16 theses on the failing academic system and the form of its coming transformation
Dr. Rupert Read is the author of Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside (Simplicity Press) and co-editor of The Climate Majority Project (forthcoming with London Publishing Partnership).
Neoliberalism is an extreme of an older, wider model: the political philosophy of liberal individualism; and, ultimately, anthropocentric humanism. Teaching and research agendas need to be recentred away from the merely human. (Contemporary identity politics is a barrier to such recentring.) Accomplishing this recentring will be extremely difficult for academics, for it runs counter to their human and social privilege. In light of this, academics should consider consciously quitting. Academics who remain have a strong responsibility to tell their students (and funders) the truth. As Vaclav Havel taught us, this is not because of a naive belief that doing so will in itself turn everything around, but as the only credible basis for authentic action that can co-create a new system within the wreckage of the old. The existential threat-crisis facing humanity is thus also, especially for academics, an Existential crisis in the sense made famous by Sartre et al.
I’ve just departed my University, the University of East Anglia (UEA), after 26 years (though for the last 16 of those years I have been increasingly taking unpaid leaves or going part-time, in order to work as an activist). The predictable consequence of the neoliberalisation of the UK university system, begun by New Labour and accelerated under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, is now reaping its predictable harvest. If the university system is to be a ‘market’, then there must be market-exit as well as market-entry. UEA is now trying to restructure to avoid bankruptcy. I have taken voluntary severance, easing the pressure on colleagues—and giving myself the chance to devote myself full-time to the prevention of and/or adaptation to ecological breakdown. I want to note here especially that I’m deeply impressed by the way my remaining colleagues in Philosophy at UEA have mostly voluntarily reduced their hours, to avoid any compulsory redundancies.
What follows are 16 theses I’ve penned that express my valedictory sense of what has gone wrong in academia, as a microcosm of our civilisation, and of how it could yet—in fact, it will—be transformed.
Neoliberalism is an extreme of a wider model that has long existed. Of the political philosophy of possessive liberal individualism; of what Ursula le Guin (in The Dispossessed (1974)) brilliantly labelled “propertarianism”. That wider model was always a disaster triumphant in the making.
It might be thought that this philosophy is somehow a corruption or perversion of a still-deeper underlying philosophical picture that is surely to be welcomed and honoured: humanism. But again, such a diagnosis does not go deep enough. For we must ask: human as opposed to what? Humanism itself was always inherently problematic, inasmuch as it privileged ‘us’ over the non-human / the more-than-human. In particular, over (non-human) animals and over nature. This privileging has now come home to roost: for as a civilisation, in our self-regardingness and arrogance, we have been sawing off the ecological branch on which we live.
Universities, UEA included (despite its world leading School of Environmental Science), have largely not seriously challenged the political philosophy of liberal individualism / propertarianism at all, let alone humanism. They remain thoroughly anthropocentric. In this way, as ‘thought-leaders’, they bear a heavy responsibility for the depth of our current plight.
In other words: most academic knowledge thus far has utterly failed to base our being in ecology (Heidegger 1977; Read 2016). (To repeat: this is true even at a University like mine, which is world-famous for its huge Environmental Science school of study, and for its Creative Writing programme which includes focally a nature writing aspect in tandem with a circle of such authors in East Anglia. For instance, there is insufficient investigation at UEA as elsewhere of whether a high-tech carbon transition is compatible with ecological limits, including material resource limits (Hagens 2022; Henckens 2021), let alone of how we will cope with a potential coming collapse.) I have been struck recently by this line from the early part of Margaret Klein Salomon’s book, FACING THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY: “In high school in Michigan and college in Massachusetts, I was wilfully ignorant of global warming and other ecological threats. I was always more interested in people than in nature, more disposed to the humanities and social sciences than STEM.” As someone who has been in Philosophy throughout their academic career, there is something alarmingly comprehensible about Salomon’s thought here. We live in an era of escalating ecological collapse that threatens to sweep civilisation away; but my experience has overwhelmingly been that in their work most humanities and social science colleagues regard this as little more than an irritating and marginal ‘externality’. It barely enters their existential horizon (though it is gradually forcing its way in). This has increasingly struck me as a vast and catastrophic fail.
