Adapting deeply to likely collapse: an enhanced agenda for climate activists?

Last year an Extinction Rebellion handbook called “This is Not a Drill” was published by Penguin, featuring a chapter I wrote on Deep Adaptation, called “Doom and Bloom”. It has some important chapters, and you can order it here. My chapter was edited for length, and so here is the original submitted version. I release it on my blog to encourage discussions about climate activist movements, such as XR, FridaysForFuture and Sunrise, making adaptation to unfolding climate chaos a complementary focus to net carbon neutrality. Even top government advisors recognise that scale of government action on humanitarian relief, food security, disaster risk reduction, psychological support, and economic transformation, is insufficient to help us all adapt to the unfolding damage from extreme weather and its knock-on effects on our economic systems.xr da

Doom and Bloom? Adapting deeply to likely collapse.

Original version submitted  for the XR handbook This is Not a Drill.

Our climate is changing rapidly, destroying lives and threatening our future. We must act now to reduce harm and save what we can. In doing so we can rediscover what truly matters. That may seem less of a rallying cry than “this is our last chance to prevent disaster”. But I believe it is more truthful and will be more lasting. It will also invite less disillusionment over time. And help each of us to prepare. After all, when harvests collapse, we won’t be eating our placards. We will be relying on the love we have for each other and the ways we have prepared.

Scientists and activists have been shouting for the past fifteen years about the imminent disaster we are creating. The latest message is “we’ve only got 12 years” to prevent a disastrous 1.5 degrees of warming, but I’m not swayed any more. My reading of the latest data is that climate change has gone too far, too fast, with too much momentum, so that any talk of prevention is actually a form of denial of what is really happening. It is a difficult conclusion to arrive at. And a difficult one to live with. We have too little resilience in our agricultural, economic, and political systems to be able to cope. It is time to prepare, both emotionally and practically, for a disaster.

I am social scientist, not a climatologist. So who am I to spread panic and fear when the world’s top scientists say we have 12 years? Like many readers, I had assumed the authority on climate was the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but it turns out they’ve been consistently underestimating the changes. In 2007 they said an ice-free Arctic was a possibility by 2100. That sounds far enough away to calm the nerves. But real-time measurements are documenting such rapid loss of ice that some of the world’s top climate scientists are saying it could be ice free in the next few years.

Sea-level rise is a good indicator of the rate of change, because it is affected by many factors. In 2007 satellite data showed a sea level rise of 3.3 mm per year. Yet that year the IPCC offered 1.94mm a year as the lowest mark of its estimate for sea-level rise. Yes, you’re right: that’s lower than what was already happening. It’s like standing up to your knees in flood water in your living room, listening to the forecaster on the radio saying she is not sure if the river will burst its banks. It turned out that when scientists could not agree on how much the melting polar ice sheets would be adding to sea-level rise, they left out the data altogether. Yeah, that’s so poor, it’s almost funny.

Once I realised that the IPCC couldn’t be taken as climate gospel, I looked more closely at some key issues. The Arctic looms large. It acts as the planet’s refrigerator, by reflecting sunlight back into space and by absorbing energy when the ice melts from solid to liquid. Once the Arctic Ice has gone and the dark ocean starts absorbing sunlight, the additional global warming blows the global 2-degree warming target out the window.

The implications even of small changes are immense for our agriculture, water and ecosystems. Even just one warmer summer in the northern hemisphere in 2018 reduced yields of wheat and staples like potatoes by about a quarter in the UK. Unlike other years, the unusual weather was seen across the northern hemisphere, with declines in rain-fed agriculture reported across Europe. Globally we only have grain reserves for about 4 months, so a few consecutive summers like 2018 and the predicted return of El Nino droughts in Asia could cause food shortages on a global scale.

Having gathered a pile of this information I concluded that our civilisation would struggle to hold itself together under such conditions. I hear many voices fending off despair with hopeful stories about technology, political revolution, or mass spiritual awakenings. But I cannot pin hopes on those things. We should be preparing for a social collapse. By that I mean an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning, and hope. It is very difficult to predict when a collapse would occur, especially given the complexity of our agricultural and economic systems. Yet everyone with whom I discussed this topic asked me for a prediction. So my guess is that within 10 years from now a social collapse, in some form, will have occurred in the majority of countries around the world.

Having worked for over 25 years in environmental sustainability, I found it hard to accept that my career added up to nothing; my sense of self was shaken because I had believed humanity would ‘win’ in the end. We had been walking up a landslide. I found myself regretting all the times I had settled for small changes when my heart was calling for large ones. I grieved how I may not grow old. I still grieve for those closest to me, and the fear and pain they may feel as their food, energy and social systems break down. Most of all I now grieve for the young, and the more beautiful world they will never inherit.

