We did actually get out of Kansas. From my posts people might have thought we were stuck there forever, when actually we just drove right through.
On our way to Arizona, at breakfast in the hotel in Amarillo Texas where we spent the night, we marvelled at the immense waste. Each item came in its own plastic container or wrapping that was used only once. Was this a hangover form Covid? Or was it merely a sign of the wasteful society we lived in? Everything seemed designed to avoid any human contamination. This is what Philip Roth called “the human stain.” Everything used once was sent to the landfill. We are filling the world with garbage, but no one pays attention to the rising garbage. We all accept it as “normal.” This waste by design.
Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba where I was a student years ago and taught a half course at the faculty of law for about a decade. I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak in person. He is brilliant. Perhaps the greatest professor ever at the University. Bill Gates has called him one of the 10 best writers ever. He also said, “There is no other author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.” Smil is frequently asked to speak around the world. If you have not read him, you should.
One of the things he spoke about at the lecture Chris and I attended was food waste. This is something that bugs him. He has written 40 books. One of his more recent ones is Numbers Don’t Lie. In one article about wheat in that book he said, “we would need substantially less wheat if we were to be able—finally—to reduce our indefensibly high food waste.”
I want to end this series on the paranoid elites trying to hunker down in a missile silo on a happier note. It is not all doom.
In the 60s and 70s Stewart Brand, now a Silicon Valley sage, owned the “Whole Earth Catalog.” It attracted a large and loyal cult following as it blended hippie-dippy advice with the technical. I loved their motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”. Brand experimented with survivalism but abandoned it. Ultimately, he found it did not make sense. Things based on unreasonable fears seldom make sense. Evan Osnos described him in his current situation this way,
“At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience. In the past decade, the world survived, without violence, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; Ebola, without cataclysm; and, in Japan, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, after which the country has persevered. He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, how do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”
As it has so often in the past, America is being pushed and pulled at the same time particularly by the extremes of left and right. On the one hand there are people like survivalists, neo-liberals, and their political puppets who have shredded all of their fellow feeling in order to fill their bags with as much money as possible. On the other hand, are some genuine whackos on the left as well. Yet there are the kinder gentler souls who see a better way, but seem to be increasingly crushed by the more vocal and bellicose camps. I don’t know who will win this battle, but I care. I hope that America (and with Canada dragging along behind) comes to its senses and abandons this philosophy of fear. Fear is all right but it must be managed. Don’t let it get unreasonable. When it gives way to panic we have to realize that smart decisions will no longer be made. We must abandon panic; we must embrace critical thinking and fellow feeling. If we can do that then we will survive. If we are unable to do that, we will sink into the mire, or worse. And we will deserve it.
We must remember: there is a better way. We may need to meander to find it, but its there.
Every year a group of scientists, many of whom are Nobel laureates, set a big clock as a symbol of our dire straits. At the time when the Cold War was ending they set it at its lowest (safest) point ever at 17 minutes to midnight.
Sadly, since then the clock has been moving back up closer to midnight. In January 2016, after tensions rose between Russia and NATO and after the warmest year on record for the world, they set it at 3 minutes to midnight. After Trump got elected and bellicose relations continued between the US and North Korea it was set at 2 & ½ minutes to midnight. That was the highest since 1953 when the US first tested the atom bomb. it is even higher now.
There is no doubt that all of this is being driven by fear. Fear of disaster can be a useful thing. When the world realized that a hole was being punched in the Ozone layer because of chlorofluorocarbons (‘CFSs’) in the atmosphere they got together and adopted the Montreal Protocol to do something about it. They phased them out. This was a rational response to fear. That action has been a remarkable success story.
But this is not happening in Kansas at the missile silos bought by wealthy fearful people. Instead, it is another case of the super wealthy doing nothing to solve the problem they helped to create. Instead of doing something helpful, they are using their money to buy an escape. It is illusory, but that is what these rich people want to do with their money. Instead of using it to help solve the problem, they are trying to run away from it. As Evan Osnos said,
“Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal… Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair. As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them.”
