Collapse Denial and Deep Adaptation


‘Waterer’, a painting by 16 year old me in 1983, imagining a weird drought-ridden future

I came across the latest thinking of Jem Bendell, around Deep Adaptation, when I met up with Lauren Healey in the Spring. She was working on this enquiry by the Newbridge project, into Deep Adaptation and the possibilities of an artistic response. She came to London to interview me, but I hadn’t properly read his work on it. Now I’ve just read his interview with Dougald Hine, on the Dark Mountain website, and his latest paper and I have some thoughts.

I’m intrigued because my own position on ‘things’ is very similar, but my story of approach to this position is possibly longer than Jem’s. When I first discovered about climate change in the 1980s, I couldn’t see how the outcomes could be anything but terrifying. See my painting, above. None of my peers were making art about climate change at the time. By the mid 1990s I was questioning whether I should bring a child into the world. (I did. I don’t regret it, but I worry for her future). For a long time I’ve argued that we should communicate in honest and dialogic ways about possible scenarios for the future. And I was the very first signatory of the Dark Mountain manifesto in 2009.

But, I have held off my ‘dark night of the soul’. I have known ‘future-grief’ more in abstract than through being plunged into the lasting and deep terror our situation actually deserves. I have repressed myself from articulating my more negative predictions, certainly in my professional circles. Sleepless in thinking about wildfires, I wrote a blogpost yesterday, asserting that even as the world burns, we still have a choice. I still want to hold out hope, or ways that we still might live better, even if I have very little shining hope myself. I don’t believe in ‘living for the now’ which is a consequence of either complete hedonistic abandon or nihilistic despair. Jem has a similar response, wanting to hold out options for believing in a future, by creating a map for navigating this difficult issue.

But, his position is very authentic and honest about the lack of possibilities of effective climate action, and it inspires me to be the same. (This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t millions of actions we could take that will somewhat mitigate and adapt to climate change and the other threats to our biosphere, and perhaps afford survival of some humans. It is to suggest that those actions will not avert a rapid social collapse. It is to see that climate change is baked in, and potential black swan events are likely.)

I find it really fascinating that his paper was rejected for publication by the journal he was actually an editor of, through the process of anonymous peer review. Their reasons for rejection are a case study in a tendency of ‘collapse denial’ even amongst those who reject ‘climate denial’.

His paper asks five questions:

  • Can professionals in sustainability management, policy and research – myself included – continue to work with the assumption or hope that we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilisation?
  • Have professionals in the sustainability field discussed the possibility that it is too late to avert an environmental catastrophe and the implications for their work?
  • Why are sustainability professionals not exploring this fundamentally important issue to our whole field as well as our personal lives?
  • What are the ways that people are talking about collapse on social media?
  • What could provide a map for people to navigate this extremely difficult issue?

I’m taking a break from a piece of analytical work while I write this blogpost. In this work, I’m analysing all the contextual challenges facing the UK cultural sector (climate change, Brexit etc) and then listing all the opportunities for possible action. Jem makes me wonder if I should stop trying to balance all the challenges with possible solutions. He writes “discussing progress in the health and safety policies of the White Star Line with the captain of the Titanic as it sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic would not be a sensible use of time”.

The first part of his paper outlines the most recent climate science, to show that the science collated in the IPCC report, on which the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is based, is outdated and cautious. This was not a surprise to me as I’ve been reading some of the research that Jem summarises. But it’s also a punch to the stomach, every time. This is one of the biggest gut-punches:

Data “suggests that the recent attempt at a consensus that it is highly unlikely we will see near-term massive release of methane from the Arctic Ocean is sadly inconclusive. In 2017 scientists working on the Eastern Siberian sea shelf, reported that the permafrost layer has thinned enough to risk destabilising hydrates (The Arctic, 2017). That report of subsea permafrost destabilisation in the East Siberian Arctic sea shelf, the latest unprecedented temperatures in the Arctic, and the data in non-linear rises in high-atmosphere methane levels, combine to make it feel like we are about to play Russian Roulette with the entire human race, with already two bullets in the chamber.”

(If you want a short version of this truth-punch read this summary published in March on Jem’s blog.)

The next section is very interesting to me as he moves on to consider what happens when people repress attempts to communicate such scenarios with the public. He identifies four things that happen (my precis):

  • An immediate, understandable response of wishful thinking for positive outcomes for oneself and loved ones.
  • Overlooking emerging evidence from fields of psychology that addressing negative scenarios can increase support for climate mitigation.
  • A tendency towards technocratic paternalism that encourages people to take action nicely rather than politically.
  • Ignoring the wisdom (e.g. in indigenous peoples) that despair is a stage, a useful trigger for new insights and resolve to action.

He then outlines some of the personal and institutional factors for why environmental professionals may be some of the slowest to process the implications of the latest climate information. One of the reasons is that to face the idea of collapse goes against the projections one needs to hold on to in order to run a successful organisation. This week I’ve been writing a Business Plan for Climate Museum UK, and feeling the tragic irony of forming an organisation to ‘exploit opportunities’ in a climate emergency, to use language required of business plan formats.

