Why I say that this civilisation is finished.

By Rupert Read.

It has been a huge privilege to be involved with Extinction Rebellion, for nearly a year now. For the first time in years I feel a growing glimmer of hope for humanity. Finally, we are seeing a mass mobilisation of people who are not willing to die quietly. An upwelling of people unafraid to call for the radical initiatives that we need to limit the scope of global overheating. As a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, I have been among those privileged to put the case for the action of our rebels to those in the media and in Government.

We need to be clear that there is no ‘safe’ level of warming. ‘Even’ 2 degrees (which is now almost unachievable) means the death of over 99% of the world’s coral reefs – permanently defacing the ecology of our planet, and probably means the end of ice in the northern hemisphere. The International Panel on Climate Change — which is still, contra popular belief, a relatively conservative body — is unambiguous in its latest report (1.5 degree) that 2-degrees means the displacement of millions of people through desertification and flooding. It means a much greater frequency and a higher magnitude of the extreme weather events that are increasingly blighting the world. It means an increase in violence and war globally because of resource scarcity and hotter temperatures. It is violence: 2 degrees is violence from the rich and stupid against the global masses. It means increased frequency of pandemic and pestilence, with greater threats to our health and the food supply we rely upon to nourish us. And because of the inherent unpredictability of the effects of 2-degrees warming, it could expose us to a myriad of other threats that we cannot predict and that could be far worse than our models suggest.

This is why Extinction Rebellion’s actions are so important, and in particular why the call for net zero UK emissions by 2025 is vital. Our movement has been courageous by communicating with brutal honesty exactly what is at stake over the climate emergency. There needs to be far more of this communication within the public sphere.

In my new book, This Civilisation is Finished, co-authored with Samuel Alexander, we attempt exactly this. We reject the ‘soft denialism’ so often present in the mainstream discourse about the climate emergency. A discourse that seems cherry-picked to present what is actually ecological apocalypse in as palatable and unthreatening a way as possible. Instead, we have found that minds and hearts are only truly concentrated when the scale and enormity of the threat to human and non-human life is exposed in its unveiled magnitude. When this occurs, people stare the threat in the face, the fight-or-flight response is activated and – as there is nowhere to run – they become energised by the necessity to battle for the survival of themselves and their children.

This is no exaggeration. The stakes of course are very, very high, here, because the climate crisis and the broader ecological emergency of which it is only the most urgent part puts the whole of what we know as civilisation at risk. By ‘this civilisation’ I mean the hegemonic civilisation of globalised industrial growth capitalism— sometimes called ‘Empire’—which today governs the vast majority of human life on Earth.

As I see things, there are three broad possible futures that lie ahead:

  • This civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally, as a result of climatic instability (leading for instance to catastrophic food shortages as a probable mechanism of collapse), or possibly sooner than that, through nuclear war, pandemic, or financial collapse leading to mass civil breakdown. Any of these are likely to be precipitated in part by ecological/climate instability, as Darfur and Syria were.

    Or
  • This civilisation (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation(s), as this one collapses.

    Or
  • This civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself deliberately, radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.

The third option, at which XR aims, is by far the least likely, though the most desirable, simply because either of the other options will involve vast suffering and death on an unprecedented scale. In the case of (1), we are talking the extinction or near-extinction of humanity. In the case of (2) we are talking at minimum multiple megadeaths. But (2) would obviously be hugely preferable to (1), and thus the ultimate importance for us of getting our societies not only to mitigate but also to adapt, deeply.

The second option is very difficult to envisage clearly, but is, I now believe, very likely. Unless we are incredibly lucky or incredibly determined and brilliant (or almost certainly both) then we are facing, almost certainly, changes around the world which are going to bring an end to this civilisation. So we need to think about what comes after it. We need to think about it now, and we need to start to work toward it; because there are many sub-possibilities within possibility two, and some of them are very ugly.

One of the reasons I wrote the book with Sam is so that we can talk about how we can prepare the way for (2). I think that there has been criminally little of that preparation, to date. Virtually everyone in the broader environmental movement has been fixated on the third option, unwilling to consider anything less. I strongly believe now that that stance is no longer viable. And, encouragingly, I am not quite alone in that belief.

The first option might soon be as likely as the second. It leaves little to talk about.

Any of these three options will involve a transformation of such extreme magnitude that what emerges will no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation: the change will be the kind of extreme conceptual and existential magnitude that Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of ‘paradigm-shifts’, calls ‘revolutionary’. Thus, one way or another, this civilisation is finished. It may well run in the air, suspended over the edge of a cliff, for a while longer. But it will then either crash to complete chaos and catastrophe (Option 1); or seed something radically different from itself from within its dying body (Option 2); or somehow get back to safety on the cliff-edge (Option 3). Managing to do that miraculous thing would involve such extraordinary and utterly unprecedented change, that what came back to safety would still no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation.

That, in short, is what I mean by saying that this civilisation is finished.

Extinction Rebellion is key to transforming the civilisation we have into something that will allow us to maintain human life either in the third option or in arming our global consciousness with the understanding of the need for deep adaptation in the face of the second option.

If not, we are left only with terminal collapse.

I hope that this book, in which I discuss XR at some length, will help us in these difficult and necessary thought-and-feeling—processes.