We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change
I first met Roy Scranton when he was at The New School. He was finishing up one degree on his way to more and I was an editor at the MFA program’s journal, LIT. He gave me a story to read that I loved so much I championed it and we ran it. This wasn’t some great victory—Scranton’s a great writer. His mastery of language is apparent from the first time you open of any of his books. So when I pitched this review to my editor I thought it would be a wholly enjoyable experience: reading a writer who understands language writing about the most pressing issue(s) of our time. Climate change is apparent to anyone who isn’t allowing pundits or preachers to convince them otherwise. It’s hot and it’s only going to get hotter; the ice is melting and the seas are rising. For Scranton, living in the Anthropocene means it’s already too late to fix what we’ve broken. It’s not that simple of course, this is a deep thinking man who writes complicated essays about complicated topics. But my reaction to the process of reading this book is telling of my reaction to what I read as the core of Scranton’s beliefs around our planet and the destruction we’ve waged on it. I expected to devour this book with my usual voracious reading practice; instead I keep putting it down. It’s a really rough read. The writing is stellar, the opinions often on par with my own, the research generally excellent, but it’s depressing as hell.
Separated into four sections, “Climate & Change,” “War & Memory,” “Violence & Communion,” and “Last Thoughts,” most of these essays have appeared in other form in the New York Times, The Nation, and Rolling Stone and written between 2013 and 2018. Scranton is no slouch—he’s a highly educated deep thinker who researches his topics in ways rarely seen in modern journalism. That this book has touched a nerve (or several) is apparent from the storm happening on Twitter as I write this review: he makes people angry, he makes conservatives angry, he makes conservative Christians angry, and people throw around insults as if his opinions come from some deep-seated fault in Scranton’s logic rather than echoing our own fear. Because this book is scary—the second sentence on the first page reads, “Not one of us is innocent, not one of us is safe.” And we’re afraid because whatever our trappings of belief, we know he’s right. We are indeed witnessing “the end of civilization as we know it.” (3) I come from a belief system that reacts to issues as wide ranging as poverty, global war, and mass extinction with a call to activism. But Scranton seems to be saying that this activism will not stem the tide. He seems to write against nihilism on one page, embraces Nietzschean philosophy on the next, suggests we “need to learn to let our current civilization die,” (who is “we”? which civilization?), and somehow “build a bridge” to the future while also accepting “the fatality of our situation.” (8) And this is only in the first essay, so it’s no surprise I had to put it down for a bit. Truth is difficult to read.
In “Arctic Ghosts,” Scranton takes a seventeen-day “adventure cruise” through the Northwest Passage with the goal of seeing “the Arctic death spiral firsthand.” (10) Of course, Alaskan writers like Nancy Lord have been writing about the demise of the Arctic for years but we just don’t want to believe it’s too late. Even Scranton seems unwilling to believe in some instances: the loss of the polar bear isn’t clear to him, “polar bears are political” (as is all mass extinction) and scientists “don’t have very strong data” and it’s not clear (to him) whether polar bears are endangered or “adapting.” It’s a surprising premise and while his presentation of the issues around indigenous rights versus an endangered species are admirable, he misses the mark a few pages later when he says we are “Unwitting agents of our own demise.” (24) One assumes he means predominantly white, male Europeans and Americans and not the Inuit or the large portion of humanity who doesn’t benefit from, nor partake in, the over-industrialization of the planet or the brutal extraction of oil from the Artic. And there is nothing “unwitting” about the way white, male industrialists have raped the planet; it has always been a part of the plan. At the conclusion of his essay on the Arctic Scranton laments, “I was overtaken by the realization that what I’d come to see was already gone.” (26) It is this idea of the lateness of the hour and that “we” are already too late to save our planet that I rebel against, whatever the dire message the science presents.
In “Anthropocene City,” Scranton has an extended conversation with Tim Morton about “dark ecology” while traveling through Houston’s refineries, its horrorscape of pollution and localized global warming. Morton highlights the difference between “disaster” and “catastrophe.” Disaster is an event we can witness whereas catastrophe is an experience we are part of, “I am the destruction…I’m involved, I’m implicated.” (46) And that’s what Houston is, what global climate change is: every piece of plastic, every time we use the a.c., every time we unthinkingly say “we” and don’t mean everyone, this is the catastrophe we are all living every day. As Scranton says, “climate change is hard to think about because it is depressing and scary.” (48) No matter how well he writes about it, no matter how much I might agree, I can’t help but put the book down again.
