The End is Near Inc.
Editor’s Note: Our profile of Chris Martenson from the July issue has generated an unprecedented number of responses. And while we normally take a hands-off approach to reader comments here at Boston, we’ve noticed a few misconceptions amid the feedback that we feel compelled to address, especially as it pertains to the story’s author, Pagan Kennedy. Contrary to what some commenters seem to believe, Kennedy was not responsible for the article’s headlines or the photo illustration that opened the story. Such elements of the story are determined by a team of editors and designers after a writer has completed his or her work. That said, we always welcome feedback, and we encourage readers to share their thoughts on this or any other story we publish.
That September morning, Chris Martenson happened to be 800 miles from home, in a conference room in Michigan chatting with Big Pharma executives. One moment, he felt perfectly safe in this corporate nest of laptops and coffee cups. And then he heard someone gasp. Or maybe several people gasped. He and his colleagues crowded around a computer monitor. On the screen, a black cloud of jet fuel blotted out Manhattan.
When Martenson tried to call his wife in New England, the circuits were overloaded and he couldn’t get through. He remembers holding the useless phone and wishing he could tell her to stockpile food and cash. Why, he thought, hadn’t they prepared for something like this?
Back in Connecticut, Becca Martenson was way ahead of him. When she heard about the terrorist attack, she rushed to the supermarket. “I remember filling up my grocery cart and wondering why nobody else was doing it. I remember thinking, Am I crazy? Am I the only one?”
Nine years later, as the Martensons tell me this story, Becca says, “That was an early indicator of how we think about things. That was before we’d even started talking about any of this.” By “this” she means how they live now, in Montague, 90 miles west of Boston. Their three-bedroom house has a well and a wood stove; they’ve outfitted it with solar panels and planted an apple orchard. Barred Rock hens bob around in a backyard coop. Somewhere nearby, they’ve stashed their savings, in gold. If America’s economy plummets, they plan to be ready, as their large and growing Internet community well knows.
Several years ago, Martenson put his worldview into PowerPoint form, called it “The End of Money,” and started showing it to friends in their living rooms. His audiences multiplied quickly once he transformed the slide show into a video tutorial called Crash Course and used it to launch his website, chrismartenson.com. Crash Course isn’t the kind of thing that typically goes viral, but more than 1.5 million people have watched it, apparently as captivated by the message as by the messenger. Martenson, 47, has taken various strains of national pessimism in his own direction, delivering sack-and-ash-cloth predictions about the economy and oil shortages with the polish of a corporate executive and the can-do spirit of a life coach. He encourages followers to trust what they can touch: gold, stores of grain, barrels for conserving rainwater. Neighbors aren’t just the people who live nearby – they’re also potential allies who can save your life. Chickens produce edible dividends.
His viewers emerge covered in sweat, reborn. Tens of thousands read his blog and participate in the forums on his site. A core group of volunteers, the “Martenson Brigade,” is devoted to spreading the preparedness doctrine to the mainstream by getting their leader booked on shows like Oprah.
Online, Martenson, who has a Ph.D. in neurotoxicology from Duke and an M.B.A. from Cornell, greets the world in a suit jacket and an open-necked shirt, and
with the words, “I’m a trained research scientist, and a former Fortune 300 VP. Most importantly, though, I’m a concerned citizen.” There, he at first seems to be just another brainiac, one who illustrates his theories with audio-visual aids of doom. At home in Montague, the man behind the movement dresses not very differently, in khakis and a button-down shirt, like an executive on a long vacation – only this vacation involves mulch, apple saplings, and home-schooling his three children. With his soft face and rimless glasses, he’s the last guy you’d expect to be prepared for a Mad Max future.
It’s a strange moment in America when the insiders – the very men who rule the world – are building bunkers. Martenson is aware of the paradox. “These are wealthy people who seemingly are in complete control of their lives and destiny,” he says. “But they feel they’re on the outside now.”
In their old life, the Martensons lived in a 4,000-square-foot house on the waterfront in Mystic, Connecticut. The kids roamed through sea puddles and inhaled wild wind. Chris and Becca chose Mystic because they loved its gleaming inlets, and because they could afford it.
