A Quick Message to Lefty Intellectuals about Deep Adaptation

I’d love to see serious discussion about what kind of economic and social justice policies are needed to reduce harm in the face of societal collapse from climate chaos. Currently, I haven’t seen much. So, in the hope of getting more decent left-wing engagement with our predicament, here is a quick invitation.

Deep Adaptation is a framework for inviting conversation on what we do if we anticipate societal collapse, or are experiencing collapse around us. It is now a movement. I coined the term in a paper I wrote in July 2018. I wrote that for a management academic audience. So where was the critique of power and of capital? Is the absence of a discussion of structural violence of capital an indication that the Deep Adaptation framework is not radical?

women holding a planet over profit sign
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.

I am told that question is being raised in some left-wing intellectual discussion boards, and I have started getting emails from left-wing academics that complain, basically, that I’m counter-revolutionary.

So, here is a quick message to left-wing intellectuals about Deep Adaptation, in which I will give some links to my past writings about how crap capitalism is for the planet… and some ideas on what to do about it.

But before I start, a bit of humble pie. Despite my disdain for capitalism, I stayed working within the system, as my heart and mind were also captured by the system. The Deep Adaptation paper was a long apology for that. But I do a fuller mea culpa in my piece in the forthcoming Letters to the Earth book.

In the Deep Adaptation paper, the power of capital in keeping us compliant is implied in the section on denial in the environmental profession. But that paper wasn’t the venue to further elaborate on that, for instance by discussing the role of capital in the social construction of the stories that kept people quiet within the environmental movement and profession. Because, I was writing for the sustainability profession. Yes, I know, I was embedded in that system.

I have written over 100 publications in my academic career, and I can’t include everything I think in one paper. But, on the topic of Deep Adaptation, I have already discussed capitalism elsewhere. In my first speech on the topic, to climate policy researchers and climate business executives at the end of 2016 (not your most Marxist audience), I said that capitalism is at fault for our predicament, but that the cause is even deeper than that. If you have gone further into post-Marxist critical theory via people like Adorno, you will understand. I said:

“My own analysis is that the West’s response as restricted by the dominance of neoliberal economics since the 1970s. That led to hyper-individualist, market fundamentalist, incremental and atomistic approaches. By hyper-individualist, I mean a focus on individual action as consumers, switching light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than promoting political action as engaged citizens. By market fundamentalist, I mean a focus on market mechanisms like the complex, costly and largely useless carbon cap and trade systems, rather than exploring what more government intervention could achieve. By incremental, I mean a focus on celebrating small steps forward such as a company publishing a sustainability report, rather than strategies designed for a speed and scale of change suggested by the science. By atomistic, I mean a focus on seeing climate action as a separate issue from the governance of markets, finance and banking, rather than exploring what kind of economic system could permit or enable sustainability.”

So, to repeat, I would really welcome left-wing and, as importantly, critical theoretical analysis of what policies and actions could help enable adaptation of any kind, or Deep Adaptation in particular. I want to spend some time working on these issues myself, but haven’t got to that point yet. When I do, will draw upon some of my past work on economic aspects of our unsustainability. Here is a short list of some of the key arguments from my past publications that I think are relevant to this discussion:

The need to move beyond the dangerous and oppressive ideology of managerialism. Here.

The need to place new duties on shareholders, at a minimum, as part of a capital accountability agenda. Here.

The need to transform our monetary system away from bank-issued debt as the basis for our money supply, in order to have any real go at either mitigation or adaptation. Here.

The need for currency innovation to free us from the poverty-inducing banking control of our money supply. Here.

The need to avoid the same corporate power dominating the new currencies. Here.

Socialist scholars are needed to engage in our climate emergency and Deep Adaptation movements. But its important to be engaged in what’s happening now. Armchair intellectuals who pontificate about ideas in ways that disparage people or ideas by using one or two articles that suit their stories of reality are wasting everyone’s time, including their own.

We face annihilation during the 6th mass extinction, and so uninformed writing that is not engaged with the current activists is misleading. If people aren’t involved in activist movements or political campaigns themselves, while writing about these issues, then they aren’t serious. Or maybe working for the spooks.

An example of that kind of uninformed debate is this piece in ISJ. It says Deep Adaptation (and I) aren’t as radical as Extinction Rebellion. Yet I’ve been involved in XR since the start, spoke at the launch of the International Rebellion, and am inputting into their strategy process, including ideas on economic justice issues. Moreover, many key people in XR came to it after reading the Deep Adaptation paper.  A quick search would have also revealed this blog on XR’s website about its potential for organising an economic rebellion, which I wrote with Rabbi Newman.

So… there’s lots of left-wing intellectual discussion to be had. If well informed, it will be useful. If you are seriously into this stuff then please join the research group on the Deep Adaptation Forum.

