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.