This month has felt as good a time as any to contemplate the end of the world. An apocalyptic storm bore down on Auckland, leaving tens of thousands without power. Trump began airstrikes in Syria. Watching Mark Zuckerberg’s pallid denials of Facebook undermining global democracy made everyone who witnessed it want to eject themselves screaming into the sun.
Scrolling through the headlines, you’ve got to have sympathy for the perennial Northern Hemisphere social media rage-post: “Fuck this, I’m moving to New Zealand.” In fact, applications from Americans who wanted to do just that jumped 70 percent in the 12 weeks following Donald Trump’s election.
But if we are in a messy skid towards doomsday, is New Zealand really the place where, as recommended in Shaun of the Dead—released in 2004, when the apocalypse was still funny—you’d be best-placed to have a nice cold pint and wait for all of this to blow over?
"The cost of turning away tourists would be more than worth it for the amount of money we’d save from not dying en masse."
VICE spoke to Professor David Johnston, a scientist and the director of Massey University’s Centre for Disaster Research, while he was stranded at Christchurch airport, with planes grounded as a storm raged outside.
He was upbeat about New Zealand’s chances, and said he knew American academics who had snapped up what he called “a seat on Noah’s ark” by making plans to settle here.
"New Zealand can feed ten times its population; we're self-sufficient,” he said. “So if you had to be somewhere when things went bad, it’s not a bad place to be.”
This country’s remoteness is also a plus, says Nick Wilson, a public health professor at Otago University and co-author of research claiming New Zealand could effectively seal its borders during a pandemic.
His study found the cost of turning away tourists would be more than worth it for the amount of money we’d save from not dying en masse.
But Dr Wilson said the Ministry of Health “didn’t seem keen” to enact legal measures that would make such a complete border closure possible in the event of a global disaster.
“The other big technological advance is there's been quite a lot of work around the laws for drone cargo ships, which would allow them to operate with no crew at all,” he said.
“You could also have cargo flights coming in from Australia, with the crew staying on board or in special quarantined quarters at the airport.”
All of this depends on what kind of apocalypse we’re talking about. Lewis Dartnell, a University of Westminster science communication professor, has ranked the best scenarios for “if you knew you were going to survive afterwards,” out of a bleak menu that includes supervolcanoes and asteroid strikes.
The aftermath of a nuclear holocaust is, unsurprisingly, not going to be a good time. But Dr Dartnell said a pandemic might be all right because it “would kill the vast majority of people pretty quickly, but leave the majority of the stuff.”
He said such a disaster meant survivors could scavenge while they learned; his book, The Knowledge: How To Rebuild the World From Scratch , explains how to compress 10,000 years of science and technological learning into the aftermath of a disaster to avoid another Dark Age.
“People in New Zealand might be in a very strong position for that because you don’t have to travel very far out of the cities to get into prime wilderness,” he said, adding that once technology in cities ceased to function, so would the essentials for living there, such as clean water and elevators.
Once you reached the countryside, you’d need to grow food, repurpose timber and metals, and reproduce basic chemistry to survive.
“It’s one thing having a bolthole,” said Dr Dartnell, “But if you don’t also have the means and the knowledge to start making your own food and tools, your stockpile of canned food and bottled water will run out in a year or two, and you’ll be back to square one.”
New Zealand boltholes have become a trendy accessory among America’s tech super-rich. Most famously, the entrepreneur and Trump donor Peter Thiel bought a 193 ha property in Wanaka, and was permitted to do so because he’d been granted New Zealand citizenship after spending just 12 days here.
Peter Thiel declined an interview request, so VICE asked New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos, who’s spoken to a number of Silicon Valley’s elite about their bunkers, panic rooms, and gassed-up helicopters, why New Zealand was such a popular end-of-the-world hideout.
There’s a feeling among particular groups of wealthy Americans, particularly in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, said Osnos, “that there's a tension building that's directed towards them… And so they started talking about pulling the chute.”
