It must have felt apt to Bradley Garrett to be completing his book on bunkers while holed up in his home in Los Angeles with the Covid-19 pandemic breaking out across the globe. A book exploring the history and culture of underground concrete structures might seem dull on the surface but, when viewed in the context of Covid-19 and contemporary global politics, it is terrifying timely.
Underground structures themselves are not new, but fortified bunkers, designed to protect their occupants from nuclear fallout, became part of governments' defence strategy after World War I. Garrett, an anthropologist who will shortly take up a position at UCD, traces their origins from the war-time hideouts of the 20th century through to the modern bunkers of today - luxurious subterranean boltholes for the elite and politically connected.
There is plenty to worry about in Garrett's findings, but most concerning is the way in which these structures highlight the distinctions between rich and poor. Sweden has built enough bunkers to shelter 95 per cent of its residents but other societies are less prepared, leaving bunker-building to private individuals. As one of his interviewees suggests, in the event of a global catastrophe, it will be "survival of the richest".
Much about the bunker movement is to do with the essential human need to feel safe. Garrett, himself an anxious type, is clearly compelled by the array of disasters for which these men - and they are mostly men - are girding up.
In Bunker he investigates the subculture of prepping for an apocalyptic event, and offers a chilling glimpse of a group of people either uniquely unhinged or uniquely prescient, and perhaps both.
Garrett goes to meet bunker owners and developers in diverse corners of the world - in the US, of course (California, Colorado, Utah, West Virginia) - but also Australia and Thailand. Many of his subjects are unpleasant individuals, "dread-merchants" (in his words) or simple scammers who are in the business of developing and selling underground real-estate. But some of their predictions are astonishingly spot-on.
Drew Miller is a retired colonel in US Air Force intelligence with a PhD from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, building a survivalist encampment where for $1,000 a year, members could have a place of refuge. He told Garrett he thought a pandemic was highly likely. "People don't get it," he said.
"Experts will tell you we're overdue for a pandemic; they're not rare occurrences, they happen with regularity." Once Covid-19 arrived, Miller felt vindicated. In February 2020, he announced through his newsletter that all the rooms at his encampment, Fortified Ranch, in Colorado, were full.
Yet while world events offer plenty of cause for concern - Garrett cites not just Covid-19 but the climate crisis, the potential for a nuclear conflict or leakage, and economic collapse - the prepper groups he talks to are often spurred by something else, a sinister blend of conspiracies, fake news and sometimes even violent ideology. Garrett speaks to men who are loading their bunkers not just with food and supplies but with weapons, individuals fired up by Islamophobia and racism.
Despite his attraction to their preoccupation with dread, then, Garrett retains a critical eye. He writes with some disgust about "school-hardening", in which teachers are armed and schools are redesigned to turn into bunker-like structures, safe from shooters.
Statistics indicate that the likelihood of being killed by a gun in school was 1 in 614 million between 1999 and 2018, yet Trump's government has allocated $50 million per year to help schools fund these structures - a financial boon for bunker developers. Prepper philosophies are filtering into architecture, politics and school budgets.
Still, it's not the case that bunker developers are all tech-industry billionaires or fear-mongering conspiracy theorists. Garrett meets a small group of Christian women in a remote part of Tennessee, 30 minutes by car from the nearest grocery store. Their community is called Tennessee Readiness, and they are entirely self-sufficient and ready to live from their own supplies.
In the event of an emergency, they tell Garrett, they could escape to caves and secret gardens they've established in the Smoky Mountains nearby. They wouldn't mind leaving their abandoned storerooms for others. "We built it as a gift for the people left behind."
This is one of the book's shorter chapters and it warrants a longer treatment, introducing some contrast into a narrative in which so many characters are militaristic and unpleasant.
Garrett's vision of the women's preparations is a kind of poetry. "It was easy to imagine them, in the post-apocalyptic world, hiding up in the Smokies," he writes, "playing music, hunting, growing, drinking moonshine and generally thriving."
Although it may induce angst in readers, Bunker is not entirely focused on doom and gloom. In the book's coda, Garrett visits Chernobyl, where wild animals, even endangered species like Mongolian horses, are flourishing now that humans have gone away. The region's rebirth shows that every disaster holds the potential for regeneration. It's a lesson to bear in mind as we face an uncertain future.
Covid-19 has shown that some of the events bunker-builders are preparing for could really happen. As Garrett puts it, "We no longer have the luxury of being dismissive of their concerns."
Bunker: Building for the End Times