Death and the Anthropocene: Roy Scranton

25330145There is a name for this new world: the Anthropocene. The word comes from ancient Greek. All the epochs of the most recent geological era (the Cenozoic) end in the suffix “-cene,” from kainós, meaning new. Anthropos means human. The idea behind the term “Anthropocene” is that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. (17)

There you have this new word being thrown around in environmental and urbanist and academic circles — anthropocene. It annoyed me at first, I confess. But new words often do, when they feel like an academic gimmick to make old ideas stand out. I’ve decided this isn’t one of those words though, I think it’s a good word.

I liked this tiny book as well, a couple of essays pushed into a just-long-enough form. There is plenty to ponder here with some solid references for climate change and the role human beings have played in entering this new period.

Thomas Schelling is one to remember, writing that carbon trading simply will not work. The idea of climate change as a ‘wicked’ problem, I am trying to remember where else I have seen that used:

Global warming is what is called a ‘wicked problem’: it doesn’t offer any clear solutions, only better and worse responses. One of the most difficult aspects to deal with is that it is a collective-action problem of the highest order. (53)

and this:

The problem with our response to climate change isn’t a problem with passing the right laws or finding the right price for carbon or changing people’s minds or raising awareness. Everybody already knows. The problem is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. the problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is that the problem is us. (68)

There were a few other references that fascinated me — Mount Tambora exploding in 1816, creating ‘The Year Without a Summer’ (52). And then the ‘dark snow’ effect that is helping melt glaciers in Greenland (52). I have never heard of either.

But really, this comes down to a rather interesting philosophical take on what is needed now from human beings:

To survive as a soldier, I had to learn to accept the inevitability of my own death. For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization. Change, risk, conflict, strife and death are the very processes of life, and we cannot avoid them. We must learn to accept and adapt. (22)

There is a lot about death. A calling on samurai wisdom. I feel this probably works for some, but at the same time it is such a male path, a warrior path — and it feels like a path, a way. This is such a continuation of beat poets and City Lights tradition. Nothing about love, healing, compassion, creation, cooperation in here, though I think they are as much processes of life as anything else. Vandana Shiva is as much a warrior, but it has nothing of her love or hopes for the future or sense of connection to the world nor how we might change things in very different fashion. So all in all, I wouldn’t mind working side by side with people on this way, but it is not one I would chose. Or that would choose me.

I’m not one to completely discount the need for violence in liberation, but I disagree that violent struggle is the real maker of change. Nor do I quite see civil rights struggles in the same light. He writes:

‘What’s more, the success of the Civil Rights movement can’t be properly understood, without taking into account federal military interventions'(73)

He lists Eisenhower sending troops in 1957 to desegregate Little Rock schools, Robert Kennedy sending marshals to university of Mississippi in 1962, John Kennedy sending troops to stop rioting at University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama 1963, federal troops protecting marchers from Montgomery to Selma. (73)

‘…the fight to win fundamental civil rights and political equality from segregationists and racists was grinding, dangerous, and aggressive: it strove to take something from Southern white racists that they didn’t want to give up, namely power. (74)

And from this he goes on to quote Heraclitus:

It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife. (76)


Fight. Flight. Fight. Flight. The threat of death activates our deepest animal drives. (77)

I think there’s a bit more to us, to animals. I have to disagree strongly with Heraclitus.

The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality. (23)

I think acceptance of this statement will help some people, but I don’t think it will mean anything or be at all helpful to others.

The other really interesting thing in here, though, was on resonance, energy, our communication and how it is changing and potentially changing us. Think of bees and their dancing, their hive mind, and then think of twitter and facebook:

Politics, whether for bees or humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. (55-56)

Are we really organised entirely around energy? That is a really fucking interesting thought, though I’m not sure I buy it:

The key is energy: energy production and social energetics. Just as a beehive is structured around the production of honey, so are human societies structured around labor, horses, wheat, coal, and oil. How bodies harvest, produce, organize, and distribute energy determines how power flows, shaping the political arrangements of a given collective organism behind whatever ideologies the ruling classes may use to manufacture consent, obscure the mechanisms of control, or convince themselves of their infallible omniscience. (56)

He quotes Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (on my list to read for some time now)

Workers were gradually connected together not so much by the weak ties of a class culture, collective ideology, or political organization, but by the increasing and highly concentrated quantities of carbon energy they mined, loaded, carried, stoked, and put to work. The coordinated acts of interrupting, slowing down, or diverting its movement created a decisive political machinery, a new form of collective capability built out of coalmines, railways, power stations, and their operators. (58)

I’m just not so sure this is entirely true as the foundation of power whether or capital or labour, or even of organising. Again it is such a male world, a working world that has nothing to do with women and children, home and community, words, race, sexuality, cities… so much is left out of this equation.

He has this interesting theory about vibrations though, the way we now share and thus amplify meme after meme, pictures, news, sound-bite beliefs:

But politics is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems, and we live in a system of carbon-fueled capitalism that we shouldn’t expect to work in physical human ways for several reasons, especially when it comes to responding to the threat of global warming. First, our political and social media technologies are not neutral, but have been developed to serve particular interests…Second, the more we pass on or react to social vibrations, the more we strengthen our habits of channeling and the less we practice autonomous reflection or independent critical thought. With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers. Third, however intense our social vibrations grow, they remain locked within a machinery that offers no political leverage:  they do not translate into political action, because they do not connect to the flows of power. (84-85)

This is so SF, so William Gibson, I don’t think the internet and virtual reality has actually quite worked out like this. But maybe. It’s worth a ponder:

A new form of life has become evident: humanity has revealed itself as collective energy, light swarming across a darkened planet, a geological forcing, data and flow. We live in networks, webs, and hives, jacked in to remote-controlled devices and autonomous apps, moments of being in time, out of time. No longer individual subjects or discrete objects, we jave become vibrations, channelers, tweeters and followers. (107)

As is the idea that there are ‘new technologies of photohumanism’ and what that means.

I confess I like too the call for a renewed humanism — reminds of Edward Said’s defense of it really as a critical consciousness and an awareness of all that has come before us and all that will come after:

Philosophical humanism in its most radical practice is the disciplined interruption of somatic and social flows, the detachment of consciousness from impulse, and the condensation of conceptual truths out of the granular data of experience. It is the study of “dying and being dead,” a divestment from this life in favour of deeper investments in a life beyond ourselves. (91)

I like too that it is something we actively engage in, it is not just an archive:

The study of the humanities is nothing less than the [patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. (99)

I’m not sure at the end, quite where this leaves those of us who feel more called to life and love than death though.

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