For Environmentalists, COVID is the Elephant in the Zoom

On June 10th Professor Jem Bendell gave a talk to the EU commission, organised by Globe EU, with participants from DG Grow, DG Environment, DG Move, DG Climate, and the EU Defence Agency. Here is a rough transcript of the talk, which will appear as a video soon.

“Thank you to Roland-Jan Meijer and Sirpa Pietikäinen for the invitation. Already at these European Commission “wake up calls” you have had really top experts in environmental science like Johan Rockström, Sandrine Dixson, Tim Palmer, Maja Göpel, Petteri Taalas, all warning about the risk of irreversible climate change. So, I will not go over that.

Instead, I want to share a few ideas about what if they are right about the problem, but that their wishes that all societies around the world change fast enough to good effect, turn out to be unfulfilled. What if it is too late to prevent dangerous levels of climate change further affecting food, water, trade, infectious disease, and, in turn, economic systems, political cultures, physical and mental health?

This isn’t an easy topic, especially for those of us who have given our professional lives to seeking to reform our current systems and culture to transition effectively to a greener way of life. But it really is now time to keep pushing for the best but prepare for worst.

Because it is affecting all of us, and is a stressful situation, I want to offer a few comments on the implications of pandemic disease. Last century we never had a coronavirus outbreak that could kill people. We just got runny noses from them. In the last 16 years we have had 3 nasty coronavirus outbreaks of the kind that can kill people – SARS, MERS and COVID. Some epidemiologists have predicted this due, in part, to environmental damage and climate change. The UN Environment Programme backed up that analysis in a report in July 2020.

Some epidemiologists have sought more funds for experiments on viruses because of their concern about this new era of pandemic risk. That comes with risks – despite efforts at biosafety, lab leaks are simply normal. A US Government report documented that there were 2 lab escapes of pathogens every week from biosafety level 3 and level 4 laboratories in that country. I don’t know if there is similar data for Europe, but there are dozens of such labs across Europe.

Away from the politicisation of the issue, the key point here is that by damaging nature and seeking to protect ourselves from that damage, we are making pandemic disease more likely. We already see the ramifications to economics, politics, civic freedoms, education, physical and mental health. Whatever happens with COVID-19, the bigger picture is further disease. That means a need for dialogue about smarter, more long term, more holistic and socially just responses to this new era, as well as redoubled efforts to conserve nature.

I focus on disease not because it is my specialism – it’s not – but because when we are talking about environmental impacts, it’s clearly a topic that we don’t feel comfortable approaching. It feels contentious, uncertain, scary even. For environmentalists, it’s been the elephant in the zoom.

The benefit of normalising an anticipation of societal disruption and collapse is that we can approach the full implications of zoonotic disease more deliberately. Just like we could approach matters of food security more deliberately. What do I mean by that? I mean without downplaying it, without laughing it off as doomist, without allowing our discomfort to turn into attempts to shut down the topic.

Unfortunately, some people have been trying to shut down the topic of collapse anticipation. That is why over 600 scholars from over 30 countries signed an international scholars’ warning on societal disruption and collapse, saying we need more sober and serious dialogue about it. Unfortunately, the world’s media and elites have not wanted to hear that warning. So, before sharing some thoughts about the implications of this agenda, and taking your questions on it, it may be useful to share some thoughts on those criticisms of collapse anticipation. If you did not know already, there are professionals within the environmental sector who argue that collapse anticipation is scientifically wrong or counterproductive to the cause of sustainability.

When talking with them, I ask them to recognize that there is a bias in us for normality – where we think what is normal in our everyday experience will continue. Of course, that has been shaken somewhat since the start of the pandemic and yet it is an aspect of the way people think. The normality bias shows up in the discussion of the latest climate science in the way it apportions the burden of proof. If you anticipate that everything will change everywhere almost immediately and that we get lucky that such change is sufficient, despite the already existing destabilization of global environmental systems, then the mainstream scientific establishment does not demand that you prove the basis for your anticipation.

When I anticipate collapse all I am doing is anticipating that what is happening now on many levels will continue to occur in similar ways. For instance, if we look at anthropogenic carbon emissions they have continued to increase near exponentially since the start of the industrial revolution with only a couple of blips in 2008 and in 2020 – though now in 2021 we have seen one of the fastest ever leaps in those emissions. That is despite decades of awareness, campaigning, policy initiatives and technological advances. Why should it need to be proven that this will continue, before assessing the implications of it continuing?

Or if we look at global atmospheric carbon concentrations they have also increased near exponentially since the start of the industrial revolution. The atmospheric concentration of carbon increased during 2020 despite a 7% drop in global emissions from humans. That indicates that some self-reinforcing feedbacks have begun to some degree such as the Amazon rainforest becoming a source rather than a sink of carbon dioxide as its soil dries and as it catches fire. Why should it need to be proven that this will continue, before assessing the implications of it continuing?

Then if we look at indicators such as sea level rise, the loss of Arctic Ice, the loss of land ice or the increase in droughts and floods, the loss of biodiversity, or the release of methane from inland permafrost, we see similar trends. Why should it need to be proven that this will continue, before assessing the implications of it continuing? And then if we look at impacts on society such as storm damage to property and to loss of crops from erratic weather, or the impacts of zoonotic disease on societies in general, the trends are also bad. Why should it need to be proven that this will continue, rather than to assess the implications of it continuing?

It is positive that we see a new emphasis on adaptation to climate change from the World Bank, the European Commission, and various intergovernmental organisations. Yet research on the mainstream adaptation policy agenda finds that it is too limited and often counterproductive. For instance, scholars like IPCC author Lisa Schipper of Oxford Uni shows that so much of what is done in the name of climate adaptation is trying to patch up situations which won’t continue and which add to inequality.

