Now that climate change has arrived, why don’t we act? UK philosopher and Green politician Rupert Read. Then Safa Motesharrei from the University of Maryland shows how humans tilt the climate picture toward collapse, including via wealth inequality.  Radio Ecoshock 170308

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (57 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)


But first, with climate change in mind, this message from Leo Tolstoy.

At the advent of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the human heart: one very reasonably invites a man to consider the nature of the peril and the means of escaping it; the other, with a still greater show of reason, argues that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general march of events, and it is better therefore to shut one’s eyes to the disagreeable until it actually comes, and to think instead of what is pleasant. When a man is alone he generally listens to the first voice; in the company of his fellow-men, to the second.

Leo Tolstoy – “War and Peace.”


The arrival of climate change has been described as a “black swan” event. It is something we humans have never experienced, and awful impacts are possible. Now, as the weather goes weird and the Poles melt, why can’t we act against the obvious threat?

Rupert Read is a British academic and Green Party politician. He worked with the well-known “Black Swan” author, Nassim Taleb. In the February 23rd issue of the Ecologist magazine, Rupert argues “Climate change is a White Swan“. That’s where I found the Tolstoy quote.

Rupert is chair of the Green House thinktank. He has been the UK Green Party spokesperson on transport, and is now a respected Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia.

I think it’s time to meet Rupert Read.

You can download or listen to this interview with Rupert Read in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


Find out more about Rupert Read at his web site.

We start with the question any sane person has to ask: we see climate change looming like a dark cloud over the future. So why are we frozen, or running in the opposite direction in the United States and Australia?

What if climate change doesn’t arrive with a crash? Many of us have been expecting some paranormal event, a climate impact so gigantic and terrible that all nations will unite into a rapid response. We could say that has already happened when the Arctic sea opened up, or in the series of hottest-ever years. But what if climate change just crawls instead, making our lives more difficult and miserable over the years. What if that is how it arrives?

Rupert presented a “shock message” for first year students entering university. You can read the transcript here, or watch this video.

Rupert Read addresses UEA’s new students, with a shock message


Let’s switch gears. I’ve collected pages of headlines warning the robots are coming to take our jobs, all sorts of jobs. I may eventually do some kind of rant on the subject, or at least evaluate what is hype, and what may be reality.

At the Green House thinktank, Andy Pearmain published an e-article titled “Newer Times” – what the age of robots means for labor and green politics. In his response, Rupert Read seemed to call robotization a distraction. In this interview Read explains why.

Essentially, if we add a new stream of production by robots, to our existing consumer model (which grows with population growth) – all robots do is speed up our predation of nature. We’ll mine more and emit more greenhouse gases. That just speeds up the day when the general toxicity, depletion of resources and climate disruption brings down the civilization. We can have robot/consumerism, or we can have a sustainable planet, but not both, Rupert Read argues.


Rupert and I are venture into new territory for our listeners. Read is known as a scholar of the late Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s early work in the 1920’s suggested that words work by triggering pictures of facts in our minds. There is no human memory of a climate shift. Is that part of the problem: we do not have the pictures for a different climate, and so language fails?

You can find a fast intro to Wittgenstein for beginners on You tube here.


After Ludwig Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, in the early 1950’s his second book was published posthumously as “Philosophical Investigations”.

By that point, Wittgenstein thought language was not based on a game of rational conclusions from the facts, but rather patterns with words intended to convey comfort and security. Is Donald Trump unknowingly using this failure of language – to avoid the facts of climate change? (Except Trump’s language is intended to convey discomfort and insecurity, which only he can solve….)

My other thought on Wittgenstein and climate revolves around his theory that language is a public tool developed over many centuries. We all use that common tool to help us understand and define our inner experiences. But words inherited from the Romans, the Danes, and the French could never capture this brave new future of climate change.

Rupert Read has written about applying Wittgenstein specifically to climate change, in his piece in The Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism.

My further problem is this: it appears that even when we apply the most advanced tools of psychology or philosophy to the developing climate catastrophe, we are still befuddled. Maybe the early Wittgenstein was correct: we lack the tools to escape from paradox.

For more, check out this video with Rupert Read: “Wittgenstein and the Illusion of ‘Progress’”

I also recommend Green House’s ‘postgrowth’ project: an introduction: “What is ‘Growth’ for and can we afford it?: A critical twenty-first-century assessment of the hegemonic economic policy of our time.” by Rupert Read.


Scientists have created complex models that project an extreme shift in our climate. These models reach down into deforestation, agricultural impacts, changes to the oceans, ice-worlds and atmosphere.

