Professor Jem Bendell

Notes from a strategist & educator on social & organisational change, now focused on #DeepAdaptation

Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation

Posted by jembendell on April 10, 2019

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Since my paper on Deep Adaptation to climate chaos came out in July 2018 and “went viral,” there have been some criticisms of the concept and what people think it implies. Some people argue that I have overblown the case for inevitable near-term societal collapse due to climate chaos. Others argue that I have “underblown” it and that we face human extinction in the near term. Some people suggest that I have not emphasise a specific approach enough (e.g. permaculture) or that I include mention of approaches they dislike in principle (Marine Cloud Brightening over the Arctic). Others who accept a near term societal collapse is likely, argue that the people coalescing around the Deep Adaptation framing are emphasizing compassion and collaboration in a naïve way, as we need to prepare for civil and international conflict. Some people argue that it is defeatist and counterproductive to conclude it is too late to stop a societal collapse. That last one is a way of thinking that has existed for a while within the environmental movement, and which I unpacked in the paper itself as a mechanism of denial. And it is one that has been published yesterday by the respected author Jeremy Lent (who wrote the Patterning Instinct). A by-product of a concept becoming a bit famous is that many people read people’s views about the concept, rather than reading the original concept themselves. When those summaries come from critics, they can misrepresent the concept. So if you want to learn what I meant by Deep Adaptation, please read a summary here.

Last August I anticipated and discussed a range of responses that prevent people engaging in discussions on what acceptance of a coming societal collapse could mean for our life and work. Now that the concept of Deep Adaptation is more widely used for framing discussions and initiatives, in the coming weeks I will prepare a generic response to the types of criticisms I have seen since August, before imposing a moratorium on myself in responding to such. That is because my focus at this time is on helping connect people who are accepting that societal collapse is either likely, inevitable, or already unfolding, so that they can begin to share ideas and build initiatives in a positive spirit from that starting point. That is one way of living my own truth. Debating whether collapse is likely is not a way I wish to spend my time over the coming years. Ahead of sharing that general response to the range of criticisms, in this blog I will attempt to respond to environmentalists who are concerned about the Deep Adaptation approach. I will do that below, by including the full text of Jeremy Lent’s article and offering my thoughts along the way. It is a well written and well-meant piece. It provides a classic example of the “green positivity” arguments that I deconstructed in the Deep Adaptation paper itself. Jeremy’s article is called “What will you say to your grandchildren?” and appeared on Open Democracy on April 9th 2019. Every paragraph of his original article appears below in italics with my response in normal text. I hope you find it of interest and some use. Over to Jeremy…

Every now and then, history has a way of forcing ordinary people to face up to a moral encounter with destiny that they never expected. Back in the 1930s as Adolf Hitler rose to power, those who turned away when they saw Jews getting beaten in the streets never expected that decades later, their grandchildren would turn to them with repugnance and say, “Why did you do nothing when there was still a chance to stop the horror?”

Now, nearly a century on, here we are again. The fate of future generations is at stake, and each of us needs to be prepared, one day, to face posterity—in whatever form that might take—and answer the question: “What did you do when you knew our future was on the line?”

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past few months or get your daily updates exclusively from Fox News, you’ll know that our world is facing a dire climate emergency that’s rapidly reeling out of control. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a warning to humanity that we have just 12 years to turn things around before we pass the point of no return.

My reply: At this point in his writing, mostly I agree with Jeremy. Ours is a critical time in the history of humanity. It is a time to reflect on what is most important in life and focus our attention on that. One issue I have with Jeremy’s comparison of our predicament with Nazi Germany is that the problem of climate change is all pervasive, rather than comprising a specific enemy, and the environment is not under human control. A key argument in Deep Adaptation is that the latest science now indicates that we are witnessing non-linear changes in our climate system that mean self-reinforcing feedbacks have begun. My other disagreement with Jeremy is to suggest that we have 12 years to turn things around. The implication of the IPCC report is that we must be achieving massive emissions reductions and drawdown immediately, each year, or in 12 years we have already passed the point of no return. Whether they are right in that is something I’ll come back to. Now back to Jeremy…

Governments continue to waffle and ignore the blaring sirens. The pledges they’ve made under the 2015 Paris agreement will lead to three degrees of warming, which would threaten the foundations of our civilization, and they’re not even on track to meet those commitments. Even the IPCC’s dire warning of calamity is, by many accounts, too conservative, failing to take into account tipping points in the earth system with reinforcing feedback effects that could drive temperatures far beyond the IPCC’s worst case scenarios.

My reply: I agree. Since my paper came out there have been detailed studies on why the IPCC has always been behind the curve on climate change, due to their processes to arrive at consensus. To take the IPCC argument as climate reality is understandable if you aren’t actively engaged in the topic. But if you look closer, as I did in my paper, then things appear a lot worse than their 2018 report says. This is the point where many writers within a frame of “green positivity” use this scariness to call for more action. In my work, I decided not to respond to the fear arising in me by doing the same things with more urgency or imagining a promised land of sustainability. Instead, I looked more closely at what recent measurements could mean for our climate. I discovered that sea level rise is now non-linear. That means that climate change is non-linear. Which suggests that self-reinforcing feedback loops are heating our climate. Which means future warming is not under our control. We could reduce our contribution to the heating. But there is momentum in the system. The recent research on the amount of heat in the oceans lends weight to this view. In Jeremy’s article he does not address the specifics of the scientific basis for my proposal that we work on preparing for societal collapse. Back to Jeremy…

People are beginning to feel panicky in the face of oncoming disaster. Books such as David Wallace-Wells’s Uninhabitable Earth paint a picture so frightening that to some it already feels like ‘game over.’ A strange new phenomenon is emerging: while mainstream media ignore impending catastrophe, increasing numbers of people are resonating with those who say it’s now ‘too late’ to save civilization. The concept of “Deep Adaptation” is beginning to gain currency, with its proponent Jem Bendell arguing that “we face inevitable near-term societal collapse,” and therefore need to prepare for “civil unrest, lawlessness and a breakdown in normal life.”

