There’s a certain kind of environmental writing that drives a lot of people crazy. This is the jeremiad that tells us the world is failing, we are at a tipping point, civilization is doomed, etc. In principle, I don’t have a particular problem with the style, after all I do my share of it. Some say that sky is falling writing drives people to do nothing, stop listening, or give up hope, but I don’t know that there’s any real evidence supporting the assertion.
But I do have one very large problem with how these essays are usually written. They tend to erase inequality and differences between people, as if the writer is just discovering that things are bad in the world, a revelation the world’s poor would not find surprising. Take Roy Scranton’s essay in the Times about how we need to learn to die as a civilization, for dying is what our civilizing is doing as we take no action to mitigate climate change. It’s long and I’m just going to excerpt a couple small parts:
The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.
The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.
If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.
The problem here isn’t that Scranton’s unaware that the poor exists. He mentions food crises, Hurricane Katrina, etc. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand that regardless of whether we are going to live or die, we are not going to do so together. As environmental writers do way too often, he leaves the power dynamics of society outside of his essay. There’s a lot of money to be made off climate change. A lot of new industries will develop, whether mining the newly accessible Arctic or providing water or who knows. The rich are going to be OK. They will move to higher ground, the poor will be left to lower ground. The rich will have air conditioning (and access to water if it becomes truly scarce). The poor will not. The rich will have homes that have a better chance of withstanding large storms. The poor will live in substandard housing that will kill them when the hurricane comes through. Of course, race, class, immigration status, and nationality will play a major role in determining who will be OK and who will not.
Essays like Scranton’s erase environmental justice from the definitions of the movement. If we aren’t going to center the power dynamics of capitalism, race, gender, and global inequality in our adaptations to climate change, it means that environmentalism remains a movement of the rich and the white, disconnected to the material concerns of the world’s majority.
In other words, if we are going to die as a civilization, it might be a good idea to live as a civilization first. Because while things for the poor will get worse when the impacts of climate change grow, they are pretty bloody bad right now. The sky isn’t falling for them with climate change. The sky never rose on their lives in the first place.