Inside the billionaire business plan for the apocalypse

It's the end of the world as we know it and they (want to) feel fine

Sam Bankman-Fried
Sam Bankman-Fried
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

This month, FTX Trading, the once-dominant financial empire whose spectacular 2022 bankruptcy sent shock waves across the sprawling cryptocurrency economy, filed a massive lawsuit against founder and alleged criminal fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried, hoping to recoup millions of dollars the company claims were funneled to Bankman-Fried and his top lieutenants for their personal benefit. While largely focused on various financial transactions and manipulations, the suit contained several shocking allegations nestled among its drier monetary claims — particularly as they pertained to the work of the FTX Foundation, a "purported charity that served little purpose other than to enhance the public stature" of Bankman-Fried and others, according to the suit.

Describing the foundation's work as "frequently misguided and sometimes dystopian," the suit made a special point to mention an exchange between Bankman-Fried's brother Gabriel and an unnamed foundation officer in which they discussed a "plan to purchase the sovereign nation of Nauru in order to construct a 'bunker/shelter' that would be used for 'some event where 50%-99.99% of people die [to] ensure that most EAs [effective altruists] survive' and to develop 'sensible regulation around human genetic enhancement and build a lab there.'" As the suit wryly noted, the memo then went on to speculate that "probably there are other things it's useful to do with a sovereign country too."

The allegation that Bankman-Fried was interested in purchasing an entire island nation as a eugenics-focused haven from some unspecified global cataclysm has understandably captured a large portion of the interest surrounding the lawsuit specifically, as well as Bankman-Fried's nosedive from vaulted crypto king to alleged criminal mastermind. But while the Nauru scheme may have been shocking in its scale and cartoony framing, it comes as part of a broader trend among the mega-wealthy, many of whom have spent portions of their fortunes on various apocalypse survival bunkers and contingency plans available only to them and their equally rich peers. Asked in 2017 by The New Yorker how many Silicon Valley billionaires had some form of "apocalypse insurance" hideaway, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman estimated "fifty-plus percent," comparing it to the decision to buy a vacation home and serving as a sort of "safety blanket for this thing that scares me."

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'An optimist yet a survivalist'

In 2016, years before the Covid-19 pandemic roared across the world shutting down entire nations and killing millions, Silicon Valley investor and mainstay Sam Altman confessed to The New Yorker that should there be a global pandemic — at the time, the major concern was bird flu — his "backup plan is to fly with his friend Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, to Thiel's house in New Zealand." Thiel, the infamous right-wing arch-libertarian billionaire, heralded Altman as an "optimist yet a survivalist, with a sense that things can always go deeply wrong and that there's no single place in the world where you're deeply at home."

As The Guardian noted that same year, that anxiety wasn't limited to global health crises. After Donald Trump's surprise presidential victory, in the "two days following the 2016 election," the number of Americans who visited New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs website to "enquire about the process of gaining New Zealand citizenship increased by a factor of 14 compared to the same days in the previous month."

"Saying you're 'buying a house in New Zealand' is kind of a wink, wink, say no more," LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman explained to The New Yorker. "Once you've done the Masonic handshake, they'll be, like, 'Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they're nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.'"

A little over three years later, the cartoonish notion of a New Zealand escape plan took on a more immediate significance, as the island nation's reputation as a Covid-era haven soared among the global elite. "None of these guys that I deal with say they're preparing for the end of the world," one luxury real estate agent told CNN. "They say things like, 'In times of geopolitical pressure, New Zealand is a cool place to be because it's farther away.'" A similar boom in bunker interest followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with one retailer in 2022 claiming that "in the past month, I would have normally fielded less than 100 inquiries — I've fielded over 3,000."

Still, for as much as New Zealand, in particular, may have become a shibboleth of sorts for Hoffman's crowd, it's far from the sole refuge for the ultra-wealthy seeking to ride out the — or at least an — apocalypse. In 2022, technology and media journalist Douglas Rushkoff wrote about his meeting with a "group mysteriously described as 'ultra-wealthy stakeholders,' out in the middle of the desert." After awkward introductions with the five men present (two of whom, Rushkoff noted, were billionaires), "eventually, they edged into their real topic of concern: New Zealand or Alaska? Which region would be less affected by the coming climate crisis?"

"This was probably the wealthiest, most powerful group I had ever encountered," Rushkoff wrote. "Yet here they were, asking a Marxist media theorist for advice on where and how to configure their doomsday bunkers." He describes various post-doomsday properties in the New York City region, luxury prepper hideaways in decommissioned military facilities around the world that "offer private suites for individuals or families, and larger common areas with pools, games, movies and dining" and even an "ultra-elite" shelter in the Czech Republic with a "simulated sunlit garden area, a wine vault and other amenities to make the wealthy feel at home."

Billionaire bunkers and 'soft succession'

As The Nation's Jeet Heer noted in the wake of the Nauru revelations, this tendency toward ultra-wealthy prepper-ism isn't simply about apocalyptic paranoia. It should be taken in the context of what libertarian commentator Jeff Deist has dubbed "soft succession." For the ultra-wealthy, this means retreating into "unusual legal spaces, anomalous territories and peculiar jurisdictions," including "city-states, havens, enclaves, free ports, high-tech parks, duty-free districts and innovation hubs," all for the broader purpose of removing themselves to some degree from a democratic society they feel in some way hampers their pursuit of unimpeded business and personal freedom.

To the extent that SBF and Theil, whose plans for an "elaborate bunker-like lodge" in New Zealand were nixed last year, may be motivated by a genuine concern for the future of the planet, they are nevertheless "unwilling to do anything about it, because they know their very wealth and status depend on the economic system that threatens humanity," Heer said, comparing the pair to "arsonists who are starting to notice that the world is burning, which leads them to want to buy fireproof bunkers." Rushkoff seems to agree, writing after his "middle of the desert" meeting that the ultra-wealthy pursuing post-apocalyptic bunker life have "succumbed to a mindset where 'winning' means earning enough money to insulate themselves from the damage they are creating by earning money in that way. It's as if they want to build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust."

That this sort of zero-sum doomer-ism is prevalent among the Silicon Valley elite is a byproduct of working in technology in particular, since "it's pretty common that you take things ad infinitum," Bay Area venture capitalist Roy Bahat explained in 2017. "That leads you to utopias and dystopias." Moreover, although there are many factors involved in billionaire bunker mentalities, many of those who have grown wealthy through Bay Area tech worry that as "artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America's second-highest concentration of wealth," The New Yorker's Evan Osnos explained, after conversations with Bahat, Hoffman and others.

One underlying theme throughout the vast ecosystem of billionaire preppers is the degree to which they frequently overestimate their ability to survive a civilization-ending event. It's "simply marvelous that the greatest brain geniuses in human history didn't consider that, aside from rising sea levels, due to human phosphate mining it is *literally* impossible to cultivate crops on Nauru and effectively 100% of the island's food is imported," novelist Jacob Bacharach mused on Twitter, following the FTX filings. More broadly, Rushkoff noted, the "preposterously brittle" nature of a hermetically sealed bunker means the "probability of a fortified bunker protecting its occupants from the reality of, well, reality, is very slim."

"Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it," Osnos concluded. "But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal."

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