“…there’s a very real possibility that the latter part of the lives of most of you in this room will be grim or non-existent.”
It wasn’t exactly the Baz Luhrmann-style address many of the first year students starting their incredible adventure of a university education in 2016 were expecting.
Some laughed, nervously. Others looked confused. Some looked worried, as well they should.
While I went on to infuse my introductory address with elements of active hope, I felt it was my duty to tell my philosophy ‘freshers’ the truth about the climate emergency already upon us and explain why it was up to all of us, no matter what our area of study, to think deeply about this defining, wicked problem and address it in every possible way, including philosophically.
And the gamble paid off; many students came up to speak to me afterward, some saying things such as: “This feels like the first time that an adult has ever levelled with me about this.”
This happened over four years ago, which seems a relatively short time, but back then my address was still seen as a fairly shock approach – or as I see it, a damning indictment of our academic institutions’ unwillingness typically to face, let alone proactively work to prevent, the multiplying climate and ecological disasters we are in the midst of, which will likely mean the end of this civilisation. Now it would be a bit less surprising; but I think our institutions have a very long way to go still before they catch up with where they – we – need to be. Bearing in mind that the only question our children will insist upon asking us, a generation from now is: what did you do to raise awareness and to act, while there was still time to head off eco-nemesis?
It’s hardly surprising for a number of reasons, including inertia, hyper-specialisation (and thus a lack typically of system-thinking or of ‘force-multiplying’ threats), grant-chasing and an unwillingness to be (seen to be) controversial but: in this regard, UK Universities are not particularly radical institutions.
Universities do not deny the seriousness of anthropogenic dangerous climate change directly, but they are often complicit through its near-absence across much of the curriculum. This is partly born of a fear of ‘politicizing’ the problem. Yet unless we are willing to address the profoundly political and ethical questions raised by dangerous anthropogenic climate change, we have no hope of avoiding worst-case scenarios or of adapting transformatively to already locked-in harms.
In particular, there is an almost total avoidance of realism about climate breakdown and the risk of eco-driven societal collapse, in our universities. Instead, the assumption is typically that we are going to make it with our systems basically intact. This is pathological.
I have tried to use my position to make sure that the very real risk of eco-induced societal breakdown plays a big role in the philosophy programs that the University of East Anglia offers.
I am lucky to have several colleagues who are involved in green campaigning and politics or who are at least open to climate reality. Nevertheless, the sad fact is that climate breakdown etc. does not feature prominently or even at all on many courses. When this is the case, universities fail to offer a proper education to their students, which in turn fails society as a whole.
Climate breakdown and eco-precariousness should be the lens through which most courses are taught. After all, as I made clear in my speech to those new students, the effects of these will invariably shape the world that our graduates will inherit. And may end it.
That’s why I believe we all need to start becoming crusading scholars – no exceptions.
I want students to approach my classes not only ready to be challenged but also ready to issue challenges because my generation (and others) has badly let them (and the planet) down.
I tell them there is a lot of philosophical work to be done in conceptualizing what a more resilient civilization looks like. Questions of how, and to what extent, we ought to localize production are key. This might not sound like philosophy, but it is: it is about questioning, for instance, the widespread assumption, typical among university lecturers (who until recently tended to spend much of their time jetting off to conferences around the world) that cosmopolitan globalism is desirable. It’s also about considering seriously the virtues of indigenous wisdom.
Consider questions too of how we can even now preserve the most attractive elements of our current civilization. There are elements of intercultural exchange that globalization has facilitated that are worth preserving. And political and civil liberties. An important philosophical task going forward will be envisaging and articulating a plan for transformative and deep adaptation that doesn’t turn its back on these unless there is no alternative. This is a profoundly philosophical investigation into what we value and how to square those values with ecological reality.
In addition to this, we need to challenge and overhaul dominant ideologies that have facilitated our civilization’s terminal decline. Some of these are familiar targets: i.e our relationship toward consumption and materialism.
However, clearly these consumerist and consumptive behavior patterns don’t appear out of nowhere. Consider how almost every government in the world prioritizes economic growth as its key policy objective. Ecologists have, for a long time, pointed out that the pursuit of endless economic growth is prima facie incompatible with the finitude of our planet. Thus, the system of industrialized growth capitalism is almost certain to be incompatible with maintaining a habitable planet. We need therefore to do philosophical work in challenging the ideology of growthism. An ugly word – for an ugly ideology.
The impact agenda has been a good thing inasmuch as it enables crusading scholars like myself to finally get some credit for the crusading part and not just the scholarship part. But a scandal of the impact agenda is that built into the definition of impact, as one way in which impact can be proven and rewarded, is: increasing GDP. This begs the question against those of us who are fighting the long and painful battle to get post-growthism recognised as the most elementary sanity. So long as academics are rewarded for growing GDP, how can we expect that universities will be places where the increasingly dire and urgent need to stop pursuing GDP-growth-targets can be taken seriously? The definition of impact ought to be changed, to make it more ‘neutral’ in this regard, and to facilitate directly its facilitation of planetary and human well-being.
