Justus Wenzel reviews This Civilisation is Finished

A sky almost without contrails, hardly any cars on the roads, better air: between yesterday and today a virus has made possible what seemed impossible until the day before yesterday. When the Corona crisis however is overcome, will it remain more than a reminder of the possibility of the impossible? Will the new experiences we have been having also open up perspectives for what it is necessary to do in the face of the coming climate catastrophe? Questions of this kind would certainly have been raised if Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander had begun their talks about the climate crisis and the chance for a new beginning after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their conversations have recently been published in book form in German with a strikingly definitive title: This civilization has failed.

Alexander, an environmental economist in Melbourne and a critic of the growth economy, plays the part of an expert interlocutor for the most part. Read, a philosophy professor at the University of East Anglia in Norwich (in the east of England), is politically involved with the British Greens – and also with Extinction Rebellion, the grassroots movement that uses civil disobedience to raise awareness of the threat of ecological collapse. And this is what the dialogues revolve around: a change of consciousness that keeps pace with what is happening on and with our home planet. “Unreserved sincerity” is the motto.

The raising of consciousness begins with a “look into the abyss”, with a sketch of what might come. The endgame Read imagines by way of three conceivable future scenarios: Our civilization collapses “completely and finally”, the human species disappears from the earth. Or we succeed in laying the “seeds” for a “successor civilization” that could rise from the ashes of the collapsing old one. Or else – third variant – the collapse is avoided because our civilization is “radically and rapidly” changes course. The old environmental movement, according to Read, was fixated on the third scenario, the – now – most unlikely. If the miracle of immediate reversal occurred nevertheless, the transformation would be so vast that civilization as we have known it up to now, if not completely failed, would still reach its end. Read speculates that the first scenario – complete doom – could be “as likely soon” as the second, the phoenix scenario. As possible accelerators of disaster he mentions in the book, among other things, pandemics…

Does an alarm-raiser have a longing for doom? No, Rupert Read is right about Wittgenstein: clarity of thought has a therapeutic, a liberating effect. Those who do not delude themselves, who do not deny “the fate that appears to surround us”, become capable of action. It is five minutes past twelve – but there is still time to do the right thing.