This realisation meant I began feeling the impermanence of everything in a far more tangible and immediate way than before. My attention had always been fixed in the future, but now arrived in the present, and I became aware as never before of other people and animals – of love, beauty, art, and expression. I was reminded of what my friend with terminal cancer had said about his experience of gratitude and wonder, and of the intense quality of our last meeting.

Over the past year I have met many people for whom an acceptance of the scale and imminence of the crisis has been transformative. They prioritise truth seeking and telling, inner exploration and self-discovery, self-expression and creativity, connection with others and nature, as well as cultivating their capacity for loving kindness. They are experience a renewed ability to live in what we could call ‘Expressive Presence’.

I am not the first to notice this phenomenon. The mystics have been talking about it for millennia. The Russian author Dostoevsky described the delicious intensity of the last moments before his false execution. I believe we all need to go through such a process, individually and collectively. Putting all our hopes in a better future allows us to make compromises in the present, while letting go of a better future can allow us to drop false hopes and live the present with more integrity. It might even make our activism more effective.

This is a book [This is Not a Drill] about a global rebellion to stop the rapid extinction of species and avert the possible extinction of our own. Being loving and more connected is wonderful but might seem a bit vague and inconsequential. What might we do, as publicly engaged citizens?

If our view is that societal collapse or breakdown is now likely due to climate change, might we communicate that view as widely as possible without offering a set of “answers” and action agendas? When talking with individuals and to small groups, I have witnessed, over and over, that there is a lot that people can gain from feeling lost and despairing before then piecing things back together for themselves, in their personal, professional and political lives. But speaking through the mass media to the general public is a different matter. The limitations of a superficial and combative approach from the news media are well known to those of us who hope for a more informed and engaged public. But on this topic, we have an additional problem. Our dominant culture hides the matter of death and dying away from daily life. The feeling we are part of a society and species that is perpetually improving helps to contain our fear of personal mortality. Without loving support of any kind, a sudden acceptance that collapse is now likely or inevitable in the not-so-distant future could trigger some ugly responses to difficult emotions. A quiet form of hysteria could lead to an outpouring of blame turning inward, and destructive tendencies. Some say this is already happening as people intuit how the story of humanity’s progress has lost its nourishing (or numbing) power.

My view is that normalising discussions about how to prepare for and soften collapse will benefit society. Only collective preparations have a serious chance of working. Deep Adaptation to climate change means asking ourselves and our leaders these four questions.

“How do we keep what we really want to keep?” is the first question to ask, as we seek resilience – the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours. To illustrate, here are some ideas that can considered for resilience. First, a likely collapse in rain-fed agriculture means governments need to prepare for how to ration some basic foodstuffs as well as supporting the rapid expansion of irrigated production of key crops like potatoes. Second, the way our financial markets will respond to the realisation of climate shocks is unpredictable and the risk is that our systems of both credit and payments could seize up. That means governments need to ensure we have electronic means of payment outside of the private banking system, so trade can continue if there is a financial collapse. Third, there are responses for resilience that will take a bit longer. For instance, and unfortunately, building desalinisation plants may be key across Southern Europe. Fourth, we should try to buy some more time. Many geoengineering ideas are highly dangerous and impractical. But one makes sense right now. We should be seeding and brightening the clouds above the Arctic immediately, as a global emergency response, similar in scale to how we would react if an Armageddon-sized meteor was hurtling towards Earth.

A second question to ask ourselves is “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?” This question helps us explore relinquishment, where people and communities will let go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption. There will be the psychological challenge of how to help people who experience dread, grief and confusion. Many of us may be deeply affected by the falling away of our assumption of progress or stability. How do we plan our lives now? That will pose huge communications challenges, if we want to enable compassionate and collaborative responses from each other as much as possible. Helping people with psychological support to let go of some old attachments and aspirations will be important work.

“What can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?” is the third question I suggest guides our conversations about Deep Adaptation to our climate tragedy. It helps us explore the restoration of attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded. Examples include re-wilding landscapes, so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play, and increased community-level productivity and support.

The fourth question I invite you to consider is “what could I make peace with to lessen suffering?” As we contemplate endings our thoughts turn towards reconciliation: with our mistakes, with death, and some would add, with God. We can also seek to be part of reconciliations between peoples with different political persuasions, religions, nations, genders, classes and generations. Without this inner Deep Adaptation to climate collapse we risk tearing societies apart.

Bold emissions cuts and carbon drawdown measures are still necessary to reduce as much as possible the mass extinction and human suffering of climate change, but we must also prepare for what is now inevitable. This Deep Adaptation Agenda takes us beyond mainstream narratives and initiatives on adaptation to climate change, as we no longer assume that society as we know it can continue.

