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AN INTERVIEW WITH ROY SCRANTON ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK: LEARNING TO DIE IN THE ANTHROPOCENE: REFLECTIONS ON THE END OF CIVILIZATION
In 2013, Roy Scranton published a piece in the The New York Times’ philosophy blog The Stone, titled “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” It is now a chapter in his new book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization, just published by City Lights.
We talked with Roy about his book and about how, for him, writing it became a practice of living the Anthropocene.
Roy will be reading at Bluestockings in New York on October 5th, with philosopher Dale Jamieson and novelist Bonnie Nadzam, at the Climate Week NYC book event, “Love and Death in the Anthropocene.”
all photos this post: FOP 2015
SMUDGE STUDIO (SS): We at FOP/smudge studio are interested in daily practices that aid humans in meaningfully navigating the Anthropocene. In the New York Times piece, you describe how the Hagakure and the meditation practices it offers resonated so strongly with you while you were deployed in Iraq. Are you still using the Hagakure and meditation in your daily life now, three years later?
ROY SCRANTON (RS): In Iraq, what I found most useful about the Hagakure was the practice of imagining oneself as dead, imagining that vividly, and in various ways. It’s a practice that involves lingering, possibly morbidly, over the reality of how one could die in order to get used to that reality and get familiar with it — and sort of take charge of it.
Rather than thinking about dying as I was driving around in the Humvee in Bagdad and having those intrusive thoughts throughout the day, I made a space for when I would deal with the questions of mortality. Then I would go on with my work being an occupier.
This has remained an intentional practice — the meditative aspect. And this has remained important in thinking about climate change in the Anthropocene because there’s so much incoming information. You receive these messages that are out there circulating — and I do it myself— Facebook, twitter etc.: typhoons in Japan, crazy weather in Europe, floods or extinction. If you have news alerts like I do, it will hit you as often as you want. Even if you don’t have the alerts, this news will come in regularly, and not just about the weather because we live in a time of constant spectacle, noise and the realities of things like famine, drought, climate-driven wars and climate refugees. If you don’t tune it out, it is going to hit you again and again. It’s very similar to the intrusive thoughts I would have driving around Bagdad.
How do we deal with this constant noise of danger and the constant compulsion to turn away from whatever is important to us? We often turn away from our relationships and work, and worry about things that might be thousands of miles away. They might also be next door. But we worry about them in ways that don’t give us any power to do anything about them.
So, as a practice of dealing with this, I’ve done the same thing as I did with the Hagukure while I was in Iraq. I’ve set aside a time and space to think about such events. I did with this while working on the book. As I wrote, I was spending time with the ideas of rising seas washing out lower Manhattan, glaciers melting and all the many things that will follow on from this. I’ve given them specific space in my life — time to accept the realities. This set-aside time has opened up more possibilities, more senses of freedom and more access to energy and power during the rest of life — which are essential to this moment of radical global change that we’re living through.
We’re facing the end of this civilization — the end of a way of life and global capitalism. The way we’ve structured and organized our lives around the production and consumption of carbon? This is over and done with. Collectively and individually we need to figure out new ways of doing things and we’re not going to be able to do that as long as we’re clinging desperately to the old ways of doing things. We really need to let this civilization die.
SS (Jamie): Yes, it seems we need grounded ways of being with these changes that don’t induce emotional breakdowns and identity crises. It often feels as though the reason many people can’t accept the realities of the Anthropocene is because we have so few non-apocalyptic ways to be with these realities. We don’t have nuanced understandings of something like “the end of civilization.” We need ways to integrate Anthropocene realities into our lives without being destroyed by the thought of them — but also without denying the reality of what you describe. We need to be able to accept the sixth extinction, but there’s a lot of grief in letting that be real too.
RS: At times, the overwhelming scale of our predicament seems beyond any capacity to comprehend, much less come to terms with. There’s just no way. But the world has always been endangered.
