The Privilege of Anxiety: Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse

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I received this missive the other day, from a person with whom I’d matched on a dating app: “So how’s your apocalypse going?” The sentence gave me pause, not least because it was 7 a.m. and upon opening my eyes each morning, I find myself in a transitory state of oblivion: for a few blissful minutes, I fail to remember that the world in which I’ve awoken is very much unlike the world I used to know.

Strangely, I hadn’t yet used the term “apocalypse” to describe our current global health crisis (perhaps I’ve been in denial). But the stranger’s message recalled to me the word’s etymology, far less fiery and dramatic than our modern understanding of “apocalypse.” The Greek root for the term means “revelation,” or, as Mark O’Connell puts it in his dynamic and prescient book Notes from an Apocalypse, “an uncovering of the truth” or “an unveiling of how things really were in this life: of what people were, of what society was, and of how a man stood in relation to it all.”

In the same way that a stereotypical apocalypse, say, a zombie uprising, would lay bare a certain fragility in our understanding of the world—the dead are never truly as dead as we might think—the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an array of delicate truths. All of these are contingent on precarities that we’re often reluctant to acknowledge: the outrageous provisions that protect the wealthy while continuously endangering those with less means; our dependency on commerce, soulless corporations, and the labor exploitation that props up consumer habits; the fallout of various failing systems, including health care, unemployment services, and the police, whose defects disproportionately impact marginalized communities. This is how things really are in this life, and how they have been for all of recent memory. But it took an apocalypse to show us—lotus-eaters all—the present we’d forgotten.

Notes from an Apocalypse approaches the idea of “apocalypse” from this angle: how can we consider the “apocalypse,” a word that necessarily involves a looming, troublesome future, from the position of the present? In what ways do different groups of people, based on varying philosophies and values, respond to apocalyptic scenarios—climate change, nuclear war, the explosion of the sun, fascist takeovers? What does our “future-dread,” as O’Connell puts it, show us about our own lives in the present? Notes from an Apocalypse was written long before the onset of COVID-19, and therefore might just be the most fortuitously timed new book of 2020, with a somewhat prophetic dimension—O’Connell often lists “a new virus” as one possible future disaster. (I took perverse pleasure in locating every mention.) Merely envisioning catastrophe might now seem outdated, a luxury of prelapsarian days. Yet apocalyptic scenarios continue to weigh heavily on our present. Even a pandemic has failed to obscure their warning signs: polluting vehicles no longer clog our streets, but the ozone layer continues to diminish. How, then, can we cope with our intensely unsettled present, and, as O’Connell writes, the “abstract terror that is released like a soporific gas from the whole topic of ecological catastrophe?”

To address this question, O’Connell embarks on several trips (can you imagine?) to visit apocalypse seekers in different corners of the world. Some of these individuals have questionable politics, to say the least, and plenty of money to burn. O’Connell meets disaster preppers in the American South who imagine themselves “as carriers of the flame of civilization, as heirs of the frontier spirit,” destined to restore “traditional” (read: white supremacist) values after American civilization falls. In South Dakota, he encounters a priggish real estate impresario who hawks expensive bunkers, offering sealed-off communities for the frightened bourgeoisie. O’Connell embarks on a private tour of Chernobyl, marveling over abandoned buildings with a group of European tourists—many of whom seem most interested in using their trips to the disaster site as an Instagram background. In Los Angeles, O’Connell listens to conference panelists who earnestly discuss methods of founding a colony on Mars, motivated by the entrepreneurship of modern tech icons like Elon Musk and Richard Branson. Mars, O’Connell realizes, represents an “exit,” a means for wealthy speculators to imagine their own separation from the collective. Leaving earth, they intend to build a perfected community of their own: sleek, segregated, accessible to only a select few. But these would-be space colonists are bound to replicate the travesties of past colonial ventures. One speaker suggests—seriously—that people hoping for passage to Mars could become indentured servants in colonies headed by Amazon and SpaceX.

O’Connell notes (with growing weariness) that a disturbing mistrust underpins all of these escape plans, whose designers would rather construct new worlds retrofitted to their exclusionary dreams than grapple with the world in which we actually live. Preppers, Musk fans, bunker buyers: these are people whose apocalypse anxiety reveals a deep-seated desire for isolation and homogeneity. Perhaps what they are actually most afraid of—even more than nuclear war—is difference. “It was a dream of dissolving all entanglements with, and obligations toward, other people,” writes O’Connell, suggesting that this “dream” has already been realized, through gated communities, gentrified neighborhoods, and prohibitively expensive commercial districts. Imagining the apocalypse, though, allows the superrich to see their dreams enlarged, projected at terrifying scale.

But not all apocalypse seekers are bad actors. In Scotland, O’Connell meets the Dark Mountain group, an eco-critical bunch who acknowledge the crushing effects of the Anthropocene on the environment while also seeking out ways of reconnecting to the natural world. O’Connell expresses some discomfort with the Dark Mountain Project’s manifesto, which evokes a “dark and palpable exhilaration at the vulnerability of the systems undergirding our civilization.” Such “exhilaration”—thrill at the very notion of apocalypse—is reminiscent of the perverse glee found in the Manifesto of Futurism, the infamous tract of the twentieth-century Italian Futurists, who delighted in war, violence, and destruction. But where the Futurists saw modernization and industrial development as keys to a brilliant future, Dark Mountain’s members see the possibility of utopia from a different perspective. Only by de-centering human materialism, and eradicating all distinctions between man and nature, can civilization be saved: “The end of the world as we know it… is not the end of the world full stop.”

