Annual update from Jem

This is the update I sent to subscribers to my personal professional newsletter, which I hadn’t sent for a year.

Many of us intuited, or calculated, that life would not really return to ‘normal’, even if we did not expect war in Europe. I hope that despite the stresses and strains, that your past year has had some silver linings. For me, it was a year of change. Workwise, it was a big year for my written outputs, with a book and journal articles out on Deep Adaptation to climate chaos. But it was also a creative time, with more poetry, art and music than ever before. For that, I blame the virus. But more on that later. First, I want to mention one thing that didn’t happen. I didn’t teach in person at all! So, I am super happy that in June I will once again lead a weeklong leadership course in the English Lake District. I hope I remember how to stand in front of people, rather than sit in front of a screen. And I hope that rationality and ethics prevail over jingoism, pride and hidden agendas, so that we see a resolution to the conflict in Europe well before then.  

Deep Adaptation now has a nice Wikipedia page, which tells people that it is not just a painful paper from 2018, but also a framework and international community – perhaps even a movement. A book I co-edited with Rupert Read was released that illustrates the many ways people are positively engaging after anticipating societal disruption, or even collapse. We had a great book launch with Joanna Macy and Professor Jonathan Gosling amongst the contributors. I gave an extended interview to FacingFutureTV about what this book and topic means for me, and was delighted to read a reflective review of the book in World Literature Today (perhaps start with that to decide if the book topic is of interest).

As an academic, I sought to produce research that is relevant to practice. The journal Sustainability published my co-authored paper Group Facilitation on Societal Disruption and Collapse: Insights from Deep Adaptation, which we hope help will people that hold space and design education on this topic. A journal of psychotherapy published a paper I wrote about Psychological insights on discussing societal disruption and collapse. In that paper I summarised the sociology and psychology on the way that some members of the general public can become supporters of authoritarian policies when they feel increasingly vulnerable, anxious and confused. That paper and topic was picked up by a founder member of Extinction Rebellion when she discussed the need to consider collapse and not respond with authoritarianism. More on that in a minute.

During the year I gave a few presentations, such as a panel talk at the International Leadership Association. However, my main interest for online live conversation continued to be hosting other people to share their views relating to societal disruption and collapse. I discussed topic with a variety of people, including the chairperson of Amnesty International, Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, Scott Williams the UN Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) agency and Asiya Odugleh-Kulev of the – newly controversial – World Health Organisation (WHO). A full playlist of past Q&As is available.

As you might have noticed, although the topic of societal collapse was super weird and annoying for most people in 2018, it is much less so now. Instead, as the Deep Adaptation agenda is more widely accepted as useful for reducing harm as societies destabilise, it is just me that remains super weird and annoying. I jest, but my aim was to help Deep Adaptation to become a global conversation, and then step away from the curation of that to offer my views on what it might involve. Those views can be triggering for some people who might not be as radically eco-socially libertarian as myself. Although I instinctively have human rights, social justice and anti-patriarchy at the heart of my thinking, the stuff I critique or promote from that starting point can be different to what others think. Obviously, when us woke-folks disagree, we think that each other should not have existed 😉 OK, not true. Even when they call upon people to ‘cancel’ me. Henceforth, my main outlet for a radical rights-based and solidarity agenda on responding to societal disruption is the newly revamped Deep Adaptation Quarterly, which I recommend you subscribe to (unlike this, it does come out every 3 months!).

A year after I had left the Deep Adaptation Forum, I wondered out loud whether we could do a bit more to bring attention to kinder and wiser forms of responding to calamity than the denialist, reactionary, prepper, authoritarian or technology-will-save-the-day narratives that are increasingly heard. To do my bit, I kept developing the Scholars Warning initiative, which released a paper on the ethics of collapse, and also a public letter signed by over 200 scholars in response to the failure of the COP26 climate conference, like all before it, to address the capitalist elephant in the corporate boardroom. [If you are a scholar, please visit the website and consider signing the letter, as then you can get involved in a range of activities and receive support in the form of courses and communications advice]. 

For reasons I am not certain about, in the past year I spent more time engaged in poetry and art. I worked with an artist and film maker to put one of my poems to music and film, which was also released as a nonfungible token (NFT) as a charity fundraiser. But the main creative thing for me in the past year was discovering that I can write songs, sing them and release them. Also, that I can appear in my own music videos without too much awkwardness about how stupid I look. This creative episode came about because I got Covid and spent a few weeks in my bedroom, quite bored and lethargic, but angry about the state of the world. Not a good combo. So my guitar and song writing became my therapy. I wrote, sang and recorded songs for the first time in my life. I released 4 of the songs as an EP called Fevered Folk, which is available on all major streaming services and online shops. One of the songs is intended as an anthem for unity amongst all forms of non-violent protest, as our rights are removed by governments worldwide and characters demonised by mass media (#LoveAndRage). Another of the songs is a dark comedy about the aggressive polarisation on the pandemic (#PositiveSong). Another song is about trusting that people, myself included, will get through periods of combativeness and return to kindness and wisdom (#TrustWeGetThere). The fourth song is called “Something’s Needling Me” and is a protest against the orthodox policy agenda on the pandemic and the mass media ignoring, censorship or demonisation of any experts and doctors who question aspects of that orthodoxy. Which brings me to the other big thing of my last year – learning about epidemiology and public health, while also applying my skills of analysing frames and narratives to what was happening in the mass media during the pandemic.

