What has the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency got to do with you?

I was interviewed this week by the Independent newspaper about why more than 100 scholars from around the world issued a public letter to delegates at the UN’s event on disaster risk reduction. This provides more depth than my opinion piece in the newspaper.

Q – What was the impetus behind this letter?

Jem – The impetus for this letter is a widespread experience that many of our fellow professionals working on social and environmental issues privately know that we have been using a failing approach, with all the indicators heading in the wrong direction, but that they are hesitant to say so in public. We perceive that is because they are not yet clear on how to make sense of that failure or what might come next. They also see professional risk in criticising both capitalism and the story that our world will improve with more technology and investment. Whereas more people in the general public now sense that our systems are broken, many experts in establishment institutions continue to think they must remain upbeat in public. But signatories to the letter clearly think that attitude could undermine the needed reckonings and radical changes.

Q – Who are the signatories?

Jem – The first 100 signatories come from 27 countries and cover a range of disciplines, including climate science. They all have doctorates in their relevant specialisms. Signing in their personal capacities, they include Professor William Rees (University of British Columbia, Ecological Economics), Dr Malika Virah-Sawmy (IASS, Climate Adaptation), Dr Peter Kalmus (NASA, Climate Science), Dr Yves Cochet (Former Minister of the Environment, France), Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau (LOABOWA, Climate Adaptation) and Dr Ye Tao (MEER Framework, Climate Adaptation). [You can see the full list of 100 scholars here and read a press release about the letter here.]

Q – Why do you think the SDGs have failed?

Jem – The world is halfway through the time allocated for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN reports countries have gone backwards on most of them. That is even before the inflation, energy and food polycrises of 2022. This failure was predicted at the outset, by scholars who identified the impossibility of promoting ecologically-demanding consumer lifestyles as the means of progress for all. 

The ideology of Sustainable Development is so ingrained after 30 years that the UN’s own report on near total absence of progress towards achieving the Global Goals – now half way through the time period – has been largely ignored. The potential from having such goals is measurability and accountability. Yet the implications of failure are being ignored. So I think many people working in the international field of cooperation on environment and development could be in denial. To address that, we produced the ‘owngoals’ graphic, which makes the situation more stark. I hope we do not see too many professionals in this field more annoyed by this graphic than the reality of suffering and loss which it describes. Because such reactions would raise uncomfortable questions about their current motivations. Thankfully, I already know that many colleagues are grateful for the chance to challenge the complacency and lack of accountability.

Q – What do you propose as the alternative?

Jem – Our main proposal is that we all stop pretending that we can grow economies, reduce poverty and avert environmental disasters. Once we drop the myth that economic expansion is always helpful, a variety of ideas can come into view for either reducing or coping better with social and environmental problems. In the research paper ‘Replacing Sustainable Development’ I cite a range of philosophies for organising society, ranging from the Vatican to Bali. The problem is that the current monetary systems impose a need for economic growth in order to maintain a stable economy. That is not a natural feature of the way economies work but one designed by bankers over many years for their own ends.

But in that paper, and in this letter, the focus is on the UN and international aid. We think that the existing capabilities and networks in Disaster Risk Reduction need to be made central to future policy-making, at home and abroad. That doesn’t sound fun or hopeful, but people don’t need experts to do their dreaming for them. We can pursue our own dreams, while government and aid agencies help with the increasing risks that we all face due to environmental breakdown.

Q – Why do you suggest “degrowth” of wealthy economies?

Jem – It is impossible to decouple resource consumption and pollution from economic growth sufficiently to reduce risks of catastrophic damage to all societies from environmental changes over the coming years. The UN’s own research shows we don’t have the materials to electrify everything worldwide, so the implication is richer countries, and richer individuals in particular, must reduce their consumption levels. Clearly that idea isn’t super appealing to the folks at Davos. Neither is it appealing to anyone if it not done fairly and with a focus on wellbeing. Crucially, the economic and monetary systems need to change to allow that kind of contraction without bankrupting small businesses and households.  A chapter in my co-edited book Deep Adaptation explores aspects of the re-localization of economies that is now necessary.

Q – Why did you choose to release this letter at this particular summit?

Jem – Some of the people involved the UN Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) agency are exposed to the harsh realities of increasing disasters around the world. That was shown by their most recent Global Assessment Report. Many of them know that we are entering an era of ‘metadisaster’, by which I mean an ongoing global disaster of environmental breakdown that affects every aspect of our societies.

The UNDRR only convenes government officials every two years to discuss trends, policies and assistance. Whereas this event is largely ignored by the world’s media and national leaders, we think that the agenda it works on will become central to international relations in future. It can’t copy the mistakes of 30 years of sustainable development policy making being deferent to global capitalism. We want to encourage them to break with that and develop a more realistic and helpful response.

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Q – You say the “assumptions that underpin the SDGs are invalid” — what would you say are those assumptions?

Jem – In the research paper “Replacing Sustainable Development” I explain that the ideological worldview behind the SDGs one where “material and technological progress is both good and inevitable; where humanity will balance social, economic and environmental issues to progress materially, and; that it is a priority to foreground corporate economic interest.”

I argue that these assumptions are politically convenient for some people, and have avoided irreconcilable priorities over the past 30 years:

“Sustainable Development became a systemic greenwash, undermining challenges to structural power that were posed by people and organisations we might loosely describe as anti-imperialist. Therefore, the apparently apolitical quality of Sustainable Development was actually highly political in its consequences. By framing the generic planetary need as one of more and better management and technology, rather than more freedom from manipulative and oppressive systems, it justified the further extension of managerial power, both corporate and bureaucratic.”

I argue the worldview within Sustainable Development is based “a range of underlying cultural assumptions as necessary for societies to organise the destruction of the living world so effectively. One is anthropocentrism, where humans are considered the centre and purpose of all Life. Second is androcentrism, where patriarchal ways of being and organising are privileged so that aspects of being and knowing that are regarded as feminine are systematically marginalised. Third is the desacralisation of nature, where all Life is seen as merely material phenomena with no intrinsic worth, without mystery or sanctity, so it can be utilised or substituted whenever those with the power choose to do so.”

