Everything Wrong with Peter Thiel’s Doomsday Survival Plan
And how you can prepare for the apocalypse better than a billionaire
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
You know things are getting risky when billionaires start making plans to flee to New Zealand on the off chance civilization might collapse. This week's New Yorker details the doomsday survival plans of Peter Thiel, and other notable Silicon Valley tech moguls.
The thing is, despite their virtually unlimited budgets, none of these guys is doing it right. Here’s what you can learn from their mistakes.
“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,” Antonio García Martínez, a former Product Manager for Facebook, told the New Yorker. He went on to describe the survival preparations he was making on the private island he purchased in the Pacific Northwest for that purpose.
“If there is a civil war, or a giant earthquake that cleaves off part of California, we want to be ready,” Tim Chang, the managing director of a venture capital fund said.
It’s emerged that Thiel himself has gone so far as to obtain New Zealand citizenship, thereby avoiding the country’s foreign ownership laws, and buying a farm there. Sotheby’s International Realty describes the property as a “spectacular 477-acre freehold estate set on the western shores of stunning Lake Wanaka…A most beautiful and picturesque farm, the property offers a secluded and peaceful setting but is just eight minutes' drive from the centre of Wanaka town centre. With Mt. Aspiring National Park, a World Heritage Area set in the foreground, Damper Bay provides an outstanding vista from the consented building platform.”
The New Yorker goes on to suggest that “fifty-plus percent” of Silicon Valley billionaires own some sort of survival hideaway (even if it's just a remote vacation home that could serve double duty in the event of the apocalypse), and says that purchasing property in New Zealand has become a “wink, wink, say no more” acknowledgement that you’re making plans for doomsday. In the week following Donald Trump’s election, a record 13,401 Americans registered interest in gaining residency in that country.
Why New Zealand? Well, it’s a politically stable country that’s geographically isolated. What little population it has is mostly Western, and its mountainous terrain and distance from the equator largely shield it from the effects of climate change—and the rising sea levels it will bring. It’s also hard to get to, which is where we start the discussion of why it’s a bad place to plan to spend the apocalypse.
“What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator?” asks technology investor Justin Kan in the New Yorker story. “Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.”
If planning to survive everyday disasters like car crashes, mass shootings, or house fires is a case of preparing for extremely unlikely scenarios, then planning to survive an apocalyptic disaster like a nuclear war is all about preparing for a situation that, in all likelihood, will never happen. In fact, disasters on a scale large enough to wipe out a country the size of the U.S., or at least send it into chaos, have no modern precedent from which doomsday preppers can draw lessons. In the relatively short history of industrialized society, the poles have never reversed magnitude, the Mongols have never invaded, and we have yet to lob nuclear weapons at each other over ill-advised late night tweets. So preparing for the apocalypse is primarily a case of asking yourself, “What if?”
What if The Big One destroys most of California? What if a comet hits Earth? What if hackers destroy the Internet, and global financial networks and governments with it? For Thiel and other billionaires, the answer to all those questions appears to be “Flee to New Zealand!”
Survival doesn’t have to be a dumb hobby you spend too much money on. By treating it as an excuse to learn how to do new stuff, it can give you a better life right now.
Let’s continue those what ifs. What if the earthquake damages the airport where you keep your private jet? What if your pilot can’t get through traffic? What if he decides to fly his family to safety instead of his employer? What if the airport is out of fuel? What if John Cusack steals your plane, and your seat on the mega ship?
These guys are rich, so maybe the also have a boat or two. What if a tsunami caused by that earthquake sinks them? What if what turns out to be doomsday happens on the crew’s day off? What if you’re playing golf with your buddy Donald at the Winter White House, when he decides to push the big red button and your boats are all on the West Coast?
You get the point. Predicating survival scenarios on the successful execution of a complicated series of events is a recipe for failure. By their very nature, these big, hypothetical disasters would create chaos and undo societies. You won’t be able to rely on the lights turning on when you flip a switch anymore.
These big, hypothetical disasters are also, by their very nature, unpredictable. A powerful individual may assume the politicians he buys will be polite enough to give them advance warning of a pending disaster, thereby enabling them to flee in plenty of time. But, even if the political will is there, an event like a polar shift may come without warning. Thiel would be stuck dealing with nuclear fallout or marauding zombies just like us plebes.
And the same goes for other, less exotic fixed location-based survival planning. The New Yorker also describes the Survival Condo Project, a former missile silo in Kansas that’s been turned into a doomsday retreat. Its 12 apartments are sold out, so construction is underway for more in another silo nearby. Its builders employ armed guards in the event that desperate-but-poor survivors may seek shelter there while paying guests are enjoying the underground pool. They’ve even installed a sniper position to deal with just that eventuality. But if we’re going to enter the fantasy realm of apocalypse scenarios, then it’s also logical to hypothesize about the villains that may emerge in those fantasy scenarios. Do you really think Immortan Joe and his War Boys would have trouble getting into a simple bunker protected by a single sniper post?
