Review: Notes From An Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell

I have to admit I am prone to apocalyptic thinking, so inevitably I would be drawn to a book with the enticing title of Notes From An Apocalypse: A Personal Journey To The End Of The World And Back. Although even as a seasoned apocalypse-watcher I have to say that reading such a book in the middle of a global pandemic feels a little on the nose. Dublin-based writer Mark O’Connell defines the apocalypse as “the collapse of the systems by which the known world operates, slowly and then all at once” and if a more precise description of how the world feels right now exists, I don’t know it. The pandemic has had the odd effect of making what should be a completely terrifying book about the end of the world feel kind of tame.

Even without a pandemic these times are full of signs and portents for those of “apocalyptic sensibility”. Most of these signs and portents are climate related. O’Connell’s book finishes during the European summer of 2018, during which holiday-makers in Greece plunged into the Mediterranean to escape wildfire. Even in two years that should feel short but feel like a lifetime, things seem to have got measurably worse. In the summer of 2019-20 southern Australia burned and the Great Barrier Reef bleached, again. A few weeks ago weather stations inside the Arctic Circle in Russia started recording temperatures nearing 30°C. I can’t really compute what this means (mainly due to cognitive dissonance) but the climate experts I follow on Twitter were using interesting words like “astonishing” and “exceptional” and “FUCKITY FUCK”. Faced with this apocalyptic sublime, a legitimate response is simply awe and terror.

I have done a bit of thinking about the ecological crisis we’re facing, one primarily driven climate change but also by pollution, habitat destruction, pretty much all our human activities. Whether you want to call it an apocalypse or not, it has always struck me as sensible to think about how that might play out in our lifetimes, and make a few preparations. I co-wrote a book on such preparations – thinking about where to live, how to build your home, reduce your dependence on fragile supply chains etc. It’s a book that toys with prepping, but the closest we got to a bunker is how to build one that might protect you from bushfires. The kicker is though that no matter how well prepared we get, there is a level of climate change we cannot adapt to. Therefore, we have to do everything we can to stop it getting worse.

O’Connell is not interested in the specifics and likelihoods of future scenarios, or in how to prevent them unfolding except in a philosophical sense. Instead, he’s interested in what the apocalypse tells us about the present. Apocalypse, after all, simply means “reveal”. Who knew – if you want to understand the current state of the world, perhaps the best place to start is at the end.

Notes From An Apocalypse is a tour of those places “where the shadows of the future fall most darkly across the present” – not melting glaciers or burning forests but places infused with human attempts to grapple with the end times. Luxury bunkers in South Dakota, billionaire boltholes in New Zealand (“a contemporary Ararat”), a convention of would-be Mars colonists, an uninhabited (but not untouched) wilderness area in Scotland, the Zone at Chernobyl, and the subreddit r/collapse. It is also a sentimental, inward-drawing journey for O’Connell, motivated by his young son. Throughout the book he wrestles with the ethical knot he has tied himself up in – bringing children into a world that seems to have no future.

His prophets of doom are real estate tycoons, tech billionaires, art critics, extreme-tourism guides, “uncivilisation” proponent Paul Kingsnorth, and philosophers the likes of Sontag, Arendt and Diderot. There’s also his patient therapist who tells him to deal with his feelings by throwing himself into his work (the book is in part a product of that advice). And his wife, who bemusedly watches her husband enter a spiral of “cosmic nihilism”.

O’Connell persuasively locates the fantasy of escape as a crisis of white American masculinity – people who were “never fully convinced by the idea of society in the first place”. These men see in the apocalypse a chance to start again, “a return to modes of masculinity our culture no longer has much use for”. For some, the apocalypse offers a libertarian dream of frontier self-reliance, with all the overtones of colonialism, genocide, racism and ant-Semitism that implies. A certain kind of doomsday prepper, it turns out, is just a Nazi by another name (and Hitler also ended up in a bunker).

He notes with exquisite irony that the people most responsible for the apocalypse – capitalism and its proponents – are most interested in escape. In their luxe bolt-holes and bunkers, O’Connell sees only “a logical extension of capitalism itself”. He memorably and scathingly characterises Elon Musk – who once described the US as “the distillation of the human spirit of exploration” – as “a union-busting billionaire who had hijacked the language of collective hope and aspiration to promote a private enterprise for sending wealthy people to Mars”.

The apocalypse is ridiculous, and O’Connell subjects it to appropriate ridicule. He is a very entertaining, self-effacing, and thoughtful companion to TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It). But he also points to the hollow core of the apocalyptic fantasy, that for most people in the world, the apocalypse has already arrived, in fact arrived long ago. Whether it is Indigenous people subject to colonisation or the homeless people O’Connell walks past in Dublin, “it was precisely society’s most marginalised and oppressed people who truly understood what it might mean to live in a post-apocalyptic world”. He reminds us that “civilisation was a relative concept to begin with”, an apposite description of George Lloyd’s death at the hands of white police. In his most squirm-inducing line, O’Connell wonders if, “my fear of the collapse of civilisation was really a fear of having to live, or having to die, like those unseen and mostly unconsidered people who sustained what we thought of as civilisation.”

Of course the end times are not the sole province of Nazis; it is also a draw to self-described progressive men and women (and me). We experience the awe and possibility of the apocalypse, all the while worrying at our own complicity in it. “I am,” O’Connell writes, “the apocalypse of which I speak”. Intriguingly, O’Connell locates his interest in childhood memories of an uncle’s descriptions of nuclear annihilation, which cleaves closely to my learning of Hiroshima and Raymond Brigg’s picture book When The Wind Blows when I was eight. Do all modern apocalypses come back to that split second on July 16 1945 when humanity made a choice that we can never go back on? (Also, apocalypse by nuclear physics is never as far away as we might like).

Ultimately, O’Connell seems to find salvation in his son and the birth of his daughter. Quoting Schopenhauer, he is inspired by children, those “innocent delinquents” who behave as if they are “condemned not to death, but to life”. I have often wondered but ultimately resisted delving into the issue of whether it is morally acceptable to bring children into the world. I think this resistance is in part to the primacy traditional family is granted in our society, and an uncomfortableness with any discussion that sounds like population control and interference in reproductive choice (a wariness no doubt informed by the state’s history of sniffing around queer bodies and bedrooms).

O’Connell, like Arendt, sees in the birth of a child the possibility of remaking the world. Elsewhere he finds guidance in the writing’s of Vietnamese activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who advocates a return to a centre of care – one’s family and friends – to find more “generative energy”. An epigraph quotes Gretha Thunberg.

If children are your font of optimism, all power to you. I think they’re great too, most of the time. But I think there are other reasons we can find to care about the end of the world. Key among them is that in the climate catastrophe and ecological crisis we will also be taking a significant chunk of the biosphere down with us. O’Connell does care about nature – his book begins, after all, with him watching a video of a starving polar bear. He cites The Lorax and visits a Scottish “wilderness” reserve to contemplate the “intimate equation between civilisation and environmental destruction” out of “sad curiosity”. He takes heart in the extraordinary rebound of nature at Chernobyl in the absence of people. But it is with resignation that O’Connell seems to face what people have done to nature, something to be maybe rectified by future generations who, quoting The Lorax, “care an awful lot”. I’m not sure that we can wait for that.

Gay rating: not gay, in fact rather hetero

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