Inside the luxury Doomsday condos where the rich plan to ride out the apocalypse
Without the savvy to live off the land that we associate with survivalists, how are the one-percenters supposed to get through the apocalypse? It’s tough to envision the well-heeled skinning deer to feed their Wall Street dinner party guests. But now the elite have another option. Instead of handing the future to bearded crackpots building sandbag barricades on rural compounds, the rich can score a luxury underground Survival Condo nice enough to remind them of the one they left in Manhattan.
Built in two underground missile bunkers at an undisclosed location in Kansas, the units run from $1.5 to $.4.5 million and typically can’t be financed—so that sum’s got to be paid up front. But if you do have a few million lying around, a piece of these fortified underground silos can be yours. So far, there’s no shortage of takers. The first silo is reportedly sold out, and the second is currently accepting contracts.
It would likely take a serious cataclysm to drive posh coasties to the Kansan underworld, and you can’t sell these things without also selling fear. In fact, the project’s website includes a photo of a colorless DC skyline ravaged by an implied nuclear holocaust, complete with a bombed-out capitol building. (Another page includes an illustration of the Statue of Liberty nearly submerged by stormy seas, with nary an ape in sight.)
But project manager Larry Hall rejects the notion that these units are for tinfoil hat types: “There is a stereotype of some survivalists as being single-minded—that they spend virtually all of their time doing just survival activities with no other activities,” he wrote to me in an email. This survivalist subculture is indeed fixated, as any viewer of A&E’s hit reality series “Doomsday Preppers” would attest. But Hall says those aren’t his customers. “We are not like that. Most of our clients are professional people who run businesses and have diversified interests. The involvement in the survival condo project is a recognition that there are a lot of potential threats that could disrupt their normal lives, and they want to have a plan for that possibility.”
The luxury Survival Condos are the product of meticulous labor and forethought. Someone had to dream up and execute the three separate water supplies, dog parks, a library and classroom, food production facilities, and a general store that will presumably recognize a currency severely disrupted by all the doom raging outside. The marketing literature correctly contends that strategizing the logistics of survival beneath the clattering hooves of the Four Horsemen would be a massive drain on one’s energy. Survival Condos caters to customers rich enough to outsource those obsessive measures. But there’s not much that ideologically distinguishes buyers of luxury Survival Condos from so-called preppers: both activities are rooted in a reactionary desire to maintain the status quo, even as the world crumbles.
When I asked Hall about the likelihood of a disruptive, mass-scale disaster that would necessitate these measures, he responded with the cliche endemic to all rhetoric about things that scare us: “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.” It was the same mantra guiding Cold War-era families to build bomb shelters under their kitchens, and that inspired the government to commission the very subterranean self-preservation tanks now hosting Hall’s project. The “if, not when” survivalist ethos is the cornerstone of every episode of “Doomsday Preppers.” Each episode profiles families across the country gearing up for their own nightmare scenario. They learn hand-to-hand combat, hoard canned produce and teach their kids to fire rifles to mow down eventual intruders from the wrong side of dystopia.
It’s a fun show, but it makes me miserable. Not because I harbor any more anxiety than anyone else about nuclear fallout, climate change, economic meltdowns or war, but because most forms of prepping seem so damn antithetical to the idea of community. Preppers assume there will be plenty of desperate losers in the wake of the doom that lies around the corner, so they focus on defense and security. They gear up for a fight instead of a collaboration.
The us-against-them rhetoric is so inherent in the prepping subculture that each family appearing on “Doomsday Preppers” is rated by an expert panel partially on their defense strategy: do they have enough alarms, surveillance and weapons? The show leaves little room for doubt about the ideological leanings of survivalist philosophy: in one episode, a hippy-dippy couple in Vermont (of course!) had no defense plan because they figured they’d share their organic farm crops with the post-apocalyptic needy. But they were chewed out by the judges, who deemed their faith in others to be naive. In contrast, another episode featured a father accidentally blowing off his own thumb teaching his grade-schooler how to shoot. Needless to say, there was no a-ha! moment where Dad realizes, “Well, gee, kids! I’ve spent all this time teaching you to fend off imaginary boogeymen but what I failed to see is that the biggest danger has been myself!” Isn’t that naive?
Hall’s Survival Condos project is anti-community too: so much so that it’s built into a multimillion-dollar bunker literally designed to protect the elite against communist predators. Does this sound familiar? It’s like an extreme echo of elitist right-wing policies, like the championing of corporate tax cuts and safety net elimination. The reactionary underpinnings of snapping up Survival Condos are not unlike demanding a voucher to send your kids to an elite boarding school, or lobbying against universal healthcare. I am exceptional; therefore, your pain should not apply to me.
It doesn’t take a poet to see the metaphorical implications of wanting to wait out the suffering of others in an underground fortress with a dog park. That way, you can gossip with neighbors who also had the $1.5-per-unit in the bank, and deduce that those people weathering chaos outside must have done something to deserve it. After all, what’s keeping them from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and constructing their own military-grade underground infrastructure from scratch? They have part-time night school for that!
The moral tragedy of the Survival Condos reflects that of conservative philosophy overall: it insists on monopolizing access to the very resources survival is contingent on. I find it profoundly sad that no one on “Doomsday Preppers” strives to organize their communities in the midst of post-apocalyptic ruin, or to otherwise help towns ravaged by Disaster X. They don’t lead their communities or local councils to diversify food and water sources, protect public health, or do anything else that might minimize harm beyond their own heavily fortified dwellings.
There’s nothing wrong with preparing for the worst; it’s a very human thing. I don’t personally spend my time panicking about cataclysms, but it makes me sad that the sole instinct of those who do is to save themselves while the rest of the world goes to shit. That’s true whether you hole up in a log cabin near a creek or a luxury silo with a swimming pool. Wouldn’t it be nice if the people obsessed with the end of the world spent a bit more time imagining other people in it?