We have about 5000 years of records of people trying to think through, and worrying about, what it means to die. I think for concerned people, that’s one of the key things we need to be attending to: to revisit the global cultural heritage, whether it’s the Bhagavad Gita or Plato, or something else entirely. Bringing these ideas together and putting them into discussion can help us work through this moment of vast change and death. It will also help carry through some of the wisdom that we as a species have accumulated into the next pattern of civilization.
SS (Liz): David Collings (Stolen Future, Broken Present: The Human Significance of Climate Change) writes about the fundamental difference of this “ending” that we’re now in compared to other endings of previous civilizations. He writes about what happens when we can no longer use the notion of the “future” to justify and motivate our personal life choices. We predicate so many of our actions on imagining a future for ourselves or the next generation: “I’m doing this because it will make a better future,” etc. What we’re up against now, Collings says, is the loss of that futurity. And this is fundamentally different from what other humans had to imagine in the past when, say, their civilization was dying but they had no reason to doubt that the human species or the human habitat would continue on.
Do you see learning to die in the Anthropocene as a different kind of learning how to die, because this time, it might involve the end not only of a civilization, but of our species? Might learning to die in the Anthropocene be primarily about alleviating suffering in the dying — rather than setting up a new way of being for people of the future?
RS: There’s a lot to say there. And the first thing I would want to say is, yes, you’re right. And I think it is about learning to die as a form of palliative care.
SS (Liz): So, we’re all in hospice now.
RS: Yes, I think that’s right, but at the same time: two things. One, we don’t know what the future holds. This civilization will probably die, most likely. But the species probably will live on, even if in a much-reduced way. The land around the Arctic sea will probably be lovely. So, assuming that the methane belch doesn’t happen and we really are cooked, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen.
In the relative short-term, like in the next 100,000 years, whether we as a species survive or not I don’t know. Once you start to zoom out, the sun’s going to explode and collapse anyway. At a certain point, we’re just mosquitoes in the summer puddle. We live, the puddle dries up, and we die. That’s just what happens in the universe. So at a certain scale, we’ve always—or at least since we’ve considered the problem in that way—we’ve been telling ourselves stories about the end of this world. It’s part of why we make up fantasies of other worlds. There’s a way in which such stories are a kind of palliative care similar to what we need to be doing now. Which is to just say, in stepping back: it’s different but it’s also the same.
SS (Liz): When we do say there’s something radically or fundamentally different about the Anthropocene compared to other endings of civilizations, it seems that we’re just re-inscribing the whole problem. It’s as if we’re saying: what’s happening now is really different from other kinds of endings — individual or collective. What’s happening now is REALLY an ending when, as you just said, humans have been addressing impermanence and mortality for a very long time. The scales of change and species loss might be far greater, but saying that the Anthropocene is radically different from the ever-present impermanence of all things risks removing the obligation, and the responsibility, to treat everything that exists (and is in the process of passing on) in a palliative way.
RS: Part of the radical nature of the Anthropocene is in its challenge to — I’m reluctant to use “Western” or “modern” but it is “modern and it is “Western” — its challenge to the teleological progressive notion of history. I mean the version that says we’re headed toward a technological utopia of some kind and we’re currently just working out the details until “death shall hold no dominion.” That’s a fantasy that was fueled by cheap energy, carbon, coal, oil and insane technological development in the 19th century. It’s an understandable hubris. We made atomic bombs and we flew to the moon. But that fantasy and hubris is not what we need now. There are older traditions, older ways of thinking about being human that understand that we are part of cycles and part of a bigger process. It is this perspective that we need to get back to in many ways.
SS (Jamie): People struggle with feeling that their lives are relevant within a geo/cosmological timeframe. Many respond to the news that our sun will eventually, and inevitably, become a red dwarf as a reduction of meaning — as an: “Oh, this all doesn’t matter then because we’re all going to die anyway.” But this perspective forgets that the planet existed for billions of years without humans — and also that we managed to evolve out of this vast and incredible history.
