Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Bleakly Optimistic or Brightly Pessimistic?

Learning to DieRoy Scranton has consistently staked out positions or operated according to a vision that however murky or shocking at first look proved prescient in time. His editorial oversight (with Matt Gallagher) of the Fire and Forget anthology of short war fiction and his arguments in essays such as “The Trauma Hero” are examples of how he’s typically been a step-or-two in advance of other veteran-authors. The nature of his writing is to make major statements, rooted in the Western intellectual tradition, that assert bold claims, introduce new ideas, clarify implications, and help the rest of us define our own inchoate thoughts. Recently, Scranton has begun to explore other subjects and themes than those associated with war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As other contemporary war veteran-authors mature and move on, Scranton’s model illustrates how they might apply the experience of war and soldiering to new realms of thought, behavior, and circumstance.

I say all this because it’s not exactly clear if Scranton’s latest work, the pamphlet-length essay titled Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, can be called war literature at all. The Anthropocene, after all, is a recently-coined word describing the new era of global warming and climate change that threatens the extinction of civilized society and possibly human life on earth. The opening passages of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, however, proclaim its war-writing bona-fides. Describing the dread he experienced during his deployment to Iraq in 2003 as a junior-enlisted artilleryman, Scranton, a Humvee driver in Baghdad, reports that he rolled out the gate each day expecting to die. The grim resolution infused him not with panic, but a stoic poise animated by vows to do everything possible to help his fellow soldiers survive the perils they would inevitably face. To learn how to die in the Anthropocene, we understand, Scranton first learned how to face death in Iraq. Later, while stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Scranton and his unit were placed on alert to deploy to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Scranton did not go to Louisiana, but the experience further honed his sense of what it meant to function in the face of catastrophic danger, this time natural rather than man-made.

The distinction between disasters natural and man-made is important, for the salient point of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is not that we are all doomed to die as a result of global warming. That’s going to happen, Scranton bluntly informs us. If we accept the scientific reports he marshals, the chain-of-events leading from melting ice caps to disease to famine to the annihilation of our species is unstoppable. Eco-activism is a feeble pipedream, and there’s no technological innovation or governmental-military-corporate plan that’s going to save us either, or even any of us. No one’s going to colonize Mars, and we’re not going to cryogenically freeze ourselves and ride out the rising waters in an icebox on top of the Rocky Mountains. Those techno-survivalist examples are mine, not Scranton’s, but they serve the point. To imagine the amalgam of power and money it would take to effect such measures is, according to Scranton’s logic, exactly what we should not be striving to do as we wait for the end of the world. Racing to save ourselves—individually, in groups, or as nations—will tear human society apart long before Mother Nature does her worst, unless we learn faster how to die better:

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.

So what should we do? Advocating what he calls a “philosophical humanism” based on the teachings of epic and classical literature, Scranton recommends we embrace the knowledge of the ancients, who remind us endlessly to accept the transience of life and all things:

As I learned in Iraq and have had to learn again and again, the practice of learning to die is the practice of learning to let go: 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.

Acceptance of our mortality is, according to Scranton, not depressing but liberating. As the passage indicates, Scranton finds in his reading a pragmatic fatalism, blended with communitarian impulses, that matches the determined resolve with which he faced danger in Iraq. There are many flourishes to Scranton’s philosophical humanism, but a lot of it boils down to “Stay calm, treat each other well, remember the wisdom of the ages, do what you can while resigning yourself to the worst.” Looked at squarely, enacting Scranton’s prescription of “letting go” on a mass world-wide scale seems harder to imagine than building everyone a personal rocketship to Mars, but maybe. Though it seems likely we’ll kill each other like starving, disease-ridden hyenas as the human day goes down, we might also stiffen our individual sinews, band together bravely, and figure something out. The historical record, frankly, seems uneven on this point, as does what we know about human nature.

But whether Scranton’s prognostications come true or not, as a distinctive literary performance Learning to Die in the Anthropocene casts a beautiful allure. Scranton modulates skillfully the prose registers that have enabled him to finish a dissertation at Princeton, author feature articles for Rolling Stone and The Nation, and complete a novel with the earthy title of War Porn (to be published in 2016). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene’s sober first half explains how global warning induced by “carbon-fueled capitalism” is going to kill us all, but the second half soars on the strength of Scranton’s mythopoetic and extremely-learned stylistic wings. Referencing cultural touchstones ranging from the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh to the riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney to heavyweight thinkers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Scranton directs us to preserve that cultural heritage in our archives and, more importantly, in our minds as the ideological and inspirational seeds from which a future civilization just might spring from our wreckage:

Wars begin and end. Empires rise and fall. Buildings collapse, books burn, servers break down, cities sink into the sea. Humanity can survive the demise of fossil-fuel civilization and it can survive whatever despotism or barbarism will arise in its ruins. We may even be able to survive in a greenhouse world. Perhaps 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. If being human is to mean anything at all in the Anthropocene, if we are going to refuse to let ourselves sink into the futility of life without memory, then we must not lose our few thousand years of hard-won knowledge, accumulated at great cost and against great odds. We must not abandon the memory of the dead.

Scranton’s dreamy word web here resembles a muted variation on the cosmic encouragement to be better-than-we-are that I associate with the minor key essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson–“Circles,” maybe, or “Experience,” certainly not “Self-Reliance”–if only that antebellum intellectual giant knew when he wrote just how bad the Civil War was going to be. Hope flickers in Scranton, but only faintly.

At Scranton’s book-launch reading last month in New York City, audience questions came from both global warming activists and war veterans. The activists pleaded with Scranton to validate their frenetic cries for collective action, which Scranton, though sympathetic, resolutely refused to provide. Scranton also didn’t rise to a veteran’s urging that he riff harder on the implications of his military service in Iraq—specifically, what it was like to be with other soldiers in a Humvee in a warzone—but the vet’s question got me thinking. When I rolled out the gate in Afghanistan, I always brought something to read along with my rifle, body armor, ammo, and first-aid kit. And while prepared for danger, I also had a mission, a plan, and some expectation that things would go reasonably well. I was also in the company of solid, like-minded soldiers bound by ethos and training to support each other to the death. Going forward now to face the end of the world, I’m happy to put Learning to Die in the Anthropocene in my assault pack or cargo pocket—it’s small enough—but I’m bringing a few other things, too, and I’m not going alone. There’s no military solution to the problem of the Anthropocene, and forming human wolfpacks in the style of Mad Max won’t cut it either. But soldierly equanimity combined with small-unit cohesiveness, preparation, and purpose might serve us very well.


Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. City Lights Books, 2015.

4 thoughts on “Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Bleakly Optimistic or Brightly Pessimistic?”

    1. Barbara, many thanks. To everyone else, Barbara’s known me longer than almost anyone, and she’s a wonderful writer herself, so her opinion counts most. Still, other comments are definitely welcome, so let’s hear them.

  1. Pete, You’ve done justice to the work you are reviewing, topically and stylistically. I’m particularly stimulated by your vision of a world after veteran fiction, a society like Ruden’s version of ancient Greece where writers like Scranton will be a normal part of the polis, doomed though all of us are.

  2. Liam, you’ve articulated a vision of the vet-writing future better than I could. I’m very conscious, though, that most of the authors I write about are at the beginning of long careers as writers and public voices. War, then war-writing, are only the start.

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