There’s much that is true in the Deep Adaptation diagnosis of our situation, but its orientation is dangerously flawed. By turning people’s attention toward preparing for doom rather than focusing on structural political and economic changes, Deep Adaptation threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the risk of collapse by diluting efforts toward societal transformation.

My reply: This last sentence is a summary of the denial-enabling argument that I detailed in my original paper on Deep Adaptation. It is where we censure our consideration of reality due to how we think it might affect the general public. Rather than reprint the sections of my paper here that debunk this view, I will unpack the sentence. First, Jeremy mentions “doom.” I realise that since my paper came out, that we need to be more specific with our terms! I define societal collapse as “the uneven ending to our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning”.

I argue that to begin to prepare for this we need structural political and economic changes. In an article with Rabbi Newman for Extinction Rebellion, I went further than in the paper to explain some areas where such changes are needed, for both bold carbon cuts and Deep Adaptation.

The argument that placing attention on Deep Adaptation will be “diluting efforts at societal transformation” is not one that can be stated as fact when there is much evidence to the contrary. In my paper I report on studies in environmental psychology that suggest the exact opposite. I also report on the impact on my students, who became more radical in their work on the environment as a result of realizing collapse is likely, or inevitable or unfolding. Many people have quit their jobs to become full time activists as a result of that same realisation. Since the paper came out, I discovered how the same analysis published in France in 2015 has birthed a growing movement of people who are demanding major changes in food security policy and working at community and local government levels to seek resilience. There are many ways people react to the argument that life as we know it will break down in the near term. But to say that it dilutes action is, currently, not evidenced and is merely conjecture. Back to Jeremy again…

I have no disagreement with the dire assessment of our circumstances. In fact, things look even worse if you expand the scope beyond the climate emergency. Climate breakdown itself is merely a symptom of a far larger crisis: the ecological catastrophe unfolding in every domain of the living earth. Tropical forests are being decimated, making way for vast monocrops of wheat, soy, and palm oil plantations.

The oceans are being turned into a garbage dump, with projections that by 2050 they will contain more plastic than fish. Animal populations are being wiped out. The insects that form the foundation of our global ecosystem are disappearing: bees, butterflies, and countless other species in free fall. Our living planet is being ravaged mercilessly by humanity’s insatiable consumption, and there’s not much left.

My reply: The wider destruction of the biosphere is itself a horror, is exacerbated by rapid climate change and drives species extinctions. The term “climate breakdown” has become popular in activist rhetoric but is not clear. A climate does not really “breakdown” – it changes. Sometimes it changes so fast that it leads to a breakdown in ecosystems. By which I mean a complex living system such as a forest, wetland, or hillside, shifts from one state to another, with a major change in the wildlife as well as nutrient and water cycling. To say rapid climate change “is merely a symptom of a larger crisis” misrepresents the specific existential threat involved. There are deep causes of many different environmental and social problems, which involve economics, finance, patriarchy and our cultural assumptions about dominion over nature. Jeremy writes about these deeper structures in our societies in his book The Patterning Instinct. However, just because climate change arises from the same causes as other dilemmas facing humanity does not mean it is no different to those other dilemmas. To suggest that is a logical fallacy. There are many other threats to our way of life than climate change. But it is an imminent one, because disruptive weather is undermining our food production and will continue to do so. Back to Jeremy…

Deep Adaptation proponents are also on target in arguing that incremental fixes are utterly insufficient. Even if a global price on carbon was established, and if our governments invested in renewables rather than subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, we would still come up woefully short. The harsh reality is that, rather than heading toward net zero, global emissions just hit record numbers last year; Exxon, the largest shareholder-owned oil company, proudly announced recently that it is doubling down on fossil fuel extraction; and wherever you look, whether it’s air travel, globalized shipping, or beef consumption, the juggernaut driving us to climate catastrophe continues to accelerate. To cap it off, with ecological destruction and global emissions already unsustainable, the world economy is expected to triple in size by 2060.

The primary reason for this headlong fling toward disaster is that our economic system is based on perpetual growth—on the need to consume the earth at an ever-increasing rate. Our world is dominated by transnational corporations, which now account for sixty-nine of the world’s largest hundred economies. The value of these corporations is based on investors’ expectations for their continued growth, which they are driven to achieve at any cost, including the future welfare of humanity and the living earth.

It’s a gigantic Ponzi scheme that barely gets a mention because the corporations also own the mainstream media, along with most governments. The real discussions we need about humanity’s future don’t make it to the table. Even a policy goal as ambitious as the Green New Deal—rejected by most mainstream pundits as utterly unrealistic—would still be insufficient to turn things around, because it doesn’t acknowledge the need to transition our economy away from its reliance on endless growth.

My reply: I agree with Jeremy here. Our economic system is designed and destined to destroy the Earth. I have worked for many years on monetary system transformation and suggested some ideas for Extinction Rebellion in that article with Rabbi Newman. The Green New Deal, and any related idea which does not propose to redesign our financial and corporate systems, will do little to nothing to curb emissions, let alone prepare communities for the impacts from climate chaos. But Jeremy and I are about to disagree again when he says…

Faced with these realities, I understand why Deep Adaptation followers throw their hands up in despair and prepare for collapse.

My reply: “Throwing hands up” suggests a form of giving in or perhaps dismissal of the topic. Jeremy does not say which. I have witnessed no one do either as a result of accepting the inevitability, likelihood or current unfolding of societal collapse. Instead, I have witnessed a transformation of identity and priority. At different times over the years, I worried what allowing my despair might mean for my mental health and sense of self-worth. That fear of despair is something I have learned more about and explored what psychologists and spiritual teachers tell us about it. It turns out that despair can be transformative. Jeremy may seem to suggest here that “preparing for collapse” is equivalent to giving up on carbon cuts and drawdown. But I have not seen that amongst the people now engaged in Deep Adaptation. Indeed I am witnessing a great diversity of responses. Moreover, if we don’t prepare to help keep people fed, watered, in situ and peaceful, as our economic system breaks down, then we will see neither the political will or organizational power to achieve bold carbon cuts. If the power goes down across a cold country in the depth of winter, won’t people burn coal?

