Research News

Dr Bradley Garrett talks bunkers, doomsday preppers and crossing ideological divides

  • 10 August, 2020


Dr Bradley Garrett from UCD School of Geography is causing a bit of a stir. A social and cultural geographer whose research often engages with urban and subterranean geographies, his recent study of ‘prepping’ has raised eyebrows and questions – chiefly about our global society’s blind date with disaster.

His previous work at University of London involved ethnographic research with ‘urban explorers’, which brought him to off-limits spaces in the built environment, revealing political perspectives on their use and ownership, as well as less trodden ground for knowledge exchange.

This week he launched his new book Bunker: Building for the End Times (published by Scribner Books and Penguin Books), the culmination of a three-year study into the culture of ‘doomsday preppers’ – a veritable rabbit hole Dr Garrett discovered on his forays into the subculture of urban explorers.

The book has been met with widespread global interest. His research has received praise, criticism and questioning from the spheres of academia, subculture and politics. As we take in the reception and appraisal of his methods across conventional and unconventional media, we sat down (virtually) with Brad to get his take, in his own words.

Who is showing an interest in this research?

I’ve spanned the whole political spectrum during this conversation. I spoke to someone from a Silicon Valley blog that encourages people to prep, from a very rational point of view, in reaction to threats that are often being built in Silicon Valley.

I spoke to someone from the political far right who was basically trying to prompt me to encourage people to buy bunkers and guns.

I’ve also spoken to a lot of people that are into permaculture or off-grid technology. People who are interested in the use of solar panels, waste and recycling, rivers and water systems.

It’s been fascinating. I wish I had as much breadth in the book but as always, you do what you can, you get the feedback and then you want to write another book.

What led you into this subject?

As a scholar, I have a predilection for very secretive and hard to access cultures. I find it fascinating to enter the worlds of people who are difficult to get in touch with, to empathise with them.

In my research at University of London, I was hanging out with urban explorers and trying to see the world through their eyes. I was trying to relay their worldview to the wider research community.

I went with them into abandoned buildings, infrastructural tunnels and construction sites, and I listened to their political views about what belonged to them. For instance, if a bunker that was constructed during the Cold War was paid for out of public revenues that their parents had paid into, they felt in a very visceral sense that they should have access to those spaces. That they owned them, that they were a commons.

A lot of the bunkers that were built during the Cold War ended up for sale on the private market and urban explorers were frustrated that these public assets were being sold off to private interests.

So I began tracing who was buying these spaces, in anticipation of disaster, and turning them into private endeavours. And it was a rabbit hole that went on for years.

Cold War bunkers are architectural follies. They are buildings that were never used for their intended purpose. There are hundreds of thousands of Cold War bunkers all over the world and I was interested in the conundrum of what do we do with them?

In Switzerland, there was an attempt to use them as homeless shelters, but that was thought to be dehumanizing for the intended occupants. In London, some were turned into aquaponics facilities for growing vegetables, but people raised the objection that that was using public subterranean infrastructure for private gain.

Of all the potential uses of these bunkers, the thing that was furthest from my mind was that people would use them for their intended purpose as doomsday shelters – but for private individuals. That there were people who think disaster is inevitable and that it was crucial to get a hold of these spaces. And there was another group of people, who I call the ‘dread merchants’ in the book, who are making a lot of money buying these at bargain prices and reselling them to everyday preppers.

It’s what Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine) refers to as ‘disaster capitalism’, a kind of publicly-subsidised private industry that is making profits off of our collective fears and anxieties. And this is what interested me.

Is this preoccupation with preparing for disaster a global one or concentrated in particular countries, such as the US?

It’s absolutely global. I travelled to half a dozen countries and interviewed about 100 people. The cultural context for prepping is obviously different everywhere you go but the impetus is the same.

To paraphrase the philosopher Paul Virilio, we’ve created the situation now where’s there is the possibility of disaster happening everywhere at the same time.

We are in fact in the midst of that right now (referring to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic), and it would be naive to think that this couldn’t happen again in a different scenario.

The world that we’ve built is very fragile because of interdependence. We depend on other countries for imports, we depend on them for infrastructural needs, and it doesn’t take a lot to take that system down – and we know that now in very concrete terms.

In 2017 when I began the project, I expected my research subjects to be anxious, right-wing, paranoid, and overly pessimistic. But as time went on, I began to see that a lot of what they were saying was actually jiving with the philosophy I was reading on the radical left.

And that was an interesting moment of ideological convergence, at a time when we’re witnessing extreme political divides. I realised that these people were speaking to each other across the divide through a shared sense of dread and practical methodologies.

Are we as a society more afraid and aware of that fragility than we collectively project? Exemplified, for instance, by the way people stockpiled at the onset of the recent pandemic.

