Roy Scranton speaks at Labyrinth on war and climate change

Oct. 24, 2018

Earlier this month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report indicating that the near future will bring widespread climate-change-related catastrophe. The 195 scientists on the panel warned that if nothing is done to reduce the current rate of greenhouse-gas emissions, the world’s atmospheric temperature will rise by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels by 2040. A temperature rise of this magnitude, the panel projected, will cause “long-lasting and irreversible” environmental, social, and economic destruction. But apocalyptic climate change makes depressing copy, and the IPCC report commanded the headlines for barely a day before vanishing into a maelstrom of unrelated tweets and hot takes.
Roy Scranton *16 has watched this dispiriting pattern unfold many times before. Reading from his new essay collection We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change (Soho Press, 2018) at Labyrinth Bookstore on Oct. 18, Scranton lamented “the constant demand for new content” that has perverted the modern public sphere into a “grotesque mockery of public intellectual life.” Scranton, who received his Ph.D. from Princeton’s Department of English in 2016 and is now an assistant professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is also the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015) and the novel War Porn (Soho Press, 2016), as well as the co-editor of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). An Iraq War veteran, Scranton has spent his literary career grappling with the reluctance of governments, corporations, and individuals to face up to the devastating consequences of war and climate change.
In her introduction to Scranton’s reading, Labyrinth co-founder and -owner Dorothea von Moltke characterized the U.N. report as a “smoke alarm” to which Scranton “has been paying attention . . . for far longer than most.” Scranton began his talk with the “spoiler alert” that he is “deeply pessimistic” about the fate of our planet. This pessimism, he continued, has caused him to be dismissed by right-wing writers as an alarmist and by left-wing writers as a nihilist. In Scranton’s view, however, We’re Doomed. Now What? is neither alarmist nor nihilist. Instead, it represents an effort to determine how “to be ethical humans in this new world . . . how [to] make meaning as a collective in deeds and in words.”
Scranton then read the essay “What Is Thinking Good For?”, in which he argues that both popular and academic writing has become an exercise in “faddishness and basic disposability.” In this zeitgeist, Scranton asks, what does it mean to think? What does it mean to think about climate change, for instance, when “hundreds of books and thousands of articles” have addressed the problem, yet humanity has done almost nothing to rectify it? He concludes that while thinking may make no material difference in our circumstances, it at least allows us to be “nothing more or less than we are—a gathering of dust and light, a universe—awake.”