Whereas such critiques have been seen in the past as too radical or esoteric, the harsh human implications of environmental breakdown remind us that, speaking purely pragmatically, nature was always the boss. The paper is currently under review, and I am looking forward to the feedback.

Q – Why is this important?

Jem – People’s lives are increasingly in danger from the effects of an environmental breakdown that is made worse by the current economic system and those who promote or apologise for it. The people who manage large budgets and make policies need to recognise the new situation we are in, so as not to make matters worse and have a chance to reduce harm as societies are disrupted. On the other hand, people who have given up on expecting any meaningful action from large institutions need to recognise the harm that could be done by those institutions when panicked and operating from a redundant paradigm. Of course, none of these attempts to shift attention may work at scale, with complacency, cowardice, or greed characterising the behaviour of managerial elites over the coming decades. However, it feels important to many of us to try.

Q – Anything I haven’t asked?

Jem – Perhaps, what can a member of the general public do? At this stage there needs to be a global awakening to the precipice that humanity has reached, so that we might all individually explore our own responses in our own communities. It starts with simply talking. Not just sharing on social media, but actually talking to each other about this information, in an open-hearted and open-minded way. Not rushing to blame, shame, fix or deny. Allowing our shock and worry to exist – and supporting each other as we experience those emotions. Then deciding if we want to become ‘positive pessimists’, where we openly try to make the best of a bad situation, by doing good and finding joy, no matter what is to come.

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Read the article in the Independent newspaper about the letter and drawing on this interview.

If you have a PhD and would like to engage other scholars in helping shift the policy agenda to one that recognises reality and the unfolding societal disruptions it entails, then please consider signing the original International Scholars Warning on Societal Disruption and Collapse.

If you are interested or working on related themes, but not a scholar, then I recommend the Deep Adaptation Forum.

If you are in the UK and would like to study leadership and communications on these topics in a 5-day starting on June 13th, then the deadline for your application is June 8th!

I attended the event to present the letter to delegates

Telling Uncomfortable Truths to Progressives

Despite us having learned to be human within capitalist societies, more of us are breaking free from its limiting ideologies. Those ideologies include deep stories about dominating nature, competitive humans, constricted knowing, and perpetual material expansion, which surround us nearly all the time. That is why those ideologies also express themselves within social movements, political agendas, and some of our friends’ social media postings about latest fixation of legacy media. And as those ideologies shape our habits of thought, to separate ourselves from them can be difficult. Which is why it is so heartening to witness more people breaking free and beginning to live differently – and now calling on others to do the same. Whether staying in their jobs and promoting different ways of working, or quitting to make time to create local cooperatives, permaculture projects, emotional support groups, or to promote needed technologies and public policies, many people are improving their lives and those of others.

We do not read about them in the headlines of the legacy media or its echo chambers in social media. More often than not, such people are just getting on with their new way of life. However, we all still live within societies where the various elites jostle for status and control, producing their stupid political agendas and policies in the process. That means it can be helpful when those of us freeing ourselves from capitalism’s diminishing ideologies also try to influence public understanding and public policies. The outcomes from public engagement can seem rather limited, while also generating angry responses from people who have made it their place to influence public attitudes from the confines of dominant ideology. That means that some of the worst commentary from ‘progressive’ social activists and political pundits is directed neither at the right wing nor at institutional power. Instead, their criticism is sharpest for people who break a consensus on what is ‘progressive’ to say, by sharing truths that undermine those stories that allow people to maintain self-esteem through comfortable opposition. I will share a few examples before explaining why this reaction is deeply unhelpful to necessary social change, and then cite some of the wonderful work and people who are not being limited by such negativity.

In the UK, starting from 2015, the politician Jeremy Corbyn was disliked by much of the centrist Left because his presence challenged the idea that we must always find an upside for big business for any policy proposed. In 2020, after the Deep Adaptation paper had energised a couple of years of activism after it had gone viral, I was criticised by the eco-modern centrist environmentalists for not helping climate activism. Such criticism also included some imaginative concoctions that made me seem distasteful to their readers. Many British professional environmentalists applauded that critique, perhaps because maligning the messenger would seem to keep their reformist hopes alive. The alternative would involve asking themselves, as I had done, whether their work was futile, and they were lying to themselves to keep their income, status, and identity.

Fast forward to 2022, and the uncomfortable truth for Western environmentalists is that the ecomodern vision of economies thriving on renewable energy within a stable climate is, I am sorry to say, utter bullshit. Worse, it is the kind of bullshit that will promote destructive policies that damage the environment and indigenous communities. If that isn’t bad enough, it will distract many of us from the need for policies that could help shrink Western economies in as equitable and life-enhancing ways as possible. When looking at the data from organisations as authoritative as the UN IEA, as well as relevant academic studies, it is obvious that ecomodernism is bullshit. Therefore, much of the support for it is due to the corporate and venture capitalists’ interests in further plundering the planet for profit, while distracting us from real change, which requires a Real Green Revolution. Some of the people who are promoting the ecomodern fairy-tale know that it is not possible. That might explain why they demonise people who openly point out the limitations and call for more of a focus on degrowth and re-localisation of economies. But unless environmentalists pursue our freedom from oppression by ideologies maintained by capitalism, we may end up with misanthropic and authoritarian attitudes and proposals.

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Away from the rhetorical performances of people who are concerned that we might flee the ‘house of modernity’, people at the grassroots in communities and local governments have been trying their best to reduce environmental impacts and stimulate dialogues about how to adapt to a more disrupted future – both environmentally and economically. One person doing that within UK local government is Kevin Frea. He is the Deputy Leader of Lancaster City Council. He also established the network amongst the UK Councils that have declared a climate emergency. That is why I was delighted to see Kevin warn of the potential of ecomodern delusions within the reformist Left, in an article in the Morning Star newspaper, which I reprint below. It is also why we wanted to hear from him during a Deep Adaptation Q&A last week.

