I just finished Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton. It’s a quick read, only having taken me a couple days to slowly enjoy. For such a compact text, it still packs quite the punch.
To get an idea of where Scranton is coming from, consider him to be the love child of Peter Wessel Zapffe (“The Last Messiah”) and Morris Berman (The Twilight of American Culture) who was raised watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and then sent off to war with an anthology of ancient Greek literature stuffed in with his military gear. He actually doesn’t mention either Zappfe, Berman, or Sagan. But Zappfe in particular came to mind while reading, as he was the original inspiration of Deep Ecology.
Even though I doubt he is in the same intellectual tradition as Zappfe, Scranton with his stoical and cosmological attitude does capture the mood of philosophical pessimism. Still, there is an odd far-reaching optimism in his sympathetic view of humanity. He is no misanthrope.
The idea that most captured my attention came from another book, Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchell. I haven’t read Mitchell’s book. All I know of it is from what Scranton wrote. But from that little taste it was satisfying. It seems a potentially compelling explanation of how the modern world came to be and what changed.
The basic idea is that coal made democracy possible. Coal mining and transportation required large numbers of workers. It was also very localized, both in terms of the communities of workers and in terms of infrastructure. It gave citizens great power and leverage to demand their rights. This is what the very essence of democratization.
Oil changed all of that. Fewer people were needed. And the infrastructure was no longer as limited, pipes and ships could be redirected to avoid conflicts and disruptions. The oil giants swept the legs of democracy, as Johnny Lawrence did to Daniel LaRusso in “Karate Kid.” It was inevitable and predictable.
This is why no one in power is going to do anything about climate change. Their power is dependent on oil. And this is why the general public is so complacent. It’s not just that they feel powerless. It goes deeper than that. Our entire society is dependent on oil. We traded democracy for consumerism, comfort, and convenience.
Governments, politics, and activism won’t solve this problem. Our world is determined by our dominant energy source, what fuels it all and makes it all possible. Unless we find new energy sources and new ways of using that energy, we will continue on this path to wherever it leads.
Considering the hard data of the options before us, it is hard to imagine what that new world might look like. At this point, we are hoping for a technological miracle to save us. For those like Scranton who are staring down stark reality, this leads to a philosophical view of humanity, a stepping back to see the big picture. I think that is a good thing, better than our present state of being driven by the dynamics of fear and hope, denial and desperation.
We need to stop, take a breath, and look with clear eyes.