Interview with Professor Jem Bendell on Deep Adaptation to climate chaos, by Facing Future TV.
In 2018, a climate paper by Jem Bendell went viral, being downloaded over a million times. It helped to launch a worldwide movement of people seeking to reduce harm in the face of societal disruption and collapse. In this interview for Facing Future TV, Jem explains the concept of Deep Adaptation, how he developed the idea, what it means in practice, what he says to critics, and what his new book on the topic is about.
FF: Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
I am a middle-aged British man who has been an environment and development scholar, activist and consultant for over a quarter of a century. I’ve lived much of my life outside the UK, worked around the world, with a lot of the time in the Global South. In that time I’ve been driven by the idea that getting smarter about the problems we face will help to reduce them. And I still suffer from that story. Hence all the writing and teaching, and the new book.
FF: What is Deep Adaptation?
Deep Adaptation has become an umbrella term for an ethos, a framework, a community and a movement.
The ethos is essentially a commitment to working together to do what’s helpful during the disruption and collapse of societies because of the direct and indirect impacts of environmental breakdown including climate change. It’s an ethos of being engaged, open-hearted and open-minded about how to be and how to respond.
It’s a framework for exploring ideas for how to attempt that. Which is what we call the four Rs of deep adaptation. “What do we most value that we want to keep and how,” is a question of resilience. “What could we let go of so as not to make matters worse,” is a question of relinquishment. “What could we bring back to help us in these difficult times,” is a question of restoration. “With what and with whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our common mortality,” is a question of reconciliation.
These are deliberately questions because we are in a very new situation where the expectation of simple answers given to us by somebody else is not going to help as much as exploring together how to be and what to do.
It’s a community in the form of thousands of participants and hundreds of volunteers in the international Deep Adaptation Forum and various national groups. There are regular events online – perhaps every day now. The community is quite focused on providing emotional support to each other and sharing skills about organising.
It also seems to be a movement now because I keep hearing of people using the idea of Deep Adaptation for their own efforts at living meaningful lives with a starting point of either experiencing disruption in their society or anticipating it. For instance, this year I learned about a Deep Adaptation group in Southern India. They were doing various activities to be more resilient in terms of the food and water in the face of disruptions; but when covid hit they mobilized to help the migrant laborers who are stranded there in the region without income.
FF: What is the evidence for anticipating societal collapse?
One of the biggest drivers of societal disruption already and in the near future is the environmental damage already done. For instance, outbreaks of disease coming from wildlife are now more likely because of the damage to the environment – including destabilising the climate, which then puts pressure on ecosystems and wildlife. That means we risk so-called spillover from diseases in the wild, as well as risking leaks of dangerous viruses from the many hundreds of labs around the world where epidemiologists who consider we’re in a new era of pandemics are doing research which brings significant risks of accidental infections.
The environmental and climate changes that are already occurring are also damaging food supply around the world. Whereas disruptions from lockdowns have been a factor in food supply and price disruption, climate change is recognised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as the key negative systemic pressure on production. Food prices are now rising at their fastest rate for a decade.
Then there is the warming that’s already locked in because of existing carbon in the atmosphere and heat in the oceans, which will cause further problems for both food supply and pandemic risk.
Then there is the complex and really worrying situation with the self-reinforcing feedbacks where the natural world is amplifying the warming that humanity started by putting so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, and degrading so many of the natural sinks, like forests and wetlands. One such example is how drying forests can release carbon from driving soils and by catching fire. There is evidence now that the Amazon rainforest for example is becoming a source rather than sink of carbon dioxide. In 2020 we saw carbon emissions come down by 7% by some estimates and yet atmospheric carbon concentrations still increased. That indicates that there are some self-reinforcing feedbacks already underway. Specialists working on these Earth system feedbacks have published analysis that nine of 15 major feedbacks may have already begun.
Meanwhile we are not seeing the kind of policy changes or lifestyle changes that could significantly and continually reduce climate change.
This is why hundreds of scholars from over 39 countries have signed an international scholars warning on societal disruption and collapse.
FF: What do you say to your critics?
There are generally two types of critics. First, there are people who have heard criticism of either collapse anticipation or deep adaptation and think that it sounds reasonable enough so have concluded for now to be against the idea. Second, there are people who are professionals within the environmental sector and think that collapse anticipation is scientifically wrong or counterproductive to the cause of progress on sustainability.
