Episode #98 COP26 and Beyond: Future strategies to keep us alive with Rupert Read
What is the bare minimum we need world leaders to agree at COP26 and what can we do if they fail? Rupert Read, academic philosopher, author and climate activist discusses the urgency of the moment – and how a ‘moderate flank’ of climate activists can grow out of the COP.
No stranger to action as well as thought, Rupert is one of he nation’s foremost climate philosophers. In today’s episode, we explore together the nature of our current crisis, the hope (or otherwise) for international agreement at COP26 and action at an appropriate scale afterwards.
We then look at how we as individuals can help foment a worldwide move towards a coherent, adaptive future, including ideas such as employee strikes mirroring the ‘Fridays for Future’ school strikes, the employers who are actively supporting climate action, and the ways we can begin to become more resilient and less dependent on ‘business as usual’.
We end by discussing the Thrutopia Masterclass, starting May 1st on which Rupert will be the inaugural speaker.
Rupert Read web site
Rupert’s Twitter feed
10 Tests for COP
Ocean Tipping Point Paper
Perspective Article on Moderate Flank
New Statesman Article on employers allowing climate action
Similar article on Employers from Ian McGregor
Tech workers global climate strike
Companies who are participating in the climate strike
Manda: My guest today knows about that crisis from many angles. Rupert Read is a long time friend of the podcast. He came to us first to talk about his book This Civilisation Is Finished and then again later to talk about his next book, Parents for a Future. He’s with us today because COP 26, starts next week, the last chance for the governments of the world to get together and work out how best to navigate a way through the climate and ecological crisis within which we are now living.
Rupert will be at COP, and he’s written several papers recently on how our responses could be shaped at governmental level and then beyond that. And I wanted to talk to somebody who’s really thought very deeply about what needs to happen and how we might shape it. And Rupert is that man. So people of the podcast please welcome, for the third time, Dr. Rupert Read. So, Rupert Read, long time friend of the podcast; as we head down into COP, how are you out there in the wilds of Norfolk?
Rupert: Well, yeah, it’s great to be back. In terms of the wilds of Norfolk, yes. So I’m now living on the edge of the Norfolk Broads on some slightly elevated Land with a third of an acre. But yeah, right now my mind is very focussed on my trial for criminal damage for Extinction Rebellion, which begins tomorrow and then COP next week. I’ll be going straight up there on the train afterwards. It’s a stressful time and exciting time. It’s a very, very important moment, to be honest, this, in the history of humanity. I wouldn’t put it any less strongly than that, in terms of the COP and what’s about to happen there. My view being, that what will be important is what humanity does more than what the so-called leaders at the COP do.
Manda: Yes. So let’s unpick that. Just before we head into everything else, though; your trial tomorrow for criminal damage as part of XR? It seems those friends of mine who’ve had trials scheduled… A particular friend has been twice on the train from Wales to London, at the point where she’s got the text, telling her that they’ve cancelled the trial because basically the judges are asking ‘why are you bringing this to me?’ Because spray painting was stuff that can be washed off in 20 minutes, is not actually criminal damage, and you’re wasting court time. Is it likely that yours will be cancelled, do you think?
Rupert: Well, it is conceivable, because that’s kind of exactly what I did. I poured fake blood, i.e Water soluble red paint over the steps of the Global Warming Policy Foundation at 55 Tufton Street. And you know, we’d probably have come along and cleaned it off ourselves afterwards, if they’d have asked us to, rather than getting the the cleaners straight in. So, yeah, that’s the extent of my so-called criminal damage. And yeah, it would be great if the case got dismissed, that would be a win. I’m also, however, looking forward to having our day in court. Because what we’re going to try to do, is to put the climate change deniers on trial, in effect. We’re calling it ‘denial on trial’ and asking the question basically, why is it us in the dock rather than them?
Manda: Brilliant. And the Global Warming Policy Foundation, of course, is one of these very sneakily named things that exists purely to tell everybody that global warming doesn’t actually exist, and we don’t need to worry about it and everything’s fine. So is there going to be a hashtag on Twitter if people listen to this as it goes out on the 27th? Will there be a hashtag for us to follow you?
Rupert: Yeah, sure. You can follow me on Twitter of course Green Rupert Read. But yes, there will be a hashtag #denialontrial.
Manda: Excellent, OK. Denial on Trial,people, get out there and retweet it. So on the assumption that you do put the Deniers on trial and that the entire media ecosystem listens to you and amplifies your message (that that was a joke. But hey, we can dream). You and I have both been looking at the GOES paper. So can you tell us about that, because it felt really important when you sent me a copy and it feels like one of those things that notches up the urgency and the drama of what’s happening at COP quite considerably.
Rupert: Yeah. So this is the paper by the Global Oceanic Survey Team, GOES for short. It’s a think piece. It’s based on peer reviewed science. It’s called ‘Climate regulating ocean plants and animals are being destroyed by toxic chemicals and plastics; accelerating our path towards ocean pH 7.95 in twenty five years, which will devastate humanity’. That is the title
Manda: Because you get to have super long titles when you’re doing. Papers, but you know, it does what it says on the tin,
Rupert: It does, it tells you basically what’s in the paper. A key aspect of what’s in the paper is it urges us to think beyond the kind of simplistic focus on carbon alone and especially not to fixate on what’s happening on land alone. We need to remember that if aliens were naming this planet, they would probably name it Ocean rather than Earth. And there are more and more voices emerging, suggesting for various reasons that – we’ve seen some of these voices recently in Seaspiracy on Netflix – that actually we are chronically and predictably, in fact, underestimating the importance of the oceans. Including in relation to climate. But what I’m getting at, is that the paper is very, very good on how chemicals and plastics are a crucial part of the picture. And when we fixate on carbon alone and we ignore those; people have even been saying recently, “Oh, there’s much too much focus on plastics. We need to just be all climate carbon and climate carbon. That’s it”. No, we’re facing a multifaceted crisis. We’re breaching multiple planetary boundaries. That’s very clear. By the way, in the recent Netflix film ‘Breaking Boundaries’ with Attenborough and Rockström, which I strongly recommend. And we need to get a lot smarter and actually wiser in terms of looking holistically at this.
