While the Planet Burns: Billionaires Are Busy Hunkering Down for the Apocalypse

While the Planet Burns: Billionaires Are Busy Hunkering Down for the Apocalypse

While the Planet Burns: Billionaires Are Busy Hunkering Down for the Apocalypse

In a world hurtling towards catastrophe, the super-rich prefer bunkers to solutions.


Dr. Strangelove’s big mistake was going into government work when he could have made much more money in the private sector doing the same job of making the apocalypse palatable. Strangelove—the eponymous antihero of Stanley Kubrick’s lacerating and immortal 1964 film—is a satirical embodiment of the mad logic of nuclear brinkmanship codified under the rules of mutual assured destruction. A former Nazi who can’t quite control his atavistic urge to shoot up a “Sieg Heil!” salute to the American president he sees as his new Führer, Strangelove (played as a nervously giggling psycho by Peter Sellers) develops a devilishly twisted solution as humanity faces extinction. This crisis is a result of a preemptive attack on Russia launched by the rogue Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden), which triggers a Soviet doomsday device.

Strangelove, who survived unscathed the Götterdämmerung unleashed by his previous employer, Adolf Hitler, is unruffled by the impending cataclysm. A saving remnant of humanity, Strangelove argues, can be preserved underground in mine shafts—a makeshift haven where nuclear power can provide the energy while greenhouses and livestock furnish the food. This underground Eden will be populated by the military and political elite, who will serve as new Adams with the help of fresh Eves in the form of an abundance of nubile women “selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature” to ensure the procreative restoration of the species.

The Cold War ended over 30 years ago and the Soviet Union has been relegated to dusty history books, but Strangelovian ideas retain a hypnotic hold on the ruling class, with deranged billionaires taking the place of bomb-happy military theorists. Today, there is no end of genuine problems that could easily lead to mass death—climate change chief among them, but also pandemics, nuclear war, and social collapse. Many of the wealthiest people in the world have decided that Earth is a Titanic heading for an iceberg. As a result, they have decided to create luxury lifeboats for themselves.

On Friday, Quartz reported a bizarre Strangelove-style project by the disgraced quondam billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried (popularly known as SBF), currently facing fraud charges over his management of FTX, the now-bankrupt Bahamas-based cryptocurrency exchange he cofounded. Prior to his downfall, SBF had made a name for himself as the second-largest donor to the Democratic Party (where, as a centrist, he invested heavily in primaries to thwart insurgent leftists) and for his advocacy of “effective altruism” (a philosophy encouraging the accumulation of private wealth to allegedly finance philanthropy for the putative long-term benefit of humanity).

Court filings in support of a lawsuit against SBF and his associates allege that SBF’s brother, Gabriel Bankman-Fried (a close business partner), and an officer of the FTX foundation circulated a memo describing a scheme to purchase Nauru, an island nation in the Pacific, which would serve as a “bunker / shelter.” The memo is quoted as saying that Nauru would come in handy in case of “some event where 50%-99.99% of people die [to] ensure that most EAs [effective altruists] survive.” In a touch that Strangelove would have appreciated, the memo speaks of the need to develop “sensible regulations around human genetic enhancement, and build a lab there.” Ominously, the memo also anticipated that “probably there are other things it’s useful to do with a sovereign country, too.”

The new revelations in this lawsuit raise many questions. Nauru is best known for the way Australia has used it as an internment camp for refugees. Even more than Strangelove’s mine shafts, Nauru seems singularly inhospitable as a location for seeding humanity’s future. As the novelist Jacob Bacharach noted, “Simply marvelous that the greatest brain geniuses in human history didn’t consider that, aside from rising sea levels, due to human phosphate mining it is literally impossible to cultivate crops on Nauru and effectively 100% of the island’s food is imported.” The Nauru plan, Bacharach adds, would mean “moving to the least hospitable remaining land on Earth outside of Antarctica to escape the extinction of 99% of the human race only to discover at the very last minute that you can’t grow a tomato.”

Judged on its own term, the Nauru scheme raises the question of whether effective altruism exists to serve humanity or humanity exists to serve effective altruists.

