A HKRB Short Review by Stephen Lee Naish

Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015) pp. 144.

“Get busy living or get busy dying” is how Andy Dufresne, Tim Robbins incarcerated character in The Shawshank Redemption, frames his life in prison.

Of course in this context Dufresne is planning his escape from the dreaded Shawshank Prison, a plan he set in motion almost twenty years before. If we take journalist and former US Army private Roy Scranton’s work as gospel in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights), then mankind has built the walls of its own prison in the form of a carbon-based capitalist model and our options to escape and “get busy living” are nonexistent, we need to, as a civilization “get busy dying” in order to survive the coming environmental cataclysm. The first half of Scranton’s book is a very well researched investigation into our troubled future. Scranton doesn’t sugar coat his findings, “We are fucked” as he so bluntly puts it. And indeed with the rise in global temperatures set to soar in the next fifty years bringing with it melting ice caps, rising seas, a toxic cocktail of carbon dioxide and methane that has remained locked in the permafrost for centuries, no argument can be made against Scranton’s statement. The rise in temperatures will bring unprecedented extreme weather events; hurricanes, wild storms, typhoons, heat waves. Low crop yields and scarcity of water will start countless wars and send a wave of human migration to parts of the world that remain relatively unaffected. We have already seen the beginnings of this over the past year.


The second half of Scranton’s book could be referred to as the Learning to Die aspect of the text, and this part of the book is more speculative and perhaps less clear in how this needs to transpire. Indeed, it could hardly be a more difficult question to answer. From the reference of ancient texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, Scranton’s seems to point out that are archetypes of our culture lie in records of past events, stories, and mythology. Today our culture is referencing nearly every living moment through tweeting, blogging, instagram posts, sharing our personal and political points of view. In a way we have created the arc for our culture, it lives on even after we die. One of the outstanding points in this last half of the book is to bring home the fact that mankind is nothing more than a short blip in the universal radar. We are here due to so many inconceivable acts of coincidence, that nonetheless have evolved along a path of almost perfect mathematical foundations that synchronize the entire universe. It is a nihilistic attitude but we are only special in our own minds, few cared about our civilization before we got here, few will care after we are gone. We are a force that is bringing our world to catastrophe.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene makes this point apparent in a concise and necessary manner. It is an important wake up call, but one where the reader will not find much hope; and that is possibly the whole point of the text: hope is now irrelevant to our civilization.

Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals, including the arts and culture magazines Gadfly, The Quietus, Empty Mirror, Everyday Analysis andScholardarity. He is the author of the essay collection U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and the forthcoming bookCreate or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.

One thought on “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

  1. Pingback: HKRB Interviews: Simon Critchley | HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS

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