Faced with these scenarios, some people react by calling for whatever-it-takes to be done to stop such a collapse. That is, to attempt whatever draconian measures might cut emissions and drawdown carbon in case it might stop the disaster. The problem is that such a perspective can quickly lead to calls for those with power to impose on people without it. For the powerful to satisfy themselves that they are doing needs to be done no matter what the implication for peoples’ lives and wellbeing. It is now clear that there will be tough decisions ahead. But rather than suggest we can sacrifice our values for a chance to survive, instead we can make universal love our compass as we enter an entirely new physical and psychological terrain.

People often ask me where is the hope in my rather dark analysis of our situation – what vision Deep Adaptation offers to its adherents. I cannot honestly hope for a better future, so instead I’m hoping for a better present. I’m earning less money and instead I’m eating better and feeling better. I’m not compromising my truth because I have nothing to lose. I’m sleeping more, enjoying more and loving more. In this sense, my life is not doom and gloom. Instead, both doom and bloom are complementary sides to my everyday experience. Climate activism can so easily become angry, dour, moralising, and self-sacrificing, but that must not happen to Extinction Rebellion. With so little future to hope for this rebellion is not worth our misery and pain.

In facing our climate predicament, I have learned that there is no way to escape despair. But there seems to be a way through despair. It is to love love more than we fear death. That love is why we experience loss and grief. After loss and grief there is still that love. So as things get really difficult in the years to come, I hope I will keep asking myself – what does love invite of me now?

If you are a climate activist and want to engage in these issues, consider engaging the Campaigns & Lobbying discussions on the Deep Adaptation Forum here. There is also now a Facebook group where people discuss ideas and initiatives about the Deep Adaptation agenda within Extinction Rebellion. Join it here.

A short documentary explores how children and youth can engage in exploring the implications of the worst case scenarios of climate change.

Image Credit: Andre Clements.

Documentary about Children facing Climate Collapse – Oskar’s Quest

“The global wave of school strikes for the climate over the past year has ‘achieved nothing’ because greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, Greta Thunberg has told activists at UN climate talks in Madrid… she said that although schoolchildren had been striking around the world, this “has not translated into action” from governments… [Greta continued..] ‘We can’t go on like this; it is not sustainable that children skip school and we don’t want to continue – we would love some action from the people in power.'” The Guardian, Dec 6th 2019.

As emissions rise, impacts worsen, governments dither, and the science darkens the horizon for humanity, what is next for the FridaysForFuture movement of school strikers? What is next for young people in general? For anyone concerned about the climate emergency, this seems like one of the most important questions.

My outlook on the future is that while it is too late to stop a breakdown of our societies over the coming years due to the impacts of climate change, it is not too late to learn from our failures and try to reduce harm, through bold carbon cuts, drawdown and deep adaptation.

Helping young people prepare emotionally, practically and politically for a turbulent future is something that has felt important to me. It is why over last year I talked to children, youth, teachers and child psychologists about the latest shocking climate news and the worst-case scenarios.

One output of that dialogue is a half hour documentary, which I release today on www.ScientistsWarning.tv

Oskar’s Quest is a film about how a 13 year old boy called Oskar allowed his shock and sadness about climate to transform his approach to school and set off a chain reaction, which led to circles of school children discussing their thoughts and feelings about the likely collapse of society from climate change.

I made the film to help parents, teachers and young people explore more widely the issues, emotions and ideas on this topic. In particular, I want to encourage adults to move beyond discussions of what is the best thing to say, tweet or post about the school strikers, and instead explore how we can act in real solidarity with them. That means recognising that the striking children are compromising their own wellbeing in order to push for significant action, and so it is time to consider how we join them in that approach.

jem and oskar

One of those areas of solidarity with children must be in adults challenging the inappropriate schooling that children are being forced through. The international federation of teachers trade unions issued this statement in support of the striking students:

“Unfortunately, in too many countries education is narrowed down to target producing a skilled workforce, and curricula and syllabi is driven by standardised testing. Such systems undermine teaching and learning and the purpose of education; they will not build active citizenship or critical thinking or understanding of a wide range of human concerns and experiences. Curricula and teaching and learning materials need to be urgently revised and improved to address the environmental crisis and give all learners the skills and knowledge needed for climate justice.”

If you like the film, please share it on all your social media accounts and email it to people you know in education and activism.

If you want to organise a showing of the film in your school or community, and invite Oskar, or his mum Simona or dad Joel, to speak by video link, then please use this form and ask for Simona.

simona

I thank all those who crowdfunded the film, and Rob Moir of Ocean River Institute for organising the crowdfund. I thank the Mowdy family for their openness and trust, as well as the staff and students of Green School. I also thank Joseph for filming and editing with me, and Morison Bennett of Globular for permission to use his music.

