To start the year I gave a talk for a climate adaptation conference at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) and also joined participants and volunteers in the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) for a Q&A on emerging issues. If you are interested in this agenda, then I recommend watching first my introductory lecture on Deep Adaptation, then the Groningen talk, then the Q&A. In the Q&A we covered a range of issues such as the decolonisation of the environmental movement, the need for developing policy ideas, and the new criticisms made about people who anticipate collapse.
In the talk for undergraduate students at Groningen University on Jan 22nd 2021, I made the following points about a heartfelt approach to climate adaptation:
In 2020 I co-authored some academic resources on management, environment and ‘deep adaptation’. Here is a quick summary and links, in case you are interested in these topics to a degree where you read or listen to academic outputs on them.
In an academic journal article, with Dr Katie Willocks of Lancaster University and Prof Richard Little, of Impact International, we explored ways of supporting learning within hospitals. In particular, we showed how the ideology of top-down managerialism can militate against a recognition of the motivation of staff in the caring professions, and side-line support for them to be better able to solve workplace disagreements as a means of professional learning. It’s basic common sense to seek to help not hinder nurses and doctors, but the dark forces of bureaucracy and commercialisation are so widespread in late modernity that it can be useful to challenge them empirically, as we have done in this paper.
Willocks, Katie, Bendell, J. and Little, R. (2020) Professional Learning from Disturbances in Healthcare: Managerialism and Compassion. International Journal of Management, Knowledge and Learning, 9 (1). Download here.
It is now four years since I first delivered a keynote lecture on the need to discuss what if it is too late to avert catastrophic damage to our societies from the direct and indirect impacts of climate and ecological damage. In that talk, I asked whether we don’t talk about it because of our fears. Because we can fear we will descend into despair and inaction. Or we might fear we will be attacked by our peers and dismissed by our friends. I suggested we needed to overcome such concerns, to explore what an anticipation of societal collapse might mean for our personal, professional and political lives. I offered a framework of questions to begin that conversation and called it Deep Adaptation. By taking time off from my job as a University Professor, I studied the climate science more closely, and reached my personal conclusion that societal collapse in most countries in my lifetime is now inevitable. That meant I could not keep working on sustainable development and corporate sustainability any longer and released a paper in 2018 called Deep Adaptation. That was part of my process of moving on and transforming, not knowing what would come next.
The paper went viral and fuelled a new wave of activism, with Extinction Rebellion, and a new global network of people freely supporting each other, called the Deep Adaptation Forum.
During 2020, increasing numbers of people have been hearing about this paper, analysis, framework and community from its critics. My friends tell me that this negative reaction indicates that it has become a movement that matters. On the one hand, it is disappointing that people are hearing constant misinformation about what we are doing and why, and the implications for climate activism and policy. On the other hand, perhaps criticism of collapse anticipation is the safest way for members of the general public to first hear about this possibility, as only those who are emotionally ready will explore further.
Like many people who pay attention to trends in the world, I want all leaders to change everything immediately to give humanity a better chance of reducing the harm that’s unfolding due to the climate and ecological crisis. Like many people with that aim, I also recognise that young people are going to live in a future that will be far more harsh and difficult than it has been for people like me.
Rather than argue for more measurement, more reform, more technology, more hope and heroes, I think a more useful focus in solidarity with young people is to work for more action on adapting to the current and future disruptions. That includes having really difficult conversations about the situation and the options we are faced with (and learning how to have those discussions generatively, as we explored in a new paper).
Thanks to Hollywood, we have all seen stories of near apocalyptic futures, where people descend into violence and depravity. We have also seen sensationalist, even racist, TV news reporting on looting after natural disasters. It seems the mass media is not always a good channel for hearing about the solidarity and cooperation that emerges between so many of us in times of crisis. It takes authors like Rutger Bregman to remind us of the better sides of human nature. Or Rebecca Solnit to show how human solidarity has always been a powerful resource during crises. Unfortunately, such views don’t get as much airtime when it comes to dis1cussing the possibility for societal disruption and collapse.
