Letters to critics of Deep Adaptation inviting collaboration for humanity

In July there was an essay published by critics of Deep Adaptation, which was then republished and promoted by some communicators on the environment and climate change.

That criticism led to some responses. In the Ecologist, Transition Towns cofounder explained how Deep Adaptation is not based on faulty science. In Open Democracy a group of scholars in ‘collapsology’ explained how Deep Adaptation is an important new field of research and action. Other writers chipped in, such as Richard Heinberg in Resilience. One of the world’s leading climate scientists, Professor Peter Wadhams, responded in forthright terms in an interview where he condemned as unscholarly the approach of the authors and the people who helped and promoted their work.

I responded by releasing an updated version of the original 2018 paper, as well as explaining the problems with the critique to Deep Adaptation volunteers, identifying 26 basic misrepresentations in the critical essay and then publishing two pieces on the Deep Adaptation agenda. First, with Gail Bradbrook, explaining the difference and complementarity of XR and DA, while inviting more climatologists to be braver with their public communication. We encouraged people to listen to all the sciences to have a better sense of the risks of climate change to societies. Second, because I want to support informed and vibrant discussion of this topic, I shared reflections on the most important areas of criticism, disagreement and dialogue in the realms of collapse anticipation and deep adaptation.

That is only a snapshot of the discussions that have ensued after the critical essay published on July 14th and that are likely to continue. I hope such discussions can occur in scholarly ways, and with that intention I have written to both the authors of the critique, and the director of the NGO which supported the publication and promotion of the critique. I invite them to reconsider their approach and instead contribute to the growing fields of collapse anticipation and response. As there have been accusations on twitter about how people have been communicating with them, I am making copies of my letters available here on my blog. I have opened comments on this blog so that the recipients of the letters can share their replies publicly if they choose to do so.

Letter to the authors of the essay critiquing Deep Adaptation.

Subject: Discovering Collapsology: please don’t stop now. Sent 2nd September 2020.

Dear Thomas, Galen and Colleen,

I am writing to respond to the article you wrote criticising the anticipation of societal collapse due, in part, to the impacts of climate change.

I undertook an assessment and response to your critique of the original Deep Adaptation paper, and the perspective it outlines. I identified 26 critical statements that I consider to be misrepresentations of what is in the paper (see here). For instance, I argued for, not against, meaningful mitigation and drawdown, did not conclude on subsea methane release, did not predict near term human extinction, and did not suggest or imply that indigenous people should be on reservations. A few of your criticisms I agreed with and I have released a new version here.

I hope you have seen that since your essay came out how there is a wide field of scholarship about the possibilities of societal collapse and that some people working in that field have considered it important to respond to your critique. That includes here in the Ecologist and here in Open Democracy where scholars explain that Deep Adaptation is not based on faulty science. I was also new to the field of ‘collapsology’ when I wrote the Deep Adaptation paper two years ago, and I think it could be useful if you stayed engaged in it.

There are many issues people can discuss and debate about how bad things are, how to communicate that, and what to do about it. I hope people can have such discussions about such topics without misrepresentations or disrespect. I have seen some people tweet that you may have experienced critique of yourselves rather than the article. I hope that more of us will avoid that in future.

However, I also realise that to keep completely calm at all times is easier said than done on a topic as shocking as the climate emergency. Over the past years I have experienced difficult emotions about this topic and met many people who also experience that. I read in your article that you share a concern for mental health. That was a key reason for launching the Deep Adaptation forum. You may find our updated guidance on mental health to be helpful (here).

I have concluded that there is no way that researching and discussing this topic can occur without difficult emotions arising. How we allow such emotions to arise in us but not act from them is important for how well we can inquire into the situation and what to do about it. If we move from our fear and upset into anger and then aggression (even if controlled and filtered) we risk reducing the possibilities for generative dialogue and collective action. Psychologists have made it clear to me about the risk of increasing emotional stress leading to demonizing of others. Therefore, emotional self-regulation was a key topic in my keynote speech at a conference of the UK’s psychotherapy profession (here). It is also a topic I write about with Dr Gail Bradbrook of Extinction Rebellion, where, for the first time, we communicate about the difference and complementarity of XR and DA (here).

