Episode #122 Transformative Connection: Mapping the way through with Thrutopia’s originator, Rupert Read
In a world in existential crisis, deep within what Joanna Macy called The Deep Unravelling, we have a critical need for road maps to help us navigate a way forward to a future we can’t yet imagine. Rupert Read, originator of the Thrutopia concept, discusses how he came to coin the term, what it means – and, crucially, how we get there
Nobody can doubt now that we’re in the midst of the climate and ecological emergency: doom scrolling is now a national sport. But if we think about doom, that’s what we’ll get and most of us would prefer that we had a way through to a future we’d be proud to leave behind. It’s up to us to make this happen and Professor Rupert Read, with his long history of climate action through the Green Party, Extinction Rebellion and his writing, is well placed to make this happen.
He’s also the originator of the name, ‘Thrutopia’ – laying out the need for a Thrutopian genre in the Huffington Post back in 2017. As we head towards the Thrutopia Masterclass and endeavour to make this happen, Rupert and Manda discuss the need for this genre and how it might look and feel.
Manda: My guest this week is a long time friend of the podcast. Professor Rupert Reid is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. He’s an author, a blogger, and a long time climate and environmental campaigner. He’s been a media speaker for the Green Party and for Extinction Rebellion, for whom he has been in court. He’s the author of many books. He first came onto the podcast with his book, This Civilisation is Finished, and then again with Parents for a Future. And in July this year, his book, Why Climate Breakdown Matters will be coming out as part of the Why Philosophy Matters series. But today he’s here because of a paper that he published back in 2017 in Huffington Post. The full title is Thrutopia: Why Neither Dystopias Nor Utopias are Enough to Get US Through the Climate Crisis and how a Thrutopia could be. And he is therefore the progenitor, the instigator of the word Thrutopia that we have taken for our Thrutopia Master class, and that I am sincerely hoping will become the start of a new genre.
Manda: Partly because I think Rupert deserves the credit for creating the name for a new genre. But we need a new genre because we have to start imagining how to get through or we’re not going to get there. I’ve said that often enough recently and I expect the message is getting through. But ahead of the master class, which is starting in a couple of weeks. I wanted to have a conversation with Rupert really to explore where his concept originated, how it originated for him as a philosophical process, and also to really go a bit more deeply into what it means and why it matters for now. Partly to be there as a resource for people in the Thrutopia Masterclass, but also because I’m aware that there are many thousands of you out there who, for whatever reason, are not part of the master class, but that I want you to have a lot of the ideas that are generated there. If you can’t be part of the conversations, at least you can get a sense of what we are, I hope, beginning to build. So this conversation is here for both sets of people, master class people and everybody else, so that we can all start on the same foot and have that sense of how together we are going to build the movement that will change the future of humanity. How are we going to get to a point where our grandchildren or their grandchildren look back at us, us here now, today, this year and say we are only here living the lives that we lead because they had the courage and the vision to do things differently. And we are glad of where we are. We are in a place where we can get up in the mornings and the world feels like a good place and we feel connected to the earth and to the web of life. These are the criteria that we need now to build our way forward, and nothing is more important. As you’ll hear in a moment. We talk about the GOES Report and its implications in terms of timescale. And if you think that you can carry on with your world exactly as it is for very much longer, please read that paper. I will put it in the show notes. Please realise that whatever you are doing, every part of your life, you’re waking and you’re sleeping and you’re dreaming, You’re connecting to the world. Whatever you do now, needs to be 100% focussed on how we can work through. Having visions of ten years from now, where your work is the same as it is now, isn’t going to work anymore.
Manda: So with that in mind, people of the podcast, please welcome Professor Rupert Reid. So Professor Rupert Reid, Welcome back to The Accidental Gods Podcast. It’s an honour and a pleasure to be speaking to you this sunny afternoon. How are you over in Norwich?
Rupert: Well, as so often Manda, I’m doing okay, it’s just the rest of the world which isn’t so great, you know?
Manda: Yeah, yeah, yes. We’re not drinking water out of radiators, as a friend said to me recently. If that’s your baseline now, then actually, yeah, we’re. We’re doing just fine. So you and I are going to be talking about Thrutopia. You are the originator of the name that we’ve picked for the course. And also, I hope, as our civilisation transforms into whatever we get next, this will be a genre that will begin to become known in and of itself as the same way that science fiction or the appallingly named Cli-fi; Climate fiction is being called. So that when somebody says they’ve got a Thrutopian novel or a utopian television or a poem or a song or a blog, everybody knows what they’re talking about. So as a starter, I will put into the show notes the paper that you wrote in Huffington Post in 2017, which feels a very long time ago now, the world was a very different place. But can you tell us a little bit about how you came to create the word?
