Roy Scranton reckons that carbon-based-capitalism has led us down the path of no return. Jamie Goldrick caught up with him and had a not-so-positive chat about his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.
You open your book with scenes from Baghdad after the American invasion, and describe how the ‘grim future’ that you saw in Iraq was now coming home in the form of climate change. You mention that you marched against the invasion in Iraq but then ended up serving in Iraq yourself, how did this come about?
I talk about Baghdad at the beginning of the book for several reasons. First, it’s a way to hook readers: it offers violence, war, an exotic locale, and a strong narrative voice. Second, Baghdad after the American invasion offers a vision of our own future: a modern, secular city reeling from catastrophic damage, sliding into ethno-nationalist strife while Big Oil’s hired army–by which I mean here the US Army–protects the petroleum industry’s assets.
Third, being a hired thug in Baghdad gave me the opportunity to reckon with my mortality–a problem we all must face sooner or later. We need to understand that civilizations die too, just like people, and not even humanity lasts forever.
I didn’t march against Iraq before the war but after, though before I joined the army I had been an activist and even protested Bush in 2002. The main reason I joined the military was because I was a college dropout working in food service and living in poverty with little prospect of turning things around on my own, and my teeth had been messed up in a bike accident.
So I joined the army for the job, dental care, and college money. I also joined because, after 9/11, I wasn’t as sure that American imperialism was as evil as I had assumed it was, and I wanted to see what George Orwell called “the dirty work of empire” out where it happened, to judge for myself whether or not it was worth it.
The answer, in case you’re interested, is no, it’s not. The Iraq War was part of the immense boondoggle the US has been running in the Middle East for decades, which involves oil, weapons sales, and propping up both the inhumane Israeli occupation of Palestine and the brutal tyrants who run Saudi Arabia, and no part of that is worth the vast destruction, suffering, and death the US unleashed on the people of Iraq.
So how would you describe what is known as the Anthropocene?
The idea behind the term ‘Anthropocene’ is that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. The biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and the Nobel-winning chemist Paul Crutzen advanced the term in 2000, and it has gained acceptance as evidence has grown that the changes wrought by global warming will affect not only the world’s climate and biodiversity, but its very geological structure.
In another way, it helps us understand that the post-Renaissance division in Western culture between “Man” and “Nature” is no longer tenable, and must be abandoned.
You identify carbon based industrialisation as the defining factor of the emergence of the Anthropocene, and argue that global decarbonisation is irreconcilable with global capitalism. Would the term ‘the Capitalocene’ not make a more fitting label for this epoch?
No, it would not. Capitalism’s not the problem: carbon is. It’s carbon-fueled capitalism that is destroying the world. As awful as capitalism can be, it’s not what’s going to kill us. Humanity could live on Earth for millennia more being just as brutal and unjust as the Ancient Greeks were, and even capitalism could go on for centuries and centuries just like it is, except for the fact that we’ve destabilized the planet’s geophysical rhythms by transferring millions of tons of carbon from underneath the Earth into the seas and skies.
You describe how carbon based capitalism gave power to the working classes through societies reliance on labour intensive carbon extraction such as mines. Concessions given to the disempowered down through history have been made through violent means. You critique marches and petitions as being non-effective. Is this book then to be read as a call to action for the disempowered to ready themselves for the coming storm?
My point about the ways that energy production gives rise to political infrastructure was made to help illustrate why political technologies that worked for a coal-driven economy, such as strikes, marches, petitions, and mass democracy in general, no longer work in a primarily oil-driven economy. The difference is in how power flows through society, and the fact that oil needs far fewer workers than coal did, which means far fewer people are actually involved in producing power, so only a tiny elite can actually leverage control.
Sometimes I like to fantasize about the disempowered rising up to take control from the elites who run global capitalism, sure, but my book isn’t about feeding that fantasy or giving it form. My book is about coming to terms with reality. To adapt the famous phrase from Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg, carbon-fueled capitalism stands today at a crossroads between barbarism and barbarism.
What would you say to those on the left currently organising for a more egalitarian society?
I would say that the struggle for peace, compassion, and reflection must go on in full knowledge of the fact that it is doomed to fail.
What would you say to the techno-utopians of the day? Has this blind belief in technology and progresses blinded us to contemporary global realities?
Progress and techno-utopianism are dreams fuelled by cheap energy. With coal and oil, we’ve developed technologies that let us fly through the air, feed the world, and put men on the moon. It’s completely rational to believe that we’re powerful enough to do almost anything we might imagine. The problem is that our power comes from burning carbon, and continuing to burn carbon is going to destroy the conditions for contemporary civilization and possibly for human life as we know it long before we’ll develop the technologies needed to save us.
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization is out now on City Lights books.
Photo by Jamie Goldrick.