Existential therapy for the end of civilisation

With climate-change denial rapidly losing its social license, climate ‘doomism’ – the conviction that it’s now too late to prevent the collapse of civilisation – has become a new archnemesis of climate activism.

Climate policy expert Ketan Joshi says that ‘Doomism is the new denialism. Doomism is the new fossil fuel profit protectionism’. He dedicates a subchapter of his recently published book Windfall: Unlocking a Fossil-Free Future to mapping and condemning ‘The Rise of Doomism’. Leading climate scientist and public commentator Michael E. Mann devotes an entire chapter of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, to censuring ‘messengers of doom’. Mann warns that those who want to delay meaningful climate action have fanned the flames of doomism to foment political disengagement and even argues that ‘doomist and nihilistic framing of the climate crisis … may be more harmful now than climate-change denial itself.’

Whether or not this has been a concerted fossil-fuel industry strategy, ‘doomism’ is clearly spreading. A Roy Morgan survey shows that the percentage of Australian respondents who believe it is ‘too late to deal with global warming’ has increased from 15 per cent in 2006 to 28 per cent in 2019.

In Michael Mann’s estimation, Roy Scranton – the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and We’re Doomed, Now What? – may bethe ultimate doomist’. He’s also my personal favourite, in terms of literary quality and philosophical orientation – although between scythe-wielding Albion romantics such as Paul Kingsnorth and liberal-hipster dinner-party darlings like Jonathan Franzen, the competition isn’t too stiff.

Scranton’s basic premise is more or less the same as most others lumped into the doomist camp: ‘None of the political or technological solutions on the table … are likely to work, and almost certainly not quickly enough to preserve global capitalist civilization as we know it.’ Because of this intractable political situation,

…[t]he greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

You can see why climate activists hate him.

For me, he is more of a ‘problematic fave’, because – like many artists to whom that epithet is applied – he was meaningful during a difficult period of my life.

I had been privately reading and researching climate change for a year and my internal purgatory was starting to grate against the anodyne messaging of mainstream climate organisations, who offer measured sentences about potential climate tipping points like ‘while it is unlikely than any thresholds have been crossed yet, it is worrying that so many tipping processes have been activated.’ Scranton’s writing appealed to me because ‘worrying’ was not what I was doing. Living under the constant premonition that my generation would be judged like the Germans during the Third Reich, whose complicity, inaction or active compliance enabled the Holocaust was what I was doing. Trying to have brunch with my friends while the projector in the back of my mind kicked into a nonstop montage of imagery from the Book of Revelation was what I was doing.

Trapped in the dark room with this reel of eschatological footage, reading Roy Scranton was a solace. He’s an elegant and compelling writer who, at his poetic heights, can summon the vertiginous, prophetic energy of Walter Benjamin. Most ‘climate communicators’ just can’t muster that kind of prose – or perhaps the vividness of their personality, at least in public, has been curtailed by their organisational/personal comms strategy. Climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar sees the popularity of ‘climate de-nihilism’ as a product of this schism between visceral climate ‘doomism’ and emotionally wooden climate ‘messaging’:

… to be fair, the climate community has a maddening tendency to be hawkish about their narrative and their messaging. We must be hopeful! We can’t be alarmist! We must adhere to strict scientific nuance at the expense of clarity and urgency and beauty! … This sort of tone-policing makes the climate conversation impossible to have with any real honesty.

Of course, in the real world, and especially internally, many organisations increasingly recognise and give space to the mental toll of grappling with climate change. I’ve been to activist sessions where attendees are invited to speak candidly about their sense of grief and anxiety, while no-one is criticised for being overly pessimistic. But publicly, and especially in the hyper-speed flux of online climate discourse, this schism remains. And if people can’t find emotional nourishment in climate activist communities, they will turn to people like Scranton.

Scranton’s experience serving in the US army during the Iraq War helps to make sense of his worldview. In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, he writes of his unbearable terror of driving a Humvee through the streets of Baghdad while other soldiers were ‘shot at, mortared, and blown up by IEDs’. Every time he looked into his Humvee’s mirror, he ‘saw a dark, empty hole.’ Quoting Simone Weil, he writes,

“Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” I recognized that face in the dark of my Humvee’s mirror. Its gaze almost paralyzed me.

