“We gather and rebel not with a vision of a fairy-tale future where we have fixed the climate, but because it is right to do what we can. To slow the change. To reduce the harm. To save what we can. To invite us back to sanity and love. 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. We are angry and we are calm enough to say so and invite others to join us.” Opening speech of the international rebellion of Extinction Rebellion in Oxford Circus on April 15th 2019.
For some of us, news of our changing climate is inducing many difficult emotions, including despair. For people less fortunate than myself, the losses of landscapes, properties, livelihoods and lives, arising in part from climate change, has also been inducing sadness, anger and despair.
Last week, in my review of the year since the Deep Adaptation paper came out, I mentioned it had been a year of strong emotions – but did not explain further. Yet the emotions are so important to recognise, as when hidden or suppressed they are more likely to drive our behaviours. The habits of our culture, and therefore also in me, are to engage in ways that seem intellectual and pragmatic – and to aspire to appear calm. But that can disable our ability to really know and be known. To #TellTheTruth in our time of climate emergency is to express all of our emotions about it as well.
A new article in Vice talks about some of those difficult emotions, with the author making the dramatic claim that “climate despair is making people give up on life.” The journalist tries to build the case that experts think it is wrong to upset people about our climate predicament. That implies that people’s emotions of despair are wrong, because they are unproductive. Given the number of people drawn to lead the climate rebellion after reading my Deep Adaptation paper, I could just dismiss that perspective as uninformed. But I believe it is problematic to suggest that the many difficult emotions that arise from facing our climate predicament need fixing, or that we should avoid triggering them in others. So, here on my blog I want to be more open about those emotional situations I have experienced, and to warn of stories about what is “academic” or “credible” can be used to police those emotions and those who trigger them.
And I want to make up for how my review of the year sought to be so very calm and collected! I had just published a Compendium of peer reviewed research on climate and so expressed myself in the rather subdued tones that academia has schooled me in. In my review of the year I didn’t talk about the alienation as I hide my reality from friends and family, so as not to trigger difficult emotions in them or in me. I didn’t talk about the fears I have had in discussing my view on our situation with close friends, family and colleagues. I didn’t talk about the tears I have seen and shed. I didn’t talk about my moments of panic. I didn’t talk about losing friends because they did not want to hear about our climate. I didn’t talk about the stress of experiencing how some people interact online on this emotive topic. I didn’t talk of my sense of overwhelm as people from all walks of life suddenly wanted answers from me. I didn’t talk about the difficulty of being involved in Extinction Rebellion and yet not wanting to share my perspective on collapse in the mainstream media until more systems of emotional support are in place. I didn’t talk about the confusion of not knowing what to do in my personal life. I didn’t talk about losing balance and health as a sense of responsibility meant I worked a lot on such a heavy topic, building an international network for peer support and providing advice. And I didn’t talk about the stress of being criticised publicly for sharing my perspective; or the shock of discovering how confident some humans are in deciding what is happening in the hearts and minds of others (i.e. mine). I didn’t talk about these things because I had slipped back into the habit of keeping things calm. I’m sorry – I am as bothered about all of this as you are!
There is another side to this story. In my review of the year, I didn’t say as much as I could about the unprecedented intensity of human connection that I have experienced as a result of discussing our climate predicament. I have met so many amazing people who are not hiding behind social norms; who are showing up in the world as vulnerable, loving, curious, playful, meaning-making souls.
Everyone engaging with our climate predicament will have their own emotional journey. None will be easy. The question of how to engage people is a huge one for me. It is why I have focused on how people who are awake to our predicament can help each other. My main suggestion is that we engage and talk with others who do not think that we are confused, depressed, or irresponsible to have concluded that climate change now threatens societal collapse. In those connections and conversations, we find solidarity, joy and pathways for how to be and what to do in future. If you do not yet have that in your life, or want more, then I recommend reaching out through one of the networks I list here.
As climate despair grows, so it becomes a more widely discussed topic. One of the understandable but unfortunate ways that some people respond is to criticise people who communicate the information and ideas which induce despair in some other people. Or to criticise those people who do not support means of escaping such despair through hopeful stories of fixing climate change in time to prevent societal collapse. The argument made is that to describe one’s view about impending collapse is irresponsible because of both the emotional distress caused and because it might lead to inaction. Some commentators even say that it is morally wrong to speak of the future in this way; a view with some chilling echoes of religious fundamentalists who righteously demand you believe what they do. They may also seek to claim objective truth by arguing that someone’s views are sub-standard.
