Learning To Die in the Anthropocene

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In a chilling, factually grounded and provocative 2015 book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton describes his tour of duty in Iraq in 2003 as an exercise in facing death every day as he departed the relative safety of his protected encampment in a Humvee, armed, armored and backed up by the awesome firepower of the US Army.

To be constantly facing death required an assembly of valued resources, one of which was an 18th Century Samurai manual, the Hagekure, which advised, “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” He took the advice to heart, eventually adopting an attitude as he headed out each day that he was “already dead.”

He then proceeds to draw the analogy between his experience in Iraq and the human role in driving climate change; namely, that we will do almost anything to avoid naming our true predicament. We humans in the Anthropocene, named for our historically unprecedented position of being a single species driving planetary geological change, have attended a terminal diagnosis for quite some time, which we know, left untreated, will spell the death of modernity including mass extinction, possibly even our own. We humans who, at least in the developed world, have become so expert at denying death, now see The House of Modernity we have built being threatened to its foundations.

Have we been providing the required treatment of the condition? No. Not even close. And for the past 15 years, out on the fringes of climate science, there has been a rising chorus of voices (and data) telling us we are already “already dead,” that there is too much damage already baked into the atmosphere and the oceans to escape or reverse course. No one knows for sure how long it will be before much more significant impacts will roll across the globe, particularly because most predictions have turned out to be conservative. It may be 10, 30, 50-80 years or more. We don’t know. What we do know is that we have procrastinated, and continue to do so, for no good reason.

Credit: dark-mountain.net

How do we process all this? What does that mean in terms of our attitude, our actions and our philosophy of life? What is a meaningful way to live now? What are the choices we have to make in this increasingly uncertain time?

Scranton asks, “What does consumer choice mean compared to 100,000 years of climate catastrophe?” Really. Suddenly, how important is it that we can choose from 25 different kinds of washing machines when water security could be impaired long before that machine is scheduled to die? Or, for example, we don’t know exactly what conditions will dramatically impact global harvest….but can we say governments are truly prepared for such a scenario? No.

We are suddenly awash in philosophical questions for which there are no instruction manuals. If, as a French philosopher mused, to philosophize is to learn how to die, then we have entered a new philosophical age. We have to learn how to die not only as individuals, but also as a civilization.

What does that mean, “Learning to die?” The daily context of war is one thing. What of our everyday world?

Let’s put it this way: I meet the basic qualifications for being an elder. I take that label seriously in the sense that it is my social duty to convey whatever wisdom I have accumulated in the course of my life, whatever my vision of a just and equitable world that serves all and includes all has come to be, however expansive that view may become, to younger generations. I have been fortunate in being able to live a full life, and particularly for being able to devote myself to what is most important right now. That life is also taking on the inevitable risks and obstacles and trappings that come with age. I am undeterred.

Even though I could say, with the exception of seeing no truly significant collective action on climate change and the virulent rise of fascism at home and abroad, my dreams have not been entirely stolen. To my own child and other next-generation members of my family and to all their age-cohorts across the world, I would say, “Your dreams have been (at least partially) stolen by me and my generation.” That is the true shape of our predicament and obligation. But by virtue of my complicity and that of my generation and the ones before us, you are now forced to contemplate the death of something far greater than any individual.

Their children’s dreams, which is to say the opportunity to live in a thriving, low risk, equitable and just society with a generous opportunity to lead a fulfilling life of their own choosing, have been appropriated by conditions set in motion by previous generations and will thus be more difficult to realize. The twin mythologies of endless growth and ecocide without consequences are dead. By the time their children mature, the transformation we have set in motion in the name of building our House of Modernity will be well on its way. For them, a strong, intensely focused resolve to live by life-affirming values will be an even greater challenge.

Beneath our well-constructed and endlessly adorned personal identities, beneath our striving and our plans, our coping strategies, our denial, anxiety, fear and uncertainty, beneath impacted layers of personal history, the wounds of family and the trauma and separation imposed by this culture, there is a timeless reality, deeply and endlessly compassionate, unafraid, loving and creative. Our task is to access, develop, and share that intrinsic nature, building our capacity for unconditional love, fulfilling relationships, mutual-reliance, trust and courage. This is an initiation like no other. It is our final loss of innocence. Time to really grow up. And time to grow young, to regain an original innocence that will sustain us for the future.

Stephen Jenkinson describes love as “a way of grieving that which has not yet slipped from view’ and as ‘an active form of grieving that doesn’t require sadness.’ The courage, the skill, the intelligence and the love we need right now do not require sadness. But they do require we acknowledge our grief and pass through this portal with our eyes open, leaving behind the old world as we prepare to meet and thrive in the coming world. It’s time to elevate our game.


  1. Sadly, Gary, I think many environmental scientists are leaning toward us having 10 years at most. If 2019 was the year of questioning capitalism (in select parts of the left-leaning but mainstream English-language press), how nice would it be if 2020 were the beginning of its precipitous collapse? As painful as it will be (although it really need not, given approaches such as a universal basic income and de- or post-growth living), it’s either that or a significant part of the planet. How lovely would it be if humans actually figured it out? We can dream… and work like hell to make it happen.


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