“This civilization as we know it is finished”: Rupert Read interview
by Ian Sinclair
8 November 2022
Professor Rupert Read has devoted a huge amount of his life to green politics – as a Green Party member, councillor, parliamentary candidate and spokesperson, as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and in 2019 as a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, appearing on BBC Question Time.
With his new book Why Climate Breakdown Matters just out, Ian Sinclair asked Read about why he thinks this civilization is finished, the importance of telling the truth about the climate crisis and where the green movement goes from here.
Ian Sinclair: One of your central messages in the book is “This civilization as we know it is finished”. What, exactly, do you mean by this? And does the climate science support this statement?
Rupert Read: It’s not just about climate science. It’s about a whole systems-analysis and understanding. That is what, as a philosopher, I seek to offer. Though of course the task is actually way too big for any one person. But we have to try. We can’t take refuge behind academic specialism, if the cost of doing so is that no-one asks the really big questions, like I ask in this book, such as is this civilisation finished?
But yes, indirectly I think the climate science does support this claim. If we are to get through what is coming without collapse, then the curve for change is getting ever steeper. The time when a smooth transition might have been possible is past. The only transition possible now is transformational. Everything is going to change, either way. This civilisation will be transformed, by us or by Earth, by collapse. These are the two possible outcomes insofar as I can see; our civilisation either collapses due to ecological breakdown, or it consciously transforms to combat the climate crisis in such a fundamental way as to no longer be this society. Either way, this civilisation’s days are numbered.
IS: The 2015 Paris Agreement, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C, and to keep them “well below” 2.0C above pre-industrial times. You describe the agreement as a failure. Why?
RR: Look, the first thing to point out is that the Paris Agreement was of course an unprecedented diplomatic triumph. It rocketed the climate to the forefront of international relations, and the success of having all 196 countries agree to limit their emissions was unheard of. Nevertheless, Paris still did not establish an international regime of the kind created by the much more successful Montréal agreement (on stopping ozone-depletion) a generation before: this time, countries were left to create their own carbon budgets, and there was no enforcing power behind the accord, no requirement for trade sanctions against laggards. Moreover, the budgets that were created to limit carbon emissions were based on overly optimistic models of climate change, and this is insufficient when dealing with the inherent uncertainties of climate modelling; even if all countries were to abide by a climate budget that was agreed upon at Paris (which obviously they are not), there is no guarantee that this would be enough. Moreover, Paris in effect relied on totally uncertain gambles on carbon-reduction technology for its optimistic projections. All in all, Paris should have been at best the starting point, inspiring a wave of more intense and stringent climate policies. Instead, Paris remains the mediocre highpoint of climate conferences, seven years later.
IS: Responding to Liz Truss labelling opponents of her government as “the anti-growth coalition”, Fatima Ibrahim from Green New Deal Rising said “this couldn’t be further from the truth. Activists such as myself are committed to clean, equitable growth for all.” What’s your take on ‘green growth’?
RR: Firstly, my position on economic growth is that we really must abandon it as the be-all and end-all aim of economic policy. The obsession with economic growth, GDP, has gripped the world for far too long without considering vital questions like what is all this growth for, who is benefiting from economic growth, is endless economic growth possible, why are we growing the bad things that are wrapped up inside the definition of GDP, etc. My view is that we talk about economic growth to avoid having to talk about redistribution; there is enough to go around, and making sure everyone has what they need should be our focus and I’m entirely unconvinced economic growth is any kind of path to that. The economy should, for the sake of the environment and the people in it, be geared towards providing what we need, whereas it currently serves to sell us what we don’t for the sake of growth. I would be sceptical of Fatima Ibrahim’s idea of “clean, equitable growth.” Certainly, there are green sectors of the economy that do require substantial growth, such as the renewable energy sector, but being committed to societal-wide economic growth, green or otherwise, as an indispensable component of policy, means we are still prioritising a statistical figure over the needs of the people. Instead of pursuing growth, let’s pursue equality: that’s the way to be equitable! And let’s aim to grow the clean and to shrink/eliminate the rest.
