Q & A with Roy Scranton
What inspired you to write this book?
Like most people, I’d been vaguely aware of global warming for a long time, but also like most people, I was too busy with my own life to spend much time looking into it. But in 2013, I got the chance to spend six weeks at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell thinking about the Anthropocene, and once I really started looking into what scientists were saying about global warming, I had a kind of existential crisis.
What blew me away most were reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Bank, the Department of Defense, and NASA: restrained, careful, mainstream government and policy documents that were forecasting catastrophic climate change that promised the end of human civilization as we know it. I was like—holy shit. How do I make sense of this? I just spent four years in the army and seven years in school trying to climb into the middle class so I could have a peaceful, normal life, and now it’s the end of the world? The shock was tremendous, and the only way through it for me was to go back to Plato and Hannah Arendt and Spinoza and Zen Buddhism, to go back to the philosophical resources that had helped me make sense of my experience as a soldier in Iraq. This book is an outgrowth of my own personal struggle to live a meaningful life at the end of civilization.
There’s so much uncertainty in the debates around climate change. How can you be so certain about such a complex topic?
A lot of the uncertainty around climate change is politically and economically motivated, driven by right-wing and corporate propaganda. The science behind global warming is pretty straightforward and easy to understand, and people have been testing and refining it for over a hundred years. If you put carbon in the atmosphere, then you heat the planet and acidify the oceans, with tremendous consequences for the climate, the biosphere, and human civilization. While it’s impossible to predict specific local effects and difficult to know how quickly things will fall apart, prudent estimates see business as usual leading to massive shocks to critical global infrastructure and widespread calamity. If you smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, never exercise, and eat only French fries and ice cream, you don’t need to know the exact hour you’re going to have a heart attack to know that you’re dramatically shortening your life span.
What do you mean by “learning to die”? And what’s the “Anthropocene”?
There’s a line of thought in different spiritual traditions that says that the practice of philosophy is a practice of learning to die, which usually means three things: first, developing realistic perspectives about the limits of one’s own life; second, practicing equanimity in the face of change; and third, deepening a process of conscious reflection about one’s own emotional reactions. When I was a soldier in Iraq, freaking out because I was in a war zone and people were trying to kill me, I wound up relying on a strand of this thought coming from Zen Buddhism through Japanese samurai philosophy, particularly a practice of imagining myself as already dead. Picturing and owning my own death calmed my anxiety about it, and made it easier for me to do my job—which, conveniently, increased my chances of coming home alive. That process seems analogous to what we need to be doing right now collectively in response to climate change: not finding a bad guy or hoping for a miracle, but really accepting the change we’ve wrought and adapting to the situation we’ve created.
The “Anthropocene” is a term earth scientists have posited to describe our current geological era, as one distinguished by changes in the earth’s geology caused by human beings. It’s a handy metaphor for the radically different world we’re living in, this world we’ve made by changing the climate, and talking about “learning to die” is a way to talk about learning how to accept the limits of our lives and the radical challenge we face.
Your book is subtitled “Reflections on the End of Civilization.” That’s pretty gloomy! Are you saying we’re doomed?
Honestly, I hope I’m wrong. That’d be great. But it’s foolish to think that just because today seems stable and inevitable, tomorrow will be too, especially when massive changes are already happening. Civilizations have collapsed before, again and again, and in the past hundred years we’ve gone through two world wars and a handful of nuclear-armed face-offs that needn’t have ended as well as they did, and might have gone much worse. What we need to do now is adapt and prepare, so that we can ease our transition to whatever comes next, and work to ameliorate some of the more terrible dangers we face. To me, realistic acceptance is more hopeful than smiley-faced denial.
So the end is near… but “learning to die” sounds like giving up. Are you saying we should just throw in the towel, or is your book more hopeful than that?
Learning how to die is about accepting reality and adapting to a bad situation. Self-deluding hopes that someone will fix the climate or that we’ll magically figure out how to turn carbon dioxide into profits aren’t going to help us deal with rising sea levels, hurricanes, megadrought, resource wars, and species extinction. Learning to die is about becoming more reflective and less reactive, interrupting self-destructive patterns of thought and behavior, and developing a deeper appreciation for the richness of life within reasonable human limits. Like meditation, prayer, and grieving, learning to die is about finding peace.
