- Interview by
- Josh Gabert-Doyon
Mark O’Connell’s latest book Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, came out, coincidentally, in the middle of a major public health crisis, one that seems certain to open out onto a long, difficult economic downturn.
But O’Connell’s book is a welcome respite, historicising the apocalypse as a cultural phenomenon. Battling his personal anxiety over uncertainty and a cloistered political horizon, O’Connell investigates far-right preppers, libertarian survivalists, Elon Musk-inspired Mars enthusiasts, environmentalists grappling with planetary collapse, and disaster tourists avoiding Chernobyl’s stray dogs.
The writing is reflective and well-paced, with a bone-dry sense of humour. In the most memorable chapter, O’Connell visits New Zealand to spend time with a gallery curator and a former John McDonnell staffer as they try to locate the bunker mansion of tech overlord Peter Thiel.
Tribune spoke with O’Connell over the phone from his home in Dublin to ask about escapist fantasies and a left-wing eschatology. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Are we living through an apocalypse?
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have those thoughts right now. It’s a very weird time for everyone. There’s an element of dramatic irony in the fact that I’ve spent so long thinking about this kind of scenario. Obviously the trajectory of the book goes from this position of quite extreme anxiety about the future and then eventually getting to a place of peace with it. And then when the book comes out, this situation is happening, and I’m sitting in the room that I work in at home, surrounded by boxes of my books that have been delivered by men in masks, and I’ve had to open them all with plastic gloves. Just the extreme irony of the situation has obviously been a big element of it for me.
People are talking about the apocalypse a lot, and there’s an understanding of this as an apocalyptic moment. To answer your question fairly bluntly: no, I don’t think this is the apocalypse, because I don’t think the apocalypse is a thing that can really happen. Of course, it can happen, but this is just history. This is human life. This is business as usual. Part of what I came to from writing this book is the sense that it’s always the apocalypse in some way. Humans have always dealt with and suffered through and survived, as a species at least, if not as individuals, moments of cataclysm and chaos and crisis. And in a kind of real way the apocalypse is how we mediate these moments. The apocalypse is a way to make sense of crazy upheaval and rapid change.
I think that part of the experience of the last few weeks is seeing just an incredible intensification of the way things have already been. This sense that things are always happening so fast, and things are always happening all the time, the news changes on the instance, huge global events that seem cataclysmic are happening on an almost hourly basis. There’s a sense that things can’t go on like this, that things are so rapidly falling apart that, of course, this is the end of the world, it must be. It feels apocalyptic: you go outside and you walk around and there’s no one on the streets, people are wearing masks. It conforms to many of our preconceived notions of what a post-apocalyptic dystopia might be like. But the reality is, no, it’s not. As a friend said to me a few nights ago, this is not a post-apocalypse, but this is pre-apocalypse, this is what is happening to forestall a real crisis, the social distancing, isolation and quarantining. This is not the apocalypse, this is what we’re doing to prevent the real apocalypse. The apocalypse is a myth that keeps recurring and a way of thinking through times of chaos and upheaval that keep occurring throughout human history.
It’s always the apocalypse but it’s never the end of the world. At least I don’t think. Hopefully, I won’t be eating my words. It feels like a gigantic cataclysm, but at the same time I’m sitting in my house, me and my wife and kids just baked cookies, I just took my daughter for a walk earlier, I’ll probably watch a movie later. Things are kind of fine, but they’re surrounded by this apocalyptic mood.
I’ve been interested in the conversations around logistics, in particular the way that deliveries and empty shelves have become a source of apocalyptic feeling.
When I was writing the book I spent a lot of time thinking about ‘preppers’. From an ideological perspective I find most of what they’re saying and what they’re afraid of quite contemptible – because really what they’re afraid of is other people. It’s a very right-wing libertarian ideology. But there is a germ of identification there as well.
One of the things I found when I was writing the book: you tell people you’re writing a book, and they ask you what it’s about, and what invariably happens is that these phenomena seem closer to home than you had originally imagined. Since I’ve written the book a lot of people have said: “Well I wouldn’t call myself a prepper but I have this or that back-up in place, I watch these videos.” What’s happened in the last couple of weeks is that everyone has sort of adopted this, not a rigorous practice, but maybe this stance, towards supply chains.
It’s cliche maybe, but the word “apocalypse”, as I say in the book and a lot of people who talk about the apocalypse will say, is that it comes from the Greek word for “revelation”, “uncovering”, or “showing”. And what it’s done is reveal these things about our world, all these fault lines that have always been there, but we’ve been able to overlook them a lot of the time. In a way, it’s life or death: the supply chain, what we rely on to get us our stuff, whether it’s – well not quite life or death – but my book, getting my book to readers. There are no shops anymore so how do readers get my book? Going to a supermarket now is this incredibly fraught situation. This is what preppers have been talking about for a really long time. So understandably these preppers who I’m quite jaundiced about in my book, they’re feeling kind of smug about this.
