Amid pandemic and climate crisis, apocalyptic thinking is a luxury we can’t afford

Review: Mark O’Connell, Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back (Granta Books, 2020)

It is a fundamental part of the human condition to be preoccupied by thoughts of destruction and our ultimate demise – both individually, and as a species. There is no known immunity from death. Apocalyptic thinking has permeated human societies from the fall of ancient empires, to the Fifth Monarchists of the 17th century English Republic, to the Kennedy brothers contemplating an imminent nuclear holocaust in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The end of days is again in stark focus amid the ruinous Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed nearly 350,000 lives worldwide, decimated national economies and upended individual livelihoods. Apocalyptic omens appear everywhere from empty supermarket shelves to an American President claiming that having the highest number of disease cases is a ‘great honour’.

Let’s not forget the ongoing context too: Cyclone Amphan in Bengal may have displaced 500,000 people in yet another example of the extreme weather hastened by the global climate crisis. Our immobility since March has provided a glimpse of the positive ecological impact of emissions reductions, but one which we will likely ignore once the pandemic subsides. The Mercator Research Institute (Berlin) suggests that we passed the point where it would be realistically possible to prevent catastrophic climate damage (1.5C above pre-industrial levels) in September 2018. With negative feedback loops that we can never appreciate until they start to happen, who knows if and when the planet will be sent into a runaway warming spiral which will render it uninhabitable for human life?

For many – myself included – that prospect does not bear thinking about. But Irish journalist Mark O’Connell has spent years thinking about nothing else. His latest book, Notes on an Apocalypse, chronicles O’Connell’s pre-pandemic, personal journey to grapple with the reality of a world on fire. Never before has life on this planet been under threat from fundamental human-induced changes to its natural processes. For forty years, nuclear war posed an immediate threat of obliteration, but it always relied on an accomplice in the Kremlin or the White House. Thus, O’Connell reasons, it is climate change that will trigger the end of the world, as states fall to environmental devastation ‘slowly and then all at once’.

Rational as O’Connell believed his apocalyptic thoughts to be, they were an all-consuming addiction for which he received therapy in order to enjoy a normal working and family life. As such, the research for this book is framed as a painful panacea. His hypothesis, ‘I myself am the apocalypse of which I speak’, opens out to an engrossing survey of the fringes of what I’d call apocalypse fetishism: a chiefly Western phenomenon rooted in deluded, hypermasculine ideology at one extreme and fatalistic self-flagellation at the other. Indeed he ponders whether the impulse to catastrophise in this way can only be the ‘pursuit of a mind shaped by leisure and economic comfort’. This book attempts to seek out his fears: to tame them; understand them for the cancer that they are; and transform them into a cause for positive action against the system that has led to their propagation. Thus, from despondent beginnings, O’Connell’s thesis is a hopeful, entertaining analysis of the comfort and danger of apocalyptic thinking.

Crucially, O’Connell discovers that it is crises of the present, rather than the future, which ground views about the end of the world. Studying “preppers” – overwhelmingly white, middle-aged, American men who offer advice and safe havens for when the apocalypse arrives – he diagnoses a crisis of control and masculinity within apocalyptic thought. The stereotypical “prepper”, it seems, is a part-time IT technician and divorcee from Omaha, Nebraska; a Trump supporter (or better – Libertarian party member) enraged with “big government” intervention into his liberty, who relishes the impending downfall of the state. Imbued with the classical ethic of American individualism, he yearns for the opportunity to live like the early settlers out on the frontier, rather than be infantilised by modern society. O’Connell cites the example of J.J. Johnson who sets out his fantasy of the breakdown of civilisation, allowing preppers to step up and maintain private property and the safety of “good” American families – with violence if necessary. Apocalypse thinking is a conduit to reimpose ugly Anglo-Saxon, patriarchal ideologies, where hundreds of Dwight Schrutes revel in their vigilante police power while the American Leviathan collapses.

This twisted logic is more dangerous when demonstrated through the Silicon Valley magnates poising themselves to dominate when the apocalypse arrives. O’Connell spoke with Robert Vicino, a San Diego property developer who has converted a South Dakota munitions facility into an apocalypse-ready bunker complex for rich Americans to cower once migrant crises, climate-related resource wars and mass contagion arrive. These luxury bunkers would ensure the survival of a ‘post-apocalyptic petit bourgeoisie’ and more importantly would provide Vicino – a man who goes around rating women out of 10 – with a tidy profit. Meanwhile a crop of billionaires are constructing safe havens in New Zealand – a nation set to be relatively unthreatened by climate change – from which they can continue to propagate their wealth and technology empires should the U.S. be rendered uninhabitable. This is of particular importance to Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who in 2009 claimed to stand ‘against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual’. (I doubt he’s very popular at funerals.) The notion that Thiel can build a beautiful mansion at Lake Wanaka, New Zealand, to shelter from future crises, while the entire nation of Bangladesh will sink into the Bay of Bengal, reinforces O’Connell’s revulsion towards apocalypse preparation and the perverse societal priorities that could allow individuals to prosper from it.

