5000 downloads within a week and over 100 emails in my inbox, the release of my study on climate collapse and deep adaptation generated more attention than I had anticipated. It was written about in New York Magazine and Counter Punch. And even in Pakistan. The biblical weather the northern hemisphere has been experiencing during the summer of 2018 may have focused minds on climate change.
I released the study as an Occasional Paper with my Institute in order to “fly a kite” and see who might respond. That was because I wanted to discover who is working on this issue, to then discuss more as I explore what I might do in future. Already these new interactions are showing me the appetite people have to actively develop this agenda. It is more evidence that an understanding we face a social collapse due to climate change can lead to personal reflection, grieving, transformation and new grounds for action, rather than despair and apathy.
Some of the questions I’ve been asked are:
- What do you mean by social collapse?
- When will that come?
- What should government do for deep adaptation?
- What should I do in my community for deep adaptation?
- Are you counter-productively implying we should give up trying to fight climate change?
- Is your stance the same as the “survivalist” or “doomer” perspective?
- Are there spiritual implications to your perspective?
- Are you a credible and ethical person?
- What should I do to explore this topic further?
In answering such questions, I have been explaining that I am not an expert on this topic, as I am new to the conclusion we face an inevitable social collapse. It will require the minds of many people with more relevant experience. It means a different mindset to what we have seen thus far. But here are some ideas…
What do you mean by social collapse?
By the term “social collapse” I mean to imply an uneven ending of normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning, and hope. For some people these needs may be met in new ways. I say “social” or “societal” rather than economic or environmental, as these uneven endings will pervade society, and challenge our place within it. For instance, being a Professor won’t be much use anymore. But being myself might be.
When will that come?
Some say collapse has already begun and can point to the role of the unprecedented drought in Syria since 2010 in destabilising rural communities and creating conditions for extremism, war, and refugees. Others point to the growth in rebellious attitudes amongst electorates as indicating a widespread subconscious recognition that normal is over. But if we are talking about social collapse as I have defined it, and in the Western hemisphere, which is of interest to most who ask the question of when, then obviously that is not happening yet. How long it will take is impossible to say in complex systems. Given the impacts on food shortages, a few more Northern Hemisphere summers like this year and the return of a strong El Nino in Asia, could trigger social collapse in some countries, if we don’t respond at such a time with bold and imaginative compassion.
It’s difficult to process these ideas without a clear idea on when. So, I have sought to reconcile myself with the idea that I will see social collapse happening in the West in less than 10 years. That’s not a prediction and I hope that’s wrong. I hope we manage to delay things by massive changes in policies and behaviours. And by seeding Arctic clouds, immediately. But, as a thought experiment, as someone in their mid-40s, I am now exploring what a 10-year life expectancy makes me prioritize in life. And when I meet who wish to discuss this topic, I recommend they do the same. For parents of young children that can be particularly difficult. But denial or despair won’t help them.
What should government do for deep adaptation?
I am not an expert in any area of emergency response. And I am new to the idea that we face a social collapse. But I have some initial thoughts, which relate to the idea of resilience. First a collapse in agriculture means governments will need to prepare for how to ration food. That could mean livestock farmers that use grains having to close and our diets looking very different. It is unlikely normal free markets will work in that context. The way our financial markets will respond to the realisation of climate shocks is unpredictable and the risk is that our systems of both credit and payments could seize up. That means governments need to ensure we have electronic means of payment outside of the private banking system, so trade can continue if there is a financial collapse. Then there are things that will take a bit longer. For instance, building desalinisation plants will be key across Europe. The things I just mentioned are not in any of the national adaptation reports that I have read, which indicates how expecting social collapse invites a different level of conversation and preparation.
There will be the psychological challenge of how to help people who experience dread, grief and confusion. Many of us may be deeply affected by a loss of the assumption of progress or stability. How do we plan our lives now? That will pose huge communications challenges, if we want to enable compassionate and collaborative responses from each other as much as possible. There is a role for leadership on that – and perhaps from leaders in government.
Of course, we should try to buy some more time. We should be seeding and brightening the clouds above the Arctic immediately, as a global emergency, similar to how we would react if an extinction-sized meteor was hurtling towards Earth.
The network of professionals and activists using the term “post-growth” are discussing some useful ideas about policies and have had longer than I to consider implications.
What should I do in my community for deep adaptation?
Given that we see such poor leadership in most national governments and a poverty of resources in local governments, there is also an equally important agenda for communities. In the UK the deep adaptation framing has been used over the past 12 months to shape community discussions, supported by a Christian charity. In my own work I see global efforts at restoring local community in a material sense to be key and have been volunteering accordingly. I explain the importance of that work here. Others who are being influenced by an acceptance of a near term collapse are also looking to local resilience. Some participants in Joe Brewer’s discussions on managing planetary collapse, in Dark Mountain dialogues and in some Transition Towns initiatives also share this view.
Are you counter-productively implying we should give up trying to fight climate change?
No. A number of things can be true at the same time.
We should be clear that climate change poses an existential threat and no longer make cuts in carbon emissions a secondary concern. I still believe in a global carbon tax framework, applied upstream at energy generation and distribution, and embedded into international trade law to have teeth.
