Joshua Daniels doesn’t believe in the end of the world. But he does believe that civilization as we know it is probably fucked. And the shit will be hitting the proverbial fan much sooner than anybody suspects.
“We see the world going under in a flood of stupidity,” says 49-year-old Daniels, who claims he’s seen the economic and cultural collapse coming since 1994. He compares the U.S. government to a 15-year-old kid with Down Syndrome. “Have you ever met one?” he asks. “They’re god-awful strong. Imagine if one of those kids found a machine gun and decided he likes the noise. He’s not your enemy in the classic sense, but you’ve still got a big problem to deal with.”
Unlike most apocalyptic prophets, who warn about ancient calendars (both the Vikings and Mayans turned out to be lousy at doomsday predicting) or cataclysmic events caused by global warming, Daniels is more worried about his neighbors. When the economy collapses, he says, it’ll be every man for himself. “If you can’t manufacture weapons and ammo and replace casualities, you are too small to stay still,” he says. “They will find you and they will get your stuff. Maybe your life, maybe your wife, whatever.” The victims, he says, will be those who let themselves be stationary targets. The only way to survive, and maybe even start a new society after the Armageddon dust has settled, is by having the forethought to get the hell out of dodge. “The global Titanic is sinking,” he says. “There are no lifeboats, so we’ve got to build some.”
When he talks about lifeboats, he’s not being symbolic. He literally means lifeboats.
Daniels is the founder and chairman of the Terraformers, a survivalist organization based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, devoted to designing and building family-friendly vessels called LifeYachts. When Daniels first came up with the idea over a decade ago, when he was just another business analyst, consulting for corporations like Pacific Bell and WellPoint Inc., he had an ambitious checklist. “One person has to be able to dock it,” he says. “It needs to process all of its own sewage. It’s got to have a shore boat bay, like the shuttle bay on Star Trek, so you can launch smaller crafts to go places where the big one can’t. It’s got to be able to carry a car or a truck. It’s got to have a hydroponic garden. And I’m an inveterate carnivore, so it had to have room for goats and sheep and chickens.”
If any of this sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen ads for Noah, the big-budget Russell Crowe vehicle based on everybody’s favorite Old Testament disaster story, which opens nationwide this weekend. Or maybe you’ve just read the Bible. You wouldn’t be the first one to notice the similarities. “Nobody ever mentions that Noah built that ark at his own expense just because he believed it was the right thing to do, to help people and animals,” Daniels says.
The present convergence of Hollywood and aquatic doomsday survivalist culture might just be the perfect storm for Daniels—there’s never been a better moment to peddle arks to the masses. And Daniels is ready for business.
“This is exactly the right timing for a message like this,” he says. “People instinctively understand that the problems that ticked God off to the point where he wanted to kill everyone were caused by the leaders, and the followers had no choice but to harvest the foul crop. People today are realizing they’re in exactly the same boat. They want a way out. In us, they’ll find a way out.”
Daniels claims he designed the ships himself, despite having no shipbuilding experience. But the sketches, he says, have been reviewed by several naval architects, including Anil Raj, the president and CEO at Technology Associates Inc., a marine engineering firm in New Orleans. “He read everything on our website,” Daniels insists. “He examined the drawings, and his verdict was, ‘Genius.’ That’s a quote.” (Mr. Raj says he has “a vague recollection” of speaking with Daniels, but does not “recollect providing any technical opinions.”)
At the moment, the Terraformers are little more than a website. The entire organization is run by Daniels from his home in suburban Tulsa, in a rural area he calls “the Redneck Riviera.” He often hears gunfire, which he finds comforting, “knowing the neighbors are armed.” Daniels works alone—except for his nine dogs and four cats—in a structure “built before Oklahoma became a state,” which also serves as the distribution site for Sun Direct Power Inc., a line of solar-powered backup generators. (It’s one of the ways that the Terraformers raise revenue.)