But now we know humans are the driving force in a new geologic age called the Anthropocene. Scientific climate models have the physics and chemistry, but so far they lack the most difficult thing: how humans will further twist and tilt natural systems.

A paper published in the National Science Review in December 2016 addresses that. This work from a team of 20 authors deals with overshoot, the trajectory of collapse, and the way growing inequality of wealth can break our system down.

I reached the lead author Dr. Safa Motesharrei. He’s a systems scientist at the University of Maryland.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Safa Motesharrei in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


We begin with an earlier paper published in 2014 with Jorge Rivas and Eurenia Kalnay. The title is “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies.” You can read or download this paper as a .pdf here.

I’ve just talked with Dr. Cameron Petrie about the downfall of the Indus civilization a few thousand years ago. In the same program Dr. Takeshi Inomata told us about the collapse of Mayan society. So it happens. Are serious people concerned about the possibility of collapse in our own civilization?

How and Why Collapse Happens


In Safa’s 2014 paper’s abstract we find: “we build a human population dynamics model by adding accumulated wealth and economic inequality to a predator–prey model of humans and nature.” These days a few billionaires are piling up wealth, while the middle class practically evaporates and poverty expands, even in developed countries. Has our society developed into a class of predators and prey comparable to nature?

This 2014 paper talks about “two types of collapses”. Dr. Motesharrei describes them. And he concludes that “collapse can be avoided”.


We move forward to Safa’s new paper of 2016. A team of 20 experts worked on it.

Here are two key paragraphs from this paper’s abstract:

Over the last two centuries, the impact of the Human System has grown dramatically, becoming strongly dominant within the Earth System in many different ways. Consumption, inequality, and population have increased extremely fast, especially since about 1950, threatening to overwhelm the many critical functions and ecosystems of the Earth System. Changes in the Earth System, in turn, have important feedback effects on the Human System, with costly and potentially serious consequences.

However, current models do not incorporate these critical feedbacks. We argue that in order to understand the dynamics of either system, Earth System Models must be coupled with Human System Models through bidirectional couplings representing the positive, negative, and delayed feedbacks that exist in the real systems.

As regular Radio Ecoshock listeners will know, Owen Gaffney and Will Steffens just published their equation for the operation of humans and nature in the Anthropocene. On Radio Ecoshock, Owen talked about “the Great Acceleration” seen in almost every trend of human action since 1950. The great acceleration figures in this new paper as well.

An essential foundation of this new work by Motesharrei et al is the dominance of humanity over natural systems. Are we sure of that? Or are we just magnifying our importance? Safa explains how dominant we humans have become.

In this program, we talk a lot about how feedbacks in climate change could destabilize the human system in everything from damaging agriculture to more deaths from heat and flooding. But what about the feedbacks humans impose on the natural system? That is the important interaction that climate models are missing – and it’s the key point of this paper.

Earth System Models are used by groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and many other institutions to advise governments. But those set statistics are not interactive – we can’t see the feedbacks between climate change and human activities. That needs to change, if we want a real picture of what is happening on Earth. Without those human systems, the current projections of climate change could be way off!

I sympathize with climate scientists, especially under the pressure of denial coming out of the Trump administration. Earth scientists are comfortable modeling ice melt and ocean currents. Those are physical events with solid numbers. Is it fair to ask them to add in the rapidly-changing human economy as well? Safa tells us it may not be easy, but if we want scientific models to reflect reality, we have to include the many way humans impact earth systems.


We talked about the billionaires who control most of the world’s wealth, while billions of people continue in abject poverty. Now we have to acknowledge that wealth inequality is also an environmental issue. That’s another important point of this new paper.

As we heard in earlier interviews, we can also locate wealth inequality as a driver of collapse in earlier human civilizations, including the collapse of the Maya.

So systems science shows that wealth inequality can lead to collapse, but I’m left wondering: is there a realistic way to right that economic injustice? If I were a politician supported by fundraising from rich people and corporations, the tone of this team’s paper is almost revolutionary. Economic justice is not on the agenda right now. It’s something for Lefties or smaller governments in South America.  But if we don’t address it, this civilization could fall as others have.  We don’t seem ready for any meaningful social change – until it is forced upon us.

The title of this new work is “Modeling Sustainability: Population, Inequality, Consumption, and Bidirectional Coupling of the Earth and Human Systems“. It was published in the National Science Review on December 11, 2016.

If you want to follow up further, you might want to check this article about a new book by Nafeez Ahmed. It’s called “Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence“.


Now that’s a loaded hour. Good for you for going all the way!

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