What Could Possibly Go Right?

What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 33 Jem Bendell

March 30, 2021

Show Notes

Dr. Jem Bendell is the Founder of the Deep Adaptation Forum and a Professor of Sustainability Leadership with the University of Cumbria. He works as a researcher, educator and advisor on social and organisational change, with over 25 years experience in sustainable development initiatives in over 20 countries. In 2018, he authored the viral Deep Adaptation paper, downloaded around a million times.

Jem addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • That “people are changing their lives because of their anticipation of collapse, to relate more openly and wanting to do what’s right, come what may.”
  • That “holding space for each other and our difficult emotions has led to a new quality of engagement.”
  • That Deep Adaptation invites people into a different way of talking about crisis response and emotions – fostering compassion, curiosity and respect.
  • That sustainable development may be a delusion, but we can ready ourselves for societal disruption to help others with our skills and networks.


Become a regular donor to the Deep Adaptation Forum by the end of March and your contribution will activate an extra $100 in match funding. By donating, “you will help provide the ideas, tools, and systems that allow collapse-aware individuals to take empowered action.” 

Connect with Jem Bendell

Website: jembendell.com & deepadaptation.info
Twitter: twitter.com/jembendell
Facebook group: facebook.com/groups/deepadaptation


 This is what’s happening. People are changing their lives because of their anticipation of collapse, to relate more openly and want to do what’s right, come what may.

Vicki Robin  

Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. My guest today is Dr. Jem Bendell, a Professor of Sustainability Leadership with the University of Cumbria and Founder of the Deep Adaptation Forum. He works as a researcher, educator and advisor on social and organisational change, with over 25 years in sustainable development initiatives in over 20 countries with businesses, voluntary sector and political parties. With 100 published texts on the environment and international development, including reports for the United Nations, and involvement in establishing and growing international multi-stakeholder initiatives, he was recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2012-2017. Then he took an honest look at the climate data and felt compelled to say that the emperor of his profession of educators and consultants on sustainable development had no clothes. It was like the riddle of here’s a dog, here’s a bone. And if the dog jumps halfway to the bone with each jump, when does he reach the bone? The answer is never. Jem realized that nothing we were doing would avoid searing climate consequences, no matter how many meetings, pronouncements, or reports that we did. We are only and always jumping halfway to the bone. He coined the term to open a new conversation, a new space of inquiry and work about how we will adapt psychologically, socially, spiritually to a deteriorating climate. I

n 2018, he authored the viral Deep Adaptation paper, downloaded something about a million times. I came across this in 2019, the fall of 2019, and it’s been very meaningful to me. I want to briefly note a few essences, for those of you who are not familiar with Deep Adaptation, because the shock of the paper has produced a lot of debate. First, he asserts the collapse of ecosystems, institutions, societies, the coming apart, given the ravages ahead, is either already happening, likely or inevitable. Already happening, – and we do know that it’s already happening in many parts of the world – likely or inevitable. We must tell ourselves the truth and then engage not just in mitigation, doing the technological and policy things that we can do to sort of pull our impact of the planet back or adaptation, all the things that we’ll have to do to be able to continue to have human habitation on the planet, but Deep Adaptation, the inner work of facing loss. And that’s not the end, as he says in the interview. Life after acceptance is full of discovery and meaning. But there is this confronting the reality of the consequences of the choices that we’ve already made.

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In the paper, he gives us a bit of a roadmap for this inner movement. He calls it the four R’s. The first one is resilience. What values and behaviors do you want to keep in our culture and in your daily life? What do you want to keep? Second is relinquishment. What values and behaviors are you ready to let go of? The third is restoration. What are the values and behaviors that you used to have in your culture or another culture that you’d like to adopt? The collective wisdom of human civilizations and societies. And then reconciliation. With whom do you want to make peace while you can. I find this such a profound roadmap for the inner work, the necessary inner work, of being a clear-eyed and open-hearted and humble servant of all the work that’s necessary now, to address the consequences of what we’ve created. And just to remind you that the future is in our imagination. Science informs us about trajectories, but the future is also a mystery. So we can’t just use the data to collapse on ourselves and say, Oh well, I give up, or I’ll just go and grieve and have a ceremony or whatever. No, I find that this Deep Adaptation call is a call to actually rise to the occasion, to become not just your better self, but to become a real person in relationship with real other people and real landscapes that are threatened, but in relationship and in mutuality, reciprocity, and who knows what will come from that? So Jem Bendell.

