Professor Rupert Read teaches Philosophy at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, working alongside some of the world’s leading climate scientists. He is a writer of many years standing, with works in the academic and popular fields.
Let’s take a moment, this moment, to reflect upon where we are and why, before we launch into the urgent matter of September.
Why ‘Extinction Rebellion’? Because when your government is driving you and your family over a cliff, it’s no longer a legitimate government. Rebellion against it is permitted – indeed, it’s required. But XR is insistent that such rebellion must be nonviolent. Not only because hurting people isn’t nice, but also because there is good reason to believe from the historical record that nonviolence is frequently more effective than violence in transforming society.
The story of XR is a great story. When I watched Gail Bradbrook’s epochal video ‘Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It’, exactly two years ago now, it reflected back to me many of the things I had been saying in talks in the previous couple of years about how desperate our situation had become. What was different was that this newly forming group – XR! — had a plan for what to do about it. This gave me a glimmer of real hope for the first time in years. I tracked Gail down, phoned her that same day, and, after a wonderful, lengthy conversation, threw myself into the embryonic movement. I have been lucky enough to serve the movement in various ways, from those beginning days onward, helping organise and co-writing the multi-authored letters that were XR’s first ventures into the public domain.
Now is a great moment to look back at the first two years of XR UK – the first full phase of the movement: XR 1.0. Covid-19 marks a historically decisive inflection point in the history of emergency activism, and indeed in the history of humanity. Our previously under-acknowledged common vulnerability to existential threats is now present, lived, acknowledged. The vulnerability ‘story’ – the story that needs to land with the majority of us if we are to have any chance at all of not crashing civilisation – now finally has a real following wind. Like the virus itself, it has suddenly leapt from the periphery to centre-stage. If XR can resonate with the felt vulnerability that has traversed the world in the last several months, that will matter most.
The shared experience of vulnerability, of existential threat, that is still tearing through many humans and communities, for the first time in the living memory of most of us in the ‘Global North’, is something which, if it can be extended to other longer, tougher emergencies, will change everything.
The birth of XR gave me hope when I had had virtually none; paradoxically, the corona crisis is to some extent refuelling that hope. XR from now on will be very different, for reasons implicit in what I have just written: right now, because of the domination of public attention by the virus and its economic consequences; and, as we go forward, because, after this enforced pause everything might be different. All of this adds up to why some of us are speaking of this as the moment of birth (or, at least, of conception) of XR 2.0. Which will be a different story, suitable for telling years from now. Assuming, as I hope and believe but cannot take for granted, that most of us will be (t)here to tell that story.
I believe XR needs to transform or die, in these new conditions, including the looming Depression. XR – we – need in my view to embrace transformative adaptation, a story that moves beyond the dying narrative that we are going to ‘mitigate’ our way out of this long emergency. No; disasters are here to stay, and the hope that was Paris is dying on its feet. The COPs are not going to save us. This is where it gets tough; this is where we start to realise that we don’t have ’12 [now 10] years to save the world’. This world isn’t going to be saved. But we can and must go on fighting, non-violently, to stop the wreckage being any worse than it has to be. And to adapt to what is coming in the wisest and most realistic way possible. If we do that, then it may be possible to talk about a regenerated world…
The post-corona reset represents our last chance to avert eco-driven societal collapse, sooner or later. For these reset-moments don’t come along even as much as once a decade – the last one (which was completely bungled) was 2008. This last chance for a suitable reset has already been partly missed. It is time to stop it being missed any worse. It is time to rage, and to transmute that energy into love. It is time to throw the dice one last time.
This is what I’ll be saying when I’m readying myself for arrest, early in September. As I do this for my nieces.
To those who say, ‘Collapse is already here’, I say: well yes, sort-of. But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. To say that it’s already here is unwisely to flatten out a landscape of very differing degrees of horror; it is to negate the difference between the terrible hardships and more that some are already enduring, and the disappearance of the very structures that provide meaning and sustenance for most or all of us that collapse connotes. The latter, if and when it comes, will be orders of magnitude worse than the former.
The story of XR is a great story, of success and heroic sacrifice. And it’s a sad story, of fading hope, and insufficient action in response to our actions. Where will the story go next? The very next phase in the story of XR is by definition unwritten. Let’s ‘write’ it together. As I’ve explained, it is, in the classic phrase, ‘now or never’. But it’s also ‘now and never’. Now is the time to throw the dice to try to stop the post-Covid reset being completely bungled. There’s never been a more important point at which to rise up. And, at the same time, let our rising up now be in the spirit of a desperate last throw, of full awareness about the failure of governments to act on climate (as they did, albeit sometimes kicking and screaming, on Covid), and about how the reset has already been half-bungled. We aren’t going to get a better world where we smoothly transition away from the danger: not now, and not ever. The best that we can hope for now is to avoid full-scale collapse. But that aim is so very worth non-violently fighting for…
See you, appropriately physically-distanced, on the streets in September… Perhaps at the Writers Rebel action on the 2nd, at which I’ll be, speaking – and non-violently direct-acting…
Prof. Rupert Read teaches eco-philosophy at the University of East Anglia, alongside leading climate scientists. He co-convenes XR’s Political Liaison team and is an XR spokesperson. He is the author of the newly-published Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside, available now from all particularly good booksellers, and on a ‘gift economy’ basis (with all profits going to XR UK) online. The book details the history and ideas outlined in this blog piece.