I was intrigued when I first heard about tech billionaires planning to bunker down in New Zealand when the apocalypse hits. With rumours of the apocalypse now going around, I investigated this a bit further.

In his TED Talk, How to be “Team Human” in the digital future, Douglas Rushkoff tells about how five tech billionaires met him in a conference green room and probed him about whether Alaska or New Zealand would be the better location to build their doomsday bunkers. Already confused about why they asked him – a media theorist – such a question, he grew more concerned as they spent the rest of the hour asking, ‘How do I maintain control of my security staff after “the event”’. What event? Well, “the thermonuclear war, or climate catastrophe, or social unrest that ends the world as we know it,” Rushkoff explains. This left him a bit shocked. Not the looming ‘event’ itself but realising that this is how some of the world’s most powerful people are planning to respond when it hits.

Are we currently living through the event “that ends the world as we know it”?

The Independent recently reported that “wealthy Americans are fleeing the US for multi-million dollar private bunkers around the world and luxury real estate in New Zealand to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic among other ‘elites’ and billionaires.” Underground bunker manufacturers have apparently seen a spike in requests for shelters in New Zealand, while luxury real estate agents received frequent calls from the likes of tech billionaires scouting properties across the country. How much will the corona crisis alter what we’ve called normal until mere months ago? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that it did send some of the most powerful running for their bunkers. (Side note: this is where I imagine Good Charlotte’s Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous playing, as Silicon Valley’s finest scramble for their planes and head down under)

But, why New Zealand? (Hint: it involves JRR Tolkien)

This is where things get very interesting and I’d encourage you to read the full (long read) article published by Mark O’Connell for The Guardian in 2018. But for the TL;DR crowd, here’s my quick summary:

outside view of hobbit hole in hobbitonNew Zealand promises wide-open spaces, clean air and water and, being an island at the far end of the world, relatively easy to colonise and use as a platform from which to slip into anonymity, only to resurface and rule the world as a non-governed elite. Yes, I meant very interesting.

O’Connell focuses on Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, as a symbolic figure of those who consider New Zealand to be “the Future”. He is largely inspired by the obscure libertarian manifesto, ‘The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State’. Our future is seen as one in which a “cognitive elite” will rise to power and influence after emerging from the wreckage of failed democratic states that operated like criminal cartels until they became obsolete as political entities. While The Sovereign Individual identifies New Zealand as the ideal place from which to launch this plan, Thiel’s obsession with JRR Tolkien’s work played no small part in being drawn to the place Peter Jackson transformed into Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

“The aim… was not simply to evade the apocalypse, but to prosper from it. First you acquired land in New Zealand, with its rich resources and clean air, away from the chaos and ecological devastation gripping the rest of the world. Next you moved on to seasteading, the libertarian ideal of constructing manmade islands in international waters; on these floating utopian micro-states, wealthy tech innovators would be free to go about their business without interference from democratic governments. (Thiel was an early investor in, and advocate of, the seasteading movement, though his interest has waned in recent years.) Then you mined the moon for its ore and other resources, before moving on to colonise Mars. This last level of the game reflected the current preferred futurist fantasy, most famously advanced by Thiel’s former PayPal colleague Elon Musk, with his dream of fleeing a dying planet Earth for privately owned colonies on Mars.

The influence of the Sovereign Individual… was all over the show. It was a detailed mapping of a possible future, in all its highly sophisticated barbarism. It was a utopian dream that appeared, in all its garish detail and specificity, as the nightmare vision of a world to come.”

The New Zealand government is aware of people’s interests in their land and has begun placing restrictions on foreigners buying properties in “billionaire’s playground”. The tension between the indigenous people’s traditions and shared identity and possible benefits of inviting foreign investment and skills into the country exists, as many New Zealanders are also flattered by these tech gurus’ interest in their country. Thiel, for one, obtained his citizenship under an “exceptional circumstances” clause and because some believe he can contribute greatly to the New Zealand tech industry. Others were less happy and demanded answers after Thiel became a citizen after only spending 12 days in the country, and believe he has no real affinity to the land and its people.

Max Harris, the writer of The New Zealand Project in which the likes of Thiel’s role in New Zealand’s future is cautioned against, recently bumped into Thiel at a conceptual art exhibition inspired by his book. Thiel left his business card at the exhibition and has since begun a conversation with the artist, because “he’d been intrigued by what he had seen, but claimed to be a little disturbed by how dark his cyber-libertarianism appeared when refracted through the lens of The Founder’s Paradox (the name of the exhibition)”. This intriguing turn of events came for O’Connell “as a disorienting rug-pull ending – partly because the monster had materialised, and he was therefore no longer merely a human emblem of the moral vortex at the centre of capitalism, but also an actual human, goofily got up in polo shirt and shorts, sweating in the heat, traipsing along to an art gallery to indulge his human curiosity about what the art world thought of his notoriously weird and extreme politics. A sovereign individual in the same physical environment as us ordinary subject citizens. But it also deepened the mystery of what Thiel had planned for New Zealand, for the future.”

While all this is very ominous, I’ve wondered what it is about Tolkien’s work that inspires Thiel? I’m guessing he’s not casting himself as The Lord of the Rings’ unlikely hero, Frodo? This humble hobbit endures the universal temptation to rule (i.e. being ruled by “the one ring to rule them all”) and, with the help of his dear friend Samwise and others, leads this temptation to its own destruction. While the above portrayal sketches Thiel as New Middle Earth’s evil wizard Saruman, his being disturbed by such a dark portrayal of himself suggests that he’s perhaps dreaming about his return as Aragorn, the philosopher-king? Or does his recent, ‘human’ appearance down under suggest he is Boromir, a good-intentioned man with feet of clay? This CNBC article makes me think it might have to do with a geekish idealism to bring about a better tomorrow. But who knows, maybe it’s simply the lure of living in a hole in the ground?

Next up I’m looking at what bothered Rushkoff about what these tech giants are planning and asking, “Are we all bunkering billionaires?”