Vicki Robin  

Hi Jem, it’s just so great to be with you. As you know, you’ve made a huge difference in my life and I admire you immensely. I’m immensely grateful to you for your pioneering work. As I’ve thought about this conversation, I’ve realized how one of a kind you are. You sort of launched and led an important movement for facing into the collapse with eyes and heart wide open, but you learn along with those who look to you to lead. You sort of wander the trail together, after you’ve invited them to take the wander. You’ve gathered to you a community of scholars and healers and truth tellers and even changemakers. But you don’t seem to have an agenda per se, or a communications department boiling it all down to soundbites. And I know I tried to do that with Deep Adaptation, but it doesn’t seem to be in your nature. You’ve come at our current predicament from many angles over many years, you’re not all wet behind the ears on this one. You’ve roused a lot of passions, but you’re not a rabble rouser. You’ve willingly torpedoed a secure career in sustainability leadership by pointing out that consultants never solve problems; if they did, they would be out of a job. So the rest of us all nibble around the edges with papers and pronouncements, but don’t mess with the Emperor, and you have messed with the Emperor. And yet, you insist on non-violence, on loving response. Now you’re working on the Scholars Warning. You’ve put your finger on some of the sources of our collapse, but seem to not be willing or able to “other” others, to focus on the blame and try to find a scapegoat, even as you come under attack and get blamed from many sides. Really, you are very unusual. I’d like to invite you in this conversation about what could possibly go right, to look in two places. Not just looking out there about what you see emerging on the horizon that says a mature awareness of our predicament, and a mature response may be growing. And second, what is emerging in your slice of what could be called the climate movement, science-based truth-telling, non-violent, focused on a loving response? What do you see in that movement? What’s arising in that movement? Where is it strong? Where could it be stronger? So with all of that, and whatever else is on your mind, Jem, what could possibly go right?

Jem Bendell  

Yeah, Vicki, thank you for the invitation and for your introduction there. It’s quite affirming to hear that how I’m aspiring to be does come across sometimes to some people. So thank you. The things you just mentioned about the maturing of this sort of collapse anticipation space and also, what are the trends in climate activism and climate science; I’d like to come to those. But I want to just say thank you for the question you asked me about what could possibly go right? Because I found it really difficult. I realize I’m not the most obvious person to ask that question of, given the fact that I’ve now become well-known over the last few years of predicting the collapse of industrial civilization. Of course, recognizing that some people think that that would be life going more right, because of the amount of destruction that our way of life is causing to other people and to the planet more generally; something I’ll come back to.

But reflecting on the question, what could possibly go right? I realized it’s a future oriented question. So it can invite us to think about tactics, strategies, trends, and possibly, therefore accomplishments or even progress. While that’s good, it’s good to think, what’s our vision? What are we working towards? It can also take us out of the here and now. So much of what’s happened to me and what’s been motivating people I’ve been working with since my Deep Adaptation paper came out in 2018 and went viral, is about coming back to the here and now. So it’s almost like what could possibly be right, rather than go right? It’s about a shift in the way that we are with each other and with ourselves, starting from how we are with our difficult emotions. As we look at the latest science, the latest lack of progress, in fact heading in the wrong direction, we feel grief, sadness, despair, anger, fear, vulnerability, confusion, and a sense of impotence. Lots and lots of very difficult emotions and the normal way of being with those, I speak for myself, my normal way of being with those emotions, but I’ve subsequently learned, the way that it’s expected within modernity, is to fix them quickly. And certainly not show up with each other on a regular basis with those sorts of emotions and saying: This is part of who I am and I don’t know what to do about it, because any simple way I’ve learned to deal with this seems like denial, seems perhaps even has a flavor of panic, like, I need to get out of these bad emotions such that I’ve convinced myself of a story of what could possibly go right, a story of the future. If I convince you, then it must be true, and therefore my bad feelings will go away. 