But in 2003, with the country going to war with Iraq, Martenson felt queasy. His lavish neighborhood – where automatic sprinklers dripped diamonds onto lawns – began to seem like a movie set. At cocktail parties, everyone buzzed about buying condos in Florida. And yet the U.S. had entered a war that would cost billions, even trillions, of dollars. On weekends, Martenson spent hours spelunking through websites as he studied monetary policy and the Federal Reserve. He started to feel as if he could peer through the facades of McMansions to the ugly lurking mortgages. He scrawled “Read this” on economic papers and left them on Becca’s pillow.
“Chris was really angry,” she says. “He was ranting a lot.” She had no time to read about the Fed. “I was changing diapers and nursing babies. I was full of young children.” But finally, she plowed through the literature and soon felt that she, too, had X-ray vision.
“I was looking at the wealth around us, starting to understand what that wealth was made of,” she says. “I started thinking, How much do those wealthy neighbors have as debt?”
This is what Chris Martenson calls their “heavy” period. He compares his state of mind back then to that of a man who had just survived a heart attack. “This is not a dress rehearsal,” he told himself. If they were to live more simply, he realized, he would have to quit his job as vice president of the life sciences division of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a Fortune 500 R&D company headquartered outside Washington, DC (the position paid $250,000 a year, but required him to spend half his week in airports and hotels).
He’d have to transform all his possessions – the house and the Grady-White Gulfstream 232 boat and the stock portfolio – into a substance he could hold in his hand and deploy in an emergency. “I still remember the first time I bought gold in 2003, and I remember feeling I was doing something wrong,” he says. “Our broker didn’t understand. People sniggered. It turned out to be the best investment of a decade.”
Martenson bought into gold when it was down, at $300 an ounce: At that point, brokers called such buyers “gold bugs,” clients who warned about the end times and dug holes in their yard. As I write this, gold sits at $1,200 an ounce.
Yet Martenson found it was lonely to be so out of step. He and Becca longed for fellowship. That’s when he came up with his PowerPoint opus and began showing it in friends’ living rooms, to business groups, and at conferences. “My job was to read the crowd and say, ‘Honey, you’re ranting about the Federal Reserve,'” Becca says.
Martenson overwhelmed his audiences. “The End of Money” talk involved 10 hours of PowerPoint slides and “was such a brain burner,” she remembers. “Everything we were saying was heretical. It was the middle of the housing boom, and the stock market was doing great.”
People came because they knew something was wrong with the economy and wanted to understand monetary policy. Some not only didn’t get Martenson’s ideas, but were also incensed by them. After one Rotary Club lecture, Martenson fled to his car to avoid an enraged Realtor.
Yet his fan base grew, and in 2005 Martenson quit his SAIC job to live the life he preached. “We were imagining…an economic Katrina, something that could sweep through and decapitate the banking system,” he says. To survive, he’d have to swaddle his family in farmland, with hens and fruit trees they could see out the window. “When you imagine the violent breakdown, our best preparation is to get our neighborhood as resilient as possible,” Becca says.
They searched Google for a crash-proof New England town. First they tried Bernardston, about 100 miles northwest of Boston; the town turned out to be full of older folks who kept to themselves. After a year, they rolled their chicken coop onto a trailer and moved to Montague, population 8,500; it’s the kind of place where grandmothers drive tractors, plumbers have Ph.D.s, and the local café teems with Internet entrepreneurs. They rented their house as they waited for the real estate market to collapse; and when it did, they bought.
As it turned out, they’d settled just a few streets away from an expert in Internet branding.
In 2007, Alejandro Levins sat in a Greenfield auditorium with about 80 other people, electrified. Levins is the quintessential Cambridge guy, the son of a feminist poet and a Harvard ecologist, reared among manifestos on pacifism. He enjoyed the kind of anticapitalist childhood that breeds the best entrepreneurs.In the 1990s he cofounded SF Interactive in San Francisco, one of the first marketing agencies to specialize in the Internet. Now he lived in Montague and worked as a strategic-marketing consultant.
For years, Levins had worried about petroleum shortages, but he’d always pushed aside the fears. Now, under the spell of Martenson’s lecture, he felt a powerful mix of emotions as he considered the prospect of fuel emergencies. “I was scared,” he remembers. Yet at the same time, he sensed the makings of a new American brand, a household name. “It’s the biggest business opportunity in human history,” he remembers thinking as he listened to Martenson talk.
