Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

Dana PenriceArticles, Book Reviews

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization by Roy Scranton stirs one’s soul to the core. Concise and powerful, this book articulates our human situation and is a must read for those concerned with where we are headed.

We grapple with death as individuals and with our communities, often poorly, but rarely do we grapple with our end as a species. Scranton invites us to do just that. Drawing on his experience as a soldier in Iraq, Scranton shares how he studied the Hagakure Samurai manual from the 18th century that advises daily meditation on one’s inevitable death. He says, “For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our civilization.”

Scranton holds nothing back when laying out our situation. “The crisis of climate change, the crisis of capitalism, and the crisis of the humanities in the universities today are all aspects of the same crisis, which is the suicidal burnout of our carbon-fueled global capitalist civilization. The odds of that civilization surviving are negligible. The odds of our species surviving are slim.”

In the face of this, Scranton shows how explorations of our demise force us to look at how we have been living and sets us up to reflect on our limitations and fallibility. Difficult but essential work. By putting it in the light of an inevitable end, Scranton has us look into our collective human ignorance.

Our conventional understanding of ignorance often brings up assumptions of stupidity or maliciousness. We are quick to lay blame on someone or something for the predicament we are in. How could our leaders and captains of industry let it get this far? But Human Learning Ecology shows us that that there is much more to the concept of ignorance. Ignorance is that which could be learned that would be helpful.

What would be helpful given our human and planetary situation?  What should we be learning?

Scranton reminds us that there are limitations to what we have learned and what we can do as a species and that we need to take a closer look at this. We carry bio-social drivers like fear and aggression that left unmanaged will impact how we face our current place and time in history. But fight or flight isn’t the only thing that makes us human. We also have culture and we are in a continual struggle to bring out the best of our culture and to support the development of capacities required to overcome the most significant threats we are facing.

How will we overcome these threats, you ask? It isn’t going to take policies, reports and signing treaties. It is going take us changing our understanding of what it means to be human. A new enlightenment.

This books reminds us that the massive challenge of civilizational reconstruction that lies ahead of us requires an equally massive change to our culture and our species. “Learning to die as a civilization means letting go of this particular way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success, and progress.”

The book doesn’t leave one with a warm fuzzy sense of hope, but motivation and inspiration can be found in reflections ignited by the author. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene will be a great source of discussion for the Human Venture community over the months and years to come. This review provides just a snippet and I look forward to continued reflections on future passes of the book, especially around the philosophical questions it poses.

On my first pass, the book left me asking:

  • How do we support one another in seeing and understanding our human predicament? (We can’t tackle the problem without first identifying it.)
  • What does it mean to live in the times that we live in and what are our responsibilities?
  • How do assess what it required of us as individuals, communities and as a species?
  • How do we learn to bring about the best of our culture and our capacities
  • How would we know that we are on the right path?

“Sometime in the icy depths of prehistory our species began developing advanced symbolic communication beyond anything that had ever been seen before. We learned how to make the dead speak, and to speak ourselves to the yet unborn.” – Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

We are all going to die. When we ourselves are gone, looking back on the lives we have lived, what do we want to say to those yet unborn?