The species average lifespan for mammals is typically one million years, and yet we humans are miraculously still here now, seemingly against the odds. I feel that the geo/cosmo timescale can offer us a chance to experience wonder at the fact that we actually exist at all. And that wonder offers a lot of meaning.
SS (Liz): There are so few invitations to be with these realities in ways that don’t tip into apocalyptic, catastrophic narratives or exceptionalisms.
SS (Jamie): Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History invites us into nuanced and very specific understandings of the species that are currently going extinct. Readers have a chance to get to know these species rather intimately and to comprehend what we’re actually losing — as opposed to just saying, “all species go extinct eventually, so there’s no need to dwell on the details.”
Maybe this is where the notion of “practice” comes in? We’re passing out of being right now. As you wrote in the Times piece, the question is: how do we meet that reality? How we actually inhabit this passing away and make it real in our daily life practices — and not just when it’s convenient for us — is crucial. There isn’t a lot of support for asking these sorts of questions in American culture right now. Learning to die in the Anthropocene is not about just reading the New York Times, following the news or “being aware.” It seems that we actually need to disengage from the overstimulation to learn what daily practices in a dying civilization might be. The distractions and preoccupations of our emotional states are probably a big part of why we haven’t been able to accept what’s happening.
RS: The thing about practices is you have to practice them. Crises are great for provoking reactions and creating possibilities for insight, but practice is practice.
In Iraq, thinking about the different ways that this civilization would fall apart amounted to a practice of attending to one’s own death — or the death of one’s self in a wider sense.
I think that’s important to think about, especially when the moment of death or ideas of death, finitude or mortality become frightening, oppressive and burdensome. That’s when I think it’s important to spend more time with such thoughts in order to get more comfortable with them and discover new ways to relate to them.
I also like what you said about Kolbert’s book. I think part of what she’s doing there is attending to the dead. That’s a practice that I think we’ve really gotten out of touch with in contemporary culture. We have no time for the dead, or very little. I think having that time is important for so many reasons: for connecting us back to cycles of life and death, for connecting us back to the wisdom of the dead and the things they learned. It helps us to put our own lives in perspective. It helps us to come to terms with our own mortality and preserves a sense of continuity even if there is no future. I think we definitely need this.
One of the practices I very much advocate for, which seems really important, is attending to the dead. Spending time with the things that are lost. While it’s not going to save us or recuperate the dead, by attending to what has been lost and those that have been lost, we remember them. You can’t help but slow down and see what you’re doing today in a slightly different perspective. That seems really important.
SS (Jamie): Are there writers or artists that fuel this particular way of thinking for you?
RS: That’s a fair question. I’m somewhat reluctant to answer it though. I feel resistance to offering a “syllabus” or reading list, because I don’t want to limit it. I could say three or four things, but there are dozens.
Also, the things that are resonating with me in my particular journey and moment may help other people and may not. I spend a lot of time thinking about Iraq, trying to read Iraqi writers and old Abbasid poets. And I listen to contemporary Iraqi-American heavy metal band, Acrassicauda — their new album is Gilgamesh.
So those are some things. Sitting meditation is another thing I always go back to.
But I do have one answer. I always go back to Spinoza. I think if the oceans are rising and the house is on fire and I can take one book with me it would be Spinoza’s Ethics.
I want to keep learning and finding more and also going back to things that moved me ages ago. I want to re-read the Hagakure or revisit the Veda or look at the Egyptian Book of the Dead. There’s so much stuff.
SS (Jamie): Yes, I think it’s interesting how the same book or artist can resonate differently at different points in history. There is a lot worth revisiting today. Is there anything you’d like to say about the role of art and the humanities at this particular moment in the Anthropocene?
