Notes from an Apocalypse
- By Mark O’Connell
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Colin Asher
- April 25, 2021
A wise meditation on social collapse and those preoccupied with the thought of it.
In the mid-twenty-teens, Mark O’Connell’s life was defined by powerful, competing convictions. A Dublin-based author, he had a young son whom he loved and had devoted himself to protecting and an abiding belief that humankind had done such extensive damage to the earth that salvation was impossible. The dissonance created by those irreconcilable positions caused him anxiety and fear, creating striking dichotomies in his daily life.
Once, depressed by the state of the world, O’Connell sat on his couch with his 3-year-old, the television on and a cellphone in hand. While his son watched a cartoon featuring a Russian peasant girl and an anthropomorphized bear, O’Connell viewed a YouTube video. In it, an emaciated polar bear rummaged through a stand of rusted trash bins until it found a bit of bone to chew on. The bear, O’Connell read, was starving as a result of climate change, environmental devastation having decimated the region’s seal population.
That video and others similar to it, along with news broadcasts and casual conversations about ever-stranger weather patterns the planet was experiencing, haunted O’Connell. He felt complicit in the earth’s devastation and powerless to stop it, as well as morally bound to shelter his son and attempt to live with a “sense of meaning and purpose” — a nearly impossible task, as each day seemed to bring a new dark augury.
“So many things,” he writes, “felt like a flashback sequence in the first act of a postapocalyptic movie.”
O’Connell decided to confront his dread. He knew of locations where the planet’s failing health was especially apparent, and he knew that there were factions of people similarly preoccupied by the idea of imminent ecological and social collapse; the author investigated both. The results became his new book, Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back.
“I wanted to be near the idea of the apocalypse,” he writes, “to look upon what evidence of its deadly work could be found in the present: not in the form of numbers or projections, which are nowadays mostly how it’s revealed to us, but rather in the form of places — landscapes both real and imaginary where the end of the world could be glimpsed.”
Part jeremiad and part travelogue, the book reports on the subcultures of doomsday preppers, billionaire survivalists, and Mars-colony advocates. O’Connell visits the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, a vast expanse of land denuded by industrial activity that is being rewilded, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The book is full of wry humor, and O’Connell is an earnest, self-effacing narrator wise enough to employ filial love as recurrent theme to give his book emotional ballast. His greatest virtue, however, is his talent as a critic and interpreter.
Writing about doomsday preppers, O’Connell faithfully reports on his subjects’ stratagems and fears. “One-third of the earth will perish,” they claim. But though he shares some of their preoccupations, he does not give their worldview license.
Noting the amorality of their individualistic plans, their fetishization of guns, and their racist tropes about “savages,” he concludes: “Preppers are not preparing for their fears: they are preparing for their fantasies. The collapse of civilization means a return to modes of masculinity our culture no longer has much use for.”
Billionaires, O’Connell reports, are buying up land in New Zealand and building themselves redoubts. They plan to retreat to these estates when civilization collapses, protected by armed guards and surviving on their vast food and water stores.
These might seem like prescient, if self-interested, preparations, but O’Connell sees something more malevolent: disdain for civil society and distrust of accountability and collective action. He quotes one of their number, the tech investor Peter Thiel: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
Later, when O’Connell attends a conference for people who believe that Mars should be colonized as a “backup planet,” he is careful to show that the brand of freedom they embrace is consonant with the ideas that created the damage they seek refuge from. When the first colonists arrive on Mars, one conference speaker claims, they’ll be able to say: “We’re here. We’re free. You won’t have the government, the EPA, saying you can’t damage this or that endangered species.”
Notes from an Apocalypse might seem like unsettling reading at the moment, given the great suffering we are collectively experiencing. At the time of this writing, there are 2.5 million confirmed novel coronavirus cases worldwide, and more than 170,000 people have died from the disease — may they rest in peace. But there is, counterintuitively, something bracing about reading the book in this context.
O’Connell’s core insight is that the course of every apocalypse, no matter its cause, is defined by the conditions that existed before its onset. Some crises are sudden and some build slowly before settling into the terrible work of dismantling societies, but once they manifest, their devastation spreads along pre-existing fissures. The sufficiency of the mitigation undertaken will be defined by commonly understood ideologies, vanities, and biases.
This will strike some as a deeply cynical insight, but it can also be read as a comforting one — a means of making sense of seemingly uncontrollable forces.
Fortunately for his readers, O’Connell himself adopts a more optimistic perspective near the end of his book. After more than 200 pages of despair and bleak prognostication, he concludes his narrative with a sentiment of great maturity. Reflecting on the effect fatherhood has had on his character, he writes, using language likely to resonate at the moment, “Life no longer seems to afford me the luxury of submitting to the comfort of despair.”
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Colin Asher is the author of Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren (W.W. Norton, 2019). His writing has appeared in the Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and many other publications.