Rather than having a shallow view of adaptation, my assessment of the implications of all the trends I mentioned earlier is that they will disrupt our food systems, economic systems, financial systems and belief systems sufficiently to fracture industrial consumer societies. That is going further than mainstream adaptation policies, and why I call it ‘deep adaptation’. Our societies are highly complex and so it is a fool’s game to argue about which impact will break the cultural camel’s back. In my work and in the Deep Adaptation field and the collapsology field most of us aren’t spending time to try and predict how and when collapse will happen or how confident one should be about that according to a particular frame of reference for knowledge claims. Instead, it’s taken as extremely plausible and therefore must be worked on.

Ultimately the cultural impacts of people waking up to this situation and experiencing the psychosocial stress could easily hasten such collapses. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way if more of us are prepared to face the situation and support each other in curious and compassionate dialogue about the implications. 

Indeed, there is a lot of evidence against the argument that to anticipate collapse breeds apathy. This evidence is available through just talking to activists or paying attention to the life stories of some of the leaders of the recent wave of climate activism. They say quite clearly that they continue to push for the best but prepare for the worst. In addition, there is research on psychological impacts of collapse anticipation which suggest it is not disabling of the kinds of action which matter for political change. The focus of behavioural psychology and behavioural economics on individual consumers and how they may or may not change because of their beliefs in the effectiveness of their actions is not a sound basis for assessing the implications of people’s perspectives. We are not just consumers – we are all potentially radical co-leaders in our communities and organisations. Therefore, to assume that an anticipation of collapse would be disabling of radical action might be telling us more about ourselves than other people. I know that because I used to be one of them when I assumed that I could not consider the situation to be as bad as it is because then I would hit despair and not know what to do. Fortunately, I found that there’s a place beyond that despair which is creative and committed to finding out what’s right and doing that no matter what.

Unless we have more social dialogue, or civic dialogue, about this situation then we risk agendas being developed that could be damaging. Currently these topics are discussed behind closed doors within the confines of narrow mandates. For instance, military strategists are now scenario planning for catastrophic climate impacts, and even considering whether wars might need to be fought to secure the capabilities for fighting wars. It’s easy to see where that will lead.

It is imperative that far more people, across all aspects of society, find ways of thinking and talking about what these complicated interconnected threats might mean, in ways that aren’t determined by fear, haste or submission to authoritarian stories about safety. Because we need more wisdom than we have had. That means not just more rationality but also a meta rationality. We become less wise when we are fear driven and reactive. We need space for imagination, not just Gannt charts and risk analyses.

I offer a framework in my book released this month, titled Deep Adaptation. That has become an umbrella term for an ethos, a framework, a community and a movement.

The ethos is essentially a commitment to working together to do what’s helpful during the disruption and ultimate collapse of societies because of the direct and indirect impacts of environmental breakdown including climate change. It’s an ethos of being engaged, open-hearted and open-minded about how to be and how to respond.

It’s a framework for exploring ideas for how to attempt that. Which is what we call the four Rs of Deep Adaptation.  “What do we most value that we want to keep and how,” is a question of resilience. “What could we let go of so as not to make matters worse,” is a question of relinquishment. “What could we bring back to help us in these difficult times,” is a question of restoration. “With what and with whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our common mortality,” is a question of reconciliation. These are all questions because we are in a very new situation where the expectation of simple answers given to us by somebody else is not going to help as much as us exploring together how to be and what to do.

Deep Adaptation is also a community in the form of thousands of participants and hundreds of volunteers in the international Deep Adaptation Forum and various national groups. There are regular events online – even every day now. The community is quite focused on providing emotional support to each other and sharing skills about organising, but much more is planned.

It also seems to be a movement now because I keep hearing of people using the idea of deep Adaptation for their own efforts at living meaningful lives with a starting point of either experiencing disruption in their society or anticipating it. For instance, this year I learned about a deep adaptation group in Southern India. They were doing various activities to be more resilient in terms of the food and water in the face of disruptions; but when COVID hit they mobilize to really help the migrant labourers who were stranded in the region without income.

I believe this movement can be engaged with by people within their organisations. It is only a matter of time before more people discuss the question:

“What if the way of life in Europe will now change because of environmental impacts? What is it we want to retain, rescind, restore or reconcile with…”

The Deep Adaptation community has been around for over 2 years, so there are skills and approaches, for people to help others to engage more with this matter in a generative way. It can simply start with convening a discussion group amongst your colleagues and their families, about:

“What is ours to do if our way of life will continue to be disrupted?”

Such dialogues could be official or unofficial. They could use the Deep Adaptation approach or not. But it’s important to get started, because so many of the senior leaders I know from my previous involvement with the UN, the World Economic Forum, business, NGOs and party politics, are wondering about this topic but not finding ways to work on it. That is something also noticed and explored by one of the world’s top academics on leadership development, Professor Jonathan Gosling, in a chapter in my new book on Deep Adaptation.

I recommend checking out and for more information. In addition, there are many coaches and guides ready to help. A simple way of staying in touch on this topic is via the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn, and the Deep Adaptation Quarterly newsletter.

Thank you for listening and to the organisers for holding space for this difficult subject.”

To ask questions of Jem Bendell, Rupert Read and other contributors to the new Deep Adaptation book, sign up for the online book launch on July 7th 2021. The book is available from Polity. All editor proceeds go to The Schumacher Institute.

To study with Jem Bendell in 2021, consider the Deep Adaptation Leadership online course with the University of Cumbria, starting July 12th.

To read an academic paper on the methodologies developed for facilitating meetings on this difficult topic, and the theory behind the approach, access the full text here.

Image from Robin Hutton.