In conversation, Daniels is friendly and instantly likable, and he looks more like a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan than a survivalist planning for a Waterworld-esque dystopia. A Paul Reed Smith guitar and electric banjo are mounted on his desk, along with a PA system he says “is sized for a band to play a large gym.” He sports a hairstyle that he calls an “über mullet,” with a 16-inch cascade in back.
Daniel’s dreams of a Noah’s Ark in every port haven’t become a reality yet—LifeYachts are still in the blueprint stages—but despite the lack of anything tangible to show other than some crude renderings, Daniels claims he has no shortage of eager customers. He won’t share exact numbers, but he hints that membership is in the low hundreds. They’re mostly young—besides him and another couple, they’re all under 40—and predominately single, college educated and “entrepreneurs,” he says. The Terraformers attract a lot of full-time musicians and students, hailing everywhere from New Mexico to New Hampshire (and one from the U.K.), and are what Daniels calls “Northern European stock,” although he’d like to change that. “I really believe that there is a strong subset of the African American community who would jump at the chance to do this,” he says. “But I have no way of reaching them.”
Membership is the only way to acquire one of Daniels’ as-yet-unbuilt ships, other than paying the full retail amount in cash. (One of the smallest LifeYachts, the 45-foot Corvette, costs $600,000, while the luxury Manta Ray, with 9,000 square feet of floor space and 700 tons of cargo space, is a staggering $40,000,000.) A less wallet-busting option is to pay a monthly membership fee, based on your average income for one hour. “If you made $100,000 last year, you’d pay us $50,” Daniels says. “If you made nothing last year, you pay us nothing.” The money isn’t all that important. What’s really valued is your time and devotion to the Terraformers cause. Membership, Daniel says, gives you “the right to come build one of these silly things.” In the end, he’s really not selling boats as much as the opportunity to build them with like-minded survivalists.
What kind of time commitment is actually involved? According to Daniels, you’ll need to work “three times as many hours as it takes to build any one vessel.” If you’re looking to own a Sting Ray LifeYacht, a 1,300 square-foot catamaran with an on-board farm and walk-in refrigerator, you’ll first need to work a minimum of 10,000 hours on the shipyard, or roughly five years. For the high-end Manta Ray, you’re not setting sail without putting in ten years of hard labor. To get a LifeYacht, building LifeYachts becomes your full-time job for the foreseeable future.
It gets more complicated from there. By joining Terraformers, you become a NeoViking. But not all NeoVikings are Terraformers. “Terraformers are people who’ve joined the Terraformer organization to start cleaning up the oceans, water the Sahara, and oxygenate the Black and Baltic Seas, in return for their own LifeYacht,” Daniels says. NeoVikings, meanwhile, work at the Freedom Fleet, where they rack up hours making LifeYachts, or volunteering in other ways. You might be sitting at a desk, answering calls. You might be teaching your fellow NeoVikings how to perform surgery on the high seas. You might be calling your friends and family, asking for donations.
For all his optimism, Daniels is the first to admit that all of the Terraformer plans could implode before the first nail gets hammered. He’s already suspicious of sabotage. His headquarters has had several break-ins, and a few of his pets have been mutilated. He’s set up several surveillance webcams, but someone, he says, has edited out large chunks of the video, specifically during one of the break-ins. “What that tells me is, somebody wants this stopped,” he says. “We’re doing something that matters and that scares somebody in power.”
He can’t talk openly about weapons—even insinuating that LifeYachts will be armed to the teeth, he says, puts them in the crosshairs of federal agencies—but obviously that’s part of the deal. As the website promises, “If they hit us, we can hit back, hard.” Daniels hopes for the best but expects the worst. “I’m not at the point where I have a gun at each ankle and a knife in the small of my back,” he says. “I want to be gone before it gets to that. I do not want to face that end-of-the-world scenario where my only choice is to die alone or become a prisoner. Because becoming a prisoner is not an option for me.”
He’s pretty sure the government is keeping close tabs on his operation, and it could end in a bloodbath. “We might all die in a Waco-like raid on the construction fleet,” he says. “But I could live with that.”
