Not the ‘preppers’ you see on TV: America’s wealthy take ‘prepping’ seriously

Depending on the circles you run in, the word “prepper” has different connotations. Its use in the media on shows with exaggerated premises about crackpots building camouflaged tree houses has made the idea of “being prepared” for disaster somewhat laughable, but among people that have spent some time in failed states, impoverished nations, or places with nefarious and brutal governments, “prepping” isn’t a hobby or a recent trend. It’s just a part of your day.

I don’t consider myself a “prepper,” but I’ve certainly been referred to as one in friendly conversations with my less security minded friends. If you’re the type of guy with extra water storage and some firepower, you’ve probably heard the same jokes:

“Well, when the zombie apocalypse comes, I’m heading to your house!”

Here in the United States, where we only pretend this week’s raging hashtag is the end of the world, the idea of being prepared for a bad situation seems laughable — after all, the police are a phone call away, the fire department doesn’t charge for their services, Netflix is streaming and your local Wal-Mart is fully stocked with everything you could ever need. By the standards of much of the world, the United States is a bountiful Utopia… what on earth could change that?

Well, honestly, it wouldn’t take much. Our confidence based economy relies on confidence. Our domestic missile defense apparatus relies on mutually assured destruction and the perception we cultivate of invulnerability, our ability to stop the spread of apocalyptic illnesses that once ravaged civilizations is based on antibiotics that are proving increasingly ineffective against new strains of old bacteria, and according to the U.S. government, Russia has already successfully infiltrated the American power grid on more than one occasion. I don’t want to misrepresent our current situation: the wheels of a foreseeable apocalypse are not necessarily in motion — but just like carrying a firearm, being prepared is about mitigating the risk of possibilities. I don’t expect needing to use my firearm as I run errands this afternoon but if the situation were to arise, I’d be ready.

While popular culture and internet memes might lead you to believe that “prepping” for a large-scale disaster is an exclusive interest for the paranoid or the mentally unhinged, you may be surprised to learn that America’s wealthy and elite have long taken the possibility of an existential threat seriously — and with good reason. History has shown that the wealthiest among us tend not to fair well when the impoverished masses grow desperate.

For the moderately rich, high dollar “survival communities” have begun springing up all over the country — often in converted missile silos or other kinds of underground bunkers. Depending on your community of choice, you can find all the amenities of modern living deep beneath the earth’s surface, and even a few you may not have — like a personal movie theater or indoor swimming pool. Some of these bunker-condos can go for millions of dollars, which is a pretty steep price to pay for a summer home you hope you’ll never need to visit, but it’s important to consider the scale of wealth when dismissing the idea. If you’re worth billions, a measly million dollars may be a small price to pay for peace of mind.

The Survival Condo Project builds luxury suites deep inside former Atlas missile silos, complete with LCD screen windows that can depict any image you want to pretend you’re looking out at while the word above you burns. (Survival Condo Project)

But what about the super rich? Well, they’re just as interested in making it through a disaster as the rest of us, they just do it with a great deal more panache. Some have custom built homes designed around protecting their families from all sorts of dangerous situations – others, like the owners of the very Wal-Marts so many people plan to raid when things go bad, take things even further. After the terror attacks of 9/11, the Walton family built a massive family bunker in Bentonville, Arkansas. Little is known about the interior of the facility, but the exterior, adorned with concrete barriers, razor wire and full-time security detail suggests that the Waltons believe “prepping” to be a worthy investment. They’re far from the only billionaires that feel that way.

A reinforced bunker mansion under construction near Atlanta (courtesy of Sotheby’s International Realty)

“You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse,” Former Facebook product manager Antonio García Martínez told the New Yorker. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”

Martínez purchased a large plot of land in the Pacific Northwest, and while he hasn’t revealed the extent of his preparations, he acknowledges that it is well equipped with solar and diesel generators, survival equipment, and all the firepower he believes he’d need to defend his stake.

Steve Huffman, the co-founder of the popular website Reddit has even gone under the knife to help prepare for a possible apocalypse. As a part of his preparations, he underwent Lasik to correct his vision.

“If the world ends — and not even if the world ends, but if we have trouble — getting contacts or glasses is going to be a huge pain in the ass,” he explained. “Without them, I’m f–ked.”

He also has his own bunker, complete with utilitarian motorcycles he believes will allow him to get around traffic while evacuating from his home in San Francisco.

“I think, to some degree, we all collectively take it on faith that our country works, that our currency is valuable, the peaceful transfer of power — that all of these things that we hold dear work because we believe they work,” says Huffman. “While I do believe they’re quite resilient, and we’ve been through a lot, certainly we’re going to go through a lot more.”

Of course, just because these folks are wealthy doesn’t mean they’re onto something the rest of us aren’t. The disasters America’s elites are preparing for are as diverse as their revenue streams. Bill Gates, for instance, is confident that a massive disaster in the form of new unstoppable diseases is on the horizon.

“Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year,” Gates wrote in an op-ed for Business Insider last year. “And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years.”

There may be no way to know that a large-scale disaster is headed for you, but it never hurts to have a plan, do some training, and put a little thought into the possibility that life may not always be as easy as it is right now. The term “prepper” may have a bit of a negative connotation, but connotations won’t matter much if you find yourself struggling to survive in the wake of calamity.

Feature image courtesy of the Survival Condo Project