Review of Roy Scranton’s, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

Roy Scranton served as a private in the US army from 2002 to 2006, including a term in Iraq. In his new book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, he reflects on one of the greatest threats to humanity—climate change. Scranton argues that, as we destroy the climate that sustains us, we destroy ourselves. We are our own worst enemy.

Humans have thrived in a climate that has been stable for more than a half-million years, but the burning of fossil fuels will end that interval. Our fate follows from our shortcomings. “The problem with our response to climate change isn’t a problem with passing the right laws or finding the right price for carbon or changing people’s minds or raising awareness … The problem … is us.”

And our capitalist system exacerbates the problem, as profits drive the exploitation of the earth’s resources. Our biological nature and our social, economic, and political systems have brought us to the precipice. Scranton holds out little hope that things might change. The story of human civilization, in the end, will likely be a tragedy.

What then should we do? Scranton tells us that we should probably accept the end of civilization and learn how to die. If practicing philosophy is learning how to die, as so many philosophers have said, then we live in the quintessential philosophical age. We should come to terms with the end of civilization.

But this is hard to do. We rebel at the idea that we are doomed, and like many previous civilizations, we continue to march headlong toward disaster. We dismiss the idea that the end is just around the corner, telling ourselves we’ll be fine. We destroy the seas and atmosphere that support us, we kill off other species and pump greenhouse gases into the air. Surely riding bikes and being vegetarians is too high a price to pay to save civilization!

Yes, we should try to preserve the best of human civilization. But the thoughtful, living in the Anthropocene, accept that we will all probably die. While this may be a depressing thought, only honest reflection on it gives us any chance of saving ourselves.

As for me, I believe we will all die unless we use future technologies to enhance our moral and intellectual faculties. We must evolve or we will all die.

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5 thoughts on “Review of Roy Scranton’s, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

  1. i dont think we will all die. humanity survived several ice ages without any modern technology at all. certainly many will die _if_ conflict levels rise, but arent conflict levels dropping?
    cant we successfully unite as a common human collective and work collectively to both reduce our per capita impact and prosper?
    more people moving to city centers and more land ‘preserved’ for leisure/wilderness/carbon sequestration?

  2. we might survive and flourish, let’s hope so, but there are so many extinction scenarios.

  3. Please forgive a minor tut-tut regarding your statement that “Humans have thrived in a climate that has been stable for more than a half million years”. We had some ice ages in there; the last ended about 10,000 years ago. This does not, however, raise into question any of your conclusions.

    I too have concluded that our civilization is doomed. I’ve been meaning to write my own book on it. My thesis does not rely on climate change or any particular threat; rather, I claim that the collapse of civilization is built into its nature. It’s a long story. I’m guessing that the collapse will come late in this century.

    In recognition of that, I have begun burying marbles on my 40 acres. Glass in spheres is extremely resistant to almost every possible attack. There’s no natural acid or base that can compromise it, nor any biological form of attack. In a few thousand years, natural erosion will start to reveal my marbles, and the hunter-gatherer humans living in this area will likely stumble upon them, and wonder at their meaning. I also prepared two very sturdy containers using PVC pipes and packed with grease, along with some other layers of protection. Inside one is a steel knife. In the other is a pair of pliers. Someday in the far future, I think, they’ll provide a boon to some starving hunter-gatherer.

    I’m still thinking about other things to send to distant future humans, and even better ways to protect them for thousands of years. If I can get enough volunteers to help, I have this idea for a pyramid… 😉

  4. After reading Roy Scranton’s opinion piece, “Learning to die in the Anthropocene” in the New York Times, I felt I ought to write my own Haiku:

    Has it come to this,
    to prepare for the end time?
    Can we muddle through, again?

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