Bunker: meet the apocalypse preppers

A new book tours fallout shelters, wilderness communities, and others escaping the collapse of society...
27 October 2020

Interview with 

Bradley Garrett


Barbed wire


The pandemic is changing society drastically. And rather than engaging with it, some people are choosing to hide and wait out that change - whether in the woods, in their homes, or in underground bunkers. What is life like in these places - and the minds of these people - who are cutting themselves off from the world? Bradley Garrett is an ethnographer trying to answer that question. His new book, Bunker, recounts his experiences living with these groups - he told Phil Sansom more about them...

Bradley - It's a wide range of people. Evangelicals who thought that in order to be raptured, they were going to have to make it through the period of tribulation. And so they were stockpiling for that period of time. I spent time with people from the Church of Latter-day Saints, Mormons, who were actually not interested in escaping the disaster, but going into it. But I also met people who were anarchists and had dropped out of society and were living in off-grid communities and we're very focused on sustainable technologies. And then there were some people that kind of had a bit of a harder edge, ex-military types who were, um, very interested in being able to build defensible architecture, to protect themselves and their families.

Phil - How extreme does this kind of prep get?

Bradley - I went to one in Kansas, built by an ex-government contractor. Now this is a guy who built bunkers for the government. So he was, he was working on those projects and he decided that he needed his own bunker. So he bought an Atlas F nuclear missile silo from the federal government for $300,000, and spent about 10 million turning it into a subterranean condominium complex. I saw photos of it before I arrived there, but it really didn't prepare me for the scale of the place and the level of ambition, I guess. But he, I mean, he had a shooting range, a rock climbing wall, a swimming pool, an education centre, a library, and of course, space for seventy-five people. And after spending 10 million building this -I called it a geo scraper. It's like an inverted skyscraper - he sold every single one of those condos inside there and made about 20 million in profit. And he's now using that to build a second silo. And I, you know, I don't see any end to this. There's a thriving market of people who have millions of dollars of disposable income and are perfectly willing to spend one and a half to 3 million to buy into, you know, the ultimate security, something that was only available to governments a few decades ago.

Phil - Is it like a prison down there?

Bradley - It's not like a prison at all!

Phil - Just because it's underground. And it sounds like it's windowless. It's the only thing I can imagine.

Bradley - There are windows. I'm putting windows scare quotes here because they're vertically installed LED screens. And what he's done is he pipes in a 4k feed from outside of the bunker, so that if you're standing in a living room in one of the condos, you have a very real sense that you're looking outside. He's also installed lighting that emulates the circadian rhythms. So you feel a sense of the sun coming up and down, which is really important if you're going to maintain psychological equilibrium. Some of these are strategies that were learned during the cold war. For instance, there's a particular colour of green paint that is somehow soothing to the human mind. It's the same colour paint that you see in hospitals very often, that color paint was also used on the walls to keep people in a calm state. And he was very explicit - Larry Hall, the guy who built the condo - was very explicit in telling me that for him, the technical barriers to building the condo were not actually very challenging. The challenge was maintaining social order and making sure that people's psychological needs were satisfied. And, you know, having gone through this pandemic and, and all of us having to suffer self-isolation, I think we can all understand how important it is that you keep yourself healthy and distracted. And that's precisely what he had built that bunker to do.

Phil - Has anyone - who hadn't already before the coronavirus started - hunkered down in a bunker somewhere?

Bradley - I mean, it's difficult to get a sense of it, but I ran into one statistic that there were 3.7 million Americans in 2011, that self identified as preppers. And I had someone get in touch recently from Cornell university. And his new estimate now is that 11 million people are seriously prepping in the United States. I don't have numbers outside of the country, but you know, that's significant. This is a reflection of condemnation almost on society, right? That people no longer have faith in government and corporations to take care of them.


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