“The world would end neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with a push notification,” Mark O’Connell writes in Notes From An Apocalypse. It’s in this irreverent collision of twenty-first century life and ancient armageddon that O’Connell locates fertile material for his latest book, a gonzo travelogue meets philosophical meditation on the impermanence of human life in the age of climate decline. If that sounds like too much doom and gloom, think again; Notes From An Apocalypse is deeply funny and life-affirming, with a warm, generous outlook even on the most challenging of subjects.
These profound pages see O’Connell crisscross the globe in search of a balm to his anxieties about the impending climate apocalypse, with his journey taking him everywhere from remote New Zealand to the world of “atomic tourism” at the site of the Chernobyl meltdown. O’Connell interviews everyone from doomsday preppers to conspiracy theorists, crafting detailed portraits of unique subcultures, each one characterized by different practical and spiritual perspectives on the end of days. What emerges from this careful study isn’t just an insightful portrait of “future-dread,” but a celebration of shared human experience—after all, if we’re going down, we’re going down together. Esquire spoke with O’Connell about the apocalyptic visions of the ultra-wealthy, the sensation of “moral vertigo,” and the experience of releasing his book during a global pandemic.
Esquire: How fitting is it that your book should come into the world during this end of days scenario?
Mark O’Connell: The obvious answer is that it’s a bit uncanny. The book just came out, but already there’s been a certain amount of conversation around it, and much of that is focused on the eerie timeliness of it. The word “prescient” has been used a couple of times, which I find sort of amusing because it’s absolutely not prescient. The way it intersects with the present is pure coincidence. I didn’t see this coming any more than the next person did, but it’s definitely a weird experience to be publishing this book at this particular time. The added weirdness of this book about the apocalypse coming in a time when all anyone seems to want to talk about or think about is the apocalypse… that’s a strange one.
I’m supposed to be in New York today, and I had all these events lined up for the launch of the book in London, as well as later on in the summer in Australia and New Zealand. I really enjoy traveling and I do enjoy experiencing places when I’m there, but I don’t like the constant coming and going that happens periodically throughout my work and my life. It’s tough when you have two small kids, so I was already feeling conflicted about that. Now that none of it is happening, the landscape of the future has been completely flattened. I can imagine nothing better than going to a book festival in some small town in Scotland. You start to appreciate the things you took for granted, I think.
ESQ: One of the things that this public health crisis is illuminating is the importance of virtues like community, selflessness, and togetherness. In a related notion, you paraphrase Margaret Mead in the book, saying that we might live together rather than survive alone. Why do our visions and fantasies of what the apocalypse will be like so often take the form of radical individualism than a more communal vision?
MO: When I started thinking about the apocalypse as a thing I wanted to write about, I went on a crash diet of watching all these movies. I watched Omega Man and re-read The Road; I must’ve watched the film Children of Men somewhere in the double figures. At the center of all these stories, there’s some singular heroic figure who survives and manages to get through it as an individual pitted against random savagery. There are very few cultural representations of the modern idea of community as the thing that will allow us to survive. Maybe that’s because it would just make for a boring film—”help each other out,” no shootings and no explosions. When you come to the reality of people’s fantasies for want of a better world at the end of the world, you always come across this notion of surviving alone.
There’s a reason I’m interested in preppers of all sorts—they all seem to have this one ethos in common, which is that civilization is fragile, and all it will take is crisis or catastrophe for this rickety structure of civilization to collapse, for the reality of human nature’s savagery to rear its head. When these people talk about the end of the world, it’s not necessarily any one scenario—it’s not climate change or a viral pandemic or a terrorist hacking the grid and bringing down the infrastructure. That might be the proximal cause, but really what these people seem to be most afraid of is other people.
I didn’t spend so much time in the book talking about any one scenario, although for me, climate change is the thing that impels me on this journey. It’s always the breakdown of the rule of law, civil unrest, cannibals roaming the earth. It’s other people who are the apocalypse, in this view. I’ve seen people fighting over toilet roll in supermarket aisles, but most of what I’ve observed is the extent to which community has become important—people acting out of shared purpose toward a common goal. It doesn’t seem like the breakdown of civilization. I’m not seeing much savagery.