Kevin will be joining me and other participants on a short sustainable leadership course in Lancaster in June. During the course we explore more critical approaches to understanding the situation we face and how positive change can happen. We depart from the ecomodern lullabies that try to calm us with myths that technology, billionaires and authoritarian leaders will make the bad stuff go away. Instead, we face the present predicament and coming disasters with more sobriety and maturity. It is painful work, but nourishing when shared between brave souls, and I invite you to join us if you can get to the UK next month.

We have work to do, as most pressure groups, pundits and publications of the Western environmental sector currently flounder amidst the lies of ecomodernism. Whereas it is disappointing to witness British magazines like The Ecologist and Open Democracy stumble into aggressive and divisive defence of ecomodern delusion, in the end ‘the truth will out.’ And although it can be painful to be on the receiving end of misleading and denigrating critique, we can understand the fear that motivates such behaviour. Because it is a fear that we all share and will accompany us for the rest of our lives. It is a fear we can both name and learn from as we celebrate radical responses to our predicament. Because they already exist, as the economic re-localisation chapter in my Deep Adaptation book illustrates. The authors of that chapter have been doing incredible work, free of capitalism’s diminishing ideologies. Matthew Slater has been designing the systems for communities to trade within themselves without using money, as a way to help grow their resilience to future economic and environmental shocks. Extinction Rebellion founder member Skeena Rathor has been rolling out new approaches to help people be in community in ways that embody collaborative and matrifocal ways of organising. Like Kevin, they know it is also time to tell uncomfortable truths to progressives.

Please join us: share your stories of hopes, failures, and successes. Anywhere! But also, via the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn. If you are in the UK next month, please also consider participating in the free Deep Adaptation conference in Lancaster. If you want to be informed of the latest radical ideas and practices in response to our environmental predicament, please sign up to the Deep Adaptation Quarterly newsletter. You can find out about Skeena’s effort to transmute the punishment of her by the British state here.

Here is the video of the Q&A with Kevin Frea and below that is his article in the Morning Star.

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Book review of Burnt, by Kevin Frea, in The Morning Star

The recent trio of IPCC reports have amplified the urgent need for carbon emissions to be reduced by 50% by 2030, starting now. Incredibly, rather than support the demands of the ‘Just Stop Oil’ protestors to halt all new fossil fuel projects (a call supported by the International Energy Agency and the Secretary-General of the UN) the Labour, Lib Dem & Conservative parties have called for the protestors to be ‘cracked down on’ and for their demands to be rejected.

I celebrated at the Labour Party Conference in 2019 when a Green New Deal and a 2030 zero carbon target were adopted in the face of strong opposition from the big Unions and even Labour’s own Environmental Society, SERA. Chris Saltmarsh co-founded ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’, so I opened his book with high expectations. However, reading Burnt alongside other analyses of the necessary changes to the British economy and society, from ‘Limits to Growth’ published in 1972 to ‘Less is More’ by Jason Hickel, I fear that inconvenient truths about reducing energy and resource consumption are being ignored in policy discussions. We’ve had more than fifty years of strategies to address the climate & ecological emergencies yet their collective impact has hardly hindered the machine which is literally laying waste to our life-support system.

Chris sets the scene in a chapter surveying humanity’s dire situation. Perhaps to widen the appeal, it stopped short of the most recent and most apocalyptic predictions..Saltmarsh, like Greta Thunberg, leaves the details to the experts in order to make his next point about justice – the best section of the book. He gives concrete examples of how government programmes and climate interventions all-too-inadvertently hurt some of the people they intended to help. For Saltmarsh, any climate action must be steeped in notions of justice, and that brings us to politics.

He argues strongly that government engagement is a necessary part of the climate response equation, and therefore that the climate movement must win political power, then this remark: “Whichever [strategy] we choose [to win state power], we should really go all in on it.” Burnt, p.127

This is a little bit troubling because the world does not work like that anymore, if it ever did. These are times of fragmentation, plurality, when the subject of protest changes every few months, when most manifestations last a single day, when agents provocateurs and corrosive conspiracy theories attach themselves to every alternative movement. Elections are not won when half the electorate chooses a strategy. Elections are won by political messaging which is broad enough to appeal to half the electorate.

He then sketches out 9 policy pillars of a Just Green New Deal, nothing surprising there, except that he didn’t mention any of the problems with gaining traction for the whole idea of greening the economy. He could be forgiven if he missed the 2020 paper in the One Earth journal entitled “Green Sacrifice Zones, or Why a Green New Deal Cannot Ignore the Cost Shifts of Just Transitions.” Like many other analyses, it gives scores of reasons not only why there simply aren’t enough resources to green our energy systems, but also why no attempt to do so could be considered ‘just’; not only are there not enough minerals to go around, so that wealthy countries would control their allocation, but the mineral extraction itself would consume resources, and damage habitats, ecosystems and livelihoods. Given that these ideas were presented in an accessible documentary called Bright Green Lies, no serious treatment of the topic should ignore them.

Just one more piece of the puzzle remains, which is how the Left should take power. Many people would find his answer, through the trade unions, surprising. He gives many anecdotes about trades union successes, even recent ones, but even I understand that Thatcher and Reagan ‘broke’ the unions for a reason, and New Labour did little to build them up. Now most of the unions (with a handful of notable exceptions who despair of the current Labour Leadership) could be characterised as neutered, de-radicalised, infected by managerialism and representing much more middle-class interests and many Tory voters; it takes a vivid imagination to see them rising up and sweeping the Labour Party into power.

