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In the epilogue of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections at the End of a Civilization, author Roy Scranton reveals himself as a philosophical determinist, one for whom the acceptance of a wholly material universe necessarily pairs with a total rejection of free will, whether spiritual or physical. The future, as he describes it, is as just as real, fixed, and linear as the past; what its events lack in visibility they make up for with total inevitability, everything playing out exactly as fated since the Big Bang.
Meanwhile (ha ha), in the book’s very first chapter, he describes his method for maintaining personal sanity during his tours of duty as an American soldier in Iraq a dozen years ago. He embraced the philosophies of the Hagakure, the warrior’s life-manual written by the 18th century samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo. (I most immediately recognize it as the book the title character of Ghost Dog quotes throughout the film.) Hagakure advises its reader to contemplate one’s own death daily, not just as a reality of life but as a mode of thought: to live like one is already dead. Scranton writes how his life and duties in Baghdad achieved grim serenity once he learned to apply this to himself.
Twice in the pages between these two chapters, the author invokes — by words, if not by name — a third warrior, who himself lived in history between Tsunetomo and Scranton. “We are the dead”, he writes, but in so doing takes the words from McCrae’s chorus of war-fallen under Flanders Fields, and transfers them such that the “we” becomes every person now alive. In context, he means specifically that all people alive today will play the role of the dead, the remembered, for the people of the future. And since the future is no less real than the present, then today, we are the dead, and should get on the job of acting like proper dead people.
By this, by the subtler meaning of the “learning to die” in the book’s title, he implores his readers to dial down the purely reactive state encouraged by the collision of modern mass and social media with our primate brains. Instead, we should turn to the deeper study of the humanities — the wider and the deeper, the better — and let this stimulate the production of fresh artwork, cementing all the world’s culture in new, varied, and resilient forms. (Scranton’s model, here, is an Iraqi rock band of his acquaintance whose members survived cultural blockades and then outright war to produce a heavy-metal album that reworks the Epic of Gilgamesh.)
Scranton calls for a worldwide hardening of human culture, encoded and archived in art that will outlive our fragile selves, because he means the title in the more literal sense too: he predicts no route out of a civilization-ending disaster wrought by runaway climate change, set to swallow the earth in a finger-count of generations. The author sees the hegemony of fossil fuel-based capitalism as intrinsically incapable of curbing the very same carbon emissions that define it — as a leviathan that would sooner die than transform. And so, in his view, it will, and too bad for us all that comprise it.
If the human species somehow avoids total extinction in this second Deluge, Scranton figures, the few survivors must surely revert to barbarism or despotism, at best. (The fever-dream of democracy, briefly hallucinating its efficacy in the thick smoke of a million coal-burning stacks, shall be forever washed away.) It remains up to us, the dead of the benighted future, to make sure that our successors have a cultural legacy to find, grasp onto, and rebuild upon, as they scratch out new societies on whatever human-habitable slivers of the planet might remain.
I read this short book in a single evening, and reflect that it may be the most pamphlet-like book I’ve ever paid for, in the old sense of “pamphleteering”. It presents an intentionally provocative polemic one can digest quickly, and sacrifices timelessness to tie itself tightly to its September 2015 publication date. I highlighted the passage where the author states with utter confidence that the Paris climate summit — slated to begin only two months after going to press — could only end in uselessly unenforceable non-binding agreements that would change nothing. This drove me to actually read a little about the summit and its outcome: the terms of the Paris agreement will become binding, but only on the condition that 55 of its signing parties ratify it in the months to come. I assume that Scranton sees this as impossible, given his vision of the suicide-bent monster of carbon-burning capitalist democracy, and therefore his prediction as one hundred percent true. I see it as the most recent and hopeful step in the right direction against climate change we’ve accomplished on a global scale so far. I imagine Scranton, smiling, saying that we’re both right.
I found Learning to Die by following a retweet by William Gibson, whose latest novel The Peripheral I recently read. That book describes a post-diluvian future of a slowly-rebounding humanity living in both a technological paradise and a crushing kleptocracy, some of whom go slumming in the past — the land of the dead — as a means of escape, spinning off more hopeful futures than their own. Perhaps after reading that, I wanted to calibrate my despair over the real world, and Scranton’s book has done a fine job stating the case from from the pole of complete and comfortable hopelessness. It remains up to me to decide where on the graph I sit, and what I’ll do, while I still believe I can do anything at all.
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