Book Reviews & Essays


Two Books on the Anthropocene

A version of this article was originally published November 30, 2015 in Los Angeles Review of Books

THEY WARNED US about this. In California, the future has arrived in the form of desiccated land, 100-degree autumn days, and freakish fires that burned more than 300,000 acres in 2015. In Oklahoma and Texas, this year brought record deluges of rain, while severe drought in the Middle East has fueled the refugee crisis. As Al Gore is fond of saying, “Every night on the television news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.” And yet, for those of us watching from the comfort of our climate-controlled living rooms, these extremes and calamities coexist surreally with ordinary life. That’s what we didn’t, perhaps, understand: that there would be no before and after to catastrophic climate change, that the dystopian could be so cozy with the quotidian.

This disorienting era has become known as the “Anthropocene,” a term you may have noticed popping up with increasing frequency of late. First popularized in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, it refers to the age of human influence over nature on a planetary scale. The term is a little too fashionable these days, but it is useful because it assigns a name to something we all uneasily recognize: a world whose rules are fundamentally different from the ones we were taught. To begin to understand this world, we need more than climate models and glacier measurements. To adapt to it, we need more than seawalls and desalination plants. We need to come to grips with it intellectually, philosophically, emotionally. To do so, we need help. We need books.

Fortunately, a number of authors have stepped up to oblige. The bibliography on life during climate change has swelled in recent years, encompassing work by novelists, philosophers, and literary critics. This fall brings two new entries: After Nature by Jedediah Purdy and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton. They are very different, in certain ways opposite. But each offers a powerful reckoning with our bewildering present.


The explicit thesis of Purdy’s After Nature, subtitled A Politics for the Anthropocene, is that we must fortify democracy to survive and thrive in the world we have made. The heart of the book, though, is not political but philosophical. Its great value lies in its sophisticated, lucid study of the evolving American environmental imagination. Purdy, a Duke law professor best known for his 1999 debut For Common Things, brings impressive intellectual and literary chops to bear on a history of American attitudes toward nature, and how those attitudes have manifested in tangible modifications of the air, land, and water. “Law is a circuit between imagination and the material world,” he writes, in one of the book’s many beautiful sentences. The book aims to show how our shared philosophical premises inform our laws, our behavior, and ultimately our world.

Purdy divides the nation’s past relationship to nature into four phases. The first phase he names is the providential, characterized by the belief that God bequeathed us land to settle and transform. Thus in the 19th century, as settlers carved out the frontier, nature on its own was seen as “incomplete”; it took human labor to make it useful and law to turn it into private property. (Native Americans’ notions of collaborating with the land were judged invalid.) Next came the Romantic perspective, exemplified by John Muir, which inverted the providential view. Romantics found the greatest beauty in untouched land, and their efforts led to the preservation of many wild spaces. Purdy is highly critical of this school of thought, faulting it as too remote from both ordinary people and ordinary life: in short, he writes, it translates too easily into an ethos of “vacation and consumption.” A third, utilitarian credo, championed by Theodore Roosevelt among others, sought to manage the country’s forests and other resources responsibly. The goal was worthy, but utilitarians framed this management as a technocratic task that fell to experts: they believed in “administration rather than democracy.” More troubling still, they saw human populations too as resources to be managed, and many of them were ardent eugenicists. Finally, the ecological doctrine, emerging in the early 1960s, stressed the oneness and interdependence of all life, epitomized by Rachel Carson’s revelation in Silent Spring that pesticides permeated far beyond their intended targets. The resulting popular concern precipitated major legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, representing a new kind of environmental law, one that focused more on limiting pollution than regulating land use.

And now? Purdy declines to coin a name for the contemporary American attitude toward nature, possibly because there is no single overriding one. But he does offer a thoughtful inquiry into what an Anthropocene attitude might optimally look like. Today, Purdy writes, we are (or should be) in the process of shifting to a postecological way of thinking:

[P]ristineness and pollution, ecological connection and technological alienation, are blended and are matters of degree … Paradox, partiality, and the mixed-up character of everything have come after the grasp at wholeness that began the ecological age.

We might say (though Purdy doesn’t) that the postecological attitude stands to the ecological as postmodernism stands to modernism: a discourse that continues along the same lines, but without the belief in purity and coherence assumed by its predecessor.

How can we reconcile ourselves to a world where nature is everywhere contaminated? For inspiration, Purdy turns to a surprising source: Henry David Thoreau, who, he points out, has been claimed by Romantics in the past, but who ultimately eludes their constraints. Certain passages from Thoreau, he argues, can be profitably reread “with Anthropocene eyes”:

His Concord is full of the artifacts of old and new settlement, down to the soil itself, seeded with stone tools and potsherds that tinkle against the hoe as he works his bean-field. There is nothing pristine in this place, no basis for a fantasy of original and permanent nature. There is only a choice among relationships with and attitudes toward ever-changed places. These do not just accommodate the damage and ruptures of the landscape: they begin from and depend on them.

Part of what Purdy is up to here is the rejection of dichotomous thinking — natural versus unnatural, beautiful versus ugly — in favor of a vision of the world as impure, blemished, dynamic, alive. Reading After Nature, I was reminded of a gorgeous poem by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh) titled “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” The themes of Zagajewski’s poem are not explicitly or exclusively environmental (The New Yorker ran it in its post-September 11 issue), but upon rereading, I was struck by how much of it resonates with Purdy’s evocation of a nature that is broken but tenacious:

Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world […]
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

To praise the mutilated world — to embrace, in some sense, nature’s desecration — is not defeatism or complacency. The difference is subtle, but Purdy’s preferred attitude toward the Anthropocene promotes equanimity about the inevitable wreckage — the potsherds, the scars — combined with an ability to savor and nurture the beauty and vitality that emerge from it. Purdy quotes another poet, Wallace Stevens, to illustrate the point: “The imperfect is our only paradise.”

In broad strokes, some of Purdy’s analysis will be familiar to readers who are well versed in environmental literature, but his uncommon erudition and richly supple language give the ideas fresh force. Still, a reader might wonder, what should we actually do about the immense challenges of the Anthropocene? Given Purdy’s status as a law professor and the presence of the word “politics” in the book’s subtitle, After Nature is surprisingly light on specifics. (One of his few concrete suggestions is to establish a right to know the conditions in which animals are raised for meat.)

Throughout After Nature, Purdy is more focused on intellectual frameworks than policy proposals. Yet the book is firmly anchored in political conviction. Purdy calls for recognition of the unavoidably political nature of the questions we face. It can be tempting to look for panaceas in market solutions such as carbon pricing or in technologies such as renewable energy or geoengineering. But he emphasizes that these remedies, and the details of their deployment, will always embody, and sometimes obscure, conflicts over values and interests. Inequality in the Anthropocene is not the product of luck or of fate but of human political decisions. Extrapolating from the economist Amartya Sen’s famous observation that famines don’t occur in democracies, Purdy writes that in the Anthropocene, “the world of scarcity and plenty, comfort and desperation, is not just where we live; it is also what we make.” In the past, political decisions may have determined who had adequate shelter from storms; now they may help determine the ferocity of the storms themselves. Accordingly, Purdy insists that we must make the Anthropocene universally democratic. “[I]f Anthropocene ecologies are a political question,” he writes, “then no one should be left out of the decisions that shape them.”

Purdy also critiques the dominant framing of climate change: the assumption that we can “solve” or “prevent” it and that failing to do so will result in apocalypse. He writes,

We should ask, of efforts to address climate change, not just whether they are likely to “succeed” at solving the problem, but whether they are promising experiments — workable approaches to valuing a world that we have everywhere changed, and to thinking about how we will change it next.

There will be many solutions, all of which will generate their own set of problems. We cannot hope to “save” the planet. Talk of “saving” or “solving” sets the standard unreachably high and misleadingly suggests a mission with a single objective — “Operation: Anthropocene,” we might call it — rather than ongoing ways of life that must persist, and adapt, for as long as we remain here.


Purdy, while not necessarily an optimist, is impatient with doomsayers. “Unfortunately,” he writes in the prologue of After Nature,

talk of the Anthropocene has attracted such self-important pronouncements as “this civilization is already dead” … and “if we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.” This is just the sort of suggestive but, upon scrutiny, meaningless gesture that makes talk of “responsibility” feel self-important and ineffective.

The target of this surprisingly harsh judgment — out of character for the typically gracious Purdy — is a column that Roy Scranton wrote for The New York Times in November 2013, which he has since expanded into a book titled Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. Already, you can see why Scranton might have provoked Purdy’s ire: his talk of death and ends represents exactly the sort of apocalyptic overstatement that Purdy makes a habit of interrogating.

Nevertheless, Scranton’s book has its own kind of power. Purdy’s strength is his nuance; Scranton’s is his bluntness. There is something cathartic about his refusal to shy away from the full scope of our predicament. “Human civilization has thrived in what has been the most stable climate interval in 650,000 years,” he writes. “Thanks to carbon-fueled industrial civilization, that interval is over.” Learning to Die is a 144-page slip of a book, part jeremiad, part manifesto, rendered in taut, stern prose. Scranton’s brief chapters do not always proceed in an obviously logical sequence; each is a meditation on a different dimension of human life on this planet (“Human Ecologies,” “The Compulsion of Strife”), and the subject matter ranges from a fascinating exploration of early coal politics to a retelling of the epic of Gilgamesh.

Scranton’s peculiar authority stems in part from his biography, which does not fit the standard profile of a climate writer: he served in Iraq as a private in the US army from 2003 to 2004. Common sense and social science both suggest that, in order to communicate effectively about the issue of climate change, the right messenger — someone who is perceived to share values with the audience — is critical. Yet we are much more likely to hear about the perils of climate change from journalists, scientists, or professors, all regarded by much of the general US public as members of a liberal elite. (Scranton’s current position as a Princeton graduate student may tarnish his populist credentials but can’t entirely erase them.) As Scranton himself reminds us, it’s hardly unprecedented for a member of the Armed Forces to sound the alarm about climate change: Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, head of the US Pacific Command, has called global climate change “the greatest threat the United States faces.” But to hear a military veteran speaking so forcefully about environmental issues is refreshing. In Iraq, Scranton had personal experience of the hell that he sees spreading in the Anthropocene, as “water, power, traffic, markets, and security fell to anarchy and local rule.” He has witnessed the worst-case scenario, or something close to it, and that lends his voice credibility.

So, in a sense, does his fatalism. He is not asking us to do anything. He has no political agenda. He is pessimistic about grassroots activism and holds out little hope for international agreements. He doubts that renewable energy is even theoretically capable of replacing carbon-based energy. If he has an “ask,” it’s not for a carbon tax or a humbler lifestyle; it’s that we make an effort to save what we can of our cultural heritage, to salvage the hard-won wisdom of the dead, from the Greeks to the Buddha, from the Torah to the Federalist Papers. “The comparative study of human cultures across the world and through time helps us see that our particular way of doing things, right here, right now, is a contingent adaptation to particular circumstances,” he writes, “yet at the same time an adaptation built with universal human templates of meaning-making and symbolic reasoning, with tools and technologies we have inherited from the past.” In a sense, Scranton’s book (unlike Purdy’s) is not directly about nature at all. His concern is with humanity, and with the humanities. He wants us to rescue the fruits of our collective creativity from the blight of our collective destructiveness. The poet his book brings to mind is not Wallace Stevens but T.S. Eliot: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins …”

In his discussion of cultural heritage, Scranton refers in passing to the Greek concept of fate, and he himself seems to take a tragic view, in the classical sense, of climate change. In other words, our fate as a species follows inevitably from who we are; we are as doomed to wreck our planet as Oedipus was to kill his father. “The problem with our response to climate change isn’t a problem with passing the right laws or finding the right price for carbon or changing people’s minds or raising awareness,” he writes. “The problem is that the problem is too big … The problem is that the problem is us.”


Although it’s easy to miss if you skim, there is a hidden spark of brightness in Scranton’s aggressively dour book. True, “[c]arbon-fueled capitalism is a zombie system,” but fortunately, this “is not the only way humans can organize their lives together.” Alternatives are imaginable, if improbable. Furthermore, it turns out that the end of civilization as we know it might not be such bad news. “Learning to die as a civilization,” he tells us, “means letting go of this particular way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success, and progress.” Scranton’s use of the word “civilization,” here and elsewhere, is somewhat ambiguous: it is not always clear whether he’s referring to the human culture he prizes, which stretches back thousands of years, or only to the current technocapitalist system. He confidently foresees the demise of the latter. He fears that it will take down the former with it, but holds out hope that it won’t.

This distinction between two kinds of civilization brings to mind a question at the heart of a longstanding debate about climate change and about the term “Anthropocene.” Is it humanity per se that has brought about these massive disruptions, or is it a very specific economic and political system, benefiting a very small subset of people, that is responsible? The first perspective is represented by Elizabeth Kolbert, who argues in The Sixth Extinction that Homo sapiens has always lived in unique disharmony with the environment. The most prominent spokesperson for the second viewpoint is Naomi Klein, whose This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate makes the case that global capitalism, and not the human species itself, is the real culprit.

As it happens, both Kolbert and Klein provide blurbs for Scranton’s book, and while he seems to tilt more toward the Kolbertian view, he has moments, as in the passage quoted above, where he sounds more Kleinian. He does seem to believe it’s possible that by changing our economy, social structure, and means of production, we can successfully adapt to the Anthropocene — with the caveat that, given human nature and the damage already done, this is not very likely.

Purdy, too, falls between the Kolbertian and Kleinian poles. He focuses less on indictments, whether of the human species or the capitalist system, and more on the potential for choosing among a variety of futures. He acknowledges that both capitalism and, before its fall, communism inflicted dreadful ecological damage. But he believes that a robust democratic politics is the only way of making a flawed but habitable world together. Purdy puts more stock in human agency and in politics than Scranton does. But both authors agree on the need for major changes to the capitalist system, and to some extent their differences are more tonal than substantive.

In the end, whatever the precise apportionment of blame, it’s clear that humanity is capable of colossal destruction. The corollary, of course, is that we are capable of wisdom, kindness, art, and thought, too, as both these books amply demonstrate. The question is how the balance between our virtues and our vices will play out: whether the human story will turn out to be a tragedy, as Scranton suspects, or the less dramatic, potentially rewarding struggle that Purdy envisions. Either way, we must face the Anthropocene. One of our consolations is to have minds like these two to guide us through it.

Source: Los Angeles Review of Books

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