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.
In 2020 Professor Jem Bendell plans the following events. They are already filling up, so we recommend that if you are interested, you apply soon.
Sustainable Leadership Course, April 27th to 30th, in Cumbria, UK, is for people who want to explore how to lead change in communities, politics or organisations to deeply adaptation to the climate crisis. Led by Jem with facilitation by Katie Carr.
Business of Deep Adaptation, May 12th-15th at Hazel Hill Wood in Somerset, UK, will be particularly relevant for professionals exploring what companies and their consultants can do to enable deep adaptation. This will be led by Alan Heeks and others, with guest sessions by Jem. Request Details.
“Everyone wants community. Unfortunately, it involves other people.” I used that line in lectures on frugal living when talking of the loneliness of consumerism and the benefits of sharing resources. We idealize the good old days of people helping people out. But can we live them, given who we have become?
Individualism is one of the many privileges of ‘the privileged’ in Western society. We have options and choices about where we live, with whom, of what genders, ages or races, whether we are child-free or have a brood, what we eat, what we believe, jobs we’ll accept, and on and on and on. As people look at civilizational breakdown in detail, though, they realize that to survive, other people might not be optional – joining a group, a farm, a small town might be necessary. Continue reading “Gathering in groups as society falls apart – by Vicki Robin”→
(Scroll down to the end for the video of a talk on solidarity and deep adaptation.
Would you consider yourself middle class? Perhaps amongst the middle class in the West, or amongst the millions of new middle classes around the world? Opinion polls show that many people like you have changed their thoughts and feelings about climate change in the recent past. What was once a concern for people somewhere else, in distant lands, or distant futures, has become a more immediate sense of personal vulnerability. If that is you, then you have probably debated with people about how vulnerable you and your community is, and how imminent the dangers are.
In such conversations, perhaps you discussed how climate chaos is a lived reality for hundreds of millions of people already, around the world. Perhaps you heard that the Red Cross have said 2 million people a week need humanitarian support due to disasters made worse by climate change. Or heard that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation have reported that hunger is on the rise, with climate change being a key factor. Or read about the millions of people being displaced? If so, do you remember how it affected you? Does your own sense of increased vulnerability mean you are more moved by news of suffering around the world? Or does it mean you are more likely to turn away? If we don’t turn away, what should we do? Will we care enough to actually matter to the people who are at the sharp end of extreme weather in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and its cascading impacts on their societies?
I ask whether our concern will be enough to make a difference, because I am aware of what has got us to this situation in the first place. Disease, poverty and environmental destruction are things most of us have known something about since we started learning about the world. We have also seen environmental destruction and poverty of various kinds in our own countries. Some of us have tried to make a difference to this, yet the cumulative impact of our efforts are being dwarfed by the implications of a rapidly changing climate. All the while, we who live in the middle classes of industrial consumer societies have benefited from a system of exploitation that extracts resources from around the world. Our complicity in creating and exacerbating the problem is not something that will go away, even when we choose to ignore it.
People who have some free time to inquire into our current situation then have the opportunity to go deeper into our environmental predicament. For instance, I took months to delve into the latest climate science. Yet most people don’t have that luxury. Late stage capitalism is offering vast numbers of people in the West a low income, long commute and little career progression. Climate change will compound their difficulties, with increasing food prices and anxieties about the future. In such a context, it is unclear whether solidarity with people suffering in other countries will be a widespread response.
But could it? If there was awareness of a common enemy?
These are some of the questions that are arising given that “Deep Adaptation” and recent waves of climate activism, such as Extinction Rebellion and the Youth strikes, have grown due to a change in story: that we in West have become vulnerable to our changing climate. Although the concerns for other people and the natural world also exist within these movements, the fear-factor is significant. The power of that fear in mobilising people is obvious. But the potential for that fear to lead to people turning inwards and away from those who are suffering now, is a real risk.
So, on a point of principle, those of us who want to encourage solidarity and active compassion within climate movements need to articulate clearly that we believe in those values. But it then raises the question: what exactly do those values mean in practice, and how might we generate wider support for them? For instance, does solidarity mean a differentiated responsibility, where we in the middle classes pay more, right now, to alleviate the suffering of people impacted by climate chaos? If so, how much is fair? How should we decide? Should this be mandated? How might such values of solidarity mesh with the changes that many middle class people are considering, as they reassess their lives due to anticipating a breakdown or collapse in their way of life? Many people are downsizing and buying local, therefore reducing their reliance on international supply chains. That might reduce their involvement in exploitative relations, but does little to affect the lives of the poor or address how past damage is generating present consequences for the poor in the majority world.
These questions of climate justice in an age of increasing climate disruption are complex. As such, what matters as much as us working out for ourselves what we believe is fair and just, is the extent to which people unlike us have as important an influence on these matters as we do. It is why I am interested in how the Deep Adaptation Forum will be as accountable to the voices that aren’t engaged in it at present as those who are. That’s something that the core team will explore in the establishing of its future strategy and governance in 2020.
My hunch is that somewhere in the realm of our mutual healing through mutual liberation from a destructive system and story is where we will find some answers for what to say, how to organise and prioritise – both within Deep Adaptation and the wider climate movement. Whereas particular people and institutions uphold and benefit from the destructive system more than others, I wonder whether a common enemy is as much that reluctance within all of us to avoid major changes in our own lives.
The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.
Professor Jem Bendell, Text of keynote at UKCP Conference, London, October 19th 2019.
(Scroll down to the end for the video of this talk.
Thank you to the UK Council for Psychotherapy for inviting me to speak at this conference on climate anxiety and what therapy might do to help. It’s a surprising and somewhat daunting invitation, as I’m someone who has never read a book on psychology and I only sat on a therapist’s couch for the first time earlier this year. So I’m here for my own journey learning about counselling and psychotherapy because I believe it is so important to our climate emergency.