Rupert: And that’s what they do in the GOES paper. And they suggest that plastics and chemicals are basically killing the plankton, which is causing a kind of cascade effect and a vicious circle which is going to accelerate climate damage. Remember, of course, that most of the climate damage we could have had so far on this planet has been actually prevented by the oceans absorbing huge amounts of carbon. But that’s at risk of stopping, and that is absolutely terrifying. The paper is, in my opinion, very important. It may not be entirely 100 percent correct, but what we need is its warnings and we need to heed them and we need to act less recklessly. If we wait until every bit of this is nailed down, to wait until no more research is needed, we will have waited too late. I mean, that’s what’s been happening with climate over the last 30 – 40 years. Scientists have been incredibly cautious rather than precautionary. In other words, they’ve been cautious at not going beyond what their evidence shows. But that’s not what we need as a society. We need to go beyond what the evidence shows with 100 percent certainty. We need to stay ahead of the evidence. So an example of being precautionary, of course, which many people are familiar with is pesticides that kill bees.
Rupert: Because of the EU, we’ve moved with the precautionary principle somewhat, at least ahead of the science, and moved to ban pesticides that could kill bees en masse, even if it’s not a hundred percent proved that they do. And thank goodness we did that because it was then proved a few years later. Yes, indeed, they do kill bees. They do cause colony collapse, et cetera. So sometimes precaution enjoins us to move ahead of the evidence and well, the GOES paper assembled some really good evidence. But my key point in relation to it is, ‘Oh my god, this is an incredible warning, a shot across the bows’. If we’re going to stop being so reckless, we have to think more systemically. We have to move more holistically to deal with the multiple causes and vectors of the crisis that we are in. So I would strongly recommend people to read this paper. I must warn you it is, as you know, Manda pretty terrifying, but it’s crucially attention broadening as we go into COP. We need to make sure we don’t spend all our time just talking about fossil fuels and just talking about trees. There are things that are probably bigger out there.
Manda: Definitely. Yes. So for everybody listening, I will put a link in the show notes. It’s a frightening paper, but it’s very cleanly and clearly written. It’s not got a lot of jargon in it. It’s got some really quite frightening, but very easy to read graphs. And yes, the take away for me, certainly, was: we are racing towards a tipping point that is ocean based. And if we cross that tipping point, there is no way back. The oceans have gone from 8.2 to 8.04 ph in the last 50 years. The rate of change is accelerating. If we hit 7.95, we’re going to get mass die off in the oceans. And if we get that, the oceans are our major carbon sink, they are the green. Apparently, every second breath that we breathe, the oxygen was created by the oceans. And if those oceans aren’t there, that oxygen is not there and the CO2 uptake isn’t there. And they hopefully and helpfully at the end, list the things that they believe would help us. And you know, it’s not hard, it’s not rocket science anymore. We know what needs to be done. I was reading recently Michael Mann’s book The New Climate War, the fight to take back our planet and how to win it.
Manda: And I think one of the things that we’re up against as we go into COP and have been up against a long time and exactly why you were pouring paint outside Global Warming Policy Foundation, is that there is/has been a very clear, very strategic move on the part of those who want to continue business as usual to muddy the waters. And to an extent, they’ve had a compliant media that has gone along with that. It was only when Rupert went to talk to the BBC in terms that they understood that they stopped having people from the Global Warming Policy Foundation on, every time they mentioned climate change, that these people could be given equal airtime to say ‘No, no, no, it’s OK, fine. There’s nothing happening’. And part of their policy was to question every bit of science, pick holes in it, you know, notice where the semicolon was in the third paragraph on the seventh page and then say, Well, that’s wrong. And thereby appear to undermine all of the science. Do you think now as we’re heading into COP, that this is still as effective as it was and is still happening?
Rupert: So in terms of what the deniers are doing… In the United States, they’re still kind of carrying on the same old rubbish, although they’re starting to run into more difficulties there. For example, young Republicans are increasingly saying, “Look, actually, this is going to destroy our lives. We need a change of tack here”. But in the in the US, there’s still a fair amount of the same old climate breakdown denial. In the U.K., the situation has changed quite a bit, so you still do get some straight denial from the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Nigel Lawson et al. And as you say, Manda. It was as recent as 2018 that Nigel Lawson and his mates were still getting on the news pretty much every time that climate was quote ‘debated’, unquote. You know, ridiculously late in the day. But they now have seen that that is not a game that they can carry on playing very easily. So they’re trying to box a little bit cleverer. What they do now often is climate delay. So they say, “Oh yes, it’s a problem, but you know, let’s just wait before we address it. We’ll have new technologies in the future. We can address it with those” or they sort of distract by focussing on China or by focussing on the economic costs or by focussing on the potential inequities that could be involved if you do eco reforms in the wrong way. When I debated against the Global Warming Policy Foundation a few months ago in the media, I made it very clear that actually what we should be doing, of course, is taxing the rich, taxing businesses, et cetera, to pay for this transition. And that if we did that, then you wouldn’t get those inequities. And of course, the Global Warming Policy Foundation don’t want that because, well, the rich and big businesses are their mates. So you’ve got to bring it to them in that kind of way. So no, it’s not the same old climate denial. It’s taking new sort of more insidious forms typically now.
Manda: Okay. But it still has a hold on the the kind of political game changers.
