Writers have long faced the apocalypse. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written approximately four thousand years ago, imagines Earth flooded by angry gods. Flash forward a few centuries, and Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells bring us their own visions of the end of the world. In more recent years, novelists like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Octavia Butler have carried on the tradition. Each of these writers shares the idea that the end will come quickly, sparked by an event that tumbles the pillars of civilization like dominoes. It takes little to understand why visions of sudden apocalypse—as opposed to a long, drawn-out one—are popular: a quick and dirty end to everything absolves us from having had anything to do with it. If we never saw the apocalypse coming, how could it have been our fault?
T.S. Eliot offers a different outlook. In 1925, the poet wrote in “The Hollow Men” that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” It’s this idea of a slow death in which everyone is culpable that captures most accurately Roy Scranton’s thoughts on the end of civilization as we know it. The author, an Army veteran who holds a PhD in English from Princeton University, has written much about two of humanity’s biggest existential threats: climate change and war. In 2015’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Scranton combined memoir and science writing to express what it was like to return home from war-torn Iraq only to watch the world succumb to hazards even larger than Al Qaeda: hurricanes imperiling coastal cities; economic and political conflicts giving way to riots; plagues, droughts, and famine causing suffering in every corner of the planet. Global warming, writes Scranton, is at the heart of all of this, and we have long passed the point of being able to stop it. Two years later, he authored his debut novel, War Porn, which is told through the different perspectives of American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians and throws into question what it means to be ally or enemy, victor or victim.
He explores these ideas further in his latest, We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change. This thoughtful and deeply moving collection brings together newly written pieces with those previously published in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. As the subtitle suggests, the essays cover both climate change and war, subjects that aren’t exactly strange bedfellows. As Scranton says in the following interview, both engines of colossal destruction emerge from “the basic structures of our existence.”
Despite signs to the contrary, Scranton argues that hope is possible. Hope arises, he maintains, from coming to terms with our fate and learning to live through the end with peaceful resolve and a new interpretation of what it means to be in the world. If we can’t do anything about climate change, we can at least adjust how we see ourselves in relation to other people and all living things, even as—especially as—great struggle and pain become more commonplace. With scrupulous prose, Scranton sheds light on the best and worst parts of humanity. These essays are not for the light of heart, but neither is the world we live in.
I spoke with Scranton over the phone as he enjoyed a sea-side vacation with his family—a luxury that will become rare to impossible in the coming years, he said, as the “bourgeois American life” becomes an artifact of the past. We discussed the government’s role in mitigating climate change, how our national identity is tied closely to our views of war, and the importance of recognizing our fears about the future and sitting with them.
—Amy Brady for Guernica
Guernica: Your new collection brings essays about war and climate change together. What do you see as the thematic link between them?
Roy Scranton: George Orwell once talked about his ability to face unpleasant facts, and that’s always inspired me. I want to look at the things that are happening in the world that we may not want to think about and try to really understand them. With that in mind, my approach to thinking about climate change and war involves seeing that surrounding both is a great deal of performance, ritualization, ideology, and propaganda. And both deal with the radical transformation of the basic structures of our existence. When the very weather turns against you, for example, it’s disorienting and hard to process. And war is one of the oldest aspects of being human. It’s everywhere you look in the historical record and across social organization. It’s deeply embedded in our society in ways we find difficult to understand, let alone articulate and reflect on. To engage with it involves crossing the deepest parts of ourselves emotionally, religiously, and spiritually. I guess in sum, to look at both climate change and war is to look at the very way we organize and live our lives.
Guernica: Your essays on climate change suggest that we need to accept our fate—that the world is ending as we know it—and learn to develop a new way of life.
Roy Scranton: In the essay “Anthropocene City,” I write how people in Houston are working to protect the city from the next big storm, but that they’re not doing it super successfully. I’m proud of this essay, because it looks at climate change a little differently than many other pieces on the subject, which tend to ask one of two questions: Why do we suffer from a paralysis to do anything about climate change? What is the way around that paralysis? A problem that arises from looking at [climate change] this way is that we’re born into a world with a distinct conceptual armature and structure of reality. We can’t just, like, tear up all the roads and do something different. You can only build a new future using the rocks of the past. Some new future will emerge, certainly, but we don’t have a lot of control over how that happens. What we can do is facilitate its emergence in a more peaceful and thoughtful way.
Guernica: While reading “Anthropocene City” I couldn’t help but think of New York City and its delayed efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Hurricane Sandy hit almost six years ago, but it was only last fall that the city finally launched a multimillion dollar recovery and resiliency project in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which was heavily damaged by the storm. How much can we rely on government, whether at the local or federal level, to play a part in finding—and implementing—solutions to climate change?