We gather in London after 2 weeks of climate activists rebelling across the city. So to open, I want to recognise those thousands of people, who non-violently offered up their freedom to show us how climate change has become the most important thing in their lives. People like my friend Jeffrey Newman, a Rabbi who is 77 years young, arrested outside the Bank of England. If you don’t know anyone who has been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, I invite you to take a moment to consider what it might be that affects someone so much that they sit in a road and await the police, sometimes for a painful arrest?
Their concern is not so unusual now. Out of 28 countries polled by YouGov, in all but 4 countries a majority of people said they thought climate change would have a “fair amount” or “great deal” of impact on their lives.
I am not here because of the growing numbers of people asking for help from counsellors as they suffer emotional distress about climate. I am here because our society is changing and I see how people with knowledge and skills in psychotherapy could be useful in communities. I have been witnessing a growing social phenomenon that could be both a challenge and invitation to psychotherapy. It is the reaction to our climate crisis where people are rebelling against social norms on censoring their own or others’ feelings, and recognising the validity of public grief and shared despair.
For some, the shocking news on our climate situation is a catalyst towards living differently, whether as activists or something else. Because there is something very powerful in the meaning and love that is found from living with unsolvable difficulty. If we can help each other to allow our despair, then what emerges may correspond better with the situation humanity is now facing. Therapists, just like anyone, can wake up to this changing situation. If not, there is the risk of being part of a stale resistance to the spiritual revolution that our climate tragedy now invites.
Growing Through Trouble
I missed the latest wave of environmental rebellion because I was with my Dad in Devon, exploring treatment pathways for his cancer. With his doctors, we were comparing a treatment pathway that has a 1 in 3 chance of survival past 5 years with another that is a 1 in 2 chance of survival, but with nasty side effects. It puts a different complexion on things. But in some ways it was one of the nicest weeks I’ve spent with him. When I cried, he got up off the bed and gave me a hug. A former Lt Commander in the Royal Navy. Growing up, we didn’t often express much emotion – not as far as I recall. In the subsequent decades we would talk about career, finance, and cricket, but not really feelings. Facing a predicament that is unsolvable and experiencing feelings that are not fixable, is something that is shifting our relationship. Perhaps not just to each other but to everything else as well.
There is some criticism of people like me who warn of societal collapse being either likely or inevitable due to climate change. A few times people have said that we would never tell someone with cancer to give up, so why are we telling humanity to give up? I am not telling anyone to give up acting from conscience for the good of all. I will come back to that. But that comparison with cancer patients reveals assumptions that are problematic. Helping a loved one explore what they want from their life as it is now, to make conscious decisions, not arising from either fear or denial, seems the right thing to do. My Dad’s doctors first advocated those options for longevity above all else. They were surprised Dad had as much concern for quality not quantity of life. In the same way, it is normal to me that when faced with the unfolding disaster of climate change, we ask how we wish to live and what we can learn from this predicament. Only by looking at what is happening with open minds and open hearts can be begin to have meaningful dialogue about our options.
To the uninitiated, that can seem a bit bleak or melodramatic. So I will give a quick summary of the climate situation as seen by myself and the many thousands of people who now anticipate societal breakdown as a result of climate change. The information I will summarise now is terrifying. So before that, I want to say that I believe that none of us here today are in immediate danger.
Science Suggests Danger
Climate change is worse than we were told. It’s already 1 degree warmer globally since 1850, or near 1.5 degrees warmer since 1750. That does not sound much but that’s 11 percent more energy in the atmosphere than 1750. Which makes our weather more extreme. More droughts, floods, heatwaves, and storms. Affecting agriculture and settlements.
Our climate is changing faster that what was predicted. A recent study found that Arctic permafrost is melting at a rate that was meant to happen in a worst-case scenario seventy years from now. A geophysics paper published this year estimates we could lose the Arctic summer ice by 2030. That matters because self-reinforcing feedbacks heat our planet further. For instance, melting releases methane, a gas that warms the planet more intensely than carbon dioxide. Another feedback is the loss of the reflection of white ice. According to a top polar scientist, losing all the Arctic ice would heat the planet by an amount equivalent to 50 percent of all heating caused by all human emissions. Other feedback loops come from our soils drying and forests burning, both of which release carbon dioxide. [References for all these points are found in the Compendium here.]
We should do what we can to cut emissions now. But we should not ignore where we are at, whatever we do. There is a time lag in the impacts of our past pollution. It can take 40 years for existing CO2 to exert its full warming effect. And now we know about 90% of all the additional heat from human activities has gone into the sea, which will continue to heat the air over time (again, consult the Compendium for sources).
One peer reviewed paper calculated that humanity has a 1 in 20 chance of going extinct this century because of climate change. Their paper was unusual. But the latest computer models of climate change, which will be used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) next year, are showing up to 7-degrees potential rise by the end of the century.
Hearing such astonishing information, some people turn to the IPCC. Didn’t they say we have until 2030 to change course and avert the worst? Yes, we may be able to avert the worst. And it’s important to cut emissions and drawdown carbon. But to make their figures seem less scary for policy makers, in their 1.5 degree report last October, the IPCC had to imagine that negative emissions technologies, which don’t exist yet at scale, will strip 250 Gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere to give us a 50/50 chance of staying under 1.5 degrees.
But our emissions are going up. If mapped on a graph since 1850, they appear exponential. Despite decades of debate and initiative. Dr Wolgang Knorr calculates that at current rates of emissions increase we will have used up any remaining global carbon budget by 2025. So there is strong evidence for the view that we are heading for climate chaos.
Societal disruption from climate change is already here. The UN secretary general said last month that “climate disruption is now and everywhere.” Climate change is leading to increased hardship, water shortages and hunger in many countries, disease, and worsened natural disasters, as well as migration and conflict. Last month the Red Cross reported that two million more people each week need humanitarian aid because of climate chaos.
I realise that many people who are new to the topic of climate change do not realise what it means for their own lives. People can start talking about switching off lights, stopping flying, planting trees, or more solar panels. All good things, but irrelevant to net carbon emissions in comparison to an industrial growth society that burns fossil fuels for everything. Huge amounts of energy derived from fossil fuels are used to feed us, to heat and cool our buildings, transport people, make things and power our lives. All our food from the supermarket depends on fossil fuels for its production, processing, packaging, distribution, refrigeration, advertising, retail, cooking and waste processing. For over thirty years people have tried to do something about climate change within our current economic system and, as far as the atmosphere is concerned, completely failed. The graph shows it well – a near exponential rise in emissions since the start of the industrial revolution.