Rupert: Oh yeah. It still has a quite a lot of influence within the Conservative Party, which is important because of course, they’re in government
Manda: And look like they’re going to be in government for the rest of our lives the way the Labour Party is behaving. Let’s gloss over that one. So you have a paper in Green World, which I will also link in the show notes, called 10 Tests for COP26. And these are your kind of base minima for the absolute least that COP could produce that would be worth having. Anything less than this, we will consider COP to have failed. So can you talk us through what some of these are and how we could begin to implement them?
Rupert: Yes, so as you say, this is a set of very basic, minimal demands. We’re calling them 10 tests for COP 26. This is not an ideal wish list. This is not what should really happen. This is not even what would be enough. No way. This is a bare minimum to indicate seriousness and direction of travel at this moment in history. This is a demand, if you will, coming from the moderate flank, which we’ll talk about more in a bit I think. This is the kind of set of demands which I think any reasonable person looking at the situation would say, “Well, yeah, you know, they’ve got to jump over these hurdles, at least”. So it’s things like serious action to reign in fossil fuels and to promote renewables. Serious action to reign in intensive animal agriculture. Actually coughing up the hundred billion which the Global South countries need, in order to cope with the climate situation that they have. And starting to take adaptation much more seriously. Its basic asks like that. We’re not even saying that they should immediately ban all new fossil fuel exploration worldwide. I mean, of course they should, you know, even the IEA has said that. But we’re not even, we haven’t even included that in our ten tests, and some people have criticised us for that. Because what we’re saying is we want to produce something that’s so minimal that no reasonable person could say, “Oh, you’re asking too much”. Because there are still people in various parts of the world who are saying, “Oh no, we can’t get by without a bit more fossil fuel extraction for the for the next few years, even though, you know, we’ve already got enough of the stuff to fry ourselves at least twice over”.
Rupert: So it’s really an incredibly moderate set of demands and the idea is basically this: either COP puts through these kinds of demands, either COP meets the 10 tests or it doesn’t. And if it does, we can at least say, OK, they haven’t done enough, but they’re trying. You know, they’re taking steps in the right direction. They’re taking real steps beyond Paris. Or, if they don’t do that I think it will licence the conclusion for any reasonable person anywhere in the world “Oh my God, they really are not serious”. Even now, even with the world’s weather spiralling out of control, even with things like the the GOES paper showing terrifying new aspects of the issue that we’re in. Even with the upsurging that we’ve had in the last few years, of the School Climate Strikers and Extinction Rebellion and so on. Despite all of that, they’re still not really getting serious at all. And if that happens, and I’ve got to say, my belief is that that is the more likely outcome. If that happens, it will, I hope, and I believe, be a huge wake up call to those (And there are many) who still need more waking up who still need to understand better that no one’s coming. No one’s coming. No one’s coming to the to the rescue. There is no cavalry. There are no adults in the room.
Rupert: Look, I want to be proved wrong. You know, no one’s going to be more delighted than me if at the end of the COP, we can turn around and say, ‘Wow, they passed these 10 tests’. They haven’t done enough, but they are at least serious. We’re starting to head in the right direction. But I think that is, as I say, unlikely to happen and what we need to be ready for. We activists as it were, need to be ready to narrate this failure if that’s what it is, and to help a much broader mass of people to understand ‘no one’s coming’. And it’s going to require a far larger mobilisation of people after COP, next year and so on, to change that. And it’s also going to be such a wake up call that I believe there will be a big pivot towards building adaptation and resilience, mostly from the ground up. Because a lot of people, I think, the sad likelihood is that by mid-November, they will be realising, “my god, they’re going to allow us to tumble towards eco driven, climate driven societal collapse”. And that will, I believe, mobilise a huge pivot towards real adaptation and that is sorely needed.
Manda: Ok, so let’s unpick this. Let’s assume that your pessimistic belief is correct. It would be lovely to imagine that everybody gets it. 132 world leaders get together and are able to craft something that they all agree on. But I think it was Einstein who said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different result. And this is the 26th cop and it would be the first one before they’d actually managed to do that. So let’s assume that they’re going to hold.
Rupert: Let me make a little proviso there, Manda. I think we should give credit to the Paris Agreement in 2015. It was an extraordinary diplomatic achievement. It was nowhere near enough. I have criticised it at length. For example, in This Civilisation Is Finished. It needs far, far further needs to be gone than that. But we should acknowledge that it was a remarkable achievement to get all those leaders to sign off on it. Now, as you say, they have to do the same again. This time they have to do the same remarkable diplomatic achievement, but they have to do it with a much higher baseline, if you see what I mean. They have to reach something like the 10 tests, and those go a lot further than anything that was agreed at Paris. So if they manage to repeat the diplomatic extraordinary success at Paris, well, that will be an incredible achievement. But it’s going to be even harder than it was in Paris, significantly harder, especially with the likes of Bolsonaro, for example, still in government. And unfortunately, a key difference between 2021 and 2015 is that this year’s summit is, of course, being hosted by the UK government. And this is a government, which is simply not serious on the issue. Johnson talks a good talk sometimes, but we know that the government are utter hypocrites on this, whereas the French government in 2015, they were at least highly serious at seeking to…. They put everything they had behind trying to get the Paris agreement to happen. The UK government is not putting everything they have behind making this happen. So you’ve got a less committed government, a more difficult world situation, significantly higher hurdle that they need to jump. You put all that together and you think Paris, despite its vicissitudes, was an extraordinary achievement. To think that they’re going to manage to to replicate that, squared. It’s very, very hard to be hopeful that that’s what’s going to happen.
