“Everyone wants community. Unfortunately, it involves other people.” I used that line in lectures on frugal living when talking of the loneliness of consumerism and the benefits of sharing resources. We idealize the good old days of people helping people out. But can we live them, given who we have become?
Individualism is one of the many privileges of ‘the privileged’ in Western society. We have options and choices about where we live, with whom, of what genders, ages or races, whether we are child-free or have a brood, what we eat, what we believe, jobs we’ll accept, and on and on and on. As people look at civilizational breakdown in detail, though, they realize that to survive, other people might not be optional – joining a group, a farm, a small town might be necessary. Continue reading “Gathering in groups as society falls apart – by Vicki Robin”→
(Scroll down to the end for the video of a talk on solidarity and deep adaptation.
Would you consider yourself middle class? Perhaps amongst the middle class in the West, or amongst the millions of new middle classes around the world? Opinion polls show that many people like you have changed their thoughts and feelings about climate change in the recent past. What was once a concern for people somewhere else, in distant lands, or distant futures, has become a more immediate sense of personal vulnerability. If that is you, then you have probably debated with people about how vulnerable you and your community is, and how imminent the dangers are.
In such conversations, perhaps you discussed how climate chaos is a lived reality for hundreds of millions of people already, around the world. Perhaps you heard that the Red Cross have said 2 million people a week need humanitarian support due to disasters made worse by climate change. Or heard that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation have reported that hunger is on the rise, with climate change being a key factor. Or read about the millions of people being displaced? If so, do you remember how it affected you? Does your own sense of increased vulnerability mean you are more moved by news of suffering around the world? Or does it mean you are more likely to turn away? If we don’t turn away, what should we do? Will we care enough to actually matter to the people who are at the sharp end of extreme weather in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and its cascading impacts on their societies?
I ask whether our concern will be enough to make a difference, because I am aware of what has got us to this situation in the first place. Disease, poverty and environmental destruction are things most of us have known something about since we started learning about the world. We have also seen environmental destruction and poverty of various kinds in our own countries. Some of us have tried to make a difference to this, yet the cumulative impact of our efforts are being dwarfed by the implications of a rapidly changing climate. All the while, we who live in the middle classes of industrial consumer societies have benefited from a system of exploitation that extracts resources from around the world. Our complicity in creating and exacerbating the problem is not something that will go away, even when we choose to ignore it.
People who have some free time to inquire into our current situation then have the opportunity to go deeper into our environmental predicament. For instance, I took months to delve into the latest climate science. Yet most people don’t have that luxury. Late stage capitalism is offering vast numbers of people in the West a low income, long commute and little career progression. Climate change will compound their difficulties, with increasing food prices and anxieties about the future. In such a context, it is unclear whether solidarity with people suffering in other countries will be a widespread response.
But could it? If there was awareness of a common enemy?
These are some of the questions that are arising given that “Deep Adaptation” and recent waves of climate activism, such as Extinction Rebellion and the Youth strikes, have grown due to a change in story: that we in West have become vulnerable to our changing climate. Although the concerns for other people and the natural world also exist within these movements, the fear-factor is significant. The power of that fear in mobilising people is obvious. But the potential for that fear to lead to people turning inwards and away from those who are suffering now, is a real risk.
So, on a point of principle, those of us who want to encourage solidarity and active compassion within climate movements need to articulate clearly that we believe in those values. But it then raises the question: what exactly do those values mean in practice, and how might we generate wider support for them? For instance, does solidarity mean a differentiated responsibility, where we in the middle classes pay more, right now, to alleviate the suffering of people impacted by climate chaos? If so, how much is fair? How should we decide? Should this be mandated? How might such values of solidarity mesh with the changes that many middle class people are considering, as they reassess their lives due to anticipating a breakdown or collapse in their way of life? Many people are downsizing and buying local, therefore reducing their reliance on international supply chains. That might reduce their involvement in exploitative relations, but does little to affect the lives of the poor or address how past damage is generating present consequences for the poor in the majority world.
These questions of climate justice in an age of increasing climate disruption are complex. As such, what matters as much as us working out for ourselves what we believe is fair and just, is the extent to which people unlike us have as important an influence on these matters as we do. It is why I am interested in how the Deep Adaptation Forum will be as accountable to the voices that aren’t engaged in it at present as those who are. That’s something that the core team will explore in the establishing of its future strategy and governance in 2020.
My hunch is that somewhere in the realm of our mutual healing through mutual liberation from a destructive system and story is where we will find some answers for what to say, how to organise and prioritise – both within Deep Adaptation and the wider climate movement. Whereas particular people and institutions uphold and benefit from the destructive system more than others, I wonder whether a common enemy is as much that reluctance within all of us to avoid major changes in our own lives.
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Professor Jem Bendell, Text of keynote at UKCP Conference, London, October 19th 2019.
(Scroll down to the end for the video of this talk.
Thank you to the UK Council for Psychotherapy for inviting me to speak at this conference on climate anxiety and what therapy might do to help. It’s a surprising and somewhat daunting invitation, as I’m someone who has never read a book on psychology and I only sat on a therapist’s couch for the first time earlier this year. So I’m here for my own journey learning about counselling and psychotherapy because I believe it is so important to our climate emergency.
We gather in London after 2 weeks of climate activists rebelling across the city. So to open, I want to recognise those thousands of people, who non-violently offered up their freedom to show us how climate change has become the most important thing in their lives. People like my friend Jeffrey Newman, a Rabbi who is 77 years young, arrested outside the Bank of England. If you don’t know anyone who has been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, I invite you to take a moment to consider what it might be that affects someone so much that they sit in a road and await the police, sometimes for a painful arrest?
Their concern is not so unusual now. Out of 28 countries polled by YouGov, in all but 4 countries a majority of people said they thought climate change would have a “fair amount” or “great deal” of impact on their lives.
I am not here because of the growing numbers of people asking for help from counsellors as they suffer emotional distress about climate. I am here because our society is changing and I see how people with knowledge and skills in psychotherapy could be useful in communities. I have been witnessing a growing social phenomenon that could be both a challenge and invitation to psychotherapy. It is the reaction to our climate crisis where people are rebelling against social norms on censoring their own or others’ feelings, and recognising the validity of public grief and shared despair.
For some, the shocking news on our climate situation is a catalyst towards living differently, whether as activists or something else. Because there is something very powerful in the meaning and love that is found from living with unsolvable difficulty. If we can help each other to allow our despair, then what emerges may correspond better with the situation humanity is now facing. Therapists, just like anyone, can wake up to this changing situation. If not, there is the risk of being part of a stale resistance to the spiritual revolution that our climate tragedy now invites.
Growing Through Trouble
I missed the latest wave of environmental rebellion because I was with my Dad in Devon, exploring treatment pathways for his cancer. With his doctors, we were comparing a treatment pathway that has a 1 in 3 chance of survival past 5 years with another that is a 1 in 2 chance of survival, but with nasty side effects. It puts a different complexion on things. But in some ways it was one of the nicest weeks I’ve spent with him. When I cried, he got up off the bed and gave me a hug. A former Lt Commander in the Royal Navy. Growing up, we didn’t often express much emotion – not as far as I recall. In the subsequent decades we would talk about career, finance, and cricket, but not really feelings. Facing a predicament that is unsolvable and experiencing feelings that are not fixable, is something that is shifting our relationship. Perhaps not just to each other but to everything else as well.
There is some criticism of people like me who warn of societal collapse being either likely or inevitable due to climate change. A few times people have said that we would never tell someone with cancer to give up, so why are we telling humanity to give up? I am not telling anyone to give up acting from conscience for the good of all. I will come back to that. But that comparison with cancer patients reveals assumptions that are problematic. Helping a loved one explore what they want from their life as it is now, to make conscious decisions, not arising from either fear or denial, seems the right thing to do. My Dad’s doctors first advocated those options for longevity above all else. They were surprised Dad had as much concern for quality not quantity of life. In the same way, it is normal to me that when faced with the unfolding disaster of climate change, we ask how we wish to live and what we can learn from this predicament. Only by looking at what is happening with open minds and open hearts can be begin to have meaningful dialogue about our options.
To the uninitiated, that can seem a bit bleak or melodramatic. So I will give a quick summary of the climate situation as seen by myself and the many thousands of people who now anticipate societal breakdown as a result of climate change. The information I will summarise now is terrifying. So before that, I want to say that I believe that none of us here today are in immediate danger.
Science Suggests Danger
Climate change is worse than we were told. It’s already 1 degree warmer globally since 1850, or near 1.5 degrees warmer since 1750. That does not sound much but that’s 11 percent more energy in the atmosphere than 1750. Which makes our weather more extreme. More droughts, floods, heatwaves, and storms. Affecting agriculture and settlements.
Our climate is changing faster that what was predicted. A recent study found that Arctic permafrost is melting at a rate that was meant to happen in a worst-case scenario seventy years from now. A geophysics paper published this year estimates we could lose the Arctic summer ice by 2030. That matters because self-reinforcing feedbacks heat our planet further. For instance, melting releases methane, a gas that warms the planet more intensely than carbon dioxide. Another feedback is the loss of the reflection of white ice. According to a top polar scientist, losing all the Arctic ice would heat the planet by an amount equivalent to 50 percent of all heating caused by all human emissions. Other feedback loops come from our soils drying and forests burning, both of which release carbon dioxide. [References for all these points are found in the Compendium here.]
