Book review: This Civilisation Is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond by Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander
by Ian Sinclair
22 July 2019
Embodying the honesty, alarm and radicalism of Extinction Rebellion (XR), This Civilisation Is Finished is a persuasive and passionate primer about the Climate Emergency the world faces.
It’s a very short, discursive book – made up of readable email exchanges and Skype conversations between Dr Rupert Read, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and key figure in XR, and Dr Samuel Alexander, co-director of the Simplicity Institute in Melbourne.
“Civilisation is going down. It will not last”, is Read’s stark analysis of humanity’s future (Alexander tends to ask the questions). “We will most likely see 3-4 degrees of global over-heat at a minimum, and that is not compatible with civilisation as we know it.” This means our “industrial-growthist civilisation” will be transformed – it’s just a matter of how, Read argues. First, “civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally”. Second, civilisation will manage to seed a successor civilisation as it collapses. Or third, our civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself. With our civilisation showing almost no sign of taking the climate crisis seriously, Read believes the first and second scenarios are most likely.
The discussions range far and wide, with references stretching from the movies Avatar and The Road to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Milton Friedman. Alexander warns of the problem of soft climate denial – “denial of the scale and urgency of the problem” – and “techno-optimism”: the belief that technology will be able to solve the major social and environmental problems of our time without changing the fundamental structure of society.
Considering the dominant economic systems of both left and right-wing governments, Read argues encouraging economic growth “is prima facie now a dangerous thing to encourage”, an insane ideology on a planet which is already breaching its climate and ecological limits.
Though pessimistic about the future of the planet, Read is nevertheless surprisingly hopeful, urging readers to get active and involved in activist and political movements to combat climate change. However, he notes the task of XR and other climate activists is harder than the US civil rights movement XR takes inspiration from – XR, after all, “is challenging our whole way of life.”
At times frightening but always thought-provoking, This Civilisation Is Finished is likely to be a life-changing book for some people. “I would ask every reader who has made it this far to get serious about this”, Read concludes. “What are you going to do to manifest what is now called for?”
This Civilisation Is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond is published by the Simplicity Institute.