Daniels may sound like an extremist, but he’s hardly in the fringe. According to a Barna Group poll released in September, 41% of Americans are pretty sure we’re on a one-way path to End Times. And science is more than happy to back them up. A new NASA-funded studyargues that “the collapse of society” is imminent, thanks to wealth and resource monopolies. Even The New York Times isn’t feeling particularly optimistic, claiming that our biggest philosophical problem is “understanding that this civilization is already dead.”
Then there’s all the weird weather, the global political and economic upheaval, Glenn Beck—it’s no surprise that the survival industries continue to grow year after year. At one time, it was all about doomsday bunkers—back in 2011, CNN claimed that bunker manufacturers were seeing a 20% to 1,000% increase in sales—but in 2014, with growing fearsabout tsunamis, boats could become the next big survivalist accessory. “It was the same thing that happened in the ’50s and ’60s, when everybody bought a bomb shelter because of nuclear paranoia,” says Stephen O’Leary, an associate professor at University of Southern California and an expert on apocalyptic thinking.
There’s already evidence of a fledgling market. S.P. Callahan & Associates, the boat-building consulting firm of Steven Callahan, author of the acclaimed and best-selling 2002 memoir Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, is hoping to redesign a survival craft called “The Clam,” first introduced in 2002 with little success. (They originally built just 16 ships.) “There’s a market for them now,” Callahan says. “The question is, will people buy them at $10,000 a pop?”
IDEA, Inc., a Mukilteo, Washington-based aerospace company run by former Boeing engineers, are developing a tsunami “Survival Capsule,” similar in size and shape to the escape pod used by the droids in the original Star Wars, which could potentially seat up to six people. They’re still looking for investors, but Julian Sharpe, IDEA’s president, says he hopes to have the pods available to customers “as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.” He also claims that there are several markets for their pod, including survival from tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and if natural disasters don’t prove to be lucrative, for rental or sale by amusement parks. “[The pod] has a lot of potential for being a fun ride,” he says.
LifeYachts and their ilk may be the next wave in survivalism, but they’re a long way from being taken seriously. Even fellow survivalists don’t want anything to do with them. Patrick Geryl, a Belgian author and doomsday proselytizer who has long championed boats as the only practical way to survive the coming apocalypse, has had a change of heart in recent years. “I get a lot of mail from sailors,” he says. “And I tell them they have to organize by themselves. I won’t be on a ship when the end comes, because I get very easily seasick. Not my cup of tea.” (Coincidentally, he also believes the world will be ending this Friday.) Sharon Packer, the executive director of The American Civil Defense Association in Draper, Utah, an organization that sells potassium iodate anti-radiation pills and something called the “6-in-1 Survival Shovel” on its website, doesn’t take much stock in survivalist crafts. “Even unsinkable boats will turn over if they happen to get grounded,” she says. “There is no protection from incompetency.”
Even Daniels can be critical of some of his fellow water survivalists. Though he applauds the ingenuity of Chris Robinson, a designer in Palo Alto who built a “Tsunamiball” escape vessel designed to save him during a tsunami, he thinks it’s a little shortsighted. “His vessel is a short-term safety boat, with no beds or bath,” says Daniels. “It’s a specialty piece of equipment aimed at a specific scenario, like a snake-bite kit. It’s well done for the scenario it’s intended for, but doesn’t cover, say, how to escape if Yellowstone erupts and covers half of North America in two feet of ash.” Also, it’s made out of wood, which Daniels says won’t provide much protection when he’s “being washed out of his neighborhood, bouncing off houses and cars all the way.”
If your intention is to survive a tsunami for a few hours until the Coast Guard finds you, he thinks the Tsunamiball is fine. But if you’re planning to leave indefinitely, you might want to build something with a toilet.
Of course, Daniels is hardly immune to criticism. He’s heard most of it before, and if you’re in the business of selling boats to people who believe that modern civilization is going the way of the Roman Empire, you can’t have a thin skin. He doesn’t even mind the Noah’s Ark cracks. “I take it as a compliment,” he laughs. “With the genetic modification of animals going on, we might end up with the only real animals left in the world.”