If you are interested in using this footage in another film project, please use this form to contact my assistant.

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The 30 minute film can be watched for free here.

 

 

The economics of extinction: a reason for rebellion

Prof Jem Bendell and Rabbi Jeffrey Newman

This article originally appeared on Extinction Rebellion’s blog on March 20th 2019 and republished here for ease of access.

What would a sane society do, knowing that one of its luxury food supplies was being exhausted? Consume less perhaps? Or grow more? Japan, knowing that the Bluefin tuna is going extinct, does neither. Bluefish tuna make the most profit for fishermen the nearer they are to extinction, as their rarity endows all the more status on their consumers.

Some might think that is a quirky Japanese behaviour or an anomaly of economics, but actually the free-market system in which individuals compete for profit is resplendent with such stupidities. How else could the investment in fracking or tar sands be explained? Or the way Brazil is consuming the lungs of the Earth to pay back its debts. Or the way industry externalises the cost of processing much of its waste, poisoning the Earth and its future consumers?

The logic that leads to these flaws has long been understood, and there have been waves of visceral protest as the ideology of markets became more entrenched. It is two decades since we were shutting down city centres hosting WTO and World Bank conferences; and almost a decade since Occupy camps squatted in the sacred places of decadent high finance. This time our issue is more than economic justice – it is the way governments are standing by as the global house we live in is burning down. We now see clearer than ever how a stupid financial system is driving an environmental breakdown and mass extinction which will undermine our very civilisation.

But for all the dissent about this situation, there’s little agreement or clarity on where within the financial system the real problem resides – or what could be done about it. Explanations from the marching crowds often invoke privatisation, corruption, greed, the power of banks, or the shrinking state. Deeper analyses point to something that many are unaware of, even economists. It is how private banks, not the government or central banks, create our money supply when they issue loans. It is this practice of issuing money as debt that over time creates a scarcity of money which encourages perpetual economic growth whether a society needs it or not. That means more junk, monotonous work, energy burned, natural environments ripped up, more waste, more money locked up tax havens, and more unpayable debts. Lifting the veil on the monetary system reveals the interconnection between our social and environmental suffering. Through complex chains of profit-taking, the extortionate financial rewards taken by banks leads to people relying upon food banks while we trash the foundational bank that is a healthy planet.

Therefore, after decades of work on reforming corporations to be more sustainable, we both came to understand that we can’t change the way business does business unless we change the way money makes money. Given our perilous situation with the unfolding environmental breakdown, this change is more urgent than ever. As it oscillates along the knife-edge of debt maximisation and debt default, the current system is simply not fit for a future of climate-induced disruption.

But understanding the driving role of the financial system doesn’t give us a course of action and it certainly doesn’t help us to curtail it. For starters, we exist within the confines of this system. Many of us have little capacity to take radical action because we are working off our debts, or earning wages suppressed by employers servicing their own. That is hardly surprising in an economy with more debt than money.

So what might we do? We can move our money to building societies. But that won’t reform the big banks. We can work together to build alternatives at the local level, such as credit unions and mutual credit currencies. Yet in the UK this has proven difficult, as they are less available and less-funded than their competitors. So we might buy into crypto-currencies, yet many of them are run by speculators who make bankers look saintly!

So the only possible way to put the financial system into a reverse thrust is through government who, after all, unleashed the financial beast over thirty years ago.

It would seem though, that the present UK government imagines a different mandate for itself. In his 2018 party conference speech Chancellor Hammond claimed already to have ‘rebuilt the financial system’ since 2008.He said nothing about energy security, food security, climate change, the global migration crisis or indeed any future concerns except the Labour Party. One can’t imagine the sixth Mass Extinction keeping him awake at night. Rather than existential threats he focused instead on linguistic ones, repeating the term ‘21st century capitalism’ as if the next 80 years of economics was already written.

Hammond is out of touch with a public increasingly alarmed by climate predictions. After 30 years of warnings but no meaningful action, the current (very conservative) estimate is that dramatic changes are needed within the next twelve years, just for a chance of avoiding ‘run away’ climate change. Less optimistic readings of the data indicate that rapid and uncontrollable climate change has already begun. That will mean failed harvests and with it, exploding price rises and, understandably, social unrest. A new paradigm of Deep Adaptation to environmental breakdown is needed to reduce harm and risk in a very uncertain future. As friends and neighbours we might stockpile food, nurture our gardens and install solar power, but government is needed to build the sea defences, mobilise emergency food production and distribution, rebuild transport systems and integrate large numbers of people fleeing droughts, floods and related conflict.