The first week, I was feeling very despairing. What we were experiencing seemed unremittingly dark and chaotic. The thing that made me most emotional was the thought of my son, who just turned seven—the thought of him not seeing his school friends for a really long time made me feel that this crisis is unbearable. On his seventh birthday, his friend from across the street dropped off a walkie talkie in a bag with a birthday card for him. They’ve been talking on their walkie talkies across the street for the past couple of weeks. Things are not normal and they may not be normal for a long time, but community still exists. That’s what’s important and that’s what will get us through this.
ESQ: Speaking of community or a lack thereof, you’ve written a chapter about Peter Thiel’s efforts to buy up land in New Zealand. I was so charmed by that tidbit about how even to take a rock from the ground would disrupt the Maori sensibility of the land as something that’s sacred in a communal sense. You juxtapose that against Thiel buying a huge swath of land for purely selfish purposes, which flies in the face of that sentiment. You’ve spent so much time immersing yourself in the philosophical visions of plutocrats like Thiel—is anything sacred to them?
MO: The thing that is sacred is the individual. I’m quite open in the book that I’m less interested in Thiel as a human being than I am in him as a symbol—as a figure for the furthest reaches of capitalism and intense investment in the individual as the center of the world. He’s an extreme manifestation of this stuff, but he’s a useful symbol. With him, you see that nothing is sacred. Other people are a problem to be solved or a problem to be evaded. I would imagine Thiel doesn’t have any interest in Maori attitudes toward the land or norms about how you interact with the culture. It’s probably not on his radar and not interesting to him. What’s sacred is the sovereign individual.
ESQ: You write that we live in a world where “the last remaining truth is the supreme fiction of money.” Certainly money and capitalism are some of the strongest throughlines in this book. Why is it that the rich spend so much time thinking about the end of the world? Can money really buy salvation?
MO: That’s the premise of what they’re claiming. People like Thiel are, if nothing else, extremely rational thinkers—at least, that’s how they want to think of themselves, though I think there’s a strong irrationalism running underneath that. The idea is that there’s a non-trivial chance that civilization could collapse. They don’t have to be obsessed like preppers; they simply spread their wealth to provide for this eventuality and buy a chunk of land to retreat to in the event of some catastrophic situation. What’s interesting to me about that is how, for so many people who are preparing for the end of the world, society doesn’t mean much anyway. At that far extreme of capitalist individualism, society is already a dead weight. Other people, their problems and difficulties, the complexities of politics—it’s all just dead weight.
ESQ: You describe how we’re both “anxious and intrigued” by the end of the world. Why is it that we can’t look away from the apocalypse?
MO: It might be my human nature; I don’t know about everyone’s human nature. The obvious irony of this book is that the big obsession with the apocalypse that I’m really examining is my own. I didn’t know straight away that I wanted to write a book about the apocalypse; I knew that I had these anxieties about the future that were quite formless. I didn’t know how to put a shape on them, and then this notion of apocalyptic preparedness came along. I wanted to go on those perverse pilgrimages where there is some energy for me, but there’s something perverse about it, because the energy is something that scares me. I think there’s a lot of that in our attitude towards the apocalypse.
When I started to write, people would ask what I was working on. I generally gave a vague answer and said, “I’m writing a book about the apocalypse.” People would say, “I love the apocalypse. I’m a huge fan of the apocalypse.” Completely unironic. I guess that I, too, am a fan of the apocalypse. I wouldn’t have written a book about this if it only was darkness for me. I think that’s the reason why so much of our entertainment is characterized by this apocalyptic energy. Even our superhero movies are apocalyptic.
ESQ: In the book, your friend Sarah raises the idea that to be present for the end of the world, to live to see the end of the story revealed, is somehow comforting and satisfying, on some level. Do you yourself find comfort or satisfaction in the notion that the world might be ending, but at least you’ll be here to see how it happens?
MO: Absolutely not. I find the idea of experiencing the end of the world terrifying, actually. I don’t think that’s what we’re witnessing right now; we’re witnessing a time of rapid change and extreme turmoil, and that of course is where the apocalypse arises, from that sense that things are going from bad to worse. How could they get any worse? 2016 was bad enough, 2018 was unthinkable, and now 2020 is even worse. I can see where this thinking comes from, but I don’t identify with it at all. I am susceptible to pessimism, but I’ve tried to move beyond that, and I’ve been partially successful. But for all the appeal of pessimism, the idea that some grand cataclysm might just wipe humanity off the face of the earth and I might be around for that doesn’t seem like a lot of fun to me, actually. I’d rather skip that one.
