The End is Near Inc.
Chris Martenson quit corporate America to craft an unusual life of financial readiness — in case the economy really implodes — and now thousands of Internet followers are buying the message. Literally.
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.
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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.