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This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations On the End of Empire – and What Lies Beyond

An excerpt from a new book by Samuel Alexander and Rupert Read

I’ve just published a new book, co-authored with philosopher-activist Rupert Read (leading spokesperson of the Extinction Rebellion in the UK). There is also a postscript by Helena Norberg-Hodge, author of Ancient Futures and producer of The Economics of Happiness.

Our new book is entitled This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond, but don’t be put off by the title. The content isn’t as gloomy as the title might suggest, although the book is made up of 17 conversations between Rupert and myself on a range of challenging global issues. Readers of this blog and my other books will be familiar with many of the themes, but the conversational style of this book makes it particularly accessible I feel. I hope you are stimulated and enriched by the discussion.

Gazing Into the Abyss

Samuel Alexander (SA): Rupert, I would like to invite you into a space of uncompromised honesty. Let us engage each other in conversation, not primarily as scholars wanting to defend a theory, or as politicians seeking to win votes or advance a public policy agenda, or even as activists fighting for a cause, but instead, just as human beings trying to understand, as clearly as possible, our situation and condition at this turbulent moment in history.

When I look at the world today, I see the vast majority of academics, scientists, activists, and politicians ‘self-censoring’ their own work and ideas, in order to share views that are socially, politically, or even personally palatable. There are times, of course – often there are times – when we must be pragmatic in our modes of communication, and shape the expression of our ideas in ways that are psychologically digestible, compassionate, or even crafted to be attractive to an intended audience. But the more we do that, the more constrained we are from saying what we really think; the less able we are to look unflinchingly at the state of things and describe what we see, no matter what we find. If we never find ourselves in spaces of unconstrained openness, we might not even know what we really think, hiding truths even from ourselves.

It seems to me that one of the first principles of intellectual integrity is not to hide from truths, however ugly or challenging they may be. Yet there are truths today which I feel many people are choosing to ignore, not because they do not see them or understand them, but because they do not want to see or understand them. Truth, as any philosopher knows, is a contested term. But perhaps in what is increasingly called a ‘post-truth’ age, time is ripe to reclaim this nebulous notion, to try to pin it down, not in theory but in practice. That is to say, I am inviting you, Rupert, to practise truthfulness with me, to share thoughts on what we really think, and to do so, as far as possible, without filtering our perspectives to make them appear anything other than what they are. This may require some bravery, of course, because if thou gaze long into an abyss, as Nietzsche once said, the abyss may also gaze into thee. Have we the courage? Will our readers have the courage to stay with us on this perilous and uncertain journey?

My invitation to you is not, of course, arbitrary. It seems to me that you are amongst a very small group of thinkers today who have already started the process of speaking ‘without filters’. I’ve seen you deliver lectures to your students saying things that most academics would not dare even to think, let alone say out loud in public. I’ve read articles of yours that manifest the uncompromised honesty that I hope will inform, perhaps even inspire, this dialogue. One of the articles to which I refer, and which now entitles this book, is called ‘This Civilisation is Finished.’ Let that bold and unsettling statement initiate our conversation. No doubt it will require some unpacking. What did you mean when you declared that this civilisation is finished?

Rupert Read (RR): Thanks Sam. It is a privilege, in at least two ways, to be able to conduct this dialogue with you. First, it’s a privilege to be in dialogue on this vital matter with you, whose work on degrowth and voluntary simplicity is, in my opinion, simply the best there is. But I also mean that it’s a privilege, a wonderful luxury, to be able to have this conversation at all, because it is quite possible that in a generation’s time, or possibly much less than that even, such conversations will be an unaffordable luxury.

It is quite possible that, although we are living at a time that is already nightmarish for many humans in many ways (let alone for non-human animals), we will come to look back on these times, if we are alive to look back on them at all, as extraordinarily privileged. Right now people such as you and me don’t have to spend much of our time scrabbling for food and water or looking over our shoulders worrying about being killed. So we have a responsibility to make the most of this privilege.