Some of the super-rich have a perverted sense of risk. One of them, a hedge fund manager of course, said this to Osnos “He was telling me we should buy land in New Zealand as a backup. He’s, said to Osnos, ‘What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.’ ” Even though he had supported Trump he wanted an escape hatch in case he had made a mistake.
Another super-wealthy CEO had a much better approach. This is what he said,
“There are other ways to absorb the anxieties of our time. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Elli Kaplan, the C.E.O. of the digital health startup Neurotrack, told me. “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.” Kaplan, who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, was appalled by Trump’s victory, but said that it galvanized her in a different way: “Even in my deepest fear, I say, ‘Our union is stronger than this.’ ”
Osnos understands this well. The panicky approach of rich people trying to escape reality is just plain dumb. It is dumb and counter-productive as it is likely to make the problem worse, not better. Super-rich people are purchasing their own doom with these mad schemes. Osnos understands that the CEO who believes the political union in America is stronger than the survivalists think is “in the end, an article of faith—a conviction that even degraded political institutions are the best instruments of common will, the tools for fashioning and sustaining our fragile consensus. Believing that is a choice.”
Evan Osnos had the benefit of a tour of the Kansas facility. I wish I could have seen it, It had many amenities. $20 million buys a lot of amenities. It has a 75- foot- long pool, a rock-climbing wall, an Astro-Turf “pet park,” a classroom with a line of computers, a gym, a movie theatre and a library. According to Osnos “It felt compact but not claustrophobic.”
Osnos also described the armory and related facilities:
“We visited an armory packed with guns and ammo in case of an attack by non-members, and then a bare-walled room with a toilet. “We can lock people up and give them an adult time-out,” he said. In general, the rules are set by a condo association, which can vote to amend them. During a crisis, a “life-or-death situation,” Hall said, each adult would be required to work for four hours a day, and would not be allowed to leave without permission. “There’s controlled access in and out, and it’s governed by the board,” he said.”
The facility also contained a hospital bed, operating table, dentist’s chair and food storage area. 2 doctors will be residents and 1 dentist. I guess they are wealthy enough.
Many Americans don’t think Kansas is isolated enough. Many of them are choosing a New Zealand option instead. One American told Osnos this,
“I think, in the back of people’s minds, frankly, is that, if the world really goes to shit, New Zealand is a First World country, completely self-sufficient, if necessary—energy, water, food. Life would deteriorate, but it would not collapse.” As someone who views American politics from a distance, he said, “The difference between New Zealand and the U.S., to a large extent, is that people who disagree with each other can still talk to each other about it here. It’s a tiny little place, and there’s no anonymity. People have to actually have a degree of civility.”
There they don’t need bunkers. They are thousands of miles from Australia. They think they will be safe there. Amazingly some of them like New Zealand because it is mountainous and remote. They think there they can avoid rising sea levels. So these rich Americans who likely publicly supported all government inaction on the issue of climate change are actually privately worried about climate change. Worried enough to buy property in New Zealand.
Even people who claim not to believe in climate change actually fear the consequences of climate change!
Fear was not invented recently in America. Long before people bought condos in missile silos, fear was a profitable business. It has always been there. It always has been profitable. There were ample fears earlier in the United States too. The Cold War was brimming with fear. Many thought there were communists under every bed. Many feared nuclear annihilation. Of course, as always, politicians ensured that the most important people had the most protection. That meant, of course, they were protected. As Evan Osnos said,
“During the Cold War, Armageddon became a matter for government policymakers. The Federal Civil Defense Administration, created by Harry Truman, issued crisp instructions for surviving a nuclear strike, including “Jump in any handy ditch or gutter” and “Never lose your head.” In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower broke ground on Project Greek Island, a secret shelter, in the mountains of West Virginia, large enough for every member of Congress. Hidden beneath the Greenbrier Resort, in White Sulphur Springs, for more than thirty years, it maintained separate chambers-in-waiting for the House and the Senate. (Congress now plans to shelter at undisclosed locations.) There was also a secret plan to whisk away the Gettysburg Address, from the Library of Congress, and the Declaration of Independence, from the National Archives.”
