Roy Scranton and the End of Civilization
Photo above courtesy of Jackie Wildau.
What we can do is learn to offer each other patience, compassion, courage, and love. We can learn to accept that just as every human life has its natural end, so too does every civilization. Contrary to what Purdy argues, we don’t need more politics. We need more hospice. We need to learn how to die.
Roy Scranton, Author of "Learning to Die in the Anthropocene" reflecting on "The New Nature" issue of the Boston Review.
This blog was originally published in January, 2016.
I first learned about an article to be published in the New York Times called “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene” by Roy Scranton (which is now a book) when my former wife returned from an environmental conference at Rice University. She had gone there to participate on a panel about the role of the arts, particularly theater, in addressing climate change. As a playwright, she returned curious about Roy Scranton's work because it wasn’t centered in climate science or green technology, but was placed squarely in an arena closer to her own heart - non-fictional literature and modern philosophy.
Scranton doesn't write about climate change or its solutions, but instead where it will take us and the challenge it offers up to the human spirit. Scranton, who had survived a tour of duty during the Iraq invasion, had learned how to survive the war by accepting - at the deepest possible spiritual level - that he very well might not survive. To get through each day he practiced dying as a meditational act, and eventually was able to spiritually embrace that it didn't matter if he died that day in his daily deployment. His job was not to stay alive, but instead to look out for his fellow soldiers. After all, to himself, he was dead already.
Upon his return, Scranton became quite knowledgeable about the intensity and peril of climate change. Trust me; this man minces no words. Scranton thinks western civilization as we know it is dead already because it is dying now. He doesn't think that we will be able to turn our civilization around - in fact, any attempts to arouse optimism in him through social movements fall on deaf ears, maybe not unlike what he had to do in Iraq. I am sure when his fellow soldiers got a bit maudlin and said, “we'll make it home, I know we will”, Scranton wouldn’t go there. It wasn’t helpful, and succumbing to that hope would only make dying, should it happen, that much harder, less elegant and disappointing.
Although I am not ready to give up on my optimism and belief in social movements (a former theater professor, I have been a full-time climate activist since 2007), I believe Scranton’s message is critically important and very, very challenging to take in. In fact, I sent his article to a friend via social media once it was published. She had an immediate and viscerally strong reaction and became quite upset with the article and with me. “How could you send me something so depressing?”, She asked. I was shocked. “Depressing? How is it depressing?”, I asked her. “Because it means the end of art, great literature, scientific knowledge, love, even civilization!”, she answered. “Who wants to give up hope that those beautiful things will go away? What's more depressing than that?”
But they will go away eventually. Maybe not from climate change, but from something. That’s the price of life. There are two things that we all experience in common, without fail. We are born, and we die. We are not here - then we are - and then we are not. Such is the way of everything. Coming to terms with that reality is what philosophy and great art are about, perhaps the most central mystery of science and the raison d'etre of religion. So not accepting that reality is a more depressing idea to me that the idea than we will lose it all. Of course, we will lose it all. That’s the price of life, the price of having been here.
I find it strange, even unthinkable, to come to terms with one's death without coming to terms with the fragility of our entire species. To think we are invincible is arrogant at least and ridiculous at best. Sooner or later, our civilization will perish. However, much as one can slow down the inevitability of one’s own death with good health practices or even technological advances, we might be able to extend civilization as we know it - or even a better version - beyond this century if we change some very fundamental things. In spite of well-meaning attempts, there is a very small likelihood we will stop emitting CO2 soon enough to avoid having to grapple with an inescapably warmer planet and the additional chaos it will bring. That is the task in front of us, of course. Yet, an uncompromising look at our deeply entrenched economic dependence on fossil fuels suggests that we are less likely to transform our way of life in the very short time we have left then a platoon will return from a highly dangerous mission. So, Roy Scranton is right to call on us repeatedly to remove our blinders. For unless we accept the genuine risks we face, we won’t successfully address them.
I don't find the idea that our species may not make it a depressing thought. How arrogant not to realize our lives are that fragile? We are nature after all, and there are countless examples of how civilizations, animal species, flora and fauna, go away. And there are few examples, if any, of civilizations that have endured for more than a few thousand years. That’s how nature works. It’s not kind, except in one way. Consciousness (the essential arbiter of life) may have a shot at eternity. Even if life was wiped out on Earth, the universe is a glorious and complex enough place that I am confident it will emerge somewhere else. And that recognition keeps my spirits up. Some things live on forever, no matter what we do.
So keep railing, Roy Scranton. We do indeed need to learn how to die in the Anthropocene if we are going to have any chance at all of living beyond it.