RS: The humanities is a vast category. Broadly, it’s thinking about what it means to be human. I say this in the New York Times piece. We need to think about what it means to be human because our systems of meaning-making, particularly around capitalism, and the way that we value our labor and our lives, are not sustainable. We really need to do some innovative thinking and do some old, recuperative thinking about how we make meaning.
This is a fundamental question for me regarding the humanities. And in a certain way, one of the fundamental questions of an art practice. I was just looking at something William Burroughs said: “one of the things art does is to tell us what we didn’t know we already knew.”
And I think that’s right. Art does lots of things. It can articulate things that we’re living in and with but haven’t yet given shape to. I think that’s one of the important uses of art today.
Another important use of art is to massage contradictions or anxieties and make them more bearable. I think that is important now, but maybe less important — it’s part of the palliative care.
We need to confront the contradictions and anxieties that the Anthropocene raises a little more directly ourselves. The humanities are important for helping us move through these changes (and this is just my values) in ways that might be kinder, more compassionate, and in a way that might help us adapt better than either simply trying to fix things technologically or economically.
Perhaps my biggest concern is the potential for a sort of descent that I talk about in the book — the compulsion to strife and the threat of reactive violence. Humans are really prone to using violence as a solution in moments of intense scarcity and stress.
So though I don’t think the humanities are going to save us — there’s nothing that can save us — they can help.
SS (Jamie): Your book has a very provocative title. Is there anything you’d like to say about what you’re inviting readers to consider through this book?
RS: I think of the book as a practice, as an exercise. For a long time I didn’t pay much attention to global warming. It was just there, this thing in the background. Then in the summer of 2013 I had a chance to attend an event at Cornell University focused on the Anthropocene. I didn’t know what that was and I was curious about it.
That summer was the impetus for the essay I wrote for the New York Times. I read up on the situation and soon realized things were much worse that I thought, much more dire, much closer on the horizon. I didn’t know how to deal with it and didn’t know what to do. I had been in the army, and gotten out of the army, and went to grad school and went to more grad school. I come from a working class family, and here, after crawling my way up the socioeconomic ladder a few rungs to have a nice quiet life teaching poetry, I realized: shit, the world’s going to end. Wait a minute, that wasn’t the deal!
I had to make sense of it for myself and the book is that process. The book is not for people who think there’s no such thing as climate change or that humans aren’t causing it. The book is for people who are worried. It’s for people who see what’s happening and live with the anxiety of that. It’s for people who think they need to do something, or they don’t know what to do, or they’re overwhelmed by it. The book is for my fellow travelers on this sinking ship who have noticed that it’s sinking.
What I hope it offers is a way to think about and make peace with these changes — a way to accept the changes in a way that releases them from being a burden.
It’s more than the probability that the end is upon us. It’s about a sense of connection to bigger cycles, a bigger circuit, a bigger universe. It’s more than: “I’m living in 2015 and there’s going to be a tsunami or there’s going to be a drought and I’m going to die.” It’s not just: “I lived and I died.” There’s something bigger than “America lived and died.” There’s something bigger than “humanity lived and died.”
I think that connecting thinking to a sense of the universe and to an understanding of ourselves in the universe — this is where I come back to Spinoza — offers not only a sense of peace but also a sense of power and a sense of fulfillment. You realize that you’re not going to hit your “premature end,” you’re going to hit your “correct end,” because everything is already done and it’s already there and full. We’re all part of it together because it’s all of a piece with the universe.
People may say this is quietism. And people may say this is giving up. And people may say this is accepting what is unacceptable. And there’s justice in those charges. But at the same time, it’s a way of thinking about, understanding, and living with a situation beyond our power that can help us move within that situation. It can help us live in that situation with more compassion toward each other and with more compassion toward ourselves — and with more freedom — because if we accept it, that opens up other possibilities for how to deal with it.
