Notes from an Apocalypse

Preparing for the end of the world: A Review of Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse

COVID-19 has given us more of a taste of an apocalypse than we have ever had, emptying our streets, shops, and pushing family and friends away from one another and into their own bubbles. Mark O’Connell’s award-winning book, To Be a Machine, felt like it was looking at something far into the future, but Notes from an Apocalypse is at times a commentary on the present and as well on the past.

In To Be a Machine, O’Connell met a plethora of wacky transhumanists attempting to use technology to enhance themselves in order to cheat death. It felt Louis Therouxish, and there is a hint of that in Notes from an Apocalypse, but O’Connell relates more to his interviewees here. Frequently, he reflects and explores his apocalyptic fears as he mulls over the deteriorating climate and the precarious future his two sons face. 

The first group O’Connell meets are preppers, people who have been preparing for an apocalypse for a long time. I’ve never been a fan of shows like Doomsday Preppers, and thought they were gimmicky reality TV, but O’Connell captures something intriguing about preppers. He shows us how they are connected to a larger problem in society, examining why they are predominantly straight white male Americans, one of the most privileged demographics in the world. 

O’Connell watches YouTube videos of people with names like ‘Brandon or Kyle or Brent,’ obsessing over buying freeze-dried powdered food. They believe in ‘traditional values,’ which basically means they’re sexist. They have no idea of what it means to live in poverty or to survive. They prepare for ‘shit hits the fan’ scenarios without anyone else in mind. A real estate agent for bunkers appeals to their desire to protect the ‘good white Christian flesh’ of their daughters.

On the smaller screen of my phone, I came across an embedded YouTube video on which, precisely because its accompanying text advertised it as “soul-­crushing” and “heart-­wrenching,” I clicked without hesitation.

Many unhealthily wealthy preppers plan to escape to New Zealand. O’Connell returns to a familiar figure from To Be a Machine, Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay Pal and a big fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Thiel seems to envision New Zealand as an actual Middle Earth, and he embodies the rich tech entrepreneur dream of creating a new utopian land.

The desire to build a new society also fuels outer space travel, and O’Connell points out how the push to colonise Mars—often touted as a way to find a new home for humanity—is connected to a longing to be through with Earth and its governments altogether. Art Harman, a former Trump adviser and founder of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration, romanticises the colonisation of Mars by comparing it to the colonisation of America.

Of course, Harman’s comparison ignores how Europeans slaughtered native Americans, allowed slavery to run rampant, and decimated North America’s wildlife. O’Connell highlights the racism in Harman’s discourse, how Harman draws a line between the white people emmigrating to Mars and the non-white people trying to travel north from Africa and South America. Like New Zealand, the fetishization of Mars is about building a utopia for the rich, where they don’t have to worry about the poor, taxes, or destroying wildlife.

The rich feel that they’re being held back by the climate catastrophe which, unlike nuclear war or disease, is inevitable and has been growing at an accelerated speed for decades. We see the encroaching fire in the annihilation of insects and the plastic spilling from gutted whales’ stomachs. In a chapter focussing on climate change, O’Connell opens with a reading of The Lorax to his son, and the children’s book feels prophetic. It’s also in this moment that we get to see more of O’Connell’s life and mental health, and it’s as he pulls away from the preppers and Mars colonists that he begins to explore himself more deeply.

While examining climate change, O’Connell goes on an expedition to the Alladale Wilderness Preserve. He spends time with people from the Dark Mountain Project, a group of creators and activists who believe that the climate catastrophe is imminent and that environmentalism is doomed. O’Connell camps beside a river in the wild, sceptically meditating, self-reflecting, and attempting to become closer to nature. 

It’s while camping and in the following chapter on Chernobyl that there are ample moments where O’Connell draws stunning descriptions of his surroundings. While camping, he describes the wilderness in beautiful detail, the ways the sun and clouds pass dark shadows over the mountains, and how the birds return to Chernobyl, bringing nature back into a place destroyed by a nuclear accident.

The beauty O’Connell sees in the world make the apocalyptic narrative he leans on frustrating. Sometimes it feels as though he uses the inevitable end of the world and his honesty to excuse his behaviour. He points out how large his carbon footprint is, caused by all the flights he took for this book, as though self-awareness and self-flagellation ease the blame.  

O’Connell leans into the Dark Mountain Project’s pessimistic discourse and fails to show the children and adults who are fighting back against the apocalypse. O’Connell sees children marching for climate change and describes the ‘innocence’ on their faces. He skims over how young people like Greta Thunberg and Adita Mukarju are the lifeblood of a movement currently trying to slow down the apocalypse. 

This isn’t to say that O’Connell’s honesty means nothing and that his pessimism isn’t understandable. He sinks into a subject that makes him anxious and highlights many poignant arguments. He explores the end of the world and dissects the undercurrents of racism, sexism, and financial inequality in the movements preparing for it. Notes from an Apocalypse is at times anxious reading, but amidst the apocalyptic imagery, O’Connell’s self-reflections on mental health, love, and family shine brightly.

Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the end of the World and Back was written by Mark O’Connell and published by Penguin (April 2020).