books sustainability

This civilisation is finished, by Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander

Samuel Alexander is an Australian writer, lecturer on the environment and an advocate of simple living. Rupert Read is a philosopher, Green Party candidate and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion. This short book is a dialogue between the two. It takes in climate chaos, civilisational collapse, civil disobedience and the delusions of technology, among many other things.

It’s a wide-ranging and erudite conversation, written in opening questions and responses. What really marks it out is the “uncompromised honesty” that characterises their debate. They commit to saying what they honestly think, not what is popular or necessary or politically expedient. There is no pretence, no self-censoring to keep things optimistic. Hence the opening chapter, which is titled ‘gazing into the abyss’.

The title of the book is similarly gloomy, but there’s a specific meaning to it. It is ‘industrial growth society’ that is finished, and Read argues that one of three things is going to happen:

  • Civilisation could terminally collapse, through financial, ecological or political crisis, possibly a combination of several factors.
  • Civilisation could collapse but seed a successor in the process, perhaps a greener and fairer outcome on the other side of the devastation.
  • Civilisation may still “transform itself deliberately, radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.”

In all three of those scenarios, our present growth obsessed industrial consumerism is finished. It is unsustainable in its most literal definition, and has no future. That in itself is counter-cultural, since mainstream politics proceeds in denial of the problem, and almost all environmentalism is conducted with point three as its central assumption.

Academic debate about the possibility of collapse is very rare, and it shouldn’t be – as things stand, we are headed for four degrees of warming. That level of chaos would overwhelm our systems and institutions, and there would be unimaginable human suffering. We need to acknowledge this, because that is where the world is going unless we change direction. It’s why Extinction Rebellion’s first demand is to ‘tell the truth’.

That honesty doesn’t imply fear-mongering. As Rupert Read says, “I’m not an alarmist. I’m raising the alarm.” Neither does it mean we’re all doomed and there’s nothing we can do. “If we assume that we are doomed, then we definitely will be doomed.” Taking the time to consider the extent of the climate risk we face ought to sharpen our response. It should prompt us to look at ‘deep adaptation’ to climate change as well as doing what we can to prevent it. And it can psychologically prepare us for what is unfolding.

This civilization is finished is available as a pay-what-you-like ebook from the Simplicity Institute, or you can pick up a hard copy in the usual places.


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