A few weeks back I read an interesting essay by Jedediah Purdy on Aeon written in the halcyon days of 2015. An article which, given the news, captured something essential and got me a little depressed. Within the space of the last three weeks hurricanes of almost unprecedented magnitude slammed into Houston, then, Florida, then Puerto Rico. All were bad, but the last looked something like something straight out of a Hollywood apocalyptic. It wasn’t just the scale of the storm that hit it which made the situation in Puerto Rico so much more dire, it was the lack of resources to deal with the aftermath, along with the highly racialized response of the American government to hurricane Maria’s destruction. A delayed, politicized rescue, which was inexcusable given the fact that Puerto Ricans are as much US citizens as any of my Pennsylvanian neighbors.
Purdy knew this was coming. The argument in his 2015 essay essentially boils down to the claim that it’s less climate change that is the problem than the structural inequality of the world in which this change is happening. As he puts it:
Planetary changes will amplify the inequalities that sort out those who get news from those who get catastrophes; but these inequalities, arising as they do from a post-natural nature, will feel as if they were built into the world itself. Indeed, nature has always served to launder the inequalities that humans produce.
In his essay Purdy makes the case for what he calls a “democratic Anthropocene” where these inequalities are addressed as opposed to both the catastrophism of a vocal segment of the environmental movement, or the view known as Ecomodernism that wants us to double down on green technology, but leaves late capitalism itself unaddressed. Purdy’s is a view I found remarkably similar to that expressed by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.
A world transformed by climate change that refuses to address inequality will be one where the wealthy in Phoenix hide from a 120 degree heat in air conditioned domes, while the poor in India and other poor countries die from the heat of the summer sun. The situation in Puerto Rico makes me doubt we will be moral enough to prevent that from happening. And yet, when grappling with Purdy’s argument I couldn’t help thinking that this split between three wings of the environmental movement all of which agree that climate change is happening and demands a human response isn’t all that productive. His division is based on the idea that we can know exactly what kind of climate changed world we are moving into, which we can’t. And precisely because we can’t, the best path forward is to take a little wisdom from each.
Depending upon whether one is a proponent of the democratic Anthropocene, argues for a rapid and broad application of green technology, or thinks we’re headed for a civilization destroying catastrophe depends on which climate change trajectory one thinks we’re on. The possible scenarios have been meticulously laid out by the IPCC. Here’s their 2014 projections.
Perhaps surprisingly, both Purdy and the Ecomodernists seem to share the assumption that we are headed for the lower to mid-range estimates of the IPCC in terms of the global rise in temperature.
If we do stay in the low to middle temperature range then it really is a political dispute, which is really about whether we keep global capitalism or jettison it for an also global, but democratic, alternative. Yet there’s no apparent reason why such democratic globalism can’t also be based on green technology. The fact that many green technologists now seem unconcerned with questions of political economy is likely an accident of history. The fact that they live in an era where the state can’t seem to get anything done. Had the need to rapidly respond to climate change occurred in the political and economic conditions of the middle of the 20th century Ecomodernists would be arguing for massive action by states.
Still, any rise in the 4-5 degree Celsius range, let alone above it, would make a democratic Anthropocene almost inconceivable- the world’s ice sheets would disappear, coastal cities in the developed world would be slowly drowned sending a flood of refugees into the interior. Industrial food systems would fail. Not merely would the advanced countries be unlikely to save those facing even worse crises in the developing world, they themselves would likely break apart into cities and regions struggling just to save their own communities. Rather than being global, democracy would, at best, be found at the level of cities and small states.
Global warming above the IPCC mid-range would transform the perspective of Ecomodernists as well. Having found that the shift to a non-fossil fuel economy had proven far too late, they would likely embrace geoengineering as the only solution.
Scientists are a clever bunch, but sometimes clever by half. A few years ago some of them were arguing that we had a cheap way to hold off global warming while we got our act together. We could, volcano like, spew sulfates into the atmosphere to cool the earth. The orange sky we’d get as a consequence might put the fear of God in us, and inspire a change in our ways. Fortunately, other scientists pointed out that the acid rain from our sulfuric sunshade might also kill all the world’s trees.
It’s the view that we’re irreversibly on the course to a civilization shattering 5 degree or higher temperature that is truly radical and gives us a glimpse of a world radically different than our own. In a widely debated article in The New York Review back in July called The Uninhabitable Earth David Wallace-Wells laid out just how ugly things could get if we exceeded the IPCC’s projections.
Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size.
Critics of Wallace-Wells accused him of engaging in disaster-porn, of robbing us of the confidence that climate change was a tractable problem, or even the faith that our species had a future at all. Yet that was precisely the point. Civilization needs its Noahs in the unlikely event the storm proves a deluge.
We might actually be very lucky that those prophesying disaster are so good at storytelling. For while both the Ecomodernists and proponents of a democratic Anthropocene have given us excellent novelists- Ramez Naam, Kim Stanley Robinson– among those warning of catastrophe can be counted some of the best new novelists of our young century, writers such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Paul Kingsnorth, and Roy Scranton.
It is Roy Scranton’s non-fiction meditation on what he believes to be our civilization’s inevitable collapse, Learning to die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization that I’ll primarily deal with here. Purdy has been trenchantly dismissive of the case Scranton makes that we need to “learn to die” as “a suggestive but, upon scrutiny, meaningless gesture”. That is unfair.
Scranton is working under the assumption that not only will we reach the high end of the IPCC’s projection, we might even blow beyond them. This really would bring death, not only to billions of human beings but to our civilization as we have known it. It would constitute a dark age far more substantial than any collapse from history, and might even result in the death of our species, especially if accompanied by wars between nuclear powers.
The idea that industrial civilization and the biosphere might ultimately prove incompatible is no less philosophically coherent than the views of either Purdy or the Ecomodernists. Purdy, as he argues in his book After Nature, wants us to jettison the sharp division between ourselves and the natural world to embrace a more full version of the world where we accept our human impact and relate to the world as beings within it. It’s an attractive view parts of which he sees implicit in the writings of Thoreau. The problem is we have long left the world of Thoreau’s “stone tools and potsherds” to enter the period of what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”, entities of such scale and complexity that they they escape our ability to fully control or even understand.
Whenever I want to get a better picture of the scale of human-created hyperobjects I think back to an observation made by Yuval Harari that the world’s domesticated animals, taken together, weigh not only double that of all the human beings on earth, but are seven times the weight of all of the world’s large land animals combined, or that there are more chickens in Europe than all of that continent’s wild birds taken together.
The answer of Ecomodernists to the development and environmental destruction wreaked by hyperobjects is to argue that we are already and need to continue decoupling from nature. The littorialization of humanity- the mass movement all over the world of populations to the coasts combined with the emptying out and rewilding of the interiors of the continents– Ecomodernists point to as evidence that civilization is evolving in ways more sustainable for the rest of the natural world. They’re made even more optimistic due to the fact that urbanization has been linked to a decline in population growth.
Yet such decoupling remains a faith. It’s not clear that we could ever hermetically seal human civilization from the biosphere, or what the ethical costs to such a separation would be. It’s not even clear if we should as a matter of aesthetics and human flourishing.
Scranton’s Learning to die is premised on the fact that both Purdy and the Ecomodernists are wrong. The effects of industrial civilization on the rest of nature and their threat to our way of life are far more substantial than any idea of a democratic Anthropocene contains, and we are too late to innovate our way out of the path we are on with our utter dependence on a carbon based economy to sustain the vast technological web in which we are entangled.
Is the catastrophe of 5 degrees or warmer temperature destroying our civilization likely? Probably not, but there are too many unknowns to simply dismiss the warning as mere fiction: the move away from fossil fuels could stall or collapse due to economic, political or technological factors, negative feedback loops might prove far more sensitive than scientists currently estimate, human-made warming could engender far more potent natural warming such as the release of methane from melting permafrost, natural carbon sinks could fail- the list goes on and on. (Of course, equally unknowable lucky accidents could await us as well).
