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The Courage to be Afraid – a review of Roy Scranton’s “We’re Doomed. Now What?”

“If people are not aware of the direction in which they are going, they will awaken when it is too late and when their fate has been irrevocably sealed.” – Erich Fromm

 

When times are grim one frequently encounters some variation of the refrain, “we’ll get through this.” This sentiment serves as a comforting reminder that even though human history is a has featured no shortage of dark and catastrophic times, that humanity somehow managed to struggle through it before. So, conceivably, it will trudge through it again. Little energy is devoted to interrogating who the “we” is that will “get through this,” nor is focus given to those who did not “get through” humanity’s past travails. Rather, this is a view that seeks to doggedly hold on to some sense of optimism, if not for this precise moment, then for the future.

And yet the declaration “we’ll get through this,” invites another question: “what if we won’t?”

That question is at the heart of Roy Scranton’s important essay collection We’re Doomed. Now What? a book which has little patience for heartwarming pleasantries and no interest in reassuring its readers that everything will be alright. Instead, the book is forthright – as the title makes clear – in stating that the grim times in which we find ourselves may well be but a prelude to even worse times. For in analyzing the present moment, Scranton is particularly interested in that which sets our times apart: climate change. Yes, there have been periods of political instability before; yes, would-be authoritarians rising to power on the back of xenophobic appeals is nothing new; and yes, bitter rivalries have divided nations throughout history – but the looming environmental catastrophe that threatens (or is destined) to destroy civilization as we know it upends our previous calculus. After all, the view that “we’ll get through this” is anchored in a perspective that the world of tomorrow will in most important ways be like the world of today. Yet, as Scranton reminds his readers, the world of tomorrow will be hotter, more frequently wracked by catastrophic weather events, and will have to contend with the human displacements caused by such climatic instability. As Scranton unsparingly notes, “the next several decades are likely going to be grim, brutish, and bloody” (68).

Those looking for a comforting book that will soothingly turn concerns about climate change into simple consumeristic lifestyle tweaks, will likely find Scranton’s book disturbing and his commentary unwelcome. But it is precisely that sort of person – the one seeking comfort, the one who still believes that “we’ll get through this” – who should devote the time and energy necessary to chew through this collection. And, to be clear, this is less a book that one reads than it is a book with which one wrestles as Scranton ruminates on climate change, the legacy of the war in Iraq, the nature of violence, and the meaning of mortality. The reader bears witness to Scranton’s own struggle to come to terms with these matters, and in the process is similarly forced to confront these issues. This is an unflinching book, it asks the questions consumer capitalism trains us not to ask, it lingers on the topics that we try to forget, it dwells on the history the media has moved on from, and instead of saying that the glass is half full it has the audacity to point out that there is barely any liquid left in the glass at all.

We’re Doomed. Now What? groups its essays, most of which were written between 2010 and 2018, under four headings: Climate and Change, War and Memory, Violence and Communion, and Last Thoughts. While each section, with the possible exception of the final one, stands alone, the interplay of themes and topics between the sections helps give the book much of its ethical weight and emotional heft. By drawing these, seemingly disparate, themes together Scranton is able to provide a broad view of a society lurching towards collapse. Though a reader can certainly selectively read essays or sections, to appreciate the full impact of the book it needs to be seen as a whole.

“We were born on the eve of what may be the human world’s greatest catastrophe. None of us chose this, not deliberately. None of us can choose to avoid it, either” (8) – such is the tragic tonality that makes up the leitmotif of life in the Anthropocene. To it belong the woebegone notes that can be heard in the background of melting arctic glaciers, and cities that live in glum anticipation of the climate change strengthened storm that will decimate them. It is yet another repetition of the Promethean drama in which those who steal fire from the gods are struck low for their hubris as we come too late to find that we are “unable to control the immense technologies we so arrogantly believed were ours” (24). Such arrogance finds its natural extension in the belief in just-in-time techno-fixes that will allow us to continue leading our lifestyles without making any changes. And it is comforting to believe in such fixes. After all, “climate change is hard to think about because it’s depressing and scary,” and one of the things that certainly makes the matter worse is our recognition that “there’s no mechanism for uniting the entire human species to move together in one direction” (48). Granted, humanity does seem to be moving “together in one direction” but that direction is towards the edge of the precipice for “we live today in the fall, in the aftertime of human progress and Western civilization, in the long dim days of decline and collapse and retrenchment and violence and confusion and sorrow and endless, depthless, unassuageable human suffering” (73).