Roy Scranton: I’m often reluctant to talk about government in the abstract, because I don’t want to sound like a neoliberal, quasi-anarchist who’s against government [laughs]. But you bring up a real issue, which is that there’s a lot of bureaucracy and various levels of infrastructure, technology, and social organization that lie between whatever decision-making might happen and its ultimate execution. Here’s the funny thing: that slowness is supposed to be one of the great things about American democracy. It’s supposed to slow everything down and make the government less responsive to factional passions. That’s the federalist argument, anyway: when we decentralize power, then it’s harder for any one group to take over. Unfortunately, when it comes to the kind of radical decisions and policies that would need to be made to actually move on climate change, democracy isn’t very effective. We’d need to have some central world leader who just decides things. But that’s not going to happen. Climate change is such a “wicked” problem in that way. It has a scale that’s just enormous and involves so many different governments, localities, and interests at every level of the problem.
Guernica: So government won’t save us.
Roy Scranton: [laughs] No, it’s not going to save us. But local organization can help. That’s why we all need to engage in that boring, time-consuming, old-school progressive thing of actually getting involved in governance at whatever level we can, starting at the local level. We’ve seen again and again how important local organization is in moments of crises. When your city or neighborhood floods, it’s the people acting locally who reach out and help with any kind of efficacy. The government isn’t going to save us, but it can at least help us if we make it ours.
Guernica: Let’s go back for a moment to the issue of why climate change is so hard to wrap our minds around.
Roy Scranton: Sure. One reason is because it’s impossible to conceptualize the whole world at once with any kind of real texture or granularity, much less how to organize all of humanity to take care of one thing.
Guernica: You write that climate change is also hard to think about because it’s so scary. Is fear ever a useful tool for discussing this?
Roy Scranton: The thing about fear is that it’s going to be present whether we recognize it or not. We can pretend that we’re fine and tell ourselves we just have to have hope. But when we do that, we’re just pushing that fear down—we’re not getting rid of it. What we need to do is face the unpleasant facts. We need to come to terms with the seriousness of our situation, recognize it, and accept our fear, because we should be afraid. [Climate change] is scary! Our friends and families are threatened. Our world is threatened. Our future is threatened. We need to find ways to deal with that fear and move on to the next step, whatever that might be. There’s this increasingly unbalanced insistence that we ignore the fear and focus on hope, but to me, that’s the same sort of psychological reaction as Trump’s aversion to sharks: if we keep refusing to face the seriousness of our predicament, then it’s going to bite us in the ass.
Guernica: Much of your worldview seems to be informed by your experience as a soldier, and I’d like to discuss your writing on war. In the essay “The Trauma Hero,” you write that there’s a gap between the “myth of violence” that many Americans celebrate and what you call the “truth of war.” Can you expand on this idea?
Roy Scranton: Americans have long engaged in the mythification of war—the idea that war and violence can redeem us and that it needs to be done for freedom. That myth is central to the American character. You can see it in how our leaders talk about war, and even in our superhero movies. We always want those movies to come down to a battle in the last scene where the good guy finally overcomes the bad guy. But in real life, that never happens; reality is always much more complicated. Now, the “truth of war” is a phrase I use rhetorically and with awareness that it’s ridiculous to claim that war has only one truth. What I mean by the “truth of war” is that most Americans don’t want to think very hard or very much about what actually happens during a war or the political policy surrounding war—how it undergirds our dependence on fossil fuels or that it’s professionalized. War is a job, after all. It involves people whose job it is to kill other people, and we, Americans, send them overseas to do just that. The myth of violence involves an unwillingness to face the real costs that violence incurs, and not just for Americans and our own wounded warriors, but for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives we’ve destroyed all over the world.
Guernica: America has been at war with Afghanistan for almost two decades. Has the gap between myth and truth grown larger in that time?
Roy Scranton: The United States has been involved in wars perpetually overseas, but at the same time, there’s a smaller cast of people who are fighting these wars. So civilians are increasingly disconnected from the people who are fighting. But the thing to remember is that this perpetual state of being at war isn’t really new. The United States has been involved in wars pretty much constantly throughout the twenty-first century. It’s had military forces deployed somewhere, fighting somebody, basically since World War I. Even in the years after World War II, when we were supposed to be in a time of peace, there were conflicts opening up left and right. Then the Cold War started, and then the US was fighting in Korea by 1950. And through all of it we see a disconnect between the myth of war and what was actually happening. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson initiated the American propaganda machine with the Creole committee to sell the war to the American people, and since then the mythification of American violence has been super intense.
Of course, during World War II, 16 million men and women, mostly men, were in uniform, and they experienced the reality of being a solider and learned that the myth was bullshit. But today, there are very, very few people who get that. There aren’t even many veterans willing to let go of the myth, because it makes their lives meaningful, too. I write about that in this collection.
