An essay on the deeper causes and implications of climate-driven societal breakdown, by Professor Jem Bendell.
(Long Read – 10,000 words)
If you have begun to anticipate the climate-driven collapse of societies, what can you wish for? I have written elsewhere about the problems of being attached to hope, if that means we falsely assume we can’t engage in the world creatively unless we have an expectation of a lasting positive outcome. But it can still be useful to reflect on what we actually wish for, given our assessments of what we think is inevitable, likely or possible in the near future. When asked by Vicki Robin recently “what might possibly go right,” I took some time to reflect on what might be a realistic wish of mine: one that I could honestly believe, rather than desire to believe in order to feel a bit better or to please an audience (which could be colleagues or a wider public). I found that what I wish for is a collapse of the ideology which has caused so much destruction and suffering, and which will continue to do so as our ecosystems, economies and societies break down. I wish for that ideology to collapse as soon as possible, because the longer it lasts, the more destruction will occur and the less able we will be to reduce harm, experience joy and find meaning as societies break down.
So what is this ideology that I blame for our predicament and wish would collapse as soon as possible? Why is it so bad? Why did it proliferate and, therefore, what could bring it crashing down? How can we live creatively and meaningfully by consciously freeing ourselves and each other from that ideology?
These are the questions I will attempt to answer in this essay. I will not be sharing anything particularly new when describing specific elements of this ideology, but I group those elements in a new way for ease of recollection and discussion. I call this the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e, which comprises our assumptions of, or beliefs in, the following: Entitlement, Surety (which is another word for certainty), Control, Autonomy, Progress, and Exceptionalism. There is a lot of sociology, psychology, and philosophy on each of these elements, which I may cover in my future writing, but in this essay my aim is to offer a simple synthesis to share with anyone I work with and people interested in the deeper implications of anticipating climate-driven societal collapse. My ideas draw upon, combine and adapt ideas from many different schools of thought, such as French existentialism, German critical theory, Buddhism and mysticism. I do not reference that scholarship in this essay, because few of the authors I have read say exactly what I am saying, and so I would need to provide nuance and further details.
The result is a dry read, particularly because I will not be giving examples of people and organisations that are doing things ‘wrong’ in perpetuating the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e. My reason for that is I do not want to suggest that this ideology is outside of us or that the fault is with ‘others’. Instead, this ideology is within all of us, including myself, and is shaping how I approach my life even as I type these words. This is why I will give some examples of the elements of e-s-c-a-p-e ideology shaping my own life.
By doing so, I hope it may help you to spot when you are experiencing thoughts, emotions and patterns that are holding you and all of us back. However, I am also aware that much of what follows will read like gobbledegook to many people. In my experience these ideas can only be understood properly through facilitated experiences, and dialogue, rather than reading about them. Nevertheless, I hope this long read of 10000 words, will provide some material for reflection alongside any practices you are engaged in for your own inner awareness.
The use of the acronym e-s-c-a-p-e is intentional and convenient, as it alludes to the way this ideology has been motivated by a desire to escape from unavoidable aspects of our reality – impermanence and death, on the one hand, and our in-built aversion to those realities on the other, which arises because we are lifeforms with the ability to reflect on our existence as a separate mortal entity.
The ideas in this essay are not essential for people to understand and engage in their own Deep Adaptation to our climate tragedy, but are my contribution to the inevitable discussion of why we have got ourselves into this disaster and how we can help each other avoid making matters worse as we respond to it.
Entitlement in E-s-c-a-p-e ideology
There is a widespread assumption that we are entitled not to feel emotional pain and suffering; that we are entitled to have our inner worlds heard and validated; that we are entitled to have more than our basic needs met. I certainly would like those things, but am I entitled to them? When so many people in the world are suffering? When injury, pain, loss and death are as much a part of life as their opposites? Why should I assume my needs, whether material or for self-expression, are always a priority? A sense of entitlement can enable people to express their views and needs to others and the world. Which might be OK, if it wasn’t for the fact that this sense of entitlement is socially conditioned and is therefore more prevalent amongst the ‘white’, male and rich of our species. That means we hear so much more from such people. Like me. Yes, one reason I thought I could write this essay and expect it to arrive in front of your face is because of the sense of entitlement produced in me by my culture. And with that awareness, I did it anyway, so I’ll return to that sticky issue below.
People sometimes ask: “but why is entitlement a problem?” First, because it is unevenly distributed according to social conditioning, which aligns with inequalities in society, so therefore is a mechanism of the interpersonal reproduction of systems of inequality. For example, women don’t just need to ‘lean in’, us men need to lean the heck back. By reinforcing power differentials, the cultural contributions of the masculine, the rich, the ‘white,’ the confident, define what is considered ‘normal’, and the current ‘normal’ is the most heinous destruction of life on Earth. So that’s a bit of a problem, wouldn’t you agree?
Oh, the paradox of continuing writing here! But I want to explain that there is a second issue, which means that the democratising of entitlements is not the answer. The expectation that we should have positive emotional experiences and that our emotional difficulties will be resolved, means that we can expect external support for our inner emotional worlds. It is wonderful when such support is available, and when we are able to offer that to each other. However, the expectation, and sense that we are entitled to not feel bad, is problematic, because it creates insatiable appetites for new experiences and the pursuit of manic distractions. There can be no achievement of lasting ‘happiness’ by pursuing it. The sense that we are entitled to happiness means we contribute to the destruction of the planet through constant consumption and we instinctively feel that it is justified to push away information that we might feel bad about, such as information on our complicity in the oppression of others or the destruction of life on Earth.
Noticing the problematic assumption and belief in entitlement, does not mean we don’t want to try to meet our own and others’ needs. Instead, being aware of this ideological assumption means that we begin to question our own sense of entitlement; we can loosen our expectation that what we feel or think is a priority for others to know or address. Questioning entitlement does not go against the belief in human rights or an openness in human relating, but brings attention to uneven expectations of participation, audience and power. Although the sense of entitlement of people who are ‘white’, male, and rich has been increasingly challenged since the 60s, the assumption of entitlement per se is not, and may mean people don’t stay open to the painful situations that unfold as our societies are disrupted.