I’ll start with the second of these types to begin with. I ask them to recognize that there is a bias in us for normality – where we think what is normal in our everyday experience will continue. Of course, that has been shaken somewhat since the start of the pandemic and yet it is an aspect of the way people think. The normality bias shows up in the discussion of the latest climate science in the way it apportions the burden of proof. If you anticipate that everything will change everywhere almost immediately and that we get lucky that such change is sufficient, despite the already existing destabilization of global environmental systems, then the mainstream scientific establishment does not demand that you prove the basis for your anticipation.
When I anticipate collapse all I am doing is anticipating that what is happening now on many levels will continue to occur in similar ways. For instance, if we look at anthropogenic carbon emissions they have continued to increase near exponentially since the start of the industrial revolution with only a couple of blips in 2008 and in 2020 – though now in 2021 we have seen one of the fastest ever leaps in those emissions. That is despite decades of awareness, campaigning, policy initiatives and technological advances. Why should it need to be proven that this will continue, before assessing the implications of it continuing?
Or if we look at global atmospheric carbon concentrations they have also increased near exponentially since the start of the industrial revolution. The atmospheric concentration of carbon increased during 2020 despite a 7% drop in global emissions from humans. That indicates that some self-reinforcing feedbacks have begun to some degree such as the Amazon rainforest becoming a source rather than a sink of carbon dioxide as its soil dries and as it catches fire. Why should it need to be proven that this will continue, before assessing the implications of it continuing?
Then if we look at indicators such as sea level rise, the loss of Arctic Ice, the loss of land ice or the increase in droughts and floods, the loss of biodiversity, or the release of methane from inland permafrost, we see similar trends. Why should it need to be proven that this will continue, before assessing the implications of it continuing? And then if we look at impacts on society such as storm damage to property and to loss of crops from erratic weather, or the impacts of zoonotic disease on societies in general, the trends are also bad. Why should it need to be proven that this will continue, rather than to assess the implications of it continuing?
Our societies are highly complex and so it is a fool’s game to argue about which impact will break the cultural camel’s back. In my work and in the Deep Adaptation field and the collapsology field most of us aren’t spending time trying to predict how and when collapse will happen or how confident one should be about that according to a particular frame of reference for knowledge claims. Instead, it’s seen as extremely plausible and therefore must be worked on.
FF: But what do you say to people who argue this view is unhelpful?
Ultimately the cultural impacts of people waking up to this situation and experiencing the psychosocial stress could easily hasten such collapses. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way if more of us are prepared to face the situation and support each other in curious and compassionate dialogue about the implications. Indeed, there is a lot of evidence against the argument that to anticipate collapse breeds apathy. This evidence is available through just talking to activists or paying attention to the life stories of some of the leaders of the recent wave of climate activism. They say quite clearly that they continue to push for the best but prepare for the worst. In addition, there is research on psychological impacts of collapse anticipation which suggest it is not disabling of the kinds of action which matter for political change. The focus of behavioural psychology and behavioural economics on individual consumers and how they may or may not change because of their beliefs in the effectiveness of their actions is not a sound basis for assessing the implications of people’s perspectives. We are not just consumers – we are all potentially radical co-leaders in our communities and organisations. Therefore, to assume that an anticipation of collapse would be disabling of radical action might be telling us more about ourselves than other people. I know that because I used to be one of them when I assumed that I could not consider the situation to be as bad as it is because then I would hit despair and not know what to do. Fortunately, I found that there’s a place beyond that despair which is creative and committed to finding out what’s right and doing that no matter what.
To return to the other type of critic, who listens to the professional critics, I reply as follows. First, to anticipate collapse is pretty scary and involves complicated assessments, but there are lots of scholars now who are anticipating it. Second, there hasn’t been any new scientific finding on environmental damage and climate change that has determined that the situation is significantly less bad than was previously thought. Third, there are vested industry interests that do not want anyone with power anticipating societal disruption and collapse. Fourth, to anticipate collapse does not mean giving up; it simply means continuing to push for what’s best while also preparing for the worst. Fifth, there is now evidence that the militaries of the world are beginning to plan for greater disruption and even collapse in ways that are very problematic and so they should not be the only ones having such conversations.
FF: How did you come to conceive of Deep Adaptation?
Looking back I think I was influenced a lot by Improv Theatre, especially in the way I responded once my climate paper went viral. It was in the early autumn of 2017 when I moved to Athens in Greece to begin my unpaid sabbatical from University. It had been quite an intense year as I had become involved for the first time in my life in frontline politics as a communication strategist and speech writer for the British Labour Party during the general election that year. It was an incredible campaign that within 6 weeks turned around public opinion massively but still not enough to do more than take the conservative government’s majority.