Manda: Yeah, it’s a really big ask. But also, even given all that you’ve just said and I absolutely echo the French were really serious about this. And Johnson just deliberately pissed off the Chinese and the French, like two months before a cop with the entire nuclear submarine farrago. You don’t do that, if you’re trying to get global agreements on something. So we can assume he’s not. But even if he were, even if he were pulling out every one of his little thumbs and trying to do something. Nobody has yet met their Paris climate agreements, and there was a paper which I believe you and I both read relatively recently, demonstrating not only are we not getting the 50 percent reduction that we should be getting by 2030 if everyone adhered to the Paris agreements. We’re actually going to get a sixteen point eight percent overshoot of more carbon by 2030, which is, yeah, absolutely taking us in completely the wrong direction. So up to a point, even if they do manage to sign some amazing document, we’d have to believe that they were actually going to do it. And I don’t. So let’s take that as our baseline. It is unlikely that the governments of the world, given the nature of politics as it works in our world, are going to achieve what needs to be done to prevent mass ecocide and societal collapse. Because none of us wants to live in a world of mass ecocide and societal collapse. What, in your view, can we do post COP? To begin to work towards this in default of our governments doing anything.
Rupert: Yeah, great question. It’s in many ways, of course, the 64 million parts per million question. And yeah, I do have some thoughts on it. So first thing to say is a lot of people who are in the space already are doing important work, and some of them need to continue that work. So I’m thinking of various kinds of established organisations and movements. But it is patent also that, well, as Einstein said, if we just carry on doing that, that’s not going to be enough. So what the key question really is, what do we need that’s new? What could actually start to change the game somewhat? So let me start with the thought that I think that the way in which it’s likely that COP is going to not meet the 10 tests, let alone any higher threshold. The way it’s likely, in other words, that COP is going to fail us and fail our children. I believe that this is going to be an extraordinary wake up call for the world, coming as it does on the back of terrifying weather around the world, including, of course, in the global north, places that may have thought they were relatively exempt. Places like Germany and Belgium, for example. We have to make sure that that wake up call is as large as possible, and that’s what I’m going to be working on for the next few weeks in Glasgow. Along with many others. If we do that, then I think this huge wake up call, one of the forms it will take, as I mentioned before, will be a much increased emphasis on adaptation and resilience building. Because a lot of people are going to be understanding if governments are really not riding to the rescue, if it’s really true and that’s how it now seems to be, that no one’s coming. Then we have to do it ourselves. We have to lead on it ourselves.
Rupert: And this is a key part of my so-called moderate flank proposal. Basically, what I’ve been arguing in the last couple of months is that organisations such as Extinction Rebellion have changed the game in terms of public consciousness. They’ve decisively shifted the debate. And what is now needed, is for new organisations, which are a little bit less full on and a bit more genuinely and broadly inclusive. To take advantage of that historic achievement and fill that space. And one of those sets of organisations and movements has to be in the space of adaptation and resilience building. So I’m thinking of the kind of thing that the transition towns, movement and permaculture have been doing for years. But I’m thinking of of cranking that up, trying to politicise it a little bit more. I’m thinking of organisations such as climate emergency centres, which are springing up around the country. I’m thinking of groups such as Trust The People, who are sort of taking the message of people’s assemblies in the climate et cetera space, to local communities. I’m thinking of the organisation I co-founded called Transformative Adaptation or trad for short, which is saying, “Look, it’s too late now to prevent the climate crisis”. It’s here, it’s too late to so-called mitigate our way out of this. We’re going to have to adapt to the climate damage that is here and that is coming. And a lot of it is coming because of the way that our so-called leaders are historically failing us. So we need to lead that process from the bottom up. We need to start to transform our systems from the bottom up, in terms of food production, but in terms of everything else as well.
Rupert: So that’s one dimension of it. Another dimension of it is in workplaces. So here I’m partly inspired by the school climate strikers, and my little motto here is something like this: If our kids can do it, then why the hell can’t we? If our kids can engage in extraordinary leadership through weekly monthly semesterly, whatever, short stoppages? Then why can’t we do the same? And in fact, we don’t even necessarily need to go that far. We can keep that in our back pocket. I would like to see …and there is evidence that this is starting to happen. Take an organisation like lawyers for Net Zero, for example, a new organisation trying to make change happen in the legal profession in a serious way, just step up to the plate. I would like to see all sorts of workplaces, firms, areas of employment where people are trying to bring the changes that we need to bear, to make them happen, in their own space of employment, and that has all sorts of dimensions. It can mean things like less commuting. It can mean things like you’re looking very carefully at your supply chain. It can mean things like looking at what your actual product is. What are you actually selling? Are you doing something which is stoking materialism or not? It can mean things like, What are you doing with your with your profits? Are you distributing them to rich people, or are you actually putting them directly into projects for the social and crucially, for the ecological common good?
Rupert: There’s a there’s all sorts of possible dimensions of this. The sky’s the limit. And of course, Marx was right that we spend an awful lot of our lives and have an awful lot of our power in our workplaces. I would like to see a huge growth in workplace based action and activism. And if that is resisted by employers or by governments, well, then maybe we resort to stoppages and go as far as our children have already gone. But even if we go that far, it’s going less far than asking people to throw paint over a building or to lie down in front of the bulldozers. So this is part of what I mean by when I call this a moderate flank. Extinction Rebellion has acted as a radical flank. It’s pushed the boundaries of the mainstream of the agenda. It’s opened a space. We need to fill that space now, and among the ways we need to fill it are through real bottom up action, which can be scaled up in our communities and in our workplaces.
Manda: Brilliant. So much to unpick there, starting with, I was talking to Jeremy Gilbert a couple of weeks ago on the podcast. He used to be an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a political scientist. And his big suggestion was that XR should get in touch with the unions and should start organising climate strikes. He thought that would be more effective than the Insulate Britain protests on the M25. I think he’s wrong, but I think the great thing about things like insulate Britain is that everybody now knows we need to do that. People are sounding off on Twitter about the fact that it’s deeply unpopular, and people on the M25, you know, hated the fact that they were delayed. Getting late to work by 20 minutes (like the M25 isn’t actually a car park for most of the morning anyway), but everybody knows about Insulate Britain now. But we could then, it seems to me that striking for the future, you know, we’re talking about ecocide and total systemic collapse; taking a day off work a week, isn’t that radical, really, is it?