I learned about my own sense of entitlement to not feel pain about other people’s experience of emotional pain when I attended a ‘breathwork’ session. It involves people lying down and hyperventilating to achieve an altered state of consciousness. That might sound odd but for me, when well facilitated, it helps me connect with loving consciousness and have new insights. In previous sessions I had often become distracted and somewhat annoyed when people lying in the room next to me would start wailing and screaming as they expressed emotional pain, sometimes within minutes of the start. A wise friend suggested I might in general be averse to my own emotional difficulty at other people’s emotional pain. That came to mind in one breathwork session when two women started to cry very close to me. I noticed my annoyance and then invited a more loving response in me. I sat up, and cross legged, silently witnessed their crying and pain. I accepted it was how they were feeling right now, for whatever reason, and without judgement I witnessed their emotion and began to cry with them.
Achieving equanimity would be wonderful, but are we entitled to prioritise that at this time? It is a difficult question. I believe it is important to seek equanimity for many reasons but prioritising it at a time of turmoil might in some cases be an entitled response to our predicament. One statement I particularly liked from Mohandas Gandhi was when he explained that while he knew he had a lot more inner work he could do on himself, he felt that his inner world was less important than the pressing matters of India’s liberation and non-violence between its peoples. He did not mean that spiritual inquiry and heart-opening practices were not important, but while such work is never complete, we live in this world and have other matters to attend to.
Surety in e-S-c-a-p-e ideology
I will use the word ‘surety’ to describe the 3-fold assumption that we can be certain of reality, that it is good to be certain, and that there is a universal standard through which we can all agree what is reality and how to know it. One way this assumption manifests is in relation to the idea of ‘rationality’. Which posits that we can be certain of reality by using rational intellect and, secondly, that more use of rational intellect and the artefacts it creates, such as computer models, are always positive in the pursuit of knowledge. The third aspect of this is the idea that knowledge claims are better because they relate to an imagined notion of ‘objectivity’ which is universal by virtue of not being influenced by subjective bias. These are all lies, debunked by critics of logical positivism and scientific empiricism over many decades. At first, the new power of institutions that promoted rational scientific method were widely welcomed as they provided opposition to religion and superstition. Today this approach persists in most cultures, which means people and organisations privilege measurement over depth of understanding. It persists because it is convenient for the power of some, particularly because it requires significant resources to produce the knowledge that will be considered valid in fields like medicine, economy, engineering, planning and suchlike.
However, on one matter rationality and religion are not so dissimilar, because institutionalised religion typically involves its own repressive ‘surety’. It suggests we can make concrete with human concept and language the nature of reality that is universal and transcendent. Any invitation to adhere to simple stories of reality, whether with a religious, nationalist or political flavour, is an invitation away from staying fully present to experiences, complexity, ambiguity and unknowability. With spirituality, sadly religions can F the ineffable.
The cross-cutting theme for all of these ‘delusions of surety’ is that they arise from an attachment to stable forms and an aversion to fluidity. A key part of the ideology of surety is that we assume that because a word describes a concept which describes a reality, that the word is somehow ‘true’ about a reality, rather than being a contingent, fallible and provisional tool for helping us communicate about things whose real nature we don’t fully comprehend through language. The formulas of science and creeds of religion, are all too easily used as escapes from the ambiguity of infinitely complex existence that is only revealed to us through our limited senses, limited capabilities of cognition, and limited modes of conceptualisation and communication with language.
This desire for surety has led humanity to fixate on our stories of reality and add new information into those stories, rather than staying curious about realities. It has encouraged us to look for sensory information that affirm our stories of reality and ignore sensory information which doesn’t affirm those stories. Because of that, we pay more attention to our stories of good and bad than what might be happening around us and how we might be feeling if we didn’t let those stories shape or deny those feelings. In the world of rational thinking, we see this emphasis on surety manifest in a focus on what can be considered credible knowledge claims according to established norms, above attentiveness to what might be happening in the world. It is not an accident that we invest more on measuring and modelling environmental destruction than stopping it. It is why we have more intellectual texts on the precautionary principle than policies that enforce it. It is why there are more people praying to God than giving to charity or taking risks for social justice and environmental protection, despite the destructive times we live within. In each case the rehearsals of personal identity and concern can override our ability to remain radically present to all that is.
Fear often makes people cling more tenaciously to their particular worldview, and less present to what is actually happening. They might waste huge amounts of time, effort and money to concoct new confirmations of their stories of reality. That could be scientists doubling down on their preferred methodologies in order to distract themselves from what’s happening outside their window, or people turning to nationalism when realising their past story of the future no longer feels valid, or economists doubling down on theories and associated policies which clearly don’t work. But it even happens when people reify stories that might appear to be in contrast to e-s-c-a-p-e ideology, as their believers claim that if only we believe in them more, then they will come true.
When I was completing my PhD in 2002, I became most acutely aware of the problem of aspiring to surety. I had developed a framework of concepts that I thought helped explain the moral or ethical use of influence. For my final chapter I decided to explore all the potential limitations of my framework, and suddenly the whole edifice came crashing down. After 4 years of work, that realisation was a bit stressful and I wrote a new ending about the inability to describe love-in-action through concepts, because context and intention is always important. My friend read it and told me I was stumbling into basic Buddhist philosophy.
With that in mind, I wonder what I am doing with this essay. My desire to systematize my sense of the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e is because I still feel that it matters to have maps or models to help us understand the world and our place within it, to enable discussion and future right action. The fact I have spent more time in my life reading and thinking in order to be able to produce ideas like this essay, shows how in my own life I have privileged seeking surety through concept and language over other ways of knowing and being in the world. I have succumbed to that ideology, despite increasingly knowing that offering models such as e-s-c-a-p-e will not help many people to understand or change. Rather, it is my experiences of loss, pain and non-ordinary states of consciousness that have helped me to know that there are different ways of interpreting experience than the dominant e-s-c-a-p-e ideology. If I was to suggest to myself or other people that the most important response to our predicament is to become clear in words and concept about what’s wrong in our shared cultural experience, then I would be succumbing to this misplaced interest in surety. Instead, I must offer the framework in this essay merely as one limited and fallible tool.
