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Professor AC Grayling: “Giving up is not an option – we literally have the world to lose.”

British philosopher and writer Professor AC Grayling is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival to discuss his latest book, For the Good of the World. He speaks to James Borrowdale about the potential for humanity to work together to overcome the challenges to its wellbeing – and its survival.

We’ll all be eating worms sooner or later – by choice before long or of necessity as the world burns.

The grim prognostication was delivered down the phone line from the London study of philosopher and writer Professor AC Grayling. Either the world finds a way to address the issues we face – by harvesting worms for consumption, to continue his example, instead of razing the Amazon for cattle – or we will one day scramble through the “smoking ruins of a world that has been devastated”, sifting through the shadows of what once was, for enough protein to sustain the human animal.

Climate change, the unrestricted rate of technological development, and what Grayling calls “the terrible deficit” of justice in the world: these are three of the avenues, outlined in For the Good of World, down which Grayling sees the world being ushered towards that ashy vision of the future. (There are of course, he notes in conversation, many others.)

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And the engine behind that terrifying journey, as he sees it, is built of “inaction and profiteering and self-interest”, codified in a principle he has christened Grayling’s Law. It states: “Anything that can be done will be done if it brings advantage or profit to those who can do it.” It comes with an equally bleak corollary: “What can be done will not be done if it brings costs, economic or otherwise, to those who can stop it.”

Grayling is the author or editor of 30-something books, and is well-used to contending with big topics: religion, war, democracy, the history of philosophy. Conversation with him is as replete with reference to these and other fields – the Federalist Papers, Wittgenstein, the depredations of British colonial rule in India, Brexit and the problems it has birthed – as it is with exasperation at the state of the world. Exasperation – perhaps even despair – is the thread that draws his words together as he articulates the urgency of his message.

“So long as there is a possibility, just so long as there is just a sliver of hope, you’ve got to keep going.”

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“So long as there is a possibility, just so long as there is just a sliver of hope, you’ve got to keep going.”

We spoke in the week following a spate of record-breaking temperatures in the United Kingdom, with drought expected to follow – further indicators that “the global climate is stressed. And we know why, we know what’s been happening.” But progress on doing anything meaningful about the deleterious effect of human behaviour on the environment has been “painfully, painfully slow”.

“It is being hampered and blocked by people, big corporations, the oil companies themselves, even governments who don’t want to lose any kind of competitive advantage against other economies by moving too fast to transition and burden their own economies with the cost of doing so. There is a serious problem here: we are not addressing this properly, and people are going to suffer.”

Technological advance is beholden to the same law – and what might start with the noble intentions, like the use of brain-chip technologies to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and traumatic memories will, unless “we work really hard to find ways of managing them”, inevitably come to serve nefarious purposes, if there is a profit to be turned in doing so.

“If you can control mood in one way, you can control it in another way. If you can deal with difficult memories, traumatic memories, that people have, well maybe you can implant or modify memories. These are the sorts of questions that are no longer science-fiction scare stories, they are so within the realms of possibility that we need at least to think about them.”

Perhaps these and other existential problems could be more easily brought to heel, if it weren’t for Grayling’s third threat: “the fact that the vast majority of people have so little say”, even in the putatively democratic nations of the world. Some democracies, as he sees it, have been so bruised by partisanship and the maleficence of special interest groups as to be hardly worth the name.

Only a government “genuinely for the people – that’s all the people, and not just a political faction, a political party or coalition”, he says, could deliver “more serious, more mature, more thoughtful approaches to these great problems that the world faces globally.” Grayling’s Law, in other words, could be broken on the rack of genuine democratic suffrage.

That would be, he concedes, “an idealised democracy”. But it remains a horizon worth sailing for, if only to see how close we can get. He says New Zealand – with MMP, its educated population, its small size, its affluence – represents a closer approximation of that ideal than that of his homeland, or of the American experiment.

And his hope – “rather a utopian one” – is that conversations like that which lies behind these words will reach “lots and lots of people, and people will wake up” and will then use their own voices to alert others and agitate, protest, strike or otherwise campaign “to ensure that the topics that need to be discussed are discussed properly”. People must not think of themselves as isolated units, he says; change is “only feasible if we do it with others, so we can nudge governments into working with other governments and so on. [We must] reach out, see ourselves as part of a possible solution.”

But can that be enough? Under an international order he describes as “an anarchy”, overseen by a body, the United Nations, he calls “structurally disabled”? In a world riven by divides, where even a smaller – still enormous – challenge like Covid-19 has been tackled in an ad hoc, country-by-country manner, and is often destructively politicised within those separate jurisdictions? Can ground-up, organic action work in the face of these and other odds?

Grayling counters with a kind of bitter optimism – crisis, he says, is as liable as anything to shake people from their apathy. “With everything kind of collapsing around our ears and serious problems threatening us, it could wake people up to take some action or to take a stand. Even just thinking differently, or voting differently, or writing a letter to a member of parliament: these things can cumulatively make some kind of difference.”

It may, he acknowledges, already be too late. That’s particularly true of climate change, where part of the problem now is about mitigation of, and adaptation to, the changes we have already wrought. But giving up, Grayling says, is not an option; we literally have the world to lose.

“If you are attacked by somebody, and you’re fighting for your life, even if you are bleeding out and the other guy has got all the guns and knives, the thing to do is keep fighting, isn’t it, to the very last. Because you never know. If you are somebody that feels there is a little sliver of hope, that something might tip the balance, something might change, there might be something unexpected that would really provide some kind of leverage for really bringing about change – just so long as there is a possibility, just so long as there is just a sliver of hope, you’ve got to keep going. That’s the view that I take.”

AC Grayling is speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival on August 24. For more information visit writersfestival.co.nz.

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