Manda: But the problem would be, as I see it, is that if children decide to have a school strike, the worst that can happen is they get sent home from school and their parents have to homeschool them or find another school. For most people, if they strike they risk losing their job. And given the current economic system, that means they’re then, you know, three paycheques away from the streets. You have said before that we need economic systems change. Can you envisage a way where we could achieve economic systems change without wholesale political change first? And that might be a binary answer. You might just be no there isn’t a way. In which case we default to, OK, how do we create the wholesale political change we need, in order to foment the wholesale economic change? And then what would that economic change look like?
Rupert: Well, so there’s a lot there, obviously. I’m not going to attempt to say too much here about what needs to happen on the political side of things, because that’s a whole huge conversation. Let me try to go more directly to the stuff about strikes and the difficulty some people have in engaging with those. One thing I would say, is that the more we achieve some degree of independence from the current system, the less vulnerable we are to blackmail from employers or whoever. So for example, and it’s not just an example, I would say that it would be a really fine thing if a really large number of people in this country ramped up what a lot of us have dipped our toes in the pond of during the COVID period. Growing more food at home and try to get really serious about food growing. People bought Land together. People got involved in community supported agriculture, people becoming smallholders or at minimum, getting really serious about allotments, back gardens, etc. All of this gives us a little bit of a breathing space; a little bit of a margin between ourselves and the breadline. It makes us just a little bit or maybe not a little bit, maybe a lot less dependent upon being cogs in the existing system.
Rupert: So that’s one initial thought. Not to get too much into technicalities around the current trades union laws in the UK, which are problematic. But there are ways in which the kind of thing we’re talking about could be done, which would be less exposing for most people. So if you have short stoppages of up to 30 minutes, that’s a lot less fire-able than a full scale strike, which doesn’t have, you know, full legal permission through a trade union. So that is worth considering. But there are other possibilities here, too. I mean, there are simple things such as just asking your employer, Can I do this? And of course, a really good thing that employers could do would be to permit it. And some employers are doing that. Some enlightened employers have said in the last few years, if you want to take time off to go with your child to the school strike for the future on Friday, or if you want to join Extinction Rebellion for a day, then I’m going to let you. There are real examples of employees who’ve who’ve done this.
Manda: Can you name any?
Rupert: I’m trying to think of them now. Okay. I think it might. Lush might be one?
Manda: Ok, yeah, that sounds likely.
Rupert: Yeah,there are a number that I’ve heard of. I was quite surprised. I did look into it a bit, obviously, when I was researching this. Sorry that their names aren’t flowing off my tongue at the moment. But you know what I’d say to people is, well, just try asking, or if you’re an employer, just try offering. And really, what it comes down to in the end is, as you say, Manda. We need to think about what we can do with a real steely eye on the desperate ness of the situation. You read something like the GOES paper. Are our children going to have literally, you know, a life? Are they going to get to grow old? You know, that’s the kind of question which the Go’s paper is is implicitly asking. So some of us are going to need to make some sacrifices. But of course, if you’re making sacrifices for the sake of your children, well, in a sense, it is not really a sacrifice at all, is it? It’s exactly what you want to be doing. And finally, just to reiterate again, I would say, let’s not let’s not move straight necessarily to strikes or even stoppages, although I’m very pleased to hear what Jeremy said to you and I’ll get in touch with him about it. What I would like to see is people first seeking to do all this kind of stuff in a broadly sort of consensual kind of way, the way it quite often works.
Rupert: For example, in a country like Germany, which has a much more enlightened industrial relations than here; it’s not nirvana, but it’s superior. Let’s try and see how much we can do, pulling together. And when the obstacles come, then we then we get a bit more steely and stoppagey and strikey. And I think it will be quite difficult for employers or governments to fire anybody who says, Look, I’m going on strike for a short period of time to put a bit of economic pressure on you and to symbolise the fact that I’m scared that my children are not going to get to grow old. I think that would be quite hard to to fire people over. Or if it was even more kind of retail as it were than that. Imagine you’ve got some workers in Sainsbury’s and they’re saying, “Look, we want to stop our supermarket throwing away so much food because it’s bad for nature, it’s bad for people, it’s bad for climate”. Would Sainsbury’s really say “OK because you’re kicking up a fuss about this or because you’re taking time off to do something about this. We’re going to fire you”. I think they would look so horrendously bad if they were to do that. So, you know, these are difficult questions. The questions, people’s livelihoods, as you say, they have to be looked at carefully. But I think there is all sorts of ways where if there’s a will here, there is a way.
Manda: Ok, I think I’m a little bit more cynical than you. I think, you know, our government is just enacting, certainly in the UK, legislation whereby if you are a serious annoyance you can get 10 years in prison. And I suspect striking for a day in search of some kind of climate action would be considered a serious annoyance. And then they’ll privatise the prisons and they’ll just flow public money to their friends for locking us all up. But while we still have our liberty and action, a number of things strike me on this. So the buying land together, I’m hoping to talk to someone from the Kindling Trust where they got together and formed a Land trust and bought 126 acres up near Manchester. And it has struck me recently that we have a government that is quite happily sending most of the pig farmers in the UK into bankruptcy for their Brexit ideology, and that there will be a lot of Land going for sale. And my assumption is that there are a lot of their extremely rich friends poised to buy it all up. And wouldn’t it be good if a lot of local people could get together and form Land trusts and buy it with the farmer and then not do the absolutely abysmal – most of our pork farming in this country, it’s slightly better than it is in Denmark, where they actually have found out the level at which a pig will die and then keep them one micron above it – But ours is not what you’d call happy pigs. But we could have happy pigs, for people who want to eat meat, so I think that would be brilliant.