I mentioned in the introduction that I am not discussing relevant scholarship or providing references in this essay due to how that would detour from the presentation of the framework. Before progressing beyond the ideological element of ‘surety’, I will provide an illustration of how much complexity and nuance would be needed to interface even just some of the relevant scholarship. The French existentialist philosophers were quite clear on the difficulty of being confident on any particular framework for understanding the world or finding meaning. For me, Simone de Beauvoir was the best in showing how our ethical frameworks will always be ambiguous, and therefore when they are not questioned then terrible violence can occur. Like the other Existentialists, she settled on personal freedoms as being a foundation for meaning. In doing that they were settling on a form of surety which fitted with their own proclivities at the time. Theodor Adorno and the German critical theorists were good at pointing out how our concepts are socially constructed in ways that reflect and reproduce power relations in society. They also showed how the Enlightenment and subsequent emphasis on scientific rationality meant that existential angst grew to a point where humanity increased its violent destruction of others and the world. However, their critique was of the Enlightenment, and then mainly of bureaucracy and capitalism, rather than human attachment to surety. More recently the philosopher Charles Eisenstein has offered a similar critique that we have been living in an ‘age of separation.’ He does not critique surety in general, as he suggests that our stories of reality are realities themselves. Before him, the philosopher Richard Rorty was more circumspect about the ability of human thought to describe or reveal realities. Therefore, he invited people to invite a variety of ideas as well as ways of dialogue that welcome complexity and paradox. My perspective is that Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha, goes much further than all of these schools of thought in connecting our sense of being a separate entity with our aversion to impermanence and death as the reason why we are attracted to ideas, information and people that seem to offer a sense of stability – i.e. surety.
Control in e-s-C-a-p-e ideology
The dominant modern culture around the world, not just the West, accepts the ideas that it is possible for the human both individually and collectively to control the environment and others and that is good to do so. It may appear to us that is possible and that we benefit from controlling others and nature but that is only ever a momentary situation. As the self-reinforcing feedbacks further heat our planet, we should come to realize that although our actions influence Nature, we are not in control of Nature and never were. It is because of this assumption of control that humanity has not paid sufficient attention to the complex environmental home which we are interdependent with.
The assumption of control arises from a lack of attention to how our subjective experience of the world and other people is just that – our own experience and does not dictate what the outside world actually is. It is normal for us each to label what we experience, from apple to cloud to person. However, when we forget that label is arbitrary and provisional, the complex world becomes a mere array of ‘objects’ on our own subjective stage, which we then seek to control for our own purposes. Therefore, we make assumptions that a person is less worthy of attention and power than others, by virtue of the label we have applied to them in our minds. For instance, people become trash, the hoards, the anarchists, the fascists, the mob, or even just ‘the staff’, ‘the confused’ or ‘the enemy,’ rather than people like you and me. This othering and alienation between ourselves, or the group we identify with, is dehumanising and allows us to ignore the plight of others or perpetuate abuses. They become people to be controlled, either actively or through exclusion.
This ‘othering’ process is also reflexive, as we receive from culture ideas about how we should feel, think and behave. Therefore, there are aspects of our inner worlds which we are invited to see as less acceptable or likeable, especially in certain contexts and for certain ‘types’ of people. Therefore, on behalf of dominant culture, we seek to control our own emotions, and present an appropriate version of ourselves to the world. This process is deeply problematic for the individual, and those who they relate to. However, on a collective level, it can be suicidal for a culture, as we don’t allow the wisdom of our emotions to become part of our collective sense making about what our situation is and what matters. For centuries, people have been suppressing their emotional pain about the way we live and the state of the world, as they told each other that suppression was the responsible thing to do.
I did it myself – and for years covered my emotional pain with faux positivity and confidence. That was because for so much of my life I was concerned about my own security, even though I was telling myself I was more interested in social justice and environmental protection than in my status, finances, or personal life. I was compromising all the time to be able to work for organisations like the WWF, the UN, the Labour Party and corporations. I was trying to control my situation, financially. When I began assessing the latest climate science from the end of 2017, my mortality became more real for me. I realized that what really mattered was that I wanted to live my truth and be more present with people without hiding my weaknesses, insecurities and doubts. That was why I wrote and released the Deep Adaptation paper as a pdf from my Institute, rather than re-write it to be acceptable for the academic journal and have another publication to make my career safer. Oddly, that recklessness led to the biggest impact that I’ve had in my life.
Since then I still succumb to the desire for control. Part of the motivation for writing this essay is because I’ve become concerned that people who engage with Deep Adaptation might develop projects that are contrary to my own perspective of why we are in this mess. I still have to catch myself, to make sure I am simply informing, rather than seeking to impose. I must be careful not to categorise myself as the one who knows, and other people as needing to know.
The categories that we apply to ourselves and ‘others’ do not appear from nowhere, but are given to us by our culture, arising from and maintaining specific power relations. This fact reminds us that we might not be so in control of ourselves, which deserves some more elaboration, which I will attempt next.
Autonomy in e-s-c-A-p-e ideology
The dominant culture I am describing here also assumes the idea that each of us is the separate autonomous origin of our awareness, values, decisions and that it is good to become more autonomous. This assumption is simply false. Instead, not only our ability to conceptualize and communicate is socially constructed and conditioned by our culture and upbringing, but also our ability to even perceive stimuli is influenced by that conditioning. This does not mean that there is no free will but that our will is socially conditioned. Aside from that social conditioning, the nature of our being is influenced by the biology of our physical body and brain.
I once thought I knew who I really am and that I was consciously choosing my way of life. But then I had a close relationship and my partner helped me to see how my responses to situations could be coming from emotional wounding and patterns from childhood, which I had ignored due to our dominant culture. One lesson for me was that I can never be sure what conditionings are creating my sense of identity and influencing my choices. It means I now make self-construal a constant question in my life and never be fully confident of the answers.
The idea of autonomy, however, runs deep in our current culture. In recent times it is being refuelled by mis-readings of the insights of quantum physics, as well as new age spiritualities and positive psychologies, which suggests we can manifest any reality if we believe it to be so. Being more conscious of our feelings, thoughts and contexts is important to be able to make better-informed choices; being aware of the way culture shapes our thoughts is an important step in that process.
