We’re Doomed. Now What?
Roy Scranton on Climate Change
In Conversation with Peter Nowogrodzki
Is there a better introduction to writer and climate change philosopher Roy Scranton than to slowly read aloud the titles he’s published to date?
First, his breakout eco-manifesto from 2015: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization.
Then, his debut novel from 2017: War Porn.
And most recently, a collection of essays from 2018: We’re Doomed. Now What?
He has two forthcoming books with somewhat tamer names: Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature and I ♥ Oklahoma! Both are slated for publication this August. Roy and I spoke via phone last December.
Roy Scranton: I’m in my house in Northern Indiana. There’s snow everywhere. It’s like 30 degrees outside.
Peter Nowogrodzki: Bit different climate over here—it’s raining and 70 in Los Angeles.
RS: I normally hate the winter. I’m from Oregon, not the Midwest. But I was really, really excited when it snowed this November. For reasons I’m not entirely sure about—might be that I’ve been in the Midwest too long. But I think it was also because I was so freaked out about climate change this summer that I was just happy to see that it could still snow.
PN: What do you mean “freaked out about climate change this summer?” I ask that because you wrote a book called Learning to Die in the Anthropocene back in 2015—and it’s basically all being deeply freaked out about climate change. So this summer did you get even more freaked out about climate change?
RS: It was just this summer was especially depressing. Or upsetting. In part because I was on book tour for this new book, a collection of essays called We’re Doomed. Now What? I drove all the way to the west coast and then back to the east coast—with a massive carbon footprint—but I also got to get out there and talk to people who are interested in a book called We’re Doomed; people who are concerned about climate change. And I started to get a sense of how people were thinking about climate change in different places across the U.S. For example, while living here in Indiana I know that forest fires in the intermountain west and on the west coast are a big deal, right? But it’s harder to get a sense of how profoundly it’s impacting people’s existence in that space. Their lived world is changing. People are really recognizing what’s happening in a lot of places in the west because everything’s on fire. So I was grappling with that experience.
And then I’ve just been increasingly morose about the systemic possibilities—the Trump regime, everything—it’s just depressing. And then there’s other news, too, like the continued stuff with the Arctic. I mean, yeah, you’re right that my basic relation to climate change has not been radically transformed since I wrote Learning to Die, three years ago, but it just keeps happening. It keeps getting worse. It keeps getting more real.
PN: If you’re paying attention to it. There are a lot of people who still prefer not to, and I’ll admit that often it’s very hard to pay attention . . .They’re not really written for people who don’t want to hear about it, or who are resistant to thinking about climate change. They are not books written to persuade the unconvinced.
RS: And this is the new world that we live in. Each month we’re going to see more effects of this massive planetary transformation that we’ve initiated. It’s probably unstoppable at this point. And this is it—this is the ride. We’re just going to watch this stuff happen, watch it all unfold. And then—especially relying on our more traditional and conventional assumptions about how we comport ourselves as citizens in a democracy or whatever—it’s hard to know how to make sense of that, and how to fit these big picture transformations and events in with our day-to-day reality. Which now also includes the burned parks that we used to love to go to, and algae crusted beaches, and people dying in hurricanes and fires and floods.
PN: I guess I’m curious about what it’s like to always be the person reminding everyone about the one thing no one really wants to be reminded about—doom.
RS: I’ve sort of just accepted the role of being the guy who says this stuff. Especially in my day-to-day life, with colleagues or friends or whatever. I’m the one who’s always like, “Yeah, too bad we’re doomed. Too bad we’ve only got 20 years.” I guess my jokes are sort of hard to comment on. But yeah, I don’t know.
PN: Is that an isolating experience?
RS: Not especially. I guess in part because I am able to find other people who recognize the problem and feel similarly. It’s not isolating so much as it is a little melancholy, right? But that’s sort of a different thing than what you’re talking about—I think what you’re talking about is being around people who would rather just not think about it at all. And, yeah, I mean I suppose that when I think back over the past few years maybe there are some people who I used to be friends with and now I’m not so much anymore just because maybe they thought I was a downer or something. So that may have happened. Especially since publishing Learning to Die, it’s just part of who I am as a social being now—the one who reminds us that we’re mortal, that this civilization is dying, and that the world as we know it is coming to an end.
