The Civilization We Grew Up In Is Already Dead. So now what?

“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.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

“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.”

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

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 speaking out

Severn Suzuki speaking out

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?

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10 Comments

  1. Robert D. Ludden

     /  November 17, 2013

    Jennifer, you always tell it as it is. When will the rest of us decide to listen?

    Reply
  2. leavergirl

     /  November 18, 2013

    “We cannot go on with business as usual any longer.”

    There is it. So why keep pouring your attention to bogus bits of the spectacle like yet another “climate summit”? Isn’t expecting help from those quarters part of going on with business as usual?

    Reply
  3. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  November 18, 2013

    Yes, you are right. But still, it’s a global problem, we do need to work together to solve it, which means getting world leaders or at least their negotiators to deal with each other.

    However, I am putting much more effort into strengthening my local community, starting with the women and girls–that is where you’ll find me, for the most part, in the coming months and years–

    Reply
  4. Carole Spearin McCauley

     /  November 18, 2013

    Yes, I agree with the need to inform as many people as possible to continue more action on climate change as soon as possible. I do not agree with learning how to die–that’s the job of Hospice, sitting by the bedsides of the truly dying and comforting them as much as possible.
    For the healthy and still living, learning how to die sounds just defeatist. Carole Spearin McCauley

    Reply
  5. Robert D. Ludden

     /  November 18, 2013

    It is defeatist only if you believe that is an end. I do not, and have the evidence to convince me.
    -Dean

    Reply
  6. Even when we know that the global forums are less and less willing to do anything but mouth excuses for inaction, the problem is important enough that there is NO venue we should ignore.

    Reply
    • Margaret, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Eh? IMO, we should definitely ignore “venues” that are just feeding our attention to the spectacle, enabling it to continue its “business as usual.”

      Reply
  7. I liked this text for its provocative statements but when I read it a second time I became confused. What is the point and what is the logic behind Roy Scranton’s essay?

    The Homo Sapiens, like all species, is programmed to survive, not to die, and the ultimate purpose of human life, like any other forms of life, is to reproduce and pass the genes to the next generation. This is the principle of evolution by natural selection — species which don’t pursue the goal to survive and reproduce with the utmost efforts will be wiped out.

    Yet, in the face of Human overpopulation, which results in habitat destruction and resource depletion, the dogged pursuit of reproduction, no matter what, is clearly counterproductive. Population control, (one-child policy for example) seems to be a way out of the dilemma, but how to square this with our inherent drive to reproduce?

    Humans, together with a few other highly developed social animals, not only pass their genes to the next generation, but also their acquired knowledge, their traditions, their social rules and laws. A human baby is helpless and will die without nurturing, it only can live on its own after many years of education and guidance.

    Which means that the species homo sapiens is not only defined by its genetic code, but also by its over many generation accumulated knowledge, by its traditions, by its established rules and laws.

    Which also means that mental, social reproduction is as important, probably even more important, than genetic reproduction (foster parents and families who adopted children know this).

    Lucky us! We can change, and we can change decisively. We are not slaves of our instincts, we don’t have to die to save the planet, we just have to change our ways, and we have to learn again to live in accord with nature and to conduct our lives without the spoils of Western consumer society. Our brains plasticity makes it possible to trash harmful and deleterious habits, to reorganize society, to change our focus, our preferences, our goals, our understanding of the world.

    I read: “We can indeed go from a civilization built on the illusion of endless growth and consumption, to a steady-state civilization that the planet can sustain.”

    That’s right! But: Scranton says, that the human civilization all of us grew up in “is already dead…”

    He is wrong in two respects: First, the human civilization he means is the Western consumer society, it is not the civilization of a hard working small farmer in India, Bangladesh, Tansania, Congo, etc.

    Second, the Western consumer civilization is alive (though not well) and destroying the planet, as we speak (or write, in this instance).

    We have to demolish it, to carefully disassemble it and to reassemble the useful pieces into something new. The plans, the blueprints for a new civilization are made, ready to use, available in thousand of books and on thousand of websites.

    Scranton wrote “…adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.” Well, I can underwrite that, but as long as the old social and economic structures, as well as the global and national support networks are intact, our mortal humility will not have much effect, will just be a misplaced attitude in the shiny, glittery world of brushed metal, plastic, and flashing lights.

    It will be necessary to start immediately changing our personal life, dropping out of the consumer society, boycotting, disrupting, sabotaging existing structures, while at the same time tirelessly establishing new local and regional support networks, new social and economic structures, new (or rediscovered old) traditions, manners, rules, laws.

    Not an easy task, but it has to be done, if humans want to survive.

    Did you mean that?

    Reply
    • Robert D. Ludden

       /  November 24, 2013

      I think a substantial portion of humankind must be committed to this before it can be done. How do we make that happen without vast numbers believing that they are rejected? Yes, I know only their practices are, but that seems an unrealistic hope. Jennifer’s example is more realistic. That may take centuries (if it is not too late) but hopeless as it sounds, may realistically be attempted. I’ll go with Jennifer.

      Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  November 24, 2013

      Yes, I did mean that, Mato: “immediately changing our personal life, dropping out of the consumer society, boycotting, disrupting, sabotaging existing structures, while at the same time tirelessly establishing new local and regional support networks, new social and economic structures, new (or rediscovered old) traditions, manners, rules, laws.”

      I think Scranton means that consumer society is dead in the water, so to speak–and the sooner we acknowledge that it has no future, or only the most disastrous future imaginable, the sooner we will be freed, as a society and as individuals, to get on with creating a better world.

      And yes–I totally agree with you that this post refers only to Western society. Indigenous and small-scale farmers worldwide are already living the future (and the past)–

      Reply

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