The risks of climate change are now coming to haunt the modern world. Last year production slumped across Europe and UK for most vegetables and grains, around 20 percent down, due to the drought. In the UK we import so much of our food, with some estimates at about 60%. Last month a parliamentary committee reported that 20% of our fruit and vegetables come from areas at risk of “climate breakdown”. The UK Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh MP said: “We are facing a food security crisis.” So the West is no longer immune to a destabilising climate. This situation means that we could now begin to consider “what if our society will break down, whatever we do next”? It is a shocking question, and many people do not want to even allow such a discussion. For me, I think that resisting that conversation means we are wasting time to explore and prepare for what may be arriving soon, if not already underway.
Some experts debate whether it is more responsible or not to imagine some hope for our societies continuing without massive disruption. Yet there appears to be a growing recognition amongst the general public about how bad things are, as that YouGov poll indicated: a majority of the people polled in July thought climate change may cause world wars and even human extinction. So these are anxious times. To be anxious about our environment is natural. So, asking people to be less pessimistic about the future is a weak response, either intellectually or emotionally, and, I wish to suggest, therapeutically. But first, I will share a bit about my own journey with this issue.
Opening through Despair
For years I had believed the argument that we must not give up hope of a better future, as otherwise we would stop trying to create change. But as I looked at the latest science and measurements in 2018, it seemed dishonest to let that attachment to hope prevent me from processing what I was seeing. I began to consider, privately, the idea that it is too late. I discovered many personal fears to do with my own identity. I was scared that losing hope of having a positive impact through my efforts on the environment would mean that I would see my past efforts and struggles as pointless. I worried it would mean I had no idea what to do. I worried that without an idea of how to be useful I would feel pointless. And I worried that it would be unbearable to live with such a bleak outlook on the future. But after a time I allowed my own shock, grief, regret and confusion to unfold into despair. The paper I wrote on Deep Adaptation to our climate tragedy was part of my process. Looking back now I see part of it was like a written scream of anguish.
I have discovered that allowing this despair can let many other things begin. It meant that I could no longer work on the environment in the way I had done over the previous 20 years. I gave up the idea we could reform this system. I don’t just mean capitalism but also the industrial growth society and the assumptions of progress that it is based upon. I also gave up the idea we would change things to another system in time to prevent devastating consequences from climate chaos.
I started to ask deeper questions about the meaning of hope, and what we could hope for and work towards.
Hope Beyond Hope
At various times over the past year I have been told that people must have hope. Also, that people like me should not undermine people’s hope. Such views are often stated as if so obvious that they do not need explanation. However, I believe that unthinking allegiance to hope is part of the way our culture invites us to be averse to emotional pain and uncertainty. I believe that needs to change for us to try to reduce harm. So, today I want to unpack the notion of hope in our time of climate crisis.
I was wondering how possible that would be in a speech such as this. Because I have found that it is only in conversation that I can get somewhere interesting with people on this topic. On a course I was co-leading, one of the participants said to me “we need hope” and that “society benefits from having hope.” I asked him to try and own that statement as a provisional one about what he thought about his own way of being. So I invited him to say “I need hope” rather than “people need hope” and then discuss with me what the nature of that hope is and why he thought he needed it. We were then able to explore the nature of the emotions associated with the possibility that there is no hope of the kind he thought he had. In that discussion he realised a number of things. First, that the emotional pain of sensing current or future suffering is not something that can necessarily be resolved. Instead it can be witnessed. Because it does not define him, it is an emotion happening in him. Second, he realised he did not need to believe that we can preserve this society in order for him to act. He did not need to believe we won’t see massive suffering in order to discover how to be and what to do. Instead, he began to see a new basis from how to be and act. A basis founded in discovering what is his truth and living according to that truth more fully right now.
But as this is a speech and I am an academic, I will attempt to offer a step-by-step breakdown of the concept of hope in a time of climate crisis. First, we can explore what we mean by the word or concept “hope”. Second, we can explore what the vision or goal being hoped for actually is. Third, we can explore why we think hope is useful for ourselves or for people more generally.
Starting with definitions – many people who tell me that we must not lose hope do not say what they mean by that word. Some people mean their wish for the future that either other people or a divine force will make happen. Some people mean their expectation for the future, based on what they see or choose to agree with. Some people use the word hope to mean their plan for the future, and what they are working towards in quite specific ways.
For each of those forms of hope, it seems that they are not things that we must not give up. Because learning about our lives and situations is an ongoing process of dropping certain wishes, expectations and plans. So why not drop certain hopes? Perhaps because hoping is seen as a state of positivity. “We must not lose hope” is really a statement that we must stay positive. This reflects how we live in a culture that is averse to difficult emotions and to impermanence. In the face of climate chaos, many people like myself have come to a newly positive place, but not through attachment to being positive.
A second unpacking of hope involves exploring what the vision or goal being hoped for actually is. People who, like me, believe that climate-induced societal collapse is now likely or inevitable, begin to explore new goals and visions, which then inform our lives. I hope for a liveable planet and loveable world. One which maintains the possibilities for life, including for us humans, and where more of us are living lovingly towards each other and nature. I wish for that and work for it, but do not expect it. For me, accepting that it is too late to stop climate chaos wrecking our way of life is not giving up but waking up to a wider and deeper agenda. It’s an agenda that includes questions of how we reduce harm, save what we can, learn how this tragedy came to pass, and seek meaning and joy in the process.
A third unpacking of hope is to explore why we think hope is useful for ourselves or for people more generally. Whereas some people seem to be encouraged by believing a story of a preferred future, others are helped by dropping such stories, even if painful for a time, and then engaging fully in the moment, with passion for living their truth and yet more equanimity with whatever is ahead. In this sense, for some people, accepting that there is much suffering is to come from climate chaos does not mean that they feel helpless, but they feel powerfully ‘hopefree’ and newly engaged in life.
The Freedom to Grieve
The allegiance to hope and to positivity in our culture also means we don’t allow as we might the public sharing and discussion of our emotions of sadness, confusion, and grief. Nor our longing to connect and to experience wonder at life. Rather, in public and professional life, we invite each other to be happy, positive and capable. But that is only half the picture. Because we exist within a world with mass communication, with corporations shaping our worldview. The news media invites us to sneer, scoff or pity others. While the adverts invite us to feel incomplete without the latest brand or experience. None of this is inviting us into ways of relating that welcome our pain about society and nature. If we suppress difficult emotions in ourselves, and ignore or somehow fix them in others, then we are alienating ourselves from an important way that we experience the world.
Most people don’t seek psychological support. Like I did for a long time, they may be suppressing difficult emotions of sadness and fear, in ways that lead to the secondary emotions of anger, blame, and even hatred. These offer an escape from pain for a time, but can make matters worse. So it helps to support each other in allowing and exploring suppressed emotions of sadness and fear. It is why, at the opening of the International Rebellion of the Extinction Rebellion, in April 2019, in Oxford Circle, I said “The truth is we are scared and we are brave enough to say so. The truth is we are grieving and we are proud enough to say so. The truth is we are traumatised and we are open enough to say so.”
Therapy on Climate Anxiety
I am here because I am interested in the role of psychotherapy in this age of climate anxiety. I’ve only started learning about this profession. I read that the website Patient.info publishes clinical information certified to meet NHS England’s Information Standard. So I was interested to see one of their writers mention my work on Deep Adaptation. I quote:
“In one case, a viral academic paper scared people so much that it reportedly caused people to go into therapy, quit their jobs and move out of the city. With seemingly nothing but bad news coming our way, how can we feel more positive and care for our mental health in the age of climate anxiety?”
Well, perhaps one way might be if people go into therapy, quit their jobs and move out of the city? Sounds a great idea. The people I know who have sought therapeutic support, quit their jobs or reduced their hours and moved out of the city have discovered a wonderful new way of experiencing life.
The article listed a range of useful things for emotional wellbeing, such as taking some exercise and having some fun. But it also talked about a sense of helplessness some of us have in the face of climate change. Where we sense that we can’t do much about the problem. The author used the theory of “learned helplessness” to suggest that a lack of self-efficacy could lead to depression. I am new to psychology, so I should be cautious here. So, may I tentatively offer my provisional view that this is complete bullshit.
Of course, the theory itself has horrible origins in electrocuting dogs. But leaving that aside, citing theories like this one may be an unconscious attempt to protect the author and the intended reader from their own difficult emotions. As a Professor, I know well that impulse to seek refuge by feeling more knowledgeable than others. As such, it can be a narcistic defence mechanism that would impair the usefulness of psychotherapy in a time of climate chaos. Instead, I recommend psychotherapists dialogue with people who are experiencing anxiety about the state of our environment, to discover the myriad ways that people are being affected. But if psychologists talk with people expressing anxiety about climate change from an assumption that they have a problem, rather than humanity having a problem, then we won’t get very far. Faced with the latest climate news, anxiety is natural. Moreover, looking at the future we face, despair is natural, despair is valid, and despair can be transformative. Therefore, I wonder whether psychotherapists will offer that much on climate anxiety if, first, they haven’t allowed themselves to live with such anxiety. We need to be in this together, because therapists are in danger from climate change just like the rest of us.
Now at a top conference of psychotherapists, I am not going to recommend people get depressed. I have not experienced depression myself but have witnessed how tough it is. I have been told by some therapists that in the society we live in now, depression is natural, valid and can be transformative. I hear from people who have been in depression that it is a crisis of purpose, even a spiritual crisis, and that it has helped them to become more loving, to both themselves and to others. But some have told me that this positive aspect of depression could be better helped with some guidance. In a time of climate crisis, could we begin to see depression as a right of passage? A horrible but useful means of the positive disintegration of our old stories of self and the future? A means by which we can discover forms of meaning and wellbeing which do not depend on stories of fitting in better with this society – one that is committing mass destruction of life on Earth? If so, how might we support people who experience it? I do not have answers here for you. But I know that if psychotherapy focuses on helping people function better in our current destructive society, then I won’t mourn it if it collapses along with everything else.
So What Can be Done?
So what can be done? The future looks really tough. Humanity risks making matters worse, as our fear drives us to uncooperative and even violent behaviour. Part of the reason for such a response may be unrecognised emotions, covered up by a move to anger, blame and hatred.
I am new to this topic and do not know much about psychotherapy. But as a layperson, I think what’s important is learning to not react from unconscious emotions or from our aversion to those emotions. Therefore, it will be useful to help make conscious some of the emotions of sadness and fear that are being suppressed. How do we do that? In my experience practices outside of mainstream psychotherapy have proved helpful to me, such as authentic relating or circling and Vipassana, or insight, meditation. What has also been helpful are practices which move us beyond our mainstream stories of self and society, including the assumption of a separate self. For that, practices which invite non-ordinary states of consciousness have been important for me. These have included breathwork, shamanic journeys and spiritual dancing.
I wonder if the power of these consciousness-expanding practices is in helping address the deepest trauma that we all share. Which is the trauma of existing as a conscious separate self, who knows they will die. Ultimately, with the right guidance, the consciousness-expanding practices could invite people towards their ‘undiscovered unself’. By transcending a sense of separation, one might be freer of all kinds of anxiety. Therefore, I recommend psychotherapy explores these practices more in future – and that you start with yourselves.
I hear that good psychotherapy is not available to many people. And even if it is, then not regularly unless you are rich. It is also something that most people don’t look for. I was 46 years old before I ever considered seeing a counsellor. People who do not seek emotional support may be suppressing difficult emotions of sadness and fear, in ways that lead to the secondary emotions of anger, blame, and hatred, as a means of escaping from their pain. That will make matters worse. Consequently, to help reduce harm from disruptions to our societies, there is a need for psychotherapeutic support to be provided, without request, across the whole of society.
How could that happen? To scale, it will need to be done through intermediaries. Through people who are supported with approaches to host gatherings in settings that are accessible to lots of people. Such facilitators could be offering processes through schools, universities, faith organisations, trade unions, professional associations and activist groups. Psychotherapists could advise on processes, provide counselling for facilitators, and be available at events.
This need and opportunity for helping people come together on climate emergency to explore difficult emotions and future choices is central to our work at the Deep Adaptation Forum. We are discovering the ways that training and guidance can be offered through video conference, then to be offered in person in multiple locations.
Our hope in a time of climate chaos is promoting other ways of responding than fear or anger. Our hope in a time of climate chaos is that experiencing the fragility and impermanence of life can lead more of us to greater gratitude for the present and less involvement in the judgements and tactics of our minds. We can be freer to love and forgive each other and ourselves, and so do what we can to help, whatever may come.
The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.
By Matthew Slater (Community Forge & Deep Adaptation Forum) and Jem Bendell (University of Cumbria & Deep Adaptation Forum).
Deep Adaptation is firstly and mainly about coming to terms with the end of our way of life, and finding in ourselves and each other loving responses in place of fear and blame. Many people, having dwelled in that space for a while, then seek various forms of meaningful action, usually around living more fully and trying to reduce future harm. Increasingly, people are putting energy into re-localising their societies and economies. The rationale for such action is often quite personal. In our experience of engaging with people who are seeking to localise their lives as part of their deep adaptation, the following ideas often come up:
there are many links between globalised neoliberal economics and the drivers of the climate crisis
there is a long tradition of alternative economics promoting localisation for environmental benefit that goes back to EF Schumacher
most people express little to no political agency at the national level, whereas local politics appears much more accessible
many people find working face-to-face with neighbours easier and more enjoyable than sporadic collaborations at national levels
they consider they are more likely to benefit from results of their own local improvements.
It is not that all globalisation is all bad, but that there has been a huge imbalance in power at the global level, with the interests of corporations and banks shaping the agendas. Progressive internationalists can point to many benefits. For instance, global technical standards make the internet available to everyone, our electronic devices (somewhat) compatible, and other infrastructure like GPS means no-one (carrying a phone) gets lost any more. Global law like the human rights charter is a fantastic political achievement despite many countries’ neglect of it. Intergovernmental cooperation is also essential for both cutting and drawing down carbon emissions, as well as adapting to the effects of extreme weather on our societies. So it is important to clarify which aspects of life most need to be local, and indeed, regional and national.
There is one really important reason why we need to rebuild local life, which has been hollowed out by the needs of the economic machine in recent decades, and indeed centuries: that reason is resilience.
There are growing debates about how society will respond, breakdown or collapse through the impact of global heating. Probably the most referenced theory of previous societal collapses is Joseph Tainter’s theory of complex societies. He alleges that when the base conditions change, the layer and layers of governance, bureaucracy built up during long periods of stability come crashing down. That means that our means of global governance, global infrastructure, and global trade, are at the greatest risk – ironically the very things our prevailing ideologies have been driving us towards, in the name of efficiency.
Of course Tainter’s collapse is an interpretation of history, not necessarily a prediction of the future, but it gives grounds for thought. It suggests that if say food, or fuel were to become generally scarce, flows of resources towards the most abstract, and complex organs of society would wither. From that theory, perhaps the Bretton Woods institutions, complex trade agreements, international law, the most complex financial instruments, airlines, computer hardware and social networks, could be amongst the first things to fail?
This could be a matter of ‘falling back’, but it could be worse if we have come to depend on those things. For example much food is imported by air, interest rates in all mortgages are globally linked to high risk finance, and we may struggle to imagine life without mobile phones and social networks. If national infrastructure should start to crumble, life could become very difficult.
A great explanation for all this vulnerability can be found in a biology / economics study which shows that efficiency and resilience lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. Generally, more diverse systems encourage more redundancy and more linkages between components, and more uses for each component. Imagine running across a tightrope – you can go pretty fast unless you fall off! Running across the safety net is less efficient but you are less likely to die. The authors stressed that this principle applied in economics as in other fields. “Economics seems in pursuit of monistic goals and all too willing to sacrifice everything for the betterment of market efficiency… Preoccupation with efficiency could propel into disaster.” Capitalism has always been about building greater efficiency (maximising GDP for a given population), and within that the regular financial mishaps have been regarded as mere abberations. The theoretical cost of super-efficiency is the risk of super-accidents, which implies that economic globalisation is setting us up for the mother of all collapses.
There are several formulations of resilience in general terms. Key amongst them is the need avoid single points of failure, by distributing the work and the processing throughout the system. A related goal for resilience is that the same functions should be fulfilled by different mechanisms so that when conditions change in unforseeable ways, some mechanisms are likely still to work. Localisation is desirable for many reasons, but it is systemically important for these reasons, so after that somewhat long introduction to the topic of localisation for deep adaptation, in the remainder of this blog we will look closer at what it could involve. If you would like to engage on this topic, we recommend joining the Community Action discussion group of the Deep Adaptation Forum.
The most prominent localisation movement in UK at the moment is the Transition Town network, which grew out of the systemic thinking of permaculture. That movement has thoroughly explored what localisation entails in the modern context, and piloted many projects. Ecovillages also play an important role in pioneering deeply different ways of life, which many of them can do, as intentional communities.
So let’s take a closer look. The Transition movement emphasises several areas of life in need of localisation, which we will now expound upon, sometimes using examples from other movements:
Food is usually the highest priority because humans require lots of it, every day, and it requires months of preparation and often lots of organisation to produce and prepare it. The industrialised food system depends on massive inputs of fossil fuels, both to power machinery and for fertiliser, and results in high waste, pollution and often poor nutrition. And yet by growing food in gardens, allotments or on public land, families and communities can dramatically reduce dependence on imports and industry. In most countries there is a large informal food scene, consisting of farmers’ markets and part-time, self-sufficient growers alongside people drying, preserving, baking and occasionally serving labour intensive foods – and those who wish to pay the price. Those who want to support local growers and eat organic food with the seasons can find more and more veggie box schemes, formally known as Community Supported Agriculture.
Energy prices are increasing over the long term, and our supplies in the West have depended on militarised subjugation of people in other countries. Much energy generated in power stations is lost in transit. The imperative to reduce or stop fossil fuel consumption can involve four approaches: reducing energy consumption and changing usage patterns, nuclear power to which many object forcefully, massive solar and wind farms, and small scale renewable energy, owned by individuals or local communities.
In these kinds of matters, the hand of government is everywhere from creating minimum standards, to reporting requirements, and market influence through taxes, grants, and subsidies. Governments, especially local governments are under enormous pressure to cut costs and sell assets, and this creates an environment, not accidentally, favourable to enterprises led by large corporations with better access to credit, lobbying power, cheap labour etc. Many elected representatives and civil servants don’t really understand the full extent of this process, or if they do, they don’t or can’t organise, stick their necks out, and change it. A recent phenomenon in UK, dubbed flatpack democracy has seen citizens organise, get themselves elected, and accomplish useful things at the local level.
Modern capitalism favours large institutions which can spread risk and maximise profit for shareholders, which means that small and local businesses find it very hard to get loans. Other non-commercial community institutions, including government struggle for viability, especially after a decade of austerity. Philanthropic funding increasing comes with demands that revenue streams be developed. UK has a law called ‘community right to bid’ which allows local groups to purchase local assets and amenities like post offices, village shops or community pubs. The Plukett foundation helps communities to organise themselves, and the UK government helps them to issue shares for such purposes. We are watching another initiative which aims to create local care cooperatives as an alternative to crumbling state care system. All of this is a far cry from reversing the centralising effect of the last forty years of capitalism.
The difficulty of all of these things points towards deeper drivers. A number of local money projects in UK were spawned from Transition Towns initiatives, which helped to show the public that money is not the simple/neutral tool it may appear to be to the casual user, but could be designed differently. But the low traction of these projects also showed just how intractable money and assumptions about it are. We critiqued these projects elsewhere. Other initiatives like LETS and timebanking reimagine non-monetary currencies, supporting value-flows and exchange within communities, without banks, debt or government behind the accounting unit. In a forthcoming blog, we will offer two new ideas for local monetary innovation which build on these efforts, while focusing particularly on currency and payment systems that would survive an economic (and banking) collapse.
In an era of fuel scarcity we shall have to re-learn how to holiday and play closer to home. In the UK, hardworking people often escape to the sunshine, but a more resilient attitude might be to focus on building quality relationships and having fun with other people, sometimes called ‘staycationing’. Cultivating musical talent, group activities and festivals, form another thread in the transition culture.
For the Transition movement, “inner transition” is the mental, psychological and spiritual processes that accompany the social, economic and political transition to a post-peak oil world. It can be a personal or collective process and bears a lot in common with Deep Adaptation. These practices and ideas can be more intense in intentional communities, where living more closely together requires a higher degree of knowledge of self and trust of others.
Learning from the Limits of Localisation Past
There’s one more reason the localisation agenda chimes with Deep Adaptation. We don’t know how meaningful any of our efforts will be on trajectory of climate or the global response of humanity. Perhaps the future will disagree with Tainter and our society will collapse from the bottom up! So what is important to us about the localisation agenda and the practical things people are doing in relation to it, is that it is about a more vibrant way of living right now. Localisation points towards a more grounded, more connected, more human way of life in contrast with the ‘alienation’ many people feel from their work, families and neighbours. Helena Norberg Hodge promotes it for this reason, calling it “The Economics of Happiness”.
In Western countries, these efforts at environmentally-friendly localisation have been around for decades. So as we reflect on the implications for Deep Adaptation, it is useful to consider the limitations of current and past initiatives. Many of them have failed to spread to economically disadvantaged communities. The accusation then heard from some critics is that movements like Transition are elitist and excluding. While the limited extent or diversity of any movement can seem like an unfair criticism of hard-working, well-meaning volunteers, it is nevertheless a central issue for an agenda as all-encompassing as Deep Adaptation. Therefore, a key question for people interested in localisation to promote resilience for unfolding societal breakdowns and likely collapse is to learn from those limitations.
We can learn from situations in other countries where resilience has been improved in the past. In Cuba, for instance, where the past trade embargo led to self-reliant organic agriculture across the whole country. Or in Kenya, where people living on only a few dollars (equivalent) a day in informal settlements have reduced poverty without foreign aid money by issuing their own currencies. We do not know for certain the reasons for these successes, but the answers might be found in:
a) Community leaders convening those local people with the capacity to explore issues, prioritise actions and implement them in ways that reduce dependence on support from outside.
b) Focusing those initial actions on acknowledging and mobilising existing community assets, in order to collaboratively meet immediate needs.
Unfortunately, when funders get involved, they often start by bringing a deficit mindset, characterising communities by what is lacking. External funders’ agendas and mechanisms then privilege a few people in a community who are best able to look outside the community for answers and, once funded, begin to think on behalf of the funder as much as the community. It is why one of us has argued previously for a more solidarity-based approach from grant makers in the face of climate-induced collapse.
For more on this subject, see this Poetry of Predicament podcast.
The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.
What is the role of religion and spirituality in helping humanity respond to the tragic situation we face with rapid climate change?
Truthfully, I do not know. Because every religion is different. And each religion has its own flavours of adhesion to dogma versus openness to divine guidance in our daily lives. Yet, religion remains hugely important in providing stories of meaning and purpose, of right and of wrong, as well as modes of communication and solidarity across national borders. It also provides stories for how we might consider and learn from catastrophes.