Scranton found mental endurance by reading the Hagakure, an eighteenth-century samurai manual that lays out the precepts of the Bushido warrior code. The Hagakure instructs samurai to meditate daily on the inevitability of one’s death and ‘live as if one were already dead’. As Scranton writes:

I took that advice to heart, and instead of fearing my end, I practiced owning it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I would imagine getting blown up, shot, lit on fire, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded. Then, before we rolled out through the wire, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry anymore because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive.

Ultimately, Scranton’s adoption of Bushido, and the Zen Buddhism that undergirds it, led him to a kind of ‘climate existentialism’. This isn’t surprising if one considers the significant amount of conceptual overlap between Buddhism and existentialism.

Existentialist philosophers like Schopenhauer – and, through the prism of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche – were influenced by Buddhism, or at least the two-dimensional understanding of Buddhism among European intellectuals of their time. Scranton doesn’t explicitly identify as an ‘existentialist’ in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene or We’re Doomed: Now What?, but in a recent interview he says that we need to be having ‘existential philosophical discussion’ about climate change and our civilisation. And I think it’s accurate to place his thought within that canon. Like Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, his writings are haunted by questions of mortality, meaninglessness, and the struggle for an authentic and vital life.

The consuming existential terror Scranton felt in Iraq was what existentialists call a ‘boundary’ situation or ‘awakening experience’: a moment in which a premonition, or actual threat, of death leads to the collapse and restructuring of meaning. In existentialism – as in the Buddhist practice of Maraṇasati – reckoning with ‘the painful fact of human finitude’ and confronting the resulting dread and anxiety is a necessary process of personal maturation that leads to an ‘intensification and clarification of life’s possibilities’. Death ‘reveals the truth of Nothingness and conditions our perception of all other truths’ (Although in seeing the afterlife as simply ‘the abyss of Non-being’, existentialism parts from Buddhism here by rejecting any notion of ‘transmigration’, rebirth or Nirvana.)

‘You cannot stare straight into the face of the Sun, or Death’ reads the epigraph of Irvin Yalom’s opus of existential therapy, Staring at the Sun. Nonetheless, Yalom attempts to provide his clients some conceptual glasses that tint the unbearable glare of personal mortality, allowing them to – if not stare – at least occasionally glance at the sun of death. I remember being touched to my core when I first read Staring at the Sun in the library of a cancer care centre I volunteered in as a teenager. I guess I was vulnerable to Scranton’s rhetorical move: essentially literalising this metaphor and asking us to stare into the face of the solar radiation that will ostensibly fry civilisation as we know it.

What Scranton does is transpose existential therapy from the individual to civilisational level, offering a kind of ‘existential therapy for the end of civilization’. Intuitively, this seems to make sense. Therapeutic interventions like cognitive-behavioural therapy – premised on the idea of addressing distorted forms of cognition, such as overestimating threats – don’t seem very suitable to a world facing a crisis of unoverestimable proportions. And even if we aren’t as definitively ‘doomed’ as Scranton thinks, it’s now an almost everyday occurrence to hear leading climate scientists, mainstream advocacy organisations  and even the president of the United States calling climate change above 2 degrees an existential threat to civilisation. What could be more appropriate for an existential crisis than existential therapy?

While this equivocation between personal and civilisational death may be rhetorically compelling, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Climate change does pose an existential threat to civilisation, but it doesn’t pose the same kind of existential threat that death poses to individuals. People may die slowly, their bodies going through slow decades of biological entropy, but they eventually die with finality and certainty.

On the other hand, ‘civilisation’ being ‘doomed’ is a very subjective prognosis depending on a wide range of definitions of ‘doom’ and ‘civilisation’. Occasionally Scranton adds some modifiers, such as ‘carbon-fuelled global capitalist civilisation’, ‘Western civilsation’, or ‘the end of civilisation as we know it’ – or by defining civilisation as ‘the life of the polis, the city, urban existence’ – to give us some idea what he means.