Guernica: You also write that we as a nation tend to think of war as a kind of trauma—and that that’s a relatively new way of thinking. What brought on this conception of war, and why do we keep thinking of war in this way?
Roy Scranton: The American understanding of war as trauma came out of an older tradition of understanding war as revelation. That idea emerged in Europe with Romanticism. You can see it in novels like War in Peace and Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, and in poems by [the English poet and soldier] Wilfred Owen. In one of Owen’s poems, the narrator has a traumatic revelation when he sees his friend die in a gas attack. The moment opens his mind to a kind of “truth of existence” that civilians can never understand. Then there are novels like Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, which is also about understanding war as this revelation of truth, but for him, war isn’t traumatic. It’s not about death; it’s about the future, and it’s beautiful. But these interpretations are two sides of the same coin. They both draw from this transcendental knowledge that war gives access to revelation.
So that’s the older tradition. The American understanding of war as trauma starts to take over in the 1960s and 1970s, because of a lot of things happening at once. At that time we’re trying to make sense of the Vietnam War and we have an increased understanding of the Nazi atrocities and concentration camps of World War II. Also happening is the professionalization of psychotherapy and psychology, and by 1980 we have the first formal designation of post-traumatic stress disorder.
What emerges from all this is the need to find a new way to tell our war stories so that violence redeems us, and the “war as trauma” narrative does that; it’s all about an American hero who goes and kills the bad guys and saves the day. But because we’ve also been told via propaganda that America is the defender of universal values and freedom across the world—something that makes us distinct from, say, the Soviet Union—our hero couldn’t just go and commit violence; he needed to be thrown into it, forced to struggle with it, and because he struggles with it, he turns out better in the end. You can see this narrative in books like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five and other books emerging during the Vietnam War years. You can see it in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which is all about recovery from trauma. It’s this very narrative of recovery from trauma that helps us to forget about the people we killed.
Guernica: It occurs to me that war narratives are also about whom we consider to be our allies and our enemies.
Roy Scranton: Yes, they are!
Guernica: If that’s true, then what is Trump doing to our collective narratives whenever he pisses off an ally or claims that a historical enemy should be our friend?
Roy Scranton: One of the things that Trump has been able to seize on is the fact that our narratives are no longer convincing, or at least aren’t as persuasive as they used to be. There are economic reasons for this, and other reasons, too. There’s also the fact that globalization tends to erase local differences and homogenizes cultures. Trump was able to capitalize on these changes by making them part of his argument and his agenda.
Guernica: I suppose when narratives start to lose their persuasiveness then befriending an age-old enemy like Russia can suddenly seem like a viable possibility.
Roy Scranton: Exactly. The thing is we are in a time where we really should be asking important questions: What’s America’s role in the world? How do we relate to other countries? What does it mean that these people are our allies, while these other people are our enemies? These are all real and difficult questions, and we should spend time on them and try to figure them out. Trump is just the asshole with an unshakable confidence who thinks he already knows the answers. Also, he’s a crazy person and I’m terrified [laughs]. I know I sound like I’m saying that dismissively and humorously, but he is a crazy person and I don’t think he should be president. Though, we also can’t keep doing the same stuff that we’ve been doing. To do so would also be a bad way to respond to those questions.
Guernica: I have one more question for you, and it’s a personal one. You have a daughter. Are you hopeful for her future?
Roy Scranton: Oh, jeez [long pause].
I’m hopeful that she can find a way to live a meaningful and rich life in whatever world is coming. But if you’re asking me if I’m hopeful that she’ll be able to have a happy, bourgeois American life—go to high school, then college, meet someone and get a job and settle down and maybe have her own kids—then, no. In thirty years, that’s not going to be possible in the same way it’s possible now. Our way of life is going to be very different in the future than the way it is now, though I don’t know exactly what that means. One of the complicated things about living through the end of the world as we know it is that the end doesn’t come about because of a single event. It’s actually just a day-to-day occurrence that’s going to take a long time. We’ll see transformation and degradation, an increase in violence and insanity, the breakdown of social order in neighborhood by neighborhood, then city by city. We’re watching it happen now.
Guernica: That all sounds so hopeless.
Roy Scranton: Well, we do have to live through that, but there will be opportunities for joy and for living a meaningful life. It’s just that we won’t find those things by acting in ways we always thought we could. We have to learn to be more flexible, much more adaptable, and much more grounded in the present. That last part may seem like an odd thing to say, but living in the present means facing unpleasant facts, recognizing our fear and sitting with it, and accepting our sorrow and griefs and dealing with them. These aren’t things that we can just push aside in order to get to the next thing on our list. They are who we are. I’m hopeful that I can help my daughter to learn to do those things and live a full life in whatever world we wind up living in.