Written Work by Graham T. Baden
Anthropologists and sociologists, historians and philosophers; scholars of all schools and colors have tracked the progress of Human Civilization since its very genesis. From the first use of fire to the agricultural revolution, industrialization to deindustrialization, society has pushed the limits of possibility, editing and adapting the environment to its own devices. This progression, when viewed linearly, appears to be a teleological ascension. “It’s getting better all the time,” it seems, at least if you’re a Beatles fan.
This progress though, while always in the best interests of the moment, is fated by contingency. That is to say, progress has not always worked in the best interests of its children. As the Ice Age cooled, early American hunters got so good at their jobs that they hunted woolly mammoths to extinction. European investors and colonizers got so good at creating an extensive plantation economy system that they implemented the forced migration and diaspora of nearly ten million Africans. The American and European industrial superstructure has become so “good” at the production and distribution of cheap material products that the developing world now chokes on the smog generated by Nike Sneakers and Western Pocketbooks.
As our species dashes headlong into a future for which we are neither prepared, nor particularly anxious, columnist Roy Scranton offers some sound advice to a civilization that is doomed to failure. He tells us how to die.
In his recent article “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” published on The New York Times online, Scranton offers a glimpse at our future and a reminder of our deaths. And who better to offer an opinion of death than an ex-Army private, a driver during the Second Iraq War who witnessed the fall of Baghdad? “A vision of hell,” he calls it.
“The Anthropocene,” like the Pleistocene or the Holocene, is a term that demarcates a geological epoch. This period, rather than being marked by the impact of an asteroid or the thawing of Eurasian glaciers, is an age defined by man’s impact on the planet; an impact that has undeniably altered the course of its future. It is difficult to track the ultimate impact of humanity’s interaction with the environment, but it is easy to read it in reverse. The Anthropocene is marked by dramatic changes of weather patterns, a species die-off of epic proportions, rapid global warming, and, in effect, the domestication of the planet. We have created a future that we are not biologically suited to inhabit. Knowing this, then, “How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?” Scranton asks.
In Iraq, Scranton found his way in the Bushido. An eighteenth-century manual of samurai code, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, which translated literally means “in the shadow of leaves,” makes sense of death and gives it purpose. “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily,” declares the Hagakure, and Scranton echoes its cry. The choice is a clear one, Scranton states, “We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday… desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.”
Scranton, like Tsunetomo, does not suggest that by acknowledging and understanding our deaths, we are to resign to defeat, only that civilization is doomed as we know itnow. Only by letting go our old ideas of progress and growth, only by letting them die, will we be able to invest in a future that is not built of retrospect and reaction. Only by accepting our deaths will we find a new space to create new life. “If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene,” Scranton suggests, “we must first learn how to die.”
Roy Scranton @RoyScranton, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” New York Times, November 10, 2013.