PN: Earlier you mentioned “people who are interested in a book called We’re Doomed”—who is your intended readership with these publications?
RS: Learning to Die, or even We’re Doomed, they’re not really written for people who don’t want to hear about it, or are in denial, or who are resistant to thinking about climate change. They are not books written to persuade the unconvinced. They’re books written for people who know something about it and are kind of anxious about it. They’re offerings to help those people think through the problem—to get to a point where it’s maybe bearable. We can go on with our lives and maybe think more deeply about how we want to live those lives; and think more deeply about our ethical commitments, and what it means to live together in this world. But we can go on even though the world is ending.
PN: There are these two kind of poles in your writing—there’s “doom,” which we just talked a bit about, and then you also write about something you call “joy.”
RS: Well, “doom” is an interesting word. Etymologically it doesn’t mean like “something bad”—it’s older meaning is more like your fate, right? The necessary conclusion towards which all things move. And, not to get too like psycho-biographical, but when I was like three years old, I had a little brother and then he died. So, that was a really formative moment for me. It in some way undermined a lot of the messaging that I’ve received through the rest of my life—“you’re young and awesome and no one ever dies and everything’s gonna be great. You just have to buy the stuff, and have fun, and have a good time.”
The consumer capitalist culture that we live in is deeply invested in the sequestering and hiding the fact of our death, of our mortality. Which has weird and far-reaching consequences, not least of which being that it really destabilizes our sense of meaning as humans. Because through most of human existence on earth our mortality was an inescapable fact. You were lucky if you lived to grow into an adult. And then, if you broke a leg or got pneumonia—just normal things, I’m not even talking about war—you had a good chance that was going to be it. Childbirth: major killer. Women died in childbirth regularly up until the 20th century.
We’ve lost sight of that. Because of our technological existence, our material privilege—all built on fossil fuels. And we’ve built a culture that protects us from that knowledge . . . But that’s always been there for me. And while it’s been something that I’ve often sort of struggled with—it’s also been really valuable for me in thinking about what it means to be human. So that’s where my idea of “doom” comes from.
The “joy,” on the one hand, comes as a reaction to the doom—“well, how do I make life meaningful if we die? What does this existence mean? How does one keep going? Where do you find something that can counterbalance that sense of that final evacuation, that nothingness, that return to the void from whence we came?” The real counterbalance for that is a kind of exaltation in being—in being together with other people, in being together with a loved one, in being with the world that we live in. It’s a kind of poetic state of being—just attending—to the plant on your counter, or the counter itself, or the air.
Just sort of sitting with the awesomeness of being a conscious animal on this rock in space. Right? There’s a lot there. It’s pretty amazing. Even if we are doomed. Even if it does go away. There’s this moment, and this moment, and there’s great possibility there—for connection and for joy. I guess that was kind of a big question—doom and joy—and maybe I went off on a bit of a tangent there but that’s sort of where it comes from, I think?
PN: What do you think are the latest signs of the end?
RS: Haha. I mean I try to follow the news and the reports and stuff. There’s been some good summary pieces, scientific pieces that sort of collect a lot of papers. There was a good one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it might have been in August. Talking about trajectories—I forget what it was called—something with “trajectory” in the title. But one of the major points of the article—it wasn’t just “oh, we’re screwed”—it was that the idea we could just stop the planet at 2 degrees celsius is probably a fallacy. Because they’re looking at the historical paleoclimate record, and there’s strong reason to believe that there really is a kind of tipping point.
If we heat the planet up to that certain level, it goes on its own trajectory then, beyond anything that we would be able to do anything about it. Two degrees celsius is probably beyond that tipping point. To reach that point we’ve advanced along a trajectory that we cannot change or stop. So that’s one thing . . . And we’re already over one degree.I find all the wildfires depressing, and the floods and the storms and so on. But it’s the Arctic—looking at the Arctic—that really brings home for me the fact that this is real.
