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Learning to Die

climate, mysticism and a german abbess


In his 2013 essay Learning how to Die in the Anthropocene, published in the New York Times, former US soldier Roy Scranton writes that we are slowly but surely shutting down Earth. We live in the Anthropocene era, a new epoch of the Earth’s geological history. The human species have for the first time become a geological force. We are changing not only the climate and biological diversity of our planet, but the very geology.

As a soldier, Roy Scranton visited the ruins of Baghdad just after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He saw how the american military had unleashed the end of the world on a city of six million. Two and a half years later, back home, he thought he had finally escaped the face of destruction, but then Katrina hit, and suddenly the chaos and urban collapse he knew from Baghdad showed itself again. This time through the force of nature.

It is inevitable, according to Roy Scranton, that the end of the Earth is close. The changes the human race are forcing onto Earth, are violent and permanent. And we cannot do anything to push it further into the future. It is too late. If we do not change the way we live right now, in a thousand years, humans will be living in a climate similar to the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than today. In other words, we are moving towards the complete extinction of our race. The real problem is a philosophical one, he says. We will not solve anything by putting up sea walls, driving electric cars, signing a treaty or turning off the air-conditioning. We have to understand that this civilization is already dead.

»The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality«.

The choice, he says, is very simple. Either we continue living like tomorrow is going to be the exact same as yesterday, in that way we will grow more and more unprepared for the coming disasters of our earth, or we can regard each day as the death of the before. Like that, we can free ourselves from being fearful of the problems of the present. Roy Scranton is very clear:

»If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die«. 


Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a german Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, christian mystic and visionary. She had a life full of visions, and explained that she saw all things in the light of God through her five sense: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. At the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision, she believed to be a direct instruction from God, to write down what she saw and heard.

Hildegard of Bingen had a huge production of music, poetry, medical books on healing herbs and their connections to planets and animals, and on top of that, her theological understanding of it all. To Hildegard, everything was connected. There were no separation of the body and the mind, the senses, the stone, the woods, the stars. There is a flow of this belief running through her enormous amount of work. The music of Hildegard does not fit in anywhere. It is a lonely island in the ocean of the history of music. A mystical music, dictated by over earthly powers and merely written down by Hildegard. Listening to the recordings of her music is as listening to a different, parallel reality.

Her visions are often pictured as a circular motion. She sits in the corner of the picture and looks into an earth-like structure containing illustrations of the content of her visions. Instead of a linear vision into the future, she gazes into repetition, the circular motion, into the events of all history, a time liberated from her own point in time. They were visions of both the past, present, and the future. Visions of the relation between God and humans. And visions of natural disasters to come, rising water, floods, injustice and corruption. The visions of the mystic abbess are not differing much from the visions of Roy Scranton, but their views on the present are very different.




The tradition of mysticism is very much to liberate oneself from earthly things. To overcome negligence and transcend the limited identification of body, mind, and ego.

Humans are wired to believe that tomorrow is going to be much like today, and therefore, civilizations are marching blindly toward disaster, according to Roy Scranton. But life is not only about letting go and understanding that the end of us is coming. Hildegard sees in her visions the same inevitable outcome as Roy Scranton, but Hildegard is interacting with the present without optimism. She is doing her utmost to create value. Medical, religious, artistic. She is getting visions and is talking back to Earth through her senses. Feeling inspired and creating.

The common gesture for Hildegard and Roy Scranton is the act of trying to liberate oneself of time. But while Roy Scranton is learning to die, Hildegard of Bingen is trying to learn how to live. We could learn from that. Learn how to live in the age of the Anthropocene. Possibly the last epoch this civilization will encounter.

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