Jeremy has more to share on the psychology involved…

But I believe it’s wrong to declare definitively that it’s too late—that collapse is “inevitable.” It’s too late, perhaps, for the monarch butterflies, whose numbers are down 97% and headed for extinction. Too late, probably for the coral reefs that are projected not to survive beyond mid-century. Too late, clearly, for the climate refugees already fleeing their homes in desperation, only to find themselves rejected, exploited, and driven back by those whose comfort they threaten. There is plenty to grieve about in this unfolding catastrophe—it’s a valid and essential part of our response to mourn the losses we’re already experiencing. But while grieving, we must take action, not surrender to a false belief in the inevitable.

My reply: I have been inviting people to share their grief more publicly. I include here the grief of others who, like me, choose not to have children due to the predicament we are in. Many people are accepting collapse as near-certain, likely or unfolding, rather than choosing to consider it as “inevitable,” as I concluded in my paper. One doesn’t have to believe it is inevitable to embrace the need for Deep Adaptation. My interpretation of the science meant that to conclude collapse is inevitable is closer to my felt reality than to say it is likely. Moreover, I realize if one chooses to see something as “likely” rather than “inevitable”, one is consciously or sub-consciously finding mental and emotional solace in the idea that this might not happen. The meaning of the word inevitable is the same as unavoidable. My view is that we can’t avoid societal collapse. I wish that I am wrong. But I invite you to discuss together “what if” it is inevitable and see what arises as a result. In my experience the first step is to let your despair transform to you, where you drop past stories of what is sensible or not. But back to Jeremy…

Defeatism in the face of overwhelming odds is something that I, perhaps, am especially averse to, having grown up in postwar Britain.

My reply: My view, as articulated in the paper, is that Deep Adaptation invites a new basis for action and therefore is not “defeatist”. One might liken it to a strategic retreat, but it is not defeatism. Jeremy continues…

In the dark days of 1940, defeat seemed inevitable for the British, as the Nazis swept through Europe, threatening an impending invasion. For many, the only prudent course was to negotiate with Hitler and turn Britain into a vassal state, a strategy that nearly prevailed at a fateful War Cabinet meeting in May 1940. When details about this Cabinet meeting became public, in my teens, I remember a chill going through my veins. Born into a Jewish family, I realized that I probably owed my existence to those who bravely chose to overcome despair and fight on in a seemingly hopeless struggle.

My reply: I hear and welcome Jeremy’s call for courage. The comparison with war is understandable, increasingly popular in activist circles, but misguided. As society is increasingly disrupted by the impacts of rapid climate change, people will feel increasingly anxious and hear stories of who to blame and how we must suspend freedoms to save ourselves. When I see some climate activists argue we must do “whatever it takes” and have “realistic” discussions about how some people can’t be saved, I fear the rise of new forms of fascism. I will continue to argue against people who hold up the illusion that we can stop climate change as a justification for giving themselves unaccountable power.

Like Jeremy, I love stories of human ingenuity and massive social change…

A lesson to learn from this—and countless other historical episodes—is that history rarely progresses for long in a straight line. It takes unanticipated swerves that only make sense when analyzed retroactively. For ten years, Tarana Burke used the phrase “me too” to raise awareness of sexual assault, without knowing that it would one day help topple Harvey Weinstein and potentiate a movement toward transformation of abusive cultural norms. The curve balls of history are all around us. No-one can accurately predict when the next stock market crash will occur, never mind when civilization itself will come undone.

There’s a second, equally important, lesson to learn from the nonlinear transformations that we see throughout history, such as universal women’s suffrage or the legalization of same-sex marriage. They don’t just happen by themselves—they result from the dogged actions of a critical mass of engaged citizens who see something that’s wrong and, regardless of seemingly insurmountable odds, keep pushing forward driven by their sense of moral urgency. As part of a system, we all collectively participate in how that system evolves, whether we know it or not and whether we want to or not.

Paradoxically, the very precariousness of our current system, teetering on the extremes of brutal inequality and ecological devastation, increases the potential for deep structural change. Research in complex systems reveals that, when a system is stable and secure, it’s very resistant to change. But when the linkages within the system begin to unravel, it’s far more likely to undergo the kind of deep restructuring our world requires.

My reply: Unlike previous social revolutions, climate change has been the wrong kind of challenge. It was largely invisible and with no clear enemy and no clear policy ask – because our civilization was based on fossil fuels. I have argued in my paper that recent measurements suggest we are experiencing non-linear climate change, which is no longer under our control. Therefore, we could soon witness the most exponential social movement in history and it won’t stop collapse. However, it might achieve a lot else: we could reduce harm, save more people from starving, work out how to stop the Arctic unfreezing and threatening human extinction, or organize to avert meltdowns of nuclear stations in countries that collapse, and learn how to care for each other and ourselves through this calamity. Indeed, I am hopeful of an exponential transformation in human consciousness as we wake up to our predicament and thus our delusions of dominion and progress. Meanwhile, Jeremy offers a new term…

It’s not Deep Adaptation that we need right now—it’s Deep Transformation.

My reply: I chose the term Deep Adaptation to indicate how existing work on adaptation to climate change had been somewhat shallow. It was shallow in profile and funding, as most focus was on efforts to reduce emissions. Adaptation work was also shallow in its scope, as it was premised on the continuance of our industrial consumer societies. The meaning of the word transformation is a deep and radical change, so I don’t see logic in the term “deep transformation” – just a rhetorical feel. Jeremy offers it as he begins the kind of rhetorical flourish that is seen in environmental utopian writing…

The current dire predicament we’re in screams something loudly and clearly to anyone who’s listening: if we’re to retain any semblance of a healthy planet by the latter part of this century, we have to change the foundations of our civilization. We need to move from one that is wealth-based to once that is life-based—a new type of society built on life-affirming principles, often described as an Ecological Civilization. We need a global system that devolves power back to the people; that reins in the excesses of global corporations and government corruption; that replaces the insanity of infinite economic growth with a just transition toward a stable, equitable, steady-state economy optimizing human and natural flourishing.