In my annotations on your essay I provide a few recommendations for your further reading, but in this email I would like to bring your attention to one thing in particular. You express a concern for indigenous peoples. Since the beginning of this year the Deep Adaptation Forum has had on its board a representative from a network of indigenous scholars and activists. Since then we have been in dialogue with that collective. They have recently published their thoughts on the matter of societal collapse here. You seemed to misunderstand my discussion of the issue in the original Deep Adaptation paper which led to one of North America’s leading indigenous scholars to suggest you might be using indigenous issues to “mobilize aggression” against me (see his comment on your article). Given his clear concern, it would be sensible to look more closely at the implications of indigenous perspectives on our current predicament (such as here). You may find the implications are not easy to process and incorporate, as they challenge modernity and ask us to unlearn what we think we know.

I hope you can find time to read the annotations and so could reformulate your criticisms to start from a better basis in fact. Because I know DA can be critiqued without presenting straw man versions of the DA perspective. To support the important discussion of the ways that people might anticipate societal collapse and act from that awareness, I have published my own reflection on meaningful debates and critiques of Deep Adaptation in Open Democracy here.

In your essay you state that the “Deep Adaptation [paper of 2018] brings up so many spurious claims that it would be a massive undertaking to thoroughly refute them all.” As neither the anticipation of collapse or the discussion about how to adapt will disappear from public discourse, this undertaking may be useful for someone to do – perhaps yourselves, as you have a head start. Therefore, in addition to releasing an updated Deep Adaptation paper as a pdf, I have produced a googledoc version that is open for anyone to comment. This is the process I did before when inviting climatologists Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt and others to comment on the climate science section of the paper. However, as your critique of the DA paper goes further, I am making the full text of the new version open to that engagement.

Just like yourselves, I am not a climate scientist. I am a sociologist with expertise in transdisciplinary research analysis who has worked as a researcher, educator, campaigner, consultant and manager in the sustainable development field for 25 years. After releasing this revised DA paper I will leave it to climatologists to debate climate science, but may continue to remind them that assessing impact on human societies involves other fields of scholarship than their own, the dangers of being too confident about climate modelling, or the downplaying their own subjectivity. I will direct any future commentators on the science of the DA paper to the googledoc version so they can engage others in that way. 

In a similar way, I have produced a googledoc of your essay, with extensive annotations, that is open for comment by anyone here.

I realise that the extent of the critical feedback on your essay from myself and various persons (for instance the comments section below your essay) might lead to some difficult feelings. I have no intention to publicly shame anyone, but to invite us away from tactical towards more substantive discussion of this worrying topic. If you remain engaged in what some now call ‘collapsology’, I recommend considering joining the research discussion group of the Deep Adaptation Forum. It is a free and volunteer-led initiative with no commercial connections at all, where people are sharing ideas on the research agenda. 

As two of you are nuclear physics students, I am particularly interested in the research you could do on the risks of nuclear pollution from power stations and waste. In my research, I was unable to find credible assessments of the extent of the hazard if societies collapsed and did not manage their nuclear power stations and waste. In the Deep Adaptation paper, I explain that some people who believe in human extinction cite nuclear pollution as part of the process, although I did not conclude that is the case. Your article mistakenly presents me as backing that analysis. However, subsequent to my paper, I have not found rigorous debunking of that view. For instance, to cite Chernobyl or Fukushima is not sufficient, as they have been subject to significant containment efforts. I would be interested to see assessments of what would happen if no containment was possible for all power stations, and then assessments of the ways that containment could occur even if societies collapsed. If you have such information, I would like to receive it.

What I noticed from the reaction on Twitter is that many people in the mainstream British environmental sector sounded very pleased to hear of your arguments. If, over the coming months and years either observational data or new scholarship leads you to refine or change your perspective on the validity of some people anticipating collapse, then I recommend you outreach to those people who tweeted your article enthusiastically in order to update them on the progression of your analysis. In such a situation, I would invite you to look again at the body of work emerging from the Deep Adaptation community, as people have been seeking to respond positively to a difficult outlook. Rather than opponents, they can be friends for your own processing of a difficult situation.