Several days later, I’m sitting in an overly air-conditioned waiting room at NYU Langone. I’ve been experiencing weird headaches, “blank” moments, dizzy spells. I’m waiting to see a neurologist who will send me for more tests and few answers. One suggestion: not only residual symptoms from a previous head trauma but perhaps also a response to toxins in my environment. I’ve recently returned from a (relatively) pristine Alpine environment into NYC’s East Village. My building and block are undergoing continuous construction; perhaps my body has had enough. As I wait, I read my way through more of Scranton’s work. In “Rock Scissor Paper” he uses a clever structural device, references to Gilgamesh, and Professor George Edward Challenger to explore “the notion of “the Anthropocene.” I am particularly struck by the phrase, “The West has always had its sacrifice zones, the hinterlands, untillable scree, and deserts...” (53) I spent part of my childhood in one such place: the towns built around the Hanford Project in Eastern Washington. A seeping mess of toxic overflow, the Hanford Site was built on the Columbia River in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project and home to the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, plutonium made at Hanford was used in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki. Hanford leaked into the Columbia and the Snake, killing off salmon and destroying the livelihood of the local tribes. When Scranton writes about the final lecture by Professor G.E. Challenger, he has only this archival evidence, a notice in the Bristol Gazette, “Challenger warns audience of Anthropocene Era, ‘methane belch’ to wipe out human race.” Eastern Washington is also home to some of the largest herds of Blank Angus cattle in the U.S., the methane produced by the cattle of course, a part of the “methane belch” that Challenger warned against.
Scranton is honest in “Climate Change and the Dharma of Failure,” when he says he’s “a bad Buddhist,” and a “bad environmentalist.” I’ve been an ethical vegan for much of my adult life but I still drink my seltzer from plastic bottles, I still blast the a.c. in August. The dire positioning of the earlier pieces in this collection shift a bit in this essay: Scranton doesn’t say it is already too late to save the planet but that “it’s probably already too late” and my inner optimist-activist clings to that word probably as if it means I/we/everyone has a chance. But then he comes back with another gut-punch, “The next several decades are likely going to be grim, brutish, and bloody” and “the situation we find ourselves in is beyond our power to change.” (68) And again, I have to put the book down. (My neurologist has called me in to discuss next steps.) Later when I return to Scranton’s book, I’m confronted with this: “having a choice at all is a privilege.” (69) And this reminds me of the vast fruit orchards of my childhood, the itinerant workers who picked that fruit, and the brutality of modern America. We reap what we sow.
Scranton is convinced (and very convincing) that we “live today in the Anthropocene,” that we’ve “already missed the decisive moment” the turning point when we could have done something. We live “in the fall, in the aftertime of human progress and western civilization, in the long dim days of decline and collapse and retrenchment and violence and confusion and sorrow and endless, depthless, unassuageable human suffering.” (73) And then he shifts to contemplating that romantic figure of doomed intellectualism, Walter Benjamin, and asks the question, “What can mere words do for a doomed civilization?” (76) If, as Scranton suggests in his contemplation of Benjamin’s last work, “There is nothing between us and the abyss but a moment of suspended time.” I choose to spend my time railing against injustice, supporting those who struggle to save the animals with which we share this planet, and refusing to give in to despair.