Governments around the world need to develop climate-smart monetary and investment policies. Such bold policies must involve a scaling down of our non-reserve banking system and an increase in government’s issuance of electronic money instead of bonds. All central banks must be instructed to stop buying bonds from companies with large carbon footprints and instead only buy bonds of firms providing low-carbon solutions for a climate-disrupted future. Governments should also ensure there are networks of local banks with a requirement to lend to enterprises that are focused on cutting emissions or drawing down carbon, as well as developing resilience to disruptive weather. Making that the RBS mandate in the UK is a ‘no brainer’. Government should also look at enabling local governments to issue their own interoperable currencies, as a way of helping local communities become more self reliant in preparation for future disturbances. Treasury officials could begin their education on these ideas by talking to the folks at Positive Money. Meanwhile our diplomats could get cracking on negotiating a global carbon tax, embedded into trade law at the WTO, with government commitments to invest revenues for carbon cuts, drawdown, adaptation and reducing impacts on the poor.

Given how bad things are with the environment we don’t know if such dramatic changes will be too little too late. But it is worth a try. And we are convinced that without an attempt to transform the monetary system then we aren’t really trying.

Let’s for a moment imagine what such changes could support. We can imagine what thriving ecosystems look like, so we let’s imagine a thriving economy. Waste would be minimised, and toxic waste eliminated. Most of what we needed would be produced nearby. There would be no unemployment and no shortage of money to pay for valuable work. Housing would be affordable as it was in the 1970s. Children would see more of their parents. Enterprises and population centres would be governed and managed less as pawns of London, Brussels, Berne, or Frankfurt and more by the people who have a stake in them and their continuance.

There must come a time when it becomes necessary to flout the law to bring down an immoral or incompetent government. Philosophers call it the ‘right of rebellion’. Naturally they differ on the details, but generally a rebellion these days must use non-violent methods, and it must be against a government which is grossly incompetent, malignant, or treacherous. In upholding a financial system determined to burn all the fossil fuels while not protecting the people from the catastrophic consequences, governments are surely being grossly incompetent, malignant and treacherous.

On April 15th 2019 international rebellion week will create all manner of creative, exciting and loving peaceful civil disobedience to show the UK government and its financial masters that we can no longer support interlocking economic and political systems that threaten to curtail the life of our children. It is time to tell the truth, act in accordance with it, and set up Citizens Assemblies with mandates that include both financial reform and Deep Adaptation.

If international rebellion doesn’t startle our politicians into making the climate crisis their central agenda, then we must stretch the rebellion into our everyday lives. How many coordinated withdrawals and loan defaults might bring down a targeted bank? How many local councils issuing inter-operable currencies could create an alternative to the Bank of England? How many people joining networks with their own currencies, like Fair Coop, Credit Commons and Holochain, could make these viable alternatives? If government does not heed peaceful calls to change our economic system so that climate sanity is an economic norm, we may well find out.

We realise that initially our suggestions may be dismissed by some office holders in our current system. Religious texts remind us that privileged people “who detest the one who tells the truth” (Prophet Amos 5:10) are neither new or unusual. But the joy of generations coming together in a new spirit of fearless love, reminds us of the divine invitation to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Prophet Amos 5:24). We therefore invite more leaders in our current system to join this sacred flow of a peaceful rebellion for life on Earth.

Professor Jem Bendell is founder of the Deep Adaptation Forum and teaches leadership at the University of Cumbria. In April 2019, he spoke to launch the international rebellion on the Oxford Circus pink boat, with the text and video available here.

Rabbi Jeffrey Newman is Emeritus Rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue and leads Shema (Jewish Action on Climate Change). He was arrested outside the Bank of England for a non violent protest during XR demonstrations in London.

Rabbi-Jeffrey-Newman-XR

Further reading on monetary issues:

Currencies of Transition: Transforming money to unleash sustainability. Bendell, Greco (2013)

Re-imagining Money to Broaden the Future of Development Finance Bendell, Ruddick, Slater (2015) UNRISD

The future of sharing: it’s all about freedom, Open Democracy

Thwarting an Uber future for complementary currencies. Bendell & Slater 2017

 

Forgiving the destructive tendency in everyone as climate chaos grows

One of the questions I suggested we use for exploring our responses to the predicament of disastrous climate change was:

“With what and whom can we make peace with to lessen suffering?”

I called this the fourth R of reconciliation within the Deep Adaptation framework.

Part of this “making peace” and reconciling is forgiveness.

The human race has destroyed so much life on Earth and will continue to do so. Some cultures and countries have collectively been far more destructive than others and will continue to be for some time. Some companies are more destructive than others, as are some individuals. And they may continue to be so for some time.

