SEPTEMBER 28, 2020
IF THIS YEAR has a zeitgeist, it’s collapse — of ecosystems, government norms, pandemic preparedness, and quite a few minds. That process has, of course, been coming on for decades, with plenty of writers racing to unravel it, from Bill McKibben picking up where Rachel Carson left off, to Elizabeth Kolbert and David Wallace-Wells.
But these Cassandras have generally been stronger on analyzing the turmoil than showing us how to make our way through it — and we’ve long been in need of a map. With 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures now hitting the Arctic Circle, “mask rage” and worse erupting across the United States, and the near future radioactive with uncertainty, we have, it seems, reached the end of a road. As if on cue, two exceptional books have arrived to wrangle with the implications: Ben Ehrenreich’s Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time and Bradley Garrett’s Bunker: Building for the End Times.
Both writers are Angelenos, with sensibilities honed in its edgeworlds, geographic and cultural. But their takes on surviving apocalypse are intriguingly different. For Garrett, the future is down, in the parallel universe of the bunker-bound underworld, unpeeled on a series of intercontinental treks. Ehrenreich takes his chances out in the open. His meditative journey splices together sojourns in the Mojave Desert with essays, some tracking the forces of capitalism and imperialism that have led us to our dead end, others indicating alternative “ways of thinking, living, seeing” that could show a way out of it.
Ehrenreich is a bold choreographer, skipping from black holes and Mayan myths to the “breathtaking racism” of Hegel and mystic wheels in the stories of Borges. All the while, in the physical present, he’s on a loop from the Joshua Tree National Park near Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back. Some might find this contrived, but I see an echo of Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes, another episodic desert trek seeking the roots of colonialism. Of course, Ehrenreich is no Swede in the Sahara but an American attempting to rethink his own country, pummeled out of shape by “the Rhino” (Trump). But like Lindqvist, he skips with intent, each apparently random insight sparking off the next.
The thread through this maze is time — how it ran out for marginalized peoples, seems to fall apart in war zones, and was commodified by the Industrial Revolution. Agents of empire and manifest destiny saw time as a linear, one-way march — “progress” — which Ehrenreich argues has led to our present mayhem, from rising emissions to gross inequity. The silent immensity of the desert is an antidote. By putting “eternity in the foreground,” the desert forces us to see that we are not world-straddlers but bit players in a bigger picture. Likewise, the owls that glide through these pages — some real, others mythic harbingers of death or symbols of wisdom — serve as warnings against human exceptionalism.
Ehrenreich’s trawl through imperial and colonial history turns up a number of culprits, among them 19th- and early 20th-century archaeologists who made careers out of “laying claim to time.” Reginald Campbell Thompson was one, sending volumes of Assyrian treasures to Britain and — despite knowing little of ancient Sumerian — “translating” cuneiform texts written in the language for his 1903 The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia. The cultural appropriation didn’t stop there. Mesopotamia, Ehrenreich argues, was designated the cradle of Western civilization because cuneiform tablets are the oldest known system of writing — and writing, to the imperial mind, was the mark of a higher culture. Shunting Iraq’s ancient treasures westward was, he asserts, seen as a way of “sending them home.”
Such tidy historizing was allied to the idea of social “perfectibility” that had emerged in 18th-century Europe. According to that paradigm, indigenous peoples are impediments. By the late 19th century, Ehrenreich argues, the Western worldview — shaped by technology and the lingering notion of progress — had become sterile: “Only once we imagined the world as dead could we dedicate ourselves to making it so.”
The devastation of tribal peoples in the American West bears that out. In the quarter-century after California’s 1848 annexation, some 80 percent of indigenous Californians died. The Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s established by the Paiute prophet Wovoka envisioned the white race disappearing as earth renewed. But the disappearance was all the other way.
In these indigenous “end times,” ethnographers chased the ebb of cultures and languages. Among the more enlightened was Carobeth Laird, whose celebrated books on the Chemehuevi were based on collaborations with George Laird, grandson of a chief and later her husband. Another was George Devereux, whose fieldwork with the Mohave in the 1930s describes their sophisticated systems for treating mental illness. These are compelling stories, as is Ehrenreich’s account of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, who tried to make sense of the contemporaneous tumult in Europe — not least the Nazis’ “backward-looking talk of blood and soil.” In his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin personified history as an angel facing the wreckage of the past while propelled inexorably forward by the storm of progress. Benjamin sought to reconceive time, but it ran out for him, too: he killed himself in 1940, preempting the Gestapo.
Writing itself, of course, is entangled with time — as narrative, that march to The End. Ehrenreich decides to probe it in today’s context as well, asking whether a bid for immortality is futile during a time of chaos. He never quite answers this question, although the book itself offers some kind of clue. In any case, his exploration of other literacies is engrossing, from the 17th-century mystic Jakob Boehme’s view of nature as a “book authored by God” to the Mesopotamian astronomers who saw starry skies as “the heavenly writing.” The world is written, Ehrenreich shows, but we need to find the language to fully decipher its wonders and our place within them.