Universities, of all places, should be leading the way in exploring what authentic ecological thinking means and how it works in practical terms (Barnett 2017; compare also Nicholas Maxwell’s corpus of work). But, with a few honourable exceptions (Stewart, Hurth & Sterling 2022; Machado de Oliveira 2021), this is largely not happening. There is mostly an atrocious failure to centre teaching or research upon our ecological nature and predicament. This ought to be fairly or very central to virtually every discipline (Maths is the only clear exception). It simply is not. I’m more than tired of this.
The contemporary vogue for ‘[‘intersectional’] identity politics’, which self-presents as the cutting edge of radical thought, has merely worsened this situation (Read 2022a, ch. 3). This vogueish pseudo-radical ideology, which I have termed “ipolitics”, now busy entrenching itself in the very structures of universities, is an extreme form of the wider individualist humanist model—just as neoliberalism is. The two appear superficially to be opposites, but actually have a huge amount in common. Neither is even remotely compatible with taking ecology or more-than-human beings seriously. For they insist on anthropocentrism. They embody a narcissism writ large. Furthermore, ipolitics has a particularly dangerous feature, in its self-righteous explicit endorsement and practicing of cancel culture:2 i.e. drastically limiting freethinking. A limitation we can ill afford particularly at this time.
So I’m off, willingly. I’ve valued and indeed loved my time in the university system, on balance; but I’m off to do what is more necessary. That is: to base what I do, and to help to base what we do, in (our) ecology. In our ineluctable dependence and interdependence. I’ll be writing a book for a popular audience on ecospirituality, and another explaining the polycrisis and its antidotes; working with artists and filmmakers and scriptwriters on how to make ecological breakdown and its discontents and alternatives visible and comprehensible (including crucially via ‘thrutopias’, process-based visions of how we can get through what is coming (Read 2017)3; and above all running the Climate Majority Project (CMP). The CMP is perhaps one of the first serious attempts to name, network and further enable a truly mass movement (which by definition means a movement, a wave, welcoming of ‘moderates’ and of non-activists and of eco-minded c/Conservatives) to save our common future. We believe that the truth of our dire plight, in all its inconvenience, can no longer be kept from the public; that sharing and processing—handling—that difficult truth together is now possible and transformative (and essential); that what emerges naturally from such a process is millions coming forward to take effective action (not necessarily ‘activism’) together where they work, live, pray, etc; and that understanding that such an upsurge is inevitable (and indeed has already started) challenges one of the central blockages to mass action: the widespread but false sense that one is alone, perhaps weird, and that there is no basis for supposing that shared active hope is going to replace such hopelessness. The CMP aims for nothing less than to put us back on an ecologically and climatically sane footing, on the basis of recognising how desperate the situation is: that it‘s ‘five past midnight’, not ‘five to midnight’ as we’ve inadvisedly been told over and over again, including by nearly all academics (including crucially the IPCC), for the last two decades (Read 2022b). So there can be no more “final warnings”. After all, final warnings can only be given once.
