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Academics should take to the streets with Extinction Rebellion

As climate change protestors continue to shut down major parts of London, Rupert Read explains why he’s joining them.

Naomi Klein writes in her call-to-arms book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the climate, that there are two types of climate change denial holding back effective action to protect our planet: denial of the problem and denial of the seriousness of the problem. While the first is thankfully rare in this country and can be easily dismissed as politically motivated head-in-the-sandism, the second is rife throughout society—from our politics to our media and, unless we are careful, in our universities. 

Academics must not allow this soft denialism into our institutions and onto our curriculums. Yet, we often do this when we fail to give students the full—and scary—information they need about the political, economic and social structures that are driving the wholescale destruction of our environment, and when we fail to enable students to discuss these issues in our classrooms and lecture theatres. 

Universities do not deny the seriousness of climate change directly, but often implicitly, through its near-absence across much of the curriculum. This is partly born of a fear of politicising the problem. Yet unless we are willing to address the profoundly political questions raised by dangerous anthropogenic climate change, then we have no hope of avoiding worst-case scenarios and adapting to already locked-in harms.

At the University of East Anglia, I have taken to introducing my new undergraduate students in philosophy to their academic journey by letting them know why I fear for them. I fear for them because while university is often an amazing journey of self-discovery and educational enrichment and nourishment, the world that many undergraduates will inherit shortly after graduation is one that will be beset with worsening climate disasters. There is a profound injustice in this intergenerational inequality, which is further magnified if we fail to discuss climate reality honestly. 

My challenge to academics is to make room for climate breakdown in our curriculums and classrooms by placing ecology centre-stage as the bedrock upon which life exists. The problems presented by impending ecological collapse are manifold. Declining insect populations threaten our ecology and the loss of pollinators looks likely to seriously diminish food production. Rising oceans threaten many coastal regions and low-lying countries and islands are at risk of vast or complete submersion. 

The increase in environmental contamination also has the potential for extreme and unpredictable harms. Microplastics are now in everything, from previously pristine rivers, to the food and water supplies that maintain our own bodiesRadioactive elements are also spreading their way across the globe with unforeseeable long-term effects. Air pollution is having devastating impacts on human health in the process. Perhaps most menacingly of all, the warming of the planet threatens to wreak havoc in the form of extreme weather events and the devastation of entire ecosystems that evolved to survive in lower temperatures. 

This information is of course nothing new. It is nothing that we didn’t already know, or that we haven’t had the opportunity to prepare for. But after a barrage of terrifying facts, the conversation about ecological collapse often gets derailed into a series of attractive but oversimplistic solutions. For example, that if we manage to restrict climate change to under 1.5 degrees Celsius, then everything will be more or less fine. Or that if we invest in geoengineering, also known as ‘negative emissions technologies’, or in nuclear power, then our climate worries will be dissolved. 

Yet the rush to optimism in the face of the ecological catastrophes we face leads to a depoliticisation of the problem, and sells what are essentially snake oil solutions. These fuel the idea that a sustainable society looks remarkably similar to our current society—just with a few more wind turbines and electric cars, meatless Mondays and mandatory canvas bags. This mainstream portrayal of the environmental crisis is completely unthreatening to the system that profits from its destruction. Rather than search for panaceas to cure the situation we are in, we must instead face up to climate reality and the holistic challenges it presents to us as individuals, as society, and as a civilisation as a whole.

Facing up to climate reality requires deep green changes to our whole society, such as planning for a post-growth economy not based on endless material expansion. It requires a recognition that the future will be increasingly blighted by locked-in climate disasters, and we need some kind of insurance policy for coping with collapse. This is sometimes called ‘deep adaptation’, and it has been almost entirely missing from mainstream conversations about dangerous climate change. 

Central to the deep adaptation agenda, and to the transformational adaptation agenda set out in a new book from the think tank Green House called Facing up to Climate Reality, is the localisation of industries, particularly food production. Reliance on complex international trade flows and over-centralised production in a world of ecological precariousness is a recipe for disaster.

What we are talking about here is the wholesale change of our economic and political system. This is no small undertaking. The climate crisis is not one issue among many, it is the determinative issue of our times. So universities must confront the scale of these challenges in unflinching terms. 

Those of us who work in universities mostly went into the sector because we value the pursuit of truth as something that can better society. There is often better paid and less stressful work available elsewhere. But we have chosen to be here at least partly because we value education and research. That is why academics must not shy away from addressing the brutal reality of dangerous climate change. 

Universities are often derided by the right-wing media as teaching an overly politicised curriculum. I don’t think this is true. But I do think that if we are to have any chance of combatting the climate crisis, then we need to put the profoundly political questions that arise from the climate crisis firmly into the curriculum. Many of us are doing this already, and are supporting students leading educational and political campaigns about climate change. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be joining the Extinction Rebellion campaign that is demanding governments take action over ecological collapse, and using non-violent direct action to get its message heard. I hope that this movement, combined with the global school strikes, can become a catalyst for a changing conversation about climate change. One that begins to deal with the severity of the predicament we have created for ourselves.

I’d urge colleagues who agree with the line of thinking set out here to join Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London. Here is one context in which being ‘academic’ need not be a quasi-insult, but can be relevant to one of the most exciting developments in British political life for a decade.

Rupert Read is a reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and chair of the think tank Green House. Thanks to Atus Mariqueo-Russell for help researching and editing this article.