Time haunts Bunker, too, and not just because preparing (“prepping”) for cataclysm is a race against the clock. More subtly, Garrett posits the bunker as a fortified womb, ultimately decanting inhabitants into a postapocalyptic world. His search for buyers, sellers, and the thing itself takes him from New Zealand to Utah to interview “dread merchants” hawking high-spec real estate, Mormons manufacturing doomsday-proof food, and organic farmers canning for the end times.
He’s singularly well equipped to enter this volatile underworld. Growing up in an L.A. neighborhood of turf wars and occasional murders, Garrett became an archaeologist and later an “urban explorer” — spelunking in subterranean cities and writing books such as Global Undergrounds — before settling in as a cultural geographer. His grasp of the vertical world is formidable.
A bunker, he notes, is not novelty housing but a place for examining human limits. And, far from a fringe activity, prepping is staggering in scope and variety, with governments, corporations, and individuals busily building everything from entire communities to “tiny walk-in closet panic rooms.” In the United States alone, over 3.7 million people prep in some capacity.
Garrett is careful to distinguish the phenomenon from the paranoia-riven subculture of survivalism. Prepping, he argues, is simply a form of pragmatism in a disintegrating world, although hucksterism and conspiracy theorizing may seep in too. He also reveals that it crosses the political spectrum. In one group, he noted that while he might “reach for Michel Foucault, and they for InfoWars,” he found himself in agreement: we’re “all getting screwed by technology, corporations, and the government.” Many that he met were just as concerned by the growing lack of civility and cooperation.
Garrett’s first stop is xPoint, a development set up by a California-based company, the Vivos Group, on an abandoned US Army ordnance depot in South Dakota. Three-quarters the size of Manhattan, the complex initially seems unpromising: Garrett finds himself picking his way through a derelict building where “mushrooms grew from rotting floorboards covered in a thick layer of shit.” Most of the bunkers beyond — huge concrete arcs complete with blast doors — sit waiting to be leased. Vivos CEO Robert Vicino, the venture’s dread merchant, loftily calls it “an epic humanitarian project” and claims to be building more on sites in countries from Britain to South Korea. These claims — like those of some others interviewed for the book — turn out to be overstated, but xPoint is a real community by the time COVID-19 strikes.
At the high end of doomsday sales is Larry Hall, a one-time government contractor whose “geoscrapers” repurpose Cold War missile silos. He and his team have transformed a 60-meter-deep Atlas F silo in Kansas into “Survival Condo,” a 15-story bunker with luxe accommodation for 57 extremely rich people. An upscale supermarket and virtual touches such as LED-screen “windows” come with the price tag. Designed to enable self-sufficiency for five years, the complex has elaborate defenses, including a remote-controlled .223 rifle that can “kill people like it’s a video game.” Somewhat surreally, Hall has also scoured anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research on the maximum number of meaningful social connections for insights on how to maintain well-being among the temporarily entombed.
Garrett journeys on through a whirl of projects, metrics, and acronyms. There are nuclear bunkers, from Britain’s 35-acre underground Central Government War Headquarters near Bath — a bolt-hole for 4,000 officials — to Switzerland’s nationwide network with space for 8.6 million. There is Sanctum, an eco-shelter under construction in Thailand complete with day spa and living wall. And there are “bug-out” vehicles on sale from Australia to Utah — bullet-proof, quasi-military rigs built on the principle that perpetual motion could be the best defense amid social breakdown and resource scarcity. The result is mindboggling in scope and depth, with ample endnotes (something Ehrenreich does not include).
Growing up through the “duck and cover” years of the Cold War, I feel supersaturated in the idea of annihilation and its bang-or-whimper uncertainties. Climate-related catastrophe, another pandemic zoonosis, nuclear war — any one of these is possible. Yet human history heaves with apocalypses. As Garrett reminds us, the polymath Thomas Browne, faced with the scientific and medical advances of the 17th century, declared that the “world itself seems in the wane.” An end is never the end: the truth is cyclical.
These two fine writers both make that point. Ehrenreich, in fact, makes it all through his book, pivoting from his Joshua Tree sublime through the carnival brutalities of Las Vegas, watching bats whirl in the Luxor Casino’s beam of light and constellations circle the sky. Wheels within wheels, culminating in a huge creosote-bush ring in the Mojave that has self-cloned repeatedly for nearly 12,000 years. Meanwhile, the seasons turn, but differently. As Los Angeles is drenched by unexpected downpours, the desert bursts into flower — life finding a way even during climate collapse.
Garrett’s ending is wilder in its way. He recounts breaking into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and wending his way through radioactive woodlands to follow the “bug-out to its logical terminus” — an egg. A concrete sculpture by the artist Armin Kölbli, it houses letters and keepsakes sealed into a waste storage drum, to be opened at the turn of the next millennium. It may be a fugitive hope, but these books gave me a sense that our species might just be around for that.