Update in Feb 2020: I have released an idea for activism which some may regard as left-of-centre, involving trade union action on climate safety, including strikes.   

17 thoughts on “A Quick Message to Lefty Intellectuals about Deep Adaptation”

  1. I’m no big thinker but a few thoughts on what I would implement were I in a position.

    A one child policy would reduce carbon emissions while sending the message that our predicament is really serious.
    A proper universal income so that we address inequality before the worst happens, a world of haves and have nots when there will be shortages is asking for trouble.
    A cap on flying miles.
    A ban on air freighted foods.
    Give local councils more power to govern locally and the ability to address the needs of their own communities.
    Implement a plan for food sovereignty in each region with trade allowed in neighbouring ones only.
    A radical overhaul of the school curriculum to prepare children for what’s ahead rather than to become a cog in the capitalist machine.

    None of the above are capitalist friendly and would be met with the utmost of resistance but I don’t consider that these measures go far enough in light of the timescales we’re talking about.

    1. Stuart, I think you may have missed the punchline of Deep Adaptation. Your “thoughts” may have addressed our predicament (immanent extinction) if they were implemented several decades ago (if you added cease all burning of fossil fuels). At the risk of being pessimistic, other than postponing our demise. there is NOTHING we can do to avert the inevitable end. Instead, we need to focus on how we would like to spend the last 5 (possibly 8) years of our lives. And write a book for our descendants explaining how to avoid the mistakes we made.

      1. Indeed, I’ve been on something of a journey since writing this precious comment, thanks to the people in the Facebook group, inevitable collapse is an important part of that and something I fully accept now.

        The only thread of what I originally wrote I would still hold onto is that of food sovereignty with access to clean water added as for me these are fundamental in adaption to reduce harm in what we face, the basics of life, sure there is room for debate on whether this is even of use but in hoping for the least harm during collapse food and water mist be number one.

        The original call for ideas on policies to help our predicament seems somewhat futile in the face of what I know believe, I don’t see anything useful being Implemented in the form of a policy that will help given the timeframe.

        What I see as necessary is the collapse of the economic system which keeps most of us in debt servitude and stops many having the freedom to make useful changes and stops yet more even being able to look at the problem and living with a painful cognitive dissonance.

      2. Stuart I’m working now on a paper thinking through collapse and I think that policy responses matter a lot. Collapse will not be a sudden end to everything but a gradual erosion. there will be plenty of time to adapt. it is critical that politicians make good decisions.

  2. While we are waiting, we could pool our resources, and form or join self reliant, off-grid, conscious cooperative communities.

  3. Dear Jem
    In 2016 I sat between two backroom Labour luminaries. Both women had, according to past values, had exemplary careers. As I listened to them batting backwards and forth their capitalist vs marxist approaches to climate “change”, I do so wish folk would call it what it is Climate Destruction, I caught my hostesses eye. A physicist that teaches scientists to become teachers at an old valued university. We exchanged a look that said ” they really do not have a clue do they?”
    Surely the whole point of your Deep Adaptation is that we go beyond the partisan and into deep critical analysis? As in Val Plumwoods hypothesis we move from Individual Justice Universe protecting our various political, existential, personal holy castles to a Heraclitian Universe where we fully accept we are just one species of billions of flora and fauna. Then our thinking and responsibility (as in ability to respond) shifts.
    We must debunk Descartes et al and their madnesses. Though I do like Wittengensteins thoughts on Aesthetics – why we like and value what we like and value.
    Move away from middle class academic concerns and embrace the majority. Most of whom earn less than £30k as a family and very much appreciate plain speak. Indigenous modes of communication may help here.
    See ego bait for what it is Jem – it gets easier with practice 🙂

    I don’t underestimate the constraints and demands of academia.

    Listen. Go well.

    1. My view is patriarchy and anthropocentrism, embedded in our culture via our debt-based money system, is at the root of our malaise. I’ve not spent much time writing about either that or about traditional critical leftist perspectives. However, I know that there will be many policies proposed by local and national governments as symptoms of national or foreign collapse appear. Some argue they are already happening. And so I invite left-wing scholars and policy thinkers to engage in Deep Adaptation in the hope they may have some more useful things to say than what I have read thus far. In my speech writing for Corbyn and McDonnell in the 2017 General Election I was very focused on communication with everyone. The speech I cowrote for JC called Stepping Up for Britain was speaking directly to the young people of Britain about their lives. The way some people read one of hundreds of my blogs and think it’s somehow the main focus of mine is something I’m still waking up to.

  4. My question in this vein is, “Given the certainty, in the near term, of catastrophic, large-scale, climate-related natural disasters, how can we fund the necessary response from search-and-rescue/recovery, through rebuilding or resettlement, through employment and human services for those displaced?”

