Cover Art: Notes From an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back is a thoughtful, engaging book that ends in failure. But Mark O’Connell shouldn’t take that assessment too personally. His book fails in the way that his culture—the modern, cosmopolitan, left/liberal, individualist culture—routinely fails in the face of multiple, cascading ecological crises.
That said, I’m still a bit pissed off at O’Connell for getting my hopes up. In the first seven chapters, his reporting and reflections on how people understand and live with those crises is insightful and funny. These days, we need as much insight and humor as we can get.
But in the end, O’Connell cops out. Until the last chapter, he seems headed toward an honest reckoning with what it means to live without illusions about the future, a willingness to not only accept, but embrace, a deep sense of grief and find the motivation that can spring from that. Instead, he settles for sentimentality of the laziest kind, hiding behind his children. It’s an unsatisfying—perhaps even cowardly—ending to an otherwise challenging book.
Before defending this rather harsh critique, I want to focus on the book’s strengths.
First, the book does not catalog all the ecological crises or argue about why we should take them seriously—O’Connell takes all that as a given. This is not a book to persuade climate-change deniers and/or skeptics, nor is it for people who acknowledge reality but believe in magical solutions (whether religious or technological). This is for people who are scared, for all the right reasons. Climate disruption, species extinction and loss of biodiversity, chemical contamination of land and water, soil erosion and degradation—a start on the list of the most pressing of the multiple and cascading crises—provide rational reasons to be afraid.
Second, O’Connell’s use of the term “apocalypse” is not in service of theology. Many discussions of apocalypse draw on the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John, the final book of the Christian New Testament. The two terms are synonymous in their original meaning; “revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden from most people, a coming to clarity.
Notes from an Apocalypse is for those seeking clarity about the implications of those ecological realities, given the limited capacity of existing social, political, and economic systems to cope with disruptions to business-as-usual. Until that unfortunate last chapter, O’Connell is willing to do his part to lift the veil.
Several chapters report on the escape plans that various groups of people have concocted to cope with ecological and/or societal unraveling.
He describes “preppers”—folks actively preparing for societal collapse that they believe to be imminent—as seeking a “return to an imagined version of the American frontier,” what they believe will be escape from an “all-consuming decadence.” Prepper politics (not of every single person in that category, but of the genre) lean toward the white supremacist (sometimes overt and sometimes subtle) and patriarchal (pretty much always overt). And while pondering this return to what they see as a “natural” hierarchy that puts these guys on top, preppers engage in a “relentless fetishization of consumer goods”—all the camping, hunting, and survival gear for life after collapse—which is hardly surprising in a consumerist culture. Race, gender, and capitalist economics play out even in the preparation for collapse.
O’Connell acknowledges that the preppers’ politics make it “tempting to outright disdain them, but at an instinctual level I felt that I understood where they were coming from.” He isn’t interested in mocking people, even when their behavior is mockable, in part because he and some of his friends share the same concerns about the future. The difference, O’Connell reports, is that most of his friends said they would rather be dead than be a surviving survivalist when collapse comes to their doors.
O’Connell visits South Dakota to survey the bunker business, repurposed army munitions and maintenance facilities from World War II that the real estate developer selling the units called the “largest survival community on earth.” This survival strategy, a step up on the economic ladder from the preppers but a notch below the escape plans of the super wealthy, are marketed to what O’Connell calls “the postapocalyptic petit bourgeoisie.” O’Connell’s description of the project points out the absurdity, but he also offers an important insight: the shelter/bunker phenomenon is “a withdrawal from any notion that our fate might be communal, that we might live together rather than survive alone.”
The obscenely wealthy—tech billionaires such as PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel—are not interested in hiding in bunkers and instead are buying up lots of land in places like New Zealand (where Thiel got citizenship after spending a total of 12 days there), or dreaming of “seasteading” (the idea of creating permanent dwellings at sea beyond the reach of any existing government). These “cognitive elite” embrace “a particular strand of apocalyptic libertarianism” that O’Connell nails perfectly: “an apocalyptic logic of progress: a movement away from the nation-state, away from democracy, and finally away from ravaged Earth itself.”
The other escape plan—which can be imagined by people of any social class, although it’s often associated with rich folks such as Elon Musk—imagines Mars as our back-up planet after we have trashed Earth. Reporting from the 2018 Mars Society conference, O’Connell astutely points out that talk of “colonizing” Mars is a continuation of the frontier ideology, in which conquest is valorized as “human exploration.” Some in the Mars cult dream of a new “freedom,” defined as abandoning any responsibility for the health not only of society but of all living things. The Mars fetish, O’Connell suggests, “is on some level a kind of cover story for a deeper impulse, a desire to be done with the world itself.” Borrowing Hannah Arendt’s terms, he points out that “to repudiate the Earth—which is to say, the Mother—is to reject the imperative of care.”
