Look up

As the UK Government attempts to criminalise protest as such, why it matters now more than ever that universities join Extinction Rebellion when it returns to London in April – as if our lives and the lives of the young depended on it.

On January 22nd 2019 Cornwall Council became the UK’s first Unitary Council to declare a Climate Emergency. They were soon followed by Town and Parish Councils across the South West as the wave rolled on to include all our regional universities, including Falmouth where I work. Even the UK Parliament declared a state of climate emergency that busy summer of 2019, though here too you could be forgiven for not having noticed. Still, with everyone lining up to declare that the crisis exists, things must be improving, right? If only that sum added up.

My friend Manda Brookman, who’s campaigning helped to see several of these declarations come about, asked a few of us who were likewise caught up in that work: ‘What are your first five thoughts on what it does and does not mean for our anchor institutions to declare a climate & ecological emergency?’ Below are my five answers to Manda. They focus on universities’ declarations – this being the area I’m more familiar with – but what goes for us goes for government at all levels: if any of us are minded to act as if this crisis were real, it’s now or never.

Those universities who’ve declared have admitted – perhaps without realising it – to an unfolding catastrophe whose inescapable shadow now hangs over their brand rhetoric regarding ‘graduate futures’. Their declarations admit into the room, knowingly or not, what many of their students already know full well and are discussing among themselves (or not discussing, which is another story). By declaring, these institutions have begun to stop pretending: to admit that things are not set to continue much longer in a manner that even vaguely resembles how they’ve been during the lifetimes of their current Management Teams. And as they begin to catch up with their students on this reality, universities arrive late to an unwished-for and difficult conversation: about where things are likely to go from here, about what sort of future those students will face in the coming decades, and about what manner of education genuinely matters in that context.

‘Begin’ being the operative word. Marc Lopatin of Extinction Rebellion’s trutheller.life whistle-blowing initiative makes the useful observation that as yet ‘there is no emergency’. The challenge that XR have taken on, then, is to get us to connect emotionally as well as intellectually with what we can already see happening all around us. To the extent that this head & heart criticality is more widely established in the coming years, perhaps society may yet edge towards a proportionate emergency response. But as demonstrated by the ensuing behaviours of declared parliaments, councils and universities – precisely none of whom are adapting their current priorities as if the situation they’d just named laid any serious claim on them – the carping cynicism of the nay-sayers who believe all this talk of emergency to be ‘just lip-service’ is not wholly wrong.

So the real work only begins with declaring. Tell the truth, then act as if the truth is real. But a beginning it is, for all that, and as exemplified the School Strikers’ extraordinary, moving campaign we find ourselves poised at a cultural tipping point – one way or another an irreversible shift in collective awareness has become an ecological inevitability. If these declarations remain lip-service only as yet, nonetheless they provide a reference point from which to challenge both the policies and the unexamined assumptions of the bodies that have made them. From universities’ glossy dreams of bright – and debt repaying – graduate futures, to their present curriculum content. To the extent that these anchor institutions’ declarations make a nonsense of their own ongoing behaviours & communications, then, all of us involved in them – at all levels – now have a duty to insist on joining these dots, and then joining them again. And again. Publicly.

12 – sorry, 9 – years left to steer our societies away from an unsurvivable future. Or is 3 now? Meanwhile every key driver of mass-extinction continues to accelerate in the wrong direction. Meanwhile the nearest thing to a global ‘we’ that might attempt any such steering away is no fragile coalition of nation states, but the brood of vast trans-national mega-corporations that harvest every aspect of our social lives and monetise our diminishing attention spans. These and the sulphurous networks of extractive finance that connect them, whose very survival depends on propping up the relentless, death-dealing engine of economic growth. If we’re to address the ever widening retreat into numbed futility, bitterness and depression, now might be a good time to name these declarations for what they are. What their robust rhetoric amounts to is little more than the empty bombast of a competence-addicted, dying culture – a terminal patient who’s not yet grasped what the word ‘unsustainable’ actually means. Universities are in the business, after all, of offering – and marketing – answers to life’s challenges, and we face here a predicament whose bottom line is that none of the available answers are up to the job, so long as we approach that job as some version of make it stop. In the coming decades, as locked-in global heating continues to unfold, as Earth’s biodiversity continues to melt away before our eyes, as we enter a phase of accelerating societal breakdowns irrespective of whatever we may yet succeed in reducing, saving or averting, we’ll see for ourselves what becomes of these institutions. Which is to say, we’ll see what value they continue to offer within a situation of exponentially growing need: material, social and spiritual. And again, although it may not have been realised by those who signed off on the texts, these early declarations have at least provided an opening for a conversation which universities can no longer avoid if they’re to maintain any credibility. Their value, even within the next decade, will surely be defined by how honestly and how well they address this rapidly-growing gulf between predicament and solution. Those that fail to will cease to have any meaningful role in culture, as their promises to the young become ever more palpably irrelevant.

So with an ever-growing number of declarations in place, what’s actually happening, three years on? What’s happening, of course, is business as usual. With the dominant players still unanimously refusing to admit the depth of the crisis or to open a serious conversation about what addressing it might take, it has to be said that things are not looking good. But what if the changes we needed to see were never going to come about by being led from the top? Social orders don’t tend to be the ones officiating at their own funeral, do they? And for all those working to break this deadlock, for better or worse there’s now an unstoppable wind in our backs, whatever gaffs and stumbles we make along the way. Business as usual may be what we still have, but business as usual with the engines revving more shrilly with each passing year now, and with cultural institutions at all levels visibly struggling to maintain their viability. One way or another large-scale upheaval is hard upon all of us. The question before all of us is, upheaval of what kind? Perhaps the most helpful remark I’ve heard in terms of what’s still to play for here comes from XR’s co-founder Roger Hallam (paraphrased from memory here): That our present social system is going to collapse is not in doubt. We only need to look at its response to global heating to see that, as emissions continue to spike to record highs despite what the science tells us. What remains uncertain is what this system will collapse into, and XR’s in the business of offering a better alternative to the type of collapse we may typically expect.

Meanwhile the ongoing failure of those ‘in charge’ to admit what’s coming down the road may or may not be forgivable, but it’s no less deadly either way. If COP26 taught us anything it surely proved once and for all that however bad things get, no-one’s coming to save us. This radical failure – or rather this systemic absence – of leadership in the face of a global catastrophe has become all of our challenge and all of our responsibility. In the midst of an accelerating mass-extinction any notion of citizenship or justice or the good life that doesn’t give this a central priority is, in the most simple and practical of senses, redundant: there are no politics on a dead planet. And so long as our universities continue to ignore this rapidly deepening crisis, they show themselves likewise redundant – locked into the hypnotic swoon that our lethal infotainment culture both generates and radically depends on.

No less than governments, universities everywhere are driving their students and all of us flat-out towards a brick wall, busily absorbed in their smartphones. The ‘emergency’, then, only begins when they – when we – look up. Nearer to the truth than any approaching comet, the old comedy-of-errors trope says it well: speeding driver glances up from their phone, declares to those on board O look, there’s a brick wall dead ahead, then goes straight back to texting. So now we need the punchline: driver’s head flicks back up, foot stamping on the brake as the implication of what they just said sinks in.

Failing which, it’s down to the passengers. See you in London.

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