In a sense, all of us are preppers right now: stocking up on toilet paper and nonperishable goods, hunkering down, and avoiding social contact. But then, of course, there are the actual preppers living in high-tech, remote, expensive bunkers to ride out Covid-19.
They knew a disaster was coming, even if they didn’t know it would be a viral pandemic. And for the last few years, author Bradley Garrett has been getting to know them while writing his book Bunker: Building for the End Times, coming out this summer. “The terrible irony is that all of these preppers have been telling me to get ready, talking to me about disasters, and I’ve been incredulous, taking them to task, trying to tease out fact from fiction in their stories,” says Garrett. “And now, here I am, totally underprepared.”
GEN caught up with Garrett to find out what these bunkers look like, how many people fit inside them (a lot!), and the surprising reason some preppers believe their way of life benefits others.
GEN: Is there a distinction between bunker people and prepper people? Is that a Venn diagram or a circle within a circle?
Garrett: I don’t think of it so much as a Venn diagram as a spectrum. On the most basic level, most American households have some sort of emergency kit: a first aid kit, a flashlight, a radio. But the other end of the spectrum are these people who are building these often very elaborate, technically sophisticated, expensive bunker spaces, which are built to weather a long period of time. They might be building for three months, five months, a year. The longest I’ve seen is five years.
It starts to become not a technical problem of how to build the space, but how do you create the social dynamics within that space to be able to weather that amount of time. There’s always going to be a degree of social friction based on what people need. And the inevitable result of that kind of situation is that someone emerges as the tyrant. Somebody says, “We’re not going out. Screw your prescription, you can do without it,” or whatever.
How many people are we talking about? Are these bunkers for individuals, families, communities?
Before doing my research for this book, I imagined prepping being like Cold War preparations, where you’re digging up your backyard and creating a bunker. What I actually found is that that is an old model, because everyone realizes that that’s cramped, it’s uncomfortable, it’s unnecessary, that kind of [family-sized] bunker building.
What people are thinking about now looks much more like a commune. It’s people with similar worldviews coming together to build an intentional community with complementary skills to get each other through a crisis like this. And those communities are not as homogenous as you might expect.
The best way to think about them is as second houses. So instead of buying an investment property or a vacation home, you buy the bunker. Because these people don’t have faith that the way that we’re living is sustainable and that it will continue. And so the bunker acts as an insurance policy, but also kind of a vacation home — like, often they would go there for Fourth of July. It’s a gathering space. But then if things go wrong, it’s also the space that you retreat to and you have the added bonus of showing up and meeting all the people you already know and love hanging out with.
I can’t tell you, it’s been amazing watching it happen. All of this stuff was speculative when I started writing about it in 2016, 2017. I watched each one of these communities that were, essentially, temporary communities, just suddenly wink into life. They all went there and sort of shut up the blast doors, and they’ve got their supplies. And while all of us are stressing out, going around trying to find toilet paper or whatever, they’re all partying out there.
So when you say “out there,” where is that?
They’re all over the place. I spent a lot of time in South Dakota in a community called the xPoint. There are 575 semi-subterranean concrete igloos that were built during World War II — it used to be munition storage. They basically put the weapons in there so that the weapons couldn’t be bombed, which is kind of a weird irony: Bunkers that were built to protect weapons later protect people from viruses.
There was another one in Kansas that’s built in a missile silo that used to have a nuclear weapon in it, and now has a 15-story inverted condominium. I’ve been calling it a geoscraper. I don’t know what else to call it. It’s an inverted skyscraper.
But I’ve also been in communities that are a bit more back-of-the-land in their outlook towards things. There was one in Tennessee where a group of people that called themselves homestead preppers were learning how to craft things, how to grow things, how to can food. Their community was right on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and they would sneak into the park and plant secret groves of fruit trees and vegetable plots; they can actually just kind of vanish into the park if things get really bad.
Communities in different places had very different ways of thinking about how to handle the crisis, but shared visions on the inevitability of the crisis.
What’s the socioeconomic range of these three communities, for instance? Is it mostly wealthier people?
No, it’s a huge range. The people in Tennessee were running small retail shops, they were working everyday jobs. They were making it work on the budget they had. The condo in Kansas, people were buying in for $1.5 million to $3.5 million.
Do they have children in there with them?
I’m going to say most people are in their forties and fifties because you have to have a disposable income to be able to make the decision to do that. There are younger people who have just sort of checked out of their primary life — their life becomes about prepping. There aren’t many kids there, which speaks to the demographic, but I did have a lot of people tell me that they wanted to hand their bunkers down to their [adult] children. So these aren’t doomsday bunkers, these people don’t think the world is ending. They just see it as a space to retreat to and that’s something that they want to pass onto future generations if they can.