The thing that I try to watch most carefully is the Arctic—what’s happening there. It was like the fourth lowest record for sea ice area and volume, in the Arctic. So it wasn’t as bad as in other years. But it was still pretty severe in terms of continuing the Arctic death spiral. There’s been a lot of emerging work on methane and carbon emissions coming out of permafrost in Canada and Alaska and the Siberian Arctic. That’s the shit that’s going to fuck us up. There’s twice as much carbon stored in the permafrost as we’ve already put into the atmosphere. Twice as much. So if you add twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as we’ve already added . . . you can see that’s, uh, catastrophic isn’t even the right word. All that permafrost in the Arctic is melting.
There are these huge questions—like how fast does it melt? How quickly does the methane come out? What happens when the methane is frozen under the ocean? When it’s frozen is seabeds—and then it melts? Which is also happening. Does it make it through the water column into the atmosphere? Or does the methane dissolve in the water? These are all questions that scientists are trying to figure out. And how fast is it all going to happen. What is clear is that it is happening. The permafrost is melting. Which is a major feedback mechanism for increased warming. I find all the wildfires depressing, and the floods and the storms and so on. But it’s the Arctic—looking at the Arctic—that really brings home for me the fact that this is real. This is really happening. It’s happening on a planetary scale. It’s beyond our control. And what it means is . . . an unimaginable transformation for the planet that we live on. That’s going to be unfolding over the next 20 years. And then over the next 100 years, right? We cannot even imagine what’s happening. Or what’s coming . . .
PN: You’ve written and talked about rethinking of “the end of the world” not as a point in time but as a process that we are living through. It’s maybe easier to think of the end as a kind of cliff you drive off of or whatever. But you’re saying more that it’s moment to moment, right now, waking up, eating breakfast . . . we’re literally living through it. Convincing yourself that is happening is really difficult.
RS: Yeah. There’s all kinds of reasons to not believe it, not think about it. Not internalize it. That’s the next thing, right? You might think about it, or read something that upsets you—and you think about it, but then you don’t think about it. And then maybe you think about it later, or maybe you read something else, and so it becomes this awareness in your consciousness. That’s a completely different thing than internalizing it—and making it a truth about you world. Making it fit into the idea in your brain of existence itself. That’s a whole other step. And it’s really challenging.
PN: OK, final question here—is there anything you’re excited about currently? Anything particularly sexy or juicy going on in the eco-philosophy world?
RS: You know I talk to different people—scholars working on the anthropocene and environmental humanities, and philosophers as well. I don’t know that there’s anything particularly juicy happening. I think people are getting on with their work. I guess part of the thing is that I’ve sort of stepped back from the professional discourses on climate change and even the anthropocene. Because the conversation feels kind of stale to me. There are certain ways that I’m not even sure if there is a way forward in terms of the conversation. Which is interesting because at the same time we have things like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal”—which is bringing these questions into a new frame. And then we have people talking about adaptation in new ways—there’s been some interest and really good reporting on it recently. But I don’t know that any of that’s going to necessarily help.
Uh, sorry this is kind of a meandering answer—the thing that I guess has excited me, or interested me, or provoked me the most recently, on thinking about climate change is this movie First Reformed, by Paul Schrader. He’s the guy who wrote Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, and he’s directed movies like American Gigolo and Mishima. This movie came out this last year and Ethan Hawke plays a Calvinist minister—a member of his congregation comes to him with a problem. It turns out this pregnant woman, her husband wants them to get an abortion because he’s an environmental activist and he’s in despair about climate change. The movie sort of accelerates from there. It’s this phenomenal framing of the question of despair—posed against the idea of grace. And it’s harrowing.
The way that Schrader and the film accelerates through the responses to climate change—from recognition to despair to suicide to violence, political violence—it burns right through the logical possibilities for action. It doesn’t come out the other side. It goes to this strange turn at the end of the film that sort of insists on the possibility for grace, even in a doomed world. And I’m not a believer in . . . I’m a pantheist or atheist or something—I don’t believe in divine grace in that way. But the film is a really profound provocation. So that’s something that’s been interesting to me—thinking about that film—and thinking about some philosophy and Hannah Arendt. I don’t know if that’s juicy.