The way Levins saw it, Martenson had managed to bind together the worldviews of both blue and red states, making the environment and the economy seem like yin and yang, two sides of the same crisis. Instead of arguing about what the government should do or how big it should be, he had imagined a future in which the government was in shambles, useless. By removing government from the picture – and by encouraging people to think about putting on their own oxygen masks first – Martenson had suggested a kind of libertarianism that didn’t seem to be political.
In the days after the lecture, Levins found himself waking up at night, buzzing with ideas about how Martenson could hone his message. “I’m sensitive to how people learn – that’s what brand is,” he says. “I was looking at his brand and thinking it could be a lot friendlier, a lot more about hope.” By the time the two men met, Levins had devised a flow chart showing the business potential of Martenson’s worldview: Martenson could market himself as a one-man think tank and rent himself out to local governments and financial institutions. Together, Levins and Martenson began the huge job of creating video Web tutorials.
The following summer, the market started to jitter, and gas prices shot up to more than $4 a gallon. Levins was struggling with his own crisis; his mother, who was seriously ill, needed him. Every other week, he shuttled to Cambridge, driving Route 2 in a haze of worry. He agonized about his mother’s condition and also about the crash that Martenson had convinced him might happen. One day, Levins stepped into a Stop & Shop and found an empty shelf where there should have been rice. He took a photo. Soon, he was storing gasoline in 5-gallon tanks in his backyard, as well as buckets of food. He invested his parents’ money in silver and gold.
Martenson, meanwhile, began burning through savings as he transformed his lecture for video. In October 2008, just as the market dropped, he posted the 20th, and final, chapter of Crash Course. Viewers flooded the site. Volunteers began translating the videos into Spanish and French. Bandwidth costs spiked. Martenson had made the “reckless” business decision to put the course out for free, but started selling DVDs for 87 cents each. People ordered them by the hundreds.
The DVD sets now range from $24.99 to $169.99, and Martenson charges $500 an hour for private consultations. By “enrolling” on his website ($30 for a one-month membership; $300 for a year), followers get premium content, including podcasts, newsletters, access to member forums, and the vow of zero advertising. The website now earns enough to support the Martenson family and to employ a part-time staff of four.
Yet Martenson seems driven solely by an urgent desire to share his ideas. His core message is still available at no charge. Anyone can go online and watch him advise Americans to hunker down and safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. “I deeply care that you get this material,” he tells his viewers.
And somehow he makes his fans feel like it’s perfectly normal to amass a year’s supply of beans. As one follower puts it: “Chris has this very calming and positive way of telling you the end is near.”
Martenson’s average client is a type-A male who has watched Crash Course and fears losing his savings in a blink. “They want to know what they can buy” to fix the problem, he says. He tells clients they’ll have to transform their psyches as well as their stock portfolios. In workshops and retreats, he guides them through the “six stages of awareness,” from denial to acceptance. His website now draws, on average, 100,000 unique visitors per month, more than 4,000 of them from Boston.
One recent Crash Course convert, George Hults, works in the control room at the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth. Last August, a general unease sent him roving around the Internet, where he discovered Martenson. Hults should have felt protected from economic Armageddon: When you’re the guy who stops nuclear meltdowns, you can be sure of a steady paycheck. Yet once he immersed himself in Martensonia, he began to worry. Hults would walk into a supermarket and marvel at the rotisserie chickens, trying to imagine how much oil it took to make that piece of food so absurdly convenient. “I don’t see products anymore,” he says. “I see oil.” Studying his own house, Hults thought, “What if oil goes away? Do I have backup systems?” He is now in the process of installing a solar hot-water heater, a gas fireplace, and a wood stove. He has started to grow vegetables.
It’s not just Martenson and his followers who have embraced the worst-case scenario. Many New Englanders practically vibrate with pessimism and a sudden fascination with eschatology. The Vermont environmentalist and author Bill McKibben has given the planet a new name, Eaarth, to suggest that the climate has changed so profoundly, human beings will have to adapt in order to survive. A revolutionary wing of the Britain-based Transition Towns environmental movement seeks to establish neighborhoods that can withstand hard times ahead; here in Massachusetts, more than 20 groups have sprung up to create
“post-petroleum” communities. The participants tend to be foodies, recyclers, beekeepers, and composters gripped with a sense that we have to kick the oil addiction soon, or perish.
