In the COVID-19 crisis the calamity-howlers have found a vindication: go back to survival mode and bunker down because nobody believed Noah until it was way too late. Bunker: Building for the End Times, a hybrid of reportage and philosophical musing, considers contemporary survivalist culture in all its manifest craziness, from the doomsday realtors who sell bomb-proof, virus-free bunker space to the Bible-belt survivalists who pack their INCH bags (I’m Never Coming Home) and bug out to bunker encampments in Wyoming in anticipation of the Final Judgment. In the modern concrete bunker Bradley Garrett sees an extreme expression of our fear of nuclear, chemical, biological and climatic calamity. Never before in recorded history, he tells us, ‘has humankind faced such grave, and myriad, existential threats’ as it does today.
Garrett, an American self-styled ‘experimental geographer’ and ‘elder millennial’ (he was born in 1981), has been here before. Over the years in London he has explored off-grid subterranean sites (disused Tube stations, fallout shelters) and was briefly notorious in 2012 for scaling the Shard before it opened. As part of his ‘place-hacking’ feats he fathomed a 35-acre underground bunker in Wiltshire, built in the late 1950s complete with 60 miles of roads, sleeping quarters and a drinking reservoir. The notes he took on this ‘secret’ city complex (situated beneath RAF Corsham) provided the catalyst for this new book.
People who prepare for the end times are known collectively as ‘preppers’. An estimated 1 percent of the United States population, or 3.7 million people, self-identify as preppers. The bunker crowd is far from uniform, though. Evangelical Christians, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Bitcoin millionaires, conspiracy theorists, paranoiacs, libertarians and hucksters of one stripe or another have invested in varieties of backyard hidey-holes in order to ride out the coming apocalypse. Larry Hall, one of the many ‘dread merchants’ interviewed by Garrett, has transformed a Cold War nuclear silo outside Kansas into a 15-story inverted underground skyscraper marketed as Survival Condo, where up to 75 individuals can withstand a maximum of five years inside. Obviously it pays Hall to talk up the risk of impending cataclysm, Garrett notes sardonically.
As Garrett suggests, so-called ‘safe places’ are symptomatic perhaps of a tendency in the US towards isolationism and social self-protection. Donald Trump has boasted of the series of bunkers installed beneath his International Golf Club in suburban West Palm Beach, while Tom Cruise reportedly lavished $10 million on constructing a bunker under his 298-acre Colorado ranch. Vast wealth may only encourage such gestures hatched out of insecurity.
Privately built shelters usually connote paranoia and pro-gun, anti-government political extremists. And while many right-wing blowhards have cloistered themselves in disused US military bunker sites in the West Virginia outback, Hollywood and Wall Street are no less full of preppers intent on weathering the threat of Islamist terrorism or some other perceived Armageddon. The ‘paradox of survivalism’ in the US today, says Garrett, is that it requires self-declared patriots to break loose from their country in order to protect it. He even argues that, in an age when data giants such as Facebook and Google seek to monitor our consumer habits, building your own bunker might almost be an ‘act of civil disobedience’.
In his brilliant concluding chapter, ‘Stalking the Apocalypse at Chernobyl’, Garrett imagines what the world might look like in the wake of a nuclear explosion or a lethal bioengineered pathogen. The Chernobyl cataclysm of 1986 spewed 400 times more radioactive material into the Ukraine than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerily prescient film Stalker, released in the USSR a decade earlier, in 1979, unfolded in an irradiated landscape that looked very much like the future, blast-stricken flatlands round Chernobyl’s wrecked nuclear core. ‘Stalkers’ — as the guides for trips into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are called — each year accompany thousands of ‘dark’ tourists to the site. The danger of touching contaminated surfaces in the Zone may have prepared them for the coming corona pandemic, Garrett suggests, adding: ‘Radiation and viruses are cousins in disaster.’
Bunker, self-evidently a work for our times, shimmers with a Ballardian imagery of disaster and meltdown. Should we be afraid? The modern prepper movement, for all its conspiracy-laden eschatology, is in some ways born of hope. Only those who believe there will be a future prepare for one. Masks on?