    It seems clear that our current systems, a hodgepodge of government, charity, and insurance funding, will not be sufficient to address repeated annual disasters, especially since those most affected are those least likely to even have insurance (see the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Dorian on the Abacos Islands’ migrant Haitian population, for example). How do we restructure our economic system so that those who have lost everything are not left permanently destitute? How do we value land and compensate those who must be told that they cannot rebuild where they were? Capitalism has no adequate answer to these questions; while it will, for a while, be able to address the financial recovery of those who had money in the first place until the scale and number of disasters bankrupts the insurance system, capitalism views the poor and marginalized as disposable and ignores the plight of those who did not have capital to begin with. Sooner or later, we will all be climate refugees. Economically, how can we plan for that reality?

    1. This is my main worry Nikki…can only think of building smaller communities(back to villages)where there are local suppliers & everyone helps everyone. In Aotearoa -NZ our Maori population have local marae where people live, gather, eat & sleep & support each other & celebrate together.


  5. The Fifth Sacred Thing, a novel by Starhawk, has long been my inspiration when thinking about social justice in a time of societal collapse. The first four sacred things are the elements earth, air, water and fire. The fifth is love. In my memory, the book details a community that has found a mutually agreed upon spiritual base to a new approach to living.

  6. hi Jem,
    I recently completed doctoral research focused on what I framed as deeply unsettled post-natural futures. This was based in cultural geography – one of the more politically left-leaning social science disciplines. Within this space there are numerous academics focused on critical political-economic work – critiques of global capitalism – and, of interest to me, a growing focus on implications of the Anthropocene thesis. However, while much of this could generally be labelled as ‘radical’, a certain cautiousness pervades in stepping too far into extreme-radical areas such as taking seriously collapse scenarios. This made my own attempts to explore such fringe thinking more difficult given a lack of interest by people in discussing such ideas. Anyhow, I thought I’d offer a few names of people doing interesting work. A number of these have Antipodean attachments, and as such are probably not so well known in European academic circles.

    Paul Gilding (based in Tasmania) is an environmental activist, and later sustainability consultant, who in the early 2000s proposed approaching societal disruption due to increasing environmental instabilities. An early paper, ‘Scream, crash, boom’ (2005) was followed by a book, ‘The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World’ (2011).

    Prof. Lesley Head (at Melbourne University) published an interesting book in 2016, ‘Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising human–nature relations’. (Disclaimer: Lesley was a supervisor on my PhD for some of the time). As the title suggests, the focus is more on rethinking human-nature relations rather than a political-economic critique, and the work does not focus so much on ‘global collapse’ scenarios, but rather grapples with the “spectre of catastrophe” and, importantly, the need to move through denial and into a grieving process (both culturally and individually).

    Such work has strong affiliations with environmental humanities (EH) scholarship, and work specifically coming out of Australia. EH takes a cultural approach to interrogating meaning, values, ethics, and responsibilities in relation to pressing environmental problems. Work tends to be interdisciplinary and highly theory-driven, involving postcolonial and eco-feminist ideas, and exploring issues of human-nature relations, post-nature, post-humanism, species extinction and loss, and others. Some key proponents coming out of Australia have been Deborah Bird Rose, Val Plumwood, Lesley Instone, Thom van Dooren; and more internationally would include Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Timothy Morton.

    I do not consider myself a political or economic geographer, although I have hung out with such folk and my research has, in parts, drawn from political geography and political ecology. However, work in these areas tends to be – shall we say – less overtly concerned with ideas of break down, and rather focus on political analysis of governance, institutions, knowledge production and the like, offering thoughtful revisions to concepts of environmental governance, sustainability, human-nature relations, etc. The intent, no doubt, is to influence policy makers and provide ideas that can be more practically employed. Of course, the problem is whether one subscribes to the thinking that states will act rationally driven by shared global interests, or whether change can be undertaken within the timeframe needed to curtail catastrophic scenarios.

    However, having said that, work by J K Gibson-Graham, two feminist economic geographers, has provoked very interesting ideas, discussion, and projects enacting new visions of alternative and non-capitalist economy.

    Another Australian-based project worth mentioning is the Anthropocene Transition Project, based at University of Technology, Sydney, and convened by Kenneth McLeod. The project employs Anthropocene ideas to spur collective dialogue and action in redesigning professional and social practices. This employs a framework comprising Earth sovereignty, eco-mutuality, holism, and eco-social resilience. I had some engagement with the project during my doctoral studies, and was impressed with the scope of conversation (also given the project is housed in a Business School), which included grappling with looming environmental challenges.

    This list is far from comprehensive, but hopefully provides useful pointers to additional left-leaning work.

    Kind regards.

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