Allison Cobb

The luxury of learning to die

I read Roy Scranton’s “Learning how to die in the anthropocene” this morning via Jonathan Skinner. I instantly responded to it. It seemed just right—it set the tone of our moment. I tweeted it. Then I started really thinking about it.

Scranton notes that the biggest challenge of global warming is that, well, it changes everything. The global economy is predicated on technology that could destroy global civilization (and wipe out a bunch of other species in the process). The challenge of global warming, says Scranton, is “that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Once we understand, he says, that our civilization is already dead—meaning, no longer tenable—we “can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

I realized I found that comforting, uplifting even, in the same melancholy way that gazing over ruins uplifted Romantic poets. If the end has already happened, well, the danger has passed, and we can get on with mourning and rebuilding.

One thing about the death of civilization, though—all these individual deaths keep haunting me. You know, the ones going on right now in the Philippines, hit two days before Scranton published his op-ed in the Times by one of the largest typhoons ever recorded. Here is the Filipino climate chief tearfully calling the world to act at the UN Climate Conference going on now in Poland.

Scranton has faced his own death. He was a soldier in Iraq. According to his essay, he faced his individual death admirably, with philosophy to help him. I’ve never experienced the kind of threat he lived through—and I hope never to—so I can’t say anything about it. Scranton notes, however, that even facing death he was “statistically” … “pretty safe,” given his membership in “the most powerful military the world has ever seen.”

He only glancingly mentions the fate of Iraqis, more than one hundred thousand of whom have died since 2003, and he barely alludes to deaths from Hurricane Katrina, where he watched on TV the same chaos and collapse he had seen in Baghdad, complete with uniformed officers shooting civilians.

Scranton glances past them, but there they are, the lives. They demand some response from us, don’t they? While those of us who have the luxury are learning how to die, what do we do about all the people who are actually dying?