“If we want to learn how to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”
This is the last line in a fine essay by Roy Scranton, former U.S. soldier and currently a doctoral candidate in English at Princeton University. The essay, published in the New York Times philosophy blog “The Stone,” is one of those rare attempts to really lay out the gravity of the situation we face today, as humans on a rapidly destabilizing planet.
Readers of Transition Times have been hearing me give my doom-and-gloom warnings for years now. But it’s very rare that such grim scenarios break into the gilded precincts inhabited by readers of The New York Times.
Here is Scranton:
“The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human.
“Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers.
“Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today.
“We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction.
“If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.”
Yes. We know this. It’s actually what Scranton does next in his essay that most interests me.
He makes a turn into the humanities, arguing that since “studying philosophy is about learning how to die,” then we have now “entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”
Scranton reminds us that “the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does it mean to live?’
“In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — ‘What does my life mean in the face of death?’ — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”
These are the kind of questions I ruminate about daily. It comes back to Mary Oliver’s signature question, in her haunting poem “The Summer Day”—“What will I do with my one wild and precious life?”
We never know if our own deaths are right around the corner. Will the truck driver around the next bend be distracted by his phone, cross the yellow line and blow me to oblivion? Will my next physical exam reveal a terminal illness? It could happen any time.
But as Scranton says, the climate change issue is much bigger than any of our individual lives. It’s about the future of human civilization on the planet.
He ends his essay provocatively, saying that the problem of climate change cannot be solved by “buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning.” What is needed is a profound philosophical shift; to go from a civilization built on the illusion of endless growth and consumption, to a steady-state civilization that the planet can sustain.
We need to realize, Scranton says, that the human civilization all of us grew up in “is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”
Watching the desperation on the faces and in the voices of the climate negotiators from sea-level nations like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, it’s clear that these folks have already absorbed the lesson we in the higher-terrain countries have yet to confront.
We cannot go on with business as usual any longer.
Not if we want to bequeath a livable Earth to our descendants.
Severn Suzuki said it all, so eloquently, speaking to a climate change summit way back in 1992, when she was just a girl of 12. Are we ready to listen yet?