And you know, it’s one book. I’m offering it as one way of thinking. Maybe it’s good for you three days a week. Or one day a week. Or one day in one year in one lifetime. In a certain way, it’s me trying to offer others what I found in Spinoza or in the Hagakure in Iraq in that confrontation with the idea of my own mortality. It’s me trying to offer others that sense of peace, acceptance and freedom.
SS (Liz): I appreciate what you’re saying. It’s making me think about two things I’d like to share back. Having done some work in the 80s and 90s in Holocaust Studies, I’m wondering if there are some parallels between how you’re thinking about the present moment and how, within the concentration camps, there was often absolutely no hope whatsoever of escape.
So then, how one lives each single moment unfolding in a death camp is of utmost importance and full of meaning. If you have enough health and wherewithal to perform an act of kindness in this very moment, it’s as if all of time past and future compresses down into that single act. You might die in the next few seconds, but that act of kindness, despite everything else going on, seems to resonate far beyond itself. All of time seems to gather itself into each such moment and each such act.
The second idea I’d like to share is inspired by David Collings’ account of his profound sense of loss — of nearly losing his moorings as a philosopher — once he could no longer envision a future to work toward or work for. With no hope of a “future,” it’s as if time becomes nothing more and nothing less than this moment, this moment, this moment. This very moment becomes palpable as being “all the time there is.” To re-member the dead means you’re bringing them into this moment not “from the past” and not even “for the future,” but for what that act of re-membering does to the quality of the lived experience for this very singular moment.
It’s as if, when there is no future, the time frame of ethical action shifts. And so does the time frame of emotions such as hope — because both hope and ethical action seem to require a future-oriented perspective.
What if we squeezed the future orientations of ethical action and “hope” down and compressed them into this concentration (camp) of the space/time of the Anthropocene present? What if we start thinking and acting according to something like: “the act of kindness performed in this singular moment has implications and scope far far beyond here and now — and, at the same time, there’s nothing other than this”? I think something like this might be what many deep indigenous practices and Zen practitioners have been offering humans for a long time.
Hearing you speak today has helped me think about these two things in new ways.
RS: Yes, I like that. I like the sense of bringing cosmic reverberations into the now, but also that it’s really coming back to the moment of now.
SS (Jamie): On March 11, 2013, on the two-year anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima accident, we wrote a blog post that we called “Next 5 years” to express our sense that within five years, as Anthropocene forces and events intensified, broader audiences would have increased awareness of what’s unfolding planetarily. It seems as though this awareness is growing now mostly because people, on a global scale, are experiencing strange local weather. But, what’s your sense of the more thoughtful conversations that might be resulting? Do you feel there has been a shift in awareness of the Anthropocene since you went to the Cornell conference in 2013?
RS: I think a lot of people are concerned and I think there is a wider awareness. At a certain level, I think there is also a deeper and more active anxiety. I think about conversations I have with people and I think the awareness and anxiety seem to come in waves. It seems there’s been an increased intensity of awareness and an increased concern that it’s too late and this does not have a happy ending. It does seem that more and more people are understanding this.
SS (Jamie): Yes, the release of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report this past September might have been a big part of generating that broader awareness. The news that we’re no longer stopping global warming, and that all we can do is adapt from here on — adaptation instead of mitigation — was a big reality check for many people.
RS: I don’t know what that means for the hive mind. That news might be filtered out. I do think it goes in phases. There have been moments … if you look back there was this moment in the 70s of intense awareness of the problem with oil.
SS (Liz): All of it was known then.
RS: Yes. You go back and watch Soylent Green and it’s all there. And then, we’re like “never mind, we’re going to do Reagan.” That happened, and then the awareness comes back again with Al Gore briefly. And it’s coming back again hard now.
Now I wonder, will it last? Will we go through another period of denial and then sort of forget again? Will we have backlash? Go in another direction? Will the anxiety push or drive the U.S. to another invasion? I don’t know. As a species, we don’t really behave well in large groups so I’m not really very hopeful about it. But, it does seem to be a moment now where there’s an increased awareness of sort of how fucked we are.
