Curing, Healing or Letting the Climate Disease Run its Course

November 26, 2019

As the climate crisis rises in public awareness,  people have trouble understanding what to do – especially when the “climate doctors” fight among themselves about treatment. Using the disease model we can sort the interventions in 3 categories: curing, healing or denial/ letting the disease run its course.

Denial/letting nature take its course.

Your doctor tells you lifestyle changes that could help – eating less meat, drinking more water, exercise – but you don’t do them. Your present habits are more important than your future health. Life isn’t worth living without burgers, fries and diet cola. You’ll take your chances. And maybe they’re wrong and you’ll get better. Climate denial is like this. We have various science based approaches to reducing human impact on the climate: getting off fossil energy, exercising the innovation muscle for other energy sources, eating lower on the food chain, flying less, blah blah blah. We’ve heard it all. Many times. But our way of life, especially in the United States, is not up for negotiation. We’re a free country and we don’t have to change. And anyway, I know (because Fox tells me so), that climate change is a hoax.

Profiting from sickness

There are powerful players who profit off the sickness-care industry – the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance companies, the hospital suppliers. They have a vested interest in sickness itself. Consider the fossil energy companies. According to the Carbon Majors Report, 100 companies are responsible for 71% of CO2 emissions, with 24 accounting for 50% and China topping the list with 14% (from coal). These powerful corporations have no interest in reducing production. Since we are addicted to their product so we easily turn a blind eye to the issue. No amount of “eat your spinach,” i.e. reduce your consumption, can compete with the pleasures and necessities of a fossil fuel-enabled way of life. Consider the Yellow Vests in France or the protests in Ecuador: when governments try to impose constraints on people whose livelihood depends of cheap gas, they naturally rebel.

And so the disease rages unchecked, while ever increasing numbers of people look on with horror at the obvious consequences of inaction, or actions that speed us off the climate cliff. The know that denial is deadly to life on this planet.

Given these conditions, a growing number of people, groups, academics and scientists are reluctantly coming to the conclusion that, as professor Jem Bendell asserts in his paper, Deep Adaptation, collapse is inevitable, catastrophe likely and extinction possible. These people add to the common categories of response – prevention, mitigation (reducing impact), adaptation (new ways of living) – another existential category of facing the truth, feeling the truth and acting in the context of the truth, which they call deep adaptation.


Deep Adaptation, along with many spiritual teachers, therapists, philosophers, social scientists and the like, see climate disruptions as symptoms of a deeper disease, a mindset of domination, exploitation, interpersonal abuse, and consumerism – all of which are symptoms of the disease of separation, of humans placing themselves above and apart from nature. Nature, they say, isn’t a feed stock of the economy. It is our source of life and such is to be honored and obeyed, not exploited. Nature itself is one whole living system expressed in trillions of interactions between animals, plants and minerals in an almost symphonic harmony.  Deep Adaptation holds no hope for a highly energy dependent civilization continuing for more than a decade. There will be floods, droughts, crop failures, aquifer collapses, coastal cities getting inundated and terrible human suffering, and they are trying to be brave enough to endure the mental devastation of such material devastations. It could be likened to the acceptance phase of the dying process. After denial, anger, bargaining and depression, a spaciousness sets in that is actually very alive, whatever the outcome. Their “solution”, if there is one, is to mature out of the mindset that put us in the mess.

Permaculture – a design science for adaptation

Lively discussions of post acceptance adaptations occur on many social media sites and websites. Permaculture seems to be a universal language for these nature-aligned adaptations. Permaculture is a systems approach to design centered on 3 ethics – earth care, people care, and fair share – and twelve design principles. Through this lens, holistic solutions appear: urban agriculture, homesteads, dwellings (from tiny houses to living buildings to natural building), circular economies, local food, eco-villages, regenerative agriculture, agro-forestry, holistic management, relocalization, selective cutting of forests and on and on and on. There are sustainable ways for humans to inhabit the earth, ways that preserve the earth’s systems vitality indefinitely.

As naturally intelligent and compassionate as these practices are, they have no guarantee of curing what ails us. To outpace the rapid decline, they would have to scale up fast and that would require a level of commitment from government and business and churches and academia that likely won’t happen. At this late date, survival is a long shot. Choose healing – peace of mind, enjoying the life you have – rather than curing i.e. high tech medical interventions.

If this were a sci-fi story, this is when a bifurcation comes: some fade into rural areas for a nature-adapted way of life and others commit to technological solutions that allow the consumer culture to continue in ever more whiz bang ways. Same with treating climate change.


Many people and groups think there is plenty we can do in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change – and we should be busy about this now. Small scale solutions are all well and good, but they have to scale to work. Doing inner work is all well and good, as long as it doesn’t take you off the crucial front lines of mitigation and adapation. Mitigation refers to all processes designed to dampen the effects of climate chaos. From sea walls – the Dutch know a lot about that – to legal frameworks like those the UN climate conferences have hammered out (with uneven effect), to reforestation and afforestation and agro-ecological practices, to the Green New Deal, to Project Drawdown that identifies 100 practices, in efficacy order, that can literally change the world (educating girls, regenerative agriculture, using less or different air conditioning, etc)… and on and on and on. Most of these approaches come from using nature’s principles to design scalable solutions that do less harm. There are already demonstration projects around the world.  Politicians are building constituencies to push through binding agreements and legislation.

Mitigation is the mother of necessity

This curing approach is incredibly important and exciting – and the pressure of a short timeline is increasing creativity, commitment and cooperation. In the disease model, this might be surgery – removing the diseased organ – or intensive lifestyle change programs like a treatment center for alcoholism. Many people on the healing path are also enthusiastically participating in these curing projects. Part of compassion is reducing pain, whatever the outcome. Some on this curing path resent Deep Adaptation’s welcome of facing into collapse. To admit the possibility that we will fail to stop carbon pollution in time to save civilization is to weaken us just when we need all hands on deck.

Proponents of curing the climate disease also look to higher tech solutions, from marine cloud brightening to carbon capture and storage, to carbon sucking technologies to beyond meat , to scaling up solar, wind, tide and sometimes nuclear technologies to zero carbon everything by 2050. This, too, is generating a lot of enthusiasm. The Deep Adaptation people might accept some part of this technological approach, but with great caution as it does nothing to address the mindset that got us into the mess – and technologies often backfire in ways their inventors and investors can’t predict.

Staying alive

Denial. Healing. Curing. This is just one framework for the accelerated activity brought about by being told we are just a few years from some point of no return. Only a very few gloomy people want the human species to dead end, just as no one with a heart wants a loved one to die of a potentially curable disease. Everyone wants everything and everyone they love to survive. Most approaches horrify someone’s sense of what’s needed, which means our work is laced with the very fear that Deep Adaptation says is part of the process. Let us engage in ways that have the most truth for us, in a spirit of good will and an open mind. We do not know whose rake will pull our chestnuts out of the fire.


Teaser photo credit: By Diorit – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change responses, Deep Adaptation