What follows is a transcript of part of Roy Scranton’s interview with Patrick Farnsworth on the Last Born in the Wilderness podcast. In this clip, Roy responds to Michael Mann’s criticism of him as “the ultimate doomer”, providing the necessary nuance to understand how pessimism is a necessary predicate to right action. (The transcript has been edited for readability.) Listen to the complete interview here.
The one point I home in on with Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, both the essay in the New York Times and the book, is this idea of facing human limits, facing human mortality. …
I know that when I read the science, what the scientists say, what they say is necessary. When I take that and compare that to what I see in the political realm, and what I see from politicians and world leaders and business interests, and when I filter all that through what I know about history and human fallibility and human psychology, I wind up with the sense that, yeah, we’re probably totally fucked.
And that the odds of actually everybody coming together to completely revolutionize the global energy system and reorganize human society in an intentional way that manages to get entirely off fossil fuels without going to war in the next ten or twenty years, before temperatures … before all of these other effects aggregate into cascading tipping points where we lose control over the ability to do anything–I don’t think the odds of us doing that, of us successfully managing that, are very good. So yeah, I’m a pessimist.
A lot of people. Especially people more committed to an activist position, when it comes to climate change, regard even that as counsel of despair or advocacy of doom or whatever. To me, I see myself as–to go back to this issue of mortality–I come at this from a more philosophical position, from a more existential position. If we want to ask real questions about how to change human society, if we want to ask real questions about how to live in this world that is changing around us, we need to really confront the maximal position, we need to face the direst possibilities.
And we need to come to some acceptance of what we’ve already lost and what has already been changed. And this is the other aspect for me: It’s not just about carbon. It’s not just about fossil fuels. It’s not even just about global warming. The human species–and you can blame capitalism or you can blame whatever–the human species has radically transformed the planet that we live on, in countless ways. From the form of animal [mammalian] life that now mostly live on the planet earth, which is mostly the animals we eat, to what we’ve done to water flow, damning rivers and paving wetlands, and just on and on and on. The system of integrated ecosystems on the planet that we depend for life has been monkeyed with in profound and perhaps unredeemable ways.
And that too is something that needs to be confronted and dealt with. And is not going to be answered by progressive politics or just protecting a wetland. It’s a much deeper issue that we need to confront. …
I think despair is productive, can be productive. That kind of paralysis where you stop and you ask yourself, “Why do I keep doing the same thing over and over again? Maybe I should do something else. What should I do?”
Action is great. But there is reactive action, and there is intentional action, and then there’s the Buddhist idea of right action. I think that, given the scope of the crisis that we are in and given the stakes, the dangers of reactive action are too great to just keep going, to just keep acting, to keep fighting. I think we need to have that moment. We need to slow down and have that moment where we really ask ourselves, “How do we want to move forward? What does it mean to be human? What kind of relationship do we want to have to the non-human world?”