Saltmarsh’s strategy seems ill-timed to say the least. He must have started work on the book very soon after Corbyn’s election loss, not an ordinary defeat or a close defeat, but a defeat largely made possible by members of his own party who preferred to lose to the right than win as the left. Thirty-five years ago this strategy would have been apposite, five years ago would have seemed improbable but prophetic in the light of Corbyn’s rise, but now? Corbyn has been replaced by a neoliberal unelectable nobody, and the left banished to the outer margins of politics. I for one would not double down on a strategy of Labour winning the next election, or the one after that.

This is after all a climate emergency, and local councils have declared it as such as a direct result of Climate Strikers and Extinction Rebellion’s campaigning. That provides a commitment that future campaigns can and should call upon. This is a greater legacy than Jeremy Corbyn’s two lost election campaigns, but Saltmarsh, who had ‘moved on’ from direct action, considers it only as evidence of XR’s political failure. This is a shame because at the local level much can be done, and where Labour is actually allowed to govern. It also offers a viable path to work towards national influence and power, while achieving more immediate changes in the lives of citizens.

Despite its use of past tense in the title, the biggest limitation of Burnt was the whole framing of climate change as something which is coming, and which can be averted. Anyone versed in the climate justice discourse knows that global heating is already ruining the lives of the most vulnerable, and will certainly worsen considerably, before any of our mitigative attempts can make a dent in it. Talk of evading it is simply naive. This false ‘we can still evade it’ also brings with it a relentless focus on a very clear, but very improbable notion of success, which sets us up to fail very badly. It is time for the climate movement to admit that it has tried everything and not even come close to tackling the causes of the climate and ecological emergencies, which are very deep, and in which our elites are very invested. A significant amount of effort must now be given over to adaptation to the new reality. In that context, a union powered neo-Corbyn victory and a just Green New Deal might be worth fighting for, or they might not.

But one remark toward the end cast the whole book in a new light and somewhat redeemed it, at least for me. It turned a political what-if into a psychological thriller. For one moment, another Saltmarsh, hitherto doubtless cowed into embarrassed silence, piped up with five words. Even though bracketed, it was music to my ears.

“We don’t have to be optimistic (On most days I’m not) but we can be hopeful.”

That Saltmarsh, hesitant and vulnerable, who stuck his head above the parapet to be shot at by the fake optimists, gets my salute. Those five meek words reveal that the louder Saltmarsh, and many big environmentalists besides, are proclaiming to us the comforting lies they tell themselves to avoid the pain of thinking realistically about the future. But neither volume nor repetition are measures of Truth.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the book inaccurately dismisses a movement which is all about helping people through climate despair, Deep Adaptation, as ‘austere primitivism’. Instead, a more sober and inclusive range of ideas, big and small, are being pioneered after despair within that movement, as chronicled in a book about it. If young people could be guided through their despair rather than drowning it under reams (in this case chapters) of wishful thinking, something more impactful could emerge to shape the difficult future they must now live into.

Kevin Frea is Deputy Leader of Lancaster City Council and the founder of Climate Emergency UK. He originally joined Labour in the 70’s (and SERA when it had eco-socialist tendencies) and then re-joined in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and became a Councillor in 2017. He resigned from Labour with several fellow Councillors when the new leadership of the Labour Party abandoned the Conference net zero commitments, and is now an Independent Eco-Socialist.

It’s time they heard from you on societal breakdown

EDITORIAL for the Deep Adaptation Quarterly, Issue 10, April 7th 2022.

Over the past months, a few new terms have appeared in the news as pundits seek frameworks to explain what is happening around the world. I have read that we are in a period of polycrisis, or permacrisis, or even World War 3. There are various reasons offered for why more of us are experiencing tougher and increasingly anxious circumstances. Since the pundits work for legacy media organisations, the explanations we hear are anything other than the death throes of global capitalism as it hits natural limits. And since they speak from within the ‘Overton window’ of respectable conversation, neither do we hear that our situation can be described as the beginning of the breakdown of industrial consumer societies. Instead, a superficial, distracting, and sedating hope of returning to something more ‘normal’ is a compulsion for them. So I am pleased to greet you here in this Quarterly, outside that narrow scope of perception. 

Continue reading “It’s time they heard from you on societal breakdown”

Where Wisdom and Geoengineering Meet

More climate scientists say emissions cuts are not enough and we face imminent catastrophe unless deliberately altering the climate. What are the options and challenges? I interviewed Dr Ye Tao who is proposing we use massive amounts of mirrors to reduce harm in the short term.

By Jem Bendell

In 2018, Dr Ye Tao was a Harvard engineer working on nanoscale magnetic resonance imaging. He read the Deep Adaptation paper on climate disaster, then cross-checked it with over a thousand peer-reviewed papers across several climate-relevant fields, and realised the growing existential risk to modern civilisation. So that included everything he was working on. He wondered what would be the point of continuing with his engineering work in such a scenario. Instead, Dr Tao decided to repurpose his expertise to try to give humanity a better chance of reducing the catastrophe ahead. Dr Tao has since been developing and promoting what he argues is a scalable, safe, green and flexible form of climate engineering. It proposes using mirrors to reflect the sun, mostly from the ground and over coral reefs at sea, to cool agricultural land, save fresh water, and preserve ecosystems. He arrived at this idea after analysing and debunking the science and economics behind other approaches to geoengineering (which is also known today as ‘climate repair’ and ‘climate restoration’). 

Continue reading “Where Wisdom and Geoengineering Meet”

Don’t blame Putin or Covid for your sky-high grocery bill

Today I launched my essay about the biggest scam in human history, which is the Central Bank buying of corporate bonds. The essay is available on the P2P Foundation website. I am delighted a promoter of radically democratic economic alternatives published the essay, as the scale of the ‘Quantitative Sleazing’ scam is an indicator of how it is hopeless to attempt reform of the monetary system. The multi-millionaires and their relatives in charge of the relevant financial institutions will continue to risk the collapse of monetary systems while enriching themselves and making us poorer through high inflation. You can read the full essay Responding to Inflation From a Pandemic of Quantitative Sleazing – P2P Foundation or browse below the twitter thread I produced to summarise some of the issues arising.