IS: Reading your book about the radical transformations in society that need to be implemented as soon as possible, it strikes me that even the Green Party of England and Wales is not speaking honestly about the severity and enormity of the climate crisis. Do you agree?
RR: Yes, on balance I would agree. Although, as should be expected, they are doing way better than any other major party on this issue (full disclosure: I’m a life member, and have previously been a national spokesperson, an elected local Councillor, etc.). Nevertheless, the Green Party are still not being honest about the fact that contemporary society as we know it will not survive the ecological breakdown we are already embroiled in, as set out in my answer above. To continue to tell the public “just vote for us, we’ll sort it out if only we are in power” is dishonest for two reasons; the first is that the current first-past-the-post political organisation of this country makes the Greens winning a General Election as close to impossible as you can get, and the second is that it’s too late for anyone to simply ‘sort it out’. There isn’t going to be a smooth green transition, not even if we had a benevolent environmentalist Government in this country fairly soon. Especially given that it is a pipe dream – and nothing more – to expect that to happen fairly soon worldwide. When we consider the impact of things like the ‘tipping points’ that appear to be being triggered – in our weather systems, in the Amazon, in the oceans, and so forth – and the obvious fact that this is a global issue that requires a global response, the ability of the UK Government to ‘sort this out’ should in any case not be over-claimed. What the UK government does matters – we are a wealthy country, even now; we need to show leadership, especially given our historical responsibility for huge climate-dangerous emissions and for imperial damage to others; and the City of London exercises an enormous, disproportionate, global influence on climate-related finance, an influence that remains mostly for ill, not good – but we are one part of a much larger picture.
The way in which the Green Party could make the most difference is by telling these difficult truths, now. The Green Party’s USP is as the political party that is a trusted messenger on all things green. If we were to speak authentically about the direness of the crisis, about how hard we’ve tried to shift things, about how we have achieved small incremental improvements but the country and the world remain miles behind the clock and off the pace, about how it’s too late to ‘fix’ this and how we in the Greens certainly can’t significantly ameliorate it alone… if we were to be brave enough to do this, it would be game-changing. Ironically, such a confession of comparative impotence could propel many more voters to us; for voters are hungrier than ever for authenticity, for truth, for humility; for politicians who break the stereotype of their trade. That in any case is the essence of the strategy that I am pursuing for the Green Party, along with my colleagues in The Greens’ Climate Activists Network, GreensCAN: http://www.greens-can.Earth. I’d urge interested readers to weigh it up.
IS: In the book you argue for a new “moderate flank” to be built up within the green movement. What is this, and after playing a key role in Extinction Rebellion’s 2019 actions, why do you think this is the best way forward?
RR: The emerging Moderate Flank is designed to mobilise everyone who is concerned about the environmental crisis; it is a movement that puts climate and life (aka biodiversity) first and foremost. Extinction Rebellion really did achieve remarkable things, and has put climate concern into the public consciousness in a way that was never been seen before. However, in recent years some of their actions have become more radical, such as the smashing of bank windows. And this process started with the own-goal, that in retrospect proved basically fatal to XR’s prospects of being the prime vehicle for change, of some rebels targeting tube trains, in October 2019. The desperation and frustration behind any of these actions is certainly something I completely relate to, but it’s also no secret that Extinction Rebellion has for years now lacked support from the general public. The climate crisis is the biggest issue our planet has ever faced, and we need a vehicle to mobilise people on it that, while deepening the truth-telling that XR helped initiated, will be unpolarising, welcoming, with low barriers to entry. That is why the new Moderate Flank is being created; to allow every single person who is concerned about climate breakdown, but who may not agree with the more radical tactics of Extinction Rebellion, or at least recognises that it is vital we provide ways (for many more to get involved) that are truth-based and yet don’t require sign-up as an ‘activist’, to participate in trying to prevent/mitigate it, and to seek to adapt transformatively to it. If you want to know more, and I hope you will, then go to @moderateflank on Twitter.
Why Climate Breakdown Matters is published by Bloomsbury, priced £17.99.