O’Connell’s interest in the Dark Mountain Group leads him to the Scottish Highlands, where he goes “under the hide,” an Icelandic tradition in which an explorer travels out alone in nature to “have a bit of a think about things.” Stranded without a phone or even a book, O’Connell struggles to come up with any life-altering reflections, until the appearance of an RAF jet—ostensibly on its way from Scotland to a bombing mission in Syria—guides him to a crucial realization: “it was already the end of the world for the people that fighter jet was likely headed toward. They were experiencing all the things by which I, in my remote and abstract fashion, was preoccupied: the fragility of political orders, the collapse of civilization.” In other words, apocalypse anxiety is a privilege, only possible for those who live in relative comfort. A similar scenario is playing out today. Many of us are fortunate enough to have been safeguarded from the pandemic by wealth and access to health care: COVID-19 has only been an apocalypse for some. For others, it’s merely been a disruption, which capitalist producers have quickly exploited to work in their favor (think of the brands that pivoted, with freakish precision, to offering products for working from home).

Notes from an Apocalypse is equal parts social criticism and memoir, sketching out O’Connell’s experiences with—and guilt over—his own apocalypse anxiety. O’Connell’s personal writing brings to mind Joan Didion’s introductory essay in The White Album, written amid the turmoil of the 1960s. “The improbable had become the probable, the norm,” Didion writes: “I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone.” Similarly, for O’Connell, “personal, professional, and political anxieties had coalesced into a consuming apprehension of imminent catastrophe.” But while Didion’s dread and paranoia lead her to confusion, O’Connell seeks clarity from chaos, and finds it in the very form of apocalypse: “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.” By cataloging different apocalyptic outcomes and the responses they engender in different groups and individuals, O’Connell evaluates modern society’s ills and launches a sharp critique of middle-class thinking. Catastrophizing exposes a privileged subject who is alert to future dangers but impervious to present suffering; O’Connell understands this notion well because he, too, is complicit.

A literary nonfiction writer with journalistic chops, O’Connell negotiates deftly between the personal and the global, but admits also that his frame of reference is constrained by privilege. The result is an acutely self-conscious narratorial voice. O’Connell frets about his own wanton consumption, his ignorance of others’ plights, and his certainty that most Western nations—politically fragmented and rife with disparities—are past reproach. He is plagued by nightmares and incessant iPhone notifications that seem to confirm that the world is unraveling, and that there is little he can do to stop it. He rambles about his guilt and complicity to his friends, family, and therapist, who all respond kindly but without much sympathy: O’Connell’s wife exhorts him to “leave [his] apocalyptic obsessions at the door” of their house. I was reminded of Jia Tolentino’s blockbuster essay collection Trick Mirror, which sees Tolentino agonize over decisions that implicate her in capitalist exploitation: buying cheap products on Amazon, attending an expensive exercise class in a gentrified neighborhood. O’Connell and Tolentino might be considered “late-stage capitalism writers,” since it’s contemporary capitalism and its discontents that seem to interest and trouble them most. They share an abiding concern with seeking moral purity, though doing so within our world—one that offers flashy but ethically dubious quick fixes for our consumer compulsions—proves challenging. In reading both authors, I found myself wondering if their fixation on individual responsibility was advisable. Our systems are failing—have already failed many—and punishing ourselves for being born into and controlled by them isn’t always productive. There’s work to be done, but shouldn’t we direct most of our energy at mechanisms of oppression? O’Connell seems to agree: his clear-eyed perspective on injustice and inequality prevents the book from becoming pure self-flagellation. Still, are there solutions to apocalypse anxiety offered here, other than hand-wringing?

For O’Connell, the answer lies in his children, though not simply because the “youth are our future” and might one day redeem us. Raising children, O’Connell argues, means that you are helping others directly, creating community. Perhaps most importantly, this sort of work defies future-dread by improving conditions in the present: O’Connell cannot save the whole world, but he can tend to his own small corner of it. O’Connell’s attachment to the family is a somewhat conservative view from a writer who is otherwise skeptical of tradition. Tradition, after all, is what makes the preppers believe so strongly in their own dreams of restoring white male supremacy. But I think that O’Connell’s deified nuclear family can easily be swapped out for other relationships in which we help each other to grow: close friendships, romantic entanglements. “It was only in learning to help people… in becoming indispensable to one’s fellow human beings, that you would survive the collapse of civilization,” says Caroline Ross, an artist O’Connell meets in Scotland.

This is a prophecy that the pandemic has proved. It is only in caring for each other, and sacrificing for the collective, that we’ll be able to limit the spread of this terrifying disease. Meanwhile, the billionaires, with their decked-out panic rooms, designed to defend their own hegemony? Peter Thiel, the pro-Trump venture capitalist whose New Zealand estate O’Connell briefly visits, wasn’t even able to put his escape pad to use when COVID-19 hit the US in March: no bunker has yet been built on the land. It’s an irony that suggests the limits of wealth and power. The apocalypse will come for us all, but as O’Connell suggests, it’s solidarity—not strident, uncaring individualism—that will help us to weather the storm.

Sara Krolewski is a writer and graduate student in NYU's Cultural Reporting & Criticism program, most recently published in Bookforum. More from this author →