Anger at this situation is understandable. More than that, such anger is a sign we are awake to the situation and that we care.

But then what do we do with that anger?

Some may look for whom to blame and develop hatred for whichever category of person they choose. Because they won’t be just hating one person, but a category of person.

Every category is arbitrary.

For instance, shall we blame and hate oil company executives?

Or those who invest in them?

Or perhaps our parents who have shares in pension funds invested in those same companies?

Or perhaps ourselves, for that gift we received from our parent’s profits from the dividends that helped us get a mortgage?

Nearly all of us are embedded in the system of destruction and therefore complicit. Some of us are more complicit than others. Some people have more power to try to change things at scale than others.

So, even though our choices for where to place any blame will be arbitrary, it is sensible to discuss where responsibility lies, and who should be challenged to change behaviour.

But if that leads to blame and hatred? Then we risk losing our way and making matters worse.

As I write the words of that last sentence, boy does it feel annoying. I want to rage at the wilful ignorance of self-satisfied people who benefit from systems that are ruining lives around the world and threatening our very survival.

But I still know it is true that blame and hatred risks making matters worse.

To not forgive gives rise to our own suffering as well as wider suffering. If we cannot let go of a real or imagined wrong against us then we are unable to free ourselves from hate and we will suffer as a result. The tensed shoulders, clenched teeth, and hormones pumping around our body. The time spent thinking through why someone is worse than us, rather than spent thinking what we could do differently ourselves to improve our situation.

When people start to talk about their hatred of groups of people, then they are de-humanising them and sowing the seeds for violence. This is often done when people say that we should be disgusted by a type of person. When people with a public audience begin to invite disgust with and hatred of groups of people, then the seeds of violence can rapidly grow.

As we are all made of the same stuff, and come from the same original consciousness, then the way we behave is the result of the conditions within which we have learned to be human. If you had been born to be me and experienced what I experienced in life, you would likely be quite like me! And vice versa. With that perspective, it is less easy to be hateful at someone for how they are. We can try to challenge them and hold them accountable for attitudes and behaviours that are harmful to others. But where would hatred come from? And what would it serve?

Many people are rightly angry at the destruction of our biosphere.

I am.

Angry, frustrated, sad, and scared all at the same time.

I realise part of that anger is at myself. I am a human. I am one of the species that has done this. I am a man. I am one of the gender that has dominated culture for thousands of years in ways that denigrated reverence for nature. We burned women, for fxxks sake. I am white. A race that has pioneered the culture that violently and systematically suppressed other races and cultures until a system of the infinite exploitation of the Earth had been crowned triumphant.

I am not just angry at what I am. I am beyond that. I am depressed at what I am. I think it is this subconscious self-hatred that drives some of the anger we see in the environmental movement today. We are so upset at what we are, that we distract ourselves from the pain of self-hatred by vilifying other people who are, at least, worse than us!

So where do we go from here?

Can we forgive ourselves?

When I reflected on how I am part of nature, which created all humans as well as little me, I realised that there was nothing to forgive. Whatever is happening, however horrible, is arising from natural processes. Over millions of years, life comes and goes. In the universe, over billions of years, perhaps life comes and goes.

The fact we are all made of the same stuff and that we are a member of the species that has been so destructive, are both reasons for recognising the futility of blame and hatred of others for how they damage the planet and our fellow humans.

These reflections do not mean I do not feel anger. They do not mean I do not see people and categories of people as “opponents” who could be far better engaged, challenged or disempowered (oil executives, for instance). But it means that blame and hatred aren’t alive for me when I think about these things. Maybe that will help me be better at making choices about what to do. At least I do not suffer from carrying around my own hatred.

adult anger art black background
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The reason I write this blog now, is because I realise the power of humanity to make bad situations far worse. As climate chaos gets worse over the coming decade, so there will be more refugees, more disasters, more hunger, more families disgruntled at the cost of living and fearful about the future. Some of the elites will be worried that we might club together and change systems of power, and thus look to manipulate us to blame each other. In future, I fear intergenerational hatred will grow, and be used by elites to justify policies that harm people of a certain age. A narrative that blames the older generations for climate change will be used by elites to justify the ending of state support for the poor and frail in those generations.

Or worse.

We live in a time when the internet is a playground for people who want to invite our disgust at others, rather than explore difficult issues together. One of the inflammatory modes is to say some people have more right to be angry than men like me; that I am speaking about forgiveness from a privileged position. That is why in the past year I have reached out to teachers, children, social justice groups and the decolonisation movement, to better hear their perspectives, and bring attention to them. I have not heard more hatred. I have heard an openness to healing. Because they realise the gravity of the situation we all face.

