I’ve known a few doomsday preppers — there’s even a TV show about them, and it’s part of the Mormon ethos — and they’ve always seemed tawdry and lacking in forethought, for all their obsession with an apocalyptic future. Let’s stockpile a 5 year supply of dried beans! Make sure you get the really good camping gear from REI! It’s as if they can sort of vaguely imagine a transition into chaos, but rather than adapting to it or building new cooperative institutional structures, they plan to ride it out by burrowing into their basements and chowing down on stockpiled canned goods until the crisis is over and they can re-emerge into their nice suburban tract home and resume watching TV. Armageddon will be a blip that will briefly derail their workday, but won’t perturb them much as long as they’ve mastered the art of canning pickles.
And then there are the macho American rednecks who fantasize about the fall of civilization, because then there will be no one to tell them that they can’t haul out their armory and run around shooting people — in fact, the path to glory and power will consist entirely of racking up the most kills, gunning down the weak and becoming the chief warlord. The more realistic end-of-the-world novels (The Postman comes to mind) recognize that the real danger that follows catastrophe is that kind of asshole, who will compound the problems and demolish the emerging social structures needed for humanity to recover. Although, I don’t know — maybe the endlessly repetitious, boring kill-and-be-killed chaos of The Walking Dead is more realistic…humans might just end up wandering from settlement to settlement, blowing them up and scattering violence further, hacking and slashing until blessed extinction comes.
They’re all thinking small, though. If you’re an obscenely wealthy Silicon Valley vampire, you have to dream big and wallow in the grand deadly visions of this book, The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. Mark O’Connell summarizes the book.
It presents a bleak vista of a post-democratic future. Amid a thicket of analogies to the medieval collapse of feudal power structures, the book also managed, a decade before the invention of bitcoin, to make some impressively accurate predictions about the advent of online economies and cryptocurrencies.
The book’s 400-odd pages of near-hysterical orotundity can roughly be broken down into the following sequence of propositions:
1) The democratic nation-state basically operates like a criminal cartel, forcing honest citizens to surrender large portions of their wealth to pay for stuff like roads and hospitals and schools.
2) The rise of the internet, and the advent of cryptocurrencies, will make it impossible for governments to intervene in private transactions and to tax incomes, thereby liberating individuals from the political protection racket of democracy.
3) The state will consequently become obsolete as a political entity.
4) Out of this wreckage will emerge a new global dispensation, in which a “cognitive elite” will rise to power and influence, as a class of sovereign individuals “commanding vastly greater resources” who will no longer be subject to the power of nation-states and will redesign governments to suit their ends.
It’s a wealthy libertarian fantasy, and it’s just as much a fantasy as any bad apocalyptic novel. It’s the same structure. There will be a mighty disaster, all the people you don’t like will suffer and be slaughtered (but they don’t matter), while you hold the secret to survival, be it canned beans, bigger guns, or a ranch in New Zealand, and will emerge unscathed, and even stronger than before. They all rely on a disgust with the current order — the Mormons wanted godlessness and sin swept away to clear the path to an LDS theocracy, but it takes a libertarian to see roads and hospitals and schools as the worldly evil that must be destroyed. They all imagine an emergent New Order with themselves at the center, in this case a “cognitive elite”. How do you know they’re a cognitive elite? Because they have lots and lots of money. As we all know, wealth is always a sign of merit.
O’Connell’s story is all about the Arch Vampire, the selfish villain, Peter Thiel. He’s getting ready for the end of the world by modeling his world view on two fictions, as the “Cognitive Elite” do, The Sovereign Individual and The Lord of the Rings (there must also be a third, the works of Ayn Rand, but they aren’t mentioned in this article), and so he must of course buy up land for a bolt-hole in New Zealand. It’s remote, it’s beautiful, Peter Jackson filmed his Tolkien movies there, so it’s perfect. All the cool entrepreneurs who have profited off the information economy are eager to strip the current system bare so they can move on to the next fertile field, which they will strip bare to fuel their next assault. Sorry, New Zealand, it’s your fault for looking so lovely and attracting all the parasites.
The story discusses a sort of art installation, a set-piece game called the Founder’s Paradox that illustrates how the Thiels of the world operate.