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Don’t blame #Putin or #Covid for your sky-high grocery bill. Blame the elites who collude with the biggest scam in history, involving #CentralBanks and their friends in finance, under the cover of the pandemic. A thread on #QuantitativeSleazing…

Continue reading “Don’t blame Putin or Covid for your sky-high grocery bill”

Hoarding Green Righteousness Will Not Get Us Far – dialogue will

Looking at how some people in the West use the term ‘climate justice,’ I wonder if we are seeing the latest in middle class Western instrumentalization of the suffering and injustices of the world, for the purposes of further self-appreciation. That can occur because of the way commentators within the contemporary Western environmental movement have been inculcated in the hierarchical ideology of the Professional Managerial Class. Within that ideology, there is an instinct towards what Professor Catherine Liu calls ‘virtue hoarding’ where any issue of moral consideration is material for adding to one’s story of being an ethically superior self, who needs to impose one’s ideas on other people, particularly the working class. As decolonial scholar Professor Vanessa Andreotti explained in her Q&A with me, there is a lot more ‘composting of our shit’ from modernity that we need to do first before being useful in promoting either justice or healing after centuries of colonial domination.

Perhaps an example of this phenomenon is the discussion emerging around a rather ‘uppity’ damning of the Deep Adaptation movement that was published in The Ecologist Magazine. In an open letter by one of the authors on the receiving end of their ire, Matthew Slater wrote the following to the author:

Continue reading “Hoarding Green Righteousness Will Not Get Us Far – dialogue will”

Annual update from Jem

This is the update I sent to subscribers to my personal professional newsletter, which I hadn’t sent for a year.

Many of us intuited, or calculated, that life would not really return to ‘normal’, even if we did not expect war in Europe. I hope that despite the stresses and strains, that your past year has had some silver linings. For me, it was a year of change. Workwise, it was a big year for my written outputs, with a book and journal articles out on Deep Adaptation to climate chaos. But it was also a creative time, with more poetry, art and music than ever before. For that, I blame the virus. But more on that later. First, I want to mention one thing that didn’t happen. I didn’t teach in person at all! So, I am super happy that in June I will once again lead a weeklong leadership course in the English Lake District. I hope I remember how to stand in front of people, rather than sit in front of a screen. And I hope that rationality and ethics prevail over jingoism, pride and hidden agendas, so that we see a resolution to the conflict in Europe well before then.  

Deep Adaptation now has a nice Wikipedia page, which tells people that it is not just a painful paper from 2018, but also a framework and international community – perhaps even a movement. A book I co-edited with Rupert Read was released that illustrates the many ways people are positively engaging after anticipating societal disruption, or even collapse. We had a great book launch with Joanna Macy and Professor Jonathan Gosling amongst the contributors. I gave an extended interview to FacingFutureTV about what this book and topic means for me, and was delighted to read a reflective review of the book in World Literature Today (perhaps start with that to decide if the book topic is of interest).

As an academic, I sought to produce research that is relevant to practice. The journal Sustainability published my co-authored paper Group Facilitation on Societal Disruption and Collapse: Insights from Deep Adaptation, which we hope help will people that hold space and design education on this topic. A journal of psychotherapy published a paper I wrote about Psychological insights on discussing societal disruption and collapse. In that paper I summarised the sociology and psychology on the way that some members of the general public can become supporters of authoritarian policies when they feel increasingly vulnerable, anxious and confused. That paper and topic was picked up by a founder member of Extinction Rebellion when she discussed the need to consider collapse and not respond with authoritarianism. More on that in a minute.

During the year I gave a few presentations, such as a panel talk at the International Leadership Association. However, my main interest for online live conversation continued to be hosting other people to share their views relating to societal disruption and collapse. I discussed topic with a variety of people, including the chairperson of Amnesty International, Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, Scott Williams the UN Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) agency and Asiya Odugleh-Kulev of the – newly controversial – World Health Organisation (WHO). A full playlist of past Q&As is available.

As you might have noticed, although the topic of societal collapse was super weird and annoying for most people in 2018, it is much less so now. Instead, as the Deep Adaptation agenda is more widely accepted as useful for reducing harm as societies destabilise, it is just me that remains super weird and annoying. I jest, but my aim was to help Deep Adaptation to become a global conversation, and then step away from the curation of that to offer my views on what it might involve. Those views can be triggering for some people who might not be as radically eco-socially libertarian as myself. Although I instinctively have human rights, social justice and anti-patriarchy at the heart of my thinking, the stuff I critique or promote from that starting point can be different to what others think. Obviously, when us woke-folks disagree, we think that each other should not have existed 😉 OK, not true. Even when they call upon people to ‘cancel’ me. Henceforth, my main outlet for a radical rights-based and solidarity agenda on responding to societal disruption is the newly revamped Deep Adaptation Quarterly, which I recommend you subscribe to (unlike this, it does come out every 3 months!).

A year after I had left the Deep Adaptation Forum, I wondered out loud whether we could do a bit more to bring attention to kinder and wiser forms of responding to calamity than the denialist, reactionary, prepper, authoritarian or technology-will-save-the-day narratives that are increasingly heard. To do my bit, I kept developing the Scholars Warning initiative, which released a paper on the ethics of collapse, and also a public letter signed by over 200 scholars in response to the failure of the COP26 climate conference, like all before it, to address the capitalist elephant in the corporate boardroom. [If you are a scholar, please visit the website and consider signing the letter, as then you can get involved in a range of activities and receive support in the form of courses and communications advice]. 

