The End of the World as We Know It?

The End of the World as We Know It?

If the humanities can’t produce thinkers who can get us out of this mess, they are still producing some of the best commentators on where it has come from and where it threatens to take us.

A home destroyed during the Woolsey Fire in Southern California last November (David McNew/Getty Images)

Democracy and Truth: A Short History
By Sophia Rosenfeld
University of Pennsylvania, 2019, 224 pp.

We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change
By Roy Scranton
Soho Press, 2018, 360 pp.

With precipitous declines in humanities course enrollments and punishing cuts to programming, the “crisis in the humanities” still rages. In recent years, however, a growing number of academic humanists have made the move—perhaps because of the crisis in their own ranks—to train their attention on even larger crises threatening America and the world today. Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History and Roy Scranton’s We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change exemplify the growing trend of scholars willing to lean outside of the ivory tower to intervene on crucial public debates, but not so far as to tumble from it without the insights and explanatory schemes that make their interventions so effective and necessary.

In Democracy and Truth, Rosenfeld examines our moment of “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and “truth isn’t truth” and reveals how contestations over truth are part and parcel of the history of democratic theory and practice. In her previous book, Common Sense: A Political History (2011), Rosenfeld showed how the notion of “common sense”—the inherent wisdom of the people—became instrumental to the formation of modern transatlantic democratic populism. She explored how, since the late seventeenth century, appeals to “common sense” were made by both the left and the right to exalt popular sovereignty as well as defend demagoguery.  In Democracy and Truth, she argues that, much like “common sense,” which was never really common nor particularly sensible, “truth” has long been a fighting word in modern democracies, deployed in public struggles over authority and credibility.

Democracy and Truth reveals that today’s struggles over what constitutes “the truth”—though disturbing and potentially dangerous—do not represent a radical rupture with the past. Trump’s pathological lying and distortions may be an aberration, but as Rosenfeld shows, conflicts over truth have been baked into modern democracies since the era of the eighteenth-century transatlantic revolutions, when a “moral and epistemic commitment to truth” rather than to a ruler came to “undergird the establishment of the new political order.” Indeed, what makes for democratic citizens rather than imperial (or totalitarian) subjects, she suggests, is the fact that the task of negotiating intellectual primacy and legitimacy falls to them. In America, “the exercise of democratic politics, including the specifics of its relationship to truth and knowledge, has remained an arena of struggle since the Founding.”

In illuminating chapters on “the problem of democratic truth,” intellectual expertise, populism in historical perspective, and “democracy in an age of lies,” Rosenfeld explains how the democratic idea of truth never quite lived up to its promise of influence by persuasion rather than force. This problem at the core of modern democracies seems to be hidden in plain sight from today’s political commentators: who, in a pluralistic democracy has the authority to adjudicate competing truth claims? And by what means should claims be classified as true and others as false? Where are the checks and balances in debates over the truth?

Rosenfeld maintains that democracies have always depended on a continual testing and reformulating of what constitutes truth. If the Enlightenment taught anything, it was that knowledge of the world was subject to change, and so understandings, too, must be open to negotiation, interrogation, and revision. For governments founded on the premise of self-rule, with all citizens as potential carriers of epistemic authority, “it also follows that no individual, sector, or institution can hold a monopoly at any point on determining what counts as truth in public life.” That didn’t mean that all enlightened revolutionaries warmly embraced the wisdom of the crowd, despite their paeans to “common sense.” Plenty of those who pressed for political equality had no truck with intellectual egalitarianism and thought that only an educated elite was capable of discerning true knowledge and safeguarding it from superstition.

Where things have always been tricky is finding a workable balance of power between the information and methods of inquiry from educated experts (without sliding into elitism and authoritarianism) while understanding the needs and experiential wisdom of the demos (without sliding into a reactionary, know-nothing populism). The recent resurgence of populism in the United States, and in democracies elsewhere, surely signals a swing of the pendulum toward the latter. Rosenfeld in no way minimizes the pernicious effects of our populist moment, but she shows that too great a swing toward technocracy is no better. “In the end, dyed-in-the-wool populists and technocrats mimic one another in rejecting mediating bodies, . . .  procedural legitimacy, and the very idea that fierce competition among ideas is necessary for arriving at political truth.”

