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Negotiating the Space Between Apocalypse and Victory

Rupert Read from Extinction Rebellion warns of the false hope of Green Revolution but argues the Coronavirus crisis has revealed our vulnerability and made a kind of restoration possible

Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) – Wikimedia

Negotiating the Space Between Apocalypse and Victory

Rupert Read from Extinction Rebellion warns of the false hope of Green Revolution but argues the Coronavirus crisis has revealed our vulnerability and made a kind of restoration possible

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I want to put to you something uncomfortable but true. And truth is non-negotiable; try negotiating with the atmosphere, or with a virus, and you won’t get very far. This is why Extinction Rebellion’s first demand is to tell the truth. And truth-telling begins at home.

At this historic moment of #reset, as humanity starts to emerge from the shock of the epochal COVID-19 crisis, it is tempting to pretend that everything can now be okay if (say) we win a Green New Deal.  But we are merely dreaming if we think that way. 

This IS a moment of reset, it must be embraced and made the most of. But the world is a complex place, a slow supertanker indeed to turn, and the supposition that, all over the world, just like that, the ideology of growthism and the practice of neoliberal capitalism is going to vanish is childish. Instead, it is going to be a horribly hard struggle; and in your heart, you know that we are not going to win it outright.

You cannot rely on the likes of Extinction Rebellion to save the day for you. Instead, what is needed now is that spirit of true mutuality that has been so splendidly visible these last months, during the corona crisis. We need a million rebels to be in it together with us. 

Those of you who may be close to getting on board with us, I will be straight with you – we’re not going to pull off some kind of total magical victory. Join us rather in the real, epochal struggle for life.

For there is a huge span between total defeat (eco-driven societal collapse, which is coming if the reset from the Coronavirus is not as wise as in practical terms it can be) and the victory that, to date, most of us have still been harbouring desperate hopes of. It’s that span that the Coronavirus crisis opens up. That space: of potential flourishing and resilient strength, even as we have to adapt to a world whose ecology will, on balance, be continuing – for a fairly long time to come, whatever we do – to worsen.

Only if you, our fellow citizens, potential activists and allies, see such honesty and have the courage to admit your fears and stand up and be counted in a way that can make a difference, will there be hope. 

What I’ve been outlining is what I’m seeing and feeling. How about you? Do you feel me, here?

When I contemplate the truth that it is time to give up the hopes I’d cherished all my adult life for us to win, I feel sadness: an enduring grief. We are at the moment of our last chance. It’s a last chance for something decidedly imperfect. And as a society — as a species — we’ll still probably blow it; we’ll probably waste it, and then be committed to collapsing. Put all that together and it is really sad, really hard to face.

Owning up to it, I feel the same kind of nervousness and loneliness that I did three years ago when I started saying publicly that this civilisation is coming to an end. I was horribly worried then that I would be called out as a defeatist, a traitor, and that indeed the actual real-world effect of my truth-telling would quite likely be to demoralise the very activists who most need bucking up. But it turned out my worries were misplaced.

The calling-out I feared hardly ever happened; instead, there was a real resonating to my message. And that segued right into the launch and growth of Extinction Rebellion, as one stream among the flood. It turned out that, far from condemning myself to a lonely isolation, I had found my gang. And it was soon massive, and changing the world.

So I’m seeking to trust now, as I did then. To trust that this new version of my message too will find its resonance. Trusting in what my spirit knows: that our only chance at seizing this last chance is if we remain honest, however hard that be. We will only be big enough to rise up to the challenge if we can dare to name the challenge clearly.

And the nature of the challenge is: not to pretend that a so-called green industrial revolution would save us, nor to pretend that anything like that is now going to happen everywhere, but rather to stay with the trouble, to seek for us truly to flourish as best we can in the declining conditions that will encompass us. To adapt, to transform; at the same time; this is the best way to mitigate the horror of what is otherwise in train for us. To live in truth: the truth about how wonderful we can be that the corona crisis has revealed to us, reminded us of. And the truth that it is a delusional dreamland to think that all humanity is going to shift phase into being that wonderful all the time from now on.

The Coronavirus has taught us to feel our vulnerability. Amidst its horror, that is an incalculable gift. We squander it if we race off into fantasies of new invulnerability. And the dream of achieving safety for humanity by resisting these truths IS just such a fantasy. 

And to end on a genuine note of new hope: It’s our last chance for the transformative adaptation I’ve described, but a crucial part of how this can happen is that it is our best chance, a new chance, almost our first chance, for restoration. For regeneration of the natural world.

How so? Because this has been the mother of all pauses. This is the first time in decades, centuries even, that many parts of the world, including cities, have seen peace and quiet. This moment is a moment of appreciation for nature and for calm like we haven’t known before, in this civilisation. Our animal kin like it; and so do we.

Something that will be a huge boost to this last chance of our avoiding civilisational collapse is a serious agenda — one that has already been kickstarted by the nature of the crisis we are in right now — for rewilding, for re-opening a grand space for nature, for the restoration of biodiverse non-monocultures, for the allying to that of appropriate agroecological and permacultural methods in food-growing, and for rolling back our cruelty to non-human animals.

If you can play your part in making that multi-pronged agenda real, that will prove a powerful way of loving life indeed. That is the kind of way in which we can make real the space — the only space there now is — between apocalypse and victory.

Professor Rupert Read is co-convenor of Extinction Rebellion Political Liaison. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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