Does he mean that we will abandon large-scale settlements and gather in small bands of heavily armed clans, battling it out over the remaining stockpiles of canned soup? That’s the movie-cliché version of civilisational collapse, but it’s far more likely – though still quite unlikely – that in a century our world will resemble Blade Runner 2049. A world with powerful corporations, a functioning and well-resourced police force and large-scale agriculture, despite the environmental catastrophe that seems to have turned the sky into an opaque, dusty soup. A grim vision, but not one that equates to the end of ‘the life of the polis, the city, urban existence’ or ‘Western civilisation’ or even, as far as we can tell, the end of ‘carbon-fuelled global capitalist ’.

Scranton’s definitions of ‘doom’ are also quite varied. He cites reports that warn of ‘global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict … food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.’ Or in his own words: ‘… the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping, and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well underway, and our own possible extinction as a species’. Except for perhaps the extinction for humankind, few of these forms of civilisational collapse can be meaningfully compared to individual death. The comparison tends toward a mental compression of the range of possible futures – even the dystopian and deranged ones – that lie before us in 2021. Is Blade Runner 2049 set in a world of a ‘doomed’ humanity? It looks like a

Ultimately, we don’t fully know how the next two decades of international politics will play out, or what the world will really look like in 2121. This is one reason why many people – such as me – who are deeply scared and pessimistic about the future are still reluctant to declare that civilisation is doomed.

It’s not cowardice, or fealty to a particular mode of ‘messaging’, or a psychological or political need to cling to naïve hope. Trust me, I’m prone to pessimism. If I thought we were doomed, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops. There is a massive difference between 1.5 and 4 degrees of warming, and that difference is still largely about political choices made in the next few decades. Yes, the current national climate action plans only offer only 2 per cent of the emission reductions climate scientists say we need by 2030. Yes, it’s now all but impossible to model a path to 2 degrees without some heroic assumptions. But keeping warming to around 2 degrees by 2100 is still very possible. Keeping it below 3 degrees even more so. Yes, there are potential tipping points that could tilt us into a hothouse earth scenario but, like many people of his ilk, Scranton has a questionable interpretation of the science around climate tipping points – something that Mann addresses at length in The New Climate War.

Scranton doesn’t pretend to offer a clear vision of the future, but perhaps he should be more up-front about this. At the risk of also being accused of narrative hawkishness, I think there’s room to viscerally, even brutally, convey the horrors of our potential future, but still go beyond the eschatological simplicity of ‘We’re Doomed’ (much as I suspect that title may be a sarcastic riff on his designation as a doomist).

When pressed in a recent interview, Scranton said: ‘I’m not a fatalist. I’m not a doomist. I don’t know what’s going to happen’. He also writes that ‘[a]ccepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life.’ In a way, he seems trapped inside the riddle of his own existentialist metaphor: We’re doomed, but we’re not really doomed, but we have to live as if we were doomed, which we probably are, but we might not be. In sounds quite stupid when unpacked in this way: like a child trying to solve a Zen Kōan. And maybe that’s all it is. But his writing is still good enough to make this ultimately unsatisfying metaphysical labyrinth a pleasure to wander within.

There is a lot to loss to grieve over, even in a 1.5-degree-Celsius warmer world. Things have been condemned to die that we will not save. However, living through the death of friends, lovers, relatives, ecosystems and cultures has been simply a fact of life for a lot of human history. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, as climate scientist Kate Marvel wrote in ‘We Need Courage, Not Hope to Face Climate Change’, and grief is simply ‘the cost of being alive’. Scranton echoes her on this point in an essay titled ‘Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World’: ‘We’re all doomed. That’s simply the condition of being born.’ In the midst of life we are in death etcetera. Once again, we return to the starting point of existentialism.

However, recognising grief and sadness and even the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe because of the entropy hardwired into it doesn’t necessarily lead to a life of quietism and navel-gazing. In other words: existentialism is a philosophy, not a lifestyle.