SS (Liz): I find myself walking around daily, seeing everything through this frame, and it seems jaw dropping that people and events are still oblivious. I was wondering whether you see the world through this frame all the time? Does your practice lead you to feel something other than amazement at how oblivious so many humans seem to be?
RS: It’s hard to live with all the time. My partner finds it a drag. That’s part of why I try to make it a practice to actively think about it, so that at other times I can put it down. I can’t wash it out of my life or my perception, but there is a difference, especially when I was really focusing on writing the book. Everywhere I went was like some science fiction movie or that Charlie Kaufman film where you’re walking around and watching the buildings crumbling around you. You think things like: “this might be the last … this is the last X”. That’s powerful. And it’s heavy. And it does the thing you mentioned, where you’re sort of agape that other people just go about their lives. And sort of agape that one’s self goes on: Why am I getting up in the morning? Why bother going to the gym today?
There’s a way in which that kind of intense awareness all the time can be debilitating. It can also disconnect us from each other. Maybe that’s why I think there’s value in being intentional with the awareness and having periods of time with the focus.
This is part of why we have practices around death and remembering. We have these practices so that we can carry them around with us in this moment, but we also can function and take care of each other. I think it’s important to have a more intentional relationship around how we practice being aware of the Anthropocene. I’m not saying to not think about it, but that we should think about it in a focused way and maybe even ritualistically. Let’s figure out how to have an “Anthropocene Day” or go to church or synagogue or Zendo. Or all of us just come together and have a moment of spirituality connecting to the wider world that’s dying, and dying, and dying. And then, you go and live it.
SS (Liz): It seems that this awareness of the ending of our civilization could tap into the narcissistic aspects of culture in the United States. It could be a way of seeing the Anthropocene as being “all about me,” “all about us (humans),” and just feed narcissistic self-absorption. There are people who are now using the Anthropocene to do just that. I think there’s a real danger in this. U.S. culture is already set up for denial and flipping the Anthropocene into some welcome, fundamentalist religious fulfillment of prophesies about the end times. I think there is a real potential for that in the United States, for the narcissistic side of the New Age to get triggered by an awareness that this civilization is ending.
RS: And to be one of the select few who know that this is urgent.
SS (Liz): And that somehow, “I’m better than you because I’m aware of it” or “I know more about it than you do, so therefore I’m somehow more enlightened …”
RS: For me, however, I can turn it into trying to be more patient and more compassionate and more open, because what else? We’re all going to die anyway.
SS (Jamie): Yes, there’s the question of how do you want to be with this? Do you really want to be shouting at people about how you knew this was coming? In the end, it’s how you fill your hours and practice your life. It seems crazy to be taking so much for granted, like having another precious day against the odds, for example. To enact a gesture of gratitude or awareness yourself first — instead of telling other people they should do that — that’s much harder than talking about it.
SS (Liz): I think the idea of there maybe being a wildcard is really interesting. I’m curious about that. You said it earlier: we just don’t know the end. There may be a wildcard in the climate change models or in human cultural practices that will get played and send all of our imagined futures off into new directions. I don’t see the wildcard as another version of “hope.” But I do see it as something that is humbling. Every time I hear myself saying to someone: “Really? Don’t you realize that this is going to happen and that’s going to happen, and this is happening right now?” – I think: “Wait a minute; I’m talking as if I really know what’s going to happen.” There are wildcards everywhere. That’s the complexity of the universe. That’s a powerful thing to meditate on too. What might the wildcards be? Again, not as a way of grasping at straws of hope, but because of the deeper humility that it fosters somehow.
RS: I know what you mean. And that’s neither grasping at straws of hope nor letting it turn into even more terrifying possibilities. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a hard space to inhabit, especially because it’s so close. People want to deny it or brush it off, but we don’t actually know. We really don’t.
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