Frankly, I would have felt better if the political leaders were the last to be put into bunkers, so that their conduct would not be overly reckless. In 1961 John F. Kennedy encouraged “every citizen” to help build fall-out shelters. Thousands of Americans complied. Back home I knew someone a block away who had one in his house. Now that seems crazy. Few people would have survived a nuclear attack in those shelters. But this advice played on American and Canadian fears. Many people felt better doing something.
This was part of a cherished American tradition of fear mongering–one of the most popular sports in America. Right next to NASCAR racing, wrestling, and NFL football.
Osnos described the American fear movement this way,
“In 1976, tapping into fear of inflation and the Arab oil embargo, a far-right publisher named Kurt Saxon launched The Survivor, an influential newsletter that celebrated forgotten pioneer skills. (Saxon claimed to have coined the term “survivalist.”) The growing literature on decline and self-protection included “How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years,” a 1979 best-seller, which advised collecting gold in the form of South African Krugerrands. The “doom boom,” as it became known, expanded under Ronald Reagan. The sociologist Richard G. Mitchell, Jr., a professor emeritus at Oregon State University, who spent twelve years studying survivalism, said, “During the Reagan era, we heard, for the first time in my life, and I’m seventy-four years old, from the highest authorities in the land that government has failed you, the collective institutional ways of solving problems and understanding society are no good. People said, ‘O.K., it’s flawed. What do I do now?’ ”
I doubt that anyone ever lost money overestimating American fears. Doom is always booming.
All unreasonable fears are strange, but some are stranger than others. Some fear environmental collapse. Not such a strange fear at all.
Some of the people who put down $3 million to purchase a condo in a former missile silo in Kansas have strange fears. In the land of conspiracy theories that should not surprise. Maybe they all do. Evan Osnos interviewed Tyler Allen a real estate developer in Florida who bought a unit in the Kansas silo. He worries about future “social conflict” in America. That really is not so strange a fear. Allen also thinks that the government will deceive the public, as it has done in the past. He even believes that Ebola was allowed into the country “in order to weaken the population.” Unsurprisingly, he is transfused with fear and conspiracy theories. But I am not putting down $3million. Of course, I can’t put down $3 million, but if I did, I would think that there must be a better way.
Allen claimed that when he started suggesting ideas like this people thought he was crazy, but they don’t anymore. He said, “my credibility has gone through the roof. Ten years ago, this just seemed crazy that all this was going to happen: the social unrest and the cultural divide in the country, the race-baiting and the hate-mongering.”
Of course, how will people get to their bunkers? The buyers don’t live next door. Tyler lived in Florida. That is a long way from Kansas. Tyler thought he would have 48 hours to make it to Kansas. Most people he believed, when the crisis came, would head to the bars while he headed towards Kansas. I guess they would be watching from “Sports bars.” Of course, if a nuclear bomb hit American, such driving would be difficult. Did you see the images of the highways around New Orleans when the people there were told to evacuate because of impending Hurricane Katrina? We would not want to be in the line-up. Pretty messy!
As I have said, all of this is driven by fears–in particular fears of the very rich. Osnos does not disagree,
“Why do our dystopian urges emerge at certain moments and not others? Doomsday—as a prophecy, a literary genre, and a business opportunity—is never static; it evolves with our anxieties. The earliest Puritan settlers saw in the awe-inspiring bounty of the American wilderness the prospect of both apocalypse and paradise. When, in May of 1780, sudden darkness settled on New England, farmers perceived it as a cataclysm heralding the return of Christ. (In fact, the darkness was caused by enormous wildfires in Ontario.) D. H. Lawrence diagnosed a specific strain of American dread. “Doom! Doom! Doom!” he wrote in 1923. “Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America.”
Do these doomsday fears not tell us something important about the über rich? This is what they are bringing about! They have no one to blame but themselves. Can’t they do better? Their own actions are creating these fears. Their own actions could forestall them.
There must be a better way and its not being brought in by forest fires from Ontario.
