Coming to Terms with a Wicked Climate

Review: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

Author: Roy Scranton

Reviewer: TOM HURLEY

Roy Scranton on The Great Anthropocene Dying

If, as he says, “Learning to die takes practice,” American author Roy Scranton has failed Training Day many times. As a soldier, he survived roadside bombs and snipers in Baghdad in 2003. He was manifestly not dead after writing Learning to Die in the Anthropocene in 2015 (the subject of this review). In 2018, still inept at perishing, he published the essay anthology, We’re Doomed. What Next? Clearly, this rookie Washout of the Undead needs more practice.

Cool under pressure and with zipped-up affect, Scranton rarely allows anxiety or foreboding to show. In Learning to Die (subtitled, “Reflections on the End of a Civilization”) he opens the valve of his emotion only once, at the end of his Acknowledgements on the book’s last page. Here Scranton credits his partner’s support: “Without her patience, dogged hope, and tender care, there would have been little reason for me to write through the despair that confronting catastrophic climate change induces.”

Though he never mentions despair elsewhere, his suppressed anguish is present as a watermark throughout the four searing early chapters that summarize the climate crisis now under way. Here we find a dire scenario induced by a sudden, perfect storm of evolutionary, historical, economic, political, and cultural forces, all converging on a horizon of unavoidable collapse for most if not all of our briefly tenured species.

Scranton lays out his argument in the first chapter. Civilization as we know it is over, but we can survive if we accept our limits and safeguard our collective cultural heritage for the human remnant of the future. The author’s reconceived humanist thinker learns to die as a civilization and as an individual who, while waiting, cultivates the art of irksome questions and fear-dispelling Interruption, “the one who resonates on other channels and with slower, deeper rhythms.”

Scranton’s lucid power-text, combining blistering analysis with literary wisdom-truffling, has earned the book a place among the growing list of major contemporary genre titles that include (to name only a few) Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Naomi Klein‘s This Changes Everything, Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-prize classic, The Sixth Extinction.

Russian Dolls of Death

For this reviewer, Kolbert’s “Extinction” brings to mind the set of ten nested Russian dolls sitting on one of my bookshelves. It’s a handy symbol for visualizing Scranton’s imaginarium, with each doll representing one form of death to be practised and accepted with philosophic detachment under the author’s tutelage. The list below of these concentric encapsulations may help you plan your worry time.

  1. The eventual heat death (or else “. . . an endless cycle of crunches and bangs”) of the expanding and cooling cosmos
  2. Before that, a super-heating sun will bake the earth, “annihilating all terrestrial life.
  3. The next doll contains the Great Die-Off of The Anthropocene, with the demise of all or part of the current population through famine, natural disasters, disease, and conflict
  4. Leading up to that, remaining tribes of humans will live through the earlier stages of the collapse of civilization as we know it
  5. Symbolized by a still smaller Russian doll, humans today are led to acknowledge the human condition and their own individual mortality
  6. Earthlings practise daily meditation to detach from the ego, undergo symbolic death, and then reflect on the ways past thinkers have come to terms with mortality
  7. Meditation continues in some form long after books such as Scranton’s have succumbed to what he calls their “basic disposability
  8. Meanwhile, the thought persists that, “We are the dead of future generations.”
  9. Second to last doll: The inescapability of death as an organizing evolutionary principle
  10. We are subsumed into Scranton’s metaphor of light

That’s a lot of death in 117 pages.

The Appeal

While we’re waiting, note that Scranton’s erudition is just one of the many resources he brings to his role as Master of the Climate Dark Triad: Unsolvability, Collapse, and Death. He combines his adrenalized experience of war with the sensibility of a litterateur and the fact-checking acumen of a good popular science writer. This trifecta of talent displays as a stylistic flexibility that enables Scranton to move back and forth from chilling analysis to a bellelettrist prose poem celebrating the universe and all its life forms.

Here, then, is an inebriate of literature and debauchee of dew who basks in the antiquarian glow of Great Books. He builds his argument from texts as disparate as the Epic of Gilgamesh (to Scranton goes the prize for Best Summary), Plato and classical Greek drama, plus a host of other voices, including those of the Bhagavad-Gita, the 18th-century samurai Tsunetomo, Montaigne, Simone Weil, Wittgenstein, and Hanna Arendt. Indeed, the chapter epigraphs alone could be gathered into a New York Times best-selling chapbook.

Scranton is gifted in equal parts with left-brain, right-brain strength, easily handling the bicameral traffic between scientific citations and the kind of visual thinking illustrated by his extended metaphor of light, with its photons, stars, flashes, lamp, new species homo lux, and a tribute to the pixel-saturated digital age that he calls photohumanism.

The book also exemplifies the activist mandate of the Interrupter. This is the critical thinker who challenges media-induced fear and aggression, and asks the hard questions necessary to stave off collective madness.

Scranton, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, is a conservationist who wants to carry forward to later generations the legacy of a cultural seed bank. Taken all together, the book is the best grant application ever written to argue against the closure of liberal arts departments in colleges and universities.

The author likes shiny, self-contained intellectual objects – crowd-pleasing ideas from pop physics (“each neutrino’s wobble”), cosmology (our exploding Sun), history (a summary of the U.N.’s climate crisis responses) and philosophy (the mandatory quote from Wittgenstein). His range stretches from an anonymous Middle English lyric to 21st-century Danish poetry. He is also into the Oneness of Being. The book is as perfect and inevitable as the flawless universe described over the book’s six chapters.


