The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization 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.
The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.
If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.
Scranton, who is a doctoral candidate in English at Princeton, is here making an innovative argument for the value of the humanities: humanistic learning, or rather the deep reflection historically associated with it, is all the more necessary now as we are forced to grapple with the inevitability of cultural collapse. Much in me resonates with this argument, but I think the way Scranton develops it is deeply problematic.
A good deal of the essay links the coming civilizational collapse with Scranton’s own experiences as a soldier in Iraq. But it seems to me that that is precisely the problem: Scranton assumes that the death of a civilization is effectively the same as the death of a human being, that the two deaths can be readily and straightforwardly analogized. Just as I had to learn to die, so too must our culture. But no.
The problem lies in the necessarily loose, metaphorical character of the claim that a civilization is “dead.” Scranton writes,
Now, when I look into our future — into the Anthropocene — I see water rising up to wash out lower Manhattan. I see food riots, hurricanes, and climate refugees. I see 82nd Airborne soldiers shooting looters. I see grid failure, wrecked harbors, Fukushima waste, and plagues. I see Baghdad. I see the Rockaways. I see a strange, precarious world.
Well, maybe. But maybe the end of our civilization, even should it be as certain as Scranton believes, won’t look like this; maybe it will be a long slow economic and social decline in which massive violence is evaded but slow inexorable rot cannot be. (Scranton is rather too assured in the detail of his prophecies.) But in any case, whatever happens to our civilization will not be “death” in anything like the same sense that a soldier dies on the battlefield. When that soldier dies, his heart stops, his brain circuitry ceases to function, his story in this world is over. But even this catastrophically afflicted culture described by Scranton is still in some sense alive, still functioning, in however compromised a way. And this will be the case as long as human beings remain on the earth: they will have some kind of social order, which will always be in need of healing, restoration, growth in flourishing.
Which means, I think, that the absolutely necessary lessons in how to die that every one of us should learn — because our lives are really no more secure than a soldier’s, though for our peace of mind we pretend otherwise — are not really the ones needed in order to deal with the coming of the Anthropocene. Scranton’s dismissal of practical considerations involving the social and economic order in favor of philosophical reflection might even be a counsel of despair; he does seem, to me at least, to be saying that nothing in the material order can possibly be rescued so the only thing left to do is reconcile ourselves to death. I believe that anthropogenic global warning is happening, and I believe that its consequences for many people will be severe, but I do not accept that nothing meaningful can be done to mitigate those consequences. In short, I do not believe and do not think I am permitted to believe that our civilization is already dead.
But for me and for you, the necessity of facing death remains, and indeed is not any different now and for us than it was in the past or for any of our ancestors. For the individual facing death, the Anthropocene changes nothing. This was the point of C.S. Lewis’s great sermon “Learning in Wartime”:
What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them.
Just as wars must sometimes be fought, so the consequences of the Anthropocene must be confronted. Or so I believe. But whether or not I’m right about that, I know this: Death is coming for us all. And if Montaigne is right that “to philosophize is to learn to die,” then the humanities, in so far as they help us to be genuinely philosophical, are no more relevant in the Anthropocene than they ever have been — nor any less so.