For reasons I am not certain about, in the past year I spent more time engaged in poetry and art. I worked with an artist and film maker to put one of my poems to music and film, which was also released as a nonfungible token (NFT) as a charity fundraiser. But the main creative thing for me in the past year was discovering that I can write songs, sing them and release them. Also, that I can appear in my own music videos without too much awkwardness about how stupid I look. This creative episode came about because I got Covid and spent a few weeks in my bedroom, quite bored and lethargic, but angry about the state of the world. Not a good combo. So my guitar and song writing became my therapy. I wrote, sang and recorded songs for the first time in my life. I released 4 of the songs as an EP called Fevered Folk, which is available on all major streaming services and online shops. One of the songs is intended as an anthem for unity amongst all forms of non-violent protest, as our rights are removed by governments worldwide and characters demonised by mass media (#LoveAndRage). Another of the songs is a dark comedy about the aggressive polarisation on the pandemic (#PositiveSong). Another song is about trusting that people, myself included, will get through periods of combativeness and return to kindness and wisdom (#TrustWeGetThere). The fourth song is called “Something’s Needling Me” and is a protest against the orthodox policy agenda on the pandemic and the mass media ignoring, censorship or demonisation of any experts and doctors who question aspects of that orthodoxy. Which brings me to the other big thing of my last year – learning about epidemiology and public health, while also applying my skills of analysing frames and narratives to what was happening in the mass media during the pandemic.

I tend to start on this topic by reminding everyone that journalists of large media outlets have admitted they have been deliberately trying to manipulate attitudes on the pandemic and our responses to it. In itself, that is wrong and means that the potential for reasonable conversations about policy options for public health are impaired. It means that if you have not looked into things for yourself, and sought opinions from expert epidemiologists, immunologists, and vaccinologists who do not work as spokespersons for government, ministries and related professional bodies (i.e. the medical establishment), then you are misinformed. I don’t mean to be impolite – and some people can be thankful for being informed they are misinformed. But it is worse than that. The misinformation has targeted your values and morals to manipulate not only your thoughts but your feelings about this issue – because that is what professionals in persuasion techniques do, and they have been advising the authorities and media. If you come on my course in June you would learn about how these ‘dark arts’ weaponize moral psychology to manipulate us, and the complicated issues that arise for those of us who want to communicate powerfully at times but abhor manipulation. I also give examples in my writings on Covid, which I will link to below.

My view is that the orthodox agenda was overly influenced by pharmaceutical companies and a managerialist ideology which meant societies did not first focus on how to empower each other to take responsible decisions. For instance, people in precarious working arrangements were commuting to work despite being symptomatic, because otherwise they would not get paid or risk their employment. As the months passed and media became nastier about open discussion and governments became oppressive about personal health choices, I grew more uncomfortable. Then, as roughly about half the people I knew in either the environmental fields or Deep Adaptation communities seemed to begin dehumanizing people and supporting the removal of their human rights, I decided to share my ideas on an alternative approach. In October, I explained why a more citizens-based approach to the pandemic is sensible and some of what it could involve. It was very close to the ideas of the Great Barrington Declaration, but with more attention to workers’ rights. If you are interested in contrarian views that are neither conspiracy nor hard right, then I list my series of writings on the topic here. In one of my essays, I explain how the reaction to Covid can be regarded as a step towards societal breakdown, and thus clearly a topic for Deep Adaptation. If you prefer videos, then I recommend my recorded presentation to an African audience, that summarises my views on what we could learn from how Africa has been the world’s leader in avoiding public health harm from pandemic.

Given how confident the followers of the orthodoxy are that they are intellectually and morally correct, I knew that sharing my ideas would generate a painful backlash. Despite that backlash, I know I am lucky not to have experienced the kind of medical aggression from family members, neighbours, shopkeepers and employers, that so many people have experienced due to their personal health decisions and views. That medical aggression was even a contributing factor to someone I know committing suicide. Therefore, I helped to launch a network of support circles called Freedom To Care, which are free to join if you have been experiencing difficult because of not agreeing with the orthodoxy of the pandemic. Ironically, or tragically, some people have prevented information about these emotional support circles reaching people in the networks they support. And so I am mentioning them here in my personal newsletter.

Looking back, the year since I last sent an update has often been quite stressful. I have a particular sadness at seeing that the efforts of the Deep Adaptation Forum to promote curiosity, compassion and respect in response to growing anxieties about vulnerabilities have not always prevented some participants from expressing bigotry, hate and disrespect in ways encouraged by state officials, mass media and BigTech censorship. It is also sad that some people then consider I am being divisive by criticizing such behaviours, rather than reflecting on their own by-standing to hatred allied to state power and corporate greed. I am also sad, although understanding, that whereas many people involved in either environmentalism or Deep Adaptation have written to me to express support, nearly all of them explain that either they cannot speak out due to professional concerns, or because they do not wish to expose themselves to the disgust of their peers. Given that people outside such communities of interest have been far quicker to speak out, I wonder what this indicates about where solidarity with truth, rights, peace and justice will be found as societies crumble. Perhaps not from people who live in middle class ‘comfortable opposition’ within advanced consumer societies? Or perhaps it is just taking a little time for people to work through their fears and recommit to resisting authoritarian responses to social concerns. I hope so!

To help me with the stresses of the past year, I have been grateful for the weekend retreats every two months that I co-lead at a Buddhist Temple. On one of those retreats I rescued a kitten who had been abandoned there. He has reminded me of the simple yet profound stuff that all of us lifeforms both need and give.

If only we could teach the world to purr, in perfect harmony. But first, here’s that first music video I released…

I posted this newsletter as an article on LinkedIn and welcome your feedback shared over there.

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Leading in disruptive times – support yourself with a short course

“The mix of gentle, reflective and meditative practices, joyful play, hard academia and questioning debate and conversation allowed me to engage with each element in a different way, and preventing me from becoming weary mentally or emotionally from too much of one thing.” A past participant in a week long leadership course in the Lake District, UK, with Jem Bendell and Katie Carr.

Most leadership courses that I know about are taught with assumptions that the world is getting better, that we know what better means, and that students of leadership want to play a larger role in that success. Whether leadership is being developed in management schools, public policy schools or by professional development consultants, those assumptions seem pervasive. As a Professor of Leadership, over the past decade I have attended many such courses, from the hills of Bali to halls of Harvard Uni. Even those leadership courses that are themed on the problems of environmental sustainability and social justice incorporate those three assumptions. If you think they are reasonable, perhaps even aspirational, then you would not be alone. Because they are assumptions that relate to some of the core ideas of modern societies. However, I take a different view. I believe that seeking personal success within a society that one assumes to be progressing is now an unhelpful starting point for learning leadership that meets the predicaments of our time. Courses that respond to that idea can even encourage people to regard themselves, others, and the world, in counterproductive ways. Instead, helpful forms of leadership in disruptive times can start from the perspective that the world is not going to get ‘better,’ that we can drop inherited ideas of what ‘better’ means, and that students of leadership can seek to engage positively in society without attachment to pre-determined outcomes. Rather, we can engage in leadership learning as a way of exploring what to become, and what to do, as societies become more unstable and the old ways of life break down.

Since 2014, I have taught a leadership course over a week that grows from this alternative starting point. Many participants have found the shifts in perception of both themselves and our times to be life changing. They have come from many walks of life – UN, governments, political parties, local governments, corporations, banks, NGOs, the police, academics and activist groups – and from many parts of the world. Since 2018, after I personally concluded that the collapse of industrial consumer societies is inevitable, the context of increasing disruption and the framework of ‘deep adaptation’ have become more important to the course. If this concept is new to you, I recommend listening to the introduction to my book on Deep Adaptation. Over the years, many of the alumni have stayed in touch and provide ongoing mentoring to each other. Because making a positive contribution to societies in crisis requires constant re-evaluation and looking after one’s own emotional wellbeing, that ongoing support is important.

Continue reading “Leading in disruptive times – support yourself with a short course”

The Wisdom of Play in Times Like These

I first met Zori at an Improvisational Theatre workshop. I set up the free weekly gathering as I had recently discovered Improv and knew I needed it in my life. It is the perfect therapy for a perfectionist, for someone who feels they need to know and calculate everything before doing something. Because you can’t do that with Improv. After the workshop a group of us went to dinner and I told Zori the paper I had been working on. As a former IT entrepreneur and someone exploring the possibility of starting a business, she was interested in the environmental theme. I explained how during my year unpaid sabbatical from my University job, I had returned to reading the scientific literature on climate change, and had concluded that it is too late to sustain the industrial consumer societies that we depend upon. I had also concluded that this scenario was not in the distant future, but that many of us would suffer and die as a result of the breakdown of the systems that feed, cloth, house, protect and motivate us. 

“How long do we have?” asked Zori, as we waited for our dinner.  

Continue reading “The Wisdom of Play in Times Like These”

Ukraine: how it could go and what to do about it

The Russian invasion is shocking, terrible and worrying. In addition, the years of destabilizing of Ukraine by USA and Russia, and the ensuing civil war, has also been really bad. According to many analysts, who know more than I do about the politics involved, those past actions made this new war highly likely. But the new level of aggression from Russia is unnecessary and illegitimate. Like many people, I am feeling dismayed that people continue to kill each other for what appears to be a desire for power or expressing pride. Also, like many people, I fear how this situation could escalate. Hopefully the killing can be stopped, and political settlements reached very soon.

Like many of my friends, I look upon the suffering and dramas of the world and feel not only dismayed but also powerlessness. That sense of powerlessness can drive us towards an argument with whomever is within reach, particularly online. Such arguments might give a momentary release from our pain of being powerless. But such arguments do not necessarily achieve anything. Worse, they can shut down the space for lateral thinking and generative dialogue on how to reduce harm, avoid escalation and seek justice.

So, what should we do when wars break out? I am a member of a few networks of people who I have noticed consider themselves morally agentic individuals, many of whom have senior roles in their societies. I have seen a lot of messages in the last few days about what leaders should do, or what each of us can do. Most of these ideas look like either leading to escalation or being completely ineffectual. In contrast, right now, my honest view is that I have no idea what to do. Condemning the violence is obvious. Like many, I condemn the violence before the Russian invasion and from the Russian invasion. That part is easy for onlookers. But it does not have much impact. So, I find myself in a situation of wanting to learn more about why, how and what next, before deciding what might be useful to say or do.

With that reticence in mind, I have been surprised to see various people call for the militaries of the West to directly engage Russia. It is obvious where that could lead. Part of my own process of reflection is to consider the wider forces involved, in order to discern what situations might develop, so that I can avoid contributing to a worsening of a situation. That means I interpret current events with some understanding of the wider geopolitical tensions and strategies. For instance, some countries are on record in their geopolitical strategy documents that they want to prevent Europe from becoming a global superpower. However, destroying the continent in war would be a heinous way of doing that. It could be easy enough to make European nations struggle more for the gas that fuels its industry and fertilizes its agriculture. Knowing there could be hidden motives and machinations, I think that for all the people of Europe, Ukraine and Russia, we need to maintain ways of having calm conversations about what might de-escalate the situation and return Ukraine to peace and good governance.

That is why it is concerning to witness attempts to demonize anyone in the West who wants to discuss more broadly how this war came to be, or what a de-escalation might involve. The tactic of some journalists is to make it seem shameful to participate in a broader conversation, and for anyone who does that to be subjects of our disgust. Why do some journalists do that? They know that most people fear being shamed in public, and that anyone we are disgusted by, is never listened to. Therefore, the aim of shaming the possibilities for broader discussion on a war is so we all follow the narrative of the powerful in our respective countries: whatever that narrative is now or might become in future. So, when we see shaming tactics used, it reveals what agenda the shamers are working in service of: zero dialogue and maximum conformity. I believe that by reducing policy scrutiny and accountability in that way is unhelpful for the goal of peace and justice at any time, including wartime.

In direct opposition to that kind of shutting down of dialogue, I want to participate in open-minded discussions about what might be happening and what might happen. That is not to welcome any conspiracy stories. Indeed, belief in conspiracy stories that a group of people have a secret agenda that is driving everything is another way of dealing with the emotions of feeling upset and powerless – by blaming an imaginary all powerful evil entity. Instead, I want to offer a hypothetical scenario to stimulate your own reflection.