A similar sense of urgency has taken hold among well-off boomers who live in SUV country. People in Facebook groups like “Suburban Survivalism” are discussing personal freedom, firearms, primitive wilderness skills. Forget Waco: The word “survivalist” now describes your aunt and uncle in Hingham who’ve just bought a 50-pound bag of millet and are nagging you to turn your IRA into silver coins.
Even the Martensons’ three kids – Erica, 16; Simon, 12; and Grace, 10 – are converts. Martenson tells me about the time the children received some bank stock as a gift from a family member. When the first dividend checks came in the mail, Martenson explained that each now owned a stake in a bank.
“What if the bank goes bankrupt?” Erica said. Simon said, “I don’t want paper, I want silver.” Grace said, “I want silver, too.” The kids all switched their investments to precious metals.
When I ask Martenson about the location of his own stash, he says that it’s in a bank deposit box. It’s clearly a faux pas to ask a man where he keeps his gold.
Yet he doesn’t mind talking about his faith in the commodity. Gold has been traded for 6,000 years, he says, and “if certain things happen, it becomes much more valuable.” In a global monetary crisis, “the dollar will break or the euro will break. In those scenarios, I don’t know how to preserve wealth except to be out of the game.” Gold could be swapped for useful things, he says.
Other Americans apparently feel the same way, because the gold market has been soaring, so much so that financier George Soros (who himself has been buying gold) has predicted that it could become the next bubble. Yet you won’t find many, or possibly any, economists who agree that it’s a safe haven, a kind of “battery for wealth,” as the Martensons believe. Gold is simply a commodity that, like anything else, can become wildly overvalued, says Wellesley College economics professor Eric Hilt, who dismisses Martenson’s fears of hyperinflation and scoffs at the idea of stockpiling precious metals: “The current financial crisis, along with the measures taken to bring it under control, have spawned conspiracy theories along with predictions of economic cataclysm.”
There is also the environmental and human cost of a bullion market: cratered mountainsides, poisoned rivers, and crippled miners in places like Ghana and Chile. According to one watchdog group, the amount of gold in a single wedding ring creates 20 tons of mine waste.
The next time I stop by the Martensons’ house, a storm has just hit Montague and the electricity is out, a turn of events that almost seems made to order. I find Martenson on his couch, extension cords snaking from his laptop: He’s running on a trickle of power from the solar panels out back. (A few days later, he will blog about what the outage taught him; he sees the blackout as a rehearsal for a much bigger crisis.)
He has promised to take me on a shooting expedition today, so soon we’re in his faded old Nissan Maxima, cruising through the dappled sunlight of a country road and chatting about firearms. Martenson says that at home he keeps his guns locked away, because of his children and because Massachusetts law requires it. Which means the guns are basically useless when it comes to home protection. “For me guns are sporting,” he says, “not defense.”
We crunch onto a gravel road and bump along to his gun club, weeds slapping the side of the car. He parks in a sandy wasteland and we walk to one of the firing-range shelters, which smells of gunpowder and creosote.
As a kid, I learned to shoot BB guns and .22 rifles, but this semiautomatic Glock I’m about to handle feels entirely different. It’s made of plastic, with a smooth and almost oily skin. The blackest thing around, it seems to suck up all the light. Martenson takes me again and again through the protocols of gun safety. As he sees it, with enough preparation, even a semiautomatic weapon can be domesticated.
Some of his followers may be less concerned with this line of domestication. Many hours later, when I’m in front of my home computer, I can still feel the Glock in my hand and the unnerving power of its kick. Now I want to see what Martenson’s brethren say about firearms. On his website, I click through various forums and a “definitive firearms” thread, which contains more than 2,000 comments, plus instructions for building a home arsenal. “I dread the day that I might need to defend my family and friends with a gun. But, I realize that is a very real possibility,” a member writes in one forum. Another comments that once enough people get desperate, “it might be too late to avoid some blood in the streets.”
Of course this is where the messenger stands to lose control of the message, to unintentionally feed and even validate the fringe. The true power of Martenson’s worldview will be measured by what the masses do with it.