Rupert: One thing about the conservative government’s repressive laws, because of course, you’re right about that; It also does indicate to me it seems, that we need to be cautious. We need to be careful in how we choose to use our protest power. I am nervous that although Insulate Britain has certainly got the words Insulate Britain a lot more into public consciousness, they are making it easier for the government to bring in more repressive laws against climate protesters etc and to have the popular backing behind that. So it is cause for concern and for wisdom, it seems to me, in deciding how we choose to use our time and energy and our limited capacity to challenge the system. And that’s another reason why I think that while obviously I’m fully in favour of what Extinction Rebellion accomplished in the last few years, I was, you know, I was right there with it. I was in there. I think that it may be that the most, the biggest bang for our buck now, would be more moderate flank type actions, than further radicalisation and escalation, which I’m unconvinced is going to be strategic.
Manda: Yeah, that’s probably a conversation we should have offline because I still think moving the Overton window is a really important thing and that the more radical people on the flank provide cover for the slightly less radical people inside. And I don’t think this government needs any encouragement to clamp down on people it doesn’t like. We’ve had actual Nazi flags and Nazi salutes in London, and the police haven’t even moved. And there was a woman the other day on Twitter who had a T-shirt which had the F-word and then Boris, and she was told to cover it up or she would be arrested. And so, you know, we have a systemic collusion where the media, the police and the government are very happy, drifting very far to the right. But anything that’s seen as slightly more progressive is going to be hard. And I completely think we could be growing quite a lot of our food. We’re never going to be able to grow at all. Most people’s money heads into maintaining their mortgage, maintaining their debts, maintaining their home, maintaining the power that was privatised, maintaining the water that was privatised. I worry that we’re being incremental again. And even with transformative adaptation, it feels incremental to me, and I think we’re beyond incrementalism and we need wholesale systemic change quite urgently and quite rapidly. And what I’m trying to do in the new book and in talking to everybody, is envisage how that could happen in a way that is peaceful, because we want the softest landing we can get. We do not want wholesale devastation, but we’re heading very rapidly… The GOES paper…we’ve got 25 years to radically change the way we manage things, or we are toast. And and for most people, move to the country, get your third of an acre. See how much food you can grow for yourself in a third of an acre, while still paying your mortgage and not upsetting the government too much because they’ll lock us up. I can’t see that in 25 years that’s going to have achieved what we need.
Rupert: Yeah, it’s not twenty five years. What they’re saying is in 25 years we will actually be stuffed. That widespread breakdown will have occurred. So what they’re saying is very rapid action is needed now to head off that possible future. And we may not even be able to head it off. But we don’t know that we can’t still and we may well be able to. Yeah, look, I’m totally with you of course, I’m not thinking that incrementalism is enough and that’s not what I’m calling for. I am, however, saying we’ve got to make steps now without assuming that leadership on the grand political level is going to be enough. At least not until there has been a lot more of a upswelling from below, both in terms of a political upswelling and in terms, I’m suggesting, of actually doing stuff. And I think that one of the key things that maybe I haven’t brought home to you yet, Manda, is part the way I see the adaptation agenda now and the pivoting toward adaptation that I think will come from people realising the COP has failed us. That that’s actually possibly the most powerful wake up call tool we now have. In other words, what I mean is, that as long as you talk about net zero 2050 or mitigation or, you know, saying that we can stop climate dangerous emissions at scale if we move fast enough. As long as you do that, it’s still sort of makes it sound as though this is something for the future. Whereas if you say we’ve got to adapt to the damage that is here and the worst damage that is coming and we are already adapting, we’re already, you know, here’s some of us actually starting to do something where we’re actually readying ourselves for whatever it is, the next mega floods and the potential supply chain breakdowns and so forth. When you do that, then people at whatever level think something like, Oh, right, well, so you’re actually doing it now. So,it is real, it is actually here. So I believe that mobilising for and undertaking adaptation is now the best tool we have, not only for its own sake, which is crucial, but for probably vilifying a game changing consciousness, further consciousness shift in terms of so-called mitigation and prevention. In other words, a transformative shift that would work at scale across the economic and political system. I think that changes that might look kind of small or incremental, but that have a big, transformative kind of context for them and which are an adaptational, are a key part now of how we get to have, if we do, that larger system change.
Manda: Ok, so I’m interested in how we spread this at scale then. Because some of the figures that I saw in the summer, when the heat dome was over the Pacific Northwest, was that 72 percent of the people there were still in climate denial. You know, they’re in a place where the wildfires are making the air unbreathable. It’s got to a point where we’re very nearly at wet-bulb thirty five, where people will start just dropping like flies, and they’re still going “Nothing to do with climate change”. And they’re in America, fair enough. They’ve got a media that has invested an enormous amount of effort and bandwidth into persuading them that there is no such thing. And anyway, if you say you admit to climate change, it proves you’re a bleeding liberal and you support Joe Biden, which would be terrible. But where I live, which is, you know, more than 50 percent of the population voted Tory, forever, and we have the air source heat pump and we’ve insulated the very old crumbling farmhouse and we’re trying to grow as much of our own food as possible. And we are definitely the village cranks. It doesn’t seem to be stimulating a huge amount of other people going, “Oh, look, we need to be doing that”. I still am having the climate change isn’t a thing conversation with the Daily Mail and Telegraph readers. So how do we reach past a media ecosystem that is completely invested in maintaining business as usual? How do we reach the people for whom the most important thing about the end of lockdown was that they could get on a plane and have a holiday in Spain? And for whom the existing most important thing is that they have all the toys they want for their kids at Christmas. In spite of empty supermarket shelves disaster?
Rupert: Yeah. Well, obviously we need to get everyone listening to Accidental Gods.
Manda: Yay. Yes.
