An Iraq War veteran, professor of English at Notre Dame, and author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (City Lights, 2015), Scranton is not a problem-solver and of course doesn’t need to be. But, rather than offer new arguments about how to understand or give expression to climate change and, say, inequality, his new book delivers a visceral account of climate grief as experienced by global elites. We need, he tells us, to practice acceptance, to “let our current civilization die, to accept our mortality, and to practice humility”; only after this death will we be able to “work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience, and restraint.” He tries to present his book as a step toward that new order of meaning, but his essays instead reaffirm the status quo.
To begin with, Scranton’s invocation of climate change’s inevitability allows him to defuse questions of culpability and intervention. Quoting environmental philosopher Timothy Morton, Scranton espouses the idea that climate change is an effect of human civilization tout court: “[W]e’re basically living in Mesopotamia 9.0. We’re looking at these oil refineries and it’s basically an upgrade of an upgrade of an upgrade of an agricultural logistics that began around 10,000 BC.”
If climate disruption is a necessary effect of human civilization, the facile and self-serving argument runs, there is no point in trying to analyze or address it. Such fatalism relieves Scranton of responsibility for engaging with the world he inhabits. More specifically, it obviates the need for grappling with the complexities of energy-intensive societies and their exploitation of nature and of people understood as marginal to Western civilization.
Indeed, the “we” of the title implies it represents all of humanity. But, in fact, it represents the demographic that’s doing most of the resource consumption. “[T]he bad news we must confront,” Scranton tells his reader, “is that we’re all gonna die.” The reader might find comfort, Scranton reasons, in this “realization that it was going to happen anyway.” Of course, the fact of human mortality in general shouldn’t hide the more open-to-intervention fact that some of “us” will die much more privileged deaths than will those made vulnerable by climate change. Nor should it hide the fact that those marginalized populations were already dehumanized long ago by “our” practices and habits of thought.
Like much mainstream environmentalism, Scranton’s derives energy from anxiety about future generations, specifically anxiety about his own children. In the essay “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World,” Scranton mourns the pastoral inheritance he will be unable to transmit: “How can I read her Winnie the Pooh or The Wind in the Willows, when I know the pastoral harmony they evoke is lost to us forever, and has been for decades?” What about those for whom pastoral harmony is not and never was a possibility? If my own children are the focal point of my fears about climate change, then my environmentalism is aimed toward a future that, like the present, favors me and my offspring.
It is here that Scranton’s rhetorical efforts become most contradictory. On the one hand, he asks his reader to “liv[e] ethically in a broken world.” This would consist of “understanding that our actions have consequences, taking responsibility for how those consequences ripple out across the web of life in which each of us is irrevocably enmeshed, and working every day to ease what suffering we can. Living ethically means limiting our desires.” And yet in the same breath, as it were, Scranton rejects the practical recommendations advanced by climate scientists Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas — going vegetarian, having one fewer child, and giving up flying and driving.
He dismisses those suggestions on the basis of the “social model” they assume:
Society is not simply an aggregate of millions or billions of individual choices, but a complex, recursive dynamic in which choices are made within institutions and ideologies which then subtly change over time as these choices feed back into the structures that frame what we consider possible.
This model, as invoked by Scranton, is akin to an argument for not voting: society’s feedback loops are self-reinforcing, even mechanistic, so what’s the point of individual action? He uses it as a cover for his actual reasons for resisting individual change: his stake in an existing power structure that has served him quite well. Vegetarianism, he explains, “leaves me depressed and lethargic.” Giving up petroleum-powered travel is an outright impossibility: “No car? No job. No flying? No Thanksgiving with the family.” Surely this attitude is symptomatic of our predicament, and anything but morally or pragmatically intercessory. Too much we, too much doom, not enough real now what.
An Australian activist named Dhakshy Sooriyakumaran has written of the difficulties that arise “when people are woke enough to know the language to discuss race, gender, class, and oppression generally, but not quite woke enough to give anything up – space, power, platform, reputation, position,” concluding that such an attitude “is arguably the most destructive pattern of behaviour of our time.” Scranton is plenty “woke” to the reality of climate change but not enough to give anything up, starting with aspects of his own privilege.
What if, instead of fixating on impending doom, we took seriously the dooms already wrought by energy intensive societies and used them as a starting point for framing an ethics of climate activism? Sarah Ensor, for example, citing queer theory’s critique of mainstream environmentalism’s preoccupation with “matters of inheritance and procreation,” suggests the figure of the spinster aunt as a way to reimagine an ethical relation to the future on a warming planet. By virtue of her nonreproductivity, the spinster aunt invests in the present in novel ways; she “place[s] us in the realm of something akin to persistence or continuity.” Ensor’s spinster makes it easier to see that the “future” looming over mainstream environmentalist discourse is already underway in the here and now, from the climate migration that has fed ongoing conflict in Syria to unseasonable and unusually destructive fires in Australia and California.
Even better, this “spinster ecology” productively reframes the notion of “limiting our desires,” which Scranton preaches but from which he exempts himself personally. It suggests “an affirmative sense of ‘enoughness.’” Restraint does not amount to sacrifice. Giving up desire is not an act of repression but rather an act of embracing and honoring others. These actions may be attenuated, gentle, and faint when viewed according to the scale of millenarian doom. But perhaps it is in such quiet actions that human individuals can look beyond consumerism and intergenerational legacies and thus begin to build a “new order of meaning” within the already-ravaged world they inhabit.
Sharon Kunde is a writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Colorado Review, and Midwestern Gothic. She received her PhD in English from UC Irvine.