Review: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on
the End of a Civilization
City Lights Books, San Francisco. 2015.
The Paris climate-change talks formed the backdrop of revisiting Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. I read the book when it debuted scant months prior, but returned with fresh eyes as the news coverage, though at first wary, trumpeted the victorious and ambitious conjoining of “every” nation on the earth. Soon though, the buts began. But it is non-binding, with no penalties for non-compliance. But it is mere speculation that any plan will have any impact. But the general consensus on two degrees Celsius is that it’s already all but certain, rendering the accord questionable from the go. But if somehow governments do agree, how will their populations respond? But the Republicans strangling the United States Congress, seemingly the only population in the world still denying climate change, might just tank the whole thing. But…but…but…but…
But I’d heard it already. Scranton addresses these buts, and his conclusions are grim. As the title suggests, Learning to Die is a meditation on death, gradually unfolding from the dire reality of not the next fifty or a hundred years, but our present moment staring right back at us. Still, while his book may be “aggressively dour,”1 to call his vision fatalistic is to misunderstand Scranton’s point. Rather, he warns, we should not fall into the easy trap of seeing present reality as singular. Human memory itself, passed from mouth to pen to screen in the form of stories is the key to sustaining our next iteration. “As we struggle,” he writes, “awash in social vibrations of fear and aggression, to face the catastrophic self-destruction of global civilization, the only way to keep alive our long tradition of humanistic inquiry is to learn to die.”2 Studying the humanities helps us to understand how we are linked to people of the past but also, and perhaps more importantly, how we are different, how we have evolved. Those civilizations were more than precursors to us politically or linguistically or culturally, but they also died. These deaths are not merely the passing on of ephemeral human forms, but also of synchronic ethics and morals and customs. That we preserve “the heritage of the dead” in memory does not change that they died.3 Now we follow. But will we extinguish the line or, as our precursors did, transform?
Of course, learning to die requires first accepting the present, and it is here that the bulk of the book lingers. Scranton opens by transposing his own experience as a soldier onto the “de facto martial law” of hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.4 “The grim future I’d seen in Baghdad had come home: not terrorism, not WMDs, but the machinery of civilization breaking down, unable to recuperate from shocks to its system.” The introduction is a litany of facts and figures emphasizing the depths of our plight. Support comes from expected scientific sources, though also from ranking military and political figures. Scranton is careful to emphasize the disparity between other time periods and the Anthropocene, or an epoch “characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force.”5 For the most part the introduction reads like a dirge. It feels necessary though, to counter comforting but naïve assumptions that things will simply work out. We’ll be alright, we think. That’s the way it is.
“To survive as a soldier, I had to learn to accept the inevitability of my own death. For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization.”6 It is not lacking military training that impels us to hope we might continue as we are, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One might chalk it up instead to human resistance to change: despite the host of cultural shifts in just my four decades, even I stubbornly, if unconsciously, cling to the idea that the way things are is just the way things are. I understand that I will die, that we will die. Eventually. But this understanding is far from acceptance. “Change, risk, conflict, strife, and death are the very processes of life, and we cannot avoid them. we must learn to accept and adapt.”7
Scranton’s argument overwhelms with circularity. By this, I don’t mean that it self-validates, but instead that it is a widening gyre of hard truth. The book slyly untangles the arguments of deniers, positing their propositions and objections and then systematically overcoming them. The thing is, these deniers are often not soft-target conservatives irrationally rejecting even the most basic principles of climate change. No. Those who must be convinced by the inexorable tough love that is the bulk of Learning to Die are the very progressive and environmentally conscious optimists who, on the surface, seem already to accept its fundamental premises. Counting myself among the latter, I was discomfited by the amount of times I was discomfited in the little over a hundred pages comprising this work.
To be fair, climate change believers must adjust to a much larger scale of acceptance, which Scranton takes up in the latter half of the book. The opening chapters carefully debunk common objections by those holding to the idea that the damage done is natural, cyclical. Don’t temperatures regularly fluctuate? Sure, “but when you’re talking about planetary averages, those differences are enormous.”8
No one is sure when sea levels will rise, but it is a matter of when, not if. As oceans warm, underwater methane jets will release, intensifying warming. For nearly 60 days as of this writing, a methane leak has rocketed out of an L.A. County mountainside,9
an “airborne toxic event” rivalling anything DeLillo10
might envision. The gas, already estimated by the Air Quality Board to have increased California’s greenhouse gas output by 25%, has impelled residents to evacuate. Many are suing. Money, the ever-present mediator of contemporary culture, stands as perhaps the greatest bar to substantive progress.