Rupert: Sure. And firstly, let me say it’s a lovely honour to be here and to be discussing this topic, which, like you, I think could be really quite important. Basically, I’ve been working for years on thinking about utopias and dystopias, but there’s something dissatisfying about utopias and dystopias. Utopias are dissatisfying because they are well, how can I say; utopian, usually. They don’t feel real to people. They’re not here. Dystopias, on the other hand, are dissatisfying for a slightly different reason; that if all you’ve got is a dystopia, then you don’t have much to offer. It seems to me that it’s very important to have clear, negative visions available of the future. But when there are only clear negative visions available to the future, or clear negative visions and clear, outlandishly optimistic, positive visions, then we don’t really have a realistic way of proceeding. So I was thinking, how do we get through this? How do we get to a position where we’re able to have a sort of realistic picture for how the future could be? And for me, always has been built into that has been the idea that we should aim for that future to be as good as possible. So there’s a sense in which the the germ of the hope of Thrutopia needs to remain present in any vision that we are trying to get behind for the future. And it was then that I fell to thinking about Ursula Le Guin’s incredible novel, The Dispossessed, which I do so strongly recommend to anyone who’s interested in any of the things we’re talking about here today or that you talk about on your podcast.
Rupert: And in that novel, Le Guin does something rather extraordinary, which is she tries to create a picture of a possible future in which you have one fairly dystopian planet, and then it has a moon where there is something. Well, it’s not really a utopia. It’s a lot of people who’ve tried to create utopia, but they haven’t exactly arrived at it. In particular, one of the things that Le Guin really emphasises about this kind of anarchist moon and is that the effort, the very effort to build the kind of society that people want, that in many ways is the most important thing about the place. In other words, utopia isn’t a place that you arrive at. Utopia is the effort to arrive at that place. And that is in many ways the most that we can hope for. And then it occurred to me that this was just incredibly relevant to the situation that we find ourselves in, where we have to make things as good as possible through a time and a transition and a transformation that one way or another will be coming, which will present enormous difficulties and sufferings, just like the folk in the anarchist moon in Le Guin’s story have to go through. Enormous difficulties. But if we approach it in the right way, well, that could be the making of us.
Rupert: And that could be the journey as much as the destination could be what matters, in effect, could be what matters much more. And then in a little stroke of inspiration, I thought, Well, what if we call this a Thrutopia? Getting through what is coming in such a way that we manage that process in the best possible way that we can. And that in many ways the actual undergoing of the process, although it’s going to be incredibly painful and difficult, could also be itself something positive, transformative, beautiful. And I think that’s a short explanation of how the idea of Thrutopia came about. And as you’ve so eloquently picked up on Manda in the work that you and I are starting to do. There doesn’t just have to be this one story by Le Guin. This could be an entire genre of itself; stories of how we manage to get through what is coming in as good a way as possible, and indeed in such a way that we really come to understand that it’s not about just sort of trying to get through it and get beyond it, but it’s about being present the whole time in such a way that we we get to experience the glory and the moment to moment joys, as well as the unbelievable travails that are going to be the bread and butter of the next generation or two.
Manda: Beautiful. Brilliant. Thank you. And because people are beginning to join up to Thrutopia, I’m getting emails from people going, I’m reading The Dispossessed, it’s amazing. So thank you because we’ve got it on the recommended reading. I’ve also got obviously Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which I think is for me one of the few genuinely Thrutopic in that it starts here and now in our world. It’s not a different world, it’s actually our world as it functions. And he’s tried to work a way through. My difficulty with that is that he’s broadly kept the same system and just shown how the system might tweak itself in a way that addresses fossil fuel use, but not the ecological emergency or the social emergency that the IPCC report has begun to mention. I am beyond awed, frankly, that the latest iteration of the IPCC report is saying things that you have been saying for years, but that I wasn’t ever expecting to read in an intergovernmental paper. I’m just going to read a tiny bit from the summary for policymakers.
Manda: ‘This report recognises the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity and human societies and integrates knowledge more strongly across the natural, ecological, social and economic sciences than earlier IPCC assessments. The assessment of climate change impacts and risks as well as adaptation, is set against concurrently unfolding non climatic global trends, which are biodiversity loss, overall unsustainable consumption of natural resources, land and ecosystem degradation, rapid urbanisation, human demographic shifts, social and economic inequalities and a pandemic.’.
Manda: And it feels as if the IPCC has finally stopped being a bunch of scientists, being extremely cautious, then being leant on by a bunch of policymakers being even more cautious. And have actually hired someone who knows how to write, which is a good starting point and listened to the wider network. And I’m wondering, because you are now part of the transformative adaptation sphere, have you been contacted by the people doing the IPCC? Or is it just that they happen to have picked up on what you’re talking about, do you think?
