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?