A friend of mine challenged what I have been saying about the super elites buying condos in a former missile silo in Kansas by suggesting it is not reasonable to suggest that one crazy idiot buying a condo in a missile silo does not mean we are doomed.
Of course, one rich guy does not establish that we are doomed. In fact, no single act establishes that. Even 15 crazy rich guys who have bought condos in a missile silo don’t establish that. But the accumulating actions of many people, including those “idiots,” are increasingly suggesting that western society is in a serious state of decline and perhaps even on the edge of collapse. I don’t know about you, but I am getting increasingly more pessimistic. And I am increasingly doubtful that our leaders know the way out.
There are also many other indices of this decline. I will be posting about some of them soon. I know I have been going on interminably about these nuts who bought concrete condos in the former missile silo in Kansas, but I think it is interesting and significant. These were business leaders. They were people who earned a great deal of wealth and respect. Many of them were in the financial sector or the tech sector who made fortunes. Interestingly, it is precisely these people who panicked and starting selling their investments in the recent Silicon Valley Bank fiasco when there was no need to do so. These are the people who have now brought our financial system to the edge of collapse as a result of their unjustified fears! All of this shows that panic is seldom a valuable tool to deal with serious problems whether it comes to buying silos or selling investments. Fear is sometimes justified; panic is never helpful.
In the US in particular, business leaders are nearly worshipped. Look at Donald Trump. I don’t know how many Americans I have met in the past 2 &1/2 months in this country who hail him as a business leader who can make the country great again. I consider him neither a great business leader nor great political leader, but many here think otherwise. Business leaders get automatic respect in America and Canada for that matter. When a group of 15 of them go so far off the mark as the condo buyers did in Kansas, it bears consideration. What is up with that?
To my mind, there are signs of the decline of western civilization all around us, but yet I admit there are also positive signs.
I am particularly encouraged by the improvement in the fortunes of the LGBTQ community in an astonishingly short time. Though I hasten to add they had to overcome the battalions of opposition from Conservatives each step of that way. Why is that? In fact, now the American conservatives seem determined to make war on transgender people who are among the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the country. They like to pick on minorities. The weaker the better. In fact, as soon as they are not in minorities the conservatives tend to give up quickly. I will post more on this later.
So, I don’t know whether decline or improvement will win out. We are in the midst of gigantic political changes so it is hard to predict what will happen. We will just have to wait and see, but I am worried. Not panicking, but concerned.
One problem is how to get away with the absence of windows. Can you imagine it? According to Osnos,
“The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. “windows” that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park. “All four seasons, day and night,” Menosky said. “She wanted the sounds, the taxis and the honking horns.”
To me this sounds like virtual reality–with an emphasis on virtual. Will this be life behind these walls? Hall has given some thought to how people will live there, but I wonder if he has given enough thought. It is ironic that these vistas are all part of the commons. I thought that was what they wanted to get away from. These are things the super-rich should have helped sustain, but many preferred to enhance their own private wealth instead. Now they want them?
According to Osnos,
“Hall [the developer of the missile silo] said the hardest part of the project was sustaining life underground. He studied how to avoid depression (add more lights), prevent cliques (rotate chores), and simulate life aboveground.”
Frankly I would not be satisfied with simulated life. Would you? Or is even death preferable? This is particularly poignant when you consider that most (all?) life might outside the bunkers might perish.
Some survivalists have mocked Hall’s plan. They say they won’t pay. They will just attack when the time comes. Hall claimed that he and his “guards” could repel all forces. And if necessary, the guards would return fire. What will Hall to secure the loyalty of the guards. After the apocalypse won’t things start over? What will money be worth? Why won’t the guards switch sides? Who would persuade the hired armed guards to stick with supporting the rich people hunkered down? Why would they stick with the rich? How long could people survive a siege?
Things are not likely to be perfect in a former missile silo. I know I am deeply skeptical.
Evan Osnos in his New Yorker article, described the Kansas landscape that Chris and I drove through on this trip to Arizona. He drove to a place called the Survival Condo Project near the town of Concordia and Salina Kansas which we drove through. When he arrived, he was met by a guard dressed in camouflage holding a semiautomatic rifle. It looked impressive. The condo project was being built inside an underground missile silo like the one Chris and I had seen a few years ago in Green Valley Arizona. That has been turned into a museum.
The facility housed nuclear warheads from 1961 to 1965–a mere 5 years. After that the site was decommissioned and a bigger and better silo was built somewhere else. I think that site is still secret as this one had been. The developers were building 15 luxury condos there because the site had been built with walls so thick it was supposed to survive a nuclear attack by the Russians. The site was originally built in response to a perceived threat from the Soviet Union that was engaged in a long-standing “cold war” with the United States and its allies. The developers are led by Larry Hall the CEO of the new project. As Osnos said, “Hall has erected a defense against the fears of a new era. “It’s true relaxation for the ultra-wealthy,” he said. “They can come out here, they know there are armed guards outside. The kids can run around.”
Wow is that the best the super-rich can do? Is there not more to life than being ensconced in a concrete cocoon? Presumably its better than getting incinerated in the nuclear attack. To me that sounds horribly limited. Maybe being super-rich is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Hall developed the property for which he paid $300,000 by spending another $20,000,000 for renovations. With that he created 12 private apartments that he sold for $3 million each in the case of full floor units and $1.5 in the case of half floor units. He sold them all except for one that he decided to keep for himself.
The silos in which the apartments are located are solid. They were built by the Army Corp of Engineers to withstand a nuclear strike. The inside has enough food and fuel for 5 years off the grid. Of course, it will require that people raise tilapia in fish tanks and hydroponic vegetables under grow lamps and supposedly renewable power that could function indefinitely, according to Hall. I am not sure how he would accomplish that.
In a crisis more drastic measures can be expected. According to Hall,
“In a crisis, his swat-team-style trucks (“the Pit-Bull VX, armored up to fifty-caliber”) will pick up any owner within four hundred miles. Residents with private planes can land in Salina, about thirty miles away. In his view, the Army Corps did the hardest work by choosing the location. “They looked at height above sea level, the seismology of an area, how close it is to large population centers.”
If owners of planes can’t fly them in they will need to make arrangements for a pilot and family members of the pilot. Where would they go after flying in? That does not mean that each prepper has an individual bunker. After all, hardened bunkers are expensive and complicated to construct. The complex looked and felt like a ski condo that did not have any windows. What kind of ski condo is that? But it had a central area with pool table, stone fireplace, a kitchen, and leather couches. No TVs of course. No poor people will stick around to man the TV stations.
What will life be like without poor people to do all the manual work needed to keep the place going. Why will the people hired by Hall as security and to do necessary tasks continue to work for the group? How will they be paid? Where will money come from? Why won’t they just take over and kick out the rich people whose wealth will no longer have any meaning? I have a lot of questions about this project.
It sounds to me like a crazy scheme for rich people that makes no sense except to the paranoid rich. Would you invest in it?
For a long time, it has been my opinion that people under value pubic goods and over value private goods. For example, good schools, hospitals, libraries, parks and many others are really important and valuable. One of the problems with some rich people, like those who bought condos in the missile silos of Salina Kansas, was that most of these privileged people no longer recognize the benefits–the mutual benefits–provided by the commons. They have either forgotten how important they are or they never realized it. They really believe only private goods count. Only private goods are really good. Public goods are irrelevant. Robert Johnson who Osnos interviewed for his New Yorker article realized this was not the case. He said,
“If we had a more equal distribution of income, and much more money and energy going into public school systems, parks and recreation, the arts, and health care, it could take an awful lot of sting out of society. We’ve largely dismantled those things.”
It is difficult to discern why the privileged are so fearful. What do these ultra-wealthy people have to fear? If money does not buy happiness, surely it buys security. If one thought that, one would be wrong. As Osnos reported,
“As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”
In other words if people valued the common good as much as they valued their own private good, there might be a lot less anxiety. When the über rich are so fearful it really make you wonder about the stability of the system. Do they know something the rest of us don’t know? Or it that guilt poisons their perception? Or do they just not understand what is important?
Sometimes the most. important things we have are the things that we share.