The aim of Founders, clarified by the accompanying text and by the piece’s lurid illustrations, was not simply to evade the apocalypse, but to prosper from it. First you acquired land in New Zealand, with its rich resources and clean air, away from the chaos and ecological devastation gripping the rest of the world. Next you moved on to seasteading, the libertarian ideal of constructing manmade islands in international waters; on these floating utopian micro-states, wealthy tech innovators would be free to go about their business without interference from democratic governments. (Thiel was an early investor in, and advocate of, the seasteading movement, though his interest has waned in recent years.) Then you mined the moon for its ore and other resources, before moving on to colonise Mars. This last level of the game reflected the current preferred futurist fantasy, most famously advanced by Thiel’s former PayPal colleague Elon Musk, with his dream of fleeing a dying planet Earth for privately owned colonies on Mars.
The libertarian ideal is unregulated rapaciousness followed by moving on and abandoning what they’ve destroyed. It’s a locust’s dream. It’s what short-sighted opportunists fantasize about. Even some scientists are susceptible to it. If Earth becomes a dying planet, it’s because the greed of humans killed it…and in particular, the billionaires who think sucking the world dry is just fine because they’re planning to escape it. We have to recognize that the end game of capitalism is self-destruction.
All I can say is, if you meet the Sovereign Individual on the road, kill him. It’s a moral imperative.
Duth Olec says
“The democratic nation-state basically operates like a criminal cartel, forcing honest citizens to surrender large portions of their wealth to pay for stuff like roads and hospitals and schools.”
Oh geeze, I got into a slight Twitter argument with someone claiming taxation is theft a while ago. I quickly realized all I wanted to do was mock them, though they never caught on.
“Out of this wreckage will emerge a new global dispensation, in which a “cognitive elite” will rise to power and influence, as a class of sovereign individuals “commanding vastly greater resources” who will no longer be subject to the power of nation-states and will redesign governments to suit their ends.”
Ummm. As much as it’s a wealthy libertarian fantasy. I’m also not sure it isn’t our current political landscape???
But yeah, profiting off the apocalypse. Just like profiting off the housing collapse, or banking collapse. If they figure out a way to get insurance money from the apocalypse, they will.
In the event that worldwide society breaks down, I’d expect New Zealand to be an even worse place to be than the US, given how much it’s dependent on international shipping to survive.
Also, what part of The Sovereign Individual differs from Atlas Shrugged? I’m really not seeing the distinction.
Also, what part of The Sovereign Individual differs from Atlas Shrugged? I’m really not seeing the distinction.
Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged as fiction.
Yep. My own survivalist plan is, keep civilization from collapsing. Stave off the apocalypse, whatever apocalypse tries to come.
Right before the “crisis” (lol) of Y2K, I was in the store when a Mormon lady asked me what I was stocking up on. “I’m stocking up on water,” she said. “What are you stocking up on?” So of course, I said, “Bullets. So if I get thirsty, I’ll just come to your house.”
She didn’t think it was funny. (Oh, and BTW – I was stocking up on nothing. I did not so much as buy a candle.)
People never stop to think about how interconnected we all are. Microraptor @#2 had an excellent point: if the world all falls apart, pretty much all of us are screwed. I’ve heard people say, oh – “Move out to the country and get a well, then you’ll be independent!” Yeah. Well, pumps run on electricity. It’s true you can get a solar pump, but if your pump breaks down, how are you going to get parts to fix it? Also, have you ever seen how they get a pump out of a well? Hint: not with their hands.
I’m with Nemo @#4: keep society going. DO NOT destroy it.
New Zealand thankfully seems to be cracking down on foreign purchase of land, although Thiel’s already got his cut. He’s going to be in for a rude surprise if he and other rich libertarians think that merely owning an empty plot of land is going to save him in the advent of an apocalypse – the empty land of foreigners will likely be the first to be expropriated and squatted upon. Warlords and feudal lords were such because they controlled people (specifically armed bands), not land – the land came later after they’d forced the inhabitants thereof into extortion rackets.
At least with the Mormons, the individual food and water storage plans go along with stake and ward plans to coordinate community-level response. Ultimately, if you want to recover from an apocalyptic-level disaster, you need a community of people with varied skills doing prep work and some self-sufficiency (such as the Amish – have we ever had an “Amish community in the zombie apocalypse” story?).
