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Roy Scranton on the Blind Spots of Climate-Change Optimism


At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Roy Scranton reviews two major books on climate change: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by longtime environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben; and The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, which is based on a viral 2017 magazine article that painted a grisly picture of our near future. Scranton himself has published multiple books that take an unflinching look at the warmer world we will inhabit in the coming decades, including Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015) and We’re Doomed. Now What? (2018). In his review of McKibben and Wallace-Wells’s books, he argues that both writers are overly attached to a narrative of the climate crisis that ends in human triumph, where we manage to avert the worst-case scenarios. But their attachment to this story, suggests Scranton, leaves them blind to other grimer narratives that are distinctly possible. “The all-too-real possibility we must confront,” he writes, “is that the story we’re living is a tragedy that ends in disaster, no matter what.” Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Whereas McKibben’s book is breezy and rambling, Wallace-Wells’s is more tightly constructed, more focused, and relies more substantially on primary scientific research, but ultimately both adhere to the same basic narrative: things are bad, but they can get better if we’re good. Both books convey alarming visions of the near human future, as temperatures and seas rise, crops fail, diseases spread, refugees suffer, fires burn, conflicts erupt, and the oceans die; yet both books emphasize the power of human agency in deciding our collective future, insisting that in spite of such dire prognostications, we have the capacity to avert the worst and bend the course of human history back from the abyss.

In this way, both authors adhere neatly to the genre of the monitory ecological sermon, which found archetypal form in Theodor Geisel’s 1971 story The Lorax: industrial capitalism has wrought total ecological devastation upon the Earth, denuding it of Truffula Trees, brown Bar-ba-loots, Humming Fish, and Swomee Swans, which devastated world is fated to be our grim gray home forever … unless . Unless, that is, we heed the Lorax who speaks for the trees. The future depends upon cultivating the right feelings: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Which implies that if you do care, things will get better — a kind of magical thinking to which Americans seem especially susceptible.

Image: Great Barrier Reef, where coral is dying at an unprecedented rate. Via NPR.


Scranton is right to criticize the authors in question for simplified views of moral agency. But he’s still writing himself - or us - into the problem. Sophistication is not an answer. Complex views of moral agency are. Or rather, they are morally required, whether or not they “answer” the issue in the simplified terms of that debate in which Scranton is involved.