We should do what we can to cut emissions now. But we should not ignore where we are at, whatever we do. There is a time lag in the impacts of our past pollution. It can take 40 years for existing CO2 to exert its full warming effect. And now we know about 90% of all the additional heat from human activities has gone into the sea, which will continue to heat the air over time (again, consult the Compendium for sources).
One peer reviewed paper calculated that humanity has a 1 in 20 chance of going extinct this century because of climate change. Their paper was unusual. But the latest computer models of climate change, which will be used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) next year, are showing up to 7-degrees potential rise by the end of the century.
Hearing such astonishing information, some people turn to the IPCC. Didn’t they say we have until 2030 to change course and avert the worst? Yes, we may be able to avert the worst. And it’s important to cut emissions and drawdown carbon. But to make their figures seem less scary for policy makers, in their 1.5 degree report last October, the IPCC had to imagine that negative emissions technologies, which don’t exist yet at scale, will strip 250 Gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere to give us a 50/50 chance of staying under 1.5 degrees.
But our emissions are going up. If mapped on a graph since 1850, they appear exponential. Despite decades of debate and initiative. Dr Wolgang Knorr calculates that at current rates of emissions increase we will have used up any remaining global carbon budget by 2025. So there is strong evidence for the view that we are heading for climate chaos.
Societal disruption from climate change is already here. The UN secretary general said last month that “climate disruption is now and everywhere.” Climate change is leading to increased hardship, water shortages and hunger in many countries, disease, and worsened natural disasters, as well as migration and conflict. Last month the Red Cross reported that two million more people each week need humanitarian aid because of climate chaos.
I realise that many people who are new to the topic of climate change do not realise what it means for their own lives. People can start talking about switching off lights, stopping flying, planting trees, or more solar panels. All good things, but irrelevant to net carbon emissions in comparison to an industrial growth society that burns fossil fuels for everything. Huge amounts of energy derived from fossil fuels are used to feed us, to heat and cool our buildings, transport people, make things and power our lives. All our food from the supermarket depends on fossil fuels for its production, processing, packaging, distribution, refrigeration, advertising, retail, cooking and waste processing. For over thirty years people have tried to do something about climate change within our current economic system and, as far as the atmosphere is concerned, completely failed. The graph shows it well – a near exponential rise in emissions since the start of the industrial revolution.
The risks of climate change are now coming to haunt the modern world. Last year production slumped across Europe and UK for most vegetables and grains, around 20 percent down, due to the drought. In the UK we import so much of our food, with some estimates at about 60%. Last month a parliamentary committee reported that 20% of our fruit and vegetables come from areas at risk of “climate breakdown”. The UK Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh MP said: “We are facing a food security crisis.” So the West is no longer immune to a destabilising climate. This situation means that we could now begin to consider “what if our society will break down, whatever we do next”? It is a shocking question, and many people do not want to even allow such a discussion. For me, I think that resisting that conversation means we are wasting time to explore and prepare for what may be arriving soon, if not already underway.
Some experts debate whether it is more responsible or not to imagine some hope for our societies continuing without massive disruption. Yet there appears to be a growing recognition amongst the general public about how bad things are, as that YouGov poll indicated: a majority of the people polled in July thought climate change may cause world wars and even human extinction. So these are anxious times. To be anxious about our environment is natural. So, asking people to be less pessimistic about the future is a weak response, either intellectually or emotionally, and, I wish to suggest, therapeutically. But first, I will share a bit about my own journey with this issue.
Opening through Despair
For years I had believed the argument that we must not give up hope of a better future, as otherwise we would stop trying to create change. But as I looked at the latest science and measurements in 2018, it seemed dishonest to let that attachment to hope prevent me from processing what I was seeing. I began to consider, privately, the idea that it is too late. I discovered many personal fears to do with my own identity. I was scared that losing hope of having a positive impact through my efforts on the environment would mean that I would see my past efforts and struggles as pointless. I worried it would mean I had no idea what to do. I worried that without an idea of how to be useful I would feel pointless. And I worried that it would be unbearable to live with such a bleak outlook on the future. But after a time I allowed my own shock, grief, regret and confusion to unfold into despair. The paper I wrote on Deep Adaptation to our climate tragedy was part of my process. Looking back now I see part of it was like a written scream of anguish.
I have discovered that allowing this despair can let many other things begin. It meant that I could no longer work on the environment in the way I had done over the previous 20 years. I gave up the idea we could reform this system. I don’t just mean capitalism but also the industrial growth society and the assumptions of progress that it is based upon. I also gave up the idea we would change things to another system in time to prevent devastating consequences from climate chaos.
I started to ask deeper questions about the meaning of hope, and what we could hope for and work towards.
Hope Beyond Hope
At various times over the past year I have been told that people must have hope. Also, that people like me should not undermine people’s hope. Such views are often stated as if so obvious that they do not need explanation. However, I believe that unthinking allegiance to hope is part of the way our culture invites us to be averse to emotional pain and uncertainty. I believe that needs to change for us to try to reduce harm. So, today I want to unpack the notion of hope in our time of climate crisis.
I was wondering how possible that would be in a speech such as this. Because I have found that it is only in conversation that I can get somewhere interesting with people on this topic. On a course I was co-leading, one of the participants said to me “we need hope” and that “society benefits from having hope.” I asked him to try and own that statement as a provisional one about what he thought about his own way of being. So I invited him to say “I need hope” rather than “people need hope” and then discuss with me what the nature of that hope is and why he thought he needed it. We were then able to explore the nature of the emotions associated with the possibility that there is no hope of the kind he thought he had. In that discussion he realised a number of things. First, that the emotional pain of sensing current or future suffering is not something that can necessarily be resolved. Instead it can be witnessed. Because it does not define him, it is an emotion happening in him. Second, he realised he did not need to believe that we can preserve this society in order for him to act. He did not need to believe we won’t see massive suffering in order to discover how to be and what to do. Instead, he began to see a new basis from how to be and act. A basis founded in discovering what is his truth and living according to that truth more fully right now.
But as this is a speech and I am an academic, I will attempt to offer a step-by-step breakdown of the concept of hope in a time of climate crisis. First, we can explore what we mean by the word or concept “hope”. Second, we can explore what the vision or goal being hoped for actually is. Third, we can explore why we think hope is useful for ourselves or for people more generally.
Starting with definitions – many people who tell me that we must not lose hope do not say what they mean by that word. Some people mean their wish for the future that either other people or a divine force will make happen. Some people mean their expectation for the future, based on what they see or choose to agree with. Some people use the word hope to mean their plan for the future, and what they are working towards in quite specific ways.
For each of those forms of hope, it seems that they are not things that we must not give up. Because learning about our lives and situations is an ongoing process of dropping certain wishes, expectations and plans. So why not drop certain hopes? Perhaps because hoping is seen as a state of positivity. “We must not lose hope” is really a statement that we must stay positive. This reflects how we live in a culture that is averse to difficult emotions and to impermanence. In the face of climate chaos, many people like myself have come to a newly positive place, but not through attachment to being positive.
A second unpacking of hope involves exploring what the vision or goal being hoped for actually is. People who, like me, believe that climate-induced societal collapse is now likely or inevitable, begin to explore new goals and visions, which then inform our lives. I hope for a liveable planet and loveable world. One which maintains the possibilities for life, including for us humans, and where more of us are living lovingly towards each other and nature. I wish for that and work for it, but do not expect it. For me, accepting that it is too late to stop climate chaos wrecking our way of life is not giving up but waking up to a wider and deeper agenda. It’s an agenda that includes questions of how we reduce harm, save what we can, learn how this tragedy came to pass, and seek meaning and joy in the process.
A third unpacking of hope is to explore why we think hope is useful for ourselves or for people more generally. Whereas some people seem to be encouraged by believing a story of a preferred future, others are helped by dropping such stories, even if painful for a time, and then engaging fully in the moment, with passion for living their truth and yet more equanimity with whatever is ahead. In this sense, for some people, accepting that there is much suffering is to come from climate chaos does not mean that they feel helpless, but they feel powerfully ‘hopefree’ and newly engaged in life.
The Freedom to Grieve
The allegiance to hope and to positivity in our culture also means we don’t allow as we might the public sharing and discussion of our emotions of sadness, confusion, and grief. Nor our longing to connect and to experience wonder at life. Rather, in public and professional life, we invite each other to be happy, positive and capable. But that is only half the picture. Because we exist within a world with mass communication, with corporations shaping our worldview. The news media invites us to sneer, scoff or pity others. While the adverts invite us to feel incomplete without the latest brand or experience. None of this is inviting us into ways of relating that welcome our pain about society and nature. If we suppress difficult emotions in ourselves, and ignore or somehow fix them in others, then we are alienating ourselves from an important way that we experience the world.