I’m told that Scientists Warning recently made it part of their new strategy for brand positioning to be seen to undermine perspectives which they regard as defeatist. And I read of their commitment to fighting ‘doomism’ on their website. Although I don’t see adapting as being about doom (i.e. to adapt is to change not lose), it seems supporting your work is their first activity on the back of their anti-doom brand-building tactic. Therefore, I am copying them this letter, along with the scholars who were listed as supporters of your essay. My hope is that they may come to realise that Deep Adaptation is a new movement of scholars and everyday people who are actively trying to do good in the face of climate change. Just like collapsology in France, we are a complement to groups like SW and XR, not an impediment. Using up our time to squabble amongst ourselves might serve those who don’t want any discussion and action on peaceful revolutionary change in the face of climate chaos. You may be interested in some of my thoughts on how to approach climate activism in that way, here.


Jem Bendell

Letter to the Director of Scientists Warning

Subject: Request for reconsideration of SW strategy or its implementation. Sent September 3rd 2020.

Dear Alison,

I write with concern that Scientists Warning might not be using its resources and credibility to best effect and could be diverging from the organisation’s purpose of communicating climate science more skilfully than scientists themselves usually do. This concern arises due to your publication and promotion of a misleading essay on the Deep Adaptation framework and community. Therefore, I would welcome you sharing this letter with your fellow board members for your joint consideration and possible reply.

I consider the early reaction to the 2018 Deep Adaptation paper is relevant to the aims of Scientists Warning. My professional colleagues had the same access to science that I did, but rarely synthesised research from different fields into an overview, and typically stated that the future might be alright if a mythic “we” could change everything worldwide almost immediately. It is now a matter of record that the paper affected people so that many changed their lives in ways they consider positive, with some becoming radical climate activists (including people on the streets of London this week). As you reported using my work in your first engagements on climate issues with the European Commission, to promote an emergency mentality, I know you have experience of how the Deep Adaptation analysis can promote engagement for mitigation and drawdown. All of those efforts have helped make climate change a higher profile issue in many societies.

Therefore, I see our activities as complementary. I come from a social science background while you seek to represent the natural sciences. Deep Adaptation engages people responding to the worst scenarios and preparing for them, while Scientists Warning focuses on what might still be done to mitigate climate change. My work, and most of the Deep Adaptation community, is supportive of bold mitigation and drawdown efforts, not against them. I believe that Scientists Warning could become supportive of climate adaptation efforts, from mainstream adaptation, to transformative and deep approaches, in order to both reduce harm and maintain conditions for continued mitigation and drawdown efforts.

Therefore, I think it is unfortunate that Scientists Warning published and promoted an article on Deep Adaptation which contained dozens of misrepresentations of the original 2018 paper and my work, completely ignored the field of study on collapse risk, and misrepresented the intentions and impacts of people acting with Deep Adaptation in mind. I have been told that there is a strategic intention of Scientists Warning to enhance its reputation amongst mainstream climate scientists by distancing itself from what some people label ‘alarmist’ or ‘doomer’ perspectives. I can understand that if you want to organise more mainstream scientists to speak out so you might prioritise your organisation’s credibility with them in your decisions about what to publish or promote. However, faced with such a terrifying predicament, it remains important for us all to focus as much on the values we embody in how we act, as on any organisational strategy. As a small community of volunteers and freelancers who are supporting each other on collapse readiness, the Deep Adaptation community should not become the collateral damage of another organisation’s attempt at influence. If that is not your strategy, or if the Deep Adaptation framework and community is not considered within your ‘doomer’ category, then I would welcome hearing that.  

Your video interview with the authors mentioned mental health implications. I have been particularly aware of the responsibility that fell to me when the Deep Adaptation paper went viral, so that I became an accidental bearer of bad news to many people. It is why I focused my time and resources on creating a caring community and making support available for people affected by difficult emotions, with the launch of the Deep Adaptation Forum. In addition, I did not seek to promote my views via mainstream media, despite numerous invitations, as I preferred to help people build capacity that would be useful for when more people experience disruption or become collapse aware in the near future.

I have taken advice from a range of psychologists over the last few years about the mental health and wellbeing implications of anticipating a collapse in our societies. In particular, I engaged with professional members of the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) and the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), and was advised that the main issue for mental health is for people to connect with others to express their difficult emotions during respectful processes. It is why some of the main activities of the Deep Adaptation Forum are processes for Deep Listening, Deep Relating, and grief support, and why we helped to develop a Guidance Database of therapeutic support. 

The impact of the Deep Adaptation Forum is that more people are motivated for a wide spectrum of social activism, rather than a traditional bunker-building prepper mentality. So I’m concerned about any allegations that Deep Adaptation might be causing harm, or doing more harm than good, when those allegations appear to have scant evidential basis or even contradict the research I am aware of, or what I see from people in the social networks I have helped to found.

