Impact agenda ‘enables climate change scholar-activists’

Philosopher and Extinction Rebellion campaigner highlights ‘genuine synergies’ between academia and activism

November 5, 2019
Rupert Read tries to use his work outside the academy to help make the world a better place
Source: Alamy
Rupert Read tries to use his work outside the academy to help make the world a better place

A leading climate activist and scholar has credited the research “impact agenda” for enabling him to become a “crusading academic”.

Rupert Read, reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia, a Green Party campaigner and a leading figure in the Extinction Rebellion movement, said that it was not always easy to combine activism and academia, adding that he had cut his working hours and salary at the university in order to spend more time campaigning.

However, he said that there were some “genuine synergies” between the two roles that made it possible to “save two birds with one bird bath”.

For example, his impact case study for the research excellence framework centres on the “precautionary principle”, especially in relation to the environment. The principle encourages policymakers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health issue is considered to be uncertain and the stakes are high.

“Some of the work that I do with Extinction Rebellion…is productive of impact,” he said.

“I get to talk about taking a ‘precautious’ approach to climate and to ecology…I get opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have had to reach large audiences through print, through broadcast.”

As such, UEA has been “very supportive” of his activism work, he said, which has included representing Extinction Rebellion via media outlets such as the BBC’s Question Time. This year, Dr Read was invited to UEA’s annual reception for “media stars” for the first time.

Dr Read said that while the impact agenda was “incredibly imperfect”, he is “glad that it exists”.

“It makes it easier for me to be a sort of crusading academic trying to use some of my work outside the academy to help change the world for the better. The impact agenda has helped make that more possible for me than it would have otherwise been 15 years ago or so,” he said.

However, Dr Read said that there were a number of ways in which universities could change in response to the climate crisis, including “rethinking the extent to which they go after getting foreign students”.

“When you’re making yourselves financially dependent on large numbers of students from China, the US and so forth, you are baking in completely unsustainable levels of carbon emissions into the academic system,” he said.

Instead of encouraging international students to travel to a far-away campus, universities should focus on launching institutional partnerships that allowed students to stay in their local area, he said.

Dr Read said that universities also needed to change their curricula and research focus, claiming that there was “still not nearly enough penetration of the [climate] agenda in disciplines such as politics and economics”.

“There isn’t nearly enough research, for example, into possible scenarios of societal collapse, nor into possible scenarios of very rapid adaptation and mitigation, which is increasingly clear is what we need,” he said.

Dr Read, who decided earlier this year to stop flying, also called for universities to have “much stronger policies on encouraging academics to not travel by air” and good videoconferencing facilities.

While system change was the most urgent need, academics could show “a little bit of leadership” in this area, he said.

“I’m still surprised by the number of my colleagues who go to conferences, including conferences on climate or environmental philosophy, by plane. I think that people should make a stronger effort to change their practices to fit what they are talking about,” he said.

Dr Read admitted that Extinction Rebellion “has some difficult challenges” ahead and said he was “making the argument within the organisation that it would be wise for us to shift from protests that can be portrayed as targeting ordinary people to a rebellion that is very clearly focusing on the rich corporations”.

The movement’s recent protests in London came under fire for disrupting commuters on public transport.

However, Dr Read said that Extinction Rebellion, along with the school strike for climate, was “one of the very few genuine hopes that we have at this point in history that we might possibly be able to turn things around in time to avert societal collapse”.

“It’s essential that Extinction Rebellion does succeed and I would love more academics to put their minds into helping to figure out how it can, and also to join us and put their bodies on the line,” he said.

“There is no better way of showing that one is scared about the future and determined to change it than undertaking non-violent direct action with one’s colleagues.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Impact agenda helped me become a crusading scholar’

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Reader's comments (1)

What an appallingly biased opinion piece. Read is a an extremist who has recently been called out by climate scientists for exaggerating, misleading and terrifying children. Yet you make no mention of this. Here are a few of their comments. Steve Forden: "Am increasingly of the opinion that someone needs to tell Rupert Read to stop talking." Tamsin Edwards: "Rupert, I am shocked at this talk. Please stop telling children they may not grow up due to climate change. It is WRONG and deflects from the fact it is poor people who are at risk due to inequality exacerbated by shifts in weather." Mark Maslin: "@GreenRupertRead I completely agree with @flimsin this is an awful talk - this is as bad as 'climate change denial'. Scaring children is not big and not clever - the philosophy of fear does not work and basically you undermine everything scientists are doing. So STOP these talks." Has TImesHigher abandoned academic rigour and become a mouthpiece for a fanatical doom cult?

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