Sociology

Notes from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

A few years back I was talking with a friend about how much more frequent and easier air travel had gotten even since I was a kid. I mentioned that our kids would probably travel constantly and never settle down, and he responded “or maybe we’ll run out of resources and they won’t be able to travel at all.”

That was the first time I really considered that our way of life might not continue growing forever, and may end or transform completely. Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a short, poetic exploration of how we might come to terms with our mortality as a civilization, and if we must die out, learn how to die well. It’s a dark book, but offers an unexpected olive branch in the form of the humanities as a way to avoid the worst of what might come.

The Big Idea

Humanity’s survival through the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism and into the new world of the Anthropocene will hinge on our ability to let our old way of life die while protecting, sustaining, and reworking our collective stores of cultural technology. (23)

Scranton highlights that the foundations of our civilization are the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell stories about endless technological progress and individual fulfillment, we are likely to fall into chaos once our resources run out. But if we tell stories about what’s best–and most basic–about human culture, we build knowledge and a support system for harder times.

Rather than technology, this emphasizes the humanities as the most important area to develop in ourselves and our children. Scranton argues that reading, writing, singing and drawing new stories about “the good life” is the best way to protect against the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, and societal collapse.

The first step, though, is to personally and as a society realize our mortality and shift to a mindset of collective responsibility.

5 favorite quotes

  • Politics, whether for bees or for humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. This is where the ideas of the vote, the town hall meeting, and the public debate get their power: humans come together to resonate on one frequency or another. (55-56)
  • Accepting this emptiness, letting go of my self, was only the first step in coming to understand my responsibility to and participation in a larger collective self, a kind of human existence transcending any particular place or time, going back to our first moments in Africa 200,000 years ago, and living on in the dim, fraught future of the Anthropocene.(93-94)
  • “All the wisdom and reasoning in this world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.” – Michel de Montaigne (91)
  • The only inherent trait of the human ape that differentiates us from other animals is our knack for collective symbolic manipulation. (94)
  • The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life…The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself. (99; 110)

Next steps

I’ve long wanted to write simple children’s books about the future, and illustrating possible good lifestyles in a challenging environment seems like a good way to do that. Will make that a priority this year.

Update – Just found out I posted this on the day Ursula Le Guin died. Sad news. A quote of hers that applies quite nicely here:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

How images change the world

An interesting argument about how and why to look at photographs of suffering. First, put yourself in the position of the photographer; imagine you are seeing what they did right in front of you:

Azoulay asks her readers to project themselves into the scenes of photographs, to notice the power dynamics at play, to identify the participants, and to view the outcomes not as inevitable but as one possibility among many.

Then prepare yourself to act when you see similar situations in the future:

Viewers, through careful observation of images of horror, become witnesses who “can occasionally foresee or predict the future,” she writes. As a result, they can warn others of “dangers that lie ahead” and take action to prevent them…

To be resisted, it seems, violence must be seen, and photography makes such vision possible.

Bourgeois Bias

As economic inequality grows, cultural differences are making the gap even harder to bridge, argues David Brooks:

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Brooks, of course, wrote one of the defining books on what it means to be upper-middle class in America, with Bobos in Paradise back in 2000.

That said, it’s ridiculous to say that “structural barriers…are less important than the informal social barriers.” The financial, political, and racial disadvantages built into our society are far more difficult to overcome than challenges in choosing the right sandwich at the deli. But all of them are important.

When privilege kills

What’s behind the increased rate of deaths from suicide, drug abuse, and heart disease for middle-aged white Americans? According to Nobel Prize winning economists Case and Deaton, it might be that they’re just not able to fulfill their own expectations:

Most of the increase in white deaths is concentrated among those who never finished college. These are the same people who have been pummeled by the economy in recent decades…

White American men without a college degree still earn 36 percent more than their black counterparts. But the death rate among less-educated black Americans has actually been decreasing…

Case and Deaton believe that white Americans may be suffering from a lack of hope. The pain in their bodies might reflect a “spiritual” pain caused by “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.”

Maybe Calvin had it right after all: