How to Live: 1. Learn to Die

By Emma Cupitt|October 29, 2016


Watercolour by Judy Kuo

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the end of a civilization. By Roy Scranton. Published 2015 by City Lights Books, 142 pages.

In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton sets out from a concept that will be familiar to those concerned about anthropogenic climate change: ‘We’re fucked’.[i]  However, the book is not nearly as pessimistic as its title suggests. Scranton does not urge us to be resigned to human extinction (although he does acknowledge that the chance of the species surviving is ‘slim’).[ii] Rather, for Scranton, ‘Death is nothing more than passing from one pattern into another’; so ‘learning to die’ as a civilisation means finding a new way of living.[iii]

Discovering a new way of life requires a renewed attention to the humanities because,

‘the conceptual and existential problems that the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the heart of humanistic enquiry: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live? What is good?’.[iv]

The Anthropocene refers to an era in which humans are not just biological, but geological agents. It seems pretty straight-forward that the study of humanity should be central to the study of human-induced climate change. This was emphasised by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty at a recent talk at the ANU when he pointed out that the words we associate with climate change are not scientific words. For example, ‘danger’ is a subjective term, and we conceive of ‘renewable’ on a human timescale: if you wait long enough, what we call non-renewables can be replenished.[v] Moreover, using the humanities to study how our present existence came about, including how people lived in the past, opens up the possibilities of what our existence might be like in the future.

For a history student, used to hearing that (and feeling like) my discipline lacks utility, I am heartened by Scranton’s foregrounding of the humanities, especially by his comment: ‘the only thing that might save us in the Anthropocene, because it is the only thing that can save those who are already dead [is]: memory’.[vi] This resonates with a point historian Tom Griffiths makes in his recently published book, The Art of Time Travel. Professor Griffiths writes of the importance of recognising the continuities of the past in the present to help us understand our present. However, he also emphasises the importance of unfamiliarity with the past in order to ‘widen our understanding of what it means to be human’.[vii] We need to embrace the strangeness of past events so that we can resist the comfortable familiarity of our present way of life. Although Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is about acceptance, it is far from promulgating passivity. Accepting that anthropogenic climate change spells the end of our civilisation means actively resisting the idea that ‘tomorrow will be much like today’.[viii] Which, as Scranton points out, humans have a habit of doing.

So we need a new way of living, but what is ambiguous in the book is who ‘we’ refers to. It is difficult to determine whether Scranton believes carbon-fueled capitalism or humanity is the problem. On the one hand, he explicitly states that ‘Carbon-fueled capitalism is a zombie system’ that is irreconcilable with decarbonisation.[ix] On the other hand, his emphasis on the Anthropocene (a term that has been criticised for obfuscating the role of capitalism in bringing about climate change) and his writing about humans in a general way seem to indicate that we need to change not just systemically but also as a species. It seems likely that when Scranton writes about ‘humanity’, he means only the section of humanity with hyper-consumptive, carbon-fueled capitalist lifestyles.

The most disappointing part of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is Scranton’s belief that collective action is impotent in our system of carbon-fueled capitalism. He writes that power within our system is dependent on the flows of energy. During the 19th century reliance on coal enabled workers to disrupt the flow of energy and, thus, the functioning of entire societies. Now, with our reliance on mixed sources of energy (coal, gas, oil), these possibilities do not exist: people cannot ‘put their hands on the real flows of power, because they do not help produce it’.[x] Scranton uses the People’s Climate March as an example of how collective action in our context burns masses of carbon as we pass on our concerns on social media, ‘hoping that others will validate our reaction, thus assuaging our fear by assuring ourselves that collective attention has been alerted to the threat’.[xi] By discharging our fears, we fail to reflect on them, and reflection is integral to rethinking our existence.

This argument seems at least tenable, if not conclusive. It is disappointing because it does not outline how we are supposed to adopt a new way of living without acting collectively. Scranton emphasises the role of the individual who can think on a different frequency from dominant culture. Perhaps individuals such as these are crucial to rethinking our civilisation. Ultimately though, their thoughts must be applied to the population as a whole, and this requires collective action.

The book’s main message seems pretty obvious: of course we need to change. However, its emphasis on literature, philosophy and history endow this message with nuance and originality. The book does not tell us which novelists, poets, philosophers or historians have the answers. It does not tell us how we should live in the Anthropocene. It does not tell us how we should organise collectively to bring about change. It does, however, tell us that living in the Anthropocene may be possible.


Emma Cupitt is a Demos Editor


[i] p.16.

[ii] p.27.

[iii] p.113.

[iv] p.20.

[v] Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty gave a talk on ‘Climate change and the humanities’ at the Crawford School of Public Policy, 4 August 2016.

[vi] p.95.

[vii] Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel, (Carlton: Black Inc., 2016), p.5.

[viii] p.22.

[ix] p.23, p.43.

[x] p.60. Scranton draws on Tomothy Mitchell’s book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the age of Oil (New York: Verso, 2011).

[xi] p.79.

More Pieces