In the second section of this collection, “War & Memory,” Scranton often writes gracefully, poetically about his decision to join the army and subsequent deployment to Baghdad in 2003. With echoes of Tim O’Brien and Anthony Swofford, this is deeply personal and well-wrought writing about war. The only complaint is that there is no transition between sections and as such, there is a disconnect, a feeling throughout that I want to get back to reading about climate change. Certainly I can make the connection between the terrible waste of global warfare—to the environment, to human life; but Scranton does not do this work for us. Instead this section contains personal essays—reflections on life, war, fear, masculinity in its varied forms, and the nature of the self. He also flexes his graduate school theory muscle with a series of drive-bys: posthumanism, Agamben, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, and Marx among others. It’s a bit exhausting and, to use Scranton’s own term, very anthrocarniphallogocentric. There are no women here except as ghostly presences, “ex” girlfriends, girlfriends, a mother who provides a basement room, and a female journalist who is “sparky, petite, funny, and brimming with sympathetic curiosity.” (134)
In the longest piece in the collection (overwhelming at seventy-nine pages) “Back to Baghdad,” Scranton returns to Baghdad ten years post-deployment. There is some sharp self-cynicism here, “There was money to be made talking vet…a certain celebrity to be won, and a lot of support and respect from audiences, especially if you suggested you had PTSD.” (137) But there are also some clunky generalizations (surprising for Scranton), “Meanwhile, the war itself never made any sense” followed by an exploration of his self-justifications for participation in Iraq and finally something close to self-awareness about the enormity of the U.S. role in Iraq. After a meeting at the embassy in Iraq with Western journalists and Ambassador Beecroft, Scranton presents another obvious idea, “sometimes we see things a certain way because we don’t know better; other times we assert a specific vision of the world because it serves us.” (145) Scranton positions himself as “among history’s actors” and “part of history now, as a veteran” with the seeming implication that those who participate in wars as soldiers are somehow more involved in history than the rest of us who have to suffer and survive those wars. He is in Iraq to observe the “first free postoccupation elections” and while his efforts to expose voting fraud are admirable, he loses me with the line, “As the afternoon passed, I began to feel the need to go somewhere dangerous.” (163) Whether or not Scranton is illustrating what Sebastian Junger calls “the crystal meth of purpose,” that addiction to the rush of potential violence that combat journalists and veterans sometimes seek out, and his lack of consideration for the two Iraqis working for him is glaring. Of course this piece was written for Rolling Stone and not out of line with the behavior of some of the white male American writers he mentions as influences. As Scranton admits, “the past doesn’t fall away but lives on in your flesh, your habits” and leaving Iraq is not that easy: not for combat vets, journalists, or any of us. Once again, we (here defined as Americans) are complicit, “the millions of lives we uprooted, left unguarded, destroyed, and abandoned are all a part of us now.” (194) Scranton is intelligent and self-aware enough to admit that if Baghdad is hell, it is “a hell I had helped create.” (195) Scranton’s extended essay on Iraq is deeply personal but also provides an often concise critique of the American government’s motivation in invading Iraq (twice) and aiding in destabilizing the country, the war, writes Scranton, “had been nothing but a murderous hustle.” (203) This idea appears again in the short piece “The Fantasy of American Violence,” where Scranton writes about fireworks on the Fourth of July, Star Wars, and Slotkin’s “myth of regeneration through violence.” (206) He wants us (Americans one assumes) to “ask ourselves what we’re really celebrating with our bottle rockets and sparklers” suggesting that instead of celebrating our addiction to war and violence, we should instead celebrate our “great dissenters and conscientious objectors.” (208)
The third and fourth sections of the book, “Violence and Communion” and “Last Thoughts” focus on terror, trauma, the body (black and white), and the collection ends with a piece that ran in the New York Times, “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World.”
In his critique of what he highlights as “the myth of the trauma hero,” Scranton puts forward the idea that “the most troubling consequence of our faith in the revelatory truth of combat experience and our sanctification of the trauma hero: by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for.” (234) There is something circular about Scranton, a war veteran who writes about war, critiquing the tradition of war veterans writing about war as he does in “The Trauma Hero.” There is an assertion of authority that while critiquing the use of a soldier’s experience to provide authority, at the same time refutes this foundation for authority. It becomes difficult then to read this essay—should we ignore the writer’s status as a veteran and instead focus on his status as a professor of English? But it is not the writers who are to blame, according to Stanton, but instead “all the readers and citizens who expect veterans to play out for them the ritual fort-da of trauma and recovery, and to carry for them the collective guilt of war.” (237)
While Scranton’s musings on Stockhausen, the “terror aesthetic,” the “trauma hero,” and the violence that shapes much of modern society are compelling and certainly gauged to elicit strong responses, it is his final essay that has caused some of the greatest uproar among critics, on social media, and for many readers. It is a deeply personal reflection on fatherhood and the belief that the world is doomed. He makes a good case for what some of us believe—that having children is both selfish and environmentally destructive. A case that he then refutes with the outrageous statement that having a child is “the single strongest drive humans have” and as a feminist and environmentalist, I could not disagree more. Not all humans need or want to reproduce; reproduction is certainly not our strongest drive—that would be survival. And while Scranton writes both intelligently and persuasively about the end of the world as we know it, I will continue to align myself with those who are working to save what we can.