Most people don’t seek psychological support. Like I did for a long time, they may be suppressing difficult emotions of sadness and fear, in ways that lead to the secondary emotions of anger, blame, and even hatred. These offer an escape from pain for a time, but can make matters worse. So it helps to support each other in allowing and exploring suppressed emotions of sadness and fear. It is why, at the opening of the International Rebellion of the Extinction Rebellion, in April 2019, in Oxford Circle, I said “The truth is we are scared and we are brave enough to say so. The truth is we are grieving and we are proud enough to say so. The truth is we are traumatised and we are open enough to say so.”
Therapy on Climate Anxiety
I am here because I am interested in the role of psychotherapy in this age of climate anxiety. I’ve only started learning about this profession. I read that the website Patient.info publishes clinical information certified to meet NHS England’s Information Standard. So I was interested to see one of their writers mention my work on Deep Adaptation. I quote:
“In one case, a viral academic paper scared people so much that it reportedly caused people to go into therapy, quit their jobs and move out of the city. With seemingly nothing but bad news coming our way, how can we feel more positive and care for our mental health in the age of climate anxiety?”
Well, perhaps one way might be if people go into therapy, quit their jobs and move out of the city? Sounds a great idea. The people I know who have sought therapeutic support, quit their jobs or reduced their hours and moved out of the city have discovered a wonderful new way of experiencing life.
The article listed a range of useful things for emotional wellbeing, such as taking some exercise and having some fun. But it also talked about a sense of helplessness some of us have in the face of climate change. Where we sense that we can’t do much about the problem. The author used the theory of “learned helplessness” to suggest that a lack of self-efficacy could lead to depression. I am new to psychology, so I should be cautious here. So, may I tentatively offer my provisional view that this is complete bullshit.
Of course, the theory itself has horrible origins in electrocuting dogs. But leaving that aside, citing theories like this one may be an unconscious attempt to protect the author and the intended reader from their own difficult emotions. As a Professor, I know well that impulse to seek refuge by feeling more knowledgeable than others. As such, it can be a narcistic defence mechanism that would impair the usefulness of psychotherapy in a time of climate chaos. Instead, I recommend psychotherapists dialogue with people who are experiencing anxiety about the state of our environment, to discover the myriad ways that people are being affected. But if psychologists talk with people expressing anxiety about climate change from an assumption that they have a problem, rather than humanity having a problem, then we won’t get very far. Faced with the latest climate news, anxiety is natural. Moreover, looking at the future we face, despair is natural, despair is valid, and despair can be transformative. Therefore, I wonder whether psychotherapists will offer that much on climate anxiety if, first, they haven’t allowed themselves to live with such anxiety. We need to be in this together, because therapists are in danger from climate change just like the rest of us.
Now at a top conference of psychotherapists, I am not going to recommend people get depressed. I have not experienced depression myself but have witnessed how tough it is. I have been told by some therapists that in the society we live in now, depression is natural, valid and can be transformative. I hear from people who have been in depression that it is a crisis of purpose, even a spiritual crisis, and that it has helped them to become more loving, to both themselves and to others. But some have told me that this positive aspect of depression could be better helped with some guidance. In a time of climate crisis, could we begin to see depression as a right of passage? A horrible but useful means of the positive disintegration of our old stories of self and the future? A means by which we can discover forms of meaning and wellbeing which do not depend on stories of fitting in better with this society – one that is committing mass destruction of life on Earth? If so, how might we support people who experience it? I do not have answers here for you. But I know that if psychotherapy focuses on helping people function better in our current destructive society, then I won’t mourn it if it collapses along with everything else.
So What Can be Done?
So what can be done? The future looks really tough. Humanity risks making matters worse, as our fear drives us to uncooperative and even violent behaviour. Part of the reason for such a response may be unrecognised emotions, covered up by a move to anger, blame and hatred.
I am new to this topic and do not know much about psychotherapy. But as a layperson, I think what’s important is learning to not react from unconscious emotions or from our aversion to those emotions. Therefore, it will be useful to help make conscious some of the emotions of sadness and fear that are being suppressed. How do we do that? In my experience practices outside of mainstream psychotherapy have proved helpful to me, such as authentic relating or circling and Vipassana, or insight, meditation. What has also been helpful are practices which move us beyond our mainstream stories of self and society, including the assumption of a separate self. For that, practices which invite non-ordinary states of consciousness have been important for me. These have included breathwork, shamanic journeys and spiritual dancing.
I wonder if the power of these consciousness-expanding practices is in helping address the deepest trauma that we all share. Which is the trauma of existing as a conscious separate self, who knows they will die. Ultimately, with the right guidance, the consciousness-expanding practices could invite people towards their ‘undiscovered unself’. By transcending a sense of separation, one might be freer of all kinds of anxiety. Therefore, I recommend psychotherapy explores these practices more in future – and that you start with yourselves.
I hear that good psychotherapy is not available to many people. And even if it is, then not regularly unless you are rich. It is also something that most people don’t look for. I was 46 years old before I ever considered seeing a counsellor. People who do not seek emotional support may be suppressing difficult emotions of sadness and fear, in ways that lead to the secondary emotions of anger, blame, and hatred, as a means of escaping from their pain. That will make matters worse. Consequently, to help reduce harm from disruptions to our societies, there is a need for psychotherapeutic support to be provided, without request, across the whole of society.
How could that happen? To scale, it will need to be done through intermediaries. Through people who are supported with approaches to host gatherings in settings that are accessible to lots of people. Such facilitators could be offering processes through schools, universities, faith organisations, trade unions, professional associations and activist groups. Psychotherapists could advise on processes, provide counselling for facilitators, and be available at events.
This need and opportunity for helping people come together on climate emergency to explore difficult emotions and future choices is central to our work at the Deep Adaptation Forum. We are discovering the ways that training and guidance can be offered through video conference, then to be offered in person in multiple locations.
Our hope in a time of climate chaos is promoting other ways of responding than fear or anger. Our hope in a time of climate chaos is that experiencing the fragility and impermanence of life can lead more of us to greater gratitude for the present and less involvement in the judgements and tactics of our minds. We can be freer to love and forgive each other and ourselves, and so do what we can to help, whatever may come.
The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.
What is the role of religion and spirituality in helping humanity respond to the tragic situation we face with rapid climate change?
Truthfully, I do not know. Because every religion is different. And each religion has its own flavours of adhesion to dogma versus openness to divine guidance in our daily lives. Yet, religion remains hugely important in providing stories of meaning and purpose, of right and of wrong, as well as modes of communication and solidarity across national borders. It also provides stories for how we might consider and learn from catastrophes.
The potential importance of religion for society as we face climate tragedy, and for me as I respond in my personal and professional life, is why I am enquiring deeper into different religious philosophies and practices. Since my Deep Adaptation paper was published in July 2018, I have been surprised to hear from religious leaders in Judaism, Sufism, Christianity, Buddhism, Animism, Shamanism, Druidism and the Brahma Kumaris. Their interest affirmed my intuition that our climate crisis invites us to consider existential questions that are so routinely displaced in modern society. That is why I accepted the invitation to speak at a Buddhist festival last summer. I want to explore how Buddhist philosophies on impermanence, suffering and loving kindness, are relevant as we face climate chaos. The video of that talk is available here.
Questions of existential meaning have become more important to me since early 2018, as I experienced deeper despair over our environmental situation. After looking at the latest climate and ecological science, climate measurements, emissions data and political-economic trends, I concluded that people of my age (47) will see a collapse in the societies in which we live, in our lifetimes – perhaps even before 2030. That outlook invites introspection on what one most believes in and wants to uphold in the coming years. Some people look at the latest climate science and see the likelihood of widespread early mortality for billions of people due to climate induced malnutrition, migration, homelessness, disease, crime and war. I fear that this foretelling of human ‘mega-death’ could be right. In any case, millions around the world are already suffering due to climate disasters that are happening right now. Poverty in more advanced countries is also being exacerbated by rising food prices, as extreme weather damages harvests. As populations become increasingly fearful, they can turn towards protectionism and nationalism; right-wing political narratives based on fear and false promises of security can become more attractive. Awareness of this situation means we experience an invitation to step forward in engaged compassion and solidarity with those who suffer, and to sow the seeds of future solidarity, compassion and forgiveness. With either outlook – collapse or human mega-death – it seems natural to me that people turn towards religion or their personal sense of the divine in order to find solace, meaning and guidance.
Some people go further. They see our situation as an apocalyptic one. The latest climate simulation models are projecting temperature increases of up to 7 degrees by the end of this century. Unless you have a magical faith in technology, then that level of temperature rise signifies the potential end of our species on planet Earth. With that apocalyptic outlook, suddenly our current stories of meaning and purpose collapse. Those stories are about progress, personal contribution, and deference to established order – ones that were so deep in us that we might not have realised they existed.
The word Apocalypse comes from ancient Greek and means to uncover or unveil. What might be the veil that will be lifted from our consciousness, as we perceive the potential end of our own species? For me, even considering potential human extinction led to a social veil being lifted from stories of human centrality, control and progress. Although I am not yet convinced that humanity faces inevitable near-term human extinction, even sensing it might be possible has invited me to into a realm of despair where old stories of meaning and purpose fell away, like veils from my awareness.