My reply: Awakening from our delusions of separation with nature and each other is a wonderful thing to do. Liberating ourselves from political, monetary and economic systems that structure those delusions of separation is also a wonderful thing to pursue. Both are important whether they achieve any material outcome or not. We do not need a fairytale of flourishing on this planet for these processes of awakening and liberating to be pursued. Rather, such a fairytale could even be counter-productive by suggesting we only do these things in so far as they create a desired end state. It is useful here to note that many past civilizations collapsed, and many hominids went extinct over millions of years. What is humanity’s destiny in infinite time, next to a Sun that will one day blow up, and on a planet where all previous hominids have gone extinct? We were always going extinct at some point. So a state of human society that we might call flourishing would have only ever been temporary within the wider sweep of time. Recognising the impermanence of our species could invite us to consider how awake and liberated we can be today; to flourish now and during chaos and loss. Back to Jeremy…

Does that seem unlikely to you? It seems unlikely to me, too, but ‘likelihood’ and ‘inevitability’ stand a long way from each other. As Rebecca Solnit points out in Hope in the Dark, hope is not a prognostication. Taking either an optimistic or pessimistic stance on the future can justify a cop-out. An optimist says, “It will turn out fine so I don’t need to do anything.” A pessimist retorts, “Nothing I do will make a difference so let me not waste my time.” Hope, by contrast, is not a matter of estimating the odds. Hope is an active state of mind, a recognition that change is nonlinear, unpredictable, and arises from intentional engagement.

My reply: Many redefinitions of hope have been offered. Here Jeremy is pointing to the notion of an “active hope” which doesn’t imply someone or something else will fix things. Unfortunately, most people I meet who speak of their hopes at a societal level are expressing a self-calming passive hope, where there is the story of someone or something fixing things. I have two perspectives on hope. First, that to discuss whether we need active hope or not, is a distraction from what that hope is for and what it invites from us. In my paper I write of “radical hope” which begins when we give up hopes that no longer seem credible. Deep Adaptation is imbued with this radical hope – that humanity will find compassion and collaboration during terrible circumstances. Second, I have come to see any hope, even radical, as influenced by our egos’ fear of the unknown. All hope is a story of the future rather than attention to the present. If we lived ‘hopefree’ rather than hopeful, might we take more ownership and responsibility for how we are living in the present? Back to Jeremy, who quotes from a blog I wrote on hope and vision in the face of collapse…

Bendell responds to this version of hope with a comparison to a terminal cancer patient. It would be cruel, he suggests, to tell them to keep hoping, pushing them to “spend their last days in struggle and denial, rather than discovering what might matter after acceptance.” This is a false equivalency. A terminal cancer condition has a statistical history, derived from the outcomes of many thousands of similar occurrences. Our current situation is unique. There is no history available of thousands of global civilizations bringing their planetary ecosystems to breaking point. This is the only one we know of, and it would be negligent to give up on it based on a set of projections. If a doctor told your mother, “This cancer is unique and we have no experience of its prognosis. There are things we can try but they might not work,” would you advise her to give up and prepare for death? I’m not giving up on Mother Earth that easily.

My reply: Giving up on a civilization, giving up on humanity and giving up on Mother Earth are three different things. I am giving up on this civilization, and in doing so believe this gives us more chance of being effective in helping humanity and helping Mother Earth. Jeremy is arguing here that we do not give up on our civilization. I also enjoy this civilization. But it has caused the calamity that Jeremy and I have described. So, I don’t see why it’s so important not to give up on it. In addition, Jeremy writes as if this “giving up” is simply a choice of story – as if our topic here is how we wish to speak about our situation. If I hadn’t studied the latest data and instead was toying with different potential ways of talking about our situation, then I might plump for one which is easier to tell myself, friends and family. But the material world is now crashing in on our ‘story world’ (aka paradigm, worldview, discourse).

Jeremy now switches focus to current and ongoing suffering…

In truth, collapse is already happening in different parts of the world. It’s not a binary on-off switch. It’s a cruel reality bearing down on the most vulnerable among us. The desperation they’re experiencing right now makes it even more imperative to engage rather than declare game over. The millions left destitute in Africa by Cyclone Idai, the communities still ravaged in Puerto Rico, the two-thousand-year old baobab trees suddenly dying en masse, and the countless people and species yet to be devastated by global ecocide – all need those of us in positions of relative power and privilege to step up to the plate, not to throw up our hands in despair.

My reply: Yes, societal collapse triggered by climate change is underway in some places, and that is why some people are prioritizing adaptation. It is why the World Bank is now committed to put half their climate-related funds towards adaptation. That situation demonstrates the relevance of the invitation to focus on a deeper adaptation agenda. Nowhere in my work have I suggested we stop engaging in efforts at positive impact. If some people feel that they can’t continue pursuing impact unless they tell themselves a story of hope of a better tomorrow, then they may be acting from a need to affirm their ego against their fear of death. Instead, we can keep pursuing change and keep helping those afflicted by climate-related disasters, with an acceptance that we are not likely to escape tragedy ourselves. Back to Jeremy…

There’s currently much discussion about the devastating difference between 1.5° and 2.0° in global warming. There will also be a huge difference between 2.5° and 3.0°. As long as there are people at risk, and as long as there are species struggling to survive, it’s not too late to avert further disaster.

My reply: I agree. So, let us try to prevent humanity descending into civil and international war, by adapting urgently to what is coming. Without such preparations, we will make matters worse and efforts at cutting emissions will suffer. After all, there is a lot of fossil fuel and burning during war.

Like me, Jeremy is enthusiastic about children becoming vocal on climate…

This is something many of our youngest generation seem to know intuitively, putting their elders to shame. As fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg declared in her statement to the UN in Poland last November, “you are never too small to make a difference… Imagine what we can all do together, if we really wanted to.” Thunberg envisioned herself in 2078, with her own grandchildren. “They will ask,” she said, “why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.”

That’s the moral encounter with destiny we each face today. Yes, there is still time to act. Last month, inspired by Thunberg’s example, more than a million school students in over a hundred countries walked out to demand climate action.