Rupert: I think there’s a zeitgeist thing going on here. I definitely agree with you about this latest IPCC report being the best yet. This report on vulnerability and adaptation, which for the first time really takes transformational adaptation seriously. As for myself, I was an expert reviewer on the report, so it had a very tiny input into it, alongside literally hundreds of other people. So yeah, the latest IPCC report is pointing in the right direction. I totally agree with you that in a slightly different way Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is also pointing in the right direction. But I continue to believe that we can do better and should do better. If I were criticising Kim Stanley Robinson’s important and helpful novel, I would say, as you’ve just said, that it doesn’t envisage profound enough change to the system. I would say that while he does not shy away, commendably, does not shy away from the very real potential this decade or the next for climate disasters, which will be off the scale from anything we’ve seen so far. And in fact, the early part of the book was so horrifying that for a long time I had to put it down. For months I put it down, which is an unusual experience for me and just couldn’t read it. I found it too overwhelmingly depressing and terrifying. I was having nightmares based on it and so on. So in that sense, the book is very realistic, but as the story develops, I think he makes it kind of too easy for himself and for his protagonists. What we’re going to have to get through is going to be consistently difficult in the kind of way that the traumatic early part of his novel is but the rest of it mostly, I would say, isn’t.
Rupert: One other thing I thought very surprising about the novel was that it has an intelligent role for things like Democratic politics, and it has an intelligent role for violence; a controversial role. But it sees no role for non-violent direct action. And I know that Stanley Robinson is sceptical of the potential for non-violent direct action. My own view is that it’s clear from what Extinction Rebellion achieved and what the school climate strikes achieved, that non-violent direct action is definitely going to be part of the picture, if we are going to get through what is coming. And I think it will be increasingly a positive part of the picture. And as you know, Manda, my own view is that if we’re going to achieve transformative adaptation at scale, it is not going to be all done by the UN and by governments. It’s also going to be done by communities and by people in workplaces and by businesses, by more enlightened businesses. And that is part of the hope, if we have one right now, which I think we still do for getting through what is coming without collapse. So yeah, I think Kim Stanley Robinson has done something really, really important with that novel. But I would love to see thrutopian novels and films and so forth which come forth and do an even better job, which would include a more realistic job and a job which takes seriously the power of the people, in a way that ironically, actually Robinson’s novel doesn’t quite do.
Manda: Yeah, he was picking up a very heavy load, I think. And the great thing, if we can begin a genre is that people can focus on different areas. And I’d like to come back to that. But before we head there, you introduced me to the GOES paper from the Rosslyn Foundation back in, I think October of last year. And for me it’s been one of the most sobering but also necessary, I think, sets of data because it’s given me a timeline. So people who are familiar with this podcast will by now have heard this before. But just in case you’ve been on Mars or are a new listener, the GOES paper Global Oceanic Environmental Survey boiled down basically says 50% of our atmospheric oxygen comes from the oceans, from phytoplankton. So plants take in CO2, give out oxygen, animals take in oxygen, give out CO2. We exist in a balance of the carbon balance and 50% of the plant life on the planet producing oxygen is in the seas. A combination of three things: falling ph, so acidity as a result of the CO2 in the air becoming carbonic acid and toxic runoff from the land, mainly from industrial agriculture, but also our delightful government that decided that water companies didn’t need to process sewage anymore because the chemicals that processed it came from Europe and they couldn’t get in. So hey, we’ll just stop worrying about that. So Britain is now surrounded by brown sludge. And microplastics. And these three together are killing the phytoplankton. And the easiest way to plot that is to look at PH.
Manda: Current PH of the oceans is 8.04. If it drops to 7.95, the phytoplankton are dead. And at the current rate, that will happen in 2045. So we have 23 years and I vividly remember, you might have done this at school, Rupert; the experiment where we learnt about weak acids and strong acids and buffers and you had a strong acid like hydrochloric sulphuric acid, and you had the weak acid which was often carbonic acid in a vat and it had a colour indicator in that when the PH dropped below a certain level it would change colour and usually it’s clear and it goes pink. And you titrate one drop at a time of the strong acid into the weak acid and nothing would happen and nothing would happen and nothing would happen. And the PH metre would be just rising quietly, but no colour indication. No, the PH metre wasn’t rising, it was saying static. And then you finally drop in that last drop and just the whole thing goes pink instantly because you’ve overwhelmed the buffering action of the weak acid. And I had completely forgotten about that. How long ago was it when I was at school? Until I read the GOES paper and thought we are basically titrating the buffering capacity of the oceans and if we do nothing to stop it, the oxygen in the air will be 50% what it is just now. And therefore, if you’re at sea level, it will be the equivalent of standing at the top of Kilimanjaro.