Inviting discussion about whether it is right or wrong for activists to be proud of never forgiving politicians – and the older generations, is important. I believe it is important because that non-forgiveness is a form of hatred which could one day be used by authoritarian regimes to justify abuses in the name of climate reality. Therefore, I will continue to question the words of activists or politicians if they ever invite hatred, even if people misrepresent that in order to allow their rage to flow without consequence.

I wrote this blog to provide context for some parts of an interview of Charles Eisenstein. I recommend watching the whole thing here.

If you are interested, please discuss these ideas in the Philosophy Group of the Deep Adaptation Forum.

Inviting Scientists to Challenge or Improve Deep Adaptation

The ‘deep adaptation’ framing of our situation is not an easy one to take onboard. In a nutshell: because widespread and near term societal collapse is likely, inevitable or unfolding, we should begin to prepare emotionally and practically. I experienced emotional pain in allowing this possibility into my awareness, and then sharing it with my profession (the sustainability business and leadership fields) – and now with others.

Some climate scientists say my view that we seem set for uncontrollable levels of climate change is unscientific. Other climate scientists say that we may have already reached dangerous tipping points and some think we have breached some of those tipping points already. That would mean uncontrollable levels of change. Some scientists say it is unscientific to talk about near term societal collapse, and other top scientists have just started agreeing that we must have that conversation right now.

Given my outlook on our situation, and my research into systems of personal and institutional denial, I have found it difficult to muster motivation to engage with critics over small scientific details in my original Deep Adaptation paper, which came out in July 2018. Instead I have focused on implications for activism, mental health, spirituality, economics and professional collaboration. However, as the concept spreads, so does some criticism. Some climatologists have a microphone to speak on our predicament, and have an important role in helping humanity understand our situation today. Therefore, I want to engage as best I can with the arguments that I have heard from some critics in the field of climatology.

Therefore, I am inviting any climate scientist who is concerned with the deep adaptation message to apply their skills in challenging or improving its basis in climate science. We have put an excerpt of the climate science section of the July 2018 paper online as a googledoc, open for comment. I welcome comments from any professional climate scientist on what is considered inaccurate or misleading, or that could benefit from further clarification. The document will remain open for comment until January 10th 2020. I will then blog on the feedback in Q1 2020, include a box at the end of the pdf of the paper with any corrections, and incorporate insights into my future work.

This invitation to comment is being sent to scientists featured in a recent Vice article, including Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt, Wolfgang Knorr and Cynthia Rosenzweig. If these people are too busy, the invitation is extended to their research teams. Non-climatologists featured in the article are also being invited (including Scott Williams, Jeremy Lent, Aled Jones). Please seek comment permissions by Jan 5th 2020 here.

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In focusing on one section of one paper, now 17 months old, we risk avoiding the issue at hand – the extent of climate chaos and what to do about it. However, it appears that criticism of the Deep Adaptation paper itself is a means by which some scientists engage with the possibility of us entering a period of rapid climate change. Therefore, I hope that this opening of the climate science section of the paper to feedback, publicly, will help clarify any mistakes and improve the discussion. I know that I will get some things wrong (see below). I am most interested in widening the topic of discussion and innovation, so that more people consider implications of the most troubling news. Therefore, I come at this issue of what weaknesses there may be in the original paper in the hope of supporting that widening discussion.

Of course much new science has been published since July 2018, and I summarised some of it in a compendium here. I am currently focused on how climate stressors will impact on agricultural, water, and financial systems, and will share more on that in Q1 also.

If you are a professional climate scientist, in employment in a research institution, you can request permission to comment on the document here.

I realise that in the face of the fearful situation we are in, to seek security in one’s self image and self worth is a natural response, yet will only be futile and unhelpful in the long run. So, thank you to everyone who is engaging with compassion, curiosity and respect in this difficult issue.

You can view the excerpt of the paper, and any comments that have already been made here.

A correction of one statistic in a speech

In a speech I gave this Autumn I mentioned that a 1 degree rise in the global average temperature is about 11% more energy in the atmosphere. However, it is only an 11% increase in the temperature above freezing point, as measured in Celsius. Rather, ambient energy can be measured from absolute zero, which is -273 Celsius. I was attempting to explain in a simple way that although 1 degree warming might sound minor, it is a significant change in the energy in our atmosphere. That point remains accurate, and could be expressed in the following way instead. “Since 1990, the increase in greenhouse gas levels has made the heating effect of the atmosphere 43% stronger” than in pre-industrial times. Some people have made a comparison between global warming and the danger for a human body warming up by that amount. I have never made such a comparison and don’t think it accurate to do so. The incorrect description of 11% more energy in the atmosphere was not in the original Deep Adaptation paper.

