‘We are alive in a time of worst-case scenarios. The world we have inherited seems exhausted, destined for an absolute and final unravelling’. So begins Mark O’Connell’s journey into our ever-darkening future.
There are, he notes darkly, fascists in the streets and in the palaces, while around us ‘the weather has gone uncanny, volatile, malevolent’. The last remaining truth, O’Connell proposes, ‘is the supreme fiction of money, and we are up to our necks in a rising sludge of decomposing facts. For those who wish to read them, and for those who do not, the cryptic but insistent signs of apocalypse are all around’.
The faint splattering sound that reechoes throughout ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ is that of the shit hitting the metaphorical fan.
‘Listen. Attune your ear to the general discord, and you will hear the cracking of the ice caps, the rising of the waters, the sinister whisper of the near future. Is it not a terrible time to be having children, and therefore, in the end, to be alive?’, O’Connell muses.
The journey is a familiar one, in every sense. My mind flows back to early 2003, my first-born still an infant then, her future an unknown country. Out of the fog of broken sleep and newfound joys and terrors, I began, for the first time in my adult life, to look into the future. Not days and weeks, but years and decades.
What I found staring back was every bit as chilling as O’Connell’s more recent epiphany, and it has, to a lesser or greater degree, haunted my waking hours every day since then. As he points out, once you’ve become a parent, ‘whether it happens by choice or by chance, is that it is one of only very few events in life that are entirely irreversible. Once you’re in, existentially speaking, you’re in’.
This being the case, the next question effectively writes itself: How are we supposed to live, ‘given the distinct possibility that our species, our civilization, might already be doomed?’ While he may have lost hope, O’Connell certainly hasn’t lost his dark sense of humour, describing the curious feeling of being sick to death of the end of days. ‘I’m sick, in particular, of climate change. Is it possible to be terrified and bored at the same time?’, he wonders aloud.
Back in the good old days of the Cold War, the spectre of global annihilation was never far away. And while the risks were all-too-real, in reality it was always a binary proposition: either we would have a total nuclear war or nothing at all would happen. And, with luck, cooler heads would prevail and catastrophe would be avoided.
O’Connell notes that we civilians were pleasantly blameless, either way, mere bystanders ‘whose role was limited to cowering in terror, maybe holding the occasional placard, partaking here and there in a chant if called upon to do so’. In classical eschatology, the apocalypse, whether religious or secular, would be delivered in a blinding thunderbolt, ‘a sudden intercession of divine or technological power’.
The very real doom that encircles us is altogether more banal, more insidious and one in which we are both helpless bystanders and active, albeit unwitting, participants. To be alive today, to live in a prosperous modern society is to be an integral part of the very linear system of consumption, expansion and disposal that is fast destroying the natural world and the very basis for our current prosperity and all future prospects for every generation that succeeds us.
O’Connell acknowledges the thin irony that his own gloomy travelogue entailed vast emissions of the very carbon that is burning down the world. ‘My footprint is as broad and deep and indelible as my guilt… I myself am the apocalypse of which I speak. That is the prophesy of this book’.
That ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ should be published in the midst of the first global pandemic of the Internet Age seems grimly apposite, life in imitation of art as the confident certainties of our world unravel in unpredictable, non-linear ways.
O’Connell vividly describes his growing obsession with the imminent collapse of civilisation. He sees himself as being obsessed with the future, ‘an obsession that manifested as an inability to conceive of there being any kind of future at all…my journalistic objectivity, a fragile edifice to begin with, was under considerable strain’, he adds.
Many people seek to escape their demons. In this trade, that’s not so easy. ‘It is both a privilege and a curse of being a writer that throwing yourself into your work so often involves immersing yourself deeper into the exact anxieties and obsessions other people throw themselves into their work to avoid’.
The book, O’Connell accepts, probably was initially conceived as a form of therapy, though he admits to what he calls a more perverse motivation: ‘I was anxious about the apocalyptic tenor of our time, it is true, but I was also intrigued. These were dark days, no question, but they were also interesting ones: wildly and inexorably interesting. I was drawn toward the thing that frightened me, the thing that threatened to tear everything apart, myself included’.
This gave him the impetus to embark on a series of what he describes as perverse pilgrimages ‘to those places where the shadows of the future fall most darkly across the present’. Nor is the overtly religious framing accidental. ‘If I could be said to have had a faith in those days, it was anxiety—the faith in the uncertainty and darkness of the future’.