Jem Bendell  

So what’s really been happening in the space labelled Deep Adaptation is people saying: I don’t want to pretend anymore, to keep it together, to show up with a smiley face, or at least not upset at work, or in my conversations with friends and families or colleagues. I want to be more real about what’s going on in me as I perceive what’s going on in the world. And it’s from that shift that loads of things are happening, that I had no idea would happen. I had an inkling that a different way of relating, a different way of being would lead to a different way of relating, which would lead to a different way of dialog and thinking and planning and doing and ultimately, therefore other things that could go right. But it’s been quite a revelation. Basically, people showing up as you said, open eyes, open hearts, open minds, holding spaces for each other and our difficult emotions has led to a new quality of engagement. And has therefore, I think, begun to show that the mainstream narrative, which is like a binary. Either you believe we fix this with more effort, more technology, more leadership, more of somebody else doing something amazing. And meanwhile, we just get super busy with recycling and being good citizens. That’s one binary, where actually, we don’t have a collapse. We don’t have potentially mega deaths. We don’t have a deep reckoning in terms of our whole worldview, and recognizing that our society has become unstable. That’s one binary.

On the other hand, it’s this view that, Oh, we’ll just grab your gun, dig a bunker and wait for Mad Max. It’s been this sort of two binaries. And because people thought there was this Mad Max alternative to just working harder and the eco-modern view basically of reform, that people didn’t allow their reality, in their perception of coming break down. What Deep Adaptation community has shown, the Deep Adaptation forum in particular since we started it back in early 2019, is that there’s a very different way, a very different way of responding, which then doesn’t shrink our sense of connection, that opens it up. Where old stories of who I am and why I have self respect, why I think I’m worth something; that all fades away or crumbles because our belief in current society crumbles. Instead, we show up more raw, more open and compassionate and creative. This is what’s happening. People are changing their lives because of their anticipation of collapse, to relate more openly, and want to do what’s right, come what may. So we might not fix much, we might not stop much harm. But we still want to do what’s right and we don’t want to turn away from suffering in the world by the stories that we’ve grown up within, that reduce the dignity and worth of people that don’t look like us, don’t sound like us, were born somewhere else. And beyond that, other species. There’s this assumption that humanity is the center of the universe.

So, what could go right? is more of that, because what I’ve just described doesn’t depend on fairytale solutions to the climate crisis. If things keep going badly, then more of what I’ve described is going to happen. I should say, and when more of it happens, and more people are connected with each other, it does grow exponentially. So the Deep Adaptation forum has connected people with that kind of ethos. Now there are hundreds of volunteers who are showing how much they want to help contribute to a new way of being in the face of the climate crisis, in myriad ways. There’s simple support by a very small freelance team of just a few people. But still, I think the fact that it’s sort of volunteer led shows you that this is going to grow and grow. It doesn’t mean it will stop the other responses from growing and growing. And when I mean the other responses, I do mean the ones where people have unprocessed, painful emotions, and therefore, are more easily drawn to populist stories that want to tell you who to blame, where to run, how to protect yourself. Those sorts of reactionary, manipulative approaches exist today. They’re getting worse, and they will also get worse.

So in my view of the future, I don’t see the good things I’ve talked about necessarily creating a transition to an eco-civilization. I actually think that if your motivation for doing what’s right from your heart, right here, right now, is bound up with a story of “therefore we will succeed in creating a transition to an ecological civilization”, I think your motivation will be unsustainable, because things are gonna get worse and worse. It’s a terrible, terrible situation we’re in. It’s terrible to carry that with you. It’s painful. But I think, although my critics, as you say, will get a little bit angry or bullying with people like me, and say, prove it. But you can’t prove it. Well, of course, nothing can be proved by scientific method in complex systems in terms of you can try and draw connections and so on, but in the end it’s hyper complex. But then, they don’t seem to ask how can you prove it themselves, that we will avoid this scenario? Because all I’m saying is, if we keep going where we’re headed, we’re going to get there. So if you look at carbon emissions, of carbon concentrations, if you look at biodiversity loss, if you look at political trends, polarization, the absolutely obscene, totally disgusting, outrageous inequality and also inequality of power, then it’s all just heading in the wrong direction. So I’ve yet to see my critics prove that we’re changing sufficiently at scale and at pace for us not to get to a more much more difficult scenario, which therefore leads to a breakdown in normal life. Then of course, some people say that the Coronavirus situation because of its connection to deforestation and climate change. Again, in complex systems, you can’t draw exact dots, but the fact is deforestation and climate change makes zoonotic disease more likely. So for me, being freed of old assumptions of society, almost having a dissolution of your old self, opens you up to new forms of connection with other people. And that’s magical. It’s already magical for 1000s of people. That’s what could go right because it’s going right and it doesn’t depend on any silly stories about magically changing everything. And what’s awesome is that it is expanding people’s sense of connection and commitment. So it’s leading to new commitment to social justice, rather than less. 