My reply: There is always time to act, so the issue is what to act upon. In creating a ‘straw man’ argument of Deep Adaptation as amounting to inaction, Jeremy promotes a narrative that may even be counter-productive to his own aims at achieving carbon cuts and drawdown. Let’s consider the situation of the children that we are praising here. They will have to live with the future that is coming. How can they be supported in that? Education International, the global federation of teaching unions, backed their actions and called for a change in curricula so children can be supported to prepare for a difficult future. So if adults wish to act in love and solidarity with children, we could challenge how they are currently being hindered, not helped, to prepare for what is coming. That is why I have been engaging with school children, discussing collapse and the need to change their curricula (… I am making a short film on the topic).

To his credit, even Bendell disavows some of his own Deep Adaptation narrative to put his support behind protest. The Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched a mass civil disobedience campaign last year in England, blocking bridges in London and demanding an adequate response to our climate emergency. It has since spread to 27 other countries.

My reply: I supported the launch of Extinction Rebellion last year and have argued that the climate adaptation dimension of the campaign message is made clearer over time. Some of the key people in the Rebellion joined after reading my paper. Some of the leading organisers consider collapse as likely or inevitable. So the idea people might be disavowing their acceptance of collapse by campaigning for both emissions cuts and adaptation action is misinformed. Back to Jeremy, now on tactics…

Studies have shown that, once 3.5% of a population becomes sustainably committed to nonviolent mass movements for political change, they are invariably successful. That would translate into 11.5 million Americans on the street, or 26 million Europeans. We’re a long way from that, but is it really impossible?

My reply: It is not impossible, but it won’t stop climate-induced collapse. It could help us reduce how bad things will get. But not if we are scared of realizing what is ahead of us and so aren’t able to have the necessary conversations and policy initiatives.

I’m not ready to bet against humanity’s ability to transform itself or nature’s powers of regeneration.

My reply: I am not ready to rely on any one bet. Instead, working on Deep Adaptation as well as bold mitigation means that we aren’t putting all our bets on one outcome.

XR is planning a global week of direct action beginning on Monday, April 15, as a first step toward a coordinated worldwide grassroots rebellion against the system that’s destroying hope of future flourishing. It might just be the beginning of another of history’s U-turns. Do you want to look your grandchildren in the eyes? Me too. I’ll see you there.

My reply: I will never look my grandchildren in the eyes because I decided not to have children. Many people are choosing to make this very difficult decision. One reason is that having a child in the West is the greatest contribution to carbon emissions that you could make. Another reason is the realization of the world they will have to live and die within.

Sadly, many grandchildren will look their parents in the eyes and say why did you bring me into this world, knowing what you knew? Worse, some may be starving when they say it. If this seems too dramatic or provocative a statement for you, then you may not have recognized the situation we are facing. Which would prove my point – people are looking at this issue in ways that they can cope with due to their own levels of reconciliation with mortality. While driven by an unacknowledged fear of death, then discussions and initiatives won’t be responsive to our situation. Maybe a writer who calls for hope will help someone feel better for a while. Until they can’t avoid despair anymore, and let it arise and ultimately transform their identity. My reason for inviting collapse-acceptance within my professional circles, is for the talents of people to be applied to the current situation that so many people can’t face.

To conclude, I regard this article from Jeremy Lent as a well-written and well-meant articulation of what I will call the “Green Positivity Critique”. It is a critique that implies we should see reality the way we wish to see it in order to enable our action. To excuse that illogical formulation, proponents of this view explain that we do not know what reality is or what the future is. That argument is a misuse of a fundamental truth. Just because all human conceptualization is fallible and provisional does not mean we do not try to develop models and stories of reality that correspond more with reality than others. In that thinking, it is helpful to spot inside of ourselves when our psychological desire to avoid emotional pain influences our choices of models and stories. Initially, near term societal collapse can be a more painful model and story of reality than an ordered societal transformation. It is why we will see the Green Positivity Critique of Deep Adaptation again and again, even if in a few years, food prices rocket up and civil unrest spreads cross the West. Therefore, I will not reply to future critiques in the same vein, and instead would like to invite readers of this blog to post any future critiques of this type in the comments section, with their own polite rebuttals.

I will offer a more generic response to all the types of criticism in the coming weeks and then step away from these debates to focus on helping the community emerging around Deep Adaptation to create meaningful action.

Once again, if you would like to see how I summarise the concept, I recommend starting here.

Addendum to my reply.

Jeremy has subsequently published a reply to this response. I see on social media that people have valued the exchange. Rather than a new blog, I update my response here.

Jeremy writes: The Deep Adaptation Paper “doesn’t adhere to academic standards by constantly jumping from factual evidence to personal opinion without clarifying the distinction.”

Moving between factual evidence and personal opinion is a form of academic writing. In addition, personal experience is a form of factual evidence if one is doing an autoethnography. My paper was a conceptual paper, so I did not outline a methodology. However, it used autoethnography in the large section on denial and on looking at how people are framing our situation. Autoethnography is now widely understood in academia. I believe I was clear in the paper where I am expressing my opinions about implications. I am also clear about why at times I used emotive language to address the reader. There is no one set of “academic standards.” I’m pleased we have moved on from the dominance of positivism in social science. I have been invited to submit a version of my paper to a number of journals but have been so busy working with the wave of response, to help it channel into useful action, that I haven’t done that yet. But soon!

Jeremy writes: “I’m not taking sides on this debate. I don’t feel qualified to do so (and I wonder how qualified Jem is?).”

By citing some scientist’s opinions and not others, I think Jeremy does take sides. I invite everyone to unpick the science that I review in the Deep Adaptation paper. This is too important to choose some preferred views from some famous climatologists. Let us remember that climate scientists are not psychologists or social scientists, so their views on impacts on people and society should not automatically carry the weight of their status from climatology.

Jeremy writes: “It’s irresponsible to package this as a scientifically valid conclusion, and thereby criticize those who interpret the data otherwise as being in denial.”

In the paper I explain my interpretation of the situation is that collapse is inevitable and that others may read the situation otherwise. I do not argue that people who see it as near certain, likely, very possible, or already unfolding, are in denial. Indeed, many with those views are now using a deep adaptation framing in their work. However, I agree that I could explain more about the processes of societal collapse. I began that in an article about food security. Sadly my views on food security will not be unusual within a few months (a UN report in May will likely say similar things).

Jeremy writes: “He derisively describes as leading to meaningless activities avoiding the reality of impending collapse.“

I am sad to hear that it seemed as if I am deriding people. In my paper I offer an autoethnographic critique of my own past decades of work. In the paper I didn’t intend to call the range of environmental activities listed as meaningless. I was citing John Foster’s work that suggests such actions are a form of implicative denial (which doesn’t mean they are meaningless). I argue for and welcome all kinds of positive actions on emissions reduction but argue against stories of them leading to our material salvation. My often-stated aim is to invite conversation on needed action after collapse-acceptance.

Jeremy writes: “Given Jem’s pushback on the seriousness of our broader ecological breakdown, I’m not sure if even he appreciates how deeply our values need to be transformed.”

I don’t pushback on that in the paper or elsewhere. I simply stated that just because climate chaos arises from the same deep causes as other problems does not mean it is of the same significance as those other problems. Jeremy writes that he wonders if I understand the delusion of separation that underlies everything that’s problematic in our world. I spoke about that in my first speech in deep adaptation in 2016, my last book and in the blog I linked to in my reply. One aspect of that separation that we do every day, often without realising, is “othering” and projection. Because the story of separation starts with the ego and it’s need to be right and be in control. Climate chaos challenges that. A tendency in many of us not only believe in one’s story of material and/or metaphysical salvation but to challenge and demean those who do not believe, has accompanied us since the beginning of time. It’s why we have religious violence and nationalist wars.

“Brave visionaries are living into the future we all want to see. Jem might not choose to expend his own energy in co-creating that future, but I think his disdain for their efforts is damaging.”

I do not and did not express disdain for radical alternative economic models. Supporting them has been a key part of my work since 2010. During 2017 and 2018 I volunteered for a network of 200+ local communities promoting local exchange. Their work is useful in Deep Adaptation. I recommend reading about them here, or seeing the related work we supported in Kenyan slums here, or studying a free course I cowrote on it here. The Deep Adaptation Forum that we have launched is supporting community dialogues. In my experience the people working within grassroots initiatives are ambivalent about any grand stories that they are the future. Instead, they do what they do because it feels right to them. They are often suspicious of academics, consultants and authors who want to spin what they do with little benefit to the communities themselves.

Jeremy writes: “Building support structures for the grieving that is part of our new reality. But I don’t think it ends there.”

It doesn’t end there and no one I know who is within the Deep Adaptation field has said it does. There are lots of implications of a deep adaptation approach, both practical and policy related. There are many groups on the Forum, sharing ideas on health, food, policy etc.

Jeremy writes that hope is not a story of the future. In that case, I invite you, the reader, to think for a minute about how you can hope without focusing on the future and your story about it. I have been clear in my writing about the radical hope I have for how we will be compassionate and creative before and during collapse, and how we might enable each other’s awakening. I have also been clear that such hope is still just a story and we can act hopefree.

Jeremy writes: “I plead with you not to disparage those who are driven by hope, and working to transform our current destructive civilization.”

I aim not to disparage. I did attempt to deconstruct the patterns of denial within environmentalism as I was aiming for more of us to have another conversation that is premised on collapse-acceptance. That doesn’t silence anybody but broadens the conversation. I realise how this is uncomfortable for people who really feel a need for a hope of a materially better future, and am sorry that they experience an emotional pain as a result. In my speech at the launch of XR International Rebellion Day I continued to seek to state my approach without disparaging activists who might see things differently. I said: “We gather and rebel not with a vision of a fairy-tale future where we have fixed the climate, but because it is right to do what we can. To slow the change. To reduce the harm. To save what we can. To invite us back to sanity and love.”

Jeremy writes: “I urge you not to keep repeating that collapse is inevitable;”

It is my view but I don’t censure anyone who has a different view.

Jeremy also urges me not to repeat: “that your approach is the only one that’s realistic;”

Deep Adaptation is an open agenda and can complement bold mitigation; most people who discuss it with me are interested in or working on both. I don’t claim any exclusive correctness or that others must not think differently to me. I wish to break the taboo on discussing what to do if a societal collapse is coming.

Jeremy also asks me not to suggest: “that other people working toward a positive vision are merely in denial.”

I believe many are. I believe that is why some of people may publicly condemn people with other views rather than just living their own truth. Extinctionists believe I’m in denial. I hear them and understand but currently disagree. I don’t see need to tell them to shut up (unlike David Suzuki, who said just that).

Jeremy writes: “Instead, please recognize that you really don’t know the future course of our world; that despair at the inevitability of collapse is a gut feeling you experience, but is not based on scientific fact”

I hear from this challenge an invitation to further build my analysis of why societal collapse is inevitable. Of course, my conclusion means I have less motivation to do that not than those who feel a desire to articulate a positive vision of the future. Also people don’t need to believe collapse is inevitable in order to work on Deep Adaptation. So its not a priority, but I will flesh out my logic and evidence in a future academic paper. Reports that will come out from UN agencies in 2019 will help clarify how my view is not so unusual. Which is painful to me. I feel no joy at being vindicated over time. And I’m sad to trigger some pain in people’s lives. It is why I turn down interviews on mainstream TV and radio – because I don’t want to share these ideas without there being a means of supporting people when they hear the information. That’s why I focus on talking with print journalists, as we can then discuss things together so they can be helped with their own emotional journey with this topic, and also because people who read a article can easily find out more, including support, than through a quick TV or radio segment. Which is why I am so impressed with the women leading XR, as they seek to manage that delicate balance when they talk to mainstream TV and radio.