What I’ve just expressed will strike some readers as exaggerated for effect. It is not. It is simply an attempt to level with everyone; to take up your invitation, Sam, and join you in a space of uncompromised honesty. Environmentalists are often accused of being doom-mongers. I think that the accusation is largely false, because I think that almost all environmentalists incline in fact to a Pollyanna-ish stance of undue optimism. This might prompt an accusation of me being a fear-monger or alarmist. I’m not an alarmist. I’m raising the alarm. When there’s a fire raging – as is the case right now, as I write, across the UK and across the world including in forests that are our planetary lungs – then that’s what one needs to do. Raise the alarm. This elementary distinction – between being an alarmist and justifiably raising the alarm – is exactly the distinction that Winston Churchill drew, under similarly challenging (though actually less dangerous) conditions, in the 1930s.

If people are feeling paralysed right now, I think it is probably because they are stuck between false hopes. On the one hand, there is the delusive lure of optimism, the hope that there will be a techno-fix that will defuse the climate emergency while life more or less goes on as usual. This is, I believe, in a desperately-dangerous way keeping us from facing up to climate reality. On the other hand, there are dark fears that people mostly don’t voice and don’t confront. My message, far from being paralysing, is liberating. One is liberated from the illusory comfort – that deep down most of us already know is illusory – of eco-complacency. One is able at last to look one’s fears full in the face. One is able at last to see the things that the other half didn’t want to see. And then to be freer of constraint in how one acts.

One of the ideas in the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that most deeply inspires me is that the really difficult problems in philosophy have nothing to do with cleverness or intellectual dexterity. What’s really difficult, rather, is to be willing to see or understand what one doesn’t want to. After years of denial, and years of desperate hope, I finally reached a point where it was no longer possible for me to not see and understand the fatality that is almost surely upon us.

I have come to the conclusion in the last few years that this civilisation is going down. It will not last. It cannot, because it shows almost no sign of taking the extreme climate crisis – let alone the broader ecological crisis – for what it is: a long global emergency, an existential threat. This industrial-growthist civilisation will not achieve the Paris climate accord goals; and that means that we will most likely see 3–4 degrees of global over-heat at a minimum, and that is not compatible with civilisation as we know it.

The stakes of course are very, very high, because the climate crisis puts the whole of what we know as civilisation at risk. By ‘this civilisation’ I mean the hegemonic civilisation of globalised capitalism – sometimes called ‘Empire’ – which today governs the vast majority of human life on Earth. Only some indigenous civilisations/societies and some peasant cultures lie outside it (although every day the integration deepens and expands). Even those societies and cultures may well be dragged down by Empire, as it fails, if it fells the very global ecosystem that is mother to us all. What I am saying, then, is that this civilisation will be transformed. As I see things, there are three broad possible futures that lie ahead:

(1) 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

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

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

The third option 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.

The second option is very difficult to envisage clearly, but is, I now believe, very likely. One of the reasons I have wanted to have this dialogue with you, Sam, is so that we can talk about how we can prepare the way for it. I think that there has been criminally little of that, to date. Virtually everyone in the broader environmental movement has been fixated on the third option, unwilling to consider anything less. I feel strongly 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.

The paperback is available here and the e-book is available on a ‘pay what you want’ basis here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Samuel Alexander

Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, teaching a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Economy: Critical Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ as part of the Master of Environment.

7 Comments

  1. Yawn. People in cold climates will welcome a few degrees of warmer weather. That’s a huge amount of land where people can barely survive now. And one degree per century warmer? Lol. Please study the actual science of climate, from the past million years til now. We are just coming out of a cold phase. It will be balmy and nice. Depending where you live. Humans need to remember how to adapt, and move away from shorelines. Nature has ALWAYS changed the climate.

  2. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 New Living Translation (NLT)
    For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.

  3. It would be interesting to see why Rupert thinks option 2 is most likely, given that civilisation itself is something that wreaks havoc on the environment, ultimately causing its own downfall. Perhaps Rupert simply meant “some other means of organising societies and communities”.