The latest example of this perspective and approach appeared in that Vice magazine article. The author states that “instead of rallying us, climate despair asks us to give up.” Being involved in Extinction Rebellion, I know the opposite is true for so many people – despair has been an essential part of their process. People act because of truth and love, not because they believe that they can stop a breakdown in our way of life. It is why I spoke about that at the opening of the international rebellion. Let’s look at that claim again: “instead of rallying us, climate despair asks us to give up.” That is pure conjecture: about everyone everywhere. It is written in the passive voice, rather than being claimed by the journalist as his own opinion. I regard attempts to define others in this way as a habit of patriarchy, which we must challenge as we free ourselves from its heart-numbing conformism. Mainstream academia has been at the forefront of that patriarchal process of defining what is valid or not to feel, think or believe, so it is interesting to observe how academics might be asked to police our emotions about climate.
In making his case that it is irresponsible to share a view that societal collapse due to climate change is now inevitable, the journalist makes the claim that the Deep Adaptation paper is “widely pilloried.” A month before his article came out, I wrote to him to ask he not base such a claim on just one critic (who isn’t an academic anyway), but look into how the paper has been received, or more closely at the most recent science. I sent him a link to my reply to that critic’s claim about academic quality:
“Moving between factual evidence and personal opinion is a form of academic writing. In addition, personal experience is a form of factual evidence if one is doing an autoethnography. My paper was a conceptual paper, so I did not outline a methodology. However, it used autoethnography in the large section on denial and on looking at how people are framing our situation. Autoethnography is now widely understood in academia. I believe I was clear in the paper where I am expressing my opinions about implications. I am also clear about why at times I used emotive language to address the reader. There is no one set of “academic standards.” I’m pleased we have moved on from the dominance of positivism in social science.”
The Vice journalist also quotes the anthropologist Joseph Tainter, in saying that my paper was irresponsible. Recently I have been researching the range of scholarship on societal collapse, including that from Tainter, and will release that in a couple of months, as part of a workshop plan for how we can learn from past collapses (in order to slow them down). To try to draw conclusions for our current situation from the study of ancient societies is interesting, but should be handled with care. To my knowledge, Joseph Tainter isn’t engaged in climate change or the communities of scholarship relevant to understanding our current predicament, such as food security, human security, catastrophic risks, extinction risks, and disaster risk reduction. However, if he does look at the current situation and draw on these relevant fields, then his engagement could be a valuable one.
Critiquing what is covered by one paper is also a way of not looking more closely at the issue. In my email to the Vice journalist a month before his article came out, I wrote:
“Since the paper came out both myself and others have been saying more about how climate change will, or might, cause societal collapse. The focus is on agricultural impacts. For instance here. And also my own summary of the food security field. IPPR have started doing work on this as well. UCL are launching a project on it. Meanwhile, UNDRR and UNISDR are encouraging a sea change in our approach to risks arising from climate change. So collapse-readiness in the face of climate chaos will become a less unusual topic in the near future. Sadly.”
To move beyond a focus on the one paper and its limitations (or mine) one reason why I released the compendium of peer reviewed science that has been published over the past year. Given that our issue here is so troubling, being sceptical of scholarship is important. But scholarship is still useful, especially if being clear about the boundaries of expertise and the limitations of one’s methods or approach. Therefore, quoting scholars on topics outside of their areas of expertise should always come with caveats. Some famous climate scientists speak about the implications of climate change with little or no mention of expertise on psychology, communications, economy or politics. For instance, the Vice article quotes climate scientists making claims about psychology, such as the effects of despair and motivation, yet this is a different domain than their expertise. This is something I explained to someone putting together a roster of experts for a forthcoming Citizen’s Assembly. A climate modeller, or polar climate scientist, may be great at their job and clear and courageous when expressing their conclusions, but that does not mean that they know how to frame issues, or the psychological implications or possible policy implications. Rather, as academics we are often handicapped by specialisations, if we have not developed our understanding of different fields of knowledge and ways of knowing. In addition, research shows that the more successful one is within existing institutions, it is likely the more conservative one is in one’s views. I mention that in my Deep Adaptation paper, where I explored in detail the processes leading to collapse-denial within the environmental professions, so I recommend looking at that if you are curious.
