The Guardian's Observer has a stomach-churning read this morning: "The super-rich 'preppers' planning to save themselves from the apocalypse", in which writer Douglas Rushkoff recounts an exclusive speaking engagement that he was hired for. He was paid a lot of money, shuttled off into the desert and was ushered before a small audience of five men "from the upper eschelon of the tech investing and hedge-fund world. At least two of them were billionaires."
He'd been brought in to talk about technology, but it was quickly made clear that they were interested in questioning him about the future and what strategies might work best to survive after an apocalyptic event.
What stopped me dead was the following:
"They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from raiders as well as angry mobs. One had already secured a dozen Navy Seals to make their way to his compound if he gave them the right cue. But how would he pay the guards once even his crypto was worthless? What would stop the guards from eventually choosing their own leader?The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival."
What's more, when Rushkoff tried to explain some alternatives – social cooperation and mutual support ("Don't just invest in ammo and electric fences, invest in people and relationships."), they just rolled their eyes.
This isn't entirely surprising: there's been more than a handful of think pieces (especially since COVID-19 started) about how the titans of industry are looking to ride out an apocalypse, while the rest of us choke on diseases, nuclear fallout, or gunfire. In some ways, it's a fun fantasy to imagine: if you had unlimited resources, how would you go about surviving a civilization-ending event? We've been raised on a diet of movies and science fictional concepts about what might go into a long-term survival plan. A plot of secure land, food supplies neatly arranged in the storage bunker, plenty of fencing and solar panels, and a staff of loyal minions to cater to your every whim. It's an idea that comes right out of the American mythos of self-reliance and individualism, and when you scratch the surface and think about it for more than a couple of minutes, you begin to realize just how much of a shitty worldview it really is.
There's a scene that's stuck with me for a couple of years now, from Linda Nagata's novel The Trials, the second installment in her Red trilogy. The books aren't post-apocalyptic, but there's elements of a plausible divided future here. Some members of the ultra-wealthy have used their wealth to build space habitats, which Nagata aptly describes these as "dragon's lairs". It's pretty bleak: its occupant, an ultra-wealthy guy named Eduard Semak, has been locked away from the world, slowly losing it in this tiny, isolated capsule. In many ways, this feels exactly like what would happen if someone decided to retreat to a bunker with their staff: they'd slowly lose their minds in the isolation and be unable to support themselves on their own. It would only be a matter of time before they're betrayed and killed by their own guards.
If you zoom far enough out, our existence on Earth is a tenuous one. Take away clothes, ready access to food and water, change the temperature a couple of degrees, put us out in the sun too long, or blow the wind a little too fast, and we'll quickly die of just exposure to the elements. It's only through our collective efforts that we've been able to scale our civilization to a point where worrying about dying from the elements just by existing is mostly an afterthought. (Climate change is quickly changing that, though.)
I've been thinking about this a bit, and trying to think of any books that I've read that really glorify the idea of surviving and rebuilding after an apocalyptic event, and I'm coming up blank. Authors and thinkers have used genre imagery as a canvas to reimagine the world we live in, but these sorts of events are framed as a cautionary tale or thought experiment, rather than an advocation for the destruction of civilization.
Rather, the books that do come to mind are ones that use an apocalyptic event as a way to emphasize something else: we survive because of the communities and relationships we forge. An apocalypse isn't the destruction of buildings, roads, and the deaths of millions of people: it's the destruction of a civilization.
One of my favorite works of post-apocalyptic fiction is Will McIntosh's Soft Apocalypse, which portrays such a collapse not as an over-night thing, but as a process that takes place over decades. He follows a group of characters as they try and figure out how to survive as life gets harder and harder, and ultimately, the only way to survive is to let go of the world that we grew up in and embrace a very different world suited for the new reality.
We're living at a time where the idea of collapse and disruption doesn't feel that science fictional: devastating floods, wildfires, and war preoccupy out thoughts, and the future that we're leaving our successors will be a very different one than the ones we imagined. These sorts of events are the ones that could – and can – fracture communities beyond repair. But they're also something of a test, or maybe a reminder, that our capacity for empathy and compassion for those who're worse off endures, and that if we work together, cooperate, and share, we are more likely to whether these crises.
The way to beat back an apocalyptic crisis is to build those strong communal bonds that allow you to know and appreciate your neighbors, so that you can help in times of need. A solution to the destruction of civilization is just as Rushkoff suggests: building and investing in people and relationships, rather than shock collars, weapons, and an isolated bunker.