We also need to sequester carbon via changing agricultural systems, replenishing soils, growing sea weed, restoring sea grass meadows and reforestation. We should also invest massively in artificial means of carbon sequestration.
Although most forms of geo-engineering will be too risky and potentially counter-productive, the seeding and brightening of clouds above the Arctic and Antarctica is essential to experiment with immediately at scale.
We should also continue the range of activities included in a narrow interpretation of adaptation. I am just calling for a broader agenda on that.
I have noticed that some people engage in this discussion with a need not just to be right but to be more “right” than others, where their particularly approach is the best and therefore the only one worth considering. Such psychological patterns result from fear, insecurity and outrage at the situation we face. So, they are understandable. But must not affect our decision making.
Is your stance the same as the “survivalist” or “prepper” perspective?
There is a similar starting point: it is time to accept a social collapse is coming. But the discussion I’m inviting is about collective responses to reduce harm, rather than how a few people could tough it out to survive longer than others. I appreciate that prepper or survivalist responses to anticipating collapse will spread. I don’t think it will work at their goal of guaranteeing comparative longevity, given the unpredictability of the complex systems we live within. My own experience is indicative. In June, with a group of friends we toured around some eco-projects, where people have made a choice to live off the land, to varying degrees. One of those places was near Rafina, which was at the epicentre of the tragic fires in Greece just a month later. You may think you have thought of all eventualities and will have – until you haven’t. We can and should look to live more resiliently and closer to the land that feeds us, but there are no guarantees that this will help.
I also think survivalism can be a form of denial: by getting busy rather than allowing oneself to process and integrate a nearer sense of the mortality of oneself and those we love. The likelihood of climate-induced collapse invites us to make time in our lives, right now, for existential and spiritual questions. That can then help us whatever choices we make on how to approach the future.
Are there spiritual implications from your perspective?
Yes. This year I have given myself more time to study and discuss fundamental questions about the universe, reality and the self. I have participated in a range of practices that are novel to me and focus on reconnection with self, nature and each other. These include meditation, breathwork, authentic relating, yoga, peak states, and nature walks.
I am currently sceptical of what established religious institutions or promoters of self-help spiritualities are offering people that can help them comprehend our predicament. But I am fairly new to that topic and see there is much that spiritual communities could do in future.
I put together some advice on these personal dimensions to our predicament, based on my own experience, and include them at the end of this post.
Are you a credible and ethical person?
Not many academics have concluded publicly that we face an inevitable near-term social collapse. Most natural scientists would avoid using the word “inevitable” for anything due to their attention to methodology. Even the most frightening of studies from natural scientists, such as the new one on “Hothouse Earth” reserve judgement on saying what will happen or that collapse is inevitable.
In my paper I lay out the scientific studies and current measurements which lead me to the conclusion we face a near term collapse. About a dozen academics have got in touch to welcome my paper and say they have reached the same conclusion. I need to ask them all whether they wish to be public about that before then sharing on my blog.
Some wonder if I am challenging the quality of the peer review process of the journal I submitted the paper to. I am not. I think the journal editor and reviewers did their job properly. The feedback from the reviewers was helpful for clarifying to me that my conclusions in effect reject the whole premise of the subject area, and so that it is time for me to move on. The editor believed in my past work, and therefore asked me to resubmit with “major revisions.” The actual recommendations of the reviewers were withheld from me. I presumed, therefore, because one had said “reject” and the editor wanted instead to give me a chance to try again. I wrote to the editor saying that “major revisions” were not possible given the critique and requested changes which went to the core of the argument and were effectively asking for a different paper. I am waiting for confirmation of that situation from the publisher, as they would like me to state I withdrew the paper, rather than it being rejected. My view is that it was not accepted, one reviewer probably rejected it, the editor overruled that to give me another chance, but the changes requested would have amounted to a new paper with a different argument, so I withdrew from the process. I will update on that if I hear different information from the publisher on the reviewers’ actual recommended decisions.
After receiving the reviewer comments, I took some weeks to reflect on the options. I decided the situation is too grave to delay sharing my analysis and I wanted to invite conversation about what we should do. To be so public on this matter renders some of my past knowledge, experience, status and networks now redundant. It also risks opprobrium or ridicule. So, some deep breathing, long walks and sharing circles were helpful as I made the decision.
John Cleese once said that “it’s the goal of every Englishman to get to his grave unembarrassed.” Well I still feel quite English. When I was in the movie theatre last night, I realised I was so engrossed in it that my underlying sense of reality had changed. I noticed that shift when, mid-film, I came back into my non-movie reality for a moment. I then realised that the film had made me feel peaceful, with no sense of anxiety. That helped me realise I still have some way to go to find calm with the outlook I now have. But it also meant that this calm made me, in an instant, question my view on climate collapse. And what was my immediate reaction? Was it elation that perhaps things won’t collapse, massive suffering will be avoided and I have the potential for a longer life and more to contribute to? No. My initial reaction was of embarrassment. What if I’m wrong? My heart leapt, and I had a sharp intake of breath. That was a good reminder that I’m still afflicted, like many of us, with an overriding fear of embarrassment, which makes us conform. Which means I should be understanding of others whose ability to comprehend this information is shaped by their perception of what others will think of them or those who discuss this topic. It also means I should stay open to new information. It would be amazing if some eureka technology is invented. If I turn out to be wrong then that would be a wonderful opportunity for personal development, by embracing embarrassment before my grave! Indeed, I will pray to be embarrassed 🙂
What should I do to explore this topic further?