Rupert: Yeah. Apart from that, another big ask your you’re giving me there! The one thing I would say is it’s going to be a bold person who’s going to assume that we can successfully do all of that. And that is again reason for the sort of multiple horses strategy, which I recommend. That we’re attempting to bring about transformative system change at scale, but we’re also preparing for the possibility that that bid will fail. So that would be one important important point, and that’s why I’m working on deep adaptation as well as transformative adaptation. Another thing I would say, though, and this is perhaps more the kind of response you are hoping for, is that part of what I’m trying to do with this moderate flank proposal, is to say Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have been polarising. That’s not always a bad thing, I think that XR used some of that polarisation very well to great effect, especially back in 2019. But endlessly polarising is dangerous, and you can see some of those dangers in the incredibly divided society in the United States. And we’re not a million miles away from that. So, yeah, I think we need to be reaching out to at least some of the kind of people you’re talking about and suggesting to them various things.
Rupert: Suggesting firstly, that there are a potential win wins here. That there are ways, for example, that you can have agriculture and rewilding and have good lives all integrated together. We need to be pointing out to people in no uncertain terms, the kinds of disasters that they are increasingly at risk of and exposed to. And I think we can be confident that climate denial in the face of those is onto a losing wicket. By the way, one clever little way of doing this, is there was a study in the states, last year I think, that showed that climate change deniers were more likely to end up making a loss on house sales because they would be not thinking carefully enough about sea level rise, et cetera. Now that’s the kind of thing that people who care about money, which a lot of people on the right, etc are; That’s the kind of thing that they’re going to get wise to at some point. And they’re going to think, actually, this isn’t so smart. I’m losing money here. So getting to people via their their wallets will be probably part of the solution. And then another thing we should trust in is – I’m sorry to hear that you’re still regarded as the village cranks, and I’m optimistic, perhaps optimistic that that’s not going to be the case for for me here in Wroxham St Mary, in Norfolk.
Rupert: But you know, that’s going to change Manda. There will come a time when some of those people will be like, “Oh, sorry, we laughed at you. It turns out you were basically right”. And human beings are, you know, problematic and ignorant and deceived by social media and all sorts of things. But sooner or later, most people have a way of waking up to realities. Sometimes it’s their own way. Sometimes it’s through tragedy. Sometimes it’s through economics. You see what I’m trying to get at here. I think the number of converging forces, which mean that the picture that you’re describing will change. And I want the the moderate flank that I’m trying to build to be designed to appeal to all of those people who are never going to join or even sympathise with Extinction Rebellion, let alone Insulate Britain. But who could be persuaded potentially to join a resilience building initiative or to be part of something that makes their workplace better or to think more deeply about their responsibility as parents of the future.
Manda: And does this then become a political movement, do you think? I know we kind of sidestepped politics earlier, but
Rupert: Yeah, so I talk about this in the full length essay I’ve just done on this with Perspectiva, on The Moderate Flank. And what I suggest there, at the very end of that essay, is that there’s a sense in which it could do and should do. But it’ll look rather different, because what I’m envisaging is something which is going to be quite sort of distributed. Yeah, and that itself is part of what we need in the future. The future is going to be more local, whether by accident or by design. That is fact. So maybe we shouldn’t be trying to kind of create one unified world movement or even national movement along these kinds of lines. But what we should be doing is thinking about how there are synergies and mutual reinforcements between people creating Climate Emergency Centres,in local areas. Between people pushing for change through their workplaces or indeed through their businesses; between parents who are thinking, ‘How can I change my life and others lives so that my children get to have a future?’ And to see this as a kind of wave which is moving in the same direction. And surely that would take some kind of semi party political form. But what that would be, I don’t venture to to speculate, let alone stipulate.
Rupert: Although the Perspectiva essay I’ve written on this does talk about the way that this kind of thinking is needed in politics and how something which would be really game changing, would be if we had more political leaders (And this will probably start with green parties) who are actually willing to admit the truth. To admit that attempts to change through the standard political system have failed. To admit that we’re not going to get where we need to get in time through elections and political business as usual. That kind of admission of failure is now, I would argue, the only portal to potential success. That’s the kind of thing that could be game changing. If we have scientists, if we have economists, certainly if we have politicians… if we have activists who are brave enough to admit that the ways we’ve been trying to do things have not worked and are now chronically consigning us to a desperate future, then we could step together into this space that Extinction Rebellion and in the US, the Sunrise movement have opened up. Or at least started to open up and actually make something profound and possibly enough happen.
Manda: Yes. Yes, because we have government by consent in the same way that we have policing by consent, currently. And if we remove that consent and give it to some other way of governing, then we could change things quite fast and not have to wait for a political process that is heavily skewed to maintain the status quo. That’s probably a whole other podcast.
Rupert: Yeah, although just to say very briefly, some of that is what Trust the People envisage. Obviously, it’s partly what was envisaged by Extinction Rebellion. In that sense, it’s still a good and workable idea. And also, I would add that some of this can and should be happening locally. We need to ready ourselves for the very real potentiality that state power, including even in countries like the UK, which seem very kind of centralised and solid, may start to dissipate over the next decade under the under the pressure of climate disasters and other novel pressures and unprecedented stresses. And in that case, we need to be ready to just step up and adopt more of that mantle locally. And we’re pretty chronically unprepared in this country for that because of the chronic weakness in this country, unlike, say again, Germany, of local government that we need to think about changing to,
Manda: Yes, so much to unpick there. But that is almost certainly another podcast as we’re heading to a close. You and I have a project that’s going to come to fruition next year: Thrutopia Masterclass. Do you want to say a few words about your vision of Thrutopia and why it matters?
