Book review: Parents for A Future

“Anybody assailed by dark thoughts about the capacity of the human race to overcome climate catastrophe can find intellectual and emotional resolve here.” Shahrar Ali reviews Parents for A Future: How loving our children can prevent climate collapse by Rupert Read.

Parents for future
Shahrar Ali

This is a beautifully written work; executed in unpretentious, yet erudite prose. Read is one of those rare philosophers who actually appears to give a damn about the role of public intellectual. Parents for A Future is a tour de force in how to combine the utility of study in the humanities with skill in practical reasoning; to forge a collective calling that will enable us to rise to the challenge of saving humanity from ourselves.

What makes this book unrivalled is Read’s determination to deep-dive into the human psyche to identify a source of human motivation equal to the existential challenge which beckons in the impending climate and ecological emergency. Anybody assailed by dark thoughts about the capacity of the human race to overcome climate catastrophe can find intellectual and emotional resolve here.

With tenacity, and yes, wisdom, Read calls out the pretence of us appearing to do something but conspiring to take little meaningful action at all – whether at the level of individual consumer choices, stuck in a flawed societal frame of reference; or at the level of international climate treaties, which engender so much grandstanding, prevarication or wishful thinking.

Parents for A Future

Read identifies the source of the very value that may, in the final analysis, help us out of our collective motivational rut. This is the love which gives the book its title, and especially its subtitle: “how loving our children can help prevent climate catastrophe”. With great insight and inclusivity, Read defends the proposition that the thing we most care about is our children, their wellbeing and their life-chances. This claim refers not just to those of us who have children but others directly invested in the children of others; or indirectly, too, as with childless philanthropists, say.

Read is really on to something. Those of us long tormented with finding a way to give existential purchase to the claim upon us of future, unknown, anonymous generations will find an answer here. There’s a sense in which we were looking at the problem the wrong way round. Our contact with those futures of, as yet unborn, people is real and immediate through those whose futures we care for now. All we need indubitably recognise is that the care our children would have for their own children, even if we were not around when the time comes, would be as strong for them as they are for us; and so on. This relationship will be as important to us now, intergenerationally, as those new relationships will be for them in the future.

This bond to our children also survives criticisms of selfishness as a means to collective action. People rarely question our commitment to our children, which Read describes as ‘non-negotiable’. Philosophers elsewhere, too, have described exceptionalism towards our nearest and dearest as providing us with ‘agent-relative’ moral reasons. Most importantly, by generalising a motivation which is both primal and beyond reproach, Read is able to broaden the basis for collective action which ever greater numbers of people should be able to identify with; as opposed to more abstract conceptions, say, of our obligations to future generations.

Read puts forward practical solutions for moulding the institutional and societal change of the order of magnitude that’s required in the time that’s left available. We must move beyond representative democracy to citizens’ assemblies. We must inaugurate representatives for future generations within our democratic institutions, to embed long-term thinking over rabid short-termism. And we must adopt precautionary attitudes and policies on a scale as yet unseen.

Read writes with passion and rigour, always from first principles. His ideas are grounded and inspiring. With characteristic humility, he invites the well-versed to skip pages to do with the scientific basis for our environmental predicament. Readers need do no such thing! These carry some of the finest passages in the book; and, if for no better reason, will help contextualise the soul-searching which Read takes us through in subsequent pages.

This is a journey Read wants us to continue once we have put the book down. Not for our own sake but for the sake of our children and our children’s children; and their children and their children’s children, and so on.

Read is brilliant at expositing not just individual human motivation but the implications of a human-centred worldview for genuine care for the planetary ecosystem of which we are a part. He manages to derive ecological reverence from anthropocentric ethics, which, he argues, when properly conceived, is not narcissistic but committed to the very systems which sustain us – on pain of species irrationality otherwise.

A deeply serious thinker, Read confronts us with the precariousness of our species survival, then burdens himself with providing us with a practical solution that we cannot but find compelling.

Read tackles the single most important issue of our time; that we are running out of time. Whether or not you find, or make, time to read Parents for a Future, other books can seem irrelevant by comparison. Except, of course, when on the topic of parental love – which, in Read’s hands, has become our means for achieving self-actualisation and species survival.

Parents for A Future: How loving our children can prevent climate collapse by Rupert Read is published by UEA Publishing Project and is available for £10.99.