We’ve built a society now that is very dependent upon international trade and fragile supply lines.”

We have long harboured a morbid fascination with how our world might end. As early as 1200BC in Cappadocia, in what is now Turkey, the Hittites carved subterranean shelters into the sides of volcanoes. In the Roman city of Pompeii, a wealthy resident chiselled a hidden chamber beneath his villa, which was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. In the 19th century, the dark writing of HG Wells reflected a fear that new technology might usher in the end of life as people knew it.

But the first real “doom boom” arrived in the Sixties, when President John F Kennedy urged Americans to prepare for the threat of nuclear armageddon by building fallout shelters in their gardens. The British government also built bunkers to protect officials in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike. The most famous is Burlington, a 35-acre complex 120ft underground in Wiltshire. Containing 60 miles of underground roads, the site could accommodate 4,000 people for three months, including the Cabinet. It also housed a BBC recording studio.

Now Garrett thinks we have reached our second period of existential dread. Cold War-era shelters are being sold – only for them to be snapped up by modern “dread merchants”, as Garrett calls them, who kit them out and sell them on to super-rich clients from New York and Silicon Valley (plus a few Europeans). Some are open to those of more modest means: a bare-bones membership at Fortitude Ranch, which entitles you to a dormitory bunk-bed in the event of the apocalypse, costs $1,000 (£763) per year.

Larry Hall, an ex-defence contractor, purchased a former US government Cold War shelter for $300,000 in 2008. Built in Kansas in the Sixties to withstand a nuclear missile 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, by 2010 Hall had converted it into “Survival Condo”, a luxury shelter for the super-rich, in which 75 people can theoretically weather five years underground – after which they would emerge to rebuild society.

Garrett received rare access to the condo. “When the lift doors opened, I couldn’t suppress a laugh,” he writes. “In front of us, four storeys underground in central Kansas, was a supermarket complete with shopping baskets, shelves, cold cabinets, an espresso machine. Like Willy Wonka… Larry flipped a light switch to illuminate a 50,000-gallon indoor swimming pool flanked by a rock waterfall.”

Tyler Allen, a housing developer from Florida, paid $3million for one of Hall’s flats. He told The New Yorker in 2017: “They don’t put tinfoil on your head if you’re the president and you go to Camp David [the ultra-secure presidential residence in Maryland]. But they do if you have the means and you take steps to protect your family should a problem occur.”

Like most outlandish trends, the extreme examples are mostly found in America. But Garrett thinks that “doom boom” culture is coming to Britain, too. He still thinks the elites spending millions harbour an “overly pessimistic view”, he was impressed by lower-key, cheaper versions of prepping: communities where people assembled to teach each other basic survival skills; how to grow vegetables and mend clothes, rather than going underground.

Often, their properties are little more than empty concrete shells, buried in some no man’s land in Utah or Idaho, selling for premium prices to the gullible and the fearful. It’s no great surprise to learn that a number of what Garrett calls “dread merchants” turn out to be charlatans, criminals or both.

The emotional fall-out from the (very real) existential threat of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 led to what’s called the first “doom boom”. Then 9/11 heralded a new opportunity for the dread merchants. As Garrett notes, in one sense these safe places are simply the most extreme manifestation of a general trend towards social protection and isolationism in the US.

Apparently one in three new-built homes in America is within a gated community. This large-scale retreat from public space has many effects, not least fostering the idea that the outside world is dangerous, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as confidence and investment in public space decline.

It’s tempting, therefore, to see bunker-building as a rather expensive version of burying one’s head in the sand – a physical rejection of reality. But the disturbing fact is that we’ve become adept at forgetting that we live on the precipice of almighty disaster. The Covid crisis has presented a glimpse of how vulnerable we are to a nasty but not especially lethal virus.

So far, this time round, the most extreme response to the threat has been panic-buying lavatory rolls. But how would society hold up against something like a nuclear explosion or a devastating bioengineered pathogen?

Seeing a new dark age ahead, Garrett concludes that the time to hunker down and “out-think extinction” is now upon us. So what will be left when you finally venture outside your subterranean blast shelter? A bunch of paranoid middle Americans and even more paranoid North Koreans. And, of course, the Swiss. Never will we be more in need of their neutrality and euthanasia services.

Bunker: Building for the End Times by Bradley Garrett is published by Scribner in the US ($20) and Allen Lane in the UK (£14.50).

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