What about other ways of solving the problem while retaining (the illusion of) a shared, global status quo? Mitigation, decarbonizing the economy, renewables, cap-and-trade, sequestration, extraction, geoengineering?11
“The problem is that global decarbonization is effectively irreconcilable with global capitalism. Capitalism needs to produce profit in order to spur investment. Profit requires growth. Global economic growth, even basic economic stability, depends on cheap, efficient energy.”12
The problem is complex and “wicked,” offering no solutions, only a spectrum of “better and worse responses.”13
We’re living in a horror film and, though well aware we shouldn’t, we’re all going to go into the basement anyway. And lest we grow too fond of completely blaming fact-resistant conservatives or faceless corporations (that are nonetheless somehow “people”), it is worth remembering—as Scranton helpfully points out—that we all continue to add to the problem just by using and consuming. Some more, some less, but like it or not, all. “Every time you check your email, you’re heating up the planet.”14
In her blurb for Learning to Die, Naomi Klein notes that she does not “share [Scranton’s] conclusions about the potential for social movements to drive ambitious mitigation.” Fair enough, and it’s hard to argue; though wicked problem that we have here, it’s hard not to see such movements as so thoroughly engrained within the system that it is near-impossible to even conceive of how to begin to foment actual change. As he writes, “There’s no ‘reset’ button for civilization, and no viable plan.”15 To make matters worse, “all of us in the Global North go about our business, driving, flying, leaving lights on, running heaters and air conditioners, eating meat, charging our devices, living unsustainable lives predicated on easy consumption.” So we do what we can, and who can blame us? But if power structures do concentrically envelop populations, allowing only an illusion of freedom; if decarbonizing to zero is impossible in the short term and useless in the long term; if there cannot even be meaningful discussion about shifting away from global capitalism—or even fathoming a plausible alternative; if indeed “we can’t stop. We won’t stop,” then what is the answer? To die?
Scranton advocates for just that, but collectively. Once again, this death need not be the extinction of humanity, but instead transforming as “a collective. A system. A hive” that is facilitated by interrupting “the perpetual circuits of fear, aggression, crisis, and reaction that continually prod us to ever more intense levels of manic despair.”16 Citing Sloterdijk’s notion of the “philosopher as interrupter,” Scranton advises us to avoid trying to disrupt systems and instead interrupt their flows. The difference being rather than shattering political processes (which will not actually happen), “interruption suspends continuous processes. It’s not smashing, but sitting with. Not blockage, but reflection…Interrupting the flows of social production is anarchic and counterproductive, like all good philosophy: if it works, it helps us stop and see our world in new ways” and to see it together.17 He sees humanity as already adapted, already evolved into collective technologies, into embodied energies—“perhaps now Homo lux”—but still prone to panic-inspired hatred. What will happen will happen, he writes, but to move forward together, we have to move forward together.
I am reminded of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.”18 In the short story, a bitter, self-absorbed critic named Anders mocks a posturing, stereotypical bank robber, who promptly shoots Anders in the head. As the bullet travels through the brain, Wolff plays with the cliché of a life flashing before one’s eyes. However, the story subverts the cliché, instead telling us what Anders does not remember before dying. Milestones like childbirth or first love or professional success do not flash before Anders’ eyes. We are made to understand that these events, events imbued with so much cultural capital, worked instead to progressively alienate Anders from fulfillment—his life as a critic souring the very arts that presumably led him to a life immersed within them. Rather, he recalls a sunny afternoon as a child on a baseball field with his friends. He is “strangely roused, elated” by the passing words of one of the boys; though ungrammatical, he is captivated by “their pure unexpectedness and their music.”19 He fears that the others will ostracize him if he mentions it, if he interrupts, so he stays quiet, embracing the status quo. Anders dies, but is sustained by memory. Reading Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, I again and again recall the close of Wolff’s story, so please forgive both the long quote as well as my own breaking of convention by finishing with the words of another. Or, perhaps you will allow me to interrupt convention, and together in this moment, as Scranton writes, with “me writing this page, you reading it,” we see where we might go from here.20
The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is. 21
Tuhus-Dubrow, Rebecca. “Impurity: Two Books on the Anthropocene.” Los Angeles Review of Books. November 30, 2015. https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/impurity-two-books-on-the-anthropocene.
Lobet, Ingrid. “A natural gas leak with seemingly no end.” NPR Marketplace. December 14, 2015.12:55pm. http://www.marketplace.org/2015/12/14/world/gas-leak-0
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Wolff, Tobias. “Bullet in the Brain.” The Night in Question: Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1996. 200-206.