  4. Samuel, I want to congratulate you for the intention you have set to open up a conversation that focuses on truthful dialogue, on a personal level between two human beings. I was happy to read that this intention clearly defined leaving behind defending theories, advancing political ideologies or policies and activism around a cause. This is definitely something we all need to engage in, especially those of us who practice permaculture design, which I am imagining you do, since this has been published in Permaculture News. Please correct me if that is mistaken….

    That said, I will add that the words transcribed in this article spoken by the person with whom you have chosen to pursue this dialogue reek of each and every one of those intentions that were supposed to be left out of the conversation. Rupert´s feelings about the world, as expressed above and however honest they may be, are awash in the effects of that very fear-mongering that goes hand in hand with the current defense of certain unproven theories by so-called “climate scientists”, the advancement of political ideologies and policies like the UN’s Agenda 21 and the exaggerated ravings of ecological activists who believe that humans are such “bad creatures” that they should be kept as far away as possible from protected natural areas so nature can “rest”. He even spouts the propaganda to that effect to perfection.

    Based on what I have read here, I would not for one minute spend any hard-earned money to buy such a book. Personally, I am bored to tears by the results of this kind of ideological addiction riding on the back of bad science and looking for social approval from equally addicted peers.

    As a permaculture designer, I always think critically about such propaganda and fear-mongering discourse, since it is rampant in our world currently. I work hours every day, studying, investigating, observing and interacting with the natural processes that surround me in the world in the attempt to understand them and my (and other human) relationship with them. I do not take “advice” from or even read, at this point in time, since I´ve done plenty of that to date, people who do not do the same. They bore me to tears and give me nothing that is useful for my own understanding.

    The truth of the earth as a living organism is much, much grander than anyone’s personal honesty about their own feelings at any given moment in time; feelings come and go and they prove nothing at all about the world, unless the person experiencing them can courageously look at the larger reality and hold steady in that gaze, instead of cowering behind his or her socially acceptable ideology, which always leaves out a large chunk of that reality or assigns the negative parts of it to “those other guys, the bad ones”.

    As for the civilization we live in, it has, indeed given us a position of exceptional responsibility towards the rest of the world. Western Civilization has wreaked havoc with many of the planet´s cycles and processes. Ecosystems have been destroyed, the water cycles have been damaged, desertification has proceeded apace for 10,000 years, pollution is rampant and human misuse of resources has become both banal and acceptable, among other things. There is much work to do, no doubt about it…..

    However, human individuals CAN change out ways, if our understanding changes and we decide to do so, act in positive ways within a life ethic in our very own sphere of influence. We can lso alearn to come together to be a regenerative force in the biosphere and not only or mostly a screech of protest. Each of us is responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions in the world, as Bill Mollison pointed out. Permaculture design is based on that very prime directive. I try to remain hopeful that many individuals will understand this and we can reach a tipping point, but even if that does not occurr, I understand that the conscious care of the earth, the conscious care of people and the return of all surplus to earthcare and peoplecare is the way I want to live my life and share it with others. Everyone else is intrinsically free to decide for themselves…….

    1. Linda ,
      we Peacefarm tribe agree with you. Here we continue Masanobu Fukuoka’s Ways , in all ways. It is our total life . Caring for Mother Earth . Husbandry of nature . Bill Mollison wrote extensively of and about Fukuoka’s Ways..And so we concur with your sentiments but strongly doubt that many of the 3-4000,000,000 people living in cities and depending on I.T. for their daily bread will be able to make the monstrous changes ahead of them. Not ahead of us, because we have made most of the required changes and modifications that need to occur. As my wife says ” I am happy with candles” [ e.g. not electricity ]

  5. It is curious that with all of the talk about economics that no one suggests mandatory accounting in the schools.
    How much do American consumers lose on depreciation every year on so called durable consumer goods? There were 200,000,000 cars in the US in 1994. Is planned obsolescence civilized?

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