ESQ: You also write about something you call “moral vertigo,” where you know something you consume or something you do is responsible for the destruction of something else. Can you elaborate on moments in life when you experience that feeling and how you combat it?
MO: I try to live a relatively ethical life, but I’m quite open in the book about how I so often fail to do that. I don’t even hold myself to particularly high standards; I just want to be able to live with myself. Take for example all that travel to promote the book; there’s an obvious question mark around that. I know I have a certain responsibility to the book and to my publisher and to myself, but I also experience a feeling of hypocrisy around getting on a plane to promote a book about climate change and the destruction of our planet. Obviously there are things like carbon offsetting and I’m generally pretty keen to do that, but it feels like a band-aid solution to me. I want to examine my own hypocrisy, and not just for the sake of pointless self-laceration. My hunch is that it’s part of a contemporary condition; this is not like the Cold War where the apocalypse was something that would happen externally and wipe us all out without our participation. We’re all, to some degree, complicit in this apocalypse when it comes to climate change. That sense of moral vertigo is all around when I think about my relationship to these things.
ESQ: In the chapter about preppers, you write, “preppers are not preparing for their fears; they are preparing for their fantasies,” which I thought was so astute. I’m fascinated by this vision you present of the prepper as a reactionary white man. What is it about this subculture that’s so appealing to that person and so exclusionary to anyone else?
MO: As far as I can see, prepping overwhelmingly appeals to men and to white people, which isn’t to say that there aren’t women who get involved. But it does seem to reveal certain anxieties and fantasies about masculinity. On the surface, it’s all about fear and uncertainty—these things could happen and maybe will happen, so how will you prepare for them and survive? But it also seems quite obvious to me that these people, on some level, want this to happen, because it gives them a blank slate. There’s a very strong vein, particularly in American culture, of distrusting the government, and I think with good reason when you look at American governments. Part of American culture is that it’s the individual versus the government, which becomes way more extreme the more rightward you go. The idea of civilization’s collapse from the prepper’s point of view is actually an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to test your mettle and emerge as a heroic figure. It’s a deeply masculine fantasy of wielding violence as a form of protection. What interests me about it, which is a throughline in the book, is that it recaptures the colonial moment and the colonial mindset. So much of what I see in these aspects of American culture is a really strong desire to return to the mythology of manifest destiny and the expansion westward.
ESQ: At the end of the book you write, “Lately I have been glad to be alive in this time, if only because there is no other time in which it is possible to be alive.” I thought that was so hopeful and so beautiful. How are you learning to practice that gratitude when it increasingly seems like everything is going to shit?
MO: It’s certainly ironic. Like everyone, I’m wondering, how long is this going to last? How long have we got here? When is this going to be over? But I don’t mean to present myself as someone with a serenely zen and balanced attitude toward life. The book began at this sense of irreconcilable conflict between the imperatives of being a parent and the imperatives of being a person, a relatively conscious citizen, and a writer. The imperative of being a parent has always to do with protection—creating a live-able world for my children, not letting the world get to them too early, and also instilling in a child the sense that the world is a beautiful place and a good place, a place where the future is a possibility and not just unremitting darkness. I do believe that on a lot of levels, and that’s what I have to bring to parenting.
The book definitely provided this moment of extreme conflict between that and the writer half of me. I feel a responsibility to look outwards and to try in some way to represent and metabolize what’s going on in the world. I moved from a position over time where I was able to hold those two things in a little more balance; a lot of it has to do with therapy, which definitely played a big part. The book ends on the note of, “We’re still here and we’re here for the time being, though we don’t know what is going to come.” That’s real. I definitely did somehow get to that point.The book was hard to write, because the topic was so heavy and the subject was so dark; there was some real relief in finally getting to the end of it. Some of that light at the end of the book had to do with the fact that there was an end in sight, to put it into apocalyptic terms. Does it feel like a good time to be alive? No, definitely not. I would rather that things weren’t like this. But I guess we don’t have a choice. It’s all we’ve got.