Dying Together

Notes on Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

May 1, 2017

Reading List

Further reading:

Ricard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man, Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self; Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Sometimes I stand over the recycling bin with a fistful of junk mail—catalogues, credit card offers, shrieking discount specials—and I wonder if this is a dark joke. Will depositing my paper, plastic, or glass into this particular bin save us from ourselves? What is the end game of vicious capitalism, energy wars, relentless distraction, and a tattered social fabric in the face of an overheating planet? Sometimes it seems as if we are determined to march off a cliff. “Global warming is not the latest version of a hoary fable of annihilation,” writes Roy Scranton in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. “It is not hysteria. It is a fact. And we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything about it.”

It is a brutal little book. Drawing upon Socrates’s belief that “the philosopher makes dying his profession” and Montaigne’s proposition that “to philosophize is to learn to die,” Scranton suggests we are living in a uniquely philosophical moment, for now we must learn to die “not as individuals, but as a civilization.” After outlining the painful climate data that measures just how far we’ve wandered beyond the point of return, he analyzes the intractable wars, calcified wealth, and defanged channels of protest that make salvation nearly impossible. The calvary is not coming. The guardians have left the gate. Yet we might find a tiny light at the end of the tunnel if we turn to cultural memory and philosophy not only as a means of consolation, but a way to reconnect with ourselves, one another, and our understanding of what it means to be human.

As we struggle, awash in social vibrations of fear and aggression, to face the catastrophic self-destruction of global civilization…we must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection. We must keep up our communion with the dead, for they are us, as we are the dead of future generations.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a timely introduction to—or reminder of—ideas plumbed more thoroughly in places such as Ricard Sennett’s Fall of Public Man, Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self, and the writing of Bertrand Russell: the loss of collective faith in public institutions has led to an increased focus on the self, the instant, and the quick payoff—and we must begin the hard work of reversing this trend, which starts with examining our relationship with death, even extinction. “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death,” wrote Spinoza in 1664. “And his wisdom is a meditation not on death, but on life.” Contemplating beauty, cultivating compassion, and learning to listen to the music of the spheres may not reverse the rising seas, but it can offer dignity and grace—and increase our chances of not only survival but sanity in the strange new world to come.

Tossing my junk mail into the recycling bin is a peculiar gesture of faith in the future, even if my faith is sometimes shaky. But I do it. Stepping outside, I’m reminded of a sublime sentence from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “The moon is a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh God, how beautiful anyway.”