Mark O'Connell: Notes From An Apocalypse

From Saturday Morning, 8:30 am on 27 June 2020

Author and 'veteran worrier' Mark O'Connell has criss-crossed the globe to meet people preparing for the end of the world.

Along the way he encountered survivalists of all stripes: doomsday preppers, the super rich, aspiring space colonists, climate change activists, and right-wing conspiracists.

All are documented in his new book Notes from an Apocalypse.

O'Connell's 2017 book To Be a Machine won the Wellcome Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize 2017.

Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell Photo: supplied / Rich Gilligan

His latest book originated from fears for the future and about the life his son would experience. Work on the first draft began in 2016.

“The Brexit vote happened and the Trump election was just on the cusp, climate change was everywhere and it all seemed to be coalescing into a dark place," he tells Kim Hill.

“It began out of a moment of real crisis and something like despair...

“I guess I was becoming quite preoccupied with the tension between two things. My own sense of the importance as a parent of creating in my son a sense of the world as a good, positive place and the future as a realm of possibility and brightness.

“And a tension between that on one hand and on the other just looking at the news, checking my Twitter feed and seeing a real sense of the darkness of the future and the world as not a particularly hopeful place to be bringing up young children.”

The book doesn’t resolve the predicament, he says. It only acknowledges that there are some ways to manage the existential crisis at hand and offers hope in a kind of collectivism based on values of community and solidarity.

This position contrasts sharply with those O'Connell surveys. Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and Silicon Valley billionaire known for his libertarian politics, is featured in the book. O'Connell had previously written about Thiel in a previous book on the trans-humanist movement and some of the super-rich's quests to live longer.

“I returned to him again, almost against my better judgement... I got fascinating by the ideologies surrounding his apparent interest in New Zealand," he says. O'Connell visited his South Island property as part of his research.

Thiel  purchased a large farming block bordering Lake Wanaka for $13.5m. He was controversially made a New Zealand citizen in 2011 after spending just 12 days in the country and after agreeing to invest the New Zealand tech.

“The visit to the site of Peter Thiel’s apparent apocalyptic compound is the simple core of the chapter, but there’s a lot of very complicated things surrounding that about New Zealand regarding art, culture and politics.”

O'Connell also references The Sovereign Individual, written by James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg. It details strategies necessary for adapting financially to the next phase of Western civilization and explores the shift from an industrial to an information-based society. They term the transition "the fourth stage of human society". Thiel, O'Connell agrees, is part of that vision.

Others are lower-tier libertarian preppers, simple folks wanting to future-proof and protect their families, based on projected fears of human nature and a barbarous chaos.  But all are motivated by a selfish individualism and maybe even a modern toxic masculinity, he says. There may be tendency to want to regress historically, to a rose-tinted vision of feudal quasi-religious lords protecting their fiefdoms.

“There is always an element of a reactionary vision of, in some ways a return to a kind of fantasy of past, where there is a kind of elite, an ‘elect’.

"In some ways it’s a kind of chauvinist vision. You’ve got a... rugged individualist who’s going to protect themselves and their families against a collapse of civilisation.

"It’s a bleak vision of civilisation itself. Where I’ve come to in the book is the people who are most obsessed with apocalyptic visions and preparing for the end of the world, most of those people don’t fully believe in the idea of civilisation in the first place.

"What they believe in is the individual. What they believe in is themselves and fantasies of wealth and power and individualism. Community doesn’t really come into many of these visions. So, I wanted to explore the ways in which the idea of the apocalypse, the fantasy, proceeds from existing ideologies that affect the present.”

Another prepper featured in the book is Robert Vicino, a real-estate businessman from San Diego who had acquired a vast tract of South Dakota ranch land. The property was once an US army base, which contained 575 decommissioned weapons storage facilities, enormous concrete and steel structures designed to withstand explosions of up to half a megaton. Vicino intended to sell them to fellow preppers.

“He’s in the process of building what he calls the world’s biggest survival community, a private compound, almost like a mini-state that would be patrolled by a private army and you’d buy into this place and be safe from marauding hoards of the unprepared people outside. Really, the nature of our conversation was to sell me this idea.”

Vicino didn’t sell the vision to O'Connell, who thinks it's another libertarian capitalist venture, in essence, an extreme reflection of the status quo.

“I think I would rather be on the outside of a situation like that. I would not want to be among the 'elect', protected by a private army from the mass of savages on the outside, because it is a very extreme, very bleak hyper-capitalist, hyper-individualist vision that, in some ways, is the way the world already is.

“That’s what really interested me about this scenario. It almost presented itself to me as a kind of extreme metaphor of ways in which the world is already heading, towards very radical inequality and ignoring the plight of vast growing numbers of people. The book is always as much about the present as it is about any kind of possible future.”

The Mars Society is treated within the same frame of reference, although most preppers preoccupied with the space vision tended to be the super rich or corporate class.

Again, they want a colony free from the government sphere of influence. People like industrialist Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, have expressed a desire to land on Mars and create such colonies. O’Connell attended a week-long conference in California where such visions were set out and explored.

“They’re generally reduced to quite hyper-libertarian, Utopian views of setting up a private, often corporate, colony on Mars and being free from taxation, government control and interference and these kinds of things and, in a way, it links in with radical and extreme visions around the 'Sovereign Individual',” he says.

O’Connell says his book takes the position that this narrow focus, on self-preservation and negative freedom, is what helps drives civilisation to the brink in the first instance and that an alternative response to crisis is a type of social collectivism, a focus on community.

He says the current crisis of global lockdowns to stifle the outbreak of Covid-19 suggests the preppers were right to predict crisis, but wrong to assume a return to a supposed brutal Hobbesian state of nature.

“Really, what has by-and-large happened and what’s been proven is that are basically decent, and they don’t revert to savagery in the face of a crisis. Cannibals aren’t roaming the streets of Dublin... So, I think to the extent that we’re getting through this virus - it’s different in various countries - there is a sense of community and a sense of shared purpose and the common good.”

For O’Connell, the notion of apocalypse has always been with us and is the total sum of societal fears in times of great change and social upheaval. The response to dangers also reflects the social forces present in society – including those who believe in community and those who champion power and selfish individualism.  But he also acknowledges a radical historical contingency present in the current crises.

 “We are in this time of very intense, urgent end-times crisis in terms of climate change and it’s something that we’ve been a little bit prone to forget about that the last few months with the virus, but it’s not going away anywhere. That was one thing that I wanted to keep in mind when writing the book – that there is a real kind of apocalyptic scenario looming on the horizon.”