Manda: And if you’re anywhere above that, you know, you could be effectively on the top of Everest where people need oxygen cylinders just to walk around. And it seems to me that if our political classes had that, in a way that they were able to take it in. And I’m completely aware that their cognitive dissonance probably wouldn’t let them. But let’s pretend they did. That is the meteorite heading for the planet. That’s the Don’t Look Up moment. We have a measurable chemical process that isn’t climate people or meteorologists going well, you know, climate and weather are different. And we can’t necessarily say that this particular hurricane was created by climate change, although it’s quite likely… It’s guaranteed. And 50% oxygen? It’s going to affect everybody. Global north, global south. This isn’t about oh, well, people in the global south are going to be flooded and people in the global north basically don’t care. This is your internal combustion engine probably won’t work at 50% oxygen. We don’t know if anybody will be able to survive at that. We’ve destroyed most of the living world in terms of wildlife in our lifetimes, but we will probably take the rest out and ourselves. And I’m wondering after that long monologue, that you move in a stratosphere that I don’t, you are talking to people at political levels that I will never see. Has that paper had the impact on other people that it’s had on you and I?
Rupert: No, not very much yet, I’m afraid. The GOES report, some people are reading and paying attention to it. Word about it is spreading. It’s really good that we’re talking about it here today because that will spread a little bit further. But the spread of the word is not sufficient relative to the nature of the threat. And from my perspective, coming at this from a thoroughly precautionary perspective, that’s what this is really about. Not everyone is convinced that the GOES report is 100% accurate. There is elements that are controversial.
Manda: Oh, I’m sure the fossil fuel companies have got people they’re paying extremely large amounts of money to find that the second semicolon in the third paragraph or something page is in the wrong place. But the fundamentals of it are accurate, as far as I can tell.
Rupert: I think it’s worryingly compelling and no one has yet proved that it’s wrong. So there’s a real risk to put it in a minimal way that it may be right. And if it is right, it is absolutely terrifying and devastating. It’s another whole way in which we could destroy ourselves. I mean, I’ve been warning for years about these kinds of possibilities, including, for example, the possibility of multi breadbasket failure, basically mass starvation induced by climate disasters, etc., which I continue to believe is a real threat in the coming decades. But the GOES report suggests that there’s a sort of entirely different mechanism really, operating by way of the oceans. Which could also take us and most of the biosphere down, including, you know, all of the beloved creatures of the deep, such as whales and dolphins and so forth. It’s very, very worrying. And it certainly concentrates the mind in terms of the kind of thing we need to be doing to raise the alarm and to call urgently for alternative paths and to start to try to develop those paths ourselves. That is for sure.
Manda: I had a dream not long after I’d read that paper where I was explaining to the Queen quite why it was so important that we preserve sperm whales. So I’m a Scot. I am looking forward to Scottish independence very hard and I’m not particularly fond of the royal family. So let’s assume the Queen is a cipher for distant authority figures. But I was remembering when I read the GOES Report, a conversation with an oceanographer. And his book, which explained that sperm whales have the capacity, they swim along the surface and they can dive very, very, very, very, very deep. And they scoop up huge amounts of stuff from the ocean floor. And then they come back up and don’t get the bends because they’re sperm whales and they’re full of stuff in their head and they spit this stuff out. And that actually that cycle is what keeps the thermo healing elevator going, which is what means the Gulf Stream keeps moving. If we kill all the whales, no more Gulf Stream. Which also means that Britain ends up with the same climate as Norway, again overnight. And we’re not really adapted to that. Those of us living in Britain.
Rupert: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, the Gulf Stream has weakened by 15%. If it weakens by 30 or 40%, it will start to massively affect our weather here in the UK. We’re learning these incredible things about whales and dolphins and about the creatures of the sea more generally. You’ve just mentioned one. Another is that it appears that cetaceans have a quite substantial role in carbon sequestration as their dead bodies sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Manda: Oh, really? Wow.
Rupert: But the most amazing is that there is evidence now, that the damage from overfishing to the carbon cycle may be as great as the damage from burning fossil fuels.
Manda: Oh, my goodness.
Rupert: Absolutely. Humongously vast. So much bigger than people had realised. This is relevant of course to Seaspiracy and other stuff that people have been talking about. But still, the oceans don’t get enough of a crack of the whip really, in terms of our attention here. Partly because we can’t see through water to the bottom and we don’t live there, you know, very simple things like that. In terms of the GOES report, by the way, Manda, what you said a few minutes ago, you brought out one very significant aspect of it, which is the oxygen depletion. But there are other equally significant aspects of it in terms of the potentially devastating nature of the threat to us posed by ocean decline. The aspect which I’m most concerned by is the way that if we don’t start to change this situation and and help the these plankton, then it could, it’s very likely to lead to a very significant increase in global overheating. Because basically the oceans have been absorbing a lot of the heat and absorbing a lot of a lot of the carbon, but that will not continue if we destroy the ocean ecosystems.