Try talking about it with some people who are open-minded and open-hearted. We don’t need many people to be conversation partners for exploring things. For networks, I recommend the following the Deep Adaptation group on LinkedIn which I established for professionals. Other info I list here.
To keep up to date with an unvarnished assessment of the latest climate measurements, I recommend the regular youtube postings of Paul Beckwith, who is completing his PhD at Ottawa University.
Below are some insights from my own struggles with this information. How I arrived at these insights is covered in my (rather long) reflection on my last few years.
Fourteen Recommendations on Living Beyond Collapse-Denial
The following recommendations arise from reflecting on the positive and negative aspects of my past four years since I began to accept the inevitability of near term social collapse.
- Return to, or explore afresh, the idea of a divine or a spirit or a consciousness or a God that is prior to the Earth and moves through the Universe right now and forever more. Do so without seeking a simple story of explanation but a sense of faith that there is an existence and a meaning beyond our culture, our species and our planet. Such ‘faith’ helps anyone to experience and process the inevitable difficulties and traumas of life.
- Listen to those stories from people both past and present who tell us that despair is not the end and therefore does not have to be avoided. Recognise how many spiritual traditions see despair as a gateway to our growth.
- Beware when people are promoting their views on what they think the implications of information will be, rather than views on the information itself. The impacts of certain information about climate on other people’s motivations are not certain, and in many cases the darkest analyses have triggered a new level of creativity and boldness. Instead, look at the information and analysis directly for yourself, without second guessing what some interpretations might lead to.
- Recognize that any emotional or intellectual resistance you may experience to information which implies catastrophe may come from what you have been consciously or subconsciously telling yourself about your own self-worth, purpose and meaning. Then remember how your views of yourself and the world have evolved through your life and still can.
- Don’t panic. Give yourself time to evolve both personally and professionally in response to your emerging awareness, but ensure you stay connected to a group or an activity which keeps reminding you of the basis for your emerging awareness.
- Recognize there is much work ahead for you to reconstitute concepts of meaning and what’s good and to align your life with those. It will not happen overnight, yet it will not happen if you do not give time to this work. There may be some time needed to bridge your existing life with the way you will want to live in future.
- Plan more time and resources for you to do things which inspire wonder at life. This could be more time in beautiful environments, or with uplifting music, or in contemplation, or through creative writing, or being with loved ones and close friends. That means freeing up time from other activities such as TV, social media and mainstream news. It may also mean downshifting from your workload.
- Look for opportunities for supported self-reflection and sense-making. This is because your worldview and self-identity will undoubtedly transform overtime as you process the new information and analysis.
- Expect a catharsis, both personal and professional. This will occur because the subconscious or conscious limits that you placed on yourself until now will be lifted. Go with that rush of energy and creativity, but be vigilant that those new activities don’t become so consuming they distract you from the personal work you still need to do.
- If you are a mission-driven professional in fields related to environment or social justice then expect that you may be driven to rebuild a sense of self-worth and that this need of the ego, while natural and potentially useful, could become a frantic distraction.
- Expect a change in your personal relationships and how you spend your spare time. Some forms of small talk and light-hearted social interaction with acquaintances may seem pointless, while you may wish to spend more time with close friends and family. While for some this could be a welcome rebalancing, for others this can become a vector of reclusiveness and loneliness. Therefore, it is important to find new ways of connecting with people on the new levels that feel meaningful to you.
- Create a positive vision of people sharing compassion, love and play. It may feel that an eco-tragic outlook means you cannot have any meaningful vision of a better future for yourself, your community, or humanity. An absence of something positive to work towards can be destabilising and limiting. Some people will think you are depressed – or depressing – and need some “positive thinking”. For a personal vision, the answer may lie in developing a vision for how you will be approaching life, rather than imagining attributes of a lifestyle. This may parallel the dimensions of a collective vision. A future full of love and learning, rather than flying cars and fancy robots, could be a way to imagine a more beautiful world. And remember, the future will still be beautiful in its own way, no matter what life forms are in it – or if your favourite town is under water!
- Don’t get dogmatic and avoid those who do. That comes from recognising that our terms for phenomena are not the same as the phenomena themselves. The words we use imply things which may have effects on us but aren’t necessarily so. Words like near-term, civilisation, collapse, and tragedy, are our words, and may trigger ideas, images and emotions which aren’t inevitable consequences of the phenomena being described.
- Do not prioritise maintaining your own mental and physical situation at the expense of the need to act in solidarity with future generations who will live with the future we are creating for them. Tomorrow’s children won’t thank us much for having joined a support group on Facebook or taken up yoga, unless it aligned with us remaining active in the world.