A doomsday bolthole in New Zealand was “a bit of a status symbol,” because it suggested the owner was both super loaded, and important enough to be under threat if the American elite were ousted from power.
People saw in New Zealand what they wanted to see, he said. For some it was the sheer distance—far enough away to avoid being affected by a migration crisis in Europe or bioterrorism in the US.
"There was also a sense of general ‘New Zealand chic’ going around in San Francisco," said Osnos. "A clean, beautiful place that was interested in technology—that was the view."
For others, a doomsday bolthole in New Zealand was “a bit of a status symbol,” because it suggested the owner was both super loaded, and important enough to be under threat if the American elite were ousted from power.
But Anthony Byrt, a New Zealand writer who has extensively investigated Peter Thiel’s ideologies, said “extreme libertarians” like Thiel were more attracted by what they saw as a “free market utopia” and liberalised economy in New Zealand.
He doesn’t buy the argument that wealthy entrepreneurs are just seeking isolation.
“If North Korea starts firing off nukes, we’re going to be well within range at some point,” he said. “The idea of distance is not the important thing. There has to be something more politically motivating to explain it.”
Whatever you think of their reasons, it seems as though America’s super-rich have given New Zealand their stamp of approval as the best place to ride out the apocalypse. But in Auckland this week, Robert*, 55, was surrounded by storm-induced power cuts and unconvinced.
Part of an online community of disaster “preppers” from around New Zealand—a few of whom emphasised to me that they were not American-style bunker and gun fiends—Robert was worried that this country was woefully underprepared for a crisis.
He thinks we’re lacking in numbers of emergency management and Defence personnel compared to other countries, and feared infrastructure—particularly water and roads in and out of Auckland—couldn’t cope with the strain of a national or international disaster.
So Robert has taken matters into his own hands. He asked that I not publish “a shopping list” of his impressive and slightly mind-boggling stash in case someone comes round and steals it, but he was happy to share what he plans to do with it when, as preppers term it, the shit hits the fan.
“I’m going to block off the top of my dead-end street with two vehicles, and I’m going to look after the two or three hundred people that live in a hundred houses in that loop,” he said.
“Because I know there won’t be someone from Auckland City knocking on my door, for days.”
In Wellington, Civil Defence officials are trying to encourage people to be more like Robert, and make plans ahead to take care of their own community, rather than waiting for help to arrive.
Wellington is also be one of the few cities in the world with a zombie action plan—based on best-practice by the USA’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention—which includes keeping a golf club handy and composting zombie corpses.
The Council’s chief resilience officer, Mike Mendonca, said New Zealand’s isolation could breed complacency, and the zombie plan was part of raising awareness.
“We are not immune to cyber-attacks, and our biodiversity is constantly under a barrage of attacks and potential threats,” he said, adding he was also upset that Shaun of the Dead “was not recognised at the Academy Awards.”
If I had to pick a spot in New Zealand to survive the apocalypse, it’d be Great Barrier Island. There are no footpaths, it’s powered by generators, and its 940 residents look like they know how to fend for themselves. I rang the Great Barrier Island police station and posited this idea.
“The apocalypse?” said a senior constable, slightly taken aback. He agreed that people on the island were hardy and said his colleague would call me back about the apocalypse bit.
Robert, the prepper, agreed that taking to the sea was a good plan.
“I don’t want to give the idea to too many people, but there are a lot of people in Auckland with boats who are going to throw everything on the boat and go out to the islands,” he said. “The boaties are going to be quite well off; their biggest problem will be access to fresh water.”
“If it was me, I'd go to a remote Pacific Island,” said Nick Wilson, the Otago public health professor, a bit wistfully.
“They will close the borders, no doubt, if they have time—because it worked for them in the past. American Samoa completely rode out the 1918 flu pandemic with strict maritime quarantine: not a single death.”
No one tell the tech billionaires.
*Not his real name.