The potential annihilation of all that we know presents us with an incomprehensible and unbearable outlook. Knowing the intense and unsolvable pain of that outlook, but nevertheless turning towards it, is what can transform us. Because it means our sense of self is also annihilated. This death of the self offers us the chance to experience life without our stories of separation. From that place of ‘storylessness’ we can intuit that we are one being with all existence. In this way, our climate predicament offers humanity a global near-death experience.
I have learned that many religions tell us of the importance of such grief and despair in quietening our egos and turning towards the divine. In the Christian tradition it is an aspect of the “Via Negativa” towards opening up to God. Our climate crisis invites humanity into a planet-wide Via Negativa, where more of us may stumble upon moments of surrender and begin to change our lives as a result. Such changes may put truth and compassion at the heart of all our decisions.
My own journey from seeing widespread societal collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and human extinction as possible, has been one of recognising my grief, allowing despair and then inviting transformation – albeit in slow and awkward ways. In this journey, I have discovered that Buddhist philosophy and practices are helpful to me. Core to Buddhism is the recognition that everything in life is impermanent and that our attachment to things is because of our desire to affirm, protect and project our existence as a separate being. That attachment adds to the pain of any loss and, ultimately, the pain associated with death – whether of others or of anticipating our own. The Buddhist practice of Vipassana, or insight meditation, has also helped me to see how thoughts and feelings I experience can be witnessed in ways that reduce my fear of them, so I don’t act from them, nor distract myself from them as often as I did as before. This practice seems important to me as we seek to help ourselves and each other turn toward the troubles around us and ahead, to engage them with open hearts and minds. It has helped me to accept that our climate predicament means we will experience difficult emotions both now, and in the years to come, and that we can live with the truths of those emotions rather than seek stories of distraction which could lead to further harm.
Being open to insights from Buddhism need not displace interest in, or observance of, other religious or spiritual perspectives. I am still influenced by Christianity and am fascinated by the depth of insight into the human condition offered by Sufism. I am also very grateful for practices like breathwork and mindful walks in nature as ways of calming the chattering of my ego-mind and opening my heart to what wisdom might be offered to me from beyond. In addition, I have found practices of ‘deep relating’ with others to be a gateway to an awareness where my ego is less in charge. While spiritual philosophies, practices, and communities can offer moments of elation, I am aware there is no lasting emotional escape from our predicament. I believe equanimity, rather than serenity or bliss, can be a suitable personal aim at this time.
Important women in my life have been key teachers for me to develop my perspective on living in fuller consciousness with the troubles. They helped me to understand that accepting pain is the necessary partner of joy; that accepting death and grief are the necessary partners of life and love. This important role of wise women is not a coincidence. One aspect of all the world’s mainstream religions that has been marginalised over the millennia is the aspect that is associated with feminine qualities. It is one reason why such religions have been bystanders or drivers of the cultural norms that permitted or enabled the destruction of our planet. I believe that learning about what the feminine dimension of reality might imply for our time is a central issue for me and anyone attracted to the spiritual and religious implications of our climate predicament. It could be that the source of any future hope will come from a consciously un-strategic attention to a moment-by-moment love and support for creation, without attachment to outcome. Or, to put it more simply: being love. It is why I want any notoriety I gain for my work to bring attention to wise women, who are innately ‘streets ahead’ of me in their spiritual connection. This intuition about being open to the ‘sacred feminine’ has guided my efforts in creating the Deep Adaptation Forum.
As we face up to our climate tragedy, many people are recommitting to curiosity, compassion and respect for others in the process – whether doing so from a humanist, religious or spiritual perspective. Maintaining that approach is key to the Deep Adaptation Forum. We may fall away from it at times – I know I often do – but returning to curiosity, compassion, and respect will help us to promote dialogue and initiatives that reduce harm no matter what happens in the coming years.
If you would like to engage on these questions of religion and spirituality in the face of the climate crisis, you can connect via this thread on the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum. To read more about our philosophy and intention, I recommend this article. We are promoting an approach to Deep Adaptation that is democratic and empowering, without centralised leadership (see my article on Leadership for Deep Adaptation).
The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.
As I am a Professor in the field of leadership research and education, it is reasonable for people to ask me “what does leadership on deep adaptation to climate chaos look like?”
My first response is in the negative – that we do not need more of the kind of leadership that has been promoted over the past decades of increasing environmental destruction and social injustice. That kind of leadership assumes that change relies on the power of a significant individual at the top of a hierarchy, while the rest of us follow (or just hope someone big will fix it all). It is a kind of leadership which accepts the dominant values of an industrial consumer society, thereby enabling quicker and wider degradation of society and the environment.
My second response to the question of what kind of leadership we need in the face of our climate predicament is that we reconsider leadership completely. That involves realising leadership is a word to describe significant actions enabling change that is welcomed by affected people. Such actions do not have to be those of a person of significance or authority. Anyone can step up to act in ways that enable change. In addition, we can be clearer about the kinds of actions that are useful to describe as “leadership” rather than something else, like “management” or “organising”. Leadership actions are those that help shift the way groups, networks or whole communities of people relate and so such actions generate effects over time.
The rhetoric around leadership, both popular and in the fields of politics and business studies, tends to emphasise the potency of individual action. Yet the predicament we find ourselves in, with climate chaos now threatening the future of our societies, challenges both our assumptions of human agency and the desirability of it. Could “leadership” be a useful concept for identifying and promoting actions that help people to cope, practically and emotionally, with the end of progress? Only if we drop dominant stories about individual agency and human potency. Old stories of “valiant individuals” forcing “what’s needed” onto “reluctant masses” might excuse additional horrors to the suffering that already lies ahead for humanity. Instead, leadership that enables deep adaptation to climate chaos will need to be fluid and humble. Because the severity of our climate predicament means we do not know whether what we now do will work at scale.
This philosophy of leadership, and more importantly, of collective organising, is what underpins the Deep Adaptation Forum. We launched it to help people around the world explore diverse ideas about what to do in the face of unfolding societal breakdowns due to climate change. For us, what is most important at this time is to build a space for generative dialogue, so people in various walks of life can find provisional answers and action plans that are meaningful to them.
I have been impressed, beyond my imagination, in the way people from around the world have stepped up to serve this effort. The work of the moderators on the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook group in maintaining a safe space for sharing and discussion is a wonderful example of how people are inspired by our predicament to prioritise love and solidarity. Jane Dwinell, Aimee Maxwell, Dan Vie, Mariette Olwagen, David Baum, Peter Wicks and Jens Hultman are building on the work dozens of previous volunteers like Sarah Bittle, who together, are helping build a social movement of deep adaptation.
Taking this message to people around the world and in all walks of life is a challenging activity. Because it is a difficult message to hear. So I am grateful for the leadership of the first cohort of Deep Adaptation spokespeople, who have all agreed to help invite people into this most difficult conversation. Thank you Melissa Allison, David Baum, Naresh Giangrande, Chloe Greenwood, Alan Heeks, Wolfgang Knorr, Shu Liang, Alex Lockwood, Aimee Maxwell, Kay Michael, Jilani Prescott, Herb Simmens, Cecilie Smith-Christensen, Toni Spencer, Christian Stalberg, and Dean Walker.
The way we integrate awareness of unfolding societal breakdowns into the various areas of professional life will also be key to seeing more the necessary leadership to reduce harm and promote meaning in this difficult period for humanity. The volunteers convening various discussions in the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum are therefore leading the way. It is important we recognise them all. Karen Lockridge, Elzanne Roos, Chiara Borrello, Brian Bailey, Rob Moir, Stina Deurell, Kathryn Soares, Jimmie Chastain, Christian Stalberg, Dean Spillane Walker, Matthew Painton, Mat Osmond, Azul Valerie Thome, Nico Jenkins, Brennan Smith, Melissa Allison, Eric Garza, and Moshe Givental. Together we are leading deep adaptation.
If you have not already, please join us in the free Deep Adaptation Forum to explore ways you can find and express your own leadership at this time.
If you would like to hear more about my thoughts on leadership in the face of a climate emergency, I recommend this interview I gave with Robin Alfred, a former director of Findhorn Ecovillage.
“Deep Adaptation is offering an oasis of meaning in a desert of denial. We sincerely hope it does not dry up – but that it helps many more oases to grow around the globe.”
Initially bewildered about how to respond to the likely collapse of society due to climate chaos, many thousands of people are finding community online and in-person through the activities of the Deep Adaptation Forum and the community leaders that it supports with tools, contacts, guidance and resources. Its networks, including the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook Group, are providing an essential means of connection. It means that people are able to escape paralysis or avoid reverting to denial – instead finding new ways of engaging with this unprecedented moment in human history.
To harness the energy of people around the world, the free Forum has been co-created by volunteers and a small team of passionate freelancers. As such, our existence is fragile. We are not following the normal route of following funders’ agendas or selling what we do. If we peter-out in 2020 then the less kind or creative approaches to our climate emergency will have fewer counterbalancing efforts. More of us might slip into a bewildered and paralysed mind-state, turning away from other people. To avoid that, and help the Forum grow into a catalyst of a truly global movement, we want to ask you for some financial support.
Can you help us?
