A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

How to Live in the Face of Extinction


Could spritzing yourself with Calvin Klein’s Eternity Now be the answer to all human anxiety? After all, the ad I just saw for it online was parked right next to a headline warning that “Humanity is Getting Verrrrrrry Close to Extinction.”

Too bad I wasn’t persuaded by the promise in the ad that “Forever starts now.” I’d just finished reading a new book about how we can come to terms with what’s happening to our planet. And buying a bottle of scent or after-shave to ensure your place in eternity isn’t among the author’s suggestions!

The book is Learning to Die in the Anthropocene – Reflections on the end of a civilization by Roy Scranton, a former soldier who served in Iraq, faced death on a daily basis, and came home to a nation in denial and a world of increasing droughts and floods, famines and plagues, wars and mass migrations, stock markets on roller coasters, and an epidemic of anxiety and depression.

learning-to-die-in-the-anthropocene-100715It’s a short book, and well worth reading. The first half outlines what’s happening to Planet Earth, mostly related to climate change, but from the point of view of someone with a military background. Unlike the politicians they serve, generals cannot afford the luxury of denying reality. So when it comes to being prepared for looming conflicts, they are very aware that most of the wars currently being fought around the world have their roots in climate change.

Scranton writes:

According to Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, head of the US Pacific Command, global climate change is the greatest threat the United States faces, more dangerous than terrorism, Chinese hackers, and North Korean nuclear missiles.

Upheaval from increased temperatures, rising seas, and climatic destabilization “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about,” he said.

Indeed the world’s most dangerous conflict right now is deeply rooted in climate change.

Since 2006, Syria has been suffering crippling water shortages that have, in some areas, caused 75 percent crop failure and wiped out 85 percent of livestock, left more than 800,000 Syrians without a livelihood, and sent hundreds of thousands of impoverished young men streaming into Syria’s cities … As Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley argues, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.”

Institutions like the World Bank are equally aware of the perils facing the developing nations to which they’re making loans.

The World Bank’s reports … offer dire prognoses for the effects of global warming, which climatologists now predict will raise global temperatures 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels within a generation and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit within 90 years.

roy-scranton2_edited-1Scranton concludes that “if Homo sapiens survives the next millennium, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have known for the last 200,000 years.”

In the second half of the book he explores how we can begin to relate to what’s happening and how our children and grandchildren are going to have to deal with a world where all the structures of civilization have broken down.

Right now, he says, we have to begin letting go of all the artificial constructs of society that we’ve built up over the last few thousand years and that will no longer serve us. These include not just things like gas and electricity and Instagram but, more important, the stories we’ve long been telling ourselves about who we are and where we belong in the scheme of things; our economic and political constructs like capitalism and “freedom” and “progress”. None of these will be of any value to the coming generations. What they’ll need most of all is a much better relationship to life and death. “The greatest challenge we face is understanding that this civilization is already dead.”

For all of our history, we’ve struggled with how to relate to our mortality. Most of the constructs of society and civilization are about trying to deal with our mortality: things like inventing new and more promising ways of prolonging life; imagining an afterlife and making up rules about what we have to do to get there; or leaving a legacy that will survive us and through which we will live on.

That’s something we’ve written a lot about on this website. But Scranton takes it to the next level, saying it’s no longer just about our death as individuals. Now we have to confront an altogether new reality: the fact that our entire species, along with many others, is staring into the void of extinction.

What does one life mean in the face of mass death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful decisions in the shadow of our inevitable end? … The rub now is that we have to learn to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.

… To survive as a soldier, I had to learn to accept the inevitability of my own death. For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene [the age in which we humans are the major force changing the planet], we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization.

“The greatest challenge we face,” he says, “is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead.”

Think, for a moment about the extent to which our popular culture is already struggling to come to terms with this notion, like in all the apocalyptic movies and TV series, especially the zombie ones. In The Walking Dead, we learn that the virus is in us all – meaning that we’re the zombies, the walking dead, living in a zombie world, trying to come to terms with a new reality. As Scranton puts it:

Carbon-fueled capitalism is a zombie system, voracious but sterile.

If we humans are going to have any future, whatever that future might be, we have to understand something much deeper than physical solutions to the challenges we’ll be facing. We need a new understanding of life and death.

Death begins as soon as we are born … But while dying may be the easiest thing in the world to do, it’s the hardest thing in the world to do well – we are predisposed to avoid, ignore, flee, and fight it till the very last hour … Much of our energy is spent in denial. Some argue that denying the fact of death is the root and germ of human culture itself, from our first burial mounds and ancestor-worship to plastic surgery and the space program.

Our greatest challenge will be a philosophical one: learning how to die.

Learning to die means learning to let go of the ego, the idea of the self, the future, certainty, attachment, the pursuit of pleasure, permanence, and stability. Learning to let go of salvation. Learning to let go of hope. Learning to let go of death.

At a time when a sixth mass extinction is taking hold, we have to learn to relate to death in a wholly new way: the death of our whole species, and possibly even of life itself on this planet. It means understanding our place in the vast scheme of things.

Life, whether for a mosquito, a person, or a civilization, is a constant process of becoming, a continual emergence into patterns of attraction and aversion, desire and suffering, pleasure and pain. Life is a flow. The forms it takes are transient. Death is nothing more than the act of passing from one pattern into another.

If there’s a future in our future, it will depend on being able to make peace with our fellow animals.Our own planet is now passing from one pattern into another. If there are to be future generations of humans, it may be that “our descendants will build new cities on the shores of the Arctic Sea, when the rest of the Earth is scorching deserts and steaming jungles.”

Whatever the case, Scranton concludes, their future will lie in understanding the lessons about life and death handed down to us and them by the great teachers, psychologists and philosophers of ages past.

We must keep up our communion with the dead, for they are us, as we are the dead of future generations.

Yes, indeed. But there’s one thing, perhaps even more important, that he doesn’t touch on and would have been worth including. The anxiety we experience over our own mortality is part of our denial that we are animals, just like all the other animals. The destruction we’ve brought upon the planet and upon our fellow animals is largely driven by our need to separate ourselves from them and to think of ourselves as something better, higher, more evolved, even (as that Calvin Klein scent will supposedly make us!) eternal.

Scranton is right in saying that we need to come to terms with life and death. And I highly recommend this book. I’d only add that until and unless we can come to a reconciliation with the other animals, we can never be free from anxiety over our own mortality.

If there’s a future in our future, it will depend on being able to make peace with our fellow animals. Only then can we be at peace with ourselves, with our own nature, and with whatever future may lie ahead.