Rupert: The ocean will not continue absorbing that heat absorbing that carbon. And suddenly there’ll be… The amount of overheating there’s already been is huge, but we only feel a small percentage of it on the land because most of it is harnessed, as it were, or or taken care of by the ocean. But that would cease in the situation that the GOES report describes. So yeah the oceans; it’s very, very concerning. And yeah, I mean it can’t be stressed strongly enough really, I think. How we need to have a more multi-pronged approach to the hazards facing us. It’s not enough to focus on fossil fuel burning alone. We have to look seriously at the food system on land. We have to look much more seriously at taking care of the oceans. And of course we have to adapt, which is what this latest UN report, really the IPCC report was about. And we have to find ways of trying to create rapid change at scale in the ways that the thrutopia project you’re trying to undertake might help to make imaginable.
Manda: I hope so. Thank you. Good Segway. You should be doing this for a living. So. Yes. So we’ve given people the reason to be quite afraid. But neuro physiology, neuropsychology, all of the neurosciences tell us that when we’re afraid, our creativity shuts down. Because once our sympathetic systems are in overload, we’re hardwired to run away from the threat. Or whatever is our response, the whole of all of the F’s, which also include freeze and feint and fiddle about and women tend to go into please and appease. And pleasing and appeasing a climate catastrophe is not a particularly useful or survivable strategy.
Manda: So what I am hoping also to do with Thrutopia. The main thing about Thrutopia, is not only to pull us out of our tendency for all of our global narrative to be the continuation of the current system until it falls apart because we can’t imagine anything else. It is actually easier to imagine the end of the human race than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. We need the visions. And I’m hoping with the visions that we can move people to a place where the creativity fires up again. Because the more afraid we become, the less creativity we have, the less chance we have of finding a future that isn’t utterly catastrophic and and fatal to everybody. And I was talking on the previous podcast to this one with a couple of young men in Derby who are creating something called Down to Earth Derby, which is does what it says on the tin. They have set up a whole community movement, which is now 6000 people, and they have the strategies in place to move it to 60,000, 600,000. Derby itself has 250,000. So, you know, they’re looking big. Of helping people to reconnect with land, with food growing, with going out into the peak district, which is obviously on their doorstep. With the whole spiritual connection to the land. And it’s the first time really in two and a half years of running this podcast, that I’ve felt that somebody is working from the ground up and they’ve gradually come to understand the power of community. Rather than starting with the power of community and trying to make it happen. The person who started it just wanted to help people feel how he felt, when he had his hands in the soil. And so I’m really interested in exploring… You said non-violent direct action is going to be one of the threads. And I am wondering whether that applies? I’m not suggesting that it definitely doesn’t. But in my own writing, I’m looking at how to write a thrutopia, how to write walking forward. We in the UK particularly now live in a circumstance where you can get ten years for causing a nuisance. So non-violent direct action is pretty much by definition causing a nuisance or it’s not going to be noticed. I wonder, are there other ways of creating the momentum that we need to bypass the current political process?
Manda: And so there’s two parts to that. First, I’m assuming that you agree that we need to bypass the current political process, because it is no longer fit for purpose, but we can’t necessarily overturn it non-violently. And then, if that is the case, what are the strategies that we have at our disposal today, In the UK, that would work?
Rupert: Yeah. Super question. So let me try to take it sequentially. Firstly, let me register a slight disagreement. I’m not with the general dissing of fear. I think that fear is there for a good reason. And I think that we need to be ready to harness all of the emotions, including the difficult, so called negative emotions like fear and like anger. I think it’s self evident that grief is going to be part of what gets us through what’s coming, if anything, does. I’ve written about all this, by the way, in my new book, Why Climate Breakdown Matters, which is out with Bloomsbury in July. And there I make the argument that we need all of these emotions and what we need is not to get stuck in them, but to feel them and allow them to power us. And I believe that when we really do that, then we’re capable of things far greater than anything that has yet been seen. I think even the stupendous achievements relative to what went before of Greta and of XR are probably going to be just the start of far, far greater upsurgings of authentic, emotionally powered descent, passion and creative action. And some of that, I think, will probably take the form of of something like an eco spirituality or earth spirituality, which you sort of alluded to in your question there, Manda, in relation to this fellow who founded Down to Earth Derby, which sounds brilliant. I haven’t heard of it. I’ll have to look into it.
Rupert: Now, let me try and say a bit more about the form that might be taken by this. I think that there will without any doubt be a role for new radical flanks. We might be starting to see one now in the UK with Just Stop Oil, which might turn out to be very well timed in relation to what’s happening in Ukraine, because obviously this is a vital kind of pivot moment where we could choose to exit from a fossil future or we could double down on fossil fuels. I think it’s entirely possible that, as Kim Stanley Robinson envisages and as Andreas Malm has been arguing for, there will be violent versions of the radical flank also coming in the next few years. I’m not going to make any comment as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. My own view is that there is a very great weight historically and in terms of philosophy and ethics behind non-violence. I come myself from a very strong tradition of non-violence in in Quakerism and elsewhere. I’m simply saying that the situation is so desperate that it’s entirely possible that there will be violent movements taking forth in the years to come.
