In a post-Brexit, Trump world, billionaires are buying up boltholes on our shores. But can our small island nation actually sustain its inhabitants and the world’s elite if disaster were to strike? Idealog investigates.
In a tumultuous world where Britain looks likely to exit the EU and a narcissistic celebrity was elected as the 45th US president, unpredictability is high and the institutions we rely on to uphold democracy are under strain.
This instability is leading to concerns among some that a day of reckoning is nearing – be it political, social, environmental or technological (either through a breakdown of the fragile systems we rely on for the internet, or, further into the future, AI robots becoming sentient and killing us all). And none appear to be more concerned than the world’s elite.
According to the New Yorker, many in the tech sector (who often espouse the view that technology will make the world a better place) are hedging their bets and using their ample cash to buy laser eye surgery, food, guns and property around the world that can become a bolthole to scuttle down, should the world go up in flames around them.
What’s more, New Zealand – our small island nation of 4.5 million that’s surrounded by thousands of kilometres of water – is one of the preferred refuges of the rich in the face of a global disaster.
It was recently revealed that prominent tech investor and Donald Trump donor Peter Thiel owns a $13.5 million, 193-hectare lifestyle block in Wanaka.
He called the land of the long white cloud a “utopia” in an interview in 2011, and experts believe he is one of many uber-rich foreign businesspeople prepping for a “doomsday” scenario, which is slightly ironic, given he supported the election campaign of President Trump.
Part of the reason behind New Zealand’s attractiveness to billionaires is its seclusion from the turmoil of bigger countries, such as the US, Europe and Asia.
Jack Matthews, the chairman of MediaWorks and a US native, told the New Yorker: “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.”
Graham Wall, a New Zealand real estate agent that has acted on the behalf of wealthy individuals like Thiel, echoed this, saying Americans were lusting after New Zealand land due its remoteness.
But Dr Eric Crampton, an economist and the head of research at the New Zealand initiative, says the billionaires prepping for doomsday may have it wrong.
“For many end-of-the-world scenarios, the best bolthole isn’t the most isolated place in the world, but the wealthiest place in the world,” Crampton says.
“Scenarios leading to collapse in international trade are worse for small countries that are trade dependent than for very large countries that have large internal free-trading areas.”
But he can understand why US citizens would prefer to seek refuge on the other side of the world, particularly in the current political climate.
Crampton is a Canadian that moved to New Zealand from the States in 2003 to take a job at Canterbury University, and he’s stuck around ever since.
“Arriving here, it felt like the outside of the asylum. America was growing increasingly mad. Airports were armed camps. The police seemed to have a very hostile relationship with the public and were heavily armed,” he says.
I think New Zealand’s missed a trick in its international marketing. ‘100% Pure’ is nice and all, but I think ‘The Outside of the Asylum’ is the better tag.
Chances of different end-of-the-world scenarios happening, as guessed by Crampton
- Collapse in international trade (American protectionism; hostilities between China and the US that threaten shipping routes) - 5% chance next three years
- Pandemic - 1% chance in any year
- War in Europe over the Baltics and/or Ukraine that either escalates, or that sees the collapse of NATO and Russia slowly absorbing its former client states - 5% chance next 3 years
- Larger war between China and the US requiring an end to New Zealand trade with one or the other - 1% chance next three years or lower
- More rapid self-reinforcing global warming (fast sea level rise with the collapse of Antarctic ice shelves and melting of Greenland, but that’s still implausible over short- to medium- term) - 0% chance next 5 years, maybe 10% chance over next century
- Slow zombies - unlikely
- Fast zombies - fortunately, even less likely
- North Korea nuking somebody - 1% chance per year
- Supervolcano eruption or an asteroid strike and an ice age - 1% chance per millennium
- Malevolent A.I., possibly involving Roko’s Basilisk - 5% chance over next century
- Grey ooze (bad nanobots) - 5% chance over next century
- Full nuclear exchange between the US and China or the US and Russia - 0.1% chance over next decade? Am I too optimistic?
- Fragmentation of US into multiple smaller, less powerful states, hopefully without bloodshed, collapse of existing international structures based in America - 2% chance over next decade, maybe rising to 20% chance over the century
- Other political collapse in America with policy becoming irremediably stupid and damaging for people there - (arguably has already happened)
New Zealand’s chances at survival
Say New Zealand’s population of jandal-wearing, fush-and-chup loving, every-day-sort-of Kiwis and a gaggle of Silicon Valley billionaires fresh off their private jets were faced with a disaster of epic proportions.