Some books, however, are more perfect than others, as Learning to Die demonstrates by making unexpected demands on the reader. Over the last two chapters, five sudden shifts jostle the reader out of Climate Catatonia. Without patient reading to navigate these shifts and then question the author’s self-contradictions, the conclusion of the book becomes easier to praise than to grasp. It’s worth summarizing these shifts because they illustrate just how hard it is for the minds of even the best current writers to address collapse without disintegrating.

The first shift is a move from a march-like discursive style to more erratic and elliptical idea clusters that force the reader to fill in the transitions; for example, from an early chapter’s ground-level history of the Industrial Revolution to atoms and galaxies; from algae blooms to the cosmos. The second shift moves from deep-time history (of geological periods and the climate crisis) to radically different forms of story, especially legend (Gilgamesh) and myth (the sources of Greek tragedy). The third turn takes the reader from the literal to the metaphorical: from actual seed stocks of the Agricultural Revolution to the metaphor of a cultural seed bank. A fourth change of course takes us from the impossibility of avoiding the worst of the climate crisis (“we’re fucked”) to the possibility of survival as small, tight communities bound by decency and mutual aid guided by the ark of culture. And finally, a fifth manoeuvre injects fresh urgency and excitement as the book moves to a rhapsodic conclusion.

Odd Bedfellows

Why all this reviewer’s analysis? It’s because, besides jostling the reader out of Climate Catatonia, these five shifts wake us up to a clutch of incongruities which we can choose to ignore, dispute, cavil, or criticize. Readers may also see them as rhetorical strategems that – consciously or not — feed the mood of breakdown, disintegration and craziness.

It helps to recognize that, along with his chains of analytical reasoning, the poet in Scranton loves ideas for their own sake as aesthetic objects blithely unconcerned with issues of compatibility. Besides, to be criticized for apparent self-contradiction is a small price to pay for the pleasurable frisson offered by a gallery of mutually hostile concepts on contiguous display. As Emerson put it, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Note to self: look up “hobgoblin.”

But what irreconcilables and authorial self-contradictions are we talking about? Here’s a sampling.

Determinism – “The Greeks,” says Scranton, “didn’t believe in Free Will like we do.” Later, he self-presents as the caricature of a hard determinist who believes that everything was foreordained at the time of the Big Bang and that we do not have free will. “Everything that happened . . . had to happen in exactly the way it did.” There’s no concession to what philosophers call a “compatibilist” view, where both positions are tenable together. For Scranton (the reductionist determinist), the universe is a chain of material cause and effect that precludes any role by Free Will. “. . . everything had to happen in exactly the way it did.” This is in sharp contrast to his sense of our agency and responsibility for action. Without the freedom to make decisions and follow through, how can we take up his call to action? Should we not feel paralyzed by his series of five big MUST-DO’s in the chapter, “A New Enlightenment.” Or is our resolve itself merely an illusion, as some think?

The universe is perfect; we are not – If, in the history of the cosmos, “Nothing went wrong. No mistakes were made. There was no sin, no error, no fall”, how did it come to be that “the enemy is ourselves”?

Aeschylus 2024 — Scranton’s somewhat hopeful New Humanism, (the fate of the liberal arts is “the fate of humanity itself”) will be a tough sell in a civilization under existential threat. Be honest: If most of us are not routinely turning to Aeschylus and the Epic of Gilgamesh today for guidance on dating, conflict resolution, coping with extreme weather events and accepting death, will we be doing so in a hundred years? Does this knowledge represent a skillset transferable across the horizon as everything darkens?

Wisdom literature and the “Compulsion of Strife” – At the same time that “We’re fucked”, “the only thing that might save us in the Anthropocene [is] memory.” “Heritage of the dead”, says Scranton, “is our most valuable gift to the future.” BUT that legacy of wisdom literature cannot be decoupled from the blood bath of history documented in the “Compulsion to Strife” chapter, in which he describes in detail how violence has been necessary to bring social change. Given our apparent blood lust, how exactly will humanistic study save us from homicidal impulses?

Wanted: Interrupters: – We must be “Interrupters” to challenge media-driven fear and aggression. Indeed, the whole book is a courageous Interruption, as will be Scranton’s groomed “photohumanists” and legacy-bearers. But here’s a good reason to expect a low turnout for job interviews: Scranton concedes that the Interrupter is usually “integrated, driven mad, ignored and destroyed.”

God sighted on campus – Scranton, apparently an atheist, quotes Proverbs to bring home his vision: “The human spirit is the lamp of God, searching all the innermost parts.” Is this Scranton’s Zoom call with the Deity — the source of all sublime power?

City upon a Smoking Hill

The book’s final lines are based on the extended “light” metaphor that has been building over the final two chapters into an invitation to a quasi-mystical photon-cloud abduction. As we ponder his invitation, we have to ask: Whither this author’s preservationist mission? Will Scranton’s Great Books re-emerge after “willed austerity” to nurture a new, Dark-Time Renaissance celebrating his precious seed bank samisdat of archived texts, passed hand to hand?

Perhaps not. Against all wisdom and the warnings of their parents, desperately hungry people tend to eat the contents of the seed bank rather than plant it, and they burn the books as fuel to cook it.

Coming to Terms with a Wicked Climate © 2024 by Tom Hurley in The Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

Tom Hurley is an all-season cyclist writing and editing in the shadow of Peterborough’s Liftlock.

His recent non-fiction book, Interrogosphere: The Power and Plight of Questions in a Highly Questionable World, is available at the local library and through Take Cover Books on Hunter Street in East City, Peterborough.

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