It’s odd how humans took an ancient allegorical style as predictions of the future.
kestrel @ #5 — Humans dug wells and got water out of them long before there were pumps or electricity or fossil fuel power. There is evidence of water wells in the Jezreel Valley dated at 6500 BC. In fact, people in some parts of the world still dig wells and get water from them without any power tools or pumps.
brett@6 yeah, Thiel and his buddies seem to assume their privilege as extreme rich people will continue to function as is if things go to crap. The New Zealand government isn’t likely to be too impressed by Thiel’s billions if New York and Zurich have been nuked, or are sealed for the next decade because of a plague, and the banking system no longer works.
Well, not self-destruction. But if, right at the end, you can suck the marrow from everybody else’s bones before you move on to greener pastures, why not? Waste not, want not…
PZ just listed the usual Loonytarian gibberish.
This one isn’t true at all.
You can opt out at any time.
Living in our civilization is voluntary.
1. The easiest way is to simply leave. Move out. Move on. Emigrate.
Happens all the time.
For many of us (including myself), a generation or two back, our older relatives came over from…Europe, Mexico, Asia, etc.. The USA is a nation of people from elsewhere.
2. Or you can simply drop out, and head out into the Outback and become a homesteader of one sort or another.
The Amish do it as a matter of religion.
The various Mormon polygamist cults do it as a matter of parasitizing our civilization.
Occasionally, people simply grab their stuff and maybe a gun and go.
They usually don’t last too long. Some like Chris McCandless end up dead.
For quite some time I’ve been working on a mess of (science fiction/fantasy) stories based around a doomsday cult known as the Geier. They believe the collapse of civilization as we know it is inevitable, so they’ve been working to prepare for it by setting up a separate infrastructure designed to survive every conceivable disaster, that they can minimize the loss of life when the inevitable actually happens.
The central tenant of their beliefs is compassion. A big part of their “prepping” is running free clinics, shelters, and soup kitchens. You don’t have to give a rat’s ass about their beliefs to use those, you just have to agree to a few simple rules that boil down to “don’t be an asshole.” It’s all about fostering trust and cooperation, because they realize that those are the qualities that will give humanity the best chance of survival.
The stories are just that- stories, but I still think they’re more realistic than the fantasies of these wanna-be wasteland warlords.
Most of our wealth these days is just bookkeeping. It is stored on computers as 0’s and 1’s. It’s an intangible.
If our civilization falls and the electricity and computer networks go down, all that wealth simply goes “poof” and disappears.
And that includes especially people like Peter Thiel and the Silicon Valley billionaires.
Tabby Lavalamp says
I wonder if they realize that New Zealand’s clean air and environment is because of a government keeping things in check?
I’ve also just realized that almost every zombie movie and TV show I’ve watched has been American – with exceptions. The biggest exception being Shaun of the Dead. That movie ended up with the government finally being able to reestablish order and life returning to normal, except that when people die they become zombies. People are still able to go about their business. (If you want to include 28 Days Later as a zombie film, the chaos comes to an end there too).
At the end of the original Night of the Living Dead things appear to be getting under control too, though the leading man – a black man – gets gunned down by the people taking control and George Romero’s movies were very political. Every other American zombie movie I’ve seen? Civilization is over.
What I’m getting at here is that it just occurred to me that I now like to think in The Walking Dead is that this complete collapse is only happening in the US and the rest of the world has the problem under control. Sure, authoritarian states may be even more authoritarian, but that’s about it. And they are all looking at the American rugged individualists and saying, “Let them sort this out on their own.”
The time is nigh!
The time has been nigh for some time.
one of things of many that I do not understand about these libertarian survivalists is why they do not see that their success is completely dependent on the very things they seem to resent the most, the infrastructure (roads bridges and all the utility infrastructure) schools and hospitals having to be taxed to pay for?
they also do not seem to understand that their wealth and power are just a measurement from within the current civilization only it is not an external state of nature. That is something that the founders of our democratic country seemed to have understood quit well seeing as they were very close to the edge of it at the time. They could plainly see how much their wealth and power extended just to their west in the wilderness.
Sean D. Daily says
So what you’re saying, PZ, is that rich libertarians are the aliens from “Independence Day”.
@robro, #7: yeah. In SOME parts of the world. My well is close to 300 feet deep. Any time you would like to dig a well that deep, you can get a shovel and pick from Yours Truly, gratis. (Sorry, not going to volunteer labor.)