I tend to start on this topic by reminding everyone that journalists of large media outlets have admitted they have been deliberately trying to manipulate attitudes on the pandemic and our responses to it. In itself, that is wrong and means that the potential for reasonable conversations about policy options for public health are impaired. It means that if you have not looked into things for yourself, and sought opinions from expert epidemiologists, immunologists, and vaccinologists who do not work as spokespersons for government, ministries and related professional bodies (i.e. the medical establishment), then you are misinformed. I don’t mean to be impolite – and some people can be thankful for being informed they are misinformed. But it is worse than that. The misinformation has targeted your values and morals to manipulate not only your thoughts but your feelings about this issue – because that is what professionals in persuasion techniques do, and they have been advising the authorities and media. If you come on my course in June you would learn about how these ‘dark arts’ weaponize moral psychology to manipulate us, and the complicated issues that arise for those of us who want to communicate powerfully at times but abhor manipulation. I also give examples in my writings on Covid, which I will link to below.

My view is that the orthodox agenda was overly influenced by pharmaceutical companies and a managerialist ideology which meant societies did not first focus on how to empower each other to take responsible decisions. For instance, people in precarious working arrangements were commuting to work despite being symptomatic, because otherwise they would not get paid or risk their employment. As the months passed and media became nastier about open discussion and governments became oppressive about personal health choices, I grew more uncomfortable. Then, as roughly about half the people I knew in either the environmental fields or Deep Adaptation communities seemed to begin dehumanizing people and supporting the removal of their human rights, I decided to share my ideas on an alternative approach. In October, I explained why a more citizens-based approach to the pandemic is sensible and some of what it could involve. It was very close to the ideas of the Great Barrington Declaration, but with more attention to workers’ rights. If you are interested in contrarian views that are neither conspiracy nor hard right, then I list my series of writings on the topic here. In one of my essays, I explain how the reaction to Covid can be regarded as a step towards societal breakdown, and thus clearly a topic for Deep Adaptation. If you prefer videos, then I recommend my recorded presentation to an African audience, that summarises my views on what we could learn from how Africa has been the world’s leader in avoiding public health harm from pandemic.

Given how confident the followers of the orthodoxy are that they are intellectually and morally correct, I knew that sharing my ideas would generate a painful backlash. Despite that backlash, I know I am lucky not to have experienced the kind of medical aggression from family members, neighbours, shopkeepers and employers, that so many people have experienced due to their personal health decisions and views. That medical aggression was even a contributing factor to someone I know committing suicide. Therefore, I helped to launch a network of support circles called Freedom To Care, which are free to join if you have been experiencing difficult because of not agreeing with the orthodoxy of the pandemic. Ironically, or tragically, some people have prevented information about these emotional support circles reaching people in the networks they support. And so I am mentioning them here in my personal newsletter.

Looking back, the year since I last sent an update has often been quite stressful. I have a particular sadness at seeing that the efforts of the Deep Adaptation Forum to promote curiosity, compassion and respect in response to growing anxieties about vulnerabilities have not always prevented some participants from expressing bigotry, hate and disrespect in ways encouraged by state officials, mass media and BigTech censorship. It is also sad that some people then consider I am being divisive by criticizing such behaviours, rather than reflecting on their own by-standing to hatred allied to state power and corporate greed. I am also sad, although understanding, that whereas many people involved in either environmentalism or Deep Adaptation have written to me to express support, nearly all of them explain that either they cannot speak out due to professional concerns, or because they do not wish to expose themselves to the disgust of their peers. Given that people outside such communities of interest have been far quicker to speak out, I wonder what this indicates about where solidarity with truth, rights, peace and justice will be found as societies crumble. Perhaps not from people who live in middle class ‘comfortable opposition’ within advanced consumer societies? Or perhaps it is just taking a little time for people to work through their fears and recommit to resisting authoritarian responses to social concerns. I hope so!

To help me with the stresses of the past year, I have been grateful for the weekend retreats every two months that I co-lead at a Buddhist Temple. On one of those retreats I rescued a kitten who had been abandoned there. He has reminded me of the simple yet profound stuff that all of us lifeforms both need and give.