Rupert: Right now, I think that isn’t going to happen. And it’s people who are, like Malm, calling for sabotage, etc., are probably mostly pressing up against a closed door. And my view actually, and this may be similar to your view, is that the great opportunity right now, the real opportunity that hasn’t been fully exploited yet, is for what I call the moderate flank. A new mass distributed moderate flank of people seeking to create the kind of changes that we needed; that we need, not just needed, we need them now! In the workplace, in business, in geographic communities, everywhere, basically. In the face of climate reality and in the face of the terrible failure of governments to step up to the plate sufficiently. Now, a lot of what occurs, and it sounds like Down to Earth Derby would count very much for me as part of this new emerging moderate flank. A lot of what occurs in the moderate flank is not going to be incredibly glamorous and it’s not going to be necessarily very media genic, that won’t necessarily be its point or its purport. Unlike, for example, a lot of what XR did. That makes it challenging to get people to notice and to write about, but it also makes it all the more important to do so.
Rupert: So it seems to me that one of the big challenges for our potential Thrutopian writers and screenwriters, editors, etc., is to really think and imagine the moderate flank and not just radical flanks. There’s something very glamorous about violence. There’s something very glamorous in a different way about the kind of non-violent direct action that we executed through Extinction Rebellion. The mass moderate flank; getting millions of people active, from the ground up in changing their communities and changing their workplaces and making sure there is a post-COVID dividend and making sure that we respond in an intelligent way to the Ukraine crisis. Going much further than the government, certainly in this country is willing to go. Obviously, some of the European countries, like Germany, for example, are pushing more strongly in the right direction on this. That kind of mass moderate flank is challenging to make sexy or even to make fully comprehensible or visible. But as I say, that makes it all the more important that we do so. So that’s a little gentle gauntlet that I’d love to throw down to the thrutopians, the budding thrutopians out there and invite them to pick it up.
Rupert: Can you write a story, can you write an account of how we get from here to there, in the next generation or two, where there is not everything being fine because everything is not going to be fine, but where there is, where we get to survive and in some ways flourish and get to really value and experience the awesome gift of being the generation who can make the kind of existential decision of Shall we stay or shall we go? I want to invite those potential thrutopian writers to think a mass moderate flank. To think in the UK context, for example, what it would look like for millions of people to do the kind of thing that Down to Earth Derby or Lawyers for Net Zero, or the climate emergency centres or Transformative Adaptation or Wild Card or Mothership. All these emerging moderate flank organisations. To show how those kinds of organisations, those groups of people working together at scale, could actually get us through what is coming. That, I think is a really important artistic and imaginative task.
Rupert: Because apart from anything else, Manda, you see, what is crucial, it seems to me, is that people get to be able to see that this is possible. That getting through what’s coming is possible, and that they are part of something much bigger in trying to make that happen. I believe that the reason why this moderate flank is not already a lot larger, that possibly the most important reason, is that a lot of people don’t quite know what to do and feel discouraged and are not sure that there is enough other people like them. So the more people get to understand, actually this is starting to happen at scale in all sorts of unlikely places. I mentioned Lawyers for Net Zero, for example, trying to get the law to actually embrace climate sanity. And the average person’s view of the law and lawyers in particular, is probably not an entirely positive one; but that’s an organisation and there are others which is really genuinely, I think, pointing in the right direction. If people understood that more and the more it becomes visible and the more it becomes imaginable, well, the more it’s able to take shape. So you get a virtuous circle starting to starting to develop. So in that sense, it seems to me that the imagination of this and the understanding of it as a possibility is actually hugely important.
Manda: Yes. Yes. You’ve just defined really the reason why we’re trying to get this thrutopian genre off the ground, because if we don’t give people a sense that other people are doing this, and I think the key thing and I would need to look more into Wild Card and Mothership and some of the organisations you suggested, but everything at the moment is working within the current system. It’s particularly working within the current economic system and capitalism is the problem. And this is one of the issues that I had with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the future is it it didn’t even begin to address capitalism as a problem. It just introduced carbon credits as a way of capitalism, greenwashing itself. And so I’m really interested, I think you’re right; we need to, first of all, create such a breadth and depth of stories that are utterly engaging, that television producers, Netflix, Amazon, Apple are all going to want to make these. The fact that Don’t Look Up was the most watched film of Netflix ever is really interesting, but it didn’t provide answers because what it was doing was laughing at the people who didn’t want to look up and going, hey, we were right they’re wrong. Which is, every bit of neuropsychology that we understand is that’s a really quick way to alienate people and alienating people is not going to help. I’m, as you know, a huge fan of Schmachtenberger and the Consilience Project. And one of their core theses is that if we are spinning our wheels against each other, creating the friction of I’m right, you’re wrong; and if I say the GOES paper is right and the oceans are acidifying and it’s going to be a catastrophe, then by definition, somebody on the other side of the political spectrum has to say, Well, that’s obviously not happening and you’re wrong, then that’s how we end up extinct.