Which just goes to show my point: we rely on each other A LOT. I am relying on guys who have the equipment to drill wells, put the pump in/out of the well, provide parts etc. If I did not have those things, it would not be possible to live in this part of Earth. We would all have to go somewhere else… to your part of the world, perhaps? How many people can your part of the world sustain? With no infrastructure, no electricity, no fuel and no outside help? Where would all the food come from? How much fresh water is there available there? It’s a question everyone might well ask themselves. What if everyone in the world tried to move to your house? Do you just kill them all? But what if they’re doctors… or they know how to spin and weave cloth… or they are skilled at farming? How do you tell?
All of this doomsday prepper stuff is just simply crap. We need instead to make sure it does not happen.
Preppers seem to have a hugely inflated opinion of their own cleverness. Strength comes from the community you contribute to, not some selfish show of bravado.
Damn! I read that as “doomsday peppers” and thought it might be about a new super-hot chile, finally dethroning the Carolina Reaper or Moruga Scorpion. Instead it’s about pathetic, middle-aged white folks having wet dreams about the end of human civilization.
We REALLY need a better class of rich person than Thiel.
I’d expect New Zealand to be an even worse place to be than the US, given how much it’s dependent on international shipping to survive.
You would be wrong. We can easily feed ourselves, without stress. If a total collapse of trade networks occurs it means we’ll be isolated but able to survive.
This thing about NZ being a nice place is an interesting confusion of cultures to observe. We’re not nice.
We’re pragmatic, which looks like kindness when things are good and people are relatively wealthy. But it isn’t.
These idiots who think we’ll protect their wealth in disaster are in for a rude shock should it happen.
vucodlak@11: Did you chose Geier because it’s the German for vulture, or is that coincidence?
@ eamick, #21
Yep, it was deliberate. Popular Geier graffiti is a cartoonish, leering vulture with the words “We’re waiting” written in (one of) the local languages. Their symbol has always been the vulture, though Geier hasn’t always been their name.
The name actually began as an epithet directed at them by the Nazis; Nazi propaganda depicted them as vultures preying on ‘Aryan’ children. Starting after WWI the Geier adopted a peculiar manner dress that included layered ragged clothing that vaguely resembled feathers, and a stylized gas mask. When Hitler came to power and began rounding up ‘undesirables,’ the Geier were involved in smuggling people out (they were also in China, helping frustrate the Japanese). The Geier embraced the name, and the hatred of the Nazis.
The Geier themselves are a much older group, but it’s the horrors of WWI that really made them popular around the globe. WWII plays much differently, in no small part due to the efforts of the Geier. The United States of the Americas never enters the war in Europe or Asia, instead selling arms to anyone who fighting the communists, while quashing uprisings on the southern continent (the US goes full-on imperialist in the 19th century, annexing the entirety of North and South America). The Soviets get the Bomb first, and nuke much of Europe, as well as Japan.
You’re right, I spoke too soon. I checked and New Zealand is a major food exporter, not importer.
You know, I still can’t quite believe that there are actual, functioning people who want to emulate the example of Rapture.
Barbarians are always with us, always trying to destroy civilization. It’s maybe the worst indictment of capitalism that the barbarians have no trouble succeeding marvelously even while they work their evil. Over government and our oligarchs are the proof.
Actually, I just realized the flaw in that statement: yes, New Zealand is a food exporter now, but what’s going to happen to its food production and distribution ability in the event of the doomsday scenario these idiots are talking about occurs? New Zealand isn’t exactly known for its steel or oil production capabilities.
New Zealand’s a great country, but it’s not one that’s going to be able to operate at 21st Century standards of living and being able to feed a population of 5 million without importing necessities from other countries.
I’ve thought about writing an after the end story, where it’s a long slow grind into oblivion. Medicines run out or expire, tinned foods spoils and, cars and guns breakdown with no hope of repairs. Zombie hordes and radiation are just incidental to the collapse of civilization.
Watch ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’
The closeness of “libertarianism” and fascismhas never been clearer.
Whenever I hear about preppers I like to play a fun little game called “What do you think they forgot?” Prepping is like the biggest shopping trip ever, and one where they don’t have the advantage of remembering that time they forgot the basil and how crappy the spaghetti was.
Nails. Baking soda. Thread. Toothbrushes.
So many little things, so easy to forget. And if the factories aren’t making any more, don’t count on there being any left at the Home Depot. Many of these things you can’t make. You can’t even make the tool to make the tool to make the tool to make the thing.
