By in Science

Article Review: "Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene" by Roy Scranton from "The Best Science and Nature Writing 2014"

Author Roy Scranton is an Iraq War veteran. He describes the 2003 invasion of Baghdad (with some justification) as “the end of the world.” Later, stateside, he watches the Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and cause the “same chaos and urban collapse” he’d witnessed in Baghdad. His unit was put on alert to prepare for riot operations. “The grim future I’d seen in Baghdad was coming home… a civilization in collapse, with a crippled infrastructure, unable to recuperate from shocks to its system.”

Scranton says while he was in Iraq, he read works such as Simone Weil’s The Iliad or the Poem of Force and an 18th century samurai manual, Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. The latter contains a nugget that Scranton took to heart: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.

Even though he knew that he was relatively safe in Baghdad, Scranton made it a practice to “die” daily before he went out on patrol. He knew then that he was already dead. He learned how to die in Iraq.

His experience with Katrina taught him that he wasn’t safe even at home. Mankind has had such an impact on the global system that some scientists have taken to naming a geological time period after him: the Anthropocene. It is already too late.

The biggest problem we have, he says, is not failure to change our ways. It is a philosophical one, that is, accepting that our civilization is already dead.

And this jolly old elf is planning book-length tidings of joy based on this idea, due out this year.

I confess that I cannot judge the merits of his arguments too finely. We have Venus to look at for runaway greenhouse gas effects, but I don’t think there’s evidence of intelligent actors who could work to stop that. That there are problems cannot be dismissed out of hand. Just the same, we’re not fossils yet.


Title: “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”

Published in: The Best Science and Nature Writing 2014

First Published: The New York Times Nov. 10, 2013

Author: Roy Scranton



© 2015 Denise Longrie

Image Credit » by Bonnybbx

You will need an account to comment - feel free to register or login.


Ruby3881 wrote on July 23, 2015, 1:33 AM

You got it done! And beautifully, might I add emoticon :smile:
I tend to agree with you that we are not fossils yet. Although I am very familiar with the concept of meditating on one's own death, and actually witnessed my father-in-law live the process of withdrawing his consciousness wilfully from his body as he prepared to his own death, I don't think I'm quite ready to accept the death of the human species. I might read the article, but confess I'd be leery of reading the book.

MegL wrote on July 23, 2015, 3:09 AM

That sounds interesting, must look out for that. I also like the idea of meditating daily on one's own inevitable death.

msiduri wrote on July 23, 2015, 8:38 AM

Ruby3881 You've made my day with your kind words. It was an interesting article, and I can see and understand the idea of meditating on one's own death daily both as a combat solider like Scranton in the case of your father-in-law. I question whether things are so dire that it's necessary to do so as a society, however, even granted that the earth will not exist forever and chances are that humans probably will not either.

msiduri wrote on July 23, 2015, 8:42 AM

MegL It was interesting. And the philosophical concept of meditating daily on one's own inevitable death has its place, but not if it interferes with life, IMHO.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 25, 2015, 11:39 PM

It does feel ever so slightly (maybe more than slightly) fatalistic, doesn't it? I suppose there's some value in accepting neither we as a race, nor our planet, are immortal. But if we haven't quite reached the tipping point, shouldn't we be working on bringing ourselves back from the brink?

CalmGemini wrote on July 26, 2015, 8:02 AM

While I can understand a combat soldier like Scranton meditating daily about one's own death,I do not think we should do that in our every life. Ruby3881 has a point.

msiduri wrote on July 26, 2015, 9:20 AM

That and, frankly, there's the virtue in the simple human acts of kindness and compassion. I disagree with Scranton that we've gone too far, though who knows? I don't think there's any specific lines to cross (or knowledge that we've crossed them) because such things are immensely complicated. In the meantime, it doesn't hurt to act with kindness toward our fellow human being, though around us and those yet unborn, IMHO.

msiduri wrote on July 26, 2015, 9:24 AM

I agree. It would detract from one's life. His argument is that we humans have damaged the environment so badly that there's no turning back. We have to accept that. I don't think he's arguing for non-action, but acceptance that our actions for the environment will be ultimately futile. My response would be that if our efforts on behalf of the environment ease suffering, even if they are ultimately futile, they have served a purpose.

CalmGemini wrote on July 26, 2015, 9:37 AM

Exactly.That is what I think.