This delusion of autonomy is problematic when it blinds us to the ways we are being controlled and exploited. Powerful interests work tirelessly to persuade us what to want and not want. As such, we are more likely to unconsciously follow norms of thought and behaviour, even when those norms are producing collectively insane outcomes for humanity, as they are today. People who believe themselves autonomous are less likely to question norms as societies breakdown, and therefore less likely to engage in creative dialogue.
Recognising that each of us and our experiences of the world are co-produced by our natural and cultural contexts, means that we can begin to engage in those contexts to help more people reconsider their values and behaviours at this time. And to recognise that our capabilities have been developed through collaboration and solidarity with others. That means we might more consciously discuss how to reduce harm, promote joy and enable meaning, while never forgetting that our ideas on that will always be relational, provisional, and open to challenge.
Progress in e-s-c-a-P-e ideology
The idea that humanity is advancing from the cave to the stars, through a process of civilization without interruption, is almost total in its encompassing of the public sphere. The advance of technology is dazzling, and I am a grateful beneficiary of it. However, the assumption that material progress is possible and good, means that new technologies and ideas are given the benefit of the doubt, and the hidden or unforeseen costs of those ideas tend to be downplayed, or fixed with even less tested ideas. Despite some positive exceptions, that push for new and more typically correlates with more consumption of the natural world and more pollution. It is the assumption of progress which permits us to take huge risks rolling out technologies which disrupt the patterns of nature and to deprioritise preserving the original wealth that is our natural world.
Some people are so entrenched in the narrative of progress that they simply reject information that does not support it. That is deeply damaging of our public discourse at a time when we need to rethink everything. In addition, the assumption of progress has captured our moral imagination so that most people find it awkward or impossible to think about values and right action without the assumption of progress. That perspective is incredibly disabling as a time of massive disruption, accelerating degradation and forthcoming loss. For instance, some people can’t imagine becoming creative and motivated to work towards a lesser dystopia for people and planet.
The dominance of the belief in material progress is why people think they are the strange ones for not being excited about Space-X launches. When actually, you might be quite reasonable to have a gut reaction that this seems a childish insanity on a planet needing an urgent channelling of resources and intelligence into our terrestrial problems. Instead of assuming that progress is inevitable and good, we could consider alternative ways of framing our human condition, such as it being a time of retreat.
Exceptionalism in e-s-c-a-p-E ideology
I’m concerned about two kinds of exceptionalism: firstly, that we and our kin are different and better, or at least more entitled than others and their kin; secondly, that humans are an exceptional species in natural history.
It appears quite normal, throughout history, for people to think, without thinking, that their lives and those of their family, their community, country, race or religion are more important than the lives of others. These assumptions have led to conflict in the past and do so today. Yet another aspect of it is that people more easily accept their participation in systems of oppression and don’t feel complicit in those systems or the terrible suffering that they create. On a planet that is one indivisible whole, this sense of exceptionalism and denial of the importance of ‘others’, supports sustained degradation and destruction. It is one way that colonialism of the past is related to the destruction of the present.
Another way this exceptionalism manifests is when people think that because they are different, they can escape the destiny of most of the people as humanity faces a climate catastrophe. When people think about building bunkers, moving to New Zealand, growing vegetables off grid, and such like, they may be pretending to themselves that they can escape a situation that will ruin the lives of billions of other people. Those who think themselves different will be less awake to the possibilities for shared action in solidarity with ‘ordinary’ humans.
This argument does not mean that there is never a place for considering there to be an exceptional circumstance for oneself or one’s group. However, being exceptional or making an exception is contingent on context, provisional and not necessarily legitimate. Therefore, such views should be open to constant question from many stakeholders. For instance, if a few were special enough to be saved, who should decide who they were? Or if a few think they know what is the best for the rest of us, what powers should we have to disagree?
In the realm of social and organisational change, we see a lot of exceptionalism. It is the origin of baseless myths of the importance of the special leader, the need for heroes, the validity of the moral judge, the character of rich businesspersons, or the saviour-role of a younger generation, and such like. The problem is that it means we look in the wrong directions for how to create social change.
Clearly the possibility for narcissistic attitudes and behaviours exists in everyone, but the problem with e-s-c-a-p-e ideology is that it has been encouraged by a culture, through praise and resources.
The grandest exceptionalism is our story of humanity being separate, and completely different, from the natural world. This is enshrined in some religions, but also in secular cultures. Even in some new age spiritualities, there can be an emphasis on humans being the apogee of consciousness on the planet and perhaps the universe. Assuming this to be true, rather than an interesting story, means in some cases that people are more able to disregard, desecrate and destroy other life forms and the natural world.
The sense of exceptionalism in most of us arises due to our beliefs in autonomy, entitlement and control, which I discussed earlier. It may also arise in some people to distract themselves from an inner angst that, deep down, they know their stories of surety are false. When people act from a belief in being exceptional, they may actually harbour a deep panic about the robustness of their world view and personal identity.
A few years ago, I came to realise my own exceptionalism, where I had needed to think I was special in some way, to compensate for my insecurities and the absences in my life. I was living a hero story, working hard on activities which were not fun but that I thought would mean I had an impact on social and environmental outcomes. I was spending my life in front of text on a screen, injuring my body as a result. Those sacrifices in my past may lead me to further justify the same kind of striving in what I do now. For instance, who do I think I am offering an encompassing view in this essay? I reflected on this question and wondered whether a sense of exceptionalism might, conversely, have been holding be back from sharing my views on the causes of our predicament. I had wanted to avoid causing disagreements within the emerging movement on deep adaptation. Which is founded on an assumption that I might be seen as special. I realised that people in the deep adaptation field could read my views, think them mumbo jumbo and move on! What is important is that we all have an ability to self-express. So I invite you to think about how you, in your heart, would answer the question “why did humanity destroy so much life on earth?” I suggest you answer this question to yourself, not others, and express yourself in your own way – words, poems, painting, dances, prayers, songs, arguments. Not because you are exceptional, but because this is a question that every person on the planet should be asking soon.
The purveyors of e-s-c-a-p-e
I chose the six elements of e-s-c-a-p-e ideology because I assess them to be the foundational concepts and scripts in our thinking which then lead to other assumptions and beliefs. For instance: individualism, consumerism, materialism, neoliberalism, and managerialism have all been critiqued by various scholars and activists over the past decades. Yet without the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology, these -isms would not be possible. I mention that, as I believe if we tackle any one of those -isms, without recognising the broader ideological context, then we are not responding to the seriousness of our predicament. Which means we risk continuing the injuries of the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology as we move into a period of turbulence and breakdown, thereby making matters worse.
So who are the people now promoting e-s-c-a-p-e ideology the most today and what should we do about that? I could name literally any group or ideology and show, by othering, that they are the ‘escap-ists’ of our time, who are living that ideology in such an extreme way that they will hasten the collapse of that ideology. However blaming others is missing the point because the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology infects all of us, in how we talk about our situation, who we blame, where we think true power lies, and in what we think is possible.
The situation with scientific communication and science-based policy making during the 2020 pandemic helps highlight how the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology is so widespread. In early March 2020, top scientists speaking for the government of the United Kingdom were reassuring the public that Britain had the best epidemiological modelling in the world and therefore the government was able to make the best-informed decisions. When I heard that I knew it was dangerous nonsense. A computer model is always going to reduce the complexity of reality into specific variables with arbitrary decisions about relationships between variables and the weighting of importance. Therefore, they can easily leave out incredibly important variables, particularly for situations that are not regularly reoccurring, so the model can’t be compared to real life very often. For instance, a model might indicate that large gatherings do not matter much for the spread of a virus, but not include the amount of contact that occurs between people as they travel on public transport to the large gathering or away from it. Confidence placed in one particular ‘story’ of knowledge, such as the cleverness of a model, its statistics and graphs, is something that arises from the desire for surety with a simplistic form of unambiguous knowledge upon which to lean on. This ‘surety’ aspect of the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology is so strong that it won’t be questioned, despite the British government having made decisions that saw the second highest rate of Covid-19 deaths in the entire world (despite its abundance of resources and knowledge). Instead, we will likely see the same scientists discussing with curiosity how they missed one or two variables and need to recalibrate their model for it to be better. It will be treated as an interesting scientific problem, rather than ideological complicity in mass death. Am I being unfair? Well, all they needed to do to access a different perspective would be to search “post normal science” online and discover scientists advising for decades about the difficulties and dangers of narrow scientific methods and conclusions for public policy. Or they could have listened to the marginalised expert voices across society or been more curious and respecting of what other countries were experiencing and doing. The same hubris is found amongst many climatologists today, as ably described by a senior climatologist in an interview with me (Dr. Wolfgang Knorr).
When I hear certain environmentalists reject the possibility that it’s not too late to prevent dangerous climate change from breaking down most societies, I hear them e-s-c-a-p-e-ing our situation. I hear entitlement to avoid emotional pain like despair and to preserve do-gooding personas. Also, there is the entitlement to have their perspective heard by another, including by attacking individuals they don’t know. I hear an adherence to the project of natural science in an unsophisticated way, which suggests a need for surety to an extent that causes stupidity. I hear that humanity is in control of our destiny within a turbulent environment and that we should somehow control our own emotions and those of people who listen to us. I hear the idea that individuals have the autonomy to change within our current system through voting, consuming differently, or through activism as if we didn’t have bills and taxes to pay, creditors breathing down our necks, children to feed and clothe, intransigent politicians, security services infiltrating our activist movements, and unrecognised ideologies calling us like sirens to our collective destruction. I hear the quasi-religious attachment to the idea of material progress and therefore the inability to conceive of courageous creative action without guarantee of material betterment. And I hear assumptions of exceptionalism, when activists ignore how it is already too late for many people. There is also exceptionalism when some activists say that they comprise the unique few percent of a population who must change everything or imply that the environmental predicament overrides all other considerations, include matters of rights and accountability.
The reproduction of e-s-c-a-p-e
To reject the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e is to have no place in public discourse today. That is not by accident. The ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e has been conducive to the rise of certain power relations which are embedded in capitalism and all political systems. That ideology is reproduced and spreads through those economic and political systems. There is a relationship between material contexts and the deep rules or ‘operating systems’ of all societies and economies, on the one hand, and the ideologies which become widespread, on the other. You may recall that Karl Marx once wrote about how the ‘mode of production’ of goods and services incentivizes certain ways of understanding oneself, the world and society. It is clear that the ‘mode of transaction and consumption’ is as important as the mode of production for how we understand ourselves and the world. There is an iterative relationship between material contexts on the one hand, and ideas about self and society on the other, especially when those ideas reshape what is considered (or is possible to experience as) a material resource. But what my perspective means is that some of the deepest rules or codes of our society will necessitate the maintenance of this e-s-c-a-p-e ideology whatever happens in the world and however we feel about it. That deep code is our system of money creation. Money was never a physical thing despite some of the inaccurate stories of some historians. Money has always been an agreement about how we transact with each other, which over time, through habit, turns into an assumption of how value is transacted and what “money” is. To help that process, sometimes we have created stories about material objects having transferable value. Those stories can become so widespread and influence behaviours that people begin to assume an object, such as a type of metal, has a value in its essence rather than ascribed by social convention.
Latterly the reification of markets has led to narratives that we do not control money or the economy. A better way to view modern money is as one of a series of institutions which support commerce, alongside various laws, banks, courts, bailiffs, markets, armies, relationships, and social customs. As such, money is by no means a force outside our control which dictates that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; rather the distribution of wealth and resources is absolutely under our collective control.
The current monetary system in nearly all countries of the world is one where banks issue new electronic money when they make deposits in current accounts when their clients (people, organisations or governments) sign loan agreements (including the selling of bonds). In most countries of the world that electronic money, issued in return for a debt agreement, constitutes almost all of the money in circulation. This debt-money system fuels the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology in a number of ways:
- Entitlement: a debt-money system creates inequality through the payment of interest to the creditors from the debtors, maintains inequality especially when compound interest makes debts harder to pay, and therefore enables the creation of distinct cultures of consumption related to one’s place in an economic ladder, which therefore shapes separate identities.
- Surety: a debt-money system rewards with new credit people who adopt the mentality of mapping, planning and calculating.