While Rosenfeld shows that there is a long backstory to our raging truth wars today, Roy Scranton shows that there may not be much of a future for the planet as we know it. Scranton first made his mark as a commentator on climate change (and war) in his blockbuster “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” essay in the New York Times in 2013. There he argued that grappling with the Anthropocene demands asking age old philosophical questions, with one crucial difference. Now, questions such as “what is the meaning of life?” and “how should I live?” must be “universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. . . . What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization?” Scranton thus encouraged a philosophical reckoning with and against the “Anthropocene” as a concept and lived reality. “The rub is that now we have to learn how to die”—and to live— “not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Scranton opens We’re Doomed. Now What? with a haunting epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1844 essay “Experience”: “Where do we find ourselves?” His collection of essays—addressing everything from our climate death-spiral to his experiences as an American soldier in Baghdad and the self-defeating tribalisms within America and along its ligaments of empire abroad—can be read as an effort to answer Emerson’s question today. His answer seems to echo Emerson’s: “In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.”

“The time we’ve been thrown into,” Scranton writes in the book’s opening, “is one of alarming and bewildering change—the breakup of the post-1945 global order, a multispecies mass extinction, and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. Not one of us is innocent, not one of us is safe.” Essays with titles such as “Arctic Ghosts,” “The Precipice,” and “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World” explore what it means—or if it’s even possible —to live with dignity in a world we’ve abused so carelessly, so relentlessly, and with such disastrous consequences for our children and our children’s children.

We’re Doomed is a jeremiad, but one with a sense of humility and an appropriate amount of histrionics given the situation’s direness:

Again and again and yet again we imagine ourselves at the precipice: we must change our ways, today, this very hour, or else we’ll really have to face the consequences. We see ourselves at the cliff’s edge, trembling with anxiety, our toes kicking stones into the abyss. We summon all our inner resources. We will ourselves to action. This is it, we say. It’s now or never.

Then something catches our attention. Dinner. Twitter. Soccer. Trump. Before we know it, life pulls us back into its comforting ebb and flow.

It is rare to encounter an author who envies Friedrich Nietzsche, but Scranton does. After all, Nietzsche had it easy. He had to cope “only with the death of God, . . . while we must come to terms with the death of our whole world.” Scranton understands that this isn’t exactly how climate change works. It won’t wipe all humans off the face of the planet but just make living on it awful, especially for the world’s poorest communities. But he’s right to invoke Nietzsche when contemplating the climate change’s catastrophic implications, for Nietzsche’s philosophy was, as he himself put it, the “monument to a crisis.”

Scranton’s essays raise hard questions for humanists dedicated to thinking and teaching others how to do so more effectively. “What is thinking good for today, among the millions of voices shouting to be heard, as we stumble and trip toward our doom?” he asks. Scranton leaves us little room to squirm our way back to tired conventions and bad-faith apologias. His view of the neoliberalization of the university is unsparing and wholly accurate. But it’s really the internet that dominates our intellectual exchanges and, more important, shapes our thoughts. The picture he paints of thinking in the age of a virtual public sphere is not pretty. For Scranton the internet is a veritable sea of slime, muck, and mental sewage. Even gold standard journalism and literary essays are “eminently disposable, fated to be consumed and retweeted and referred to for a few hours then forgotten, like everything else passing through the self-devouring gullet of the ouroborosian media Leviathan we live within.”

It’s bad enough that the global temperatures are spiking and sea levels are rising; that upwards of 200 species are going extinct every day; and that disastrous floods, droughts, and storms are becoming our globe’s new normal. But what makes matters worse for Scranton is the prospect that any serious thinking he does about these calamities won’t amount to a hill of beans. So he lingers on the moral implications of his actions and inaction as a writer, scholar, and worrier about our “broken world.”