For many of Scranton’s philosophical ancestors, a confrontation with death, and all its attendant catharsis, has been the foundation of a resolve to seize the marrow of life, even if that means breaking a few bones. Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were both active in the French underground resistance during WWII. Sartre even tried to encourage intellectuals to assassinate French Nazi collaborators and at the age of sixty was arrested for civil disobedience while taking part in the 1968 strikes in Paris.

As books like Action Dharma explore, there are numerous strands of Buddhism deeply engaged in social and political action. It’s not a significant text within Buddhism, but the Hagakure manual that Scranton turned to in Iraq used Zen principles as a mental toolbox for Samurai to fight with total conviction and fearlessness. The Hagakure was infamously repurposed by Japanese nationalists in the ‘30s and ‘40s as a ‘kind of bible for the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy’, even inspiring some kamikaze pilots to compose samurai-style death poems and take swords into the cockpit with them. This isn’t an endorsement of any particular politics or tactics. I’m not saying it’s time to Learn how to Kill in the Anthropocene – at least not yet. I’m just saying that Scranton’s own philosophical foundations don’t necessarily lead to pacifism.

In fact, Scranton doesn’t explicitly foreswear collective struggle. He castigates one large climate march as ‘an orgy of democratic emotion, an activist-themed street fair … that siphoned off organizing energy that could have been more useful elsewhere.’ But he also praises the violent industrial and civil rights struggles in the US, for people who ‘didn’t just protest, share news stories, and post messages … didn’t just march … didn’t just hold meetings’ – people who ‘fought and bled and died for a world they believed in, for a share in the power they produced’. Is he trying to goad climate activists into more radical territory? Sometimes it seems like it. He closes We’re Doomed with some ruminations on how we might fight for a ‘a world socialist revolution’ as the only viable path to managing the global transition away from fossil fuels. As Camus once described the artist’s predicament, Scranton is ‘… groping his way in the dark … incapable of separating himself from the world’s misfortune and passionately longing for solitude and silence.’

Scranton’s writing doesn’t explicitly promote stasis and de-politicisation, but neither does it denounce it. It’s hard to piece together any coherent message in his politically obtuse writing, apart from a call for deep reflection about the world and our engagement with it. The fact that his books ask more questions than they answer, especially about a problem as harrowing as climate change, are likely part of their appeal. People caught in the everyday tension between total despair and motivation see their struggle in his words and cherish the candor with which he publicly lays out his contradictions. As one of Scranton’s philosophical inspirations once put it, ‘one is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions’.

A better understanding of Scranton’s philosophical lineage helps one understand how a sense of ultimate hopelessness and political action aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, some existentialists see hope as a barrier to courageous political action. ‘If fear is the mother of cowardice, hope if the father’, Walter Kaufman writes. Something to keep in mind if Marvel is right and ‘we need courage, not hope to face climate change’.

I’m not preaching the abandonment of hope, which can always be defined in nuanced and non-pollyannaish ways. But if you’re unable to escape despair, there are ways to sharpen it into a weapon.


Image: Detail from the cover art of We’re Doomed. Now What?

Zacharias Szumer

Zacharias Szumer is a writer and musician who lives in Naarm/Melbourne. Some of his other writings can be seen on his website.

More by Zacharias Szumer ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. At present it’s the ‘three A’s’ that are driving us towards climate catastrophe Zacharias.
    Animal agriculture.
    Arsenals (particularly the US).
    Avarice (or is it Amazon?).
    The fourth driver, middle class international tourism, has slowed to a trickle for the time being.
    The chances of stopping or even slowing the three A’s seems insurmountable.
    Mother Earth, as many scientists have pointed out, will recover. Without us.

  2. Excellent essay/review, Zacharias!

    If you’re not already familiar with my “post-doom” conversations and resources, I think you’ll find it valuable: https://postdoom.com/

    For a good intro, I recommend my 25-minute video: “Serenity Prayer for the 21st Century: Pro-Future Love-in-Action” (on resources page of the post-doom website).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *