A Remote Event, but One with a Very Severe Downside

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

The “prepper” movement includes the super-rich, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone:

I asked [Justin Kan, co-founder of Twitch, a gaming network that was sold to Amazon for nearly a billion dollars] what his prepping friends had in common. “Lots of money and resources,” he said. “What are the other things I can worry about and prepare for? It’s like insurance.”

Yishan Wong, an early Facebook employee, was the C.E.O. of Reddit from 2012 to 2014. He, too, had eye surgery for survival purposes, eliminating his dependence, as he put it, “on a nonsustainable external aid for perfect vision.” In an e-mail, Wong told me, “Most people just assume improbable events don’t happen, but technical people tend to view risk very mathematically.” He continued, “The tech preppers do not necessarily think a collapse is likely. They consider it a remote event, but one with a very severe downside, so, given how much money they have, spending a fraction of their net worth to hedge against this… is a logical thing to do.”

How many wealthy Americans are really making preparations for a catastrophe? It’s hard to know exactly; a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. (“Anonymity is priceless,” one hedge-fund manager told me, declining an interview.) Sometimes the topic emerges in unexpected ways. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me. New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more. Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”

I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. “I would guess fifty-plus per cent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home. Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ” The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.) “I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”

The C.E.O. of another large tech company told me, “It’s still not at the point where industry insiders would turn to each other with a straight face and ask what their plans are for some apocalyptic event.” He went on, “But, having said that, I actually think it’s logically rational and appropriately conservative.” He noted the vulnerabilities exposed by the Russian cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee, and also by a large-scale hack on October 21st, which disrupted the Internet in North America and Western Europe. “Our food supply is dependent on G.P.S., logistics, and weather forecasting,” he said, “and those systems are generally dependent on the Internet, and the Internet is dependent on D.N.S.”—the system that manages domain names. “Go risk factor by risk factor by risk factor, acknowledging that there are many you don’t even know about, and you ask, ‘What’s the chance of this breaking in the next decade?’ Or invert it: ‘What’s the chance that nothing breaks in fifty years?’ ”

It’s especially unsurprising that Peter Thiel has New Zealand citizenship:

Perhaps Mr. Thiel’s interest in New Zealand is a way of hedging his bets on the future. But there is another possibility. Mr. Thiel is a huge fan of “The Lord of the Rings,” and has named investments after elements of the J. R. R. Tolkien epic — Mithril, Palantir and, in New Zealand itself, Valar.

New Zealand, of course, was where the director Peter Jackson made his acclaimed films of the series. Becoming a citizen might be the next best thing to living in Middle-earth itself.

I suppose he’ll sail west one day.


  1. Bill says:

    This tells me that 50% of billionaires think that they will be safe and taken care of if the economy collapses. I wonder how this affects their behavior in investing, lobbying for changes in the law, working for open borders and unlimited immigration, etc.. I’m guessing this will result in billionaires taking more chances, rather than being conservative, in how they through their weight around.

  2. Grasspunk says:

    Why do they pick New Zealand? Nothing against it, I was born there, but is there some detailed calculation that makes it ideal for preppers, kinda like the international version of Idaho?

    And then I think of this little comedy ad from a few years back: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vo6fgZ-dbOw

  3. Phil B. says:

    I smile at their naivety. OK, so they hunker down in their bunkers for – what? – two, three years and then what?

    Once they emerge, what will society and the environment be like? This free PDF book (warning: it is over 400 detailed and well thought out pages) describes a likely scenario of what a post-SHTF world may shape up to:

    In short,the population will be battle hardened and experienced survivors. They will have shaken off the shackles of a centralised government and formed their own societies which will be remarkably disinclined to obey the instructions of their self styled betters.

    I doubt that the skills Mark Zukerberg has will be in great demand and again, I doubt that gold, dollar notes or other stuff that the rich place great store upon will be particularly appealing in exchange for food, shelter etc.

    Unless and until they are able to recruit and maintain their own war bands (and once the restraints of their ‘contract’ are unenforceable, will they not simply take what they want from the rich bunker owner? And how do you store enough food etc. to maintain the numbers needed?) then they are unlikely to have the skills to survive or understand the changed conditions in the short time that they will have to adapt to the new reality of living in a post apocalypse world.

    Should be fun! >};o)

  4. LL says:

    I guess it is because New Zealand is a “civilized” country far from the nuke clouds they think will engulf US, Europe, Asia…

  5. Graham says:

    Phil B., thanks for that link. Just had a quick look at the intro and his tone seems sane and informed, at least.

    I’m no judge on his subsequent advice. I’m going to last ~5 minutes if the balloon goes up, and not just because of needing some meds. I am under no illusions about that.

    That and, despair about leftism aside, the more or less complete loss of civilization and its records, achievement, and identity will probably not leave me in a good enough mood to care.

    But I will probably read the book for self-improvement and on the off chance of help. Under those circumstances, every extra 5 minutes I remain around might just feel like some kind of win.

  6. Grasspunk says:

    LL, I guess it is unimportant enough to not be a nuclear target. But so are many, many places around the world. Maybe it is “speaks English but not a target”. But then why not Australia, or the Isle of Wight or Isle of Man, or Scotland, Ireland, Wales or even the aforementioned Idaho? Maybe NZ is just trendy for no real reason except everyone else seems to be doing it.

  7. Lucklucky says:

    NZ is more distant from everything than Australia. Look at a Globe.

  8. Space Nookie says:

    New Zealand is English speaking, and they let you buy citizenship. Very few NAMs, although people will probably only talk about it indirectly (low crime rate, good education). Good infrastructure and low corruption in the government (again, few NAMs).

    This article doesn’t talk much about the everyday security environment for “Silicon Valley billionaires”; I assume most are covered 24/7 by some kind of armed security.

  9. Steve Rogers 42 says:

    NZ is very low on Dindus and border bandits, as Nookie mentioned. Saw this flick about Maoris, though. They may need some attention after SHTF.

  10. Grasspunk says:

    I didn’t know you could buy citizenship in NZ. I’d guess any Silicon Valley estate-buyers would be getting places in the remote parts of the South Island, which is more white than the North.

Leave a Reply