“If you don’t care about non-human life you don’t care about human life”

After years of preparation and research into transforming politics, Extinction Rebellion exploded onto the scene in 2018 when they shut down five major London bridges. Their aim was to force governments to treat the threats of climate breakdown and extinction as emergencies. Through mass nonviolent civil disobedience, they are now active across the world.

As Extinction Rebellion’s official spokesperson, Dr Rupert Read has stood – and sat – alongside the group since its beginning. Arguing for the undeniable logic of protest and the power of disruption, Dr Read spoke to The Skylark about how the world came to the point where ordinary citizens have to sacrifice their liberties to persuade governments to act on a global emergency.

With the group’s next action aimed directly at the UK government, he explains why this is now humankind’s last chance to reduce the impacts of catastrophic climate change and calls on everyone to join him on the streets.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction and the early stages of climate breakdown. And yet there is still a wide spread failure to really 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 to threats that are very foreseeable but decades in the future. In fact, it is quite difficult for us as 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 a lot less 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 deeply irrational point of view. If you want to make human beings safe in the long run, you have to put the planet and the web of life first.

If you don’t care about non-human life you don’t care about human life

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 has 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 in framing the issue. When we talk about the environment, we talk in a dead way. It’s something that appears to be outside of us and therefore nothing to do with us. We need to talk in ways that makes the issue live to people, ways 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 need to say this is our life support system, this is our planetary home and there isn’t another one available. That this is what is already happening and that we are part of that.

This is almost certainly our last chance

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

‘We can never go back”

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 too 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 almost certainly our last chance to avert societal collapse later down the road.

These events don’t come around often

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 on mindset alongside the scientists and the school strike movement and the overall deteriorating chaos of the situation that 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 very, very difficult to shift a whole society’s system and paradigm in a radical way.

Frankly, you need outside help and you need 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 more recently the 2008 financial crisis, which was 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 gives us a chance to reset. If we don’t take full advantage of this opportunity now then there probably won’t be another one until it is definitively too late to stop us 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 a truly historic moment

The rebellion is an absolutely and literally 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 with it, 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, the issue that will determine all others.

The way you feel most empowered to act is 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 normal life. The pandemic is changing things permanently.

So, I say to you in all honesty and seriousness, this is vital, this is unprecedented, this is an 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.

If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.

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

Dr. Rupert Read is 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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