Back on this planet, O’Connell takes a trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which he describes as “a spectacle of abandonment more vivid than any place on Earth, a fever-dream of a world gone void.” He highlights the ghoulishness of the tourism there but also is struck by how many living things remained after the nuclear reactor disaster, and how many have returned—“the strange beauty of the place, the unchecked exuberance of nature finally set free of its crowning achievement, its problem child” (that is, we humans). That leads him to a recognition that “my discomfort in being here had less to do with the risk of contamination than with the sense of myself as the contaminant.”
How do we become a positive force rather than a threat to life? How can societies nurture that imperative of care in people who have lost a connection to the larger living world? In addition to reporting on fantasy reactions to ecological distress, O’Connell includes a lovely chapter about a nature retreat in the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands. I appreciated his up-front admission that he had an “arms-length relationship with nature” and didn’t go into the retreat as a happy camper. “My comfort zone,” he writes, “had good Wi-Fi and 3G coverage, and you could get Japanese food delivered to it, and there was craft beer within walking distance, and bookshops, and it was clean and it was at all times more or less room temperature.” (I winced a bit in self-recognition, though I prefer Indian food to Japanese and don’t drink beer.) The chapter refuses to become a clichéd account of a conversion experience. In describing the 24-hour “nature solo” component of the trip, a time of solitude away from the other campers, O’Connell says he finally “relinquished the whole notion of profound insights.” In his more ordinary observations about that day, he instead ruminates on how disconnected so many people can be from the non-human-built world (what we often call “nature,” as if we weren’t animals who also are part of nature), highlighting the importance of finding places to reconnect.
It’s this honesty that makes O’Connell’s book so refreshing to read, and so useful. In discussing the difference between human needs and wants, he describes a discussion with his young son over the relative degree of need in a child’s Lego Minifigures (manufactured who-knows-where, under who-knows-what conditions, by who-knows-whom) and an adult’s daily coffee in Ireland (a place where we know for sure that coffee doesn’t grow). He makes the abstract personal, in a way we should all consider. But unfortunately, that’s where the inquiry ends. For O’Connell, there seems to be no point in wrestling with the question of how we are going to struggle collectively with the problem of excessive wants, of how we so easily turn wants into needs. He takes us to the question and then sneaks out the back.
O’Connell observes, accurately I think, that “everything is falling apart, coming to an end, precisely because we are unable to believe in the possibility of change.” The comforts that come with dense energy (such as fossil fuels) and high technology (from the industrial and digital revolutions) are hard for most of us who have them to give up. For many of those who labor without those comforts, the goal is to acquire them.
That fear of change is evident even in most of the environmental movement, which in its campaigns often suggests that renewable energy and increased efficiency can support First World living standards indefinitely, rather than push for dramatic reductions in consumption that are necessary. For example, the progressive Democrats’ Green New Deal—seen by many as the radical edge of what is possible politically—peddles the fantasy that technological innovation can make possible a world with the lifestyles of middle-class Americans.
Rather than face these fears, O’Connell tries to write his way out of them. His first step is to turn troubling questions of our future into matters of mental health rather than material reality—it’s all about anxiety and guilt. He writes:
These apocalyptic anxieties of mine—the incessant reading of signs and portents, the perverse fantasies of disaster and collapse—were enfolded in a complex fabric of guilt and self-contempt. Because wasn’t the impulse to catastrophize, to imagine the collapse of one’s world, only the pursuit of a mind shaped by leisure and economic comfort? What did I really mean by the end of the world, after all, if not the loss of my own position within it? What was it that made me anxious, if not the precariousness of the privilege I had been born to, had passed on with doubtful hands to my own children? In the end, I understood that my fear of the collapse of civilization was really a fear of having to live, or having to die, like those unseen and mostly unconsidered people who sustained what we thought of as civilization.
Yes, anyone living in the First World should be aware of the suffering required for our lifestyles, and that’s bound to produce some anxiety in a morally conscious person—which should be the beginning of the story, not the end. But for O’Connell, the only move left is to adjust his own attitude. He seems strangely satisfied with himself when he writes that he has “come at last to this place of accommodation, tentative though it may be”:
It became apparent to me that a state of perpetual anxiety was no way to live. It became apparent that my obsessing over the end of the world constituted a kind of retreat, and that that retreat was a kind of dying.
