Instead of Learning to Live We are Learning to Die

U.S. presidents may brazenly insist that the American way of life is not negotiable but Nature is not asking to negotiate; our willingness to change light bulbs and drive new cars would certainly not appease her anyway.  We are not really even negotiating in good faith; these things are gestures more than concessions.

In the stages of grief, we are seemingly somewhere between bargaining and depression; very few are still clinging to full-fledged denial and very few have reached the plane of acceptance.  Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall…and in the New York Times as well: this civilization is dead.

In an editorial titled “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene,” Roy Scranton writes:

Many thinkers…have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.

He also writes:

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. 

The truth is that things are both more and less hopeful than Roy Scranton suggests.  We still do have to learn how to die as individuals, to cultivate healthier attitudes toward death, to learn new ways of coping with loss on a grand scale.  Civilization has allowed the human population to swell to wildly unsustainable numbers and to densely populate inherently dangerous terrain.  To use the word “invasive” would not do the situation justice.  Natural disasters take on an unnatrual scale when they collide with mass society.  We are building on the sand and are shocked when the tide comes in.

Climate change fueled disasters kill vast numbers but each person dies an individual death: it may be trapped in an attic with water levels climbing the stairs, unable to scratch through the roof to the open air above or it may be in a nursing home without power succumbing to the latest heat wave.  Less spectacularly, death may come after working in the mines seeking out the rare earth metals necessary for smart phones and solar panels.  Like nonhuman animals going to slaughter, the numbers are at times so vast as to overshadow the fact that each death is its own tragedy.  No matter how long the kill line is; it’s a horrifyingly novel experience for each particular individual.

Ten thousand deaths in the Philippines boggles the mind not equipped to process such numbers; in many ways the outpouring of grief after the Boston Marathon bombing seemed greater, perhaps simply because the numbers were smaller and more readily understandable.  It is difficult to meaningfully grieve for 10,000.

Fortunately, learning to die as a civilization is not nearly so tragic.  It is enormously difficult but not tragic.  It is indistinguishable from learning to live.  It is a metaphorical death similar to the rites of passage in an individual life; it is moving on to something greater even if the transition is uncomfortable.  If I were writing Mr. Scranton’s editorial I would have titled it “Learning to Live” for we know all too well how to be dead, we’ve been dead for a very long time now.  It may be why zombies are currently so popular: it is difficult to understand how we can be dead and yet continue to kill.

Civilization is dead; we just have yet to put it in the ground and walk away.  Eventually the company of a corpse will be too much to bear and we’ll be forced to move on to something better.

(Credit to Bob Dylan for the title of this post)