Our volunteers across the globe benefit from the support of a core team of freelancers, who each earn a minimum living allowance of 800 pounds (USD 1,000) a month. We have funds to sustain that for two of the team next year, but now seek to support the other three, as well as a range of associated running costs and seed funding for new projects. Our target is GBP 32,000 for 2020 (USD 41,160) , but even GBP 8,000 (USD 10,300) would help us keep going for the first quarter and then source future support.
If you can help this oasis of meaning to grow and spawn around the world, then please donate here.
Every three months, this newsletter will summarise some of the most important activities that are associated with the Deep Adaptation Forum. Did you have a conversation recently with someone about your outlook on life and society, and how things are changing for you? If they seemed interested, then you could consider forwarding them this newsletter, as their gateway into another world. They can subscribe here.
Just over six months ago Professor Jem Bendell launched the Deep Adaptation Forum, including its key components of the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook Group and the Professions’ Network on Ning. To mark that he summarised some of the activities that are happening and why.
To mark a year after the Deep Adaptation paper came out, he published a Compendium of Research on the climate emergency. He continues to blog about the latest issues. For instance, he commented on the row when the New Yorker was criticised for publishing a piece on climate pessimism. He should know, having just Interviewed climate scientist Dr Wolfgang Knorr, who believes his profession was wrong to play down the sense of alarm that the climate data called for. Jem’s latest blog supports extinction rebellion which kicked off again this month. XR’s own Youtube Channel carried a 20 minute conversation with Jem where he talked about how the movement can increasingly incorporate adaptation.
The Forum Q&A series continued with Adrian Tait, co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance and Deb Ozarko, author of Beyond Hope. Next up talking with Jem will be Vanessa Andriotti and then Charles Eisenstein. To attend these Q&As to pose your own questions, please join the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum (for free).
Here are some new activities to support the movement.
Deep Listening for Deep Adaptation
A group of skilled and experienced volunteer facilitators, supported by the DA team, is launching a series of regular online gatherings, open to members of the PDA Facebook community, that will focus on the sacred art of listening. These online gatherings will provide a space for connection with other members across the world, where we can openly share our responses to awareness of a breakdown in our global climate and its increasing impacts on nature and humanity worldwide. We have found that when we engage and talk with others who do not think that we are confused, depressed, or irresponsible to have concluded that climate change now threatens societal collapse, we find solidarity, joy and pathways for how to be and what to do in future. They may be spaces for people to articulate to themselves and one another what their fears, hopes, anxieties are in such a way that they are more capable in their local communities to raise the conversation. The approaches we will use will encourage mindful awareness and acceptance of the range of personal and collective emotional responses to a realization of imminent collapse of civilization and our way of life.
The first of these offerings will take place on 29th October, 3-4.30pm (UK). In time the schedule will be extended to include weekly gatherings accessible to members in all continents. Amongst us, we will offer different formats and approaches, but all will be brought with the intention of creating safe space for deep listening.
Deep Adaptation Groups Network
There is growing interest around the world to gather with others who sense that climate change is now destroying lives and threatening our way of life. People are creating groups in their communities, or on specific aspects of Deep Adaptation. To help people taking such initiative to be able to support and advise each other, we launched the Deep Adaptation Groups Network with twelve founding member groups. If you have started or might start a group, please read about this initiative, to find support.
To support the ability of volunteer facilitators to support Deep Listening for Deep Adaptation, as well as other gatherings, we have launched a regular online ‘gather and share’ for experienced facilitators. This is for facilitators who feel drawn to share their wisdom and gift in holding online and in-person spaces to support others within their journey of becoming aware of the crisis that is unfolding. The purpose of these gatherings is to offer a space where we can share practices that are aligned with the values of Deep Adaptation, and support each other in creating and hosting regular DA groups in future. Participants are asked to commit to hosting regular gatherings, which may be themed or for a particular audience (e.g. parents’ group, country/region groups etc). The group convenes on Facebook, with updates also available in the Holistic Approaches and Guidance discussion group.
Discussion on the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum
On the Ning, the various discussion groups are generating interesting ideas. Here are some of the highlights.
Holistic Approaches and Guidance
Several members have posted invitations to and feedback from related events. Justine Afra Huxley posted some valuable feedback from St Ethelburga’s second pilot retreat; Susie Peat called for participation in an Encounters Arts event around what it means to be living in this time; and Ami Chen Mills sent out an invitation to the newly-launched Free Friday Webinars.
During our August gathering, we talked about the idea that DA has to be political. That’s how things get done collectively, and that’s also how we could tactically build a new system/world in the heart of the old one. Politicians should be involved — that’s how progressive movements have succeeded in Ireland — and we could even offer them psychological support when it comes to climate collapse, acknowledging that this is difficult but letting them know that as our elected officials, we need them to help build this new world. Compassion is important to communicating with the politicians and media who need to know about Deep Adaptation. More narrative & messaging…
Some of the best recent threads in this discussion group include:
The ethics of choosing between two bad choices. Read…
Pontoon archipelago, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love collapse. Read…
Climate refugees and the issues around borders, geopolitics, responsibility, and reparations, among others. Read…
How researchers and policymakers relay information regarding societal collapse to the public. Read…
The potential rise in misanthropy in response to climate change impacts upon those least responsible for it, including the natural world. Read…
Implicatory denial as a sociological phenomenon of social inaction to climate change. Read…
Appeal for a new group on the DA Forum dedicated to climate fiction (cli-fi) and the arts. Read…
Introduction to the degrowth movement. Read… More philosophy…
Food & Agriculture
Recognizing that good systems are highly diverse and vary widely across localities, the group has been looking for commonalities among locations and beat practices that can be easily adapted to fit local conditions.
One common goal, which can be applied everywhere with various methods, is the support of permaculture methods of tending to land, with a particular focus on promoting carbon sequestration in soil and plant life. The potential for changes in agricultural practices is enormous, both in terms of human impact (resilience of the food system, more nutritious food) and climate mitigation (calories per unit area farmed, carbon intensity). More Food & Ag…
Check out www.deepadaptation.info to discover other discussion groups that focus on areas of professional interest.
Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook Group
The PDA Facebook group is huge, vibrant and growing fast. The moderators do an amazing job to keep the conversations kind and on topic. If you haven’t been on it, here is one interesting thread amongst thousands (names changed for anonymity):
I’ve only seen about 10 or so posts on this page but I’m confused. Is this group all about just giving up? Mary
Hi, Doug. It’s about adapting. This can take many forms. As members of this group, however, we accept that ecological and social collapse are inevitable or very probable. Accepting that – how do we go forward? Yes to mitigation and activism for some – because we can still do some good, if we choose to, even though we can’t completely reverse the trend. Some of us focus on learning permaculture skills or creating community. Others work through their grief. We’re here to support each other in our personal journeys. Emi
Not giving up, just accepting that we can’t stop collapse. There’s still a chance to avoid extinction. But I do have an issue with the dominant feeling that small actions “won’t make a difference”. Sure, they won’t stop the problems, but we don’t abandon care for terminal patients just because it won’t make a difference. Terminal care makes the most important difference that can be made. Lise
I joined mostly to learn how others are staying sane. I plant native species for other creatures in hope they will outlive me. Alejandra
For me… it’s be still, allow it all in, accept what Is in the moment, surrender to what Is, grieve, come back to stillness… then take action. If by “giving up” it means stopping the madness for a time to connect then… yeah. Life’s too short and precious to be persisting with the same old same old capitalist driven pursuits of isolated self protection, futile jobs for the Man and educating our children to pass exams. Give up what lacks Soul and start living. Doug Thanks for the responses. Glad this group isn’t just about giving up. Just wanted to make sure.
Upcoming Deep Adaptation Events
There is now a roster of Deep Adaptation speakers and workshop leaders. Start here to request a speaker to your event. You can advertise your own events for free on either the Ning or the Facebook group.
Deep Adaptation Dialogue: Great Barrington, Massachusetts, USA
An intergenerational gathering to share and discuss Deep Adaptation to climate disruption, hosted by Bard College at Simon’s Rock professor Jennifer Browdy, with the participation of many local community organizations, including the Alliance for a Viable Future, South Berkshire Climate Change & Consciousness Hub and Living the Change Berkshires.
Grounding Our Work in Shared Joy, Grief, and Vision
Join us each month in creating a web-space for emotional and spiritual support for all of us working on and thinking about climate change and environmental justice. This is for those of us who have an inkling that Climate Denial might not just be a corporate and political strategy (though it is that too), but also that denial is a stage of coping with grief and fear, which we all need support with. It’s for all of us who yearn to do this work in a way which makes us more emotionally resilient and joyful. This is not a place for frontal learning or arguments about best solutions, but a time in which we’ll build upon each other’s wisdom, as we share Our Joy, Our Grief, and Our Visions.
Q & A with Vanessa Andreotti
Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti holds a Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change, at the Department of Educational Studies, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She has extensive experience working across sectors internationally in areas of education related to global justice, community engagement, indigenous knowledge systems and internationalization. Her research focuses on analyses of historical and systemic patterns of reproduction of knowledge and inequalities and how these mobilize global imaginaries that limit or enable different possibilities for (co)existence and global change. She is currently directing research projects and teaching initiatives related to social innovations that gesture towards decolonial futures.
