Deep adaptation, post-sustainability and the possibility of societal collapse

March 17, 2019

I write this piece primarily to get you to read an academic paper that has attracted relatively widespread attention. It is entitled “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.”

It is remarkable in a number of aspects. First, it was written by a professor of sustainability leadership who has been heavily involved for a long time in helping organizations including governments, nonprofits and corporations to become more sustainable. Second, the author, Jem Bendell, has now concluded the following after an exhaustive review of the most up-to-date findings about climate change:  “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction.” Third, his paper was rejected for publication not because it contained any errors of fact, but largely because it was too negative and thought to breed hopelessness.

It is important to understand what Bendell means by “collapse” in this context. He does not necessarily mean an event taking place in a relatively short period of time all over the world all at once. Rather, he means severe disruptions of our lives and societies to a degree than renders our current institutional arrangements largely irrelevant. He believes we won’t be able to respond to the scope of suffering and change by doing things the way we are doing them now with only a few reformist tweaks.

That this idea doesn’t go down well in sustainability circles should be no surprise. That’s because our current arrangements, even if “reformed” to take environmental imperatives into account, are in no way equal to the task ahead. Our existing institutions are structurally incapable of responding to what is coming and so consulting about how to reform them is largely a fool’s errand—not the way sustainability experts and consultants want to be thought of.

Instead, Bendell proposes a “post-sustainability” ethic. We must give up on the hope that our society can proceed largely on its current trajectory—with proper allowances, of course, for carbon emission reduction and climate change adaptation—and embrace what he calls “deep adaptation.” That agenda calls for resilience, relinquishment and restoration. The words themselves, especially “relinquishment,” convey something of the radical approach Bendell believes is now necessary. For details I implore you to read the paper.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this paper is its detailed discussion of what Bendell calls “collapse denial.” Understanding the psychology behind the denial of collapse as a possibility and the opprobrium visited on those who speak of it openly is essential for grasping the current discourse on climate change (and many other existential environmental topics).

Hope, it turns out, can be an opiate. It can keep you from thinking about what you might have to do if the worst happens. Whether you agree with Bendell or not about the inevitability of collapse, reading him will likely disrupt your usual ways of thinking about responses to our environmental challenges and likely increase the scope of responses you are willing to consider.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: collapse