What would be the chances of everyone emerging unscathed?
Given the variety of potential world-ending scenarios, the survival chances vary from situation to situation.
Crampton says when it comes to a pandemic breaking out globally (like a deadly virus) a country as isolated as New Zealand sounds like the ideal place to hide out, but in reality, that’s not the case.
“We either wind up with pandemic here too, or the collapse of international trade. From our perspective: Whatever’s out there gets here unless we shut the borders, best you can hope for is that delay lets rich, big countries find cures before it gets here.”
Thankfully, if the Walking Dead plot becomes real life, Crampton says New Zealand will make for a great safe haven from zombies.
“I think New Zealand is in really good shape, except where the scenario involves space-rays bringing the dead everywhere back to life,” he says.
“Otherwise, zombies can’t really get here except with really really long incubation periods where an airplane passenger could make it through, or where a ship with an infected person turns into a zombie ship that just runs aground here by accident.”
And if Trump indulges his itchy finger and presses the nuclear trigger, Crampton says New Zealand is better off than most places in terms of a war breaking out.
While the collapse in trade hurts us most, being far away and innocent-looking, they might let us sit the whole thing out. Hopefully nobody lobs a nuke our way just to be thorough about it.
Facing the apocalypse
However, the difficulties around continuing global trade become a moot point when facing a disaster of Armageddon proportions.
If people were forced back to the caveman way of life and had to truly fend for themselves, money may be rendered useless.
Crampton says transitioning to a fend-for-yourselves society is doable, as he reckons most Kiwis would be civilised with one another.
“New Zealand also feels like the kind of place where we wouldn’t all start turning on each other with Mad Max armed gangs grabbing what stuff is left rather than trying to sensibly learn to farm sheep.”
But would the nation’s new, wealthy expats be able to adapt to this hunter-gatherer way of life?
After all, no matter how many gas masks, guns, bunkers and helicopters you can afford to buy, you can’t put a price on basic survival skills.
Brando Yelavich is known as ‘Wildboy,’ or the guy that walked, climbed and swam more than 8000km around the coast of New Zealand, living off the land for almost two years.
He says it’s hard to survive in the wild when you have no prior experience in hunting and gathering.
“It's definitely not an easy way of life to hunt and fish for all your own food. While on the move, it’s not really possible alone,” he says. “I knew what the average Kiwi knows and out of necessity, I learnt fast. If I didn't eat, I would have died.”
If a person wants to acquire some Bear Grylls-worthy skills, he says people have to do three key things.
“One is mentally preparing yourself to be hungry. Two is having the right gear to make it as easy as possible. Three, with the will to survive and kill to eat, you really have to listen to your intuition.”
Regardless, it’s hard to picture Silicon Valley’s elite deep in the New Zealand bush equipped with only a blade, face-to-face with a boar.
Instead, they’d most likely be counting on their expensive technology and supplies to see them through.
Crampton is doubtful a billionaire’s extreme wealth would give them an advantage in an end-of-civilisation type scenario.
“You have to be able to get here [to New Zealand] in a big hurry, for starters. Sure, they’ll all have private jets. But end-of-civilization scenarios like, say, big electromagnetic pulses that fry all circuitry: your planes can’t get here anyway.
“Pandemic scenarios close borders quickly. And maybe you could get here in the notice time you’d have on a big asteroid strike, but it seems like a really bad idea given how big the tidal waves from those things can be.”
A wider insurance scheme
It seems that although New Zealand is a beautiful escape from the troubled climates in the US and Europe, it may not necessarily be the best bolthole.
Though it’s isolated and has lush plants and livestock-a-plenty, it will be facing the same risks as other countries around the world should a nuclear bomb, environmental disaster, social breakdown or epidemic occur.
But as Crampton says, if you have oodles of money to spare and can afford to have houses in all corners of the world, then why not?
“New Zealand is a good spot in zombie scenarios, some war scenarios, and potentially in some US political collapse scenarios. Why not have the insurance if you can afford it? And a place in Switzerland, and one in Canada, and one in Sweden, and one in the Caymans,” he says.
Meanwhile, the rest of New Zealand’s inhabitants will have to keep their fingers crossed for a favourable end-of-the-world scenario, like zombies.