I engaged in politics because in Corbyn and the movement around him I saw a reassertion of the kind of principles of solidarity, fairness, and care that we need to avoid worsening the situation. My work with them was intense but also a bit of a distraction from the angst I’d been feeling about our environmental situation. I wanted to take some time to research climatology, which is why I took a year off work. I chose Athens partly because it was cheap, but also because there was something interesting happening in a part of the city called Exarchia. It was an antiauthoritarian neighbourhood, where people were practicing constructive forms of anarchism. They were creating refugee centres and support networks, as well as mutual aid for the locals hit by the economic crash, and trialling alternative currencies.
But after a while there are only so many late night political conversations I could enjoy. My flatmate in Athens said to me why don’t we join this improv theatre session tonight. I had no idea what that meant. We walked to a disused old theatre, Embros, which had been squatted by a collective to use it more. It had the tiered red velvet seats, the black painted boards of the stage, and some of the stage lights still there.
There were about a dozen people, and young facilitators organising things. They started us off with a bunch of silly games. Looking back I realize it helped with the amount of fear I was feeling about making stuff up on the spot in front of others. After the games we sat down on one side of the stage and our facilitators told us we’re going to play a game called freeze, where a couple of people will stand up and someone in the audience gives them a location. The couple then start interacting and make stuff up to develop a scene. All of it improvised in the moment. Then at some point a member of the audience will clap and shout freeze and the two actors will freeze in position and the person who shouted will tap one of the actors on the shoulder to get them to move. The body form before they left the scene will be taken up exactly by the new person, who will restart the scene with a bit of dialogue and a movement which completely changes the meaning of what’s happening. The idea of joining in felt scary; for reasons I came to understand better much later. I was sitting there seeing different people clap, the actors freeze, then someone get up and do stuff. I realized that the activity did not have to be that clever or inspired: just people having a go at changing the meaning of a body posture could be surprising and funny. I realized that I could just sit there and safely feel upset with myself for not trying. And I also realized you couldn’t plan what you were going to do… you just had to shout freeze and then as you walk up to the person you are going to tap out you must let anything come to mind. So I realized there was no planning involved. It would be a leap into the unknown. I might get up there on stage and be completely tongue-tied.
All this was sinking in as I watched and laughed at my fellow participants join. My flatmate did. Then his girlfriend. I realised that there was no ideal time to do this. So I clapped and shouted freeze, stood up and walked towards two people frozen in a pose, the audience looking on from behind me.
I don’t remember much. At some point I was on my knees, pleading with whoever it was I was acting with. The anxiety meant I could find the emotion of panic in me and so play out a story that would allow me to act that panic.
I discovered a lot that night but I only really made sense of it over time. I discovered that a big part of my fear was a sense of insecurity in how I can be accepted. There was a fear of shame, which meant I wanted a sense of control and to be deliberate about how people might experience me. I had quite an attachment to the idea of planning what comes next, yet with Improv Theatre you can’t do that. It’s about letting go of the need to be admired or accepted and to control situations to that end. It also taught me the importance of accepting whatever happens and working with it and the importance of focusing on whoever you’re interacting with and knowing that whatever emerges can be of a completely different quality to what you might plan and can be way more interesting and fun than anything you might plan.
I became a regular and even started an improv group in another town, and began facilitating groups at times over 30 participants. Looking back, I think this improv experience shaped my work. The awareness of how I had been restricting myself because of a fear of shame and of a desire to control possibilities helped me to explore ideas about climate change and options for my life. It also shaped the way I engaged with others after my climate paper went viral. Because it’s clear old ideas about how to plan things don’t make much sense in an uncertain and unstable context. So I’ve been interested in how we can create the conditions to improv our way into this new era where the only certainty is greater disruption.
I think regular Improv has helped me with a sense of courage, curiosity, trust, community, creativity and teamwork. I’ve started to describe it to people as great therapy for recovering control freaks.
FF: Why a book now?
Opinion research shows that large percentages of the general public in many western countries anticipate a societal collapse, in their own countries, and that significant numbers believe it to be within a couple of decades.
Such an anticipation can lead to problematic or positive responses, for individuals, communities and society – depending on how we help each other explore the implications. Unfortunately mainstream media, advocacy and politics does not welcome such conversations. So they are only heard in private and people who speak out are even maligned to try to stop people from listening.