He runs through lots of studies that show that ‘the public’ are increasingly pessimistic about the future. I so agree with his view that: “This evidence suggests that the idea we ‘experts’ need to be careful about what to tell…the ‘unsupported public’ may be a narcissistic delusion in need of immediate remedy.” I’ve thought this for so long and am grateful for this articulation.

He acknowledges that all those people who do explore scenarios of collapse – in ways that are more or less hopeful or dire – do so in ways that conform to their own framing of the world. We are not ‘logic machines’. The framing he chooses, in response to all the data and stories he has heard, is that we are facing “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction”.

The map to navigate a possible future is his Deep Adaptation agenda, which can be summed up in three terms:

  • Resilience – people and communities better coping with disruptions
  • Relinquishment – people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse
  • Restoration – rediscovering forgotten attitudes and approaches to life, such as increased community-level productivity and support.

He has decided he can no longer work on anything that does not consider or embrace the Deep Adaptation Agenda. This is quite a challenge to my own constant question about what I do next. I’ve been talking regularly with people exploring deep adaptation and possibilities of collapse for the past decade, but daily coming back to work on contracts where this agenda is missing. If this agenda is up front in the work of Climate Museum UK, will it hit the barriers of ‘collapse denial’ or will some doors be open?


One response to “Collapse Denial and Deep Adaptation

  1. I am glad to see an academic lay it all on the line, but I am disappointed Jem failed to find that his suggested solutions have already been laid out. This is unfortunate, though it is in no way an accusation: Finding needles in global haystacks is not easy, particularly when the best thinking on regenerative systems is not in the realm of academia. We are still trying to get academia to take us seriously. It seems Jen does, but now he needs to align his knowledge with the full breadth of available Regenerative thinking.

    The first line of regenerative thought is from Mollison (RIP) and Holmgren, circa 1978 and after. Permaculture provides a planning process that creates regenerative, what Jem calls resilient, systems. It is elegantly simple, promulgating principles of design rather than rules, and providing a design, aka decision-making, framework with which to apply the principles. This is a set of First Principles, thus applicable anywhere. Mollison later provided a huge compendium of techniques and methods for the four primary types of ecosystems published as Permaculture, A designers Manual.

    Both men were aware of the various planetary issues we face. Their work came from observation of natural vs. human systems, and aboriginal vs. modern systems and concluded modern systems failed to follow the sound principles of natural systems, including aboriginal societies still closely tied to the natural world.

    Permaculture, however does not effectively address large-scale governance – though the manual, published around 1983, does already suggest small communities, local economies, localization and local currencies.

    In my own thinking and work to be part of the solution, I started the Permaculture and Resilience Initiative – Detroit. Unfortunately, Detroit, et al., was not ready for that radical step despite being the single best place on Earth to create the first truly regenerative network of communities outside of aboriginal societies. Still, it brought me into activist circles and drew me into Occupy Detroit. I realized within weeks that a movement like Occupy, if successful, could take a concept like permaculture global in an extremely short period of time and lobbied hard for “sustainability” aka regenerative systems via permaculture to be the central conceptual framework for Occupy. Alas…

    Still, the reintroduction to egalitarian decision making made me explore the issue further and I also realized if Occupy did not figure out what it was finally going to be, and do the hard work of community, it would fail. I literally predicted the number of weeks till it collapsed. The problem? Nobody actually embraced that deepest of democratic systems: Egalitarian decision-making. Worse, none were speaking of Commonses as more than a piece of the solution rather than THE solution. We don’t need to tweak economics – it violates multiple principles of Natural systems – we need a non-economics. The combination of egalitarian decision making within a Commons is the solution, and is what we have found among aboriginal groups (though there are a great many misunderstandings about this issue) that manage their domains effectively.

    One piece was missing and it all came together in a flash: I had been advocating with Occupy Detroit for the creation of neighborhood General Assemblies (GA’s) to make the Occupy movement manageable in terms of numbers and because the Detroit GA could not possibly hold 700,000 people. Yet, we have already learned a representative government does not work; power colludes to attain greater power. The solution is a network of small autonomous community groups, city-level groups and bio-regional groups. The key to this working is that decision-making is not hierarchical, but determined by problem scale. That is, anything affecting only a neighborhood or small town, e.g., is the responsibility and under the authority of that community. When issues are extra-community, those affected all work together. If large enough, the process moves to the city level. Resources and watersheds, e.g., are clearly bio-regional. It is hoped the reader has not missed the important point that these various levels of Assemblies are populated by people from those same groups down to the neighborhood. And, no decision may abrogate the well-being of any level of organization. That is, a city may not sacrifice a neighborhood to assuage the desires of those not from that neighborhood. Etc.

    When we combine permaculture with Commonses, egalitarian decision making and this tiered governance, we may call it Regenerative Governance. But it must be embedded in Deep Simplicity, which is the recognition of our over-consumption and abuse of resources leading to a poisoned planet, degraded ecosystems and Rapid Climate Change (RCC).

    So, I applaud Jem coming to this understanding via academia. It could not have been easy. But he is a bit behind the curve. To truly understand Deep Simplicity and Regenerative Governance, he must understand resources, Natural (Permaculture) Principles, the patterns of aboriginal communities, RCC and the power of truly restorative design.


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