Also on the panel was Miguel Alejandro Naranjo Gonzalez of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). He responded to my presentation in a very open and constructive way, demonstrating how we should be exploring things together without prejudice:
“Both focusing on the mitigation side, reduction of emissions… and the work… on Deep Adaptation are complementary. We will definitely need to face impacts of climate change… All over the world people are already suffering because of the impacts of climate change and this… is only going to become… more difficult. So, the approach that Jem [Bendell] presented on helping individuals deal with the difficult situations they are going to be living is definitely very important. It is of course beyond the level that we usually deal with in the climate change secretariat… The Deep Adaptation is deeply personal… so speaking from a personal point of view, I completely agree and appreciate that kind of work.”
Here are the notes for my presentation:
Deep Adaptation is an agenda, framework, and community, for people who anticipate societal collapse in their lifetimes, and want to stay engaged and useful rather than returning to avoidance. It came about after a paper I wrote on Deep Adaptation (DA) in July 2018 went viral and has been downloaded now over a million times. Launched in April 2019, the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) now involves a small team of staff engaging over 100 volunteers from around the world, who are supporting interaction, for free, of over 15,000 participants. Many initiatives are underway, created by the volunteers, to help people process emotions and find new ways of living kindly, creatively, wisely, and accountably, in this time of increasing turbulence.
There has been a news report from climate scientists working in the Arctic right now, about their observation of the release of methane gas from frozen deposits on the sea floor. That is a process which, if confirmed as true, is likely to continue and worsen, and lead to rapid heating of the atmosphere at rates not seen since pre-historic mass extinction events. Which, if confirmed as true, means the collapse of societies will occur sooner and harsher than I, and many others, have anticipated. It would also mean we might be struggling to survive as a species in the decades ahead.
Truly, this is a harrowing situation and piece of news. If true, it means we could reconsider everything in our lives, like some people do when they receive a terminal diagnosis. If not necessarily true, or not necessarily as bad as some scientists conclude, it nevertheless means we can consider what if it is true, a bit like when people are awaiting results from a scan or biopsy.
One of the things I have been considering over the last few months is the matter of how I, and the people I engage with, might be more systematic about disentangling ourselves from the dominant ideology that has enabled the oppression of people and destruction of nature. That ideology is reproduced by our habits of thought, six of which I believe are key, and give rise to the acronym I use to describe that ideology: e-s-c-a-p-e. As I described in my blog on that destructive ideology, those habits of thought arise from our sense of separation and the anxieties that it causes.
I had lunch with a Swedish friend last week. Over coffees and his cigarettes, we talked about my upcoming conversation with an anti-racism trainer. He told me of a time when he was in a restaurant waiting to meet his psychologist. Prior to that, he had only talked to her on the phone. After waiting about half an hour he thought that she wasn’t coming. Then a black woman he had not given much attention to, came up to him and asked if he was her client. Telling me this story, it became clear that my friend views his unconscious biases with a mix of embarrassment and comedic self-deprecation, contained by an enthusiasm for learning and changing. During lunch he was in a non-judgemental space, where it felt fine to admit he would probably always have unconscious biases, and therefore it is useful to be open to discovering more about them. After all, this is a man who was married to a black woman, while ignoring his psychologist in a restaurant because of the colour of her skin. We agreed that, like most people, we might always be exhibiting unconscious racial bias.
As we experience increasing disruptions to our lives, with the risk of more to come, more of us are wondering how to turn things around.
There is one question I often hear asked:
“Where have all the good leaders gone?”
I have come to understand that could be the worst question for us to ask.
I mean it is unhelpful if the aim of our conversations is to determine new ways to help our friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens to address the many challenges that humanity faces today.
Because within the question itself is an assumption that does not help us to act together for significant change.
The assumption is that what is most important to positive or negative outcomes is the competence and character of the individual at the top of a hierarchy, rather than other factors. Yet those other factors are many and significant, such as the ability of people at all levels of community, society and organisation to be willing and able to learn and act for common cause. So a focus on the individual leader dumbs down our conversations about why there is so much suffering and risk in the world. It also means we don’t look at ourselves and what we might do or not do in future.