The potential importance of religion for society as we face climate tragedy, and for me as I respond in my personal and professional life, is why I am enquiring deeper into different religious philosophies and practices. Since my Deep Adaptation paper was published in July 2018, I have been surprised to hear from religious leaders in Judaism, Sufism, Christianity, Buddhism, Animism, Shamanism, Druidism and the Brahma Kumaris. Their interest affirmed my intuition that our climate crisis invites us to consider existential questions that are so routinely displaced in modern society. That is why I accepted the invitation to speak at a Buddhist festival last summer. I want to explore how Buddhist philosophies on impermanence, suffering and loving kindness, are relevant as we face climate chaos. The video of that talk is available here.
Questions of existential meaning have become more important to me since early 2018, as I experienced deeper despair over our environmental situation. After looking at the latest climate and ecological science, climate measurements, emissions data and political-economic trends, I concluded that people of my age (47) will see a collapse in the societies in which we live, in our lifetimes – perhaps even before 2030. That outlook invites introspection on what one most believes in and wants to uphold in the coming years. Some people look at the latest climate science and see the likelihood of widespread early mortality for billions of people due to climate induced malnutrition, migration, homelessness, disease, crime and war. I fear that this foretelling of human ‘mega-death’ could be right. In any case, millions around the world are already suffering due to climate disasters that are happening right now. Poverty in more advanced countries is also being exacerbated by rising food prices, as extreme weather damages harvests. As populations become increasingly fearful, they can turn towards protectionism and nationalism; right-wing political narratives based on fear and false promises of security can become more attractive. Awareness of this situation means we experience an invitation to step forward in engaged compassion and solidarity with those who suffer, and to sow the seeds of future solidarity, compassion and forgiveness. With either outlook – collapse or human mega-death – it seems natural to me that people turn towards religion or their personal sense of the divine in order to find solace, meaning and guidance.
Some people go further. They see our situation as an apocalyptic one. The latest climate simulation models are projecting temperature increases of up to 7 degrees by the end of this century. Unless you have a magical faith in technology, then that level of temperature rise signifies the potential end of our species on planet Earth. With that apocalyptic outlook, suddenly our current stories of meaning and purpose collapse. Those stories are about progress, personal contribution, and deference to established order – ones that were so deep in us that we might not have realised they existed.
The word Apocalypse comes from ancient Greek and means to uncover or unveil. What might be the veil that will be lifted from our consciousness, as we perceive the potential end of our own species? For me, even considering potential human extinction led to a social veil being lifted from stories of human centrality, control and progress. Although I am not yet convinced that humanity faces inevitable near-term human extinction, even sensing it might be possible has invited me to into a realm of despair where old stories of meaning and purpose fell away, like veils from my awareness.
The potential annihilation of all that we know presents us with an incomprehensible and unbearable outlook. Knowing the intense and unsolvable pain of that outlook, but nevertheless turning towards it, is what can transform us. Because it means our sense of self is also annihilated. This death of the self offers us the chance to experience life without our stories of separation. From that place of ‘storylessness’ we can intuit that we are one being with all existence. In this way, our climate predicament offers humanity a global near-death experience.
I have learned that many religions tell us of the importance of such grief and despair in quietening our egos and turning towards the divine. In the Christian tradition it is an aspect of the “Via Negativa” towards opening up to God. Our climate crisis invites humanity into a planet-wide Via Negativa, where more of us may stumble upon moments of surrender and begin to change our lives as a result. Such changes may put truth and compassion at the heart of all our decisions.
My own journey from seeing widespread societal collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and human extinction as possible, has been one of recognising my grief, allowing despair and then inviting transformation – albeit in slow and awkward ways. In this journey, I have discovered that Buddhist philosophy and practices are helpful to me. Core to Buddhism is the recognition that everything in life is impermanent and that our attachment to things is because of our desire to affirm, protect and project our existence as a separate being. That attachment adds to the pain of any loss and, ultimately, the pain associated with death – whether of others or of anticipating our own. The Buddhist practice of Vipassana, or insight meditation, has also helped me to see how thoughts and feelings I experience can be witnessed in ways that reduce my fear of them, so I don’t act from them, nor distract myself from them as often as I did as before. This practice seems important to me as we seek to help ourselves and each other turn toward the troubles around us and ahead, to engage them with open hearts and minds. It has helped me to accept that our climate predicament means we will experience difficult emotions both now, and in the years to come, and that we can live with the truths of those emotions rather than seek stories of distraction which could lead to further harm.
Being open to insights from Buddhism need not displace interest in, or observance of, other religious or spiritual perspectives. I am still influenced by Christianity and am fascinated by the depth of insight into the human condition offered by Sufism. I am also very grateful for practices like breathwork and mindful walks in nature as ways of calming the chattering of my ego-mind and opening my heart to what wisdom might be offered to me from beyond. In addition, I have found practices of ‘deep relating’ with others to be a gateway to an awareness where my ego is less in charge. While spiritual philosophies, practices, and communities can offer moments of elation, I am aware there is no lasting emotional escape from our predicament. I believe equanimity, rather than serenity or bliss, can be a suitable personal aim at this time.
Important women in my life have been key teachers for me to develop my perspective on living in fuller consciousness with the troubles. They helped me to understand that accepting pain is the necessary partner of joy; that accepting death and grief are the necessary partners of life and love. This important role of wise women is not a coincidence. One aspect of all the world’s mainstream religions that has been marginalised over the millennia is the aspect that is associated with feminine qualities. It is one reason why such religions have been bystanders or drivers of the cultural norms that permitted or enabled the destruction of our planet. I believe that learning about what the feminine dimension of reality might imply for our time is a central issue for me and anyone attracted to the spiritual and religious implications of our climate predicament. It could be that the source of any future hope will come from a consciously un-strategic attention to a moment-by-moment love and support for creation, without attachment to outcome. Or, to put it more simply: being love. It is why I want any notoriety I gain for my work to bring attention to wise women, who are innately ‘streets ahead’ of me in their spiritual connection. This intuition about being open to the ‘sacred feminine’ has guided my efforts in creating the Deep Adaptation Forum.
As we face up to our climate tragedy, many people are recommitting to curiosity, compassion and respect for others in the process – whether doing so from a humanist, religious or spiritual perspective. Maintaining that approach is key to the Deep Adaptation Forum. We may fall away from it at times – I know I often do – but returning to curiosity, compassion, and respect will help us to promote dialogue and initiatives that reduce harm no matter what happens in the coming years.
If you would like to engage on these questions of religion and spirituality in the face of the climate crisis, you can connect via this thread on the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum. To read more about our philosophy and intention, I recommend this article. We are promoting an approach to Deep Adaptation that is democratic and empowering, without centralised leadership (see my article on Leadership for Deep Adaptation).
The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.
As I am a Professor in the field of leadership research and education, it is reasonable for people to ask me “what does leadership on deep adaptation to climate chaos look like?”
My first response is in the negative – that we do not need more of the kind of leadership that has been promoted over the past decades of increasing environmental destruction and social injustice. That kind of leadership assumes that change relies on the power of a significant individual at the top of a hierarchy, while the rest of us follow (or just hope someone big will fix it all). It is a kind of leadership which accepts the dominant values of an industrial consumer society, thereby enabling quicker and wider degradation of society and the environment.
My second response to the question of what kind of leadership we need in the face of our climate predicament is that we reconsider leadership completely. That involves realising leadership is a word to describe significant actions enabling change that is welcomed by affected people. Such actions do not have to be those of a person of significance or authority. Anyone can step up to act in ways that enable change. In addition, we can be clearer about the kinds of actions that are useful to describe as “leadership” rather than something else, like “management” or “organising”. Leadership actions are those that help shift the way groups, networks or whole communities of people relate and so such actions generate effects over time.
The rhetoric around leadership, both popular and in the fields of politics and business studies, tends to emphasise the potency of individual action. Yet the predicament we find ourselves in, with climate chaos now threatening the future of our societies, challenges both our assumptions of human agency and the desirability of it. Could “leadership” be a useful concept for identifying and promoting actions that help people to cope, practically and emotionally, with the end of progress? Only if we drop dominant stories about individual agency and human potency. Old stories of “valiant individuals” forcing “what’s needed” onto “reluctant masses” might excuse additional horrors to the suffering that already lies ahead for humanity. Instead, leadership that enables deep adaptation to climate chaos will need to be fluid and humble. Because the severity of our climate predicament means we do not know whether what we now do will work at scale.
This philosophy of leadership, and more importantly, of collective organising, is what underpins the Deep Adaptation Forum. We launched it to help people around the world explore diverse ideas about what to do in the face of unfolding societal breakdowns due to climate change. For us, what is most important at this time is to build a space for generative dialogue, so people in various walks of life can find provisional answers and action plans that are meaningful to them.
I have been impressed, beyond my imagination, in the way people from around the world have stepped up to serve this effort. The work of the moderators on the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook group in maintaining a safe space for sharing and discussion is a wonderful example of how people are inspired by our predicament to prioritise love and solidarity. Jane Dwinell, Aimee Maxwell, Dan Vie, Mariette Olwagen, David Baum, Peter Wicks and Jens Hultman are building on the work dozens of previous volunteers like Sarah Bittle, who together, are helping build a social movement of deep adaptation.
Taking this message to people around the world and in all walks of life is a challenging activity. Because it is a difficult message to hear. So I am grateful for the leadership of the first cohort of Deep Adaptation spokespeople, who have all agreed to help invite people into this most difficult conversation. Thank you Melissa Allison, David Baum, Naresh Giangrande, Chloe Greenwood, Alan Heeks, Wolfgang Knorr, Shu Liang, Alex Lockwood, Aimee Maxwell, Kay Michael, Jilani Prescott, Herb Simmens, Cecilie Smith-Christensen, Toni Spencer, Christian Stalberg, and Dean Walker.
The way we integrate awareness of unfolding societal breakdowns into the various areas of professional life will also be key to seeing more the necessary leadership to reduce harm and promote meaning in this difficult period for humanity. The volunteers convening various discussions in the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum are therefore leading the way. It is important we recognise them all. Karen Lockridge, Elzanne Roos, Chiara Borrello, Brian Bailey, Rob Moir, Stina Deurell, Kathryn Soares, Jimmie Chastain, Christian Stalberg, Dean Spillane Walker, Matthew Painton, Mat Osmond, Azul Valerie Thome, Nico Jenkins, Brennan Smith, Melissa Allison, Eric Garza, and Moshe Givental. Together we are leading deep adaptation.
If you have not already, please join us in the free Deep Adaptation Forum to explore ways you can find and express your own leadership at this time.
If you would like to hear more about my thoughts on leadership in the face of a climate emergency, I recommend this interview I gave with Robin Alfred, a former director of Findhorn Ecovillage.
“Deep Adaptation is offering an oasis of meaning in a desert of denial. We sincerely hope it does not dry up – but that it helps many more oases to grow around the globe.”
Initially bewildered about how to respond to the likely collapse of society due to climate chaos, many thousands of people are finding community online and in-person through the activities of the Deep Adaptation Forum and the community leaders that it supports with tools, contacts, guidance and resources. Its networks, including the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook Group, are providing an essential means of connection. It means that people are able to escape paralysis or avoid reverting to denial – instead finding new ways of engaging with this unprecedented moment in human history.
To harness the energy of people around the world, the free Forum has been co-created by volunteers and a small team of passionate freelancers. As such, our existence is fragile. We are not following the normal route of following funders’ agendas or selling what we do. If we peter-out in 2020 then the less kind or creative approaches to our climate emergency will have fewer counterbalancing efforts. More of us might slip into a bewildered and paralysed mind-state, turning away from other people. To avoid that, and help the Forum grow into a catalyst of a truly global movement, we want to ask you for some financial support.
Can you help us?
Our volunteers across the globe benefit from the support of a core team of freelancers, who each earn a minimum living allowance of 800 pounds (USD 1,000) a month. We have funds to sustain that for two of the team next year, but now seek to support the other three, as well as a range of associated running costs and seed funding for new projects. Our target is GBP 32,000 for 2020 (USD 41,160) , but even GBP 8,000 (USD 10,300) would help us keep going for the first quarter and then source future support.
If you can help this oasis of meaning to grow and spawn around the world, then please donate here.