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Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Reflections on the End of Civilization

by Roy Scranton
Reviewed by Stephen Kaye

In this barely 100 page volume, Roy Scranton draws on anthropology, geology, astronomy, the classics and contemporary environmental literature in coming to terms with what seems like the ultimate human dilemma.  He recognizes that global warming poses a real, predictable, and inevitable threat to civilization and to human survival.  He ponders the truth that we ourselves set into motion the reactions in the atmosphere, the ocean and weather patterns that will likely lead to a catastrophe well beyond anything our civilization has ever dealt with.  And he accepts the fact that humans are unlikely to do anything effective to get ourselves off reliance on fossil fuels.   

We have been recording the weather patterns proving the earth and the seas are  warming; we have been alerted to details like rising seas, hotter summers and stronger storms. We know we are running out of fresh water.  We know droughts are causing migrations of peoples.  We also know that continued reliance on fossil fuels aggravates the situation by adding to greenhouse gases, the cause of global warming.  Scranton takes the script a bit further than most writers on the subject, most of whom warn that time is running out.  

Scranton posits that man has not been designed to deal with the problem of survival as a species.  We are prone to violence.  He drags out the Homeric myth as a basic description of how men act and have always acted, that is to say, violently. As resources get scarce, the have-nots attack those who have.  Our nation-state form of governance does not allow for global action, and global action is what is necessary.  It is the problem of the commons on a global scale.  

Roy Scranton

He holds no hope for a technological fix.  He assumes that our dependence on fossil fuels will continue; that man will not accept a giant decrease in his consumptive habits.  The most optimistic projection for alternative energy falls far short of the degree of decarbonization thought necessary. Even a total abandonment of carbon fuels may not be effective because we have crossed the threshold. 

In short, he suggests that we come to terms with death, the inevitable consequence of releasing millions of years of accumulated carbon in a century or two.  He says, “it’s over folks, or soon will be.”  

Will the consequence be to work harder to save ourselves from extinction, or will we party to the end?    One hopeful point is that this small volume was on the best seller list and is being read widely by the young. 


Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Reflections on the End of Civilization

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: City Lights Publishers (October 6, 2015)
  • ISBN-10: 0872866696