There was one guy in Thailand who is building this amazing ecofortress, this kind of self-sustained giant concrete block just out of Chiang Mai, in the middle of these orchards. He was growing all of his food inside and he had bulletproof windows on the top of the building — the thing was unassailable, and he was super paranoid about social unrest. But he made all of his money working on offshore oil rigs. And when the pandemic hit, he was in Burma on an oil rig, and he’s stuck out there now. His wife and kid, who he basically built this fortress to protect, are waiting for him to come home, inside the fortress, not knowing if he’s going to come home with the virus. As much as you plan, you cannot plan for everything.
How conspiracy-minded are these preppers?
Preppers are listening to [traditional news sources like CNN], but they’re, I think, more willing to incorporate a wider range of ideas about what may be causing it and what the solutions might be.
That being said, I’ve had a lot of people say really crazy shit to me over the past three or four years, and there’s been many times when I’ve ended up in heated arguments with them or just walking away because I’ve realized that we’re pulling from a completely different pool of information and there’s no possible way that we’re ever going to be able to communicate to discuss these things.
In the book, you mention some of your sources feared a virus being deliberately unleashed by a rogue nation. Is that what they’re thinking with Covid-19, that it’s a Chinese conspiracy?
They’re definitely willing to call out its origin, to call it “Chinese virus.” That’s a kind of covert racism. But I haven’t heard anyone suggest that it’s a manufactured virus, in any way, shape, or form.
Different types of disasters call for different features of bunkers. What would make a bunker good for a viral pandemic?
So normally, when you put an air filtration system in a bunker, you want to have what’s called positive pressure. If you’ve got positive air pressure within the bunker that’s pushing out of it, then air can’t come in. And everything, all the air that you’re having pumped in, you want to go through an NBC filter, a nuclear biological chemical filter. The biological part is what we care about in this instance. So hypothetically, a month ago, if you were to have locked yourself in your bunker and flipped on the biological air filtering, and you’ve just been sitting in there eating freeze-dried food and watching the news since then, there is essentially zero chance that you would contract the virus.
I think that’s important for two reasons, one is the confidence that that gives you as an individual, right? You are absolutely not infected, there’s no way. But two, it takes pressure off of state resources. So you don’t have these psychosomatic symptoms, you’re not going to get tested, you’re not going to put a strain on the hospital systems.
This is what preppers argue: That if we take more responsibility for our situation, if we’re more prepared for these sorts of emergencies, then we alleviate pressure on the systems, which allows that system to then help those in greater need.
It’s a weird kind of logic, right? Because it sounds socialist. It sounds like, “Oh, this is for the greater good.” But then, of course, it accepts that social safety nets should be cut and will be cut. They often refer to Hurricane Katrina. They say, “Look, those people were out there by themselves for three, four, five days before any semblance of help from FEMA began to roll in.” But if you’re a prepper, not only are you prepared for the situation, potentially you can also help out your neighbor.
To what extent are preppers afraid of looting or unrest as a result of Covid-19?
There’s this phrase that preppers use, “72 hours to animal.” If the grocery stores were to close down tomorrow, or the trucks stop doing deliveries, then you can imagine how this phrase makes sense because it doesn’t take very long to start thinking, “Okay, I can’t buy food anymore. I know who has food, my neighbors across the street.” The lives that we live are operating on a very fragile consensus and very fragile infrastructure, and once any of that starts breaking down, it doesn’t take long for people to become incredibly selfish.
We would hope that people would reach for community and that people would assist each other in times of disaster, and I think that will be the case, and has been the case, in the early days of this disaster. But as time goes on, things get more difficult, the situation changes.
Those people who are hunkered down in their bunkers right now, how long are they planning to be there?
The date that most people are talking to me about is early summer. But there might be cycles.
I’ve been thinking about the bunker in terms of cyclical time. Since the Enlightenment, we’ve become accustomed to thinking about things in linear terms and, certainly, capitalism has this expectation of exponential growth in perpetuity.
I love the idea that we’re actually going back to something closer to indigenous cosmologies, where we start thinking about the world as a kind of spiral — it just kind of cycles around like a virus. It comes and it goes and we have to start thinking about our lives in terms of renewal and rebirth. We go into hiding for three or four months while it passes through and we do a certain kind of work. And then we emerge and do something else.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.