The frankly terrifying uptick in surface and ocean temperatures in 2023 is a sign of how unmoored our climate has become from anything we have known. We do not know that this uptick is temporary. These temperatures are the starkest sign we have had yet that the time when we might possibly have managed a smooth transition to a post-carbon world, the time when we might have managed to stay within the safe zone, is long gone. This acknowledgement that it’s five past midnight is simultaneously an acknowledgement that the unwritten ‘contract’ between academics and society—that we provide warnings which then get listened to and fed through the policy process and acted on;4 and that in return we get funded and left largely alone— has so far largely failed (Glavovic, Smith & White 2022; Turnhout & Lahsen 2022). Most academics are still even now playing the game (including of course the funding game) of pretending that they are influential in the ‘traditional’ way: of providing the warnings, the information that influences the rest. The information-deficit model, for all that it has been subject to severe academic critique, remains tacitly in place. But it is utterly bankrupt, not fit for purpose in a world of ‘populism’ and systemic media-bias, and of elite—and corporate—capture. It has been proven wrong by the last few decades. The Climate Majority Project asks: What if we stopped pretending? What if we called out that the system has already failed, that we are in the age of consequences? What if we took ownership of the terrible truth, admitted by virtually everyone now in private, that the ‘safe’ upper limit to global over-heat is history? What if inter alia we called on academics and all who are in positions of informational power (e.g. civil servants, insurers, auditors, management consultants, military and intelligence operatives) to disclose?… not on the basis of the vain hope that such disclosure will suddenly turn everything around and that our so-called ‘leaders’ will jump to attention at last, but on the basis of an insistence on truthfulness as the necessary condition for rupturing the whole system of mutual pretences (Read 2023). Making it impossible any longer, for instance, for academics to proceed as if we were one functioning part of a functioning system that could potentially ‘fix’ all this. When such vain hopes die, there is for the first time an honest space wherein thought-through action that is sufficient unto the day, including ‘emergency’ action (though see Read & Knorr 2022) and deep adaptation (Bendell & Read 2022), can begin.5
Elements of the CMP are emerging already in decentralised community climate action, in citizenship for our time (Alexander & Conrad 2022), in the greening of some business, and in professions such as the law and insurance. As yet, though, there has been (perhaps surprisingly?—though see theses 10 and 14-16, below) little of it successfully established in the academic world (McGeown & Barry 2023). There is a pressing need for academics to take up the task of becoming a key part of the emerging climate majority. Our research and our teaching themselves need transforming; beginning with mundane but symbolic matters such as how we travel to conferences and whether we travel to them at all. But going far beyond that. To embrace the implications of my thesis 5: to rethink root and branch what we prioritise, what we profess.
Some academics reading all this might in all honesty think, “This is all very well, but it threatens my world. I don’t want to exit that world or have it thrown upside down. I want to remain somewhere where thinking matters for its own sake; where I can really, deeply, think, unbothered by concerns that are not my own”. But, even leaving aside that such an attitude and practice sounds nostalgically naive, being nowadays mostly in effect impossible anyway within managerialised, neoliberalised spaces, neither is it desirable (for it is irresponsible to seek to retreat from the world at a time like this; on which point, see again Nick Maxwell’s works). And what remains truly attractive in a notion like this once its undesirable aspects have been expunged is hardly going to be closed to someone like me, in my emerging post-academic life. On the contrary. After all: thinking (and practicing) some kind of ecospirituality is, I would suggest, essential for our time (Read & Taleb 2014), for our civilisational crisis is not merely economic political and material; it is also cultural ethical and spiritual. Figuring out the concepts for thrutopias is the intellect in action, and consequentially and excitingly so (BBC 2023). And the Climate Majority Project (www.climatemajorityproject.com ) is part incubator, part campaigning organisation, and part thinktank. My time working within social movements these last five years has been the time of my life. It has been a chance to be an organic intellectual. As I commence my post-academic life, I am looking forward to that trend now accelerating. Real cutting-edge grounded thinking is going on in spades outside the academy. Perhaps, even, freer thinking than within it. Certainly, often on balance more ‘impact’-ful thinking.
Ultimately, real-ising our ecological nature, realising that we are nothing without this glorious sacred place where we live together, moving beyond our narcissistic self-obsession… this is the only alternative to the barbaric future we are careening toward (The seeds of that barbaric future are already present; though, if you think we already have more than its seeds present, then, to be fair: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.). Universities—and that means academics—need to decide where they stand, in relation to this historic choice: Ecologism (Dobson 2007) or barbarism.
And this includes preparing their (our / your) students for the future; and (that means) for the choice. As we move closer to a likely (though still not in my view certain) eco-driven societal collapse, it is irresponsible not to disclose the situation fully to students—including preparing them with life skills that will be suitable for a society in collapse, should that process continue. Academics by contrast are mostly still working within the assumption of the maintenance of something fairly closely resembling the current system. A frankly ridiculous bet. Now of course, a few academics are working to anticipate the radical changes that have to – that one way or another will – happen, and their/our numbers are increasing…but there remains a yawning gap between the world that academia officially anticipates (largely, more of the same, just with ‘adjustments’ for clean green energy, ‘digital futures’ etc) and the worlds that are in actuality hurtling down the tracks towards us. Laurie Laybourn-Langton’s work (see e.g. Laybourn, 2020) is helpful in showcasing this gap (and it is noteworthy that he is based in the thinktank system, not the academic system). Most academics continue to assume that our society is not going to collapse—I.e. they do not begin to take seriously the deep adaptation agenda (Concrete 2023). This inevitably limits the skills they even think of seeking to teach students or alert them to. Skills such as imagination of wholly different futures, shared grieving, community-building, smallholding: transformative- and deep- adaptation skills. It goes without saying that as a result most such skills are pathetically and entirely absent, as yet, from university curricula.
It reflects poorly on academics that so few of us are wiling to think outside the current system; it exhibits a failure to engage in what in Wittgenstein’s liberatory philosophy (Read 2021) I name: as the practice of self- and mutual- intellectual liberation. Academics ought to be freethinkers. But on this most crucial—literally vital—of topics, they remain mostly dogmatically self-curbed. …Why is this?
Most academics are privileged, to some extent at least. As leading truth-dealing climate scientist Kevin Anderson has often argued, they find it difficult to get real about the implications of ecologism because they want to fly to conferences and so on and so forth. They want grants—which keeps them tied to the teat of the current system. And they are mostly hyper-specialist ‘left-brained’ scholars even today; this is the respect in which Iain McGilchrist’s magnificent, epic, polymathic books are a profound challenge to the identity of academics. (No wonder that, scandalously, hardly any academics have read him.) Academics’ relative privilege creates a constitutive pressure tending against the ability to step outside comfortable assumptions, such as the widespread assumption I challenged in thesis 12: that this civilisation is not finished (Read & Alexander 2019).
Meanwhile, academics typically think that they are freethinkers! So there is a sense in which they are mostly worse off than most non-academics, in respect of the deep challenge of our time that I have laid out here. You can wake up someone who is asleep; how much harder, to wake up someone who already believes they are awake. Whose very professional identity in fact depends on assuming that they are awake, open, receptive, ‘evidence-based’!
There are many many excellent people still working in the academic system. I hope that they will come to assume the form of a new moderate flank of the climate movement, the form of the climate majority in their particular world. The task of remaining relevant and cutting-edge that now faces universities, the task of practicing fore-care and fore-sight, is a vast, one. For those choosing to remain in the academic system, this task is as difficult as it is pressing—for it challenges academics at an existential level. Our existential threat/crisis is not merely about whether society will continue to exist; for all humans, but especially for academics, it is also about who we are. It is existential too then in the sense made salient by the Existentialists, a century ago…
The rest of the story of course remains as yet unwritten. It needs writing—including by you. Whether inside or outside the academy. Transformation is coming; the live question is whether it will be in the needed direction or whether it will come involuntarily—by way of collapse. It is up to you – to us – how we answer the question.
Alexander, J. & Conrad, A. (2022). Citizens: Why the key to fixing everything is all of us. Surrey: Canbury Press.
Barnett, R. (2017). The ecological university: A feasible utopia. London & New York: Routledge.
BBC (2023). The Verb: Futures Verb [on ‘thrutopianism]. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001m5br
Bendell, J. & Read, R. (eds.). (2021). Deep adaptation: Navigating the realities of climate chaos. Cambridge & Medford, MA: Polity Press.
Concrete (2023). Climate change corner: Professor Rupert Read on UEA and the climate crisis. [online]. Available at: https://www.concrete-online.co.uk/climate-change-corner-professor-rupert-read-on-uea-and-the-climate-crisis/
Dobson, A. (2007). Green political thought. 4th ed. London & New York: Routledge.