I have been told that you have a critical view of the approach of members of the CPA, in particular the basis in depth psychology of many professionals in that group. I would welcome hearing more about that, especially if in an exploratory and well-referenced way that might enhance the efforts of people who are working with those who anticipate or experience climate disruptions or societal breakdowns. That would be helpful because although we have psychologists advising us, and a discussion group on therapeutic approaches (with over 600 practitioners), my colleagues are upgrading our means of learning and implementing best practices on mental health and wellbeing.

There are many important and open questions around the concept and framework of Deep Adaptation so there could be a productive dialogue between our two perspectives. I wrote about some of those areas in my article for OpenDemocracy here, and would welcome engagement by Scientists Warning members on them.  

In the past, under the directorship of Stuart Scott, Scientists Warning felt like natural collaboration partners, and I wish the same to be true in the future. Until April this year, your organisation was noting that Deep Adaptation had “changed the landscape of what we are doing.”

With the aim of finding future alignment and synergy in our efforts, I invite you and the board of Scientists Warning to consider the following five points:

  1. Recognise that understanding the implications of climate change for societies is a complex transdisciplinary field (which some call collapsology), and so basing commentary on the likelihood of societal breakdown on the work and views of climatologists is not sufficient. Instead, a wider range of scholarship can be engaged and therefore a curiosity about different epistemologies is important to arrive at useful insights on our planetary situation;
  2. Consider whether to increase efforts to help scientists and other scholars to communicate well on matters of adaptation to climate change, in particular on matters of fairness and relevance of climate adaptation measures. The issue of relevance invites attention to both transformative adaptation (integrating mitigation) and deep adaptation (preparing for worst case impacts);
  3. Question the wisdom of tying up the time, people and resources of both your networks and others, in conflictual debates about the helpfulness of people anticipating societal collapse. Instead, a productive dialogue could be had;
  4. When working with any scholars, but especially early career scholars, and especially if publishing their work, encourage them to avoid ‘playing the man’ and instead pursue a civil discussion of the topics. That will reduce the likelihood of ill-feeling and in-fighting that you have noted in social media;
  5. Attempt to resolve serious disagreements in private before publishing. This will result in more informed commentary for the public, as well as avoiding bad feeling and division within the environmental movement. To me these to be important considerations for effective scientific communications.

I have written a letter to the authors of the essay and copy it for you and your colleagues below. I am copying this letter to the lead author of that essay, former Scientists Warning director Stuart Scott and the persons who are cited on your website as “checking the claims in this article”. I will make this letter available to members of the Deep Adaptation Forum in a blog post, where you will also be able to place your reply to me publicly, if you choose to do so. If you prefer me to treat a reply as confidential, then I will also do so.

Thank you for reading and yours sincerely,

Jem Bendell

1 thought on “Letters to critics of Deep Adaptation inviting collaboration for humanity”

  1. After reading the criticism of PDA I was struck by one thing you didn’t mention here (although it may have been mentioned elsewhere): the authors seem to be making the assumption that–as long as XR is allowed to continue its work unfettered by the supposedly damaging influence of PDA–efforts to effect the societal, economic and energy transition will ultimately be successful, preventing a comprehensive collapse. They seem not to realize that collapse is already occurring for certain populations even in rich Western societies–for example the eviction crisis facing poor/vulnerable tenants–and they ignore the fact that political tendencies the world over are heading in the worst possible direction. Oligarchy seems to be spreading as fast as the wildfires in California, and certain “progressive” governments (like Trudeau’s in Canada) are masquerading–very effectively–as proponents of significant climate action, while pandering to the fossil fuel/corporate interests in the backrooms. And our current social media landscape encourages thought silos, an us-versus-them mindset (which XR’s attack on PDA embodies) and the uncontrolled spread of movements such as Qanon, which is stunning in its detachment from reality. Clearly predictions about social collapse require an interdisciplinary perspective that goes far beyond climate science. Finally I think tolerance of diversity is more essential than ever, and that includes tolerating different perspectives and opinions, which the leadership of XR appears to be incapable of. I’m not a sociologist, but I suspect that’s one of the elements that could lead to the collapse of a movement organization, which is very concerning because XR is one of the few things that gives me real hope.

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