The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more 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.
If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.
I write a lot about consciousness, enlightenment and the potential humanity has to rise above its conditioned patterns, because if I only wrote about politics and media propaganda I’d be accomplishing nothing but helping the anti-establishment fringe feel good about itself while waiting for human extinction. I can’t do this thing honestly and sincerely without periodically pointing to the dangers on the horizon, and to what I perceive as the only off ramp in sight.
Human society is clearly at its most interesting point ever. Billions of human brains are now interconnected in real time by the internet, we’re realizing on mass scale that all the rules of society were invented by dead people long before any of us got here, and we’re seeing that we are free to re-write those rules in a way that benefits us. From popular grassroots examinations of socialist ideas, to cryptocurrencies and an evolving understanding of what money is, to redefining social institutions as ancient and ingrained as marriage and gender identity, more and more people are saying in effect, “Hmm, it looks like all those old thoughts we’ve been using to describe our reality are causing some problems. Let’s find new ones.” It could be described as a collective awakening to the fact that reality and our conceptual model for it are two very different things, and the model is as flexible as your ability to change your mind. We’ve never seen anything like this before as a species. We’ve literally never been here.
We are in uncharted, unprecedented territory. When you’re in uncharted, unprecedented territory, there’s no valid basis for ruling out any conceivable possibility. Stodgy intellectuals may say “Hurr, yes, this is very similar to the Bulgarian Wheat Rebellions of 1809, so this will likely turn out the same” or whatever, but they’re wrong, because it isn’t. The past can be a useful tool for predicting future outcomes, but in an entirely unprecedented situation, that is not the case. Anything is possible.
Writers have long faced the apocalypse. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written approximately four thousand years ago, imagines Earth flooded by angry gods. Flash forward a few centuries, and Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells bring us their own visions of the end of the world. In more recent years, novelists like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Octavia Butler have carried on the tradition. Each of these writers shares the idea that the end will come quickly, sparked by an event that tumbles the pillars of civilization like dominoes. It takes little to understand why visions of sudden apocalypse—as opposed to a long, drawn-out one—are popular: a quick and dirty end to everything absolves us from having had anything to do with it. If we never saw the apocalypse coming, how could it have been our fault?
T.S. Eliot offers a different outlook. In 1925, the poet wrote in “The Hollow Men” that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” It’s this idea of a slow death in which everyone is culpable that captures most accurately Roy Scranton’s thoughts on the end of civilization as we know it. The author, an Army veteran who holds a PhD in English from Princeton University, has written much about two of humanity’s biggest existential threats: climate change and war. In 2015’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Scranton combined memoir and science writing to express what it was like to return home from war-torn Iraq only to watch the world succumb to hazards even larger than Al Qaeda: hurricanes imperiling coastal cities; economic and political conflicts giving way to riots; plagues, droughts, and famine causing suffering in every corner of the planet. Global warming, writes Scranton, is at the heart of all of this, and we have long passed the point of being able to stop it. Two years later, he authored his debut novel, War Porn, which is told through the different perspectives of American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians and throws into question what it means to be ally or enemy, victor or victim.
“Food systems primary goal should be to nourish human beings. And yet, the current industrial food system, with its proﬁt-maximising ethos, is not achieving that goal despite producing food in excess. On the contrary, this system is the main driver of malnutrition on the planet, as well as environmental degradation. Nonetheless, food systems also play a double role as Nature’s steward.
Deciding which role we want food systems to play will very much depend on the idea we have about food. What is food for humans? The dominant narrative of the industrial food system undeniably considers food as a tradeable commodity whose value is mostly determined by its price. This narrative was crafted and disseminated initially by academics, who largely favoured one option (commodiﬁcation of food) over the others (food as commons or public good). In this research, the author aims to understand how academia has explored the value-based considerations of food as commodity and private good (hegemonic narratives) compared to considerations of food as commons and public good (alternative narratives).
If climate change was an urgent problem in 1988, it’s now an emergency.