What can we do about global warming?
The short answer is: adapt. Maybe ten years ago, maybe twenty years ago, maybe in 1988 when James Hansen testified to Congress that we were warming the planet and endangering human civilization, we could have done something to stop it, but it really seems too late now to effect the kind of worldwide political and economic transformations we would need to stop or even slow down global warming. Even if we solved the political and economic problems obstructing decarbonization, which are massive, it’s probably already too late to keep global warming within safe levels for civilization as we know it to go on. We need to accept that reality.
When most people think of philosophy, they think of old dead Greek guys or maybe French intellectuals smoking cigarettes and talking about “ennui.” What does any of that have to do with climate change?
I always think of philosophy in terms of the word’s Greek roots: philo-sophia. It means the love of wisdom. What’s wisdom? Well, it might be prudence, it might be care, it might be efficaciousness or equanimity, but at the root it seems to mean a kind of maturity and compassionate perspective, an acceptance of limits and a willingness to see things from a variety of angles. Most essentially, it’s about abjuring reaction in favor of reflection. Given the dangers we face, that seems super important right now.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
There’s deep sadness in the idea that places and people we love are going to be destroyed. There’s fear in the unknown, and horror in the human potential for hatred, cruelty, and panic. We tend to think of apocalypses in terms of Hollywood spectacles, really exciting explosions, superheroes, and fateful decisions, but what civilizational collapse really looks like is messy, painful, mean, and full of sorrow. Living with that truth, sitting with the future to which we’ve damned ourselves, has been incredibly difficult. But it’s only by learning to live with that truth, by learning to die as a civilization, that we might be able to find a way forward.
What did you learn in writing it that you didn’t know before?
The most alarming thing about the climate experiment we’ve unleashed is the system of climate feedbacks that get activated once Arctic ice and permafrost really start melting. Not only will the oceans rise, but millions of tons of methane currently frozen in the earth and under the oceans stands to be released. Methane is even more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and if enough methane gets into the atmosphere it could ignite a runaway warming effect that scientists compare to nuclear holocaust. We’re talking about not just the end of civilization, but the end of the human species. When will it happen, how will it happen, will it happen, is it already locked in … nobody knows.
You’re not a scientist or a policy specialist. What makes you think a regular person can talk about global warming?
Science is amazing at modeling the physical world and giving us predictions for what’s likely to happen, and scientists publish the results of their research. The information’s out there, in the IPCC reports, in scientific articles, in books by scientists such as James Hansen and journalists such as Elizabeth Kolbert. We’ve known about global warming for almost thirty years. Thirty years. That underlines the fact that while scientists can tell us what’s happening, and have even been telling us how we could have fixed it, they haven’t been as good at helping us figure out how to make our political systems respond to the crisis, and they’re not going to be much help in figuring out how to make sense of life in the midst of the most radical, destabilizing, terrifying transformation in human history. I not only think that regular people can learn and think and write about climate change, but I think it’s our duty. We’re all on this insane roller coaster together. We gotta figure it out.
What kind of reader did you have in mind while writing this book?
I’d love to be able to tell you that I wrote this for the children, for the future, for the next generation, but they’re going to be too busy dealing with the mess we’re leaving them to worry about the problems I’m addressing. I wrote this book for people now, for readers today, right this moment, who are curious or concerned or worried or freaking out about climate change, who think that we should do something or that we can’t do anything or are wondering “What should we do?”
One hope is that the idea of learning to die might make it easier for us to conceptualize radical change as a response to radical change, and help us be more willing to discard tools and practices that no longer work. Another hope is that learning to die might offer the potential for a kind of reflection that’s more compassionate to others and to ourselves. But mostly, I hope that it might help people grieve our old world, and in their grieving, learn to let it go.
Click here for more about Roy and his new book. Get it direct from City Lights at 30% off or ask for it at your local independent bookstore. For more about Roy and the Anthropocene, follow him on Twitter, check out his official site, and read his recent journalism in The Nation and Salon.com.