It is easy to have premonitions of a violent future, and popular culture has trained us in the imaginary of social collapse, but Scranton’s experiences as a veteran of the war in Iraq ground his discussions of these matters in brutal truths. Throughout Scranton’s writing he continually displays a cognizance of mortality that seems to flow from his wartime understanding that, as he puts it, “I saw we had to die and it was foolish to deny it” (98). As a soldier in Iraq, Scranton was part of a state of the art mechanized fighting force wherein the soldiers “were storm troopers, force made flesh, gods in metal” (108), yet when he returned to Iraq as a journalist covering the elections for Rolling Stone Scranton was left to observe that “we had let loose a grisly pandemonium in Iraq, then walked away and tried to wash our hand of the whole affair” (186). Once more the matter of tragic hubris rears its head, wherein it matters little what the initial intent may have been as one stands amidst the wreckage, as Scranton poignantly notes, “it didn’t matter what we’d intended. What mattered was what we’d done” (202). And those are certainly comments that seem as horrendously applicable to describing climate change as they are to describing what the US military did in Iraq.

We live in an uncomfortable relationship with violence in our society – it is all around us, yet we hesitate to call some things violence (such as pollution), praise certain acts of violence (such as those committed by our armed forces), and consign much of the violence that shaped our world as being safely in the past. In literature “a good tragedy builds inexorably toward a moment of spectacular violence, when all the ratcheting tension is finally discharged in bloody havoc,” (242) and in tragedy we see “the song of the scapegoat, the sacrificial animal that bears the sins of the community and thereby, in its death or expulsion, expunges them” (243) – but in our present situation who is the “sacrificial animal” and will their being torn apart expunge the community’s sins? Or, to put it another way, “we are the world. But is there any we here at all?” (244). Might not the tragic end towards which we are building consume us all in its “moment of spectacular violence”? Against this backdrop “the impossible demand for infinite compassion is our only hope, the only way we might be saved” (285), and yet it remains an “impossible demand” one that befits the Quixotic not the reasonable.

What then is one to do against this melancholy backdrop of violence, war, and looming catastrophe? What is the point of even thinking in such situations? Well, for one thing, “thought is the opposite of a hot take” (310), and yet thought has not saved us from our present situation. After all, there has been plenty of excellent work on the various threats facing humanity and yet “we seem unable to act coherently and collectively to address this grave existential threat” a problem which is certainly exacerbated by the fact “that ‘we’ includes almost two hundred sovereign nations” (311). Yes, it may be unreasonable to place one’s hopes in “the impossible demand for infinite compassion,” but to read the worsening projections on climate change is to darkly acknowledge that “we seem incapable of listening to reason” (312). And these matters become all the more difficult when we attempt to think about the future not as an abstraction but as a time that we shall actually inhabit. Considering the world in which his daughter will grow up, Scranton notes with a glint of black humor that “my partner and I had, in our selfishness, doomed our child to life on a dystopian planet” (320). How does one prepare for a future that one does not entirely believe in? Should one start a college fund, or should one learn the hardscrabble skills that will allow one to eke out a life in a worsening hellscape? Faced with a looming catastrophe, should one simply retreat? No, as Scranton notes, “I’m committed to this world, the world I live in, in all its stupidity and doom, because this world is the one everyone else live in too” (324). And therefore to live in “this world” requires a commitment to thinking through what it means to live ethically in the now, while preparing for darker days to come.

True, against this backdrop it may seem that thinking will not save us, and yet “thought is, in the end, the only thing that can save us” (316). For “only thought can help us see who we are, know who we are, and help us to reconcile our imaginary collective models of the world, so rich and so vital and so often false, with the truth of our worldly being” (316).

Or, to put it another way, it is only through thought that one figures out how to make an “impossible demand” a reality.

 

*

 

When considering We’re Doomed. Now What? one should pay attention to punctuation. Specifically, the punctuation in the book’s title. For a considerable amount is spoken by the period and question mark that are found there. The period conveys the core conclusion upon which the book is based, namely: that we’re doomed (full stop). While the following question speaks to a genuine sense of rather distraught unknowingness as to what exactly to do with that certainty. STo be clear, though the book asks “now what?” in its title, a reader who picks up We’re Doomed. Now What? expecting an easy answer will come away disappointed. This is not a book of answers this is a book of questions. Thus, it may well be that this is a book that will be of most interest to those who already faintly agree with the idea that “we’re doomed,” and for those who recognize that accepting some version of that premise makes answering the question “now what?” both extremely important and perhaps nearly impossible. Yet it would be a shame if this book’s title were to send the squeamish, or the optimistic away, for one of the greatest strengths of this book is the forthrightness with which it is willing to ask uncomfortable questions about the future of human civilization. And these are matters we would all do well to consider.

Insofar as one could claim that Scranton answers the “now what?” question it seems that he is offering a restatement of the point eloquently captured in the title of his earlier book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015). True, Scranton writes that “the impossible demand for infinite compassion is our only hope” (285), and he also suggests that “signing up for a world socialist revolution might be a start” (333), but one should detect the ambivalence in these solutions as they are “impossible” and/or “might be a start.” Instead, the point that Scranton keeps returning to throughout his book is the idea that what we need to do is learn how to die, learn to accept that “we’re all doomed. That’s simply the condition of being born” (334), and come to terms with the fact that the world around us can’t be saved. This is a challenging thing to accept, and it may strike some as bordering on nihilism or a recipe for despair, yet Scranton highlights that “accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life” (8). There is a horrible sort of honesty at work in Scranton’s thinking, for he states one of the things that many of us may secretly think but which we are forbidden to speak aloud, that “there is little reason to presume that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point” (7). Climate scientists have been warning us for decades that we’re running out of time, but Scranton boldly and uncomfortably speaks the words which get one branded as a pessimist and a bad party guest: we’re not going to act in time, and there will be hell to pay.

In 1959, at the end of a two-day seminar at the Free University of Berlin on “The Moral Implications of the Atomic Age” the social critic Günther Anders put forth a list of 22 “Theses for the Atomic Age.” It was a grim list that concluded with the following words, which are worth quoting in full:

“I have published these words in order to prevent them from becoming true. If we do not stubbornly keep in mind the strong probability of the disaster, and if we do not act accordingly, we will be unable to find a way out. There is nothing more frightful than to be right.—And if some, paralyzed by the gloomy likelihood of the catastrophe, have already lost courage, they still have a chance to prove their love of man by heeding the cynical maxim: ‘Let’s go on working as though we had the right to hope. Our despair is none of our business.’” (Anders, 194).

The Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation may represent the best parallel to the doom that hovers over our horizon, and yet there is one extremely important distinction. Resisting the apocalypse of nuclear war, which has not truly left us, depended upon preventing certain actions – but the danger of climate change is that the bill is coming due for years of human activity. Climate change, unlike nuclear war, is not the result of one person pushing a button, but is instead the result of vast swathes of humanity pushing billions of buttons over many years. Thus, Scranton’s book places him in the midst of a long line of Jonahs and Cassandras: he is a thinker in the tradition of Anders and Lewis Mumford, who shares space on a contemporary book shelf with thinkers like Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Pope Francis who had warned in his encyclical on climate change that “doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain” (Pope Francis, paragraph 161). Nevertheless, what is vital to note is that Scranton never succumbs to apocalyptic romanticism, nor to a pining for an Edenic pastoral Earth untouched by human hands. We’re Doomed. Now What? loudly echoes Anders’ point that “there is nothing more frightful than to be right.”

Indeed, it may be that if Scranton had previously focused on teaching his readers how to die, in We’re Doomed. Now What? he seems to turn his attention to teaching his readers how to mourn. And what makes Scranton such a phenomenal guide for these purposes is the openness with which he lays bare his own struggles in this matter. Scranton does not present himself as a wizened hermit here to impart his sagacious knowledge to a foolish rabble, rather Scranton comes across as an individual struggling to answer these questions for himself. This comes across particularly clearly in the essay “Climate Change and the Dharma of Failure” which opens with Scranton humorously confessing “I’m a bad Buddhist” (64) and a page later adding “I’m a bad environmentalist” (65), as he wrestles with the knowledge that “we must act now, as flawed, failed, flailing selves. At the same time, the situation we find ourselves in is beyond our power to change. The planet will get warmer” (68). Faced with such a recognition what is one to do? Certainly, one can swear off eating meat, one can refuse to fly, one can this, one can that, but even if everyone who reads We’re Doomed. Now What? opts for an ethically ascetic lifestyle (which to be clear, the book does not argue for) it still would not be enough. Scranton returns to these matters with even more unnerving introspection in the book’s final essay (a version of which recently appeared in the New York Times) “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World.” It is there that Scranton is forthright in singling out the problem with the call for a retreat into a hermetic enclave, namely: that it means giving up on the world by removing oneself from it. Rather, as Scranton notes, “the real choice we all face is not what to buy, whether to fly, or whether to have children, but whether we are willing to commit to living ethically in a broken world, a world in which human beings are dependent for collective survival on a kind of ecological grace” (325).

This matter of “collective survival” is one that Scranton’s book seems quite carefully attuned to. One of the initial questions that a book such as this raises is the matter of who is the “we” in the We’re Doomed. And Scranton seems aware of the dangers that a term like “we” can entail, as he puts it “we are the world. But is there any we here at all?” (244). Throughout the book Scranton repeatedly steps away from the “me” in order to give voice to the “we” – even as these other voices still come to the reader mediated through Scranton. While Scranton’s text brings in the commentary of voices from the past – Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – his book finds many of its best moments when relying on the voices that often go unheard. Inuit elders, in the essay “Arctic Ghosts” convey the climate disaster they are already seeing play out while highlighting the need to place conversations around mitigating the effects of climate change in a framework of decolonization. While Scranton’s lengthy essay “Back to Baghdad” pulls attention to a topic that, perhaps, receives even less coverage than climate change: the effects that US foreign policy has had on the lives of the people that the US was supposedly liberating. Though Scranton’s writing style keeps many of the essays in the book personal, he never loses sight of the fact that for many people in the world today “the world as they knew it” has already come apart.

We’re Doomed. Now What? is a challenging and important essay collection, written by someone who is willing to look closely at the things that most people try to ignore. And it is a collection that tells its readers that they too must look. While Scranton, as was previously mentioned, seems to have earned his place among the “prophets of doom” of yore (and that is meant as a compliment), it would have been interesting had the book more directly engaged with that legacy. One of the points that Scranton engages with in the excellent essay “What is thinking good for?” is the worry that thinking may not be enough. And to be frank, a consideration of many of the twentieth century’s prophetic thinkers suggests that thinking may achieve rather little. Or, to put it another way, many things can be said about the world of today—from war, to environmental degradation, to increasing technological control—but not that we weren’t warned. Scranton touches upon such thinkers by bringing in Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer, but it would have been fascinating to see an essay that asked “what is thinking good for?” in direct engagement with the past prophets who were ignored. In the recent book The Shock of the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz dig into the long history of thinkers who had warned about something akin to the Anthropocene long before that word had become the academic term du jour. And it would have been fascinating to see Scranton attempt something similar. For one of the great challenges that lurks in the background of We’re Doomed. Now What? is a recognition that, tragically, these are the types of thinkers who are usually ignored until it’s too late. There is a rich set of works in which those who had been derided as “prophets of doom” reflect on their failed attempts to warn the world – and it would have been wonderfully in keeping with Scranton’s focus on mortality to enter more fully into conversation with those works.

There are plenty of books available that discuss climate change and attempt to imagine the world that awaits us, but few of those books are written with such concerned honesty as We’re Doomed. Now What? This is one of the rare books that is willing to look out at the world and speak aloud that which most people do not want to hear, even if they may privately suspect it, namely: that it’s too late, and we need to brace for the coming collision. In discussions around climate change one often encounters some variation of the sentiment that “scaring people doesn’t work,” but Scranton seems to be challenging that view by pointing out that not scaring people hasn’t worked either. And besides, people should be afraid.

This is not a feel good book, nor for that matter is it interested in doling out false hope, but through this refusal Scranton is able to begin the necessary work of pointing his readers towards the conversation we need to be having.

We’re doomed.

Now what?

Indeed.

 

The Book

We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change

By: Roy Scranton

New York: Soho Press, Inc., 2018.

 

Additional Works Cited

Günther Anders. “Theses for the Atomic Age.” In The Life and Work of Günther Anders. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2014.

Erich Fromm. The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology. New York: Harper and Row, 1968. Pg. 27.

Pope Francis. Laudato Si’ (2015)

 

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

3 comments on “The Courage to be Afraid – a review of Roy Scranton’s “We’re Doomed. Now What?”

  1. Joseph Ratliff
    July 19, 2018

    Reblogged this on Quaerere Propter Vērum.

  2. notabilia
    July 19, 2018

    Thanks for penning this excellent review.
    Your writing seems much more on-target than Scranton’s, though. You quote him: “Against this backdrop “the impossible demand for infinite compassion is our only hope, the only way we might be saved” – okay, what does that mean in English?
    Who writes utterly banal phrases like “infinite compassion”? What could it possibly mean? And what is being “saved” all about – do you have to work at the University of Notre Dame like Scranton to have a clue?
    The apocalypse is a serious subject which demand good humor and clear notions. Scranton is going to be busy “teaching” his daughter all that he can as it unfolds – like all good children, let’s hope she rejects at least half of it.

  3. Eric Pfeifer
    July 20, 2018

    Thanks very much for taking the time to do this review. I’m placing an order for a copy tonight. I listened to a text-to-voice version of your review while driving through a National Forest I help manage, where I often wonder why or how to manage for forest conditions 50 years from now, when in fact the climate may not support a forest at all. One thing I kept thinking as I listened was a poignant moment in a talk Roy gave in my hometown (Seattle). Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0yUX12ZoTA (not sure when the moment is, but it’s toward the end of the Q&A). During the Q&A, someone said something to the effect of “What we need is hospice.” Roy was moved. “Yes,” he said. “Exactly. Both individually and collectively as a civilization.” I really think hospice is one useful analogy. Anyway, thanks again and I hope your time in the woods proves calming and rejuvenating.

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