Rupert: Mm-hmm. So the idea of Thrutopia; it’s an attempt to move beyond the binary of utopia and dystopia, which I think has been in some ways quite unhelpful to us over the last generation or so. At least I’m heavily influenced in this idea of thrutopia by Ursula Le Guin. Especially her magnificent novel The Dispossessed, which tries to envisage a sort of anarchist utopia and ends up sort of concluding that if you imagine it as a sort of finished condition, then you’re imagining something unattainable and in many ways, undesirable. And what you need to imagine instead, is something which is constantly in flux and constantly trying to avoid ossification and constantly trying to realise the ideas which propelled you to have any kind of utopian vision in the first place. Now we need that so much right now, is because we are heading very fast towards dystopia. Some people say, Oh, we’re already in dystopia. Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet! So we have to consider realistic possibilities of avoiding those dystopian outcomes. Now, some of those possibilities are utopian, but I emphasise realistic. So what can we actually coherently imagine? Well, we can coherently imagine paths. And we desperately need, and I think you and I agree on this. We desperately need to imagine those paths. We need to imagine how we might get from here to there. And in many ways that’s what people are crying out for.
Rupert: What I’m trying to offer also with the moderate flank thinking; what do we actually do that could be enough and how does it add up to improving our lives? And that’s again, the importance of workplaces and of communities. So a way through the current dilemma, a way through the the current and escalating crisis, a way through the difficult years ahead, which will try to build into it as much of what we in a utopian way need as it’s possible to actually make happen. And and to be clear that in many ways, the choice we face now is a choice between utopia and dystopia. But, the utopia in question is not going to be a situation where everything is perfect. That’s probably humanly impossible anyway, but it’s certainly impossible in the context of ongoing climate breakdown and buys biodiversity trashing. So the utopian aspects of community construction, for example, that will come to characterise, I firmly believe, the next generation or so. I think they are healthily seen as under a Thrutopian heading rather than under a traditional utopian heading. And it’s just misleading if we have kind of visions of everything being wonderful, which is one of the reasons why I don’t really agree with Michael Mann to go back to an earlier part of our conversation. Mann, sometimes is one of those people who sometimes make it sound as though if we just do X, Y and Z, then everything is going to be fine.
Rupert: No, everything is not going to be great. Everything is not going to be fine, even if we do as well as we possibly can. And even if we do unimaginably brilliant and bold and courageous things, as I earnestly hope we will do and kind of expect us to do. So, yeah, that’s the basic idea. We need a Thrutopia, we need to realise it. We need first probably to do more imagining of it through the arts. That’s the kind of vision that may sustain us, especially in the difficult days which are shortly to come. If, as I believe, the COP that is about to start is going to fail us, we mustn’t go home with our tail between our legs. We mustn’t just be kind of crushed or burnt out by this. We have to be resilient in ourselves. And the way I think we create that resilience is by having a realistic and exciting vision for the future. And by being determined to use the opportunity presented by COP failing to meet the ten tests, say, as a launching pad for the mother of all awakenings, which I believe could be starting to happen in as soon as a few weeks time.
Manda: Yay. That’s beautiful. Thank you. Thank you, Rupert. Yes. Realistic paths from here to there, and a realistic and exciting vision for the future, because the political system is going to fail us. That’s what they do. But there are a lot more of us than there are of them, which is the nature of any kind of change. Is the realisation of that and then having the vision of what it is we want to head to. So I hope your trial creates what you wanted to create, that you were able to put the polluters on trial, the deniers on trial rather than yourselves. And then that COP is as good as it can be. I think you’re right; at least it’s bringing everything into focus and then we can use that as a launchpad for whatever else we need to do. So I look forward to talking to you again sometime in the future. And meanwhile, thank you so much for coming onto the Accidental Gods podcast.
Rupert: Thanks, Manda, and thanks to everyone who’s listened Through this.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Rupert as ever, for the depth of his thinking, for the clarity with which he explains it. And for his visions for the future. If you’re going to COP, please do let us know how you get on. If you’re not going to COP, please do follow Rupert on Twitter and see how he gets on with his trial. If you’re an employer who is encouraging your employees to take some kind of action to highlight the climate crisis, please do get in touch. I would love to talk to you. And if you’re an employee who is trying to change your workplace concepts and infrastructure and culture, please also get in touch. I would be really interested.
Manda: And for everybody out there, the project that we alluded to at the end, is going to be a Thrutopia writing masterclass, which we will be hosting with Accidental Gods and on which Rupert will be the first speaker. It’s not completely solid yet, but the aim is to meet at two weekly intervals on a Sunday evening UK time, which I hope will be accessible to pretty much everybody else around the world. We’ll bring in someone like Rupert to talk for half an hour on their vision of the future. Not what’s wrong,now,we all know that. But how the future could look if we get it right. Then we’ll have half an hour for questions. Then a bit of a break and then we’ll come back and have a writing masterclass, where we will work together as a group or break into small groups and breakout rooms. This will all be on Zoom. And really work with the ideas that have been generated. Two weeks later, in place of the person talking about their vision of the future, I am hoping to bring in people who can talk to us about how to get our writing out there. So we’ve already got a BBC editor, an editor from a major publishing house. I’m hoping to get self-publishing people, music editors, poetry publishers, bloggers because it doesn’t matter what kind of writing we create now. We can be creating Netflix blockbusters, movies, novels, faction, blogs, poetry, music. I don’t care if we’re just writing letters to the local parish magazine. What matters is that we create ideas of a future that we would all want to get to. And how we get there. So that we can create a body of work that is creating a new ecosystem of ideas that isn’t just The Handmaid’s Tale or some kind of wild utopia that we’re never going to get to. We need the ideas out there. So this is going to be a hybrid between a think tank and a writing masterclass. And if you’re interested, I hope to have it up on the Accidental Gods website very soon. We’re looking to start on the 1st of May, which is Beltane in the old calendar, which happens to be a Sunday and which gives us time to get it sorted and get it out there. So put it on your calendar.
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