News review on Deep Adaptation – August to November 2019

In recent months, more mainstream media have reported on aspects of deep adaptation to climate chaos. Here is a quick summary of some written outputs since August 2019.

In August, the Guardian started its review of the Extinction Rebellion handbook by focusing on the chapter from Jem Bendell that warns of societal collapse.

In September, an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald discussed some of the latest climate science and the views that collapse may now be inevitable. Also in September, an old South Carolina newspaper, The Post and Courier, published a discussion of the growing sentiment that climate change is speeding up and threatens collapse. All of that was topped by an opinion piece in the New Yorker by novelist Jonathan Franzen, which invited readers to consider what it would mean to them if was too late to stop catastrophic change from climate change. The way Professor Jem Bendell has been reinventing his focus as an academic in response to the latest climate news was featured in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

In October, the BBC published a discussion of the rise of climate anxiety, and cited work on deep adaptation. The New York Times also carried an opinion piece that explained how the narrative on climate change has been changing to recognise how it threatens our way of life, and highlighted the Deep Adaptation research. In India, one columnist in The Statesman discussed some of the more disquieting science. Also in October, the UK Government website (let’s call that mainstream media) carried a speech from the Chair of the Environment Agency, who quoted Professor Bendell:

“Executives in the private, government and charity sectors all face growing frustration at the clear net impotence of our actions on climate change. This ‘stasis anxiety’ will grow as the news on extreme weather and the latest science becomes more worrying.”

In November, an article for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation discussed how apocalyptic outlooks are becoming the topic of dinner party conversations, and causing stress in relationships. The “deep adaptation” outlook was recognised as not being simply gloomy, but transformative.

One of the best ways to keep up with the latest news on deep adaptation is through the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook Group, as its near 8000 members are regularly posting relevant information.

But if you have a deeper interest that what the mainstream media will provide at this time, we recommend some of the writings and speeches from Professor Bendell on aspects ranging from leadership to localisation, from psychology to spirituality, and from social justice to the merits of Jonathan Franzen.

Hope in a time of climate chaos” was a keynote speech at the UK Council for Psychotherapy, where Jem discussed climate anxiety and the implications for their profession. A full transcript is available as well as a video of the talk.

Will We Care Enough to Matter to Them? Climate Justice, Solidarity and Deep Adaptation” is a short article on these issues which are central to the new wave of climate activism, including Extinction Rebellion and the movement that is growing about Deep Adaptation. It includes a link to a speech Jem gave on the topic in Glasgow.

The Spiritual Invitation of Climate Chaos” is a short article on Jem’s personal reflections on this huge topic, which includes a video of a speech he gave at the Buddhafields’ festival called Green Earth Awakening.

Leadership for Deep Adaptation” is a short article where Jem describes some of the organising philosophy he has brought to the development of the Deep Adaptation Forum, and where he celebrates the many volunteers who are making the various activities grow. It also includes an interview with him about these topics.

Why Deep Adaptation needs re-localisation” is a short co-authored article with Matthew Slater, where they discuss the importance of re-localising our economic relations as a means of promoting resilience in the face of risks of disruption to the global economy. Matthew, Jem and colleague Dorian are also co-authors of a new IFLAS Occasional Paper that explains the way Local Governments could initiate their own local currencies to promote such resilience.

Please don’t shut up Mr Franzen” is a response from Jem to the criticism levelled at the novelist for inviting a new conversation about adapting to devastation from climate chaos.

If you spotted a mainstream news item in the months of August to November 2019 that was not mentioned above, please link to it in the comments below.

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Will We Care Enough to Matter to Them? Climate Justice, Solidarity and Deep Adaptation.

(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.

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For now, I think these questions of solidarity, fairness, justice and healing are so complex that I wish to encourage open inquiry into them, rather than seeking quick answers to feel better about these dilemmas. It is why I gave a talk on the importance of solidarity in deep adaptation, in Glasgow, so I could learn from and bring attention to what they are doing on Deep Adaptation, with working class communities there. It is also why I interviewed Vanessa Andreotti about decolonisation and deep adaptation, and why I spoke about fair adaptation in an interview for Extinction Rebellion. Please consider exploring these issues in the Philosophy Group of the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum, or in the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook Group, or leave a comment below.

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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Hope in a time of climate chaos – a speech to psychotherapists

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.

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Scroll down to the end for the video of this keynote speech.

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.

Reaching Society

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.


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The Spiritual Invitation of Climate Chaos

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.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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). 


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Leadership for Deep Adaptation

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.

53150541_10155869633541470_5368208726245244928_nTaking 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.

The next time I teach a short residential course on leadership for deep adaptation, is in Cumbria (UK) for 4 days starting April 27th 2020.

My academic reflections on unsustainable leadership are available here.


The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.