O’Connell’s research took him into many dark places; he describes being unable to click on links in his computer’s browser ‘for fear that what I gained in knowledge I would lose in sanity—my online existence was saturated in a sense of end-time urgency’.
In other circumstances you could reasonably infer that the author was in reality experiencing what is for all intents clinical depression, the key difference being that the auguries of catastrophe which he was consulting are not the product of his fevered imagination, but are a painfully accurate reflection of the world as it stands.
Avoiding the sensible options of pouring his energies into what might be seen as more constructive channels, O’Connell ‘set out towards the darkness itself’. And where better to start than with the weird US sub-culture called ‘preppers’. This group consists almost exclusively of middle aged and older white males with an unnatural interest in dried food, assault rifles and racism.
O’Connell is merciless in his depiction: ‘as a group, preppers were involved in the ongoing maintenance of a shared escapist fantasy about the return to an imagined version of the American frontier—to an ideal of the rugged and self-reliant white man, providing for himself and his family, surviving against the odds in a hostile wilderness’.
In seeking to rekindle some imaginary frontier spirit, what preppers are in fact doing, he adds, is ‘creating the necessary conditions for a return to the cleansing violence of the nation’s colonial past … In fact, you couldn’t even properly call it crypto-fascism: it was really just good old-fashioned original-style fascism’. The National Geographic’s TV channel ran a series for three years called Doomsday Preppers; O’Connell gorged on many hours of it on YouTube as part of his research. While ostensibly about gearing up for post-apocalyptic survival, he believes the show ‘is in fact a reality TV psychodrama about masculinity in crisis’.
Preppers, he concludes, ‘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’.
While disagreeing with them in almost every regard, O’Connell admits to relating to the ‘distributed matrix of unease from which the certainty of collapse grew. I, too, with my pessimism, my intimate imagination of the world’s unravelling, had driven my own wife, if not to despair itself, then to somewhere in its vast and crumbling exurbs’.
I can certainly attest to the strain that burdening yourself with documenting the slow, agonising death of the world imposes both on you as an individual and on your long-suffering spouse and family.
O’Connell’s perverse pilgrimage takes him to the wilds of South Dakota where, for a price, you can buy a bunker with all the mod cons. This bug-out fantasy is being marketed and sold with the characteristic exuberance of the U.S. real estate industry. ‘This was a new entry into the apocalyptic imaginary: bankers and hedge-fund managers, tanned and relaxed, taking the collapse of civilization as an opportunity to spend some time on the links, while a heavily armed private police force roamed the perimeters in search of intruders. All of this was a logical extension of the gated community. It was a logical extension of capitalism itself’.
At its cold heart, this amounts to the haves battening down the hatches against the have-nots, unequal to the bitter end. Unlike the old anti-nuclear war slogan, it appears that all men will not in fact be cremated equal. And nowhere is this inequality more apparent than in New Zealand, now the world’s favourite end-of-the-world bolthole for the excessively rich.
‘Everyone was always saying these days that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Everyone was always saying it, in my view, because it was obviously true’, O’Connell continues. ‘The perception, paranoid or otherwise, that billionaires were preparing for a coming collapse seemed a literal manifestation of this axiom. Those who were saved, in the end, would be those who could afford the premium of salvation’.
Next, O’Connell tagged along with the space colonisation enthusiasts, most notably oddball billionaire Elon Musk, who described Mars as our ‘backup planet…just in case something goes wrong with Earth’. Similar to doomsday preppers with their bags of dried food, ‘Mars colonisation is apocalyptic scenario as escapist fantasy’.
What he describes as a narrative of exit is, O’Connell argues, fundamentally male, a yearning for escape ‘as a means towards the nobility of self-determination’. The world, our world, urgently needs attention, care, rehabilitation, yet the ultra-rich techno-fantasists are instead writing it off, dreaming of new empty spaces to subjugate, to colonise, to shape in their image, without state or societal oversight, a darkly Utopian fantasy played out on the blank canvas of the cosmos.
‘The politics of exit are pursued, according to cultural critic Sarah Sharma at the expense of a politics of care. ‘Care, she writes, is that which responds to the uncompromisingly tethered nature of human dependency and the contingency of life, the mutual precariousness of the human condition’. To repudiate the Earth is to reject the imperative of care.
It goes without saying that the escapist daydreams of the wealthy elites envisage salvation only for the tiny handful; the mass of humanity will, it seems, be consigned to burn, fight and starve amid the smouldering wreckage of a plundered biosphere that has been asset-stripped to the bone.