I think a lot of what we’ve seen over the last few weeks for me, and people like me have reaffirmed some basic positions. As a socialist you have to have faith in people, you have to have some optimism about people and their ability to form vital communities, and I’m kind of seeing that in my own life, and seeing it at an anecdotal level, and it seems to be happening at a broader level. The whole prepper thing of “bugging in” – this thing of a crisis happens, a collapse event happens, you fortify your own home, you protect your belongings, you protect your immediate family and you protect your shit. You protect what’s yours. That’s obviously a very right-wing way of thinking about the world and thinking about other people.
Obviously people are bugging in, people are stockpiling a little bit, staying in their houses, but doing it for very different reasons, doing it not from a perceived threat, not from marauders or inner-city gangs taking their shit. We’re doing it for broadly communitarian reasons, in the interest of the common good, the interest of strangers and people we know. I don’t want to go too hard and say it’s really inspiring, but it’s assuring, to know that it’s still there. So much of contemporary politics and culture is constantly reaffirming this thing that it’s just you, that it’s just individuals, that society is an abstract concept. What we’re actually seeing now is the opposite. I’m seeing things that are giving me some hope, which is very much at odds with the kind of doomsday prepper scenario that I was digging into for the book.
This book is also, in some ways, a book about colonialism – about the Maori people in New Zealand, and the push to colonise Mars. What do you think it is about that relationship between colonialism and the apocalypse?
It’s definitely one of the underlying themes to the book. These narratives of end times and colonial expansion they meet through the course of the book. It wasn’t like I set out to write a book about Mars colonisation and Peter Thiel buying land in New Zealand for an apocalypse retreat would be somehow in conversation with each other, but as I was doing the reporting these popped up as quite obvious themes. I’ve always been interested in the American mythology of Manifest Destiny, and how that arose at quite an apocalyptic moment of European culture, at the start of American colonialism.
I became fascinated with how these things spoke to each other and were mirror images of each other. New Zealand, for sure, it came up a lot in conversations with people I had in New Zealand, artists and writers and activists and so on that saw this as a recapitulation – the Silicon Valley tech billionaires buying land – they saw this as a weird repetition of the original moments of colonial conquest in New Zealand. These were the same people coming again in a way, this was the same mindset they were dealing with. I thought that was really telling.
With Mars colonisation what’s interesting and kind of funny about that is how open they are about it. It’s kind of bizarre that they choose to use the term colonisation. It’s the wrong term entirely because there are no living creatures or people on Mars, that we know of, who are there to be colonised. A lot of them would say Mars “settlement” – but they do explicitly link what they’re doing to the settlement of America.
There’s another thread that runs through your book having to do with tech entrepreneurs. What’s the vision of the future that they’re trying to put forward?
The tech world has been a big area for me for a while. My first book, To Be a Machine, was about transhumanism in particular, but the weird ambition and Promethean ideas of Silicon Valley in general. These people are hedging against civilisation in a way, making plans to survive and thrive past the collapse of civilisation. That was really intriguing to me – that these people who are so much responsible for what’s wrong with the world, with how democracy is being rotten away from the inside, and the vast levels of inequality, how those people are protecting themselves in situations of civilisation collapse. And seeing it as not just something as protected against, survived and weathered, but maybe an opportunity to build a world that would be more to their liking.
That’s what was interesting about the New Zealand thing, the way it was being imagined as a blank slate by someone like Peter Thiel, I got into the whole Sovereign Individual thing through all of that, and again, it’s really colonial. That’s why someone like Peter Thiel is seen as a return of the colonialist figure, because he sees, as far as we can tell, New Zealand as a sort of blank slate, which is the Terra Nullius idea of the first colonists.
Part of the book, the chapter about New Zealand, I wrote it originally as a Guardian Long Read. That got a huge amount of attention and provoked a lot of discussions, and people were spooked out by it. But it was really interesting to me because when I was writing it I didn’t quite know what was there. I’m not a traditional reporter, I’m not a proper journalist who goes into a situation with an eye to what they want and finds the story and tells it. I was never convinced that Peter Thiel thought civilization was going to collapse and he’d be able to build a new Jerusalem in New Zealand. Or that anyone was convinced of this view of the future.
What really happens is he’s an investor, and he spreads his bets. He’s probably not particularly preoccupied with the idea, but when you’ve got that level of money maybe it just makes sense to have a safe place to retreat to. It didn’t seem that I was writing a story that was like: “the world’s going to end and tech billionaires are going to profit from it and they’re building bunkers”.