A difficulty for our ability to consider our predicament head on is that we live in a culture that is averse to impermanence, uncontrollability and death. That means our culture is also averse to the possibility of the absence of hope in a materially better future that can be shaped by us. Yet there is a way of being incredibly passionate and engaged about reducing harm and suffering and living your truth, without the belief that we will create a materially better future. Those who wish to frame collapse-awareness as wrong, and seek to fix our difficult emotions, may actually be trying to avoid looking at their own inner world. In discussing this issue with therapists at the Climate Psychology Alliance, I was advised that it is impossible to engage publicly with people who think they need to believe in a hope and feel threatened by others who say otherwise. I was told that this is because the issue of hope is not one of evidence and opinion but is about people’s deeper structures of identity and ego. Basically, a subconscious fear of not existing anymore.
Because the Deep Adaptation paper and concept has become widely known, it might seem to some commentators like the journalist from Vice that I am promoting doom. Yet I wrote the paper for my professional community in sustainable business studies, and to call out my colleagues for not looking at how bad our situation has become. As it went viral, I turned down mainstream media interviews and major publishers, to prioritise helping connect those who are deeply affected by their view that we face societal collapse; or who are already experiencing it. My writing, talks and interviews have been focused on those who are already on the path of “collapse acceptance”. One of the most powerful means of support has been the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook group. With over 4000 people a few months after launch, it is the venue for intense sharing of emotions and ideas about what we might do now. People join it if they believe that a climate-induced societal collapse is either likely, inevitable or already underway. We call it “positive” Deep Adaptation, because being collapse-aware does not need to lead to hedonism, nihilism, apathy or negativity. On the group all ideas about the implications of our predicament are welcome, so long as they are not violent. Many ideas are shared about how to prepare both practically and emotionally. I don’t see many people giving up, but read about people discovering life in new ways, including climate activism.
But it is only a Facebook group! To help each other as we experience difficult emotions is a huge task. It is why I will be taking some time to engage the education, psychotherapy, coaching, community development and religious communities over the coming months. If you are interested in such work, please join the Deep Adaptation Forum. We have been helping people meet in-person, often for free, to experience gatherings where our difficult emotions are welcomed and shared before moving into any talk of action. We have also started offering retreats to help climate activists recharge while also learning how to host such gatherings.
The Vice article is a reminder to me that the denial I explained in my paper will persist for years to come, even as things begin to breakdown around us. Although its discussion of emotions is an important one, it exhibits some of the “Nit-Picking” and “Moral Superiority” forms of response that I highlight a year ago in my analysis of barriers to dialogue on Deep Adaptation. To evidence a different perspective than that article, I recommend this piece in the FT which explores how Deep Adaptation ideas have been inspiring people to take action. Also, I recommend seeing XR’s Skeena introducing my speech to launch the International Rebellion. You could also look again at some of the latest science. As part of my review of the year, I published a compendium of 23 peer-reviewed studies which I assessed add weight to the underlying analysis of my Deep Adaptation paper.
One hope I have for my own life and those I engage in person is that we may find greater equanimity about our predicament. I once confused that state with either calm or serenity. Now I realise that equanimity is a state of being accepting, even of our own difficult emotions, like grief, anger and despair. Serenity, like calm, is an emotion which comes and goes. With equanimity we can observe such moments of serenity and welcome them, cultivate them, but not become attached to them nor think they are superior states of being. Rather, being alive at this time will mean we ebb and flow with various emotions.
I have benefited from talking with people who I consider spiritual elders. One such person is Joanna Macy, who I interviewed recently. She reminded me that if we connect with our transcendent essence, our souls, then the current moment is an exquisite time to be alive. Because, an awareness of impending collapse is an invitation to ask ourselves deep questions of meaning that we typically postpone – and some of us never even get to. Climate despair is inviting people back to life.
This brings me to a good conclusion to this addendum to my review of the year. I have become more certain that the way through despair involves experiencing oneself as part of a greater whole and surrendering to the mystery of creation. Yes, that is not a new idea! Yet it is so often loaded with culturally specific baggage that leads to ignorance and division. But now the climate crisis invites us to engage with the mystery of life with fresh eyes and open hearts.
Wow. Joanna is right.
But it isn’t easy. Here is a list of some ways of seeking emotional support on this topic.