<!––>Deep Adaptation Dialogue: Teesside Artists<!––>
This Deep Adaptation Dialogue works to extend the reach and amplify conversations around Deep Adaptation with creative arts practitioners in the Teesside area. In particular, the dialogue, through engaging with writers, artists and creative industry professionals, will disseminate Deep Adaptation connections into programmes and curatorial schedules, further reaching participants’ audiences and communities. More upcoming events…
For those who prefer long-form intellectual nourishment, we’ve enjoyed the following books.
After Progress by John Michael Greer considers how more than two hundred years of energy abundance has meant that the notion of progress is now deep in the collective unconscious. Assuming progress is our natural destiny of progress means that we don’t imagine our society could end; we dismiss even existential threats as mere obstacles and cannot see decline for what it is, or prepare for it.
Questioning Collapse by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee (eds). Writing largely in response to Jared Diamond’s popular book on collapse, this collection of essays comprehensively refutes most of Diamond’s case studies arguing that collapse is a poor framing for those historical events and further that by characterising them that way, we miss the real lessons of resilience of adaptation.
Who Do We Choose to Be? by Margaret Wheatley. Having accepted that decline and collapse is inevitable, Wheatley doesn’t wish to spend her time and leadership skills lobbying the political and financial elites. This thoughtful book is about leadership and making a difference at the local level where action is still possible.
So We’re Growing But Fragile
Thanks for reading this far. All these activities, and many more, are driven by dozens of volunteers around the world, who are supported and coordinated by a small team of 4 freelancers: Dorian Cave, Katie Carr, Zori Tomova and Matthew Slater. We want to keep everything growing into 2020, and not water-down our outlook or narrow our aims to suit large donors. Therefore, on Halloween we start a 10 day crowdfund campaign. You will hear from us again then. We won’t trick you so please treat us!
The list of the Founding Members of the Deep Adaptation Groups Network includes:
Deep Adaptation Discussion and Action Group A space to discuss the four “R’s” and how these questions may be used to redesign our individual lives, livelihoods, etc. and how they may apply to us, our households and communities. Contact: Silvia di Blasio.
Deep Adaptation Parenting A safe and nurturing place for parents to share their thoughts, emotions, ideas, and resources on the topic of raising children in this challenging time.
Positive Deep Adaptation UK Local group, focused on the concerns of people based in the UK, who have shown an interest in the Deep Adaptation paper written by Jem Bendell in 2018, and the issues it throws up. Contact: John Cossham
It is easy to pick holes in it. We can question tactics, timing, scope or messaging. But climate activism works. Over the past year, non-violent activism has increased awareness of climate change, so that many politicians now refer to it as the emergency that it is. Yet within a toxic economic system that requires us to borrow and grow forever, and a toxic media system that misleads us about what to blame and whom to hate, it isn’t surprising that rising awareness has not delivered change in our environmental impact. Nor has it triggered inquiry into why we got into this mess and how we might prepare as the climate gets worse for human habitation.
It is why we go again. This month, the non-violent civil disobedience campaign to demand government action on the climate and ecological emergency is calling on #EverybodyNow to take to the streets.
Some commentators in the UK, where the movement began, are asking whether now is the right time for disruptive tactics. But Extinction Rebellion has become a global movement that is rising again this month. It started in London, and Brits are playing a key role in waking up humanity, so can’t step down because of the current performance of our government. Our climate isn’t waiting for Brexit – or any political squabble. Whether wanting to leave or remain in the EU, all Britons want to eat well. After the rise of climate activism in 2019, British MPs admitted the country faces a food security crisis. Extreme weather has been damaging both domestic and foreign food production and increasing the risks that simultaneous crop failures in key exporting countries could make prices shoot up to unprecedented levels.
Extreme rainfall is another sign of the destabilising climate, with 150 flood alerts issued for the UK for the weekend before the #InternationalRebellion. More scientists are admitting publicly that they have been too cautious, partly because they were seeking to be relevant to mainstream policy makers. Climatologist Dr Wolfgang Knorr explains that such scientists should be the first to admit failure, recognise how scientists norms of communication have been counter-productive – and consider direct action to promote social and political change.
Since 1992 many thoughtful and well-meaning people have sought to find a balance between the environmental situation and the current economic system. The term for that agenda is “sustainable development” and is something I gave over 20 years of my working life to. The increasing damage to our food and property from extreme weather reminds us that nature doesn’t do deals with humanity. So while the British government huffs and puffs with pantomime patriotism, reasonable people are dropping the pretence that things can be fixed within this economic system, and taking to the streets is part of that awakening.
But climate activism works only so far. If the activism is limited to non-violent direct action, it doesn’t sink into the heart of the system, nor build the coalitions required for real transformation. In my speech at the launch of the rebellion in April 2019, I said that we should spread the rebellion into other aspects of life – including in our working lives. This month XR has backed TruthTeller to help that process. It is a platform for people working inside the system to safely and anonymously leak documents on aspects of our climate crisis to professional journalists. People working in commodities trading, insurance, re-insurance, amongst other sectors, will have access to information about how risky things are becoming, and it is time that this information is out in the open. Only then will be able to have the quality of dialogue about how to respond to a difficult future.
Whether people agree with XR or not, the future they warn us about is coming fast. This is not some distant apocalypse, but a living hell for many people whose lives are being trashed by extreme weather, and a daily anxiety for people who foresee imminent damage to our food systems and the likely ramifications. What is key is how fast we can come together to work out how to prepare for increasing disruption to food, water, finance and the international order. Writing in the Extinction Rebellion handbook, I explained that to #TellTheTruth on our climate emergency must now be warning people of these difficulties.
People will respond to disruption, and their fears of it, in many ways. There is a key role for religious leaders, teachers, therapists and many other professionals to help us engage each other with compassion, curiosity and respect, rather than let populists manipulate our anxieties. It is important that climate activists involved in XR, Fridays For Future, and other movements, call for both kind and fair adaptation to the disruptions from climate change. While rage is understandable and motivating, staying connected to the love of life that is the ground from which that rage springs will be essential if emerging leaders on climate change are not to compound the suffering to come.
That is where XR provides some hope. Like any movement that challenges the establishment, it will have attracted undercover agents from the police, secret services, and mercenaries for companies threatened by its goals. Despite #ExtinctionRebellion being the Western world’s most significant non-violent civil disobedience movement in a generation, toxic media will splash any image of isolated violence across our screens. Rather, they would do well to quote the “declaration of solemn intent” that XR activists recite at meetings and actions:
“Let’s take a moment to remember why we are here. Let’s remember our love for this beautiful planet. Let’s remember our love for all humanity in all corners of the world. As we act today, may we find the courage to bring a sense of love and peace and appreciation to everyone we encounter and every word we speak. We are here for all of us.”
Seven of the ten values of XR relate to how people in the movement engage everyone (including themselves) in ways that are kind and fair. It is something we have also focused on in the activities of the Deep Adaptation Forum. Now a network of over 10,000 people, with dozens of local groups around the world, people are joining because they want to explore how to prepare both individually and collectively, both emotionally and practically, for a likely collapse in our way of life due to climate chaos. Some participants are also involved in activism to promote government action on carbon emissions and drawdown. But they don’t pretend such activism means we do not need to transform our societies to be more kind, curious and fair as things begin to fall apart. Those who engage in the Deep Adaptation agenda exist within the shadows of a painful future more than the climate activist groups – but there will be a necessary coming together over the next months. The messaging and actions of climate activists, including XR, will need to include the kinds of values we want to uphold as climate chaos spreads.
The imperative of fair adaptation to our climate tragedy must now be heard. It is where the rich will pay more and change more. It is where people who lose their jobs or savings will be helped to adjust. Where people who struggle emotionally with sensing the difficulties ahead will be held. We must discover and nourish an emergency solidarity. And reject anyone who asks us to abandon our values or shrink our worldview due to fear.
There is so much to do that it can feel daunting. Perhaps impossible. One thing is certain. None of it can wait. Because the climate isn’t waiting. Nature doesn’t do deals with humanity.
To maintain and grow its work, the free Deep Adaptation Forum will soon launch a crowd-fund to pay living expenses of its core team during 2020. To receive an update on the crowdfund, plus a quarterly newsletter on the latest developments on Deep Adaptation worldwide, subscribe here.
The New Yorker missed out on publishing one of the biggest stories of the year in 2017, when their neighbourhood competitor, the New York Magazine, published David Wallace-Wells’ article on whether the world would become too hot for humans. Not to be outdone, they published a piece on a similar topic two years later, by the author Jonathan Franzen. He goes a bit further than Wallace-Wells by asking readers to reflect on what we might start considering if it might be too late to avert the disruption of our civilisation due to climate chaos. In doing that, he was breaking a taboo in mainstream culture, and the environmental field, that we do not talk about it being too late to avert a breakdown in the way of life of people living in the richer world. I broke that taboo last year in my own field of corporate sustainability and academia, with the publication of Deep Adaptation. It is why I found the Franzen article interesting – and the reaction to it much more so.