What’s the most meaningful thing you can do if you think your civilization is about to collapse? Build an archive. Scranton is urging us to do something very similar to what people in the days before the cloud would do when their house was burning down and beyond preserving: they saved the photo albums. He wants us to save what he sees as the most valuable thing our civilization has created- its reflection upon itself. The literature and philosophy we have crafted over the millennia as we have grappled with what it meant to be human.
Like the authors he praises, Scranton’s reflections in Learning to die are ones I find myself continuously returning to for spiritual subsistence drawn to passages such as these:
We are born half-blind, confused, wired into a world we don’t understand. Within the night of this world, we apprehend our future as a field of freedom. We face this freedom as individuals, fully in the present, yet our actions are determined by the past and take on their full meaning only in the future. As we gain in wisdom, individual consciousness reveals its complex entanglements with collective life, history, and the universe. (94)
This astonishing cosmos is our home. There is no other. There is no Heaven, no Hell, no Judgement, no Elysium. We humans are precocious multicellular energy machines building hives on a rock in space, machines made up of and connected to countless other machines, each of us a microcosm. Trillions and trillions of microorganisms live on our skin and in our stomachs, mouths, intestines, and respiratory tracts while we spin through our lives in innumerable intersecting orbits, shaped and pulled by forces beyond our reckoning. We are machines of machines in machines, and all seeking homeostatic perpetuation and our lives and deaths pass through this great cycle like mosquitoes rising and falling in a puddle drying in the summer sun. (112)
We are finite and limited machines, but we are not merely machines: we are vibrating bodies of energy, condensations of stellar dust and fire, at once matter and life, extension and thought, moment and frequency. The iron in our blood, the oxygen we breathe, and the carbon of which we are composed were all created in the dying hearts of stars. We are creatures of light, and can find in our history the lineaments of photohumanism going back ancient days, a form thought more powerful than any electronic web, more profound than any merely social media. As was written in the Book of Proverbs, “The human spirit is the lamp of God, searching all the innermost parts.” (115)
Yet I would have little doubt that the survival of our humanist legacy, not as a dead archive but as a living tradition, would have required deliberate effort even absent the existential dangers posed by climate change. Much of our cultural heritage has already been disparaged by the new intelligentsia born in the late 1960’s as being little but the patriarchal reflection of “dead white men”. Our over-priced universities have already become hyper-utilitarian, a post-college course in the “great books” billed as a way to make one’s resume more interesting. The tradition, and this includes the extension of the literary tradition brought about by film, requires the kind of focus and reflection increasingly less likely in a world flooded with ever changing entertainment. For those still exposed to this depth in college and now employed in the desperate hope of paying off their college loans and creating a life, many simply do not have the time such engagement requires. In some respects we are already in a new Dark Age.
These too are political questions and it is here where Scranton’s almost Calvinist fatalism ultimately fails us. His belief that the time when political action could have halted climate change has passed does not mean that every attempt at politics will also prove a failure. Not only do the individuals who wish to preserve the legacy of photohumanism outside of the universities have a clear project in front of them, those who believe we have been too late when it comes to action on climate change do so as well, and both projects are, thankfully, far more tractable than the other problem before us.
If those who are now proclaiming that there is no escape from our fate really do believe so then they need to start advocating and raising funds for efforts to prepare us for the end of our world. We need something like what Lewis Dartnell does for individuals in his book The Knowledge, but at the level of groups. Cohorts need to be prepared to preserve and reboot all kinds of social legacies, such as medical and agricultural knowledge and not just the beauty of human religion, literature and philosophy.
Given its relatively low costs when compared to, say, transforming our entire energy infrastructure, or reversing the inequality between advanced and developing countries, such a project of preparing for the worst need not conflict with either Ecomodernism or those hoping for a democratic Anthropocene. Until we really can be sure which of the three Anthropocenes we have wrought the most prudent option remains some combination of the technological, the democratic, and the search for shelter.