Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a review

Roy Scranton wrote this large pamphlet/small book to address what he saw as the act of a civilization not yet coping with its own ending. Not to say human extinction, but that it now seems most likely that, barring a technological miracle, the delicate economic and geopolitical forces underpinning the present lifestyle and assumptions of the developed world-as well as the environmental factors of the entire world at large-are coming to an end. And most people are in denial about it.

To quote from early on:

‘Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our collective fantasies of perpetual growth, constant innovation, and endless energy, just as the reality of individual mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.

The greatest challenge of the anthropocene 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 humanity, to our new reality.’

Since I am of the materialism or GTFO school I disagree on prioritizing the philosophical question over that of the sea walls and the potential for conflict. That being said, this is a very valid question to grapple with.

Personally, though I feel like a downgrade of living standards and a rise of conflict are now inevitable due to environmental factors already under way, it would be unwise to underestimate technological innovation for future energy. Though one must be aware that vested financial interests in various old school companies will do everything they can to sabotage such a move through lobbying, and so don’t bet on public funding in any country that allows such political activity.

I found the prose and call to contemplate in this book extremely evocative and probably worth most people’s time. Though if you are already pretty versed in this and/or the growing new (finally, a good new school of philosophy!) of Speculative Realism-also called Speculative Materialism or Object Oriented Philosophy- you will hardly learn anything new. But this issue, of us as a species learning to deal with the consequences of forces we have unleashed-forces now as intrinsically a part of nature as non-man made plants and animals, is one which is desperately needed in an idealistic age overrun by anthropocentric and often non-material ideologies such as liberalism, constructivism, religious fundamentalism, and postmodernism.

The fault I find in this interesting text is its call for a new humanism. Personally, I find humanism itself to bear much of the brunt of our recent delusions and faith in ourselves and ability to consciously dominate nature. But I feel that my thoughts on the much vaunted factor of consciousness are long enough and touching upon issues out of scope with the topic of this post to talk about here. Needless to say, a future post on the topic could very well be in the making. What matters now is humanity dealing with a faceless enemy of its own making which is not human. The ultimate Frankenstein fear story where instead of a cobbled together re-animated corpse we must now recon, like with the early Godzilla movies, with something truly massive and awakened by us.

I will close with another quote I quite liked from near the end. ‘…Global Warming offers no apprehensible foe. That hasn’t stopped people from trying to find one. The Flood Wall Street protesters say the enemy is American corporations. Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and Nauru’s Baron Waqa say the problem is the United States and Great Britain. Shell Oil and the Environmental Defense Fund seem to think it’s intractable UN bureaucracy that is holding us up. Barack Obama has implied its China. Tea Party Republicans would blame Obama, I’m sure, if they actually admitted that global warming is happening and caused by human activity. Meanwhile, NPR listening liberals want to believe that Tea Party republicans are responsible, so they can frame the problem as one amenable to solution by moral education and enlightened consumerism, as if it were all a matter of convincing people to eat more kale and drive electric cars…The enemy isn’t out there somewhere-the enemy is ourselves. Not as individuals, but as a collective. A system. A hive.’

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