But the response was overwhelming, and it was like: “the world is ending”. Which is interesting, and maybe speaks to my vagueness as a writer. But it’s hard to say with any certainty what is going on there. I’m not sure if Thiel is in New Zealand right now, I probably would be if I was him. But he’s probably got 10 or 15 other places he could go to, and he’s probably perfectly safe in his place in Los Angeles. I think that chapter of the book, and the book in general, doesn’t really offer any solid ground to dwell on, I think it’s been received in that way, but it’s much more open-ended, and much more vague than people have read it as.
There’s also something about technology itself though – you quote Paul Virilio, “the invention of the ship is the invention of the shipwreck”. Why do you think Virilio’s ideas have become so relevant?
At one point the book was going to be called “The Invention of the Shipwreck” until it was made clear to me that it’s a terrible title for a book and no one would buy it. I’m not down on the idea of progress, I’m not Steven Pinker, but I’m not saying that there is no progress, I’m not John Gray or Paul Kingsnorth. I think progress is a real thing and it’s something to be striven for. But it’s like when you buy a car, they say the more complicated electronics in it the more that can go wrong. It’s the same with our systems, like with supply chains. The more complicated and sophisticated the system is the more that can go wrong with it.
It’s such a beautiful, simple but mysterious line, Virilio’s. I thought about that a lot when I was in Chernobyl for the book. There is almost this fatalism that you build something and it’s going to fall eventually, it’s going to fall in a way that’s going to cause a great catastrophe. It’s sort of what we’re seeing right now, In one way the catastrophe is the virus, but it’s also modernity itself. The reason the virus can’t be contained is because of the way we live, which is in some ways very beautiful and miraculous, but it’s also the cause of the insanely rapid spread and un-containability of this virus. That’s the shipwreck.
Throughout this crisis the Scottish Highlands have become this zone where people – even people like Prince Charles – can go to play out their escapism. It’s somewhere you visit in the book as well. There’s a fantasy here that seems really appealing in all of this. As scary as the apocalypse is it’s also something we can cling to in order to comfort ourselves.
I won’t say it’s something I grappled with, because I sort of averted my eyes from it a lot. But I do go there a bit in the book. Certainly, for a lot of people who are obsessed with the apocalypse, they’re embracing it. With the preppers, for sure, they want this collapse of civilisation that allows them to live this masculinist fantasy of a world where there’s no state to protect them and they have to test themselves against chaos. I think there’s an element of desire there, if not more than fear.
You see it a lot in narratives around apocalypse. People love apocalyptic shit. People would ask me what my book was about and I’d say “oh something about the apocalypse” and they’d say “oh I love the apocalypse, it’s the best”. In a glib way, that is definitely a dimension of it. And I must love the apocalypse as well, because I don’t think I would have been able to countenance a book of something I was completely repulsed by. I’m writing about my fears in a way, and one of the things I glance at in the book is that I might be writing about my desires. You have to at least consider that, that this obsession might be something else.
I personally don’t think I want civilization to collapse. There’s a lot of things I like. One of the things I experienced around the time I was starting to write this book was this sense that all of it was very fragile, that the way the world was set up was all of a sudden revealed to be quite fragile, and could fall apart. In my teens and early 20s, I came to some form of nascent and not complete – and still not very complete – political awareness, at that time in the late 90s and early 2000s where everything felt fixed and immovable. There were anti-globalisation protests happening and so on.
From my by-standers point of view, it seemed like these were very noble protests, but I never had any sense that things could be changed. And what I started to see when I began writing this book is that the way the world is set up is quite up for grabs, and quite fragile. And that was revealed in a fairly terrifying way – I’m talking about 2016, when Trump was elected and Brexit. This was the first sense that actually, things are starting to fray at the edges of this apparently immovable political order. And do I feel glee about this? Maybe not. Maybe I feel a certain amount of terror.
The Left has been trying to put forward this vision of a future-oriented politics that can bring about a brighter future in technology and automation. And then all of a sudden you have this new set of dystopian politics that feels very compelling for a lot of people.
But it’s also deeply boring, isn’t it? Novelty is not the word, but it’s new, and it something completely different. But I’ve found that even in the last couple of weeks, my attitude towards it has changed so much in a short space of time, just as the events themselves have changed. This time last week I was in quite a dark place, I was feeling very sad and melancholic about the whole thing, very frightened about the immediate and long-term future. And I do still feel that way, but I’m also dealing with it a bit better now. It’s just so deeply strange. Right now what stretches out in front of me is how boring this is going to get.
It’s not the apocalypse, but if it was the apocalypse it would be much more boring and banal than any fictional apocalypse we’ve encountered. Everything is different but so many things are the same. So you have this weird juxtaposition. I was driving to the grocery store this morning and listening to the radio, and there’s still the same sort of banter on pop music radio, people phoning in and talking about what they’re doing. DJs were still talking to the listeners with the same level of indulgent patronisation, but they were talking about social isolation and how no one was leaving the house. The patter on the radio, all these things that are the same as always, but in the context of what seems to be total collapse.