25 Responses to “Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation”

  1. Jeorge said

    Nice point by point rebuttal. I try to read everyone writing about our global predicament and I’ve read Mr. Lent’s book. I was not impressed. It seemed every other line was a name drop with quote. Worse, once I started following up on this ocean of quotes I found that many were being taken out of context, being used to make points running counter to the source material. Lent seems to me to be still the ever-optimistic CEO; he is just pushing “transformation” instead of bank cards now, positioning himself as some sort of guru with his Liology Institute. No thank you.

    Lent’s logical fallacies laid bare in MWS[1] interview:

  2. Dear Jeb: I’m a Canadian writer and biologist. I write mostly adult fiction with ecological themes, but have recently written 2 books for children, one about ocean conservation, released in fall 2018 and currently shortlisted for a Green Earth Book Award in the US, and one about bird conservation which comes out in spring 2020. Both, especially the ocean conservation book, involved substantial information about the current and future impacts climate change and what young people and their families can do to make a difference. I’m now working on a book geared to teenagers about climate change. I’ve noticed that the conversation about climate change has changed in a few short years, to more dire predictions with less possibility to change the future trends. During my research for the current book, I found your paper, Deep Adaptation and have subscribed to your blog and the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook page. I read your current blog today and noted that you are visiting schools and speaking with children. I would like to know more about what you say to them and how they react, and what age group you are speaking with. How best to communicate with children of various ages about the crisis of climate change is certainly something I struggle with in writing my books. I’d love to talk with you about this issue but I imagine you are overwhelmed with the speaking and writing you are currently doing. However I wonder if you would write a blog about communicating this difficult material to children. Thank you for what you are doing. I look forward to hearing from you, either directly or through your blog posts. Ann

  3. Christian Stalberg said

    Thank you Jem for sharing the Jeremy Lent criticism of Deep Adaptation and your point by point reply. We are in the midst of the Great Turning and also the Great Collapse, concurrently. There is no question that we need to stop treating the earth like a mere storehouse and sewer and to begin seeing ourselves as part of nature (paraphrasing Joanna Macy here). That shift in perception and the end of anthropocentrism is crucial for our long term survival as a species on this planet. In the meantime however, mitigation and adaptation activities must commence posthaste. We’ve not a moment to lose. We need to work from the top down and the bottom up. We must force governments to declare climate change declarations of emergency and begin preparedness planning for disruptions in essential services provisioning. The scale of need will overwhelm the public sector, so the private sector must be brought in also in mandatory fashion. Citizen education around essential services provisioning must also be planned for, similar to how the citizenry through austerity and targeted products and services aided the war effort during WWII.

  4. […] April 10, Jem Bendell wrote a detailed and thoughtful article in response to my critique of Deep Adaptation, “What Will You Say to Your […]

  5. […] Jem Bendell’s response to this article: Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation, April 10, […]

  6. Jeremy said

    Jem, I appreciate the care you took to ponder my arguments, note where you concurred, and refute what you felt was wrong. I believe that you and I agree on much more than we disagree, and that we share a similar heartbreak at the unfolding catastrophe our world is experiencing.

    However, as I read your refutations, I was concerned that some deeper issues are at stake that need to be brought to the surface, and I’ve written a response accordingly. I hope our public dialogue has so far been of value to those who care passionately about what’s happening to our planet and civilization, and that my response continues to move the conversation forward in a constructive fashion:

  7. […] reading the recent back and forth between Jeremy Lent and Jem Bendell, I have the feeling I’m watching two great intellectual stags locking horns, jockeying with each […]

  8. First, thank you both Jem and Jeremy for such a deep and insightful discussion. I am very familiar with Jeremy’s work (and a big fan of it) and just found out about Jem’s work through Jeremy’s article. Let me express my “both + and” perspective instead of staying inside the “either/or” framework. But first, let me share a story. I was born in 1970 in the Soviet republic Kyrgyzstan in a family of a Russian dissident. Long before the collapse of my country (Soviet Union), my dad knew it was doomed and taught me to approach it with wisdom and lightness, to prepare by learning languages, chess, and hard problem-solving, and to find something I could love doing all my life (instead of on a “stable job” inside the system). My grandparents showed us how to grow our food and pick wild mushrooms, make clothes and fix things. These skills became very handy in the early 1990s when the system collapsed and we lived on food stamps. Resilience is the most valuable skill I got from my 24 years surviving inside the collapsing superpower. The second part of my life was spent in North America (US and Canada). Here, I noticed a very interesting combination of needs that are commonly expressed by people: denial and control. People are pulled between the two: “It can’t be that bad” and “If we all do these three things, everything will be all right.” One is very child-like, the other – rebellion – is very adolescent. It’s also very cerebral, which I think is the main issue. Talking about re-forestation and planting trees are different things. Jeremy’s book helped me verbalize the difference between Eastern and Western worldviews. I wholeheartedly agree that the worldview needs to change. I also know that change is the hardest thing to bring forward, especially systemic change. One thing that makes change urgent is bottoming out. Growing up happens through pain and hard experience. I believe that Jem’s “hard truth” Deep Adaptation conversation will make Jeremy’s dream worldview change more urgent and more real. Just like when I was 16-18, knowing the hard truth about our system’s reality helped me build a new life. I think we owe it to our children and grandchildren not to sugar-coat it. Being true to what my dad taught me about problem-solving and never giving up hope, I am building an ecovillage in Ontario, Canada ( Hope both of you guys come and visit one day and we can all debate, share and find a common ground 🙂

  9. […] April 10, Jem Bendell wrote a detailed and thoughtful article in response to my critique of Deep Adaptation, “What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren.” I […]

    • Ian Graham said

      Empathy have anything to do with your worldview Mr Lent?
      – Konrath collected decades of studies and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!
      – it’s actually really hard to do what we were striving for in my generation: empathize with people who are different than you are, much less people you don’t like. But if researchers set up a conflict, people get into automatic empathy overdrive, with their own team.
      – There is a natural way that empathy gets triggered in the brain — your pain centers light up when you see another person suffering. But out in the world it starts to look more like tribalism, a way to keep reinforcing your own point of view and blocking out any others.
      – We can’t return to my generation’s era of empathy innocence, because we now know too much about how the force actually works. But we can’t give up on empathy either, because empathy is “90 percent what our life is all about,” Breithaupt says. “Without it, we would be just alone.”

  10. […] April 10, Jem Bendell wrote a detailed and thoughtful article in response to my critique of Deep Adaptation, “What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren.” I […]

  11. Ray Taylor said

    Hello Jem and thanks for this.

    Have you deliberately shifted from talking about “social collapse” (in your original article as I see it here: to “societal collapse”.

    How are you defining societal collapse and is that different from economic/financial collapse as could have happened had the Credit Crunch been worse?

    • matslats said

      Jem is suing social and societal collapse interchangeably

      • Ray said

        Matslats I was hoping to have a reply or a link from Jem himself confirming this – can you provide any evidence that he has not made a deliberate change, or is using them interchangeably?

        I am at a loss to see how humans can socially collapse for more than a brief period of hours/days. Apart from brief scenarios like the Black Hole of Calcutta (which may not have happened as described) it’s hard to think of any example where a social collapse has happened and lasted – social behaviour is an innate quality of humans. I don’t see how you could have social collapse any more than you could have collapse of right handedness and left handedness.

        Economic, political, collapse of civilisation, social conflict, civil unrest, societal collapse, on the other hand, seem completely possible. Even “dystopia” is a thing we could imagine in the real world (vid The Killing Fields and the Shoah).

        “Societal collapse is the fall of a complex human society. Such a disintegration may be relatively abrupt, as in the case of Maya civilization, or gradual, as in the case of the fall of the Western Roman Empire.”

        On a quick internet search, I can’t find any definition of “social collapse”. Prof Robin Hanson, who I know personally, uses it as a phrase, but he’s an economist, not a sociologist, and is considered untypical.

      • matslats said

        Jem assured me he was using the term interchangeably.
        Also I noticed Dimitry Orlov talking about steady-state collapse:

  12. This debate between Deep Adaptation and Deep Transformation strikes me as an intellectual self-indulgence.
    Neither is proposing policies concrete enough to have any chance of affecting the present climate change trajectory, or have any realistic prospect of voluntary adoption.
    Politically, quite the contrary is happening: a denialist backlash is coming to power (Trump, recent elections in Finland, gilets jaunes in France, AfD in Germany, mainstream conservatives in Canada and Australia…). So this debate is increasingly splitting hairs before the converted.
    A more rational attitude might be “eat drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die”, and “apres moi le deluge”!
    Incidentally, the only historically proven social “policy” that has actually lowered greenhouse gas emissions has been social collapse (viz the 2009 world economic crisis). So from the climate perspective, collapse might not be such a bad thing.

    • Ian Graham said

      eat drink and be merry is truly epicurean indulgence! ‘apres moi, rien ne vaut la peine’. narcissism to the core.
      No Jem is not self indulging, no way, hanging his hat way out there for all to see, and attract flippant ridicule. Hardly.

    • Ray said

      Gerald are you seriously saying the 2009 world economic crisis was a complete social collapse, or an environmental and societal collapse as envisaged by Jem?

      Even in the most acute phase, the 2008 food riots in 40 LDCs were quite short-lived. Sure a collapse is something that things don’t recover from within days?

      There was certainly an economic recession/depression in 2009 and beyond, though not as acutely bad as it was in the 1930s. you could make a case that there was a breakdown of some social contracts and a swing to the right or left in some countries, but this still doesn’t in my mind, come close to an environmental and societal breakdown where existing trading and political systems are no longer functioning.

      If we throw around the phrases like social collapse and societal collapse loosely, without being clear what we all mean, or what range and scale of things we mean, we’ll get into a horrible mess on this thread and elsewhere.

    • jembendell said

      Unfortunately the reduction of global dimming (aerosol masking effect) from a collapse in civilisation may initially increase temperatures. The latest IPCC report estimates such dimming at 0.5 degrees. I don’t think it will be as much as that, as I will explain elsewhere next month.

      For specific policies one had to start the conversation. I hope various policies will emerge. See

      My blog on hunger and collapse indicates policy areas.

  13. Ian Graham said

    Fruitful dialogue, although enough places where sentences rambled without syntax to suggest it was hastily written. would be helpful to date the posting of addenda since the original datestamp shows Apr 10 yet the latest version references the speech on Apr 15 and blog reply on apr 16.
    I am engaged in booting up XR in Hamilton ON (pop 500K). I am struggling because I accept the evidence that society is collapsing already and will do so most everywhere within the decade. I was looking in the Lent/Bendell dialectic for grounds to keep on. JB says his point is “people are looking at this issue in ways that they can cope with due to their own levels of reconciliation with mortality. While driven by an unacknowledged fear of death, then discussions and initiatives won’t be responsive to our situation.”
    I am familiar with Varki’s MORT theory of human denial reflex and agree it helps explain a lot of our evolutionary success and failures. See etc for more.
    We can easily deny that we are in denial itself, which Lent seems to be doing.
    Overall, I’ll say Lent is more persuasive until his reply comments become ad hominem attacks imputing motive to disparage, disdain, demean contrary views. I salute JM’s steadiness in avoiding engagement on those terms and his evident track record of acknowledging profound unknowing as he finds his way and helps me to do the same.

    • jembendell said

      Thx! And good luck.

      XR arises out of despair. The co-founders experienced and invite despair. They talk about dark nights of the soul. And that is also smart politics:

      “[research finds] those whose willingness to act endures longest are not activists motivated by outcome, who need to be given hope & to believe in their chances of success, but the ones who are motivated by doing the right thing”

      …which is the message I share via my own participation in XR.

      This is interesting on that topic:

      • Ian Graham said

        thanks for your personal comments; I feel the truth of the observation on what makes the most steadfast advocates for right action, etc. “The dark night of the soul comes just before revelation. When everything is lost, and all seems darkness, then comes the new life and all that is needed.” said a commentary on St John of the Cross’ poem of long ago.

  14. Katy Fox said

    Hi Jem,
    wondering what report on food security you mean (coming out May 2019)?

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