Roy Scranton takes an unsparingly clear-eyed look at the situation in which humanity finds itself in his new collection of essays, “We’re Doomed. Now What?”
Through a combination of reporting, memoir, philosophical inquiry and creative non-fiction, Scranton explores the bleak reality of climate change and the heavy toll of war. He takes a multivalent approach to his topics.
“I’m always thinking about and trying to include as many different kinds of worlds as I can get in. ... I want to talk about science and I want to talk about what’s happening with arctic ice melt and the Beaufort Gyre,” Scranton said in a phone interview. “And then I also want to talk about polar bears, and then I also want to talk about history. I also want to talk about the Franklin expedition, and I also want to talk about how people feel about these things and their personal experiences.”
In addition, Scranton hopes to allow his readers to “hear the grain” of the voices of his subjects. “I’m trying to foreground people’s own words and their voices,” he said.
In one case, one of the voices on offer is fictional. In “Rock Scissors Paper,” Scranton introduces Professor Challenger, a creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s to help him craft his consideration of the Anthropocene.
The move calls to mind the work and teaching of John D’Agata, head of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, in its blend of the factual and the fictional. Scranton is quick to acknowledge that the piece exists in the “fiction/nonfiction space that John D’Agata has so thoroughly elaborated.”
“I’ve been learning as I’ve been writing more and more sort of how much to trust the reader with and also I’ve been working to take more and more risks — to just assume the reader is going to go with me as much as possible. ... To be honest, I’m not super comfortable operating in that space where it’s not clear what’s true and what’s not — or at least not without some clear wink to the reader. … I think this is one of the most interesting things going on in creative nonfiction, this question of where’s the line between the factual and the artful detail. … I get worried the closer I get to that gray area that I’m misleading people and that I’m going to undercut my intention, which is to really try to talk accurately about a complex situation. I want the reader to be able to trust me if I’m talking about climate change, if I’m talking Baghdad. That said, it’s still a fruitful area of experimentation and not something I’m just willing to shut off from myself. … Most readers who are interested in this kind of work, they’re sophisticated enough to tell the difference and to accept that in some situations it’s one way and in some situations it’s another.”
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As the title so clearly indicates, “We’re Doomed. Now What?” is not light fare. Rather, it takes the idea that climate change is no longer reversible as a given and a starting place for inquiry.
“It is a dark book and we live in a dark time,” Scranton said. “The lights are going out all over the world. And that’s the time we live in. And it’s going to get worse before it gets worse. We don’t get to not think about that; we don’t get to not deal with that. For me, just saying, ‘Well, it has to get better’ or ‘There has to be some way out,’ that’s not good enough because I don’t believe that’s true. It doesn’t have to get better. So how do we go through this? How do we live through this with any kind of ethical integrity or sense of human dignity? That’s the effort I’m trying to make. ”
Buddhist thought and practice underpins Scranton’s project. He finds the practice of meditation to be analogous to the practice of writing.
“With mediation, you’re sitting your body down, you’re making your body be still and letting the emotional and the intellectual and the linguistic ... all the stuff of consciousness that emerges out of bodily activity, you’re letting it go. ... For me, writing is a way of figuring out what I think about things and that first draft is opening up the space for the thoughts to happen on their own and to take on their own logic and objectifying that as a thing in the world, so that it’s not me anymore. It’s this thing outside of me”
Some of the essays in this collection were written as long as eight years ago, which in the current media environment can feel like a different era entirely. But Scranton is a writer with a deep interest in history and the ways in which events in the past connect with the present.
“It’s quite difficult in the contemporary conversation to hang on to that sense that the moment we live in is a concatenation of many different histories. There’s a deep presentism to our moment and there’s also a kind of divisive appeal to one of a handful mythic narrative about how we got where we are — everything is liberal progress or everything is genocide and slavery. ... And neither of those is wholly true. Both of them are partly true. Our history on this planet is overwhelming, mindbogglingly complex and we can’t understand what’s happening now without that sense of history.”
He sees clear connections between the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 and the place in which we find ourselves now.
“This re-emergence of radical nationalism, the Trump phenomenon, the Supreme Court decision to uphold Trump’s ban on Muslims — all of this connects back to the Iraq War and 9/11. It all has something, if not quite a lot, to do with this moment of violence and the American military response, and the eight years of occupation, and the sense of failure that emerged out of that war. It’s all part of the story, and I feel it’s part of my job as a writer with an interest in history to keep bringing that up even if it doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily part of the conversation right now. Because it should be.”