SBF and his business cronies are far from alone in their postapocalyptic fantasies. Bunker-building is a booming business because many of the wealthy share SBF’s desire for an escape hatch from humanity’s shared fate. “In recent years,” New Yorker writer Evan Osnos reported in 2017, “survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.”

When asked how many Silicon Valley tycoons had invested in “apocalypse insurance” in the form of secret sanctums, Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, told Osnos, “I would guess fifty-plus percent.” Osnos traveled to a site north of Wichita, Kansas which houses the “Survival Condo Project, a fifteen-story luxury apartment complex built in an underground Atlas missile silo. The facility housed a nuclear warhead from 1961 to 1965, when it was decommissioned.” The site includes armed guards and a remote-control snipers’ nest to keep out the riffraff. A full floor in the condo costs $3 million and half a floor $1.5 million. All units have been sold, aside from one reserved for CEO Larry Hall. Hall has options on other missile silos he hopes to turn into survivalist condos. Aside from Kansas, the more remote but also more attractive New Zealand has become the preferred backup plan for plutocratic preppers. The Mephistophelian billionaire Peter Thiel is only one of thousands of fat cats who have gobbled up land in that antipodean oasis.

Steve Huffman, cofounder and CEO of Reddit, is confident he can emerge as a winner after the collapse of the social order. As he told Osnos, “I also have this somewhat egotistical view that I’m a pretty good leader. I will probably be in charge, or at least not a slave, when push comes to shove.” This seems at the very least debatable—perhaps even wishful thinking.

In previous cases of wide-scale civilizational collapse, notably the fall of the Roman Empire, the new ruling class has tended to consist of muscular and murderous thugs rather than math and business nerds. Praetorian guards had outsize power in the Roman Empire. In the unlikely event that survivalist fantasies come true, the armed security operatives who protect the condos and bunkers of the rich are surely likely to be the new warlords. Perhaps this is why Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is putting so much sweat into mastering Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Wellesley College historian Quinn Slobodian places plutocratic preppers in a broader context in his astute 2023 book Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy. Arch-capitalists like Thiel, whom Slobodian describes as “market radicals,” have little use for democracy, seeing it as an impediment to the flourishing of business. In a 2009 conference, Thiel stated, “I no longer believe freedom and democracy are compatible.… In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms.” In pursuit of this goal, Thiel and his ilk have pursued an agenda that libertarian pundit Jeff Deist calls “soft secession.” As Slobodian notes, this dream of soft secession is aided by the existence of “unusual legal spaces, anomalous territories, and peculiar jurisdictions. There are city-states, havens, enclaves, free ports, high-tech parks, duty-free districts, and innovation hubs.” Soft secession can take simple forms like parking one’s wealth in the Cayman islands or living in a gated community.

We live in a time, Slobdian observes, “when billionaires dream of escaping the state, and the idea of the public is repellent.” This era is created by “a decades-long effort to pierce holes in the social fabric, to opt out, secede, and defect from the collective.”

Those who worry about the climate are sometimes accused of succumbing to “doomerism,” an unhelpful pessimism that paralyzes action. There is some justice to this critique, but it’s wrong to think that prime locus of doomerism is among young liberals, as Matthew Yglesias claims in a recent Substack post. Yglesias is an erstwhile apologist for Sam Bankman-Fried, having authored an infamous post defending the sincerity of SBF’s commitment to philanthropy. More broadly, Yglesias is a recidivist cheerleader for Silicon Valley, which he believes is the victim of excessively skeptical investigative reporting.

Given his fondness for actually existing plutocracy, Yglesias isn’t in a position to see that the true doomers aren’t young people who are justifiably anxious about climate and social decay but rather the super-rich. Figures like Thiel and SBF are worried about the state of the world—but unwilling to do anything about it, because they know their very wealth and status depend on the economic system that threatens humanity. Part of Thiel’s fortune came from Facebook, which accelerates the very partisan negativism that he worries about. SBF’s bank account grew fat thanks to the rise of Bitcoin—a notorious contributor to climate change. He and Thiel are arsonists who are starting to notice that the world is burning, which leads them to want to buy fireproof bunkers.

The super-rich have as little to contribute to human flourishing as Dr. Strangelove. The plutocrats have decided that they don’t need society. The truth is the reverse: Society doesn’t need the plutocrats.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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