Becca Stareyes says
Mira Grant sticks to America mostly (she has a few European visitors/immigrants, mentioned that India was abandoned due to a zombie virus that affects every large mammal, and visits Australia) but she does show a society 20-30 years post zombie virus that was altered, but rebuilt. She mentioned that she,d rather have local authors write books in her world about areas outside the US than do it herself. But one of the points is that what off the grid people survive via having communities, and rugged individualism is still more image than reality.
I also want to see what John Scalzi does with his Collapsing Empire sequels. The premise is that an interstellar empire is a decade from completely losing its FTL travel, and the current emperox has to convince enough of her people and build whatever will succeed the current system, which depends on interstellar trade. In interviews, a comparison is drawn to climate change as a problem that is slow and building and where every day’s delay is a day lost, and where rich opportunists have already started to take advantage.
@22 were they an off shoot of the wandering birds movement ?Although a strand of that movement (wanting to get away from the modern world was similar to something a few of the more far out Nazis were striving for.
Jill Buffon says
Thiel, by the way, bought his way into New Zealand citizenship:
As a New Zealander I’m pretty disgusted by the collusion of our government with slime like Thiel.
I’ve always felt that the best resource to grab if things start going to shit isn’t guns or food or anything like that at all – it’s BOOKS. Fortify a library if you can. Keep the information alive, and learn what you need to do to survive, how to make things, how to make things to make things…
microraptor:New Zealand’s a great country, but it’s not one that’s going to be able to operate at 21st Century standards of living
The premise is a halt to 21st Century norms, an apocalyptic end to normal.
If that happens, if there’s an interregnum, we’ll just have to live without what we can’t support ourselves – the internet and various hi-tech devices obviously. But we’ll do it being well fed, un-invaded (no one has a bigger moat than us, and as you note, we don’t have important resources easily captured to be worth the effort) and enjoying the sun and sea.
Come the apocalypse I can, and the point is will, live with that.
@ davidc1, #32
No, the group doesn’t originate in Europe, and they’re much older than that. Rather, the group that would become known as the Geier originates in Africa as an extremely successful anti-colonialist uprising- I haven’t decided the specifics of where and when, as I still have a great deal of research to do. In the stories, which are set in 21st century, the world is a very different place.
Geier is just a name that happens to stick when the cult first begins to gain serious global influence. They’re still called Geier in the United States of the Americas in the 21st century, even though the nation where they received the name, Germany, no longer exists.
I attended a lecture Arthur C. Clark he prefaced the subject of the future and what it will be like with the observation that there is always something that turns out to be significant in the future but is completely over looked at the time of the prediction. I wonder what we are over looking now when we try and work out what might happen in the time to come. ? My guess is more than one thing for sure.
When I think about these doomsday escapers for any amount of time I am reminded of a story (apocryphal?)I heard years ago about how they use to capture Rhesus monkeys in india I think for the research trade. they would put 2 holes a coconut shell put a rope with a large knot on the inside and tied to a large wooden stake on the other end the other hole was kind of smallish fill the coconut shell with “sweetened rice” and then pound the stake into the ground. The hole was just large enough that the monkey could get his hand in and grab some rice but could not get hiss hand out unless he let go of the rice . The catcher could then come and collect the uninjured and frustrated monkeys safely. these guys are still holding the sweet rice and taking the coconut shell with them
Unless there’s a large Mennonite population in New Zealand that I’m not aware of, I think the shock of a sudden transition from 21st Century to pre-Industrial Revolution technology levels is going to be more severe than you make it sound. Specifically, I think that it’ll be a lot rougher than the dingbats like Thiel are planning for.
Do these idiots imagine we won’t trash their Learjets to steal the sugar sachets? And Kiwis are a practical bunch- we can do a lot with some corrugated iron, a roll of #8 fencing wire and some imagination.
I make no claim about the absolute nature of what may happen here in an apocalypse. My point was that we would have no worry about mere survival – we can do that easily (though obviously when our MRI’s break down and advanced pharmaceuticals run out deaths they could help avoid would increase).
We are not in danger of starvation and conflict over essential supplies causing a breakdown in civil society.
microraptor: it’ll be a lot rougher than the dingbats like Thiel are planning for.
As I wrote, These idiots who think we’ll protect their wealth in disaster are in for a rude shock should it happen.
For some reason these twats seem to have convinced themselves we are a libertarian supporting culture when we really, really aren’t, and they will find that in an emergency we will force them to share, and their (probably evaporated) wealth will be of no use in avoiding that.