Manda: Because human creativity is amazing, but if we’re using our creativity to clash against each other, it’s a disaster. So we need to create these utterly engaging stories, first of all, to show people that there is agency they can take, that other people are taking the agency in large numbers. And I think to provide some kind of sense of a future that you would want to get to, which isn’t an expansion of the present. I asked the Down to Earth Derby people what does it look like in ten years time? And one of them said, It feels good to be here. We’re happy and healthy and proud to bring up our kids in this city. And that felt to me like it’s not defining how we get there, but it’s a defining how we want to feel in the mid 2030s. And one of the really crucial things seems to me. Is how do we get the media on board? Because currently the media is hugely invested in outrage, because outrage sells. This is the whole attention economy and the race to the bottom of the brain stem. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the legacy media of television and the newspapers or the more modern social media. If everybody is racing for our attention and the posts that create the most outrage, generate the most attention, or the headlines that generate the most outrage generate the most attention, then outrage is the currency. And the moderate mainstream by definition is not creating outrage, it’s creating community. Have you any sense of how we would get the BBC, for instance, to decide to create an entire month that was given over to stories of the moderate movement, the moderate flank?
Rupert: Lovely question. First, let me say, I agree with you, by the way you began the question I think is very important. That’s the importance of transformative adaptation. That’s what climate emergency centres, for example, are trying to do, is to try to kind of seed the possibility for that kind of change, including eventually and in the process, a kind of change in way of life. Now, how do we get the media to take any of this seriously and to see it as something which actually has potentially, at least and to an increasing extent, actually significant mass by in: that there are many, many people who want to engage in these kinds of activities, who want to ask these kinds of questions, who want to challenge these aspects of the way that we live and want to stop racing to the bottom and who want us to look up. So one tiny straw in the wind. I myself am working a bit in this area now. I’m talking with someone who has the ear of the BBC and is trying to do some of this in terms of sort of drama, documentary type formats. And I think there is a sense and Don’t Look Up has been really a massive catalyst here. There is a sense that in organisations like the BBC and Channel four, there are opportunities for this kind of thing now where they weren’t before. Not to mention Netflix and so forth. I think that the key thing really is for us to try and for us to try to push on these doors, which may be openable, where even six months ago they were closed.
Manda: Excellent. Do remember that we have a film script ready to go, if your BBC contacts are ever interested? And it’s predicated on a global food shortage actually, because that… There’s so many areas and in bringing thrutopia together, we only had 13 slots trying to decide which of the many, many aspects we could bring in. Because I’m thinking, writing my own thrutopia, we have to change the political system. And it’s not designed to be, as everyone said, if voting would change things they wouldn’t let you do it. So we are then going to have to create, I think, a parallel political system which says if you want your old very broken, not fit for purpose system to still keep going, that’s completely fine. But basically we’re going to ignore it and we’re going to create our own system, which is regenerative by design, which brings in all of the most advanced social technologies that we’ve got. And Taiwan is a brilliant thought leader in all of this; the things that they’re doing with their systems that create cooperation instead of division.
Rupert: And Chile as well.
Manda: Are they? Are Chile doing it, too? Yeah, there’s so much stuff. This is the thing. Is getting to know that these things are happening around the world. I’m wondering… Thinking that we would need to set up our own media station, actually. What we need is somebody with really quite large amounts of money to not mind putting large amounts of money into creating a new media station. And the interesting paradox I’m finding with that is the first thing this media station has to do is dismantle capitalism. Which means that the large amounts of money this person has put into the media station are going into finding ways to make those large amounts of money worthless. This would have to be somebody either dead or really gets it, to be prepared to do that. In all of the work that you’re doing, are you coming across people who are modelling an alternative economic system that is not predicated on creating inequality and that would work?
Rupert: Oh, that’s a big question. Let me start out with the aspect of it to do with do we have any of these kinds of friendly billionaires? I’m not really sure we do yet. But here’s the thing: it would only take a tiny handful of them. So a very, very small number of people, literally like one or two or three if we were able to get to them in the right way. So imagine that the Koch brothers had been eco freaks instead of the horrendous climate denying, massively inegalitarian type people that they really were. Well, the history of America, especially, and to some extent in the world in the last 20 years, would have been somewhat different. Probably. Very probably. So if we could just get to a few such people, there are now tech billionaire types who are sort of trying to kind of think in the right direction. But the problem is that they tend to come up with tech utopian solutions, which is not in my belief and yours, I think what we’re really after here.