The crassest example of apocalypse fetishism, and O’Connell’s strongest chapter, analyses the private enterprise to send humans to Mars. This is of course spearheaded by another tech billionaire, Elon Musk. This mission embodies the fantasy of the prepper man-children who would rather abdicate responsibility to the nations and earth that sustained them for a pipe dream on a planet which is utterly inhospitable to humans. O’Connell suggests that American ‘terminal-stage capitalism’ has provoked this behaviour. Privileged individuals are so bored with a reality where they could have anything they possibly want that they have hijacked the optimism of Cold War Space Race ideology and stuck up two fingers at the eight billion inhabitants consigned to the apocalypse they foresee. They can jet off and plunder the galaxy with the depleted resources that those of us left on earth require. As O’Connell writes, this is an exercise in “future nostalgia”: reviving an idealised version of the American past for the present, to escape the future. Musk feels a birth right to push the frontiers of the cosmos just as his forebears pushed out the native settlers of the American continent. The Mars mission encapsulates an impending apocalypse of the American way of life, hastened by climate change or not.

O’Connell’s book is not simply an exercise in America-bashing. He interrogates the more fatalistic side of apocalypse thinking with similar insight, from the Ruinenlust (German for disaster excitement) demonstrated by day trips to Chernobyl to the Dark Mountain Project, a movement convinced that climate catastrophe is real and imminent, so therefore impossible to mitigate. At Chernobyl, he demonstrates the irony that the site of one of humankind’s most apocalyptic accidents has been reclaimed, in essence, as one of Europe’s largest nature reserves. The Covid-19 disaster has similarly shown the planet’s capacity to rebound from human “abuse”, with widely-cited examples of dolphins in the Venice canals or record low air pollution in New Delhi and Beijing. This notion of a planet suffering from human violence animates the Dark Mountain group, who O’Connell joined on an expedition to the Scottish Highlands. Their mission is to rebalance our relationship with nature; for instance, one task on the retreat had each participant spending 24 hours without human-made distractions, just contemplating the landscape. O’Connell has sympathy with the notion that nature is formulated as cultural product to be consumed ‘before getting back in the car and continuing on.’ But members of the group suggest that humans have abused the earth to such an extent that climate crisis is our comeuppance: we do not deserve to live on for future generations. As such, these activists inhabit the opposite end of the apocalypse fetishism spectrum to “preppers”, almost delighting in self-criticism analogous to O’Connell’s own end-of-the-world thinking.

As he is well aware, the Dark Mountain Project’s thought is derived from a First World position that expunges them from real action to help those who will be most affected by man-made climate disaster. O’Connell suggests that for less fortunate peoples – perhaps a Syrian refugee – the apocalypse is already happening. But however accurate, the book’s focus on apocalypse fervour as a white, Western phenomenon neglects the question of how those in impoverished nations that will be hit first by climate peril might envisage the end of days.

Nevertheless, O’Connell’s principal mission - to mitigate his own fears for the end of the world through what he labels ‘exposure therapy’ - might be considered a success. He credits the birth of his second child in summer 2018 to refocusing his mind on the ‘beauty and meaningfulness and basic worth of being here’. Being a child or parent is to be an integral link in a chain, community or culture greater than yourself: as Benedict Anderson argued in his conception of the “imagined community” that galvanises national identity. The act of having children, O’Connell claims, should be seen as a message of hope for a future worth pursuing, rather than stoking the flames of a world imbued with apocalyptic despair. He recounts how his son’s simple description of the world as ‘interesting’ embodies our infectious natural enthusiasm for life, so often warped by the pressures of a consumer- and technology-driven society.

O’Connell’s wider point about rejecting apocalypse thinking is simple: focus on what you can control. The disaster may come, but there is no use in expressing what Susan Sontag called an 'imaginative complicity’ with it. The most difficult part of this is to embrace the fear of death; it is life’s finite nature that sustains the impetus not to worry about what there is to lose. The finale of Netflix’s The Good Place demonstrates that logically, the Thielian notion of an eternal, utopian life becomes very boring, very quickly.

T.S. Eliot’s quip that humankind cannot bear too much reality has never been more relevant amid a two-month lockdown to contemplate these apocalyptic anxieties. O’Connell adds that as a father, there is a sense of ‘moral duty to be deluded about the future’ and keep the innocence of your children intact, as with Father Christmas. But there is a meaningful middle ground to be found between the extremes, and we recognise our stake in the world by mobilising against the fatalistic state of mind. O’Connell ends with a stark but inspiring warning: ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.’