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Dr Rupert Read: If you don’t care about non-human life you don’t care about human life

As Extinction Rebellion’s official spokesperson, Dr Rupert Read has stood – and sat – alongside the group since its beginning. Here he explains why keeping us safe in the long run, means putting the planet and the web of life first.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction and the early stages of climate breakdown. And yet there is still a widespread failure to understand the gravity of the crisis. Even after the 1.5oC report, the climate school strikers, Extinction Rebellion, the Australian bushfires and a million other things, people still don’t understand the scale of this crisis.

Humans are firmly focused on narrow, anthropocentric and short-term concerns. We fail to act adequately against very foreseeable threats. In fact, it is difficult for humans to think long-term or on the timescales of melting ice caps.

But we can’t just blame the human brain. We used to be better at thinking about these things – even when we knew little about them. Consider the Navajo rule that you always consider the interests of the seventh generation in any major decision. When was the last time you heard a politician say, “I’ve got my mind firmly set on what is going to happen 200 years from now”? Or in medieval times, when people would build cathedrals knowing they would never see them completed, a project that spanned generations.

And then there is the human centrism problem, which requires a more fundamental reorientation. Our concerns always seem to be directed towards ourselves, which ironically is a profoundly irrational point of view. To make humans safe in the long run, you must put the planet and the web of life first.

We need to prepare for a potential societal collapse, but most people are still far, far away from this point. This is about whether life flourishes or goes into a tailspin. There have been concerted efforts by our opponents to portray us as anti-human or wanting to go back to living in caves. These are tired clichés that are, of course, far from the truth. What we’re talking about is a better existence and that if you don’t care about non-human life you don’t care about human life.

But we’ve also done a poor job of framing the issue. When we talk about the environment, we speak in a dead way. It appears to be outside of us and therefore has nothing to do with us. We need to talk in ways that make the issue live to people, methods that are authentic and emotionally resonate. That’s what Greta Thunberg has excelled at. We need to make it clear what this is really about. We must say this is our life support system, our planetary home, and there isn’t another one available. This is what is already happening, and we are part of that.

This is our last chance to avert societal collapse

Acknowledging the extent to which the normal representative system has failed us is crucial. That extent is grave, though it doesn’t mean it’s pointless to take part or that every system is as bad as the other. But representative democracy has to a considerable extent, failed us. And when representative democracy fails, the necessary and traditional recourse is nonviolent direct action.

There are many great examples of this in history, and here we follow in the great tradition and footsteps of the civil rights movement or Indian independence. What we do in Extinction Rebellion is take the kind of approach that Greenpeace had and turn it into something which happens on mass. So, it’s not just twenty people trying heroically to stop a whaling ship, but twenty thousand people saying we are not prepared for you to go on like this. It’s similar to the school climate strikes because striking is another form of civil disobedience. We turn those time-honoured and very effective tactics to the cause of the climate and ecological emergency. And that’s what is happening right now. It is a last throw. This is our last chance to avert societal collapse later down the road.

Covid-19 and the post-pandemic situation give us a chance to reset

For the last couple of years, Extinction Rebellion has been pushing incredibly hard to get a change in mindset and a change in policy. We have succeeded to some extent in mindset alongside the scientists and the school strike movement and the overall deteriorating chaos of the situation people have been experiencing. We succeeded in altering public opinion and raising the issue dramatically. But we have not succeeded in changing practice, action or policy. It is tough to shift a whole society’s system and paradigm radically.

Frankly, you need outside help and circumstances to work in your favour. Periodically, events come along that make it possible for there to be some kind of dramatic reset of society’s norms and practices. Past examples include the 1930s depression, the second world war and the 2008 financial crisis, a massive opportunity missed to shift direction. That latest one was 12 years ago. These events don’t come along every couple of years or so. They come along maybe once a decade, probably less often than that.

Well, now we’re in one. Covid-19 and the post-pandemic situation give us a chance to reset. Suppose we don’t take full advantage of this opportunity now. In that case, there probably won’t be another until it is definitively too late to stop us from going past the deadly 1.5oC barrier. That path will sooner or later result in societal collapse. Therefore, this is probably our last chance.

This is the moment to say we are not going back

The rebellion is an absolutely vital opportunity to decide if there will be life for our society, other species and our children in the future. This is the moment to say we are not going back to how it was before the pandemic and to change direction. I would urge everyone, please, if you understand this and are in sympathy, that now is the time to come and join us on the streets to force a change in the democratic route that has failed us. Join us in nonviolent direct action to create a better democracy, bring about citizen assemblies and chart a new direction. The climate and ecological emergency is the issue of our time that will determine all others.

You feel most empowered to act by becoming part of something that keeps going. Not just something where you turn up for a few hours and then go back to your normal life. We need to accept that there isn’t going to be a return to everyday life. The pandemic is changing things permanently.

So, I say to you in all honesty and seriousness, this is vital, this is unprecedented, and this is a historic opportunity. If you haven’t already, it is time to seek to change your life. Many have done so, and many more will in the coming days, weeks, months and years.

Let there be no going back for you personally, just as you don’t want society to go back. Choose to make that change in your own life, but more importantly, be part of a movement that wants to change the system as a society and as a world. We can never go back.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 31st July 2020.

Dr Rupert Read is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and a frequent spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion. His recent book, ‘This Civilisation Is Finished’, is available at all good online booksellers, and his next work, ‘Why Climate Breakdown Matters’, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Press. His latest publication, 'Extinction Rebellion - insights from the inside', co-authored with Samuel Alexander with Simplicity Institute Publishing, is available now.


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