- Control: a debt-money system offers an experience of power not constrained by time or space. This is because the electronic money in a bank account does not rust, rot or get lost. This nature of money affects all of our perceptions of reality. People with money can control their lives without being subject to others: money buys not only material goods and services but also status, media attention, indemnity, and arguably both votes and laws.
- Autonomy: because every person now needs some of this money in order to live, you can find someone to do what you want for a simple transaction, without relying on social relations of solidarity. Regarding money as personal property supports the idea that each person should be responsible for himself over the idea that we are responsible for each other. Everyone must have to have something to sell in a marketplace in order to be independent of others. But this autonomy is a charade. Money only switches our dependence on family, friends and neighbours to dependence on the market, which is to say on corporations and strangers. And it is a double dependence because we must go to market first to get the money and again to spend it.
- Progress: a debt-money system requires expansion of economic activity in order to avoid economic disruption. This matter has been debated by economists, but I will show in a forthcoming paper that the arguments against a growth imperative from bank issued debt-money are flawed. The need for expansion of transactions means we have experienced progress as material expansion, that is both desired and the normal situation.
- Exceptionalism: a debt-money system requires the continual conversion of the natural world into products, and the instrumentalization of people as objects for the pursuit of profits.
Some of you might be benefiting from this process if you receive share dividends. However, it is unlikely you are gaining a net benefit, given the amount of money that we spend due to helping companies services their debts (some calculate that amounts to about 40% of the price of goods and services). Some of you may have benefited if you have cashed in on the sale of real estate to buy a cheaper home. But don’t be fooled that the price of your house is a benefit if not realised through a sale where you downsized to release capital. After all, the market price of a house is merely a story of value until you access finance from it.
We, humanity, have been hypnotised by the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology to be compliant and mutually self-police as workers and consumers to systematically destroy our planetary home to provide wealth and power to people we do not know. The e-s-c-a-p-e ideology is therefore an ideology of oppression for exploitation that is producing omnicide. Therefore, our climate tragedy is the result of our oppression. Any meaningful environmentalism should be first and foremost a movement for our liberation from those systems of oppression that have been forcing us into the insanity of destroying the life-support system of ourselves and our families. Unless the monetary system changes, the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e will continue to be fuelled during forthcoming societal disruption.
However, because environmentalists have been trapped within the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology, they have framed the problem as one of side effects and accidents that need our better management and control, or even as an opportunity for more consumer self-expression and heroism – basically anything which would fit the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology rather than actually realize how that ideology is the cause of the problem. Honest environmentalism must now involve the aim and effort for humans to be free to be able to connect to, honour and sustain our environments. Any other environmentalism is a lie. The atmosphere tells us that it is lie, with the fact of 416ppm CO2 in June 2020.
Today, the “hope” that many environmentalists speak of is a hope imbued with e-s-c-a-p-e ideology. Even the fact they think they need hope at all for motivation to take meaningful action is the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology shaping their thought. If hope in hell arises from the dominant culture of our time, and therefore does not invite meaningful conversation about deep cultural change, that hope is hell itself.
Moving beyond e-s-c-a-p-e
So how do we move beyond e-s-c-a-p-e? First, reading this essay might help. Because, one can be ready to release unconscious compliance, by recognizing that this ideology exists and has been involved in enabling and spreading the attitudes and behaviours that have caused irreparable damage to life on Earth, as well as our own species’ experience of life and future potential. It is then important to invite a range of diverse ideas about what ways of feeling, thinking, relating and behaving are possible and useful – or at least less harmful – than the e-s-c-a-p-e paradigm.
I have some ideas as to how we might describe a framework for being, thinking and behaving that is beyond the e-s-c-a-p-e paradigm. However, I’m conscious that I am a white middle-class middle-aged Western man with an elite education. Anything I would be saying about a better way of thinking as we face collapse would be reinforcing the idea that wisdom comes from people like me. Moreover, it would also be ideas that are unavoidably influenced by my experience of life. Although, I have faced a range of economic and health difficulties in my life, and lived in 7 countries across 4 continents, that cannot offset the fact that I have inhabited a privileged identity. This context is partly why my suggestions for how we approach the question of anticipated or unfolding collapse has been in the form of a framework of questions – the 4 Rs of resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation.
I would like to offer an idea into the mix for future conversation. Any new paradigm or ideology that is defined in opposition to the e-s-c-a-p-e paradigm will have its own problems. That is because any views on values and rightness will be – and need to be recognized as – fallible, contingent, provisional and therefore in need of constant questioning. Therefore, some balance can be important, rather than a zealous rejection of everything from one ideology. There could be some thoughts and feelings within each of the elements of the e-s-c-a-p-e paradigm that are useful and could remain useful. The problem has been the unthinking allegiance and adherence to these elements, along with the enforced spreading of these elements through systems of economics, politics, education and cultural artefact.
To deepen your own learning on these topics and engage with others in working out what might become new paradigms post-e-s-c-a-p-e, I recommend looking at an initiative called “gesturing towards decolonial futures” as they engage this topic with the aim of not colonising perspectives. In recommending them, I do not mean to suggest that the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology is synonymous with ‘Western’ culture, as it is expressed in many cultures – certainly in the countries I have lived in. Colonialism, imperialism and economic globalisation have forced the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology on people, but if people ignore how other cultures have been creating their own flavours of e-s-c-a-p-e ideology, then they might limit their inquiry: https://decolonialfutures.net/
Although it is important to explore ideas for alternative paradigms, I am not under any illusion that such processes will have much impact on wider society. Why? Because, for now, we will not be heard by the masses. Small groups of people escaping e-s-c-a-p-e will be positive, particularly for them, but won’t have a lasting impact in a planet being destroyed by behaviour arising from the destructive ideology. Climate disruption will affect everyone. The question that could therefore be asked is: would you like to hope that the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology collapses sufficiently at scale in order to help people to reduce harm, find joy and meaning, or even create more possibilities for life on Earth and the human species? If so, we must consider how our monetary system might collapse and be replaced by some other forms that won’t replicate its problems.
How can that happen? Perhaps it can’t until the financial system collapses. Will it collapse? Not because of internal contradictions of capitalism that are being assuaged by money issuance and economic expansion in the short term, but because of the external contradictions of capitalism as it bashes against the limits of ecosystems. Covid-19, by the way, is one of those ecosystem limits, given that destruction of nature has made coronavirus outbreaks in humans more likely. Perhaps the pandemic might trigger financial collapse, if national debt levels become a concern. Perhaps rising insurance claims might trigger it. Perhaps stock markets might trigger it, if there is confusion and panic over sudden sea level rise, water-related wars, or further signs of runaway climate change in the Arctic.
Should we try to help disrupt the economic fuel of the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology? Should we do this in ways other than creating small alternatives, that remain niche? Could there be efforts at a grand scale, even geopolitical level? Could there be efforts to hijack the populist backlash against the end of progress, and channel it towards a real transformation of ideology, rather than the current ‘populist’ brutalising of the public?
I would welcome more people engaging in such conversations. Currently I see people intellectually flailing around as they reject the way e-s-c-a-p-e is followed in the mainstream. The widespread conspiracy stories are evidence of that. For instance, the idea Bill Gates is behind Covid-19, or that jet airliners are spraying poisons, or that 5G networks are intended to make us ill (rather than being an unnecessary untested risk, which they seem to be). Rather than face the situation of exploitation head on, the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e is so powerful that people then reflect aspects of that ideology when they adopt and promote illogical and incorrect theories of exploitation and oppression. That undermines the development of coalitions to act on important concerns about poor science, poor policy, damaging pharmaceutical industry influences, unaccountable decisions, erosion of civil liberties, unnecessary surveillance, and such like. Promoting conspiracy is therefore leading people to a cul-de-sac of pointless misinformed fear and disabling an awakening to the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e.
Beating addiction together
I want to end this essay by noting that all the ideas I share above are an amalgamation of insights from sociology, philosophy, decolonisation studies, and mystical traditions and that these insights are largely hidden away from the mainstream discussions illustrates the economic power that produces the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e. Antecedents and elements of the ideas in this essay can be found in the ideas of, in no particular order: Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, Norman Fairclough, Thich Nhat Hanh, Vandana Shiva, Charles Eisenstein, Vanessa Andreotti, Mohandas Gandhi, Miriam MacGillis, Theodor Adorno, Jiddu Krishnamurthy, Joanna Macy, Swami Abhayananda and last but most, Siddhartha Gautama.
But the wisdom isn’t in the heads of exceptionally clever people. It is everywhere, if allowed. When talking with children about our predicament, I hear a clarity in their realisations and questions which show that we don’t have to live this way. The problem is that people who are paid to work on ideas and who have the seniority to be heard on climate and environment are so defined by the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology that they are handicapped in what they can imagine and consequently are taking up too much airtime in our intellectual life. So it’s been quite a paradox for me, as I was suddenly propelled into being a commentator on climate and collapse-readiness. I responded by promoting the voices of wise women and children and connecting people with each other, rather than pumping out reports on why I am right on climate, how societal collapse will happen, or policy proposals on how to prepare. It is why through the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) we offer opportunities for relating with people in ways that invite us to notice e-s-c-a-p-e ideology and offer experiences of something else.
So, what could possibly go right to help this e-s-c-a-p-e ideology collapse? In the absence of a concerted and successful effort to change the monetary system? I think we can first look at how we can help each other not fall back into this ideology ourselves. I know that I keep falling back into it! Which means I am beginning to see it as an addiction. We exist in societies that reproduce this ideology, so we are surrounded by people and processes that offer to feed our addiction to aspects of it. Therefore, we could learn from people who know about escaping addiction. They tell us that the first step is to recognise that we cannot overcome addiction on our own. Therefore, we can introduce into our lives regular means of reminding each other of our addiction to e-s-c-a-p-e ideology and inviting each other into ways of being and relating which are not part of that ideology. There are many practices that we could co-create and offer each other for that.
It would also be nice if climate scientists and environmentalists might commit to unlearn their ideology while supporting people unlike them to have more voice and influence. Is that going to happen? I don’t expect it in the near future. Instead, we might hear more aggressive rhetoric from some climatologists and environmentalists as things get worse. So, when you hear that, could you send them this essay? Perhaps with some magic mushrooms. It’s not the only way to escape e-s-c-a-p-e, and it wasn’t my way, but I hear it can help some people 😊
To conclude, I would like to repeat that because the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e is an escape from the complex, ambiguous, emergent and integral nature of reality, it has led to the current predicament where human societies face disruption and breakdown. Therefore, because of the disconnect with reality, the collapse of e-s-c-a-p-e ideology will happen inevitably. Therefore, from one way of perceiving reality, it has already happened. The question for us can be what to do about the suffering that will occur beforehand. One thing each of us can do is begin to question whether we are participating in the maintaining and spreading of the ideology, and help each other not to maintain it, including by providing communities of practices that support other ways of living. In the same way that we know that this ideology will eventually collapse, we can rest in the knowledge that even though elements of the ideology will keep re-emerging through us at times, it is also always collapsing within us.
Although I am critical of e-s-c-a-p-e ideology, and share this essay with you to invite you to consider whether to be critical of it as well, I recognise also that this ideology is part of the ‘greater OK.’ By that, I mean everything is as it is because there was the potential for it to be this way. That potential for it to be this way will always exist. A lack of self-acceptance and alienation towards others will not help us to live beyond that ideology. That is the ultimate paradox – changing oneself and the world needs to involve some level of acceptance of things as they are and then choose to abide with the greater realities we know also exist.
Postscript on the Deep Adaptation Forum
As I explained in the introduction to this essay, the ideas outlined here are not necessary for people to agree with as they develop their own meaning-making in the face of climate-driven societal collapse. These ideas are my current contribution to that discussion – which will inevitably grow as more people allow themselves to realise what is happening to our climate. However, as people engaged in Deep Adaptation and the Deep Adaptation Forum are a key audience for this essay, I am adding a postscript to explain how I have sought to enact these ideas in the way I have elaborated the DA agenda and established the Forum.
With the issue of entitlement in mind, although many people wanted to hear from me, I focused on hearing from people who could help us explore and escape entitlement. I invited experts in decolonisation onto the Holding group and interviewed them for my Q&As. One of only two lectures I gave in person over the last year was on this topic. The other aspect of entitlement, which is our aversion to our emotional pain and that of others, has been a recurring theme in my writing and in the way we focus on holding space online for ‘Deep Listening,’ ‘Deep Relating’ and ‘Death Cafes’ as well as the way we host retreats and courses. It is also why I invited people with depth of experience in meditation and Buddhist philosophy to join the Holding Group. The matter of inner emotional censorship was one of the main topics of my only other in-person lecture over the last year.
On the matter of surety, my emphasis with the 4Rs of deep adaptation has been avoiding answers and offering a framework for discussion questions. It is inviting people beyond a need for surety. It is also why, until now, I have declined writing more papers on the evidence for climate-driven collapse and how it will happen and what policies could be adopted, despite being offered funding to do that and receiving public criticism for not giving more evidence for my outlook.
With the problem of an over-emphasis on control in mind, I focused on the Forum becoming a way for people to connect and generate their own ideas, rather than being driven by the agendas of donors. It is also why I am keen for the loose network around DAF to be protected from any possibility for accidental hijack by people who may have other agendas and other resources. I recognise this is a paradox, where sometimes we may need to exert some control to protect against e-s-c-a-p-e ideology as it manifests through the power of people with money who might be acting with the best of intentions.
With the problem of an over-emphasis on autonomy in my mind, I have taken time to explain my perspective on the power of language and the language of power to various colleagues and volunteers over the past year. I am hopeful that the ‘Deep Relating’ gatherings can be hosted in ways that bring attention to the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology.
Moving beyond the assumption of progress has framed all my writings on DA and also informs the 4R framework, as it is a framework for reflection, creativity and agency without there being any sense of progress. None of the questions invite discussion on what to invent and do that is new. I notice that a number of people are suggesting additional Rs, and that’s fun to see. However, I also notice that some of the new Rs are inviting discussion of what to create that is new, in order to progress, which is not my understanding of the usefulness of the deep adaptation framework. My background paper to the volunteer-led Strategy Options Dialogue stressed focused on the idea that we need to move our creativity and planning beyond the assumption of progress. Instead, I suggested we might consider whether we could create and act from a new paradigm of retreat.
With the problem of exceptionalism in mind, I imagined the Forum becoming a grassroots network, bringing people together to talk about this issue in their own lives. I sought to spread the opportunities that were coming to me to a range of other people, through the creation of a core team, advocates group and Holding Group, and by not seeking to capitalise on this topic becoming famous. That is also why later this year I will step back from everyday operations and be one of the fourteen people on the Holding Group. We have a limited reach, in terms of nationalities and economic status and we wish to address that issue in future. However, I am also aware that our grassroots approach is very different from other groups who are considering dangerous climate change, existential risk, societal collapse and the redesign of civilisations. There are people with access to major funders who do not appear to question their sense that they are special people who can determine what is important to do or then try to impose it on the rest of the world. When they talk to rich donors, they offer a story of superior heroic saviour identities responding to the call of our time. In DAF, we don’t and won’t do that.
Thanks for reading this far. I hope this essay will be a useful stimulus for and look forward to feedback to enable refinement and my offering of a more detailed explanation in a forthcoming chapter in the book I am editing with Rupert Read, to published by Polity early in 2021. If you are interested to engage in this philosophical discussion, please visit the DAF Philosophy Discussion Group.
NOTE: A short summary of the concept of e-s-c-a-p-e, with advice on how to notice it within oneself and how to recover, is in this blog.
While this essay is the result of decades of my own endeavours, I have particularly benefited from conversations with Richard Little, Katie Carr, Matthew Slater, Rupesh Shah and Tom Davies for different aspects of the critique I outline in this essay. In developing these ideas I have also benefited especially from experiences organised by Zori Tomova, Vonny Stella, Henk Barendregt, Mirjam Hartkamp and John Thompson. I thank Katie for the phrase ‘F the ineffable’.
The image above is a picture from the set of Escape From Pretoria, with Tim Jenkin on the right being the man whose story of escape the film tells. His motivation is to unlock us all into freedom, and why he has chosen to work on alternatives to the monetary system. My interview with him follows below.
20 thoughts on “The Collapse of Ideology and the End of Escape”
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[…] the Deep Adaptation movement in relation to Jem Bendell’s critique of what he calls ESCAPE ideology, an acronym that stands for entitlement, surety, control, autonomy, progress and exceptionalism. […]
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[…] Speaking privately, most people who have worked on climate issues for decades tell me what has been happening. As the emissions curve is not reduced, and real-world data becomes more scary, while commitments are not kept and targets are missed, so the whole profession of climate concern develops new stories for managing their emotions and keeping the ‘show on the road’. Back in May 1992 when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was formed, 178 member states unanimously agreed to bring CO2 emissions down to 1990 levels of 354 parts per million by 2000. Annual emissions have climbed 65% since then. Then the world’s top climatologists wrote in 2009 that if global emissions had not peaked by 2020 then we would face inevitable catastrophic changes. In case you missed it, annual emissions reached a record high in 2021. And so, as expected, now we see attempts at a further reframing of the situation, despite the impacts being apparent to us. This demonstrates that for the professional class, reality must not get in the way of maintaining the stories of modernity such as human progress and control. […]
[…] Speaking privately, most people who have worked on climate issues for decades tell me what has been happening. As the emissions curve is not reduced, and real-world data becomes more scary, while commitments are not kept and targets are missed, so the whole profession of climate concern develops new stories for managing their emotions and keeping the ‘show on the road’. Back in May 1992 when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was formed, 178 member states unanimously agreed to bring CO2 emissions down to return to 1990 levels of 354 parts per million by 2000. Annual emissions have climbed 65% since then. Then the world’s top climatologists wrote in 2009 that if global emissions had not peaked by 2020 then we would face inevitable catastrophic changes. In case you missed it, annual emissions reached a record high in 2021. And so, as expected, now we see attempts at a further reframing of the situation, despite the impacts being apparent to us. This demonstrates that for the professional class, reality must not get in the way of maintaining the stories of modernity such as human progress and control. […]
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