The intuition that many of the global 0.001 percenters actually seriously believe this stuff makes sense of a circle I have long struggled to square: how can tycoons and titans so blithely ignore the ever-encroaching ecological consequences of the profitable destruction they are orchestrating? Surely they too have kids, they must ultimately breathe the same air and drink the same water as the rest of us? Well, apparently not.
The colonial mindset that saw groups of determined Europeans and later, Americans, set out to conquer, subdue and enslave every country on Earth they encountered that was incapable of fighting them off is alive and well, and the age of gunboat colonialism has been replaced by the more subtle but equally effective economic colonialism.
East India Company
Today, as before, ultra-cheap goods, minerals and raw materials flood out of the global South through trade channels controlled by powerful transnational corporations whose monopolies are operated every bit as ruthlessly as the East India Company, which enjoyed a royal charter giving it permission to ‘wage war’ and, at its peak, had its own army numbering 260,000 troops, twice the size of the then British army.
The rape, pillage and plunder of the Earth has as a project been underway in earnest for centuries, but it is those of us alive in the 21st century and without tickets to Mars, who are about to reap the whirlwind.
As O’Connell notes, capitalism, ‘which exists and thrives through expansion of its own frontiers, through a relentless force of deterritorialization, is running out of frontiers; running out of boundaries to obliterate, nature to exploit’. The legacy of what he terms its monomaniacal pursuit of cheap resources is a ‘devastated planet that soon may be unliveable for vast numbers of its inhabitants’.
Just quite how soon and for just how many was to become clearer even as I was reading ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’. It came in the publication of a new peer-reviewed study using data from UN population projections and a 3ºC global warming scenario in line with current scientific projections.
While we think of ourselves as a highly adaptable species, filling niches from the high Arctic to the tropical jungles, in reality, most human populations are concentrated into narrow ‘climate bands’ in areas where the average surface temperature is in the range of 11–15ºC.
An average global surface temperature rise of 3ºC in the coming decades would leave some three billion people in areas with average temperatures as hot as the Sahara desert is today. Wide tracts of India, Australia, Africa, South America and the Middle East will, in just a matter of decades, be essentially uninhabitable for humans and most animals.
Consider the impact of 2-3 million refugees fleeing the aftermath of conflict in the Middle East and how the impact of these desperate migrants strained the EU almost to breaking point. Now, multiply that not by 100, but by 1,000 and suddenly the idea of escaping to establish a colony on a barren neighbouring planet no longer seems quite so insane.
Back on planet Earth, the Arctic is burning. ‘That there were wildfires in the Arctic Circle felt like the most important fact in the world. This was a thing we should never not be thinking about, talking about… the subtext of every news headline now, of every push notification, was that we were completely and irrevocably fucked’.
An Island Apart?
O’Connell, who is Dublin-based, recalls sharing office space with an ecologist, who told him people often ask her how Ireland will fare with climate change. Overall, and relative to so many other countries, actually pretty well, is the short, but entirely incomplete answer.
‘What would it even mean, after all, to be fine in the context of a drowning world, a world on fire? We were a small island, with nine hundred miles of coastline and an army that would by itself be effectively useless against any kind of invasion. We would be relying, she said, on the goodwill of other countries whose people were starving, drowning, burning. We would not be fine’.
O’Connell’s meditation returns time and again to his own son, from whom he feels he is keeping a secret. ‘Just as I want him to continue believing in Santa Claus for as long as possible, I want to defer the knowledge that he has been born into a dying world. I want to ward it off like a malediction’.
He outlines the complex denialism both he and his wife engage in to shelter their son and his newly born sister from true knowledge of the world as it is. ‘There are times when it seems that we are protecting him, and protecting ourselves, from a much deeper and more troubling truth: that the world is no place for a child, no place to have taken an innocent person against their will’.
O’Connell strikes a universal chord by observing that becoming a parent means having a radically increased stake in the future. Being responsible for a person who must live in the place and time normally inhabited only by your deepest fears means ‘I no longer feel the definitive force of pessimism as a philosophy…life no longer seems to afford me the luxury of submitting to the comfort of despair’.
In what may be a rich irony, O’Connell professes to having lost his taste for cosmic nihilism: ‘Lately I have been glad to be alive in this time, if only because there is no other time in which it’s possible to be alive’.
While it might seem glib in the extreme to be seeking out teachable moments from the imminent collapse of the biosphere and the extirpation of our species among countless others, what does perhaps emerge from his journey is a deeper, visceral understanding of what it truly means to have been alive in the first place.
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell, Granta, London, 2020.