How can we learn how to die or, on a grander scale, anticipate the death of our civilization? American writer and U.S. Army veteran Roy Scranton discusses how philosophy helped him make sense of his experience in Iraq and contemplate the end of the human dominance:
"Learning to die isn’t easy. In Iraq, at the beginning, I was terrified by the idea. Baghdad seemed crazily dangerous, even though statistically I was relatively safe. We got shot at, mortared, and blown up by IEDs, but we wore high-tech ballistic armor, we had great medics, and we were part of the most powerful military the world had ever seen. ... Yet every day I drove out past the wire on mission, I looked in my Humvee’s mirror and saw a dark, empty hole. ... I found my way forward through an old book: Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s 18th-century Samurai manual, the Hagakure, which advised: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” I took that advice to heart, and instead of fearing my end, I practiced owning it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I would imagine getting blown up, shot, lit on fire, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded. Then, before we rolled out through the wire, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry anymore because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. To survive as a soldier, I had to learn to accept the inevitability of my own death.
"For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization. Change, risk, conflict, strife, and death are the very processes of life, and we cannot avoid them. We must learn to accept and adapt. The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today. It is hard work for us to remember that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. ... Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our collective fantasies of perpetual growth, constant innovation, and endless energy, just as the reality of individual mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, whether we should put up sea walls to protect Manhattan, or when we should abandon Miami. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, turning off the air conditioning, or signing a treaty. The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality."
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