There is a tug-of-war in Scranton’s essays between a rational pessimism and a willful hope. On occasion, the pessimism gets the last word, like when he relents: “If we are honest with ourselves and take a broad enough historical view, we must humbly submit that thought has never really been all that good for that much.” “Thought,” he maintains, “has never been able to save us in the past.” Scranton’s depressing gospel might be too much to bear were it not for his singular prose style, which makes reading about the disastrous mess our generation and our parents’ generation have made of our world exceedingly worthwhile.

Whereas historical and epistemological questions animate Rosenfeld’s book, ethical ones are the life blood of Scranton’s. Ironically, though, his ethics come to the fore when he is framing them epistemologically. For Scranton, embracing a pluralist conception of truth need not lead the rowdy epistemic chaos Rosenfeld explores but may instead be the best first step to healing social divisions and our planet. To create a new “global order of meaning” based on shared governance, responsibility, and benefits, “we need to give up defending and protecting our truth, our perspective, our Western values, and understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in its multiplication, not in one point of view but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole.”  There is no better expression of the promise of a pluralist and anti-absolutist conception of truth, and nothing further from Rudy Giuliani’s “truth isn’t truth” than Scranton’s insight here. Not all relativist truth claims are created equal.

Both Rosenfeld and Scranton acknowledge that contemporary capitalism is part of the story, though neither subjects it to sustained analysis. Rosenfeld recognizes that “it’s time again to think about alternatives to the logic of ‘the market always knows best’” and that “the story of modern democracy remains also the story of modern capitalism, and any real solution to our current ills probably requires addressing them in tandem.” No doubt, big businesses seeking less regulation and tax burdens have found that populist anger can be turned into lucrative profits if they can simply show that governmental interventions are done by and for the benefit of “Washington insiders” and “liberal elites.”

For Scranton, “fossil-fueled capitalism” and “consumer capitalism” are never far out of view, though he doesn’t delve deeply into their structure and function. What he does do, however, is emphasize that in the short run, the suffering wrought by climate change will not be evenly distributed between the wealthy and the poor. “Money means you can flee, so you don’t get stuck in the Superdome.”  But in the long run, when the center no longer holds and things fall apart, no amount of consolidated wealth will be able to shore up the globe’s ruins. “Money won’t stop the seas from rising” nor will it “save the Arctic and it won’t save Miami.”

Rosenfeld and Scranton both offer some modest solutions to the crises we now face. For Rosenfeld, knowing the twinned histories of modern democracy and truth shows us the value of recommitting to a notion of truth as the product of human contestation and collaboration, and as something that democracy cannot do without. The quest for truth has no final goal, no finish line. But it requires calling out untruths, errors, and fabrications, again and again, and, if necessary, yet again.

Scranton’s “solutions” are a mixed bag. At one point, he suggests it’s suicide: “The only moral response to global climate change is to commit suicide . . . If you really want to save the planet, you should die.”  If that seems like too big a commitment, then he has some others to try first: redistribute the wealth of the 1 percent; put women in charge; distinguish between the fatality of our circumstances and nihilism; accept failure as a path to freedom; slow down, focus, do less. He also offers a bit of timely and timeless wisdom: “it’s at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation. . . . Because if it’s true that we make our lives meaningful ourselves and not through revealed wisdom handed down by God or the Market or History, then it’s also true that we hold within ourselves the power to change our lives—wholly, utterly—by changing what our lives mean.”  Despite his effort to disparage the usefulness of thought, he makes the very best argument for it right here.

So where do we find ourselves in this age of cascading crises, in the relentless grip of our long now? With every new scandal we ask again in vain: have we hit rock bottom yet? Emerson surveyed his own turbulent times and concluded that the extremes were unknown and warned there may be none. Another way to put this is: it may be rock bottoms all the way down. But Emerson also offered some hope that thinking, the good, old-fashioned humanistic kind (the kind Scranton does despite his doubts of its efficacy), can make the world anew: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.” If the humanities can’t produce thinkers who can get us out of this mess, they are still producing some of the best commentators on where it has come from and where it threatens to take us.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti and Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

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