Update: You can read a detailed response to the criticisms in the Open Democracy essay here, and reflections on some lessons and a revised edition of the Deep Adaptation paper here. A response from Transition Towns co-founder in the Ecologist to the criticism is here.
I write to inform you about an article in Open Democracy, which seeks to dismiss the Deep Adaptation agenda and movement by debunking the original Deep Adaptation paper. It is getting some profile on social media, including from some mainstream environmental professionals. It is the latest instalment of a concerted effort from some people in the climate field who wish to frame any talk of it being too late for societies to avoid collapse as being defeatist and counterproductive. This is the same argument that has been directed at others in the past (e.g. the author Franzen), and now is being directed at me and at the DA community. When we reflect on the emotions involved, criticising an anticipation of societal collapse is a very understandable position to take. No one enjoys the feelings of vulnerability or fear about the future of our loved ones. However, as people are suffering terribly around the world and all western-led climate efforts have failed over decades to reduce emissions, our own peace of mind must take a back seat. We middle classes are no longer entitled to concoct stories that prioritise reducing our stress hormones over staying present and engaged with rapidly changing realities.
Unfortunately, neither the authors nor the Open Democracy editor reached out to me ahead of publication, so I was not able to correct the many misrepresentations and speculations in the article. Despite communicating to the Editor of The Ecologist the same information in this letter to you, they are also republishing the piece today. It seems the centrist environmental movement was in urgent need of some ‘verbal’ Valium.
I would like to share my general thoughts on the article, in case it comes up in your conversations.
First, by focusing on one scholar and one of their papers from 2-years ago, it means not discussing the issue in question with evidence for and against from multiple sources. There are now many other climate scientists and earth systems scientists saying that societal collapse is likely or inevitable. Some even indicate we may be facing catastrophe. There is already a large francophone literature on the topic, including many mainstream academics. Therefore, the OD article frames the topic in a way that allows one artefact (a paper) and one person to be dismissed as a method for the real aim, which is undermining rather than openly discussing a topic. I already summarised other scientists’ recent views on likely societal collapse here.
Second, the article repeats a range of criticisms that I previously answered before. Most of those criticisms involve misrepresentations or, are open for debate or, would require minor changes which do not affect the overall conclusion. I may look to find time to go through their arguments one-by-one, as I have done before with other criticisms. However, when such responses are then ignored by the next commentator seeking to get some attention for condemning the idea of Deep Adaptation, it seems like pointless work when there is much else to do! I will take some days to consider that. For now, here is the link to my previous detailed response to criticism from a few climate scientists.
Third, any criticisms of the implications of an anticipation of collapse on people’s mental health, motivations and actions needs backing up with research and data from various scholarly fields, or it’s not serious. The OD article makes an argument on those issues without proper scholarly support. By contrast, the research we have started on the impact of Deep Adaptation is here. Supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing is one of the main reasons why we launched the Deep Adaptation Forum last year. Because this issue is not going to go away, even if some people’s disavowal gets more and more sophisticated, funded and extreme.
Fourth, the article inverts one of my original paper’s arguments in a way that might give the reader the impression that I am chauvinist. In the original paper I write about the importance of learning from how cultures faced with collapse learned about that. I said we should learn from First Peoples of North America. I cited scholarship that is rare and respectful, as far as I knew at the time, of their experience. I did that to invite readers of that paper, mostly middle class western people focused on management, to consider how we need to have conversations about letting go of what we consider normal in our own societies – which are industrial consumer societies. However, the authors seem to have contorted that message into suggesting I think we should give up on protecting indigenous rights, give up on challenging their exploitation, and that we accept indigenous peoples moving on to reservations. The point I was making was the exact opposite – that people living in industrial consumer societies must now prepare for massive relinquishment of lifestyles. Since the Deep Adaptation Forum was launched in 2019, we have been holding space for discussions infused with attention to anti-patriarchy, social justice, and decolonisation. The authors of the OD article speculate on what Deep Adaptation ideas mean for poor and indigenous communities, without looking at what we actually do or say on that. Clearly, people of colour should never ever be reduced to objects for rhetorical use in our white middle class squabbles, whether in the realm of climate activism or not. I am pleased to have been learning from experts in decolonisation, including people from the global South and indigenous communities. I recommend the western environmental movement urgently learn more from them, and give voice to them. Starting with their views on climate activism here.
Fifth, the article appears to make a rather elitist western assumption that the collapse of western ways of life is somehow the ‘end’ and that therefore we have nothing left to believe in and work towards if we anticipate that collapse. People who still wish to reform capitalism, or replace it with other forms of industrial consumer life, after decades of failure and an environmental emergency, cannot claim a monopoly on optimism or creativity.
Sixth, by suggesting societal collapse is some strange notion in the future, the article risks us ignoring what is happening to millions of people right now, which some are interpreting or experiencing as forms of climate-influenced societal collapse. For instance, climate-driven impacts on agriculture, economics and politics is leading to hunger for millions of people in places like the Sahel. Then there is the impact of Covid-19. The UN has confirmed that climate change makes the outbreak of such diseases more likely, as I wrote about earlier this year. In some parts of the world, that depend on tourism, Covid-19 is threatening societal collapse already. Whether or not the original DA paper stands up to line-by-line scrutiny two years later, our attention is better placed on how we can reduce suffering in our increasingly destabilising world.
Seventh, by dividing people between those who anticipate societal collapse and those do not, or refuse to contemplate it, the authors of the OD article are inviting unnecessary division in the climate movement. They may have the success of that movement in mind, and yet offer very limited evidence for the argument that collapse-anticipation is counter productive to activism. It would be great to see more discussions about how to organise to grow our influence as activists while societies increasingly destabilise. To do that well, we could seek to be informed by psychology, sociology, political science, heterodox economics, amongst other fields. The problem for climate scientists is that this means they first need to listen and learn, not tell people what they must not contemplate.
Thanks for reading this update on the latest shenanigans. I know how challenging it can be to live with the perspective of anticipating the disruption of all that we know and love. It is even more challenging to bring this to people when we are invited to speak or host a meeting. The emotionally draining nature of that role is why I only do a couple of speeches a year. The role becomes more difficult when people decide to ‘shoot’ you, the messenger, rather than recognise that there is now ample evidence for an anticipation of collapse to be a valid perspective. Even when fires are raging outside their door, floodwaters rising around their feet, and the supermarket shelves quite bare, will some people become angry at those who wish to act from presence and love, instead of power and calculation. The reason for that, I believe, is because of the culture and ideology we have lived within, and continue to uphold, despite its destruction of the planet. In that sense, you could be like cultural magicians, inviting people to imagine new ways of loving themselves, each other and the world. It may prove far better than ‘verbal’ Valium.