Jem Bendell  

Actually, I’d love to tell you one story, because it is a global movement now. Clearly you and I probably, Vicki like me, we live very much online. So much of our lives is online. Therefore, we may not realize what’s actually happening on the ground, but there are people in all different corners of the globe. I just recently learned about what’s happening in southern India, from the Deep Adaptation group there. I think it illustrates the things I’ve been talking about. So Auroville is an intentional community in southern India. It’s been around for decades, it’s international, and very much built on the idea of integrating one’s spiritual perspective, with one’s daily life, including one’s work. There’s lots of conscious businesses there, doing things in a more green and more friendly way in terms of relations with the staff and local community. Now a few years ago, because the Collapsology book came out in 2015 in France. A few years ago, they created a Collapse group in Auroville. The discussions were very much focused or influenced by the Collapsology idea, that it’s possible – probable – at some point unspecified in the future, and also influenced by the Transition Towns idea that the way to respond is to look at becoming more self sufficient; closing the loop in terms of your production and consumption. Doing what would be right if everyone did it. Then came the Deep Adaptation stuff. It landed in the group in late 2018, one of their meetings. Lakshmi, who’s been telling me about this, and Daniel Rodri, they were telling me about the process of testing, that they saw the predicament as inevitable and soon. They also saw it as total. And therefore you don’t ride this out just by having your own permaculture, if you’re in a society that’s collapsing around you. 

So suddenly there was almost a challenge to return to deeper questions, the spiritual ones about who are we, what’s important, and a bigger commitment to the humanitarian aspect of this. Some people would say that’s because too much of the environmental story has been connected to this idea of self-expression. So that those of us who are engaged in environmentalism, we want to add on green clothes, we want to augment the self to feel better about, be seen as better. So it’s not involving a dissolution or disintegration or annihilation of a sense of self. It’s adding things on. If you think collapse is coming in decades, you don’t know when, or you think you can nicely move to a nice village and transition slowly. This is almost like self expression, a self actualization and so on. It’s an add on.

But suddenly, if you realize, if you feel vulnerable this could happen tomorrow and you’d be in a terrible situation; it really kind of rips off those green clothes. This is what seems to have happened in Auroville with the Deep Adaptation group. Because therefore, when they tell me when the COVID policies were imposed by the Modi government, and suddenly there were many 1000s of day laborers in their local town Pondicherry, unable to get home and unable to have a wage and with no savings; these were poor people from Nepal, Bengal, Northern India. The Deep Adaptation group swung into action to fundraise in order to get them essential needs. That was the first action. This is of a group that was talking about cutting carbon and growing your own food. But there was this bigger sense of, we need to be ready for crisis and ready to respond. So they swung into action, they raised 1000s of dollars in currency, and they were there immediately helping people who otherwise would have been destitute. That was, I think, an example of the shift can happen through Deep Adaptation conversations. I asked Lakshmi to write about it for my blog and the Deep Adaptation forum, because I think it’s the most obvious answer to the critics who say that people who anticipate collapse become despairing and apathetic, or nihilistic. We seem to be experiencing something quite different. So that’s what could go right, because it’s going right already.

