While researching his new book, Notes from an Apocalypse, about people who are preparing for doomsday, author Mark O’Connell undertook what he calls “a series of perverse pilgrimages.”
Some stops on O’Connell’s “end of the world” journey include a prairie in South Dakota, where a former munitions facility is being converted into a “survival shelter community,” and the New Zealand apocalypse house owned by PayPal founder Peter Thiel. He also attended a Los Angeles conference, where he met people who hope to colonize Mars and use it as a “backup planet” if Earth becomes inhospitable.
Though it was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connell says the research he conducted for the book is heavy with “dramatic irony” now.
“I bought a lot of practical guides to surviving the end of the world — doomsday prepper guides and so on — when I was writing the book,” he says. “And I read them at the time in a spirit of scholarly interest.”
But as the pandemic spread, he says, “I found myself taking one or two down off the shelf in that first week and sort of flicking through the index with something other than scholarly interest, I think it’s fair to say.”
Despite spending so much time steeped in end-of-days scenarios, O’Connell doesn’t despair. In fact, the book is peppered with humor.
“Laughter is obviously a kind of a release valve,” he says. “The funny stuff [in the book] comes as a result of a buildup of like an accumulation of anxiety and seriousness. I’m often up at my funniest as a writer when I’m dealing with the most serious things.”
On the demographic profile of the doomsday preppers he spoke with
So the doomsday preppers who I look at in the first section of the book tended to be overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly white, and often conservative Christian. And the ideology that they bring to it is often one of, I would say, quite right-wing, quite libertarian, a mistrust of the state and a kind of a fetishization of ideas of kind of rugged self-reliance and masculinity. And often fantasies of defensive violence, … an idea of: You have to protect your family, you have to protect your home. Often that involves guns and so on — particularly in American context.
On visiting an apocalyptic real estate development in South Dakota
Part of the reason why I wanted to go there was that it just looked so otherworldly. It’s a dairy farm, essentially in the prairies of South Dakota, which was used as a … munitions facility. There’s 500-something overground bunkers, reinforced concrete and steel kind of mounds coming out of the ground, covered in grass. And it just looks like something out of an alien landscape. So it’s been bought by a … guy named Robert Vicino. And he’s bought the land and is selling off these bunkers for, I think, … $35,000 is the figure that he quoted me. So the idea is that people buy these empty bunkers and convert them to their own sort of specifications. This is a place for people to retreat to in the event of certainly nuclear exchange … [and] viral pandemics and any kind of situation that threatens civilizational collapse or civil unrest. The idea is that there would be … a private army that would patrol the perimeter of this place to stop the war, to stop the rest of us getting in.
On why the Silicon Valley elite and other wealthy Americans are buying land in New Zealand
In a way, it didn’t take you that long to figure out why New Zealand, because it is an insanely beautiful place, and if I had endless resources, I probably would want to buy a place in New Zealand. You could approach it as an apocalypse retreat or you could [approach it as] a nice holiday. … New Zealand is a very politically stable place, a lot of clean air, an abundance of lakes, fresh water. It’s far from everywhere else. So you don’t have those kind of threats that you would have in Europe and America. It’s quite distanced in various ways. So you can see the appeal. …
To put it bluntly, I think a lot of New Zealand people, Māori in particular, see it as a kind of a return of the colonial mindset. So New Zealand as a country I think is unusual amongst kind of post-colonial nations of being absolutely open and absolutely resolute in having a strong but nuanced kind of understanding of what colonialism meant in the history of the country and how to sort of move beyond those mindsets. And I think there is a suspicion of people like [PayPal founder] Peter Thiel and wealthy Americans coming and buying up land — that it might be a kind of a modern version of that sort of tragic colonial moment in the state’s history.
On how some doomsday preppers see Mars as a backup planet
Mars is almost like the next step up from New Zealand. If New Zealand is kind of the safest retreat on this planet, then, if — everything goes wrong here and the planet gets hit by an asteroid or whatever — the term that is used amongst Mars enthusiasts would be we need a “backup planet.” So we need a backup planet for humanity in case something goes catastrophically wrong with Earth. [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk is always using this term. Elon Musk would be, I suppose, the most prominent kind of advocate of Mars exploration, obviously, with his space exploration company SpaceX.
On why he visited Chernobyl for the book
I wanted to see what the end of the world looked like, in a way. And I also wanted to see what a catastrophic event on the order of Chernobyl — what happens afterwards. I was fascinated by the ways in which life is kind of returning to this place in ways. Nature is thriving there. And not only nature, but people are living there. There’s a relatively small number of people, in the dozens, generally older people who have returned there to live in their houses that they evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. … But ultimately, what I was really interested in was catastrophe tourism. There are tour companies that have set up in and around Kiev who will bring you there and you can stay overnight, which is what I did on the tour. You get to explore Pripyat, which is the abandoned city that was purpose built for the workers and Chernobyl. It’s a fascinating kind of insight into the sort of visual spectacle of the apocalypse. You get to wander around this kind of diorama of a sort of post-apocalyptic future. I think that’s what attracts the people who are on this tour and to some extent myself.
Nature has reclaimed the place. Pripyat is full of nature just bursting forth out of concrete, and there is something sort of quietly beautiful about it. There’s quite a large population of wolves there. So life is kind of going on without humanity. As bleak as it is, there’s something slightly reassuring about that.
On whether he’d consider joining a doomsday community
Where I landed with it is that I would not want to be part of that community. I would not want to be part of a protected, sheltered, elite … that was being protected by a private army. On some level, I think I’d rather be dead. I’d rather be outside and take my chances because it seems, from an ideological perspective, that is just too too bleak and too terrifying to me. … If you’re preparing for the collapse of civilization in that way, I think for you, civilization has already collapsed.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.