I read Franzen’s piece and didn’t find fault in it. One could wish for more clarity on how he concludes that we won’t keep climate change below a level that will disrupt or break down our civilisation. His main argument is that human nature and socio-political systems won’t change instantly and completely to significantly curb temperature rise. I agree. Having lived on every continent of the world (expect Antarctica), I have seen how rapidly societies have been joining the consumer industrial way of life. But I also recognise current disasters around the world as a sign that massive disruption is already under way, and that there is so much extreme weather now predetermined due to the lag and momentum of warming that even instantaneous and complete decarbonisation would not prevent massive further disruption. In July 2019 I compiled a Compendium of published research on climate change and related impacts to explain how I arrive at this view. I did that because I don’t believe that we should be asking anyone to simply believe us on such a life-changing and world-changing issue. Not many people have the privilege of time and training to do their own reading and analysis: but whoever one is, with an internet connection it is now possible to read some of the evidence for oneself.
One might ask Franzen for more ideas for implications of his view that it is too late to stop massive disruption. He focuses on a local project as his source of meaning, applauding how it combines social and environmental concerns in a practical way. That is one response. But I offered the Deep Adaptation framework as a means for people to explore all possible implications at a personal and collective level. That could be local action, or it might be political, or both and everything in between. I appreciate that Franzen mentions that any act coming from love is important as we face a terrible and unprecedented predicament.
I have been sent a range of articles that criticise his New Yorker opinion piece, or the man himself. As I don’t enjoy righteous outrage, these made for rather unpleasant reading. Rather than focusing on the individuals complaining about Franzen, I will summarise some of the types of arguments they used, as they are important to avoid in future if more of us are to engage in generative dialogue about our predicament – in order to reduce harm, save what we can, learn from the situation, and find joy in the process.
Some have implied Franzen said we should stop trying to cut emissions or drawdown carbon. Yet he said the opposite. I can relate with him on that, as I have also been misrepresented in a similar way. I wonder whether this misrepresentation might be because certain commentators are frightened of their own potential emotional pain, and a quick form of emotional defence is righteous indignation towards another person. It kills the pain faster than allowing oneself to consider the arguments for longer or attempting a nuanced unpacking of them. Perhaps the negative reaction arises also because some people do not understand how people can seek to act positively for others or nature, without knowing that it will be successful. That many people do things because they believe or know them to be right, rather than because they will achieve a particular goal, is a wonderful thing.
Franzen did not say that every additional further bit of human-induced global warming does not matter. Instead, he asked for discussions about relative priorities between attempts to slow climate change versus attempts to prepare for its impacts. He noted the importance of finding actions that both reduce carbon and help us with the consequences of the disruptions that are already beginning.
This is a sensible invitation to discussion, given that 20 times more money is being spent on reducing emissions than building resilience to the effects of extreme weather, according to the new Global Commission on Adaptation. It can be a humanitarian impulse to invite a discussion of priorities, given how the rich world’s neglect of adaptation will put millions of people in danger. Moreover, if societies collapse, so efforts at cutting carbon emissions may collapse with them.
On these two points, it was surprising to see how serious commentators were misquoting or misrepresenting him on these points. Rather than criticise such commentators individually, I prefer to quote what Franzen said on emissions and the potential for runaway climate change:
“In the long run, it probably makes no difference how badly we overshoot two degrees; once the point of no return is passed, the world will become self-transforming. In the shorter term, however, half measures are better than no measures. Halfway cutting our emissions would make the immediate effects of warming somewhat less severe, and it would somewhat postpone the point of no return. The most terrifying thing about climate change is the speed at which it’s advancing, the almost monthly shattering of temperature records. If collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing.
In fact, it would be worth pursuing even if it had no effect at all…”
Many critics made the unfounded assertion that to say that it is too late to stop disastrous climate change means that people who hear that will stop engaging to create change. There are many holes in that view. First, that every listener matters the same as another for societal change. Most theories of social change (and common sense) indicate that certain people can lead change. The Extinction Rebellion movement is based on the idea of mobilising around 3 percent of a population. If a shocking message helps mobilise 3 percent to act through non-violent direct action, then that has significant implications for political and thus societal change. Second, some psychologists have found that if climate change is felt or experienced as a current problem, rather than a future one, then it leads to more action. Then there is the evidence of the last 30 years, where an incremental, cautious, optimistic, individualist and apolitical environmentalism has achieved nothing in terms of the trajectory of global carbon emissions or biodiversity loss. Last week the Finance Director of Extinction Rebellion was arrested at his home. Legal help for him was sourced by a coordinator in XR. Both quit their day jobs last year after reading my Deep Adaptation paper, which outlined my view that we face inevitable near-term societal collapse due to extreme weather affecting our national and international agricultural systems (and potentially our financial systems ahead of that). There are so many other stories of people changing their lives because its too late to keep pretending, and instead to live one’s truth today, whatever the consequences. That might be a bit disconcerting for career environmentalists and climate scientists, who always assumed they are the more smart, brave and ethical people in society.
Another limitation of some of his critics is that they did not specify what they mean by “doom.” By doom, do they mean for capitalism? For law and order? Or civilisation? Or billions of people? Or the entire human race? The commentators I read didn’t say. If a particular range of possibility seems threatening to one’s existing stories of world and self, then it may not be easy to look at those possibilities with an open mind to see what the alternatives might be.
The Deep Adaptation framework is inviting people to explore actions that will help soften the break-up of our normal way of life. It doesn’t require us to believe any one particular scenario of doom will come to pass. Personally, I think the industrial consumer society will break apart either everywhere or almost everywhere. I think many millions more people will die because of disruption caused by climate change, but don’t know how many – and I worry for the future existence of our species but do not feel able to make credible predictions on that.
Another problem with Franzen’s critics is that many write about a universal omnipotent WE who can choose to act and change everything. They say: WE need to change totally everywhere while WE still have the choice. The problem is there is no collective WE that has such power or choice. Instead, there are billions of people who need to give up an industrial consumer way of life and billions of people who must give up aspiring to live such a life, while existing within a monetary system that requires continual expansion of economic activity to maintain itself. This rather peculiar recourse to a universal omnipotent imaginary WE by scientists and international bureaucrats was a particularly interesting topic in my interview with senior climate scientist Dr Wolfgang Knorr, who is now helping to reveal how his profession has been misleading itself and the public over the past years.
Another criticism was the “ad hominem” attack, playing the person not the argument. Thus, we read how we should ignore Franzen as he is one of a type – those rich old white men who selfishly abandon the climate fight. Indeed, Franzen is an older white man. Yet there are many female researchers and educators who consider it now likely we cannot avert disruption due to climate chaos. These include Carolyn Baker, Deb Ozarko, Joanna Macy, Barbara Cecil and even the woman most responsible for this year’s climate awakening, Gail Bradbrook (listen to her speeches or my Q&A with her to hear that). To dismiss them on grounds of gender or age would be unacceptable. All of these women, and old white guy Franzen, seem to be responding to climate change creatively and earnestly, rather than abandoning the challenge.
The vitriol in some of the criticism of Franzen is an indicator of how deeply rooted the denial of our predicament is within some people who work on the environment. As I have written before in responses to those who say “we must stay positive,” it is difficult to discuss this topic with someone if their identity structure includes a sense that their self-worth depends on a self-image as a person with agency to make a better future. Psychologists in the Climate Psychology Alliance told me that there is little benefit of public discussion with people who pick a fight on these issues. So, it is probably sensible for Jonathan Franzen not to reply to his critics. So please don’t “Shut Up Mr Franzen,” but if you focus on developing your own ideas with sensitivity, I know many people will welcome that. Soon you will be joined by many. Because people in various sectors and professions will begin to share the evidence they have for how climate change is threatening our systems – particularly our fragile international food supply chains. As such evidence emerges, so it will be important to explore loving ways of responding to our predicament, and thoughtful voices like your own will be useful.
In time we will not need to discuss the arguments made against Franzen, as time itself will be the best educator. But for now, expanding the space for discussion of preparing for and transcending societal collapse will help, and needs voices like Franzens’s to do so.
Some further links:
I write about ‘collapse denial’ within the environmental professions in my original Deep Adaptation Paper, with some suggestions of psychological, professional and institutional reasons for it.
I write about the various arguments used by critics who want to silence conversations on this topic, in my blog on Barriers to Dialogue.
I write more about environmentalists who demand positivity, and how that is counter-productive, here and here.
In my Deep Adaptation Q&As I talk with psychologist Adrian Tait and writer Deb Ozarko about these issues.
I write about the matter of vision and hope after one accepts the likelihood of societal collapse, here.
As we see news of a breakdown in our global climate and its increasing impacts on nature and humanity worldwide, it is painful. Opinion surveys report on how many of us now experience climate anxiety. People fortunate enough to have avoided direct harm from climate-related disasters, now fear there will be a breakdown in their own societies, affecting their own families. After the shock and grief, many people remain bewildered about how to respond that realisation. What to do in our professional lives? What to do in personal lives? In this bewilderment we risk paralysis and reverting to denial. We risk going back to the same narratives and tactics for incremental change, with the festering worry that we are lying to ourselves about the nature of the crisis.
In early March 2019, my team and I launched the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF), as an attempt to connect people who are exploring these questions, and many more besides. A small group of colleagues, private donors, and over two dozen volunteers have provided precious assistance in making this happen.
The DAF now exists to embody and enable loving responses to our predicament. Its fundamental aim is to reduce suffering, while saving more of society and the natural world.
The DAF is an international space to connect people, online and in person and in all spheres of life — to foster mutual support, collaboration, and professional development in the process of facing societal collapse. More than anything, it is a place for generative dialogue that starts from a perspective of accepting that societal breakdown due to climate chaos is now likely, inevitable or already unfolding.
With the DAF, we want to support caring and creative ways of engaging with our predicament, so that when the realisation of likely societal breakdown spreads into the mainstream, there will be more ideas, tools, people and systems ready to help.
Six months have gone by already. It is time to take stock of what has happened.
One of the DAF’s main purposes is to build community, both online and offline. On this front, the results have gone beyond our wildest expectations.
Since March, our three main platforms – on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Ning – have grown to gather a total of over 10,000 participants. Each of these spaces has a focus of its own, including mutual emotional support (FB); professional outreach (LinkedIn); and the co-creation of resources and collaboration within professional interest groups (Ning).
Besides these platforms, we have just launched the Deep Adaptation Groups Network, with geographical or language specificities, to enable peer support. The twelve founding groups, bridging 10 countries and 5 languages. are the start of a network that will hopefully grow to hundreds. If you are starting a local DA group where you live, or are considering to do so, please let us know, and we will help you join this new network.
Financial support to six Deep Adaptation Dialogues, i.e. gatherings enabling local communities to engage in an open-ended discussion on Deep Adaptation themes, following an Open Space Technology format. More gatherings will take place in the coming months.
Nearly two dozen online gatherings of professional interest groups were organised by forum volunteers on our professionals’ platform; and over a dozen more were hosted and facilitated by the DAF team. This has helped us refine and develop a set of general guidelines for such gatherings, based on the spirit of loving kindness at the heart of Deep Adaptation.
In June 2019, the first Deep Adaptation Retreat took place in Greece, facilitated by Katie Carr and Prof. Bendell. Seventeen people from across Europe and North America gathered to explore responses to the most challenging issue of our time. This week-long series of processes was designed to invite participants to explore ways to nurture their resilience and wellbeing in the light of the climate emergency, by means of a journey through the four ‘R’s of Deep Adaptation.
The many testimonies we have received from participants in these events speak to their transformative potential:
“I felt more peaceful and inspired after watching your Q&A with Joanna Macy. Yes, this is a deeply meaningful time in human history.” – Email to Prof. Bendell after the Q&A
“This was excellent! Thank you. The facilitation was really good. The presentation at the beginning [was] really powerful and really made me take time to think more deeply. The opportunity to come together with so many interesting people and have conversations was much needed – interesting topics and engaged discussion. I had my listening head on and learnt a lot!!” – A participant from the June 15 Deep Adaptation Dialogue in Edinburgh
“The deep adaptation workshop was truly an extraordinary experience. While I have participated in many intensive workshops none had the impact on my life that the week in Greece with 16 extraordinary participants had. Jem and Katie put together an experience that was authentic, deeply moving and most importantly critically important to the future that all of us on this planet are likely to face.” – A participant in the June 2019 Deep Adaptation Retreat in Kalikalos, Greece
Finally, we have been providing a number of activities and services, including speeches, media interviews, as well as research and development, public information and strategic advice to relevant organisations as diverse as Extinction Rebellion and the European Commission.
The latest development in this regard was the launch of the Advocates project, which makes it possible for event organisers and journalists to easily contact or hire speakers with in-depth knowledge of the Deep Adaptation philosophy and projects.
THE ROAD AHEAD
We don’t intend to stop here, of course. Indeed, we have many plans for the future – no matter how bleak or dreadful it may seem.
Thanks to the widespread demand for conversation and mutual support around the topic of societal collapse, and our success in gathering people around these platforms, activities, and services, we believe we have a chance to reach a critical mass, and make Deep Adaptation blossom into a genuine social movement with far-reaching impacts, beyond borders, cultures, and social classes.
Time is short, and the odds are stacked against us. But with a little help from everyone else, the spirit of Deep Adaptation may yet become a catalyst for peace and positive transformation in a crumbling world.
Everything we have done in these past 6 months has been funded by voluntary work or private donations. If you are able to consider helping to fund the next year of DAF’s growth and impact, or to introduce us to donors, please contact us here.
The DAF is driven by the many volunteers that are helping moderate the Facebook Group as well as the Interest Groups and Task Groups on our Professionals’ Platform. The volunteers are essential to our work, and we profile some in each issue of our Deep Adaptation Quarterly. In service of those volunteers and our wider activities, we are a small team of 5 freelancers. Here is some short information on what we do and who we are.
Dorian Cave, Professionals’ Platform Curator.
Dorian curates the DAF Professionals’ Platform (on Ning) on a day-to-day basis; liaises with Interest Group and Task Group leaders, including managing the process of launching either; carries out quickly-applicable research on how to design better collaborative work processes; and oversees capacity-building activities for Task Groups. Through his work, Dorian intends to help develop the Deep Adaptation Forum into the foundation of an international mass movement, focusing on peaceful responses to the climate and ecological crises we face – and the collapses that are likely to unfold. Simultaneously, he wants to develop his skills in the field of self-organised group facilitation and contribute to scholarship on the role of mutual and social learning within such processes.
Zori Tomova, Platforms Assistant
Zori has a business education, with an MSc from Warwick University. Upon graduation, she co-founded a small innovation consulting company and soon after moved into IT entrepreneurship and management, where she spent the majority of her career. She left that world in 2017 to look for a calling that was closer to her heart. Upon her first encounter with Jem Bendell and our predicament, she realised that her sense of aliveness and meaning lies in her gift and love for connection. As a consequence, she oriented her life towards creating spaces of connection with self, other and nature that bring out the most beautiful sides of our humanness. In the last 2 years, she has built a coaching business, created the Connection Playground initiative and facilitated numerous groupwork spaces, including regular Deep Adaptation gatherings online. She joined the Deep Adaptation Forum in July 2019 to support the team of volunteers moderating the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook group. She’s also the project leader of the Deep Adaptation Groups Network, providing a space for cross-pollination and peer support between DA groups in different locations, languages and topics.
Katie Carr, Senior Facilitator
An independent trainer, facilitator and ‘host’ of collaborative learning processes, Katie has over 15-years of experience in formal and informal/community education. Katie is a skillful facilitator of ‘un-learning’, that is, creating spaces in which it is possible to connect with ways of knowing that are broader and richer than the cognitive/evaluative paradigm that is prevalent in the Western worldview. If Deep Adaptation requires responses that are effective in reducing harm, then it is essential to build awareness and bring into consciousness all of the ways that stories of separation, scarcity and addiction to progress can be manifest in our ways of relating with self and others, and create new ways of being that are characterised by love, respect, inclusivity and connection. As Senior Facilitator with the DAF, she organises online meetings and trainings for volunteers, facilitates dialogues, courses and retreats, and advises on the facilitation principles and processes we promote through the DAF. Before joining the DAF team, Katie was the Director of a UK sustainability education charity for six years, and project manager of several European sustainability projects in the fields of formal and community education. She also has expertise in participatory and alternative evaluation approaches (measuring what’s valuable, rather than valuing what’s measurable). She studied an MA in Sustainable Leadership Development from the University of Cumbria. She is trained in a variety of dialogic learning methods (including circling, authentic relating, ‘philosophy for children’, and non-violent communication), and has published her work in the field of sustainability and post-sustainability education.
Matthew Slater, General Assistant
A theology graduate and software engineer, Matthew is a leading voice on community currencies. In the financial crisis of 2008 he dropped everything to develop open source software for Local Exchange Trading Systems, cofounding Community Forge to host that software. His interests and expertise widened from there into monetary theory, monetary reform, community building, ecovillages, cryptocurrencies, and the politics of software. in 2015 he co-authored the Money & Society MOOC with Prof. Bendell. In 2016 he proposed a solidarity economy money system in a white paper entitled ‘Credit Commons’. In 2018 he took on the role of General Assistant to Prof Bendell and the Deep Adaptation Forum. Within that role Matthew supports a range of activities, including technical support and research on various themes.
Professor Jem Bendell, Founder
With a PhD in international policy, a background working for the United Nations and international charities, and over 100 publications on business and sustainable development, Professor Bendell turned to leadership development in 2012. By 2016 he was working with leading socialist politicians as a leadership and communications advisor and speech writer. He had been interested in climate change since he studied it in 1993, as part of his geography degree at the University of Cambridge. In 2017 he took a year unpaid leave from university to review the latest climate science, measurements, policies and implications. This led to the release of Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Our Climate Tragedy, which was downloaded over half a million times within a year. He now focuses on leadership for deep adaptation, through research, writing, retreats, courses, strategy consulting, short films, as well as launching and co-funding the Deep Adaptation Forum, which after 6 months already engages over 10,000 people in exploring the implications of anticipating societal breakdowns due to climate chaos.
 Our next Q&A events will notably feature Adrian Tait (Sept.13); Katharine Wilkinson (Oct. 10); Vanessa Andreotti (Nov.4); and Charles Eisenstein (Dec.14).