That’s an odd bit of intellectual judo, to make trying to face honestly the reality of those multiple crises somehow a retreat. The backflips (sorry for the mixed athletic metaphors) continue:
The future is a source of fear not because we know what will happen, and that it will be terrible, but because we know so little, and have to little control. The apocalyptic sensibility, the apocalyptic style, is seductive because it offers a way out of this situation: it vaults us over the epistemological chasm of the future, clear into a final destination, the end of all things. Out of the murk of time emerges the clear shape of a vision, a revelation, and you can see at last where the whole mess is headed. All of it—history, politics, struggle, life—is near to an end, and the relief is palpable.
Seems to me that invoking “the epistemological chasm of the future” is simple evasion dressed up in a fancy phrase. Maybe the preppers and the tech billionaires think they know where it’s all heading, but O’Connell clearly doesn’t pretend to, and neither do I, and neither do the people with whom I discuss these matters. It’s true we know less than we might wish to, but we know enough to be aware of the current trajectory we’re on—ecosystems that are becoming dramatically less capable of sustaining large-scale human populations at existing levels of consumption—without pretending to be clairvoyant. That statement is not “relief” from thinking about the depth of suffering along that trajectory—it’s a daily reminder of my obligation to think about it.
Go back to my opening paragraph and description of the culture in which O’Connell works—modern, cosmopolitan, liberal, and, most important in this context, individualist. What’s missing from O’Connell’s book is any discussion of collective action, beyond one’s home and family, any thoughts about political activity. It’s no surprise that someone who includes no mention of that possibility sees only dead-ends and counsels that the only thing we can do is accept that.
What can be achieved politically and through collective action? If we have a narrow sense of politics, defined only as what happens in elections or in traditional social-movement campaigns, then my answer is “not much.” But what about a new kind of politics that recognizes the limits of human control over the larger living world and embraces change that we can’t predict? What about a politics that starts with the understanding that the world imposes limits on human appetites and that we’ve temporarily evaded those limits by tapping into dense energy pools and thinking short term? What about a truly radical politics?
Do I think that there’s time to reverse course, to move toward a low-energy world that makes decisions based on long-term consequences, that avoids what we can reasonably call “collapse”? No, and if we look around the world we see that collapse is underway in various places. On this, I suspect O’Connell would agree. There’s no easy return to the more sustainable relationship our species had with ecosystems before the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
But there is the possibility of a saving remnant, a term I borrow from the Jewish tradition to mean the segment of a community that endures after great trauma. Although the term is used in the Hebrew Bible in various ways, at the core is the faith that even in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe, a saving remnant will survive and become the basis for renewed community life. In some places in scripture, a remnant survives even though everyone deserved destruction, while in other places the survivors were the righteous and faithful. For our purposes, we can use the term without speculating on divine judgment and without indulging in the condemnation of others less righteous than we believe ourselves to be.
If there is no way to “save” this world—a world with 7.5 billion people with an aggregate consumption at today’s level is almost certainly impossible to maintain much longer—is there really nothing to do but philosophize our way into passivity, as O’Connell seems to suggest? If we reject the revanchist desires of preppers and resist the reactionary tendencies of those with the libertarian escape fantasies, is there not much that can be done in trying to imagine a saving remnant? What will be required of people in an uncertain future—life on the down-slope of our high-energy/high-technology world? Coming together to wrestle with those questions is politics.
We cannot predict with much specificity the terrain—social or ecological—on which people will be building a different world, but in other writing I have suggested that we can contribute to that construction by fashioning the skills, spaces, and stories that likely will be necessary. What skills will we need to live in a low-energy world? What spaces can we create to foster the human interaction needed to sustain a new human community? What stories can we tell about what it means to be human that will help us on the other side?
O’Connell observes, “The world we have inherited seems exhausted, destined for an absolute and final unraveling.” I agree. But are we stuck with what we inherited forever?
O’Connell asks, “How are we supposed to live, given the distinct possibility that our species, our civilization, might already be doomed. Should we just ignore the end of the world?” No, we should live by thinking about what comes next.
Running through the book are O’Connell’s concern for his two children, and by extension, for children in general. He worries about how to talk about these questions with his children, concerned that he might take away the joy that comes with the mystery of life. Having children, he observes, has made the future more real for him, making a philosophy of pessimism less compelling. “Statements of hopelessness, no matter how elegantly formulated, no longer sound quite the same tone of authority and wisdom,” he writes.
I agree with all that, which is why I’m a big fan of getting to work today on a saving remnant. The ultimate challenge we humans have ever faced may be the multiple, cascading crises of today. Our legacy as a species may well be how we meet the challenge for tomorrow. O’Connell writes that he and his wife worry about “disenchanting” childhood for their kids. I can think of nothing more enchanting than presenting children with these challenges and offering them ways to think about moving forward.
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Cover Art: Notes From an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell