More climate scientists say emissions cuts are not enough and we face imminent catastrophe unless deliberately altering the climate. What are the options and challenges? I interviewed Dr Ye Tao who is proposing we use massive amounts of mirrors to reduce harm in the short term.
By Jem Bendell
In 2018, Dr Ye Tao was a Harvard engineer working on nanoscale magnetic resonance imaging. He read the Deep Adaptation paper on climate disaster, then cross-checked it with over a thousand peer-reviewed papers across several climate-relevant fields, and realised the growing existential risk to modern civilisation. So that included everything he was working on. He wondered what would be the point of continuing with his engineering work in such a scenario. Instead, Dr Tao decided to repurpose his expertise to try to give humanity a better chance of reducing the catastrophe ahead. Dr Tao has since been developing and promoting what he argues is a scalable, safe, green and flexible form of climate engineering. It proposes using mirrors to reflect the sun, mostly from the ground and over coral reefs at sea, to cool agricultural land, save fresh water, and preserve ecosystems. He arrived at this idea after analysing and debunking the science and economics behind other approaches to geoengineering (which is also known today as ‘climate repair’ and ‘climate restoration’).
Looking at how some people in the West use the term ‘climate justice,’ I wonder if we are seeing the latest in middle class Western instrumentalization of the suffering and injustices of the world, for the purposes of further self-appreciation. That can occur because of the way commentators within the contemporary Western environmental movement have been inculcated in the hierarchical ideology of the Professional Managerial Class. Within that ideology, there is an instinct towards what Professor Catherine Liu calls ‘virtue hoarding’ where any issue of moral consideration is material for adding to one’s story of being an ethically superior self, who needs to impose one’s ideas on other people, particularly the working class. As decolonial scholar Professor Vanessa Andreotti explained in her Q&A with me, there is a lot more ‘composting of our shit’ from modernity that we need to do first before being useful in promoting either justice or healing after centuries of colonial domination.
Perhaps an example of this phenomenon is the discussion emerging around a rather ‘uppity’ damning of the Deep Adaptation movement that was published in The Ecologist Magazine. In an open letter by one of the authors on the receiving end of their ire, Matthew Slater wrote the following to the author:
During the pandemic many people appear to have had their capabilities for logic and ethics vaporised in the heat of fear and the distortions of reality from elite interests. Consequently, from a serious public health perspective, the conversations about the pandemic are mostly silly. That does not mean there are really serious and damaging outcomes for individuals and societies. Millions of lives were lost and many might have been saved with smarter actions and more free flowing information. Now millions more lives are being risked due to the impacts of policies on supply chains and the cascading impacts on the poor worldwide. But given how much misinformed piety and pseudo professionalism is on show, it can be helpful at times to simply laugh at the orthodoxy on the pandemic. Here are some examples.
Medical officials ignoring early outpatient treatment from their frontline colleagues? Arrogantly silly.
Bigtech firms suppressing such information that might save lives? Ruthlessly silly.
Has asymptomatic transmission of the virus been significant to this pandemic? The published research I have read indicates that asymptomatic transmission is not significant to the reproduction rate of the Covid virus and therefore not key to the pandemic.
Why does that matter? If not enough of us can get Covid from infected people with no symptoms to significantly affect the reproduction rate of the virus, then the orthodox policy agenda does not make sense. I’ll explain more about why in a moment. But first, some context.
It feels odd, personally risky, and somewhat reckless for me to write a blog on epidemiology. What a weird situation has arisen in society so that sharing tentative analysis on public challenges involves such intense emotions and potential consequences for relationships with friends, colleagues and even future employment or income. That is a situation which I do not want to acquiesce to, as open dialogue on public issues is an aspect of contemporary society that I value deeply.
If you think things in society are going wrong, how does that make you feel? Sad? In some situations, might you feel some rage?
It is natural to feel angry about a bad situation. The issue is then what we do about it. Our culture tends to denigrate anger in ways that mean we do not have a healthy discussion or understanding of the difference between a positive anger and a destructive anger. Anger suppressed can lead to a destructive anger which manifests as aggressions towards people. However, there can also be a righteous anger which is a natural and important response to unnecessary harm and injustice. Such an anger can remain connected to our sense of love for creation and each other. But it needs to flow somewhere…
When you feel righteous anger about a situation, what do you do next?
This weekend, the environmental action group Extinction Rebellion launches its latest wave of protests seeking to make responding to climate chaos the organising principle of all political parties and governments. In response to the latest IPCC report, which began to catch up with the perspectives of XR and the Deep Adaptation movement, XR reasserts its view that we are already within an unfolding disaster and must act to reduce harm, save what we can, and uphold our values in the process.
“Act now because it’s too late,” is also the message I conveyed in the XR handbook. It is too late for reform, for delay, or for pretending we can fix our environmental predicament – but it will never be too late to do the right thing. I even attempted a poem about it – “thank God it’s too late”!
Skeena Rathor is a founding member of XR and a governance member of the Deep Adaptation Forum. She introduced my opening speech at the launch of the international rebellion two years ago. Her courage in saying what needs to be heard and calling us to be our higher selves is immense. Perhaps that is why she featured in this recent music video on Chamunda. I am pleased to share on my blog her invitation to men to join the peaceful rebellion that starts this weekend in the UK. In this letter she conveys the emotions that move her and others to defend Life.
This letter is a plea and comes from a dream that I had over summer solstice.
But who am I and why and how could this request possibly be part of what is yours to do in this moment?
The main ask is in bold below.
My name is Skeena. Skeena Rathor….I’m brown skinned…..My family is from Kashmir – the place of the oldest running conflict registered on the UN agenda… I was born and raised here in the UK…..where the streets of our London council estate were also not safe for a brown child. Still, safety wise it was easier for my parents.
I am the Co Founder of Extinction Rebellion’s Guardianship and Visioning Circle which in speaking to you remotely and without real invitation feels like a tricky admission. I think we’ve done some great things and I think we and I made some mistakes.
And here we are three years later and the world is burning just as we imagined it would. Species are dying at an accelerated rate just as we imagined they would.
Brown and black children are mainly the casualties of our genocidal and ecocidal economics, more and more so every day and this is still only in our imaginations and may not touch us because deep down weve been told the black and brown children are worth less than the white.
But then more than 4 million children in the UK are hungry… and how many are poisoned through the airs, soils and waters?…..our children are also in a mental health crisis, an addiction crisis and a powerlessness and manipulation crisis.
I’m a mother of 3 girls. Maybe you’re not in a relationship with children. It doesn’t matter. I know you carry the mothering principle and instinct like all living beings do and just as much as I do…because like me you are here to create, nurture and protect.
But then ok….I hear you…. There’s so much other crisis in your own lives, in the lives of your beloveds.
AND as men….. I think you have suffered a devastating severing from one another and an imprisoning of real self. Its been different from the pain of women but just as real.
From the moment you were born the world responded to your cries less than they did the cry of girls – fact – and then you were told you weren’t allowed to mourn your losses and cry too passionately…. not allowed to express your rage for fear of scaring people…. not allowed to be too close to your brothers or sisters for fear of wrongness …..not allowed to be equally important to your children because apparently your not as important for the children…. not allowed to rest for too long, not allowed to play too hard, not allowed to love wildly….. not allowed not allowed – you’ve been DISALLOWED.
Only recently, from my dear brother Ianto Doyle, I learnt the word misandry. How embarrassing as a Liberation campaigner…. I had no idea. I’m sorry …. so sorry because I think when sometimes we sisters talk about patriarchy we make you wrong. More disallowing,
So I see that your beauty, your strength, your vulnerability and your tenderness is in a stranglehold just as mine has been.
How do we come back together?…. What is it that we need to do together?… Be together?…. Feel together? What would you do?
For now, I had this dream –
To open this Rebellion,
on Sunday the 22nd August at 5pm,
As an OPENING CEREMONY of direct nonviolent action……together with my sisters of colours and cultures with our men in their fierce care and protection of us.
There will be three tributaries – the women (FINT – female, intersex, non binary and trans) , the men and the more than human reps, all arriving from different directions.
We are going to the heart of the violent system to make a stand and say stop the harm and heal the harm. We are describing it as a Co Liberation action – being in the body of my freedom as your freedom and your freedom as mine.
I want to ask you to stand in front of us…. as men connected in one unbroken line ….and turn around together, in each other’s arms, reunited to face the truth of this system.
I want you to protect me and my sisters from what will come towards us, just for a moment and only until you need to.
I want the whole human family in its diversity to stand together – to create a picture of the reconciliation of the human family in the web of life, a picture of deep solidarity and kinship… and so much more than this, more than a picture…. an experience… for all of us…. of a family undivided, in FIERCE LOVE.
Outside you, holding you, will be mixed rebels and then the Co Founders of XR and Black men as the least arrestable, outside them will be representatives of the more than human – the great web of life.
Together we will look like an amphitheatre of life protecting life.
I wonder what you need to stand with us and for us?
I can only face tomorrow if you can face it with me. Otherwise its too much.
Theres a vast ocean of crises aren’t there? Its hard to know which one to turn towards, which one to face….
But this is where I am calling you all in…..im calling you into facing some crisis with me….because
Mostly…. I see us still trying to turn away from all of it….facing none of it….. I’m scared, that because we have our backs turned away… we can’t really see what’s coming…..
With our backs turned ….we are even more vulnerable and fragile…..and we are already more broken, more disconnected, more disembodied, more dislocated….than we have ever been before….eons of traumas have come home to roost in our bodies, in our lifetime….so we turn away….
And who has our backs if we are all facing the other way? Who has your back? Who has my back?
I mean real back. In full physical presence. From metaphor to real life….. I want to get real with you….for us to feel something real together….our power…our freedom…our interdependence…our belonging to one another….in real time….in full life force.
We need each other so very much. With our love in action.
My privilege and your privilege costs lives every day…..every day life dies because of the systems we are locked into….we are part of the machinery of death and destruction.
Most days, I wake up with this despairing guilt sickness in my stomach, knots of helplessness and anguish…. and then often I hit what feels like a rip tide of grief…. in hearing my children’s voices and thinking about THE Children ….. there is some escape and I can get upright….in being with beloveds there is some more escape….enough to lift me into my resistance…. in the day my resistance includes joy, dance and laughter but I often go to bed with the same sickness. I wonder how your grief and rage is for you.
I know I’m not alone in this pain. I know you know so much of this pain. I know as men you carry a version of my pain. I don’t really know what your version feels like for you.
I want to attempt a mass recovery WITH you. I want to embark on a journey of epic restoration WITH you. I know…… we need to hear more about what it is you need and dream of.
I want us to begin something on the 22nd August. 2021, the anniversary of the Haitain Revolution of 1804, the only successful revolt of black slaves.
Please will you start something with me, by protecting us.
We do this in protection of all of us…..especially the children – the children of all species, our children, my children, your children.
With fierce love and prayers for your power and mine to rise and face what is here.
On May 8th, Professor Jem Bendell joined a panel with Vandana Shiva, Brian Eno, and Charles Eisenstein, to promote the rise of Extinction Rebellion in the USA.
Rough transcript of the talk
“Just over two years ago the international rebellion in London brought the attention of the British media and public to climate change for a period of two weeks in a way I have never seen before in 30 years of working on the environment. I witnessed people in my field of corporate sustainability suddenly saying yes, it has become an existential crisis and we need the government to lead systemic change.
Two years on, we can see that hasn’t happened. Carbon emissions are once again growing fast, while the destruction of natural habitats continues. That’s not surprising as the established elites in all countries that I know about have not tried to change the economic system which pushes us to continue that destruction.
It is easy to pick holes in it. We can question tactics, timing, scope or messaging. But climate activism works. Over the past year, non-violent activism has increased awareness of climate change, so that many politicians now refer to it as the emergency that it is. Yet within a toxic economic system that requires us to borrow and grow forever, and a toxic media system that misleads us about what to blame and whom to hate, it isn’t surprising that rising awareness has not delivered change in our environmental impact. Nor has it triggered inquiry into why we got into this mess and how we might prepare as the climate gets worse for human habitation.
It is why we go again. This month, the non-violent civil disobedience campaign to demand government action on the climate and ecological emergency is calling on #EverybodyNow to take to the streets.
Some commentators in the UK, where the movement began, are asking whether now is the right time for disruptive tactics. But Extinction Rebellion has become a global movement that is rising again this month. It started in London, and Brits are playing a key role in waking up humanity, so can’t step down because of the current performance of our government. Our climate isn’t waiting for Brexit – or any political squabble. Whether wanting to leave or remain in the EU, all Britons want to eat well. After the rise of climate activism in 2019, British MPs admitted the country faces a food security crisis. Extreme weather has been damaging both domestic and foreign food production and increasing the risks that simultaneous crop failures in key exporting countries could make prices shoot up to unprecedented levels.
Extreme rainfall is another sign of the destabilising climate, with 150 flood alerts issued for the UK for the weekend before the #InternationalRebellion. More scientists are admitting publicly that they have been too cautious, partly because they were seeking to be relevant to mainstream policy makers. Climatologist Dr Wolfgang Knorr explains that such scientists should be the first to admit failure, recognise how scientists norms of communication have been counter-productive – and consider direct action to promote social and political change.
Since 1992 many thoughtful and well-meaning people have sought to find a balance between the environmental situation and the current economic system. The term for that agenda is “sustainable development” and is something I gave over 20 years of my working life to. The increasing damage to our food and property from extreme weather reminds us that nature doesn’t do deals with humanity. So while the British government huffs and puffs with pantomime patriotism, reasonable people are dropping the pretence that things can be fixed within this economic system, and taking to the streets is part of that awakening.
But climate activism works only so far. If the activism is limited to non-violent direct action, it doesn’t sink into the heart of the system, nor build the coalitions required for real transformation. In my speech at the launch of the rebellion in April 2019, I said that we should spread the rebellion into other aspects of life – including in our working lives. This month XR has backed TruthTeller to help that process. It is a platform for people working inside the system to safely and anonymously leak documents on aspects of our climate crisis to professional journalists. People working in commodities trading, insurance, re-insurance, amongst other sectors, will have access to information about how risky things are becoming, and it is time that this information is out in the open. Only then will be able to have the quality of dialogue about how to respond to a difficult future.
Whether people agree with XR or not, the future they warn us about is coming fast. This is not some distant apocalypse, but a living hell for many people whose lives are being trashed by extreme weather, and a daily anxiety for people who foresee imminent damage to our food systems and the likely ramifications. What is key is how fast we can come together to work out how to prepare for increasing disruption to food, water, finance and the international order. Writing in the Extinction Rebellion handbook, I explained that to #TellTheTruth on our climate emergency must now be warning people of these difficulties.
People will respond to disruption, and their fears of it, in many ways. There is a key role for religious leaders, teachers, therapists and many other professionals to help us engage each other with compassion, curiosity and respect, rather than let populists manipulate our anxieties. It is important that climate activists involved in XR, Fridays For Future, and other movements, call for both kind and fair adaptation to the disruptions from climate change. While rage is understandable and motivating, staying connected to the love of life that is the ground from which that rage springs will be essential if emerging leaders on climate change are not to compound the suffering to come.
That is where XR provides some hope. Like any movement that challenges the establishment, it will have attracted undercover agents from the police, secret services, and mercenaries for companies threatened by its goals. Despite #ExtinctionRebellion being the Western world’s most significant non-violent civil disobedience movement in a generation, toxic media will splash any image of isolated violence across our screens. Rather, they would do well to quote the “declaration of solemn intent” that XR activists recite at meetings and actions:
“Let’s take a moment to remember why we are here. Let’s remember our love for this beautiful planet. Let’s remember our love for all humanity in all corners of the world. As we act today, may we find the courage to bring a sense of love and peace and appreciation to everyone we encounter and every word we speak. We are here for all of us.”
Seven of the ten values of XR relate to how people in the movement engage everyone (including themselves) in ways that are kind and fair. It is something we have also focused on in the activities of the Deep Adaptation Forum. Now a network of over 10,000 people, with dozens of local groups around the world, people are joining because they want to explore how to prepare both individually and collectively, both emotionally and practically, for a likely collapse in our way of life due to climate chaos. Some participants are also involved in activism to promote government action on carbon emissions and drawdown. But they don’t pretend such activism means we do not need to transform our societies to be more kind, curious and fair as things begin to fall apart. Those who engage in the Deep Adaptation agenda exist within the shadows of a painful future more than the climate activist groups – but there will be a necessary coming together over the next months. The messaging and actions of climate activists, including XR, will need to include the kinds of values we want to uphold as climate chaos spreads.
The imperative of fair adaptation to our climate tragedy must now be heard. It is where the rich will pay more and change more. It is where people who lose their jobs or savings will be helped to adjust. Where people who struggle emotionally with sensing the difficulties ahead will be held. We must discover and nourish an emergency solidarity. And reject anyone who asks us to abandon our values or shrink our worldview due to fear.
There is so much to do that it can feel daunting. Perhaps impossible. One thing is certain. None of it can wait. Because the climate isn’t waiting. Nature doesn’t do deals with humanity.
To maintain and grow its work, the free Deep Adaptation Forum will soon launch a crowd-fund to pay living expenses of its core team during 2020. To receive an update on the crowdfund, plus a quarterly newsletter on the latest developments on Deep Adaptation worldwide, subscribe here.
In response to the growing recognition we are within a climate emergency and that our existing modes of politics have not been delivering policy programmes that address the nature, scale or urgency of our predicament, the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies is growing. It is one of the key demands of Extinction Rebellion. Such assemblies can be comprised of normal citizens that are randomly selected by sortition, with means to ensure diversity of gender, age, class and so on. These assemblies the call for evidence from experts who they choose, to help inform their deliberations. It is significant that more of these assemblies are being set up – mostly as consultative groups. The question of what the legitimate powers of such an assembly could be, especially in relation to parliaments and governments, is a live one. But whatever its powers, a Citizens’ Assembly is decisively influenced by the way the agenda is established, the way deliberations are facilitated, and the kinds of experts who are called upon to present. I am going to ask you to consider suggesting some experts for a Citizens’ Assembly on the climate emergency, but before that I want to share some context on the key challenges to consider with any such Assembly and in the selection of experts.
The way the agenda is established is key. The first thing to recognise is that the climate emergency is not adequately engaged unless we move beyond only talking about cutting and drawing down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Instead, it is essential to realise that climate change is already here and its impacts on our societies will be getting worse. Therefore, how we better prepare for disruption at home and abroad is a key part of any policy discussion about the climate emergency.
The way deliberations are facilitated is also key. The tasks of selecting experts, guiding the choice of topics, and facilitating how the citizen participants discuss their information, are central to what will be achieved. If management consultants or other mainstream organisations are in charge of these processes, then they may inadvertently bring establishment ideologies that should now be questioned as part of the system that has brought us to this point of emergency. A process of inquiring into the hidden ideological assumptions of hosts and facilitators would be one way of attempting to address this risk.
Then there is the key issue of the kinds of experts who are called upon to present. A problem facing any Citizens’ Assembly are the narrow specialisms, scientific reticence and personal conservativism that are widespread within research and academic institutions.
Narrow specialisms are a problem because, for instance, an expert in one particular aspect of climate science, such as glaciers, may not have had the time, interest or networks to become well informed about other aspects of climate. Or an expert in corporate sustainability may know nothing (or the wrong thing) about the monetary systems that corporations have to operate within. To “get on” in academia it is almost a requirement to specialise until you are spending all your time examining the details of one set of ideas or situations. Polymaths don’t do so well in that system. It means that Citizens’ Assemblies, just like policy makers, find difficulty in accessing usable knowledge from researchers, and must attempt the integration of ideas themselves. The other problem is when an expert is invited to speak beyond their area of expertise and does so without realising that they could explore the scholarship and debates in relevant fields. This happens on climate issues, where people trained in mathematics and statistics begin to offer ideas about the policy implications of the projections of their climate models. We may want them to engage in such discussions, but both we and they need to be careful if they are using a status related to being a climate expert to then talk about something else. For instance, many climate scientists are quoted in mainstream media saying that to be “alarmist” is counter-productive, and yet there is a lot of scholarship in psychology and communications studies which explore whether that is true or not, and for different types of audiences.
Scientific reticence is something that one of the world’s most famous climate scientists, James Hansen, has pointed to and which I cite in the Deep Adaptation paper. He explained how there is a culture in natural science, and therefore climate science, to be very specific, nuanced, cautious and unemotional about any claims to know something as a result of their research. Combined with the narrowness of many research projects, it also means that much scientific expertise will need translating into insights for either citizens or policy makers. Some researchers break free from this reticence and speak more broadly about their conclusions and the implications of their research. In my case, after reviewing the research on climate change and its impacts, in the context of increasing emissions from our system of debt-fuelled economic growth, I concluded that it is too late to stop destructive impacts of climate change on our societies. Not that we shouldn’t try to limit the impacts but that we need a new conversation about adaptation. In saying that I made it clear I was expressing an opinion and was not reporting on research about mechanisms of collapse. I think it is an extremely difficult and resource intensive exercise to try and model the mechanisms of climate-induced societal collapse. Even if doing so, such projections would simply be debatable theories rather than proving anything. Given how fast-moving our current situation is, I wonder how useful such work would be, though I encourage more attempts at it within the food security and disaster reduction research fields.
Personal conservatism is a way of being in the world where, in comparison to the average view, one accepts the systems of power, authority, and status as they are currently configured. It makes sense that if you have worked hard for decades in front of your computer to rise to the top of your profession, and gain a high salary and status, that you will have some gratitude towards the system. Or at least less anger towards it than others! Such people may also have many responsibilities, both personal and professional, which feel like they limit the risks one can take with what to say, or what to let oneself even consider. I cite some research on this personal conservativism in the Deep Adaptation paper when I explain some of the factors in the ongoing denial in the environmental field. It means that both citizens and policy makers may find experts feeling less critical about our political and economic systems than they might be if there were not so invested in the system. That might mean they are less bold with their ideas about what policies could be considered.
With all that in mind, if you were advising a team of people in putting together a list of experts to be called to present at Citizens’ Assemblies on the climate emergency in the UK, what would be your criteria? For either the institution or the individual? The organisers typically expect experts to come from Universities or authoritative organisations. And what topics would be included? After all, we don’t want climatologists telling us about implications for monetary policy. Yet, given the systemic nature of our predicament, it would unhelpful, perhaps useless, if we would restrict our discussions to those topics that climate experts can talk about with confidence.
A Citizens Assembly on the climate emergency could consider major changes in at least each of the following policy areas: Food and agriculture; Emergency preparedness; Foreign Affairs; Development assistance; Water and utilities; Land use planning; Monetary policies; Banking regulation; Corporate law; Community development; Education; Health; Taxation. And many more!
Yes, the field is huge, unwieldly, and daunting. But what can we learn from how, after 30 years of efforts to promote sustainable development, we are now going backwards rapidly on biodiversity, emissions, weird weather, food and water security? Surely it is time to see that we need to address more of the root causes of our predicament? That means changes to our economic system, not just more housing insulation and sea walls.
Do you know any experts in relevant areas who seem to not be too restricted by their narrow specialism, scientific reticence, or personal conservativism? Not just in climate, but in any of the areas that matter to system change to both reduce and adapt to our climate emergency?
If so, please either share their details in the comments below, with a link to their organisation and stating what policy areas they are relevant to, or if preferring to be private, then use the contact form at the bottom of the page here (putting the word Expert in the subject line). In particular, we are interested in people who speak English and in or can easily travel by train to the UK. Organisers typically expect experts to come from Universities or authoritative organisations, rather than independent researchers or authors.
The list we produce by August 1st 2019 will be shared with a number of groups and officials who are involved in Citizens Assemblies and other policy dialogues.
One year ago this month, our Institute at the University of Cumbria released my paper on Deep Adaptation to our climate tragedy. It has since been downloaded over half a million times, been translated into many languages, inspired Facebook groups (one with over 4000 people), many events, and been credited by commentators and activists as helping the Extinction Rebellion movement. Not bad for what one journalist suggested to me was a “career suicide note.”
Over the past year I have sought to do what I could to channel the shock, anger, fear, despair, and passion of so many people who got in touch with me, into networks of solidarity, contemplation, inquiry and action. That has included the launch of the Deep Adaptation Forum for people who want to work through what this means for their day jobs – or whether to quit. I have also sought to provide some ideas and guidance via writings, talks, interviews, retreats, contemplative practices and videos.
It has been a powerful year of strong emotions, deeper connections and great admiration for people changing their lives to serve love and truth. That will need to be the subject of a future blog!
I have been impressed by how many print journalists have spent the time to really explore this issue with me, and to process their own emotions to arrive at balanced, informative and lively coverage of this difficult topic.
In addition, we have seen more people inside establishment organisations become bolder in how they talk about the emergency we are now in. I used to work in the UN and know there are huge pressures to conform, sound calm, and avoid upsetting any of the Member States or their corporate friends. So it is a relief we are seeing reports from different UN agencies about how bad things have become with our environment. In addition, more scientists are clearer on the implications of their findings, breaking with some of the reticence of their profession to say anything that would illicit emotion.
Working with my colleague Matthew Slater, I have produced a Compendium of Research Reports on Climate Chaos and Impacts, which we release today. In it I summarise 23 studies which I consider key from the past 12 months. Last year it was unusual to claim that it is too late to stop runaway climate change damaging our agriculture to such an extent that it will lead to the breakdown of our societies within the next ten years. However, the key takeaway from this Compendium of research is that there is now a wider range of peer-reviewed dots to draw from in order to arrive at that perspective. However, there are not many mainstream researchers joining all those dots, to offer conclusions and predictions for human society. The difficulty is that researchers exist in academic silos, such as climate modelling on the one hand, agronomy on the other, or migration on the other, and a belief in the meaningfulness of silos is at the core of what gives us a sense of self-esteem and confidence for expressing our views. To move beyond drawing dots, to joining those dots, requires an ability to understand multiple fields of scholarship, their methods and limitations, which is a challenging skill set and time-intensive process.
When attempting to provide that overview and synthesis, especially for policy makers or the general public, you can find yourself suddenly being written about by people who like to tell stories about reality in order to buttress their worldview, sell their book or organisation, or serve an interest group. It has been an interesting year of witnessing the kinds of reactions people have when they want to engage this topic from a pre-defined view, and therefore deny or spin information on our predicament. Some right-wing writers have misrepresented what I wrote in the original paper in order to lampoon it. Some left-wing writers have suggested my work isn’t revolutionary, which meant they had to overlook how many of us who share the Deep Adaptation perspective are actively engaged in the most vibrant challenge to state power and the status quo in decades – XR.
Then there are some people who have worked on environmental issues for some time and have portrayed my analysis as suggesting that we give up on the drawdown and cutting of carbon; which I do not. When people say “we need hope” they might be expressing their assumption that they themselves need a pleasant story of the future in order to avoid their own emotional pain – and avoid witnessing it in others. Fortunately, I have discovered this past year that the loss of a hope that we can reform to maintain our way of life has been shocking people into waking up to not only to our environmental predicament but also the reality of impermanence and death. That means they engage in the present moment with a passion for truth and love. In general all of the criticisms I have heard fall into one of the forms of denial that I wrote about last year.
Meanwhile, some other commentators have agreed with the general analysis that we face imminent collapse, but have questioned how certain we can be, or when it will happen. I think it is important to stay aware of the latest data and revise what we think will happen. I also think it is important to consider how we explain our views to different audiences. However, to argue against saying collapse is “inevitable” due to abstract theoretical notions that nothing is inevitable is not worth much attention. After all, our mutual death seems certain to me, and we are also complex living systems. People may want to avoid believing societal collapse is inevitable in order to provide themselves with a psychological escape, so that they can still hope that someone or something will stop it happening somehow. Looking at the current climactic changes, the rising emissions and habitat destruction, the biological impacts, the warming feedbacks, the agricultural impacts, the slowness of response, the intransigence of capitalism and its client politicians, and the cultural dependence on ideas of progress and control, and the rise of stories of blame that avoid reality and foster ignorance and hate, I think that “inevitable” societal collapse is a more accurate way of communicating my view that it is now unavoidable, than saying collapse is likely or near certain. I am aware that some people challenge us to recognise that societal collapse is already underway but unevenly distributed. The recent statement from the UN on this matter is a sober reminder that millions have already suffered terribly from climate chaos. For the Deep Adaptation groups that I am involved with, we ask people to agree that societal collapse is either likely, inevitable or already unfolding, so that we can have meaningful engagement upon that premise.
Since the paper came out, I have come to consider a new reason why societal collapse is inevitable. It came to me when I spoke at the European Commission. During my talk I did a quick poll to discover that about 90 percent of the officials in the room believed that collapse is coming within their lifetimes. Yet their ability to conceive of what was appropriate to discuss as policy responses and activism was, in general, woeful. The ideas being shared were more of the same tinkering with capitalism and redirecting private investment into mitigation efforts. Why? One hypothesis is that the highest have the farthest to fall. If one is well-respected, well-paid, and living well in the current system, perhaps with a sense of responsibility for lots of employees and stakeholders, then one has the most to let go of in order to allow the full impact of our current situation to sink in. At a sub-conscious level it eats away at assumptions you didn’t know you had. For instance, assuming that one would be respected by your children and younger generations as you enter old age, and, ultimately as you lie on your death bed. To be successful in society means one is having affirmed, daily, the illusion of the socially-respected agentic separate Self. Instead, our climate chaos invites us to see that we aren’t separate, we aren’t in control and our stories of self-respect and meaning were always made up. We must let our deepest assumptions and stories melt away to find what else can emerge. That may be why I have a better time talking to children about collapse than I do talking to people with senior jobs. I will release a short video about that next month but for now, I recommend this video from my 13-year-old friend, Oskar.
Many people ask me about when a societal collapse is likely. As I explained in the paper, I do not know, but guess that within 10 years that it will be occurring in many, perhaps most, countries of the world. Some have argued it could occur more quickly. As I explained above, some argue that it has already started in some countries. This question about the timing of collapse is an understandable one, given that it affects our assessment of what to focus on. Given the uncertainty of prediction in complex systems, to avoid putting a date on predictions is justifiable. The direction is clear but the speed of it less so. For instance, I know I am going to die, but, because I have no interest in killing myself, nor have a terminal diagnosis, I do not know when I am going to die. The problem I have with the argument that I should not give a time horizon like 10 years is that not deciding on a time horizon acts as a psychological escape from facing our predicament. If we can push this problem out into 2040 or 2050, it somehow feels less pressing. Yet, look around. Already harvests are failing because of weather made worse by climate change. So, a year after my paper came out, I am still guessing that the society I will be living in, whether the UK or elsewhere, will have collapsed within 9 years. It could be sooner. I hope to help slow things down by bringing attention to our predicament and promoting adaptation.
In the original paper I did not explain fully what I mean by societal collapse, nor did I go into the mechanisms by which it might occur. Therefore, I did not explore how it could be slowed or softened. By societal collapse I mean “the uneven ending of our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning. Others may prefer the term societal breakdown when referring to the same process.” My theory is that multi-breadbasket failure across the northern hemisphere, combined with location-specific damage to other harvests, will disrupt our societies within 9 years, due to the impact on food prices and food supplies. I also predict that water shortages will trigger migration and conflict, thus making collapse more likely in some countries. I warn that the reactions of our financial system may precipitate collapse ahead of the shortages of food and water or the movements of populations. The psychological impacts of the increasing economic, societal and political turbulence may also trigger disturbances, which could manifest through civil unrest or political extremism. I respect those who believe these processes are already underway. Clearly there is more analysis needed on these possibilities, and I have been encouraging people in food security, disaster risk reduction, human security and related fields to explore these questions. Although I am often asked to develop my own theories of the mechanisms of collapse, I have been more drawn to enable others to begin such work, as well as any response that arises from engaged compassion.
Which brings us to the question of “what to do?” There are so many options for people when they come to believe that a collapse of our normal way of life is inevitable and soon. Over the year I have had conversations with people as they, and I, process this information and consider how we want to be and what we want to do. They all relate to the types of response I described last year here (which I strongly recommend you read if you are exploring how to feel and act in light of this information). Despite my earlier grumblings about the conservativism of people with senior roles in our society, in the past year more people have begun to discuss with me how they want to find ways to respond meaningfully from within their organisation. It appears now is a good time to map out a range of ideas for activities that could be supported and pursued in different sectors and walks of life. I will share some ideas on this blog in the coming months and feed these into the relevant professional interest groups on the Deep Adaptation Forum.