Garrett’s writing is occasionally clumsy and some descriptions of the people he meets are puzzling (“I got the sense that Christmas at his house would be perfect”, he says about the CEO of one bunker commune; while a man who runs an online forum for preppers looks “sleek and energetic” wearing “a faded Star Wars T-shirt and wrap-around sunglasses”). But we can forgive these lapses for the sharp insight he brings to a subject that no longer seems so remote or speculative. “We’ve become smart enough to dominate much of our habitat and then engineer our own destruction”, he writes towards the end. “The next chapter of that story will be about whether we’re smart enough to engineer our survival.”
Privately built shelters usually connote paranoia and pro-gun, anti-government political extremists. And while many right-wing blowhards have cloistered themselves in disused US military bunker sites in the West Virginia outback, Hollywood and Wall Street are no less full of preppers intent on weathering the threat of Islamist terrorism or some other perceived Armageddon. The ‘paradox of survivalism’ in the US today, says Garrett, is that it requires self-declared patriots to break loose from their country in order to protect it. He even argues that, in an age when data giants such as Facebook and Google seek to monitor our consumer habits, building your own bunker might almost be an ‘act of civil disobedience’.
Garrett puts such skills to good use in Bunker: whether looking for a hidden complex in rural Tasmania, or a former munitions depot in South Dakota, he doesn’t always wait for permission to have a nose around. But the book is about much more than illicit glimpses into occluded spaces. It is a thoughtful study into the nature of paranoia and the people who try to profit from it — and it makes for a page-turning read. For a start, there are some jaw-dropping statistics. The National Geographic in 2012 found that 40 per cent of Americans think stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter is a wiser investment than saving for retirement.
Whether from sympathy (Garrett admits to his own prepper instincts) or academic discipline, the author displays a great deal more tolerance for the cast of conspiracy theorists, paranoiacs, libertarians and hucksters he encounters than many readers might possess. In my narrow-minded case, I find I rapidly lose interest in someone’s opinions the moment they declare that 9/11 was an inside job...
However, when Garrett gets an earful of Truther nonsense, he doesn’t rush to judgment. And he hears a lot of that kind of talk as he visits various bleak bunker sites across America, all of which promise to keep out the coming apocalypse. What becomes swiftly evident is that it’s in the economic interests of the entrepreneurs who own these places, with such deathless names as Almost Heaven and Paradise Valley, to talk up the risk of impending cataclysm.
He writes pacily, bringing to vivid life a gallery of survivalist wingnuts, conmen and evangelists, and smoothly unpacking a new vocabulary of “hardened architecture” and DUMBS (deep underground military shelters). Occasionally he’s a bit too keen to flash his intellectual knickers with references to Foucault and Heidegger. But his central message of the fragility of societies – how quickly after a catastrophic event we might descend into anarchy, vigilantism, and cannibalism - is chillingly simple. The question is: would staying alive locked in an armoured box really be preferable?
Fortunately, Garrett is a bright and buoyant guide and Bunker rattles briskly along. And he’s scrupulously fair to his subjects, mostly letting them speak for themselves. Indeed, a weakness of the book is that it is too fair to them. Fundamentally, prepping is a bleak and unpleasant philosophy. It might seem like a form of responsible cautiousness, but really it’s a bet against the rest of us; preppers don’t just want to come out the other side, they want to come out ahead. Time and again the conversation veers into conspiracies and dark mutterings with racist overtones. Garrett says that preppers often seem credulous, believing in Mayan prophecies and secret tenth planets and the like, but really they just come across as cynical. Some of them appear to be egging the apocalypse on, eager for their underground investments to pay off. Given that, it’s deeply troubling to learn that many of the world’s richest people have a sideline in prepping, getting their off-grid doomsteads in New Zealand ready. But that’s what makes Bunker a necessary read – we should be keeping tabs on what they’re up to.
Though his winning gregariousness propels him once again in Bunker, there is a significant tonal shift. Where there was a controlled fearlessness that pervaded his “edgework” escapades in Explore Everything, there is disquiet here, and it’s obvious why... There’s a thrilling, chilling coda to Bunker when the author goes on an illegal four-day walk into the ultimate apocalyptic heart of darkness at the Chernobyl exclusion zone, with the Geiger counter clicking up and up … the “logical terminus” of his trip. The self-destruction of our species haunts this book: we realise that all along Garrett has been more interested in exploring human limits than human spaces.