The urgent need to slow down: ‘maplessness’ for responding to collapse

This is a guest post from Katie Carr, Senior Facilitator in the DA Forum. You can join her on a course she will co-facilitate with Jem Bendell on deep adaptation leadership, online in July, in which these ideas are further explored.

Over the last two years working to establish and nurture the Deep Adaptation Forum, I have often encountered people who express a desire for more answers, actions and impact. Given the latest news about how fast the environment is changing, and how many people and species are suffering, it feels natural to want to do something immediately. But given the depth and scale of the problem, what should we do? Might our desire for urgency and agency be both an asset and a hindrance? I believe that the predicament we face is such a challenge to our way of life and understanding the world, that there is also a clear need to slow down, to allow ourselves space and time to feel deeply into our emotional, embodied, and intellectual responses, in order to explore possibilities more fully. It is why processes for dialogue have been so central to the first years of the Deep Adaptation movement, and why volunteer facilitators have been so key to the Deep Adaptation Forum.

As we experience long-held certainties about self, society and the future beginning to dissolve, it can be natural to want to have a new set of answers to believe in and apply. However, rather than offering a map for a disruptive era for humanity, I regard Deep Adaptation as an invitation into maplessness, where we cannot rely on either previous or new ‘perceived certainties’.

Maps can be a useful tool, but are neither true to the complexity of any landscape, nor free from assumptions about how to engage with a landscape. They can create an illusion of safety through the sense of being in ‘chartered territory’. They condition us to take notice of certain features and ignore others. Road, footpaths, streams and boundaries are included, but not the smells, sounds, and emotional responses to a landscape. They focus on unchanging landscape features, not the seasonal migration of birds, changing colours, or the life and death that inhabits every place. Although a map is never the territory, and a model not the reality, the implicit suggestion of both maps and models is that to map is to measure and name in order to know, and that to know is to control. The trend towards ever greater mapping and detailed measuring of our infinitely complex and changing world reflects the aim, since the Enlightenment, to attain a sense of safety through protecting ourselves from the mysterious. And the history of cartography is insidiously entangled with colonialism and global injustice. The mapping impulse is therefore an expression of what the DA initiator Jem Bendell has called the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e. Likewise, the emphasis on carrying out ever more detailed research and analysis as a response to growing evidence of the catastrophe unfolding around us can be seen as a habit – even an addiction – for coping with feelings of extreme vulnerability.

As we witness both ecosystems and societies increasingly break down during the 2020s, so our processes of mapping and modelling are challenged. That is not only because those breakdowns reveal that we are neither ‘safe’ nor in control. Rather, the breakdowns are occurring because sufficient numbers of people, over centuries, have used the power of mapping life to exert a destructive power, and have not been able to understand our living world in order to make any meaningful efforts towards averting its destruction. The anticipation of societal collapse is therefore to acknowledge a crisis of epistemology, and a collapse of the hitherto dominant ways of seeking to know the world. That anticipation invites us to explore other ways of understanding life and our places within it. It means people become interested in relinquishing reliance on redundant and harmful mental ‘maps’ of who we are, who we are not, and how the world is, and begin to rediscover or restore forgotten ways of being and knowing. This means bringing the somatic, the affective, and the relational – the wisdom of our bodies, hearts and communities – wholly to bear on how we face into the unfolding predicament.

From my perspective, Deep Adaptation is primarily a container for dialogue that begins with an invitation to unlearn; to let go of our maps and models of the world and to not prematurely grasp at any new ones. That can be difficult, because a habit of needing fact, certainty, and right answers means people are often uncomfortable being with uncertainty or ‘not knowingness’. It is for that reason that alternative ways of relating in groups on all aspects of our predicament is so important. Which is why facilitation of group processes has been so central to Deep Adaptation, with modalities such as deep listening and deep relating.

Unfortunately, the difficulties of late capitalism, as more of us are pressured to compete with each other in distorted markets, while we increasingly perceive the turbulence both around and ahead of us, means that anxiety is increasing in many parts of the world and for many age-groups. Within our modern cultures, we have also been schooled to feel fearful of not knowing. A growing sense of vulnerability, due to increasingly precarious personal circumstances and perception of a more turbulent world, means we can grasp for ‘correct’ answers rather than allow for more ‘not knowing’ and more maplessness.

The great risk of such habitual responses is that they will lead more people to latch onto the simple stories offered to them by incumbent power, on the one hand, and opportunist contrarians on the other. Such processes could lead to even more extreme polarisation of mainstream public dialogue into various forms of xenophobia and authoritarianism versus conspiracies and cults. If that happens, societal disruption is likely to produce counter-productive responses that make matters worse. To help reduce that tendency, providing spaces for each other where we can build our resilience for experiencing difficult emotions such as the fear associated with uncertainty, and the anxiety of being with complexity, without grasping at quick and simple answers, is an important activity, and one I have been grateful to work on with many volunteers around the world over the last two years of the Deep Adaptation Forum, as well as bring to my teaching of leadership.

Download an academic paper where Katie and Jem discuss these ideas in more depth. Watch a video interview in which Katie explains her approach to facilitation for deep adaptation.

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