If only we could teach the world to purr, in perfect harmony. But first, here’s that first music video I released…

I posted this newsletter as an article on LinkedIn and welcome your feedback shared over there.

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Reviving humanity and creativity in this time of dying

The Deep Adaptation Quarterly is out. it shows what a lot of stuff is happening under the radar of the mainstream media’s attention to social change. This is my editorial – you can also read the full newsletter and subscribe to the next.

Editorial – Reviving humanity and creativity in this time of dying

Anxiety about climate change and its impacts was discussed more widely in mainstream media in the last few months. For both children and adults, the main message coming from psychologists is that we can become more open about our feelings, rather than suppress them and pretend we are feeling fine. Although greater discussion of that in the mainstream is a step forward, it was unfortunate that a typical assumption of modern culture appeared in nearly all the reporting I read. That is the assumption that people positively engage in society because we believe we will make situations better. Instead, many people engage to make things less worse or because we believe in doing what’s good and true, whatever the situation or outcome. The dominant ideology of modern cultures, where material progress is assumed to be good and uncontestable underlies the limited ways motivation is discussed. However, just because material progress might be dying, does not mean we kill our humanity or creativity. This newsletter contains information which illustrates the wide range of creative solidarity that is emerging from people who anticipate societal disruption and collapse.

Many people want to live according to their unfolding truth, help others in bold ways, and be more creative and expressive precisely because they anticipate greater disruptions to their way of life. Creativity is one important response. An increasing amount of poetry and stories are being shared on the blog of the Deep Adaptation Forum. Music has been released that is inspired by a Deep Adaptation approach to life. I have also worked with the creative arts, to produce a multimedia art project that will raise funds for the children of Bali who have been badly affected by the pandemic. The project, called #BreakingTogether, incorporates one of my poems about climate anxiety, and includes the theme of impermanence – thus counter to the ideology of material progress.

For years the group Dark Mountain have encouraged cultural expression to help people explore what a new way of being human in a time of disruption and collapse might feel like. Moving ahead, it appears to me that artistic activity of all kinds will not only be important for personal wellbeing of the people involved, or the funds raised for charity, but also for more massive communication. Because we are entering a crucial period for sense-making about the environmental situation, as more and more people become aware of how bad the situation is becoming. That was the main theme of my recent essay reflecting on the past year since I left management of the Deep Adaptation Forum. The concern is that people could be susceptible to messages that suit the interests of corporations and incumbent power, and not get to hear about the diversity of ideas that are shared by people engaged in the Deep Adaptation conversation.

When collapse-anticipation does get discussed in the mainstream media, even now it is lampooned, or labelled as unhelpful ‘doomism’. In my most recent academic article I analyse the evidence-base of the claims that people who anticipate disruption and collapse are unhelpful for either enabling social change or public mental health. From both a sociological and psychological basis, I conclude those claims are not robust. Therefore, they may reflect the desire of the authors to negatively frame and marginalise people with opinions that make them feel uncomfortable. That’s something worth naming to make it easier to discuss – adaptation delayism. The paper is also available in a 1 hour audio format here.

Reviewing the paper, the former financial coordinator of Extinction Rebellion (XR), Andrew Medhurst explains how his own acceptance that massive disruption had become inevitable shook him out of his day job and into full time activism. Something similar happened for XR founder member Skeena Rathor, who, yesterday, shared her reflections on a summer of bad climate news. She argues that we need more people in the public eye talking about compassionate responses to disaster, to offer an alternative to the rise of authoritarianism. It is an important invitation for the environmental movement to consider,  articulate and uphold key values, as more people in both national and intergovernmental processes wake up to the peril (at COP26 and beyond).

The widespread inability to be present to what is happening in the world andcommunicate about it is why we are in the current predicament. That inability is partly the result of our systems of media, money, economy and politics. The same processes that drove the calamity continue now as societal disruption spreads. Therefore misinformed aggression towards people in ways that worsen problems and ignore root causes, will be an aspect and accelerator of societal collapse. So I am not under any illusions. Our attempts to respond to calamity and vulnerability in positive ways that reaffirm human dignity are not likely to have a significant effect when faced with the ongoing communication dominance from incumbent power and the habits from modern culture. But many of us will try anyway, because it is both right to try and it is part of our own self-respect and self-actualisation. With that in mind, I anticipate a lot more radical creativity in the coming months and years. Let’s go for it!

Right now, I invite you to watch the 3 minute video of the making of the multimedia art project #BreakingTogether, as well as browsing the many initiatives in this newsletter (our next issue will be at the end of the year).

Prof Jem Bendell, University of Cumbria, UK
Distinguished Fellow, The Schumacher Institute
Managing Editor, Deep Adaptation Quarterly