Vicki Robin  

Exactly. Well, that’s what the question is asking, is to notice in the welter of news, those green shoots of things that are emerging, that are sort of in alignment with the kind of world that you sense is the more beautiful world, as we sometimes say. It’s a very interesting perspective. I’ve been reflecting on this, because I’m having a hip replacement. Prior to hip replacement, there’s a hip problem. And having a hip problem, then you start to contemplate your fragility. I realized that in a way, in any disease process, I’m sure that people have applied the Kübler-Ross stages, but there is something like acceptance that comes when you realize that you’re not getting out of this thing alive, or the green suit itself is not going to survive the tidal wave of consequences. There’s something about that, where you face that, but there’s more life. There’s more to do as because there’s always something next that’s happening. I also find it really interesting what you’re saying about one of the things that I learned in my first year with Deep Adaptation and climate grief and the reckoning, is that my whole life had been arranged around in order to; I do this in order to that. If there is no in order to, then what is the motivation for action? I think there is, what I’m hearing from you, is almost an existential peace, not a dark existentialism of meaninglessness, but an existential peace. I’m still here. People are still around me. There’s still things to do. So one final question, because we could go on here, is on this thing of acceptance. After facing, what’s so? You started the Scholars Warning. There are people who are in action in many ways, not just the Auroville response to the day laborers, but there’s people who continue to be in action. Are you noticing that people continue to act in ways that are congruent with their talents or predilections, but their motivations are different? Or how is it that people are still in that process of engagement?

Jem Bendell  

A green suit itself. That was a nice phrase. I think many people, just like I have been in the past, are laboring under the delusion of sustainable development. That’s painful for me to say out loud, because sustainable development as a framework, as a hope, was my thing since 1992 until 2018. But once you’re no longer laboring under a delusion, then it’s destabilizing, but then you’re still there. You’ve still got skills, you’ve still got networks, and you’ve still got that original underlying core humanity, the desire to be useful in the world.

So that leads to all manner of things. To go back to your introduction, who am I to say what it leads to? I mean, the Scholars Warning, over 600 signatories. They come from philosophy, law, politics, physics, geography, food security. I mean, who am I to say, do this, don’t do that. It’s the same with the Deep Adaptation forum. I don’t know, 15,000 people may be engaged on the platforms from all walks of life, various corners of the globe. For me, the best response is to invite people into a different way of talking about how to do stuff, which starts with emotions, which invites us away from the quick fix in order to feel a bit better about my pain. We in the Deep Adaptation forum, we talked about compassion, curiosity and respect, an ethos of asking questions, and I offered a framework of four questions to help people. And the same will be for Scholars Warning. I’m just going to provide a connection for people to then work out together what they want to do. But with Scholars Warning, there’ll be a more explicit focus on how do you bring a private, quite personal anticipation of societal disruption and collapse, with maintaining your day job and your existing skills and career and networks. Because I think there is now a need for more integration. It seems people are ready for it. A few years ago, this was very taboo. Now it’s controversial, but not so taboo. So we can actually begin to have conversations about, how do you bridge this awareness, this perspective, with your life in an organization. For example, the newest member of the holding group of the Deep Adaptation forum is a technical officer at the World Health Organization, working on community and public health. So the big issue there will be, how do these things come together? If it goes right, what could possibly go right, is we do find those bridges between this anticipation of disruption and collapse, with people’s jobs right now. So that we can actually try and reduce harm through retooling and redirecting existing resources.

Vicki Robin  

It’s very beautiful, what you’re saying. Really, because we all just want to be contributing human beings, basically. We want to participate somehow. Then we have narratives we live inside that are toxic, and that seem to be destroying us. Then we have narratives around our own egos. I mean, we have a lot of things that are not actually real, but they create havoc. Once those things start to crumble, we’re still the same people waking up in the morning, trying to do some good wherever we are; skills, talents, connections. Maybe that is maturation. Maybe what could possibly go right is that, however long our species has on this planet, that we grow up beyond complete self regard. That would be if I’m betting on something. I’m not doing anything in order for anything else; of course I am, I try not to, anyway. I catch myself at it every other minute. But still, maturation is where I’m putting my bets, that we could actually grow up, grow out of our childish ways. So anyway, I just want to thank you so much for this perspective. It’s just so rich. It’s going to take a lot of coming back around to it, because it’s so simple. There’s no 10 point plan, and that’s very beautiful. Thank you. 

Jem Bendell  

Thank you, Vicki.


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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, Deep Adaptation