In more realistic circumstances, there are 21.8 million veterans in the U.S., with various levels of professional expertise in solving problems like bunker busting. Hell, there’s more guns than people in this country. Fixed locations are inherently vulnerable by their very nature, subject to siege, and allowing attackers to patiently plan ways to penetrate them. Any billionaire’s hoard of survival supplies will be a natural target following the breakdown of society. Keeping them secret will be a challenge too, when contractors have been paid to construct them, delivery men have carried the supplies in, and even the armed guards may decide their friends and families could use all those tins of spam a little more desperately than their paranoid employer.
One rich silicon valley type acknowledges the inherent disparity Thiel and his billionaire prepper cohorts are creating here. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Neurotrack CEO Elli Kaplan told the New Yorker. “I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.”
Billionaires live in the same society we do, and are subject to the same cultural influences, and trends the rest of us are. Right now, survival is trendy. Particularly among people who like the idea of doing tough guy stuff, but don’t actually go out and do tough guy things. You get the feeling that doomsday prep is just a fun hobby, or mental puzzle for these dudes—one they’re able to indulge a little more than you or I might be able to. You buy a neon green tomahawk at Walmart just in case the zombies ever rise; Peter Thiel buys a 477-acre farm in New Zealand. Neither one will ever be used for its intended purpose.
Which brings me to my whole point here. Your neon green tomahawk was a waste of money. And unless he takes up sheep husbandry, so is Thiel’s New Zealand farm. There is a way to effectively prepare to survive the apocalypse, but it doesn’t involve bunkers, and it doesn’t involve plane rides to the southern hemisphere.
In the story, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman talks about that scene in “Deep Impact” where Elijah Wood rides a dirt bike through stalled traffic, escaping a comet-caused tsunami by the skin on his teeth. “I need to own a motorcycle because everybody else is screwed,” he Huffman says. He bought a few motorcycles as a result.
That’s a good start. Developing experience with a wide range of real-world capabilities is the key to effective survival preparation. Huffman lives in San Francisco, which has seen a handful of earthquakes snarl traffic. Having a motorcycle, and knowing what to do with it, would enable anyone to easily navigate disaster-caused traffic jams, and even damaged roads.
Another rich tech type talks about his distaste for firearms, and said he’s been taking archery lessons instead, suggesting his bow will help him protect his family. Another good idea, albeit one that seems a little restricted by pre-apocalyptic morals. Developing at least a basic competency with a variety of weapons won’t just enable you to be safe when you encounter them, and won’t just enable you to protect your family, it also gives you the capability you’d need to harvest food in the wilderness.
Both motorcycles and archery are skills that, if developed, could payoff big time in disasters large and small. Both are also fun hobbies. By spending time learning them, not only are you giving yourself something fun and practical to do, but you’re also working towards the kind of general real world competency that will make your life better both right now, and post-apocalypse.
Both motorcycles and archery are also hobbies that I enjoy. As a result, my fuel bill is small, I don’t spend time stuck in traffic, and I eat the healthiest, most ethically-sourced, and humane meat possible. And because I’ve invested the time and effort to get really good at both, they’re skills I can rely on under pressure. Are these guys good enough motorcyclists that they could safely ride through a panicked city? Are they good enough with a bow to reliably make a one-shot kill on a deer? With all that money, answering yes to both shouldn’t be a problem. And that’s where they should be spending their cash: not on building bunkers in New Zealand, but on gaining experience in real life.
Throughout the New Yorker piece, there’s an air of secrecy. No one wants to tell you exactly where their hideout is or what they’ve got stored in it. Well, I’m happy to share my doomsday survival plan. I spend my time developing fitness, recreating outdoors, and making stuff with my hands. I know I can navigate through the wilderness, because that’s just a fun weekend for me and my dog. I know I can set a broken arm, because I’ve set mine. I know I can build a house, because that used to be my job. And I don’t have to wait for the apocalypse for that stuff to pay off, those experiences give me a good life right now. Please, feel free to steal my survival plan. My roving band of cannibals will need competent recruits.
That range of skills, and others, makes me a useful person. I stop and help people fix broken down cars. I help friends renovate their houses. My house is the gathering point post-disaster for everyone I know who doesn’t have cause to fear me. Know what will be in demand when society crumbles? It won’t be people who are really good at making money on the Internet. It will be people who can help rebuild it.
Where will I live and how will I eat? It doesn’t matter, because I can do those things anywhere. Heck, if I run out of baby wipes, maybe I’ll just go take some of theirs. Being a capable person has given me a post-apocalyptic flexibility Thiel and his buddies totally lack. They're making a Plan B for their current lives, but failing to make a Plan C. What if their bunkers are overrun? What if they can't get to them? If you're investing time and money preparing for an unlikely scenario, then it's probably worthwhile preparing for the likely ways that scenario will unfold. Given the unknowns, flexibility will be the ultimate capability when the world ends.
Survival doesn’t have to be just a dumb hobby you spend too much money on. By treating it as an excuse to learn how to do new stuff, it can give you a better life right now, too. Silicon Valley tech billionaires, it is not too late. There’s still time to learn real world skills before shit hits the fan.