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17 June 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 12:26pm

In the shadow of crisis: Disaster and the myth of individualism

Coronavirus will not be resolved by bug-out bags and bunkers, by people stockpiling dried foods and doubling down on their own self-enclosure.

By Mark O’Connell

A few months back, in what now seems an immeasurably distant past, I did a little experiment with Google’s Ngram application – a graphing service that measures over a set period of time the occurrences of a particular word or phrase across the many millions of books so far digitised by Google. I entered into its search box the term “looming crisis”.

The graph I was quickly presented with followed a startling trajectory: from 1800 (the point where Ngram starts recording phrases in texts), it’s a flat line up until the first half of the 20th century, where there are a couple of minor foothills. There’s a drop after the end of the Second World War, and then, from the early 1950s – the start of the Cold War, really – there is a steep rise through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, so that the line itself looked like nothing so much as a perfect visual depiction of the thing it represented, a kind of infographic onomatopoeia.

Granted, none of this was particularly scientific, but it seemed to me that I was looking at evidence that the period in which I had lived my entire life thus far had been characterised by a sense of impending doom.

I had long felt myself to be living in the shadow of a looming crisis, the causes of which, though various, were specific enough – climate change, and the rise of anti-democratic forces across the liberal democracies of the West – but the effects of which seemed essentially unknowable.

But as I looked at the graph, I wondered what it meant to have lived for so long in a time of perpetually looming crisis, and whether the time of looming might not already have given way to the crisis itself.

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I went about attempting to understand this question by writing a book about it. The book, Notes from an Apocalypse (2020), explores the various apocalyptic anxieties of our time and the various ways people were conceiving of, and preparing for, the end of the world. Doomsday preppers stockpiling canned goods and firearms in anticipation of the collapse of civilisation, a situation that would give rise to a Hobbesian war of all against all. Opportunistic property developers building “survival communities” in the remote prairies of the American Midwest. Silicon Valley billionaires buying farmland in New Zealand, luxury bunkers to be retreated to via private jet when the end-time tribulations reach sufficient intensity.

Though I personally was not in any meaningful sense “preparing” for the end of the world, neither was I exactly a cool observer in all of this. Outside of writing the book, my experience of this time of looming crisis was often mediated through pop cultural representations of apocalypse. I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian masterpiece Children of Men multiple times. I read books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach: fictions in which civilisation had either collapsed or was in the process of collapsing, in which humanity itself was down to its last remaining holdouts.

For all this research I was doing, I’m not sure any of it prepared me for the point at which I, along with everyone else currently living, now find myself: the apparent end of the looming, and the commencement of the crisis itself. For one thing, I had not expected it to come in the form of a deadly virus, and for another, I would not have expected it to come quite so soon. (Every writer wants their book to be topical, but I do feel I’ve overshot the runway slightly here.)

Certainly, there are elements of this whole situation which, in particular during the early days of lockdown, seemed unforgivably derivative of pre-existing fantasies of apocalypse. People going around in face masks. Inner city streets deserted but for police and homeless people, and the occasional Deliveroo guy on a bike. The sense that all of reality has been narrowed down to a single point, of no other subjects being conceivable. In a sense, of course, the preppers were right: something big, something cataclysmic, was in the offing.

Much of what we are experiencing, though, seems entirely strange and unexpected, entirely unforeshadowed by the long period of looming crisis. Who, for instance, would have predicted that the end of the world would be so boring? Who would have predicted that it would involve the narrowing down of life – of privileged life, at least, in the richer countries of the north – to the bare essentials of Netflix and YouTube yoga videos and a sourdough starter? That so much of it, for so many of us, would involve simply not going out of the house? Who would have thought it would have been so like a parodic exaggeration of the way things already were under contemporary capitalism – life lived at an even more drastic technological remove? And who would have predicted that, after months of lockdown, the murder of a black man by a US police officer would spark weeks of mass protests and rioting, and an international reckoning with the legacy of slavery and the pervasive reality of white supremacy?

One of the arguments running through my book is that the individualist reaction to times of crisis, the tendency to batten down the hatches and look out for oneself and one’s property – the prepper response, in other words – is inadequate, and that only collective responses will allow us to deal with the problems we face.

This crisis will not be resolved by bug-out bags and bunkers, by people stockpiling dried foods and doubling down on their own self-enclosure. This is a crisis that can only be addressed through cooperation, and through a recognition of the inequalities and injustices inherent in the structures of our societies. What is being revealed to us, in this time of revelation, is not the fantasy of individualism, but the reality of our reliance on one another.

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This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars