Doomsday preppers, escape pods and missile silos: Mark O’Connell meets the people ready for the end of the world

Annabel Nugent
Rich Gilligan/Penguin Random House

When Notes from an Apocalypse came out last month, a copy was delivered to its author’s Dublin home by an essential worker wearing latex gloves and a mask. But Mark O’Connell shrugs off any flattery of prophetic sensibility as “sheer coincidence”. True, if recent history is anything to go by, any book that takes the end of the world as its subject has a pretty high probability of a fitting publishing date. “I’d actually like it to be less timely,” says O’Connell. “I think it’s too timely; the context that it’s coming out in is in every way horrific.”

The Kilkenny-born writer is best known for 2017’s To Be a Machine: Encounters with a Post-Human Future. That book’s investigation into the techno-utopian pursuit of dodging death won him the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature last year and the Wellcome Book Prize the year before that. Evidently, O’Connell remains just as preoccupied with humanity – or more accurately its absence – than ever.

Notes from an Apocalypse is an apt kind of travelogue. While we are locked down in our homes with vacations slashed out of our calendars for the foreseeable future, O’Connell zips around the world to meet people who are different in every way but their singular fixation on Armageddon. The book’s apocalyptic world tour journeys from the Scottish Highlands to the foothills of South Dakota, where a community of luxury bunkers built from missile silos peek out from grassy knolls, and onwards to New Zealand, the escape pod of choice for Silicon Valley’s millionaire tech-bros.

The book is the result of some misconstrued advice from a therapist nearly four years ago. “I had all of this floating anxiety about the future and nowhere to put it, so she made a remark about how a lot of people in that situation plough their anxiety into their work, and so I did end up doing that in a weird, ironic way,” the 41-year-old says with a laugh.

“I read as much bad news as I could get my hands on, watched hours of doomsday prepper videos. I allowed myself to be drawn into the terror that I was feeling. In a way that’s what the book is – me submitting to the things I’m most afraid of.”

O’Connell isn’t the only one. Despite being affronted by an endless bad news cycle, we look to our TV screens for even more of it. The pandemic is a prime example; in March, Contagion, a Steven Soderbergh film about a viral outbreak which rapidly kills millions of people, jumped 269 places in the rankings to become Warner Brothers’ second most-watched film. Similarly, sales of Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) have tripled in Italy and likewise soared in France. When faced with a horrifying virus, many of us have chosen to stare down the barrel of a gun.

And now, thousands and thousands are joining the ranks of a previously mocked group: preppers. Some of those O’Connell meets in his book aren’t dissimilar to the ones popularised on National Geographic’s hit show Doomsday Preppers. In America, it often seems to be a specific brand of man who wears Oakley wraparound sunglasses and thinks that white straight men are the persecuted victims of the liberal agenda.

“The way people think about the apocalypse often reflects how they think about the present,” says O’Connell. For these men who stockpile ammo and discuss the best firearms to use against a rioting mob, “their projections of this dark future have to do with a feeling that the world is spinning out of control and their own sense of cultural prestige is passing away. The people who are most invested in doomsday prepping are often the former beneficiaries of the patriarchy.”

As in To Be a Machine, O’Connell plays the role of thoughtful bystander; occasionally horrified, amused and frequently devastated by what he witnesses. Despite a background in academia – he has a PhD in English Literature from Trinity College Dublin – the author is increasingly less interested in a pose of objectivity or distance. “Certainly when I try to do it myself,” he says, “there’s something dishonest about it. If you erase the ‘I’ from the text, you’re removing an element of truth, I think.”

Writing about the end of the world is not a new endeavour, not even in the modern context of climate change. Naomi Klein and David Wallace-Wells have both produced seminal works laying out what a future on earth could look like post-climate catastrophe – and it’s pretty apocalyptic. But O’Connell is not concerned with the scientific ins and outs. Instead, he is trying to figure out the existential question of how one can live with any sense of meaning and purpose given the darkness that seems to be on the horizon.

Doomsday capitalism is reaching younger generations, with designer face masks and Kardashian-endorsed bug-out bags stuffed with duct tape, waterproof matches and a 400-calorie apple cinnamon food bar with a five-year shelf-life. “Which Kardashian?” asks O’Connell. “Funnily enough I haven’t gotten any of those ads, even though I’ve written a whole book about it.” It’s Kourtney.

Capitalism takes a beating in the book, a critique filtered through characters like Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal and was one of Facebook’s earliest investors. Looking at the ultra-rich through the lens of crisis is enough to disgust anyone. In the middle of a pandemic during which shortages on PPE are killing people daily, Jeff Bezos is set to become the world’s first trillionaire. But O’Connell knows that blaming capitalism can be a cop-out: “My editor suggested I reduce the number of times I refer to the evils of capitalism, so I went through and took out about 50 per cent of them,” he says. “It’s a way of pointing towards everything wrong with the world, and so that becomes like an easy sort of tick I suppose.” Even if it meets no practical conclusion, his condemnation is sincere, and also at one with the times. “With the virus,” he says, “I think people are becoming more aware of the huge inequality of wealth and resources and this structural kind of wrongness.”

The irony of flying around the world while writing a book concerned with the climate crisis is not lost on the author – nor is the strange position that the timely publishing of his book has put him in. “So much of the book is about people deliberately stoking and profiting from apocalyptic anxiety” – whether that’s tourist tours of Chernobyl or people building luxury apocalyptic timeshares – “and one of the slightly uncomfortable things I’ve realised is that in a way I’m now one of these people. My book has profited off this so-called apocalyptic moment… I mean it’s a book, so the levels of profit are minor,” he clarifies with a self-deprecating laugh, “but still.”

O’Connell’s self-awareness is as obvious in conversation as it is in his book. For those of us as privileged as O’Connell readily admits he is, the feeling of grappling with the increasingly visible cruelty of our systems and the reality of our complicity in sustaining them is familiar. In a relatable reflection in Notes from an Apocalypse, O’Connell writes about thinking of the factory workers “who made the smartphone on which I listened to leftist political podcasts as I walked, drinking the flat white”.

While O’Connell offers no specific antidote to capitalism’s poisons, his musings on parenting in the age of climate crisis are more crystalised. The author has two children aged two and seven, with the youngest born during the writing of the book. Many of O’Connell’s most astute ruminations are framed through parenting, something which has always been a challenge but lately has become even more so. “You often hear people say, ‘Well you can’t protect your kids from the world forever’,” says O’Connell, ”but I do feel that you have to try.”

“You create this world that’s magical, good and safe. My kids believe in the tooth fairy and gnomes and Santa Claus, so does that mean I’m lying? Objectively speaking I am, but it’s also not that simple. You’re shaping their reality and I think it’s important not to let too much horror in at an early age,” he explains. “I suppose the job is to sort of mediate reality for kids that age, not terrify them and also not reveal how terrifying you yourself find the world.”

The prognosis for the world is bleak; an uncertain but probably worse future impinges on our present and Notes from an Apocalypse does not pretend to offer answers. But it does successfully wrestle with the emotions of apocalypse. The experience of reading the book is framed by its two opposing epigraphs: a quote by Greta Thunberg on the terrifying urgency for change in extraordinary times, and one by American author Annie Dillard, reading: “These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other.” There is certainly a pathos in diving headfirst into Armageddon, but there is also some solace to be taken in realising that this newfound sense of our world imploding is actually not new. As O’Connell writes, “It was always the end of the world for someone, somewhere.”

It’s not a clean-cut conclusion. During our phone call, O’Connell appears to be in a never-ending conversation with himself as much as he is with me. Like an astronaut arrived back on earth, he contemplates the journey he has completed to the end of the world and back. “I don’t know if it’s something I plan to continue doing indefinitely,” he says. “It’s a weird thing. Too much reality is a scary thing, but also we have to face it at the same time.” He pauses, thinking aloud to himself, “We don’t have a choice. If we don’t face up to it, what do we learn from that?”

‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ is out now