The pandemic can be seen as a wake-up call, an indication that we allowed for the creation of a fragile social fabric that actually isn’t equipped to catch us in the face of a global disaster.

We’re victims of a certain kind of magical thinking that lets us believe that we can have whatever we want, whenever we want, at the click of a button, whereby everything is available, anything can be delivered. All of these systems that we’ve built have become our society and that society breaks down very quickly in the face of a worldwide crisis.

Research has shown again and again that we can make it through a disaster as a society if the disaster has a known end point. If we know that we all have to make it through the next two weeks without water and power, we do it. It’s what the writer Rebecca Solnit calls ‘disaster solidarity’: “We fall together,” as she writes.

But we get to a certain point where we need the State to step in and protect us, which is one of the State’s primary functions – whether it’s natural disaster or by human activity – but we don’t live in that world anymore.

The reality we all face now is the result of investing everything in neoliberal ideologies that presume the free market will take care of things. But the free market doesn’t give a damn if we make it through these disasters. Some even see them as an oppurtunity to maximise profits!

We see no end of disasters around the world at any given moment these days: droughts, fires, floods, plagues, war, waves of migration from warzones and ecological disaster zones, economic collapse… Is this the kind of disaster, and subsequent breakdown of society, that people are preparing for?

I’m literally staring out my window in California at a wild fire right now. We’ve not had any significant rain in two months in a verdant region for which that is completely abnormal – and I’m looking at a mountain on fire, right now!

(Garrett is speaking from California, trapped between raging wild fires on the west coast and a raging hurricane on the east coast, unable to fly home to Dublin due to global pandemic).

We keep talking about ‘returning to normal’ but what we need to get our heads around now is that disaster is our normal. What we will return to is an escalation in severity and frequency in recurring natural disasters due to the climate crisis.

The world that we knew doesn’t exist anymore and we need to get used to that idea, instead of thinking we can escape from this situation we’ve created. That’s not necessarily a pessimistic view, it’s a realistic one.

We did this to ourselves. These existential threats that we face have been created by human endeavours. We are realising the consequences of the choices we’ve made in constructing this society and yet we continue to live in ways that are unsustainable. If there’s any silver lining to the pandemic it’s that it has exposed this reality to us.

It’s been very interesting for me, pursuing this research. (Having received criticism for spending time on his research subjects on account of their political ideologies).

I say this is exactly the moment to give time to these people because we need to understand how all of us are processing our collective dread, how it is manifesting, and what that means for the shape of society in the future.

This is a crucial historical moment. Either this is going to be a turning point...or this will be a moment of historical embarrassment, should we just go back to doing exactly what we were doing before the pandemic.

This is a moment for scholars to step forward and say ‘here is a learning experience for everyone’, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

What, as a scholar, did you aim to learn from this research?

There’s a touch of anthropology in what I do, but as a geographer I’m always interested in how space is constructed in the eyes of the people I study. How do they see the world? How do architecture and social systems shape physical geography? That’s what drew me to these preppers.

They were building shelters, they were growing and harvesting food, they were bush-crafting, they were working with sustainable technologies. There were so many hallmarks of the culture that resonated with my beliefs and with the practices that I wanted to cultivate. But in ideological terms, I very often disagreed with them.

The research was often really challenging to me. We were almost diametrically opposed on almost every issue.

However, there’s no better time to reach across to those we disagree with and try to understand the world from their eyes.

Regardless of our political leanings, we are collectively facing these crises right now. The fact about preppers is that, while we don’t share ideologies, we do share methodologies around how to cope with the challenges we are facing and still to come.

What’s next for Dr Bradley Garrett?

I’m working on a Marie-Curie grant right now, to look at what exploration means in the post-apocalyptic world. I refer to the original meaning of apocalypse, which is ‘renewal’ or ‘revelation’. It’s a moment of radical change that leads to renewal, not the end of everything.

I’ve worked on explorations as a geographer for well over a decade and I have to reconfigure what that means now. We used to get on a plane and travel to a place, photograph and record what we find. I’m really interested in how all of that, the notion of exploration, is being radically reshaped now.

My hypothesis is that this is actually quite beneficial, acting as a corrective measure. It may cancel out our narcissism to explore the ‘other’ and the ‘novel’ and the geographically extreme, and instead explore our own backyards.

This also has implications for who gets to explore and generate knowledge in all the backyards of the world. A new understanding of exploration will perhaps allow a more equitable global academic landscape, inclusive of more voices and experiences in their own backyards.

Fingers crossed that’s what I’ll be working on for the next few years!

For further information about Dr Bradley Garrett, his books, images, video and blog visit: 

See Brad's recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience

Read The Guardian's book review of Bunker: Building for the End Times.