The debate about whether a sea-faring vessel is really the most effective way to survive End Times is, for him, only half the story, and it’s hardly the only argument for leaving land permanently. One minute he’ll explain why the LifeYacht design is perfectly suited for even the most aggressive weather conditions—”The concerns for a monohull are very, very different than they are for a catamaran”—and the next he’ll tell you why LifeYachts could help prevent premature old age. “Using seawater as the source of your minerals for onboard farming will provide absolutely the most mineral-rich diet possible,” he says. That could add a decade or two to your life. And those lucky enough to be born and raised on LifeYachts can expect to survive to 105 and beyond, “with eyes, ears, sex organs, muscles and everything else still functioning properly.”
If you read the small print on the Terraformer website, there’s also something about going into space. ”We’re preparing to move into the sky, then Low Earth Orbit, then Outer Space.” Daniels isn’t shy about sharing the bigger picture, which is one that apparently involves amateur astronauts. “These ships are practice for living in space,” he writes. “Which is my personal, ultimate goal for my children.”
How the Terraformers will eventually get into space is a much, much longer story. “People who know how to make things,” Daniels says, “who spend significant time at sea, will soon start building aircraft of many types, and so a sea-oriented society will quickly become a sea-air-oriented society.” There are eventual plans for “floating, moveable, self-sustaining islands.”
Finding people who think like him is more important to Daniels than simply raising enough capital to actually start building LifeYachts. There are plenty of paranoid billionaires out there, he says, but he’s more interested in building a community. “In the world that’s coming,” he says, “I need allies if I’m going to survive.” Daniels believes there are lessons to be learned from the battles of Lexington and Concord in the Revolutionary War, when ordinary citizens had each other’s backs against a hostile and heavily-armed government. That’s the same spirit he’d like to see in LifeYachts community. “If there’s a police state in the U.S.,” Daniels says, “and a SWAT team surrounds your house, is there any group of people who know you so well that they’d say, ‘Whatever he’s being charged with, it can’t be right?’ And who would attack the SWAT team from the outside and bust you out of there?”
As tempting as it might be to paint him as a 21st century David Koresh, Daniels is pretty much a softy at his core, and his pitch for LifeYachts is essentially personal. He’s single, but claims “four different women have asked me to marry them over the years. And the plain fact is, because they didn’t share my dream, I declined.” As he recruits new Terraformers members, he’s hopeful that he’ll eventually meet his soul mate. “I realized why I’d never taken a wife from among the possible candidates,” he says. “They weren’t my people. In the next few months or years, I’ll find and meet my people, however scattered about they may be.”
Daniels has no doubt that living off the grid is the perfect cure for the slow social decay that’s ripped apart so many families. The problems start when children are taken out of their homes “to be taught by someone who is not permitted to transmit the culture of the parents to the children.” A government-run public education weakens the family bond and makes children feel like strangers to their own parents. But on a LifeYacht, Daniels says, a parent has unimpeded influence. Children won’t have any choice but to follow the value and belief systems of their parents. You’re their best friend and sole teacher and closest confidant and personal hero. Their only other option is to jump overboard.
“This isn’t just about boats and money,” he insists. “I’m about building a world view.” And that world view isn’t necessarily about escape. Survival is the sales pitch. It’s what gets customers in the door. But what gets them to sign on the dotted line is the promise of what lies beyond the mushroom clouds and vigilante mobs, a world which is infinitely more dangerous and chaotic but somehow makes more sense. In the end, Daniels and the Terraformers, who may or may not actually include anyone besides Daniels, aren’t running away from something, they’re running to it.
In the meantime, he plans to go see Noah, which he calls a “cautionary tale about people who don’t consider the big picture,” but he doubts the movie will really tell the whole story. “I believe a very different scenario took place than most people think,” he says, citing the “obviously bogus” translation of Genesis 9:13, which portrays God as a “soft, gentle grampa” who promises not to destroy humanity a second time. “That’s not just hogwash,” he says. “That’s flaming freeze-dried hogwash.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Vocativ.com.)