When British philosopher and mathematician Frank Ramsey wrote in the 1920s that the wellbeing of future generations should not be given less weight than current generations, he was ahead of his time. This consideration might affect how we vote, where we live, our career choices and if we have children, as well as whether we shop at Amazon or holiday in Antarctica.
In Evan Osnos’s January 2017 New Yorker article, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich”, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman explains that apocalypse insurance for wealthy Americans now involves buying houses in New Zealand as “a favoured refuge in the event of a cataclysm”, but Irish author Mark O’Connell’s obsession with the apocalypse was deeply entrenched before he read that, dating back to childhood. Notes from an Apocalypse, subtitled “A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back”, begins a few years ago with the domestic scene of him watching cartoons with his small son. The boy is absorbed in a slapstick bear cartoon while O’Connell views, surreptitiously on his phone, the ubiquitous YouTube video of a starving polar bear in the Canadian Arctic. It stirs his existing discomfort.
O’Connell’s interest is a natural progression from his previous book, To Be a Machine, which delves into transhumanism and ways to extend life. His preoccupation in Notes from an Apocalypse stems from questions concerning how we can go on living, knowing that the end of the world could happen at any time. This issue weighs more heavily now he is a parent, faced with the paradox of having brought someone into a doomed world. The book was written before coronavirus shut down much of the world, but reading it while in the nexus of a global pandemic heightens its relevance.
The conceit for this book is not mere journalistic posturing, a contrivance for a book deal – O’Connell’s anxiety about the end of the world comes from an existential anguish that has threatened to defeat him. And so with sincerity and humour he embarks on a pilgrimage of sorts, to places where the end of the world is most palpable. He inspects the proposed site for a community of survival shelters in South Dakota; he visits New Zealand, that favoured apocalyptic refuge of American billionaires; he travels to a Mars colonisation conference in Los Angeles; he spends a week on a wilderness retreat in a part of the Scottish Highlands devastated by industrialisation; and he tours the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine, where they buried the bodies of first responders in lead coffins.
The book isn’t so much about what we can reasonably expect by way of apocalypse, and how and whether to prepare; rather, its central thesis concerns itself with how to think about the future, and how to keep going despite our knowledge or lack thereof. When there are people spending their lives finding ways to be prepared for the end, perhaps carrying on as per normal is the best response. O’Connell muses on questions around this throughout the text, incorporating illuminating and entertaining deadpan insights into his family life and his therapy. When his therapist asks if he ever exposes himself to more positive views, it makes for funny asides about Steven Pinker’s hair. O’Connell’s tone remains light despite the sombre subject.
The end-of-the-world scenario where the preppers are grabbing their bugout bags and heading for their bunkers brings with it the question of whether it would be worth surviving. Post-apocalyptic fiction asks the reader to contemplate what it is like to be one of those left. O’Connell comes into contact with fantasists living out a Scout’s wet dream – they are mostly men – and there is a prevalence of individualism, sexism, racism and wraparound sunglasses. He never stops questioning his own motivations, aware he might harbour some similar instincts, and remains open-minded while also being an opinionated socialist, radicalised further since fatherhood, naturally repulsed by the billionaires who express the desire to own their own country.
Building a bunker is the opposite to non-Muslims crowding a mosque the day after an act of terrorism; it is the antithesis of showing up and being held accountable. It is hiding away. O’Connell wants to teach his children (plural now: a daughter is born) not to switch off, to be aware; but little lies are a necessary part of parenting, and his is a constant search to balance optimism and pessimism, and to shuck off despair.
O’Connell is comfortable with his life – the streaming music, travelling whenever, a flushing toilet, being able to eat whatever he wants – and he doesn’t want to give up these things. But maybe this thinking, shared by many of us, has changed lately: perhaps now that we have a glimpse of life without these conveniences – bare supermarket shelves, less contact with loved ones – there are things we can do without, if it means we have our health and each other. The possibility of no future is more real, now that we are watching the collapse of systems we’ve come to rely on. The American writer Jia Tolentino points out that we are encouraged to “always be optimising”, which often equates to consumption, but our rate of consumption has skyrocketed since World War II, and it cannot continue.
O’Connell considers whether Mars as a back-up planet is necessary, and expresses misgivings about the notion of colonisation, the crime committed by wealthy white people for centuries. Those helping us right now are not the ones chartering rockets to Mars; not those who can tie a reef knot, start a fire with a shoe or tourniquet a snake bite. They are not those with a shed full of toilet paper. The conclusions O’Connell comes to are bolstered by the lessons this pandemic is teaching us: what matters is community. Late-stage capitalism, if we survive it at all, might teach us that without each other, we are nothing. Ultimately, O’Connell’s is a journey towards tentative optimism – perhaps we are not all savages, after all.
Granta, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2020 as "Mark O’Connell, Notes from an Apocalypse".
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