Bringhurst & Zwicky, Learning to Die

Try reading Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, without being changed:
You, your species, your entire evolutionary family, and your planet will die tomorrow. How do you want to spend today? (p.30)
This slim volume has three sections, one by each author and a joint piece entitled "Afterword: Optimism and Pessimism" that shreds, and I mean shreds, Steven Pinker and his recent book Enlightenment Now. (I was never going to read Pinker's book, but now I know in detail some of the reasons why no one should, and why no one should take Pinker seriously.) In essence, Zwicky and Bringhurst remind us insistently of the transitory nature of life, in senses biological, geological, and astronomical, and encourage us to use this sense of passing time to do better in the face of global climatic crisis and local climate disasters and emergencies.

Bringhurst's opening piece, which characteristically manages somehow to be both precise and pompous, stresses the transitory. Given the trajectory of the sun's evolution toward expansion and eventual cooling, eukaryotic life on this planet is 60% to 80% of the way toward total extinction (p.28). Eukaryotic life means anything with nuclei in its cells, so Bringhurst takes a large view here that brings him to the overwhelming question quoted above: if the planet will die tomorrow, how do you want to spend today?

The answer isn't to shift all our efforts toward engineering and the sciences, in pursuit of technological fixes to the current and coming crises that'll face our species and our successor species. Eventually, the planet will simply burn up regardless. Instead, we should "want to spend today" behaving ethically, which means being true to the best of being human. Bringhurst again:
it's more important than ever that we learn to think like an ecosystem, not like a spoiled brat or a biological singularity. One reason is, so we can go down singing, happy to know what we know, hopeful that the earth will go on living its life to the full as long as it can. (pp.36-37)
The second reason ... well, I'm still struggling with how Bringhurst is thinking about the concept of "the wild," in large part because I don't think he's accounting adequately for colonialism, and so at this point I think his second reason is less stable. That first reason, though, is more than enough.

In her piece, though, Jan Zwicky, as is her wont, sees Bringhurst's "go down singing" as perhaps less cerebral, and therefore less human, than what her meticulous thinking about ethics leads her toward. In brief, and to generalize unduly but not imprecisely, she wants us to pursue "the suite of virtues that Socrates himself was said to have cultivated and which, according to Plato, he embodied clearly on the day he was going to die" (p.45). We're all dying, and so we may as well as think of ourselves as dying now, and from the anthropogenic climate crisis, so it's time to die properly.

I've gone on too long already, so I'll say not much more than that Zwicky's piece "A Ship from Delos" is searingly clear-sighted. Though Bringhurst's is more quotable, Zwicky's (building on Bringhurst's) is the more powerful, the more shocking. At bottom, hers is about the impossibility of answering the question of why humans so often don't do what they--what we--know is right. In her view, it's because the magic comes when you exercise all seven of Socrates' virtues in concert. If you're missing one of them, then you're always going to do it wrong, and we can't always be Socrates.

But the thing is, we're all going to die, and so will our planet. Act well, and we let our species and our planet die properly: no one gets out alive, in the end, and so it's all about how to live ethically and die ethically.

Bringhurst's diagnosis is that one must help the planet and its species live their lives to the full, as long as possible. Zwicky's prescription is to acquire and practice the Socratic virtues, which she names as follows:

  • knowing what's what: awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows
  • courage
  • self-control
  • justice
  • contemplative practice
  • compassion

Meanwhile, the world burns around us, and capitalism persists.

Live well, friends, and may we all die so as well. Before you do, though, and to help along the way, maybe read this book?

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