When confronted with the ecological realities of our economic activity, many people presume that new technologies will play a near-messianic role in fixing our ecological predicament. Increasingly absurd fantasies abound from both left and right wing commentators. I lack the space to go into depth here, but universities ought to be instrumental in investigating more whether this is, as I argue, a recklessly inadequate survival strategy. Even if technology might play a big role here, is it worth staking our planetary survival on the assumption that we’ll invent something truly unprecedented? I think not. Thus, another ideology that needs challenging is technophilia.
Philosophy is useful for interrogating these value systems and shedding light on the extent to which they are driving climate and ecological collapse. If we are going to avoid terminal ecological decline, then we will need to disavow some of these pervasive and unquestionable ideologies.
Let me mention in this context an ideology which has very wide sway in universities, as in the broader society: scientism, and ‘evidence-based-ism’. Scientism is the ideological insistence that the only valid method of acquiring knowledge is science, and the insistence on being ‘evidence-based’ is the most powerful and widespread instance of scientism today.
Scientism and evidence-based-ism are fairly hegemonic in our society and our universities. This hegemony tends if anything to be reinforced by the criticism of science and the positing of ‘alt-facts’ by the hard Right. Because such criticism and such positings have in most quarters a very poor reputation: the Covid crisis has taught most of us that we haven’t had enough of experts; in fact, we haven’t had enough of them.
So what do I mean by suggesting that these ideologies are problematic? They are problematic insofar as they drive out alternatives that may have much to teach us (e.g. indigenous knowledges and indeed peasant knowledges). They are problematic insofar as they drive out wisdom and make it seem as though science is the only game in town. Above all, they are problematic insofar as they suppress the importance of precaution and of ethics.
In relation to Covid once again, for instance, the insistence upon being ‘evidence-based’ risked delaying the entire rapid mobilisation of precautionary policies; because in the early stages of the pandemic there was little evidence to go on. The insistence upon being ‘evidence-based’ is obviously superior to being based on ignorance or prejudice; but it can be inferior to being based in the Precautionary Principle. It can indeed be used, and has been, by scientists working for corporations, to delay sensible needful action likely to protect the broader populace. Saying that ‘more research is needed’ is fine when it comes to (say) figuring out whether there is life on Titan. It is not fine, when it is an excuse for prevarication against the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides, or against swift pre-emptive closings of borders when a novel pathogen emerges.
The bottom-line is that the academy is not yet taking nearly seriously enough how much science, in the Anthropocene, is now ‘post-normal’. In post-normal contexts, being narrowly evidence-based is woefully inadequate; one needs instead to take precaution, ethics and indeed politics seriously. It is scientistic and plain inadequate not to do so.
What I’ve offered in this piece are just some examples from my own teaching and research but what I would like to see – and what needs to happen – is all curriculums reimagined with these kinds of issues in mind no matter whether it be music, medicine or media.
And there is a thirst for this. A study by the University of Winchester showed that although 54% of students see climate breakdown as a big or the biggest threat to the UK, less than half (46%) rated universities as doing a good job of addressing it.
The report states: “For too long, barriers have existed between subjects, limiting the potential for transdisciplinary research and teaching. Leaving science to scientists, engineering to engineers, and finance to economists is the wrong approach. Any scientific challenge is also social and economic one – no subject is a silo. Taking that approach restricts the potential to deliver change, innovation, and the bold solutions needed to meet global challenges. We need to take bold steps to developing a trans-disciplinary approach to what we do.”
I agree. These steps need to be taken now, not at some distant point in the future. We have already wasted too much time, wasted the minds of too many students.
Of course, being a crusading scholar can’t be confined to the classroom. How universities operate is often also unsustainable. One example crucial to consider is the elephant in the room for many – foreign student policy.
It is impossible to be part of an eco-vanguard, aiming to preserve complex life on Earth, while also supporting the carbon-heavy strategy of courting students from overseas.
We have learned many things from the coronavirus pandemic including that air travel can have very serious collateral damage (jetplanes are the real global superspreaders); and that there are many different ways things can be done.
Alternative transport is one, but also delivering lectures online and holding virtual meetings should become the norm, where it is an alternative to air-travel (and not just for students but all of us) – not something that happens as a last resort in a time of crisis.
All of these things should not be something we do only do because it somehow enhances our university’s reputation and – as we compete more and more for students – somehow gives us an edge. But the race to be a more genuinely ‘green’ institution is on, and that is a good thing. Add to it promising developments such as the Science Oath for Climate, featured previously here at Scientists’ Warning, and we are starting to develop the kind of momentum we need.
The best place to start the race, possibly the only place to start, is with you. Ask yourself, which of these initiatives you will join, what will be your crusade; what will you be able to tell your students and your children that you did, during the climate war.
More from Rupert Read
Recently Dr. Alison Green interviewed Rupert Read on ScientistsWarning.TV. In this video discussion, Alison talks with Rupert about how he came to be an environmental advocate and activist, the ongoing climate and ecological emergency, and the culpability of Universities in allowing this systemic unsustainability to emerge? And how can this existential threat be dealt with if academic institutions are not firmly in the vanguard?
 You can read my full speech here: https://medium.com/@GreenRupertRead/why-i-had-to-tell-my-students-that-i-fear-for-them-64bf1625b878#.lo005euss
 See my “The precautionary principle under fire”, co-authored with Tim O’Riordan, in Environment https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00139157.2017.1350005 .
 Thanks to Tara Greaves for help researching this piece.