Glavovic, B. C.; Smith, T. F. & White, I. (2022). The tragedy of climate change science. Climate and development, 14(9), 829-833.
Hagens, N. (2022). The great simplification. [online] Podcast series. Available at: https://www.thegreatsimplification.com/
Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology. In D. F. Krell (ed.), Basic Writings. Sa Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Henckens, T. (2021). Scarce mineral resources: Extraction, consumption and limits of sustainability. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 169, 105511.
Laybourn, Laurie (2020) et al. We are not ready: policy-making in the age of environmental breakdown. IPPR. https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/we-are-not-ready
Le Guin, U. K. (1974). The Dispossessed. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Machado de Oliveira, V. (2021). Hospicing modernity: Facing humanity’s wrongs and the implications for social activism. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
McGeown, C. & Barry, J. (2023). Agents of (un)sustainability: democratising universities for the planetary crisis. Frontiers in Sustainability, 4, 1166642. https://doi.org/10.3389/frsus.2023.1166642
Patterson, Scott (2023). Chaos Kings. New York: Simon Schuster.
Read, R. (2016). Wittgenstein and the illusion of ‘progress’: On real politics and real philosophy in a world of technocracy. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 78, 265–284.
Read, R. (2017). THRUTOPIA: Why neither dystopias nor utopias are enough to get us through the climate crisis, and how a ‘thrutopia’ could be. [online] Huffington Post, 6 November. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rupert-read/thrutopia-why-neither-dys_b_18372090.html
Read, R. (2021). Wittgenstein’s liberatory philosophy: Thinking through his Philosophical Investigations. New York & London: Routledge.
Read, R. (2022a). Why climate breakdown matters. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Read, R. (2022b). Do you want to know the truth? Melbourne: Simplicity Institute.
Read R. (2023). Living in truth in a time of ecological ‘emergency’ and emergence: Vaclav Havel as eco-guru. The Ecological Citizen, 6(1), epub-075.
Read, R. & Alexander, S. (2019). This civilisation is finished: Conversations on the end of Empire—and what lies beyond. Melbourne: Simplicity Institute.
Read, R. & Knorr, W. (2022). Stop saying ‘climate emergency!’? (Until, collectively, we mean it?). [online] Resilience, 9 May. Available at: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2022-05-09/stop-saying-climate-emergency-until-collectively-we-mean-it/
Read, R. & Taleb, N. N. (2014). Religion, heuristics and intergenerational risk-management. Econ Journal Watch, 11(2), 219-226.
Stewart, I. S.; Hurth, V. & Sterling, S. (2022). Editorial: Re-purposing Universities for Sustainable Human Progress. Frontiers in Sustainability, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/frsus.2022.859393
Turnhout, E. & Lahsen, M. (2022). Transforming environmental research to avoid tragedy. Climate and development, 14(9), 834-838.
Thanks to Alison Green and Atus Mariqueo-Russell for comments on drafts of this piece.
2 Please, reader, don’t tiresomely and dogmatically reply to this by insisting all clever-clever that cancel culture allegedly ‘doesn’t really exist’ or at least ‘doesn’t significantly affect universities in this country’. When one has been cancelled by academic staff at what one thought was a department elsewhere where one had colleagues, as I have, for being insufficiently ‘right-on’, then one knows full-well that it exists.
4 For instance, this is true of the Scientists’ Warning letters that have failed to galvanise effective climate action. The key point here is that one can’t just go on endlessly issuing more and more frantic warnings. At some point, the bill has to fall due for the warnings that were ignored. THAT is what theses 7 & 8 bring out. The bill has fallen due. That is where we are now at.
5 N.B. Embracing the deep adaptation agenda does NOT require believing that eco-driven societal collapse is now inevitable. It’s enough merely to allow that, tragically, it can no longer be ruled out.
For discussion of practicing deep adaptation as in this sense a precautionary insurance policy in case of collapse, see pp.245-6 of (Patterson, 2023).
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