The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, whether we should put up sea walls to protect Manhattan, or when we should abandon Miami. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, turning off the air conditioning, or signing a treaty. The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
We are, in case you haven’t heard, living in the Anthropocene. It is the name for our current epoch here on Earth that has been gradually picking up steam and growing into a consensus. The only real argument is what date to pin as the beginning. But that is not what Roy Scranton’s short book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is about. He writes from a place of acceptance—we are in it deep, it doesn’t matter if it started with agriculture or the industrial revolution. We are so far into it to and have changed our climate so much that we are on the verge of economic and social collapse, and possibly even human extinction.
Even if we stopped all carbon emissions right this second, there is so much warming built into the system already we cannot hit the breaks. Life on this planet as we know it going to end. Whether or not humans go extinct in the Sixth Extinction, which is going on right now, is not entirely in our hands. What is in our hands is how we choose to live out our lives right now, and whether, or how, we learn to deal with death.
Scranton’s is a philosophical little book. He looks at science, looks at what we know from the last time the earth was hot, considers renewable energy, geo-engineering, politics, economics, and our shrinking resources. If you think technology will save us, you are wrong. The tech we need to implement right now does not exist. If you think we can replace everything we use fossil fuels for with renewables and carry on just like we are now, you are wrong. What we need to learn how to do, Scranton argues, is die. We need to learn to give up the society we have, the life we are used to, the world as we know it, so we can let it all die and start to create something different.
Learning to die as an individual means letting go of our predispositions and fear. Learning to die as a civilization means letting go of this particular way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success, and progress.
You can argue that climate change is not your fault, that the big corporations need to own up, that government needs to be bold and DO something. You would be both right and wrong. Climate change is a systemic problem, a hive creation. The blame does not fall on just one person, one government, one oil company. It belongs to all of us, each and every one of us is to blame for it.
Cheap energy makes it easy to not think twice about our role. How is driving a car or flying on a plane for a nice vacation, or buying cheap “throw away” fashion, or tomatoes in January such a big deal? It isn’t if you are the only one doing it. But you aren’t the only one. It adds up. Which also means that if you stopped doing all those things and were the only one who stopped, it wouldn’t make a difference. But if we all stopped… Except we won’t because we don’t see it as a problem we can solve or one that is our responsibility to solve. So we keep using cheap (for now) energy, grumbling about ExxonMobil and the government and how somebody needs to do something. Meanwhile the planet gets hotter and resources continue to dwindle.
We spend a lot of energy denying what is going on and our role in it. We need to stop with the denial and face up to the facts. We need to look death in the face and accept that all things come to an end.
Learning to die is hard. It takes practice… Learning to die demands daily cultivation of detachment and daily reminders of mortality… We will always be practicing, failing, trying again and failing again, until our final day.
While Scranton makes a tour of philosophical humanism, his approach to death shakes out to a mostly Buddhist one in which detachment and easing suffering are key. There is no Heaven or Hell, no Savior, no deus ex machina, there is only us and the ever changing universe.
Learning to die means learning to let go of the ego, the idea of the self, the future, certainty, attachment, the pursuit of pleasure, permanence, and stability. Learning to let go of salvation. Learning to let go of hope. Learning to let go of death.
As to what comes after death, Scranton doesn’t speculate. Not that we shouldn’t think about what comes after, we most definitely should. We need to put our imaginations to work, begin to envision what a world without fossil fuels and capitalism and the need for continual economic growth might look like.
You’d think such a book would be depressing, but it really isn’t. Scranton ends on an almost elegiac note reminding us with the help of Wittgenstein that the universe, and thus we, are total and complete. There is nothing outside and nothing lacking. The universe and the earth made no mistakes. Everything that has happened since time began led up to our existence. We are part of the cycle and flow of life. We are made of stardust. Life on this planet has come and gone. Civilizations have come and gone. Our current one has begun to collapse. Will humans go extinct? Maybe. But step outside for a second, look at the sky, the trees, feel the earth under your toes, let yourself feel the awe and marvel of being alive. And be grateful for this moment.