Manda: No. Really not.
Rupert: So, you know, we’re on a sticky wicket. It’s very, very challenging. And the challenge of changing the system, you know, can there be a more massive challenge than that? That, by the way, and this may seem paradoxical to people, but that, by the way, is part of the rationale for my moderate flank strategy. It seems to me that it’s impossible at the end of the day, for a radical flank, be that non-violent or violent to triumph in this sphere. Because what we are trying to do is to create some kind of system change, and that is going to require mass buy in. We’re not talking about a revolution, for example, where you just replace one group of people at the top with another group of people. We’re talking about gradually and then systematically transforming as we adapt to what’s coming. It’s going to require change from everybody. You don’t get that without a significant degree of buy in. So you’re going to need a movement with a significant degree of buy-in in order to get it. So relative to what we’ve had, it seems to me that rather than looking for more and more radical flanks, the way to go is a moderate flank, which is unstinting in its diagnosis of the profundity of the crisis, but that looks to resolve that primarily through bottom up led change, which will most of the time probably be legal. And that will be attractive to getting even wider buy in as it proceeds. So really, that’s the best I’ve got by way of an answer. That if we’re going to get something like transformative adaptation happening, it’s going to require a lot more people to get involved than we so far have. It would be very handy if a few of those people were incredibly rich, but we can’t hang around waiting for those people. We’ve got to get on with it.
Manda: Well done. And I am fully aware that we have to stop now, which is really sad because I had lots of answers to that, starting with: I don’t think gradual and systematic is going to cut it because we have ten years. So I think we need a degree of radicalism, but I think it it needs to be a very different radicalism than what we’ve seen already. It needs to be a radical mass movement. But I think that what we’re seeing with Ukraine and the response to Ukraine and the utter inability of those in power to have the imagination to do anything other than just restart fracking and open coal mines, will be enough. If we can give a vision of, okay, guys, you want to do something, here is something you can do, I think that movement will arise. And that it doesn’t have to be gradual and systematic. I think if we give a solid vision and show people the actual steps to get there, I think we can do it. I hope so.
Rupert: Yeah. Just very briefly, my point was, when you need system change, you need to have a very wide degree of buy in. So my concern is that that it’s challenging to see how you’re going to get a radical flank type movement, which has a wide enough degree of buy in. But you’re right. We could we could debate this and at the end of the day, we probably need everything. My key point would be if there are thrutopians out there, don’t spend all your time writing about sexy radicals because they may not be the only ones to make the change that we need.
Manda: No, but write the visions of where it is we’re going and how we got there. And then the rest all fits into place. Everybody will write what arises from their own heart space, I think.
Rupert: And it all begins from telling the truth. It all begins from authentically facing where we are.
Manda: Yes, beautiful and wonderful. Professor Rupert Reid, you are an inspiration and it’s a pleasure to speak to you always. I hope you have a wonderful time in Plum Village. You’re going to go and teach a course on…
Rupert: Yeah. So I’m doing a residency on eco spirituality, not actually in Plum Village but nearby, and will probably be visiting. Its origins are in engaged Buddhism and yeah so that’s very exciting. I’m off to France to that.
Manda: Yeah. So a little bit before this podcast goes out, but then you’ll be back to talk to us towards the end of the thrutopian course and we’ll be able to have a look and wrap up and see have we got people doing creating the moderate flank and making it exciting as you want. Thank you so much for yet again coming back on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Rupert: Thank you, Manda. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Manda: And there we go. That’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Rupert. He’s one of the clearest thinkers in this field that I know, and it’s always immensely stimulating to speak with him. There are always so many threads that we could follow. I really wanted to follow the concept of fear. My own work with the land here has got me to a place where when I fall in to existential crisis, which happens a lot, I got about an hour’s sleep last night because I woke up in the middle of the night and remembered that the government was planning to restart fracking. But I get to the point quite quickly where I don’t think my adding to the weight of fear in the world is useful. And I have a personal feeling which you do not have to share, that there are two sets of energies in the world and one feeds on fear and one feeds on compassion and love and generosity and decency and integrity and all the things that are not fear. And that part of my job is to feed the not fear side, to feed the compassion and the generosity and the gratitude. And even when I am lying in the night in existential terror, I need to find the capacity to flip the switch to not being in that. Because my fear is not useful.
Manda: And my capacity to create a vision of a future that will actually work depends on my not being locked in that. So Rupert clearly disagrees. I was just having my say and you clearly are free to be wherever you want on that spectrum. I’m not suggesting that I am necessarily right. I’m just telling you where I am. So anyway, that’s where we are. Thrutopia opens on May the first. At the point of recording, there are still some places; if you’re interested come and find us at thrutopia.life and otherwise we will be back next week with another conversation.
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