The scenario draws from two phenomena I have heard are happening ‘under the radar’ and which could become decisive. First, private money has started flowing into Ukraine to buy arms to fight the Russian army. Second, various non-state actors (businesses and others) are acting to try to take Russia off the internet. There are arguments for and against each action. But what might happen next? Here are my guesses at possible futures.

  1. The cyber-reaction by non-state actors to the Russian invasion partly succeeds, so that Russians are taken offline.
  2. The Russian government retaliates via cyber-attacks on the nonstate actors that worked to take it offline, as well as the financial donors to the Ukraine military.
  3. Suddenly various internet services around the world are disrupted. Your webmail doesn’t work and emails bounce. Your messenger services don’t work. Your financial transactions don’t go through.
  4. The world’s media announces this is a Russian cyberwar on the whole world. While there might be some truth in that characterisation, Russia responds that these are ‘false flag’ cyber-attacks, used as a psychological war by the West against its own people. Some alternative media in the West agrees.  
  5. The mass media in the West establishes the narrative that the West is now in a new perpetual state of cyberwar with Russia.
  6. BigTech responds to the cyber-security crisis by requiring all users of their services to prove who we are, with government issued identification. In many countries that requirement is mandated by law.
  7. Additionally, governments pass laws that any provider of internet services is now required to ban any users that are deemed either supportive of extremism or rogue states. The algorithms start hiding, suspending and deleting lots of people online.
  8. To not become victims of such algorithmic sanction, people sign up to services that help prove that we are not a person of concern. These systems involve various ongoing checks on our beliefs and behaviours.
  9. The war comes to an end with the powerful now having more control over our lives and what we are allowed argue about…

Why do I share this hypothetical scenario? Because any kind of disruptive event can be used to further the agenda of the powerful, and there is an important agenda to be aware of, that is not a conspiracy, but the natural progression of global capitalism. That is a trajectory of societies towards what Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has called ‘technofeudalism’ where we all become the serfs of global technology corporations. To labour a point – recognising that horrors like wars can be used by elites to further the slide into technofeudalism does not mean there is a conspiracy. It would not mean that BigTech somehow provoked Vladimir Putin directly, or via US foreign policy. That is the way conspiracy theorists can undermine serious dialogue towards understanding how capitalist interests are always lurking to take advantage of disaster, or fears or disasters – from war, to health, to climate and beyond.  

To have any chance of addressing the disruptions, rather than becoming victims of the elites’ use of such disruptions for their own strategic aims, we in the general public must maintain our capacity for open dialogue. Sadly, we have seen that a lot of people just engage online to feel part of a morally superior mob. Indeed, some people may be trying to make us engage in that way precisely to enforce conformity with the dominant narratives, as I described earlier.

So back to the question of what should I do? Whether on the conflict in Ukraine, or on the way that capitalists take advantage of disasters to further their power? After taking the time to reflect as I wrote this blog, I came up with the following ideas.

  • Perceive. Let’s seek to notice how various ideas that we are hearing are inviting us to feel about ‘categories’ of people. Let’s notice if we are feeling disgusted or angry as a result of such information, and try neither to conclude nor communicate from such emotions. Instead, let’s ask for more about the potential implications of what is being said. That can be done publicly, in all kinds of ways. For instance, as usual, I wrote a blog mainly to be able to share with people I know, so that I can have better conversations about this situation. You might decide to engage journalists or politicians about it. Sometimes you will be called names, threatened or maligned in some other way. Don’t worry too much about that as many people will recognise such tactics for what they are, and it will give you are chance to point out such tactics as a toxic ploy (yep, I speak from experience).   
  • Protest. I was involved in anti-war demonstrations in the past, particularly in 2003. It did not stop the war. But it demonstrated that there was not such widespread public support for it. People in Russia are rightly protesting against the war. People in Europe may also start protesting against any escalation from the West. It is important that the media in any country is not allowed to get away with telling just one story about public opinion. Once you start protesting against a war, you might want to continue supporting efforts to stop all wars. For instance, the horrors in the Yemen cast a shadow on any of our expressions of concern for people in the world.
  • Prepare. Not only could wars trigger a cyber-crash, but the onward march of techno-feudalism, under the cover of cyber security, could also compromise our basic freedoms. Either the direct effects of war, or the impacts of a cyber-crash, could trigger socio-economic hardship or breakdown. It is wise to try to become a little more resilient to such disruptions. That does not just mean having a couple months of food in the cupboard. It means not having everything you depend upon on the internet, and not having everything you eat or enjoy dependent on global supply chains. It means knowing neighbours better to be able to share heat, light, and food, if necessary, and a sense of camaraderie when you might be feeling anxious. That is a long-term project, connected to trends that are, in some places, called Transition Towns and Deep Adaptation. There is no harm in transforming your anxieties into doing something practical and local right now. And I am not just talking about people in Europe; cyber-attacks could affect everyone connected to modern consumer societies.
  • Pray. Whether religious or just aware of fields of consciousness, you might believe in the power of prayer. Since I took up meditation, I have not prayed for a while. So today I will pray again. What kind of divine consciousness I will pray to – and how – is something I will have to experiment with.  

I am sure there will be many other things to do that I have not thought of. But it is OK not to know. To pause. To not let the fear open us up to any manipulation or jingoism. So I am interested to know what you are thinking and feeling, and am opening comments below for a few days. I will do some gardening on them if there are any comments or insinuations about character (mine or any others), as my hope is for something better than that.

Stay loving, stay free 😉

Jem

PS: If you are feeling such anxiety that you feel like you might not cope, then apart from seeking immediate support, I recommend this guide from psychologist Dr. Aimee Maxwell. It is something also offered as a backup for participants in the Freedom To Care support circles and has been widely recommended.