The abyss with Roy Scranton

Amongst the more-or-less climate change doomsayers (I say “more or less” because there’s a gradation from doom with hope to the worst extreme), Roy Scranton, novelist and essayist extraordinaire, ranks as depressing but weirdly uplifting. The thing is, he writes so passionately, the writing itself offers bizarre tangential hope.

The day I turn to his “We Broke the World” article in The Baffler, which I’ve kept lurking in a cupboard, my Melbourne sky is blue. I’m alone and lonely. The previous evening I went to my fourth Extinction Rebellion meeting and came away elated but, inevitably, also daunted. So what will Roy tell me this time?

He kicks off with a bravura scene asking me to stare at myself in a mirror and imagine my absence, my extinction. Nigh impossible, he tells me, and unpacks why, together with one of this idea’s consequences:

And so just as we are phenomenologically and cognitively biased toward presentism, which comprises both a strong belief that the future will be much like the present and a tendency to forget how different the past was, so are we biased toward what we might awkwardly call “presence-ism,” which is to say, a belief that whatever exists is and was and will keep on being. This fundamental cognitive bias against thinking non-existence makes certain problems challenging for us to comprehend. One such problem is the idea of extinction. … It takes a strenuous act of imagination to envision the massed herds and flocks of wild animals that once thundered over land now paved with highways and box store parking lots, dotted with cellphone towers, and crisscrossed by diesel-chugging tractor trailers and buses and SUVs.

What Scranton has dragged me to is, of course, the latest IPBES report, released at the end of May, a policy maker summary of its (global) assessment report on the state of Earth’s species. I took a look at the report in July, jotting down notes like ” Global warming fucks everything up. 5% of species could go extinct at +2 degrees, at +3 degrees this is 16%.” My Cranes-centered viewpoint had me gathering facts. What will Scranton conclude, I now wonder?

Scranton tears into the “absurdity almost depraved” of the IPBES science-administrators calling for “transformative change” (hence Scranton’s article title) akin to worldwide revolution. “Failing this,” he says to me, “we all face—all humanity—within our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children—a catastrophic collapse of the biosphere upon which human life depends.” Our presence-ism and presentism points us towards nihilism. After expressing some scientific caveats that can hardly assist, “it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we’re all totally fucked.”

But there’s a conclusion after the conclusion. Perhaps we can contemplate reality squarely, perhaps we can battle “reactive cycles of rage, depression, bargaining, and denial.” Perhaps I can. Andres, Scranton pleads, return to that mirror, meditate with observance, and “practice saying goodbye.”

Right now, Angel Olsen croons her song “Tonight” from her remarkable album All Mirrors. I put on my shoes and head off to write, to read and write.