The Deep Adaptation ethos, framework, community and movement, are all helpful for people who have a level of anticipation of collapse whereby they want to explore it with people and work out what to do next in their lives and organizations. It is now so much more than just one academic paper or one professor talking about things and so an edited book helping people discover the breadth of ideas and people involved will hopefully mean that the more positive ways of responding are encouraged.
FF: Why a scholarly one and why an edited collection?
I think it’s helpful for people in senior positions to become aware of how seriously scholars in different disciplines in different countries now consider the risk of societal collapse and want to work on it. Therefore, a scholarly book bringing together thinkers in a variety of disciplines as well as some activists seemed a helpful way of illustrating the depth and breadth of the field of collapse anticipation today. I was pleased to work with Professor Rupert Reed as my co-editor because he has had a somewhat similar journey to myself on this topic. Like me he worked for decades on environmental change as both scholar and activist. In his case within the Green party in the UK and as a philosopher. In my case working with green charities and companies around the world, with United Nations agencies and then for the Labour Party leadership in 2017. We were very fortunate to get some incredible contributions from people at the forefront of their field. For instance one of the world’s leading professors of leadership Jonathan Gosling and one of the world’s leading professors of educational theory and decolonization, Vanessa Andreotti and one of the leading advisors and spiritual teachers for activists, Joanna Macy.
FF: What does Deep Adaptation actually involve?
If you visit one of the platforms of the Deep Adaptation Forum, you will see a range of approaches from people. They include a focus on emotional support, education, local resilience, organisational change and political activism. There has been a focus in the first couple of years on inner work as well as dialogue and social learning. A key has been to practice how we can stay present to the predicament facing humanity, so not become numb, or hasty, or defensive or vengeful. Instead, to explore more openly what to do at this time.
Everyone can and will find their own way of coping or even thriving within a new context. That context will include disruption to our lives, much less certainty about the future, and less acceptance of current societal norms. That’s happening already: around us and within us. How we cope or thrive depends on collaboration, privilege and luck. Those of us who have privilege and luck may want to do more than simply focus on self preservation.
In my case, I wanted to contribute to greater readiness, harm reduction and meaning making. On the one hand I was fearful about how some people respond aggressively to their anticipation of disruption and collapse. On the other hand, I was stunned at how heart opening this realisation was for myself and many others. I wanted to help nourish the latter. The transformation I went through meant I couldn’t compromise so much with the current system and my way of life. Key has been my view that I don’t need to save for the long-term. I will be grateful and surprised if I’m alive in the 2030s and that similar financial systems and opportunities still exist. For me, that outlook hasn’t lead to profligacy or hedonism. It’s meant throwing myself into stuff.
So when I rejoined academia it was only working two days a week, and focusing almost exclusively on what I believe is still useful, such as research and teaching on critical leadership for social change. That meant I could work for free for two years to support an emerging global movement of collapse anticipators.
I arranged remote working and moved in order to have a far simpler and cheaper life. I’ve rented a house for seven years rather than buying it. I plan to lease some agricultural land, to give me something to barter in case the banks collapse before then. I don’t want something dead like gold, but something alive now and alive in the future.
It’s been a busy few years on the global and intellectual stuff. I still have some way to go with that. I am creating courses that will be able to run without me, I’m helping more scholars to communicate, and finishing a book on my personal take on this situation. But soon I’ll make time to be more involved in local resilience work as well as my spiritual yearnings and practices. I’ve already started helping the main Buddhist temple in this region.
FF: How does this agenda relate to mainstream climate policy?
It is positive that we see a new emphasis on adaptation to climate change from the World Bank, the European Commission, and various intergovernmental organisations. Yet research on the mainstream adaptation policy agenda finds that it is too limited and often counterproductive. For instance, scholars like IPCC author Lisa Schipper of Oxford University find that so much of what is done in the name of climate adaptation is trying to patch up situations which won’t continue and which add to inequality. Deep adaptation is named in contrast to this shallow adaptation. It has more in common with what some label transformative adaptation, that is based on the recognition that everything needs to change.
I hope people who work in the climate adaptation field recognise that Deep Adaptation can be a complement to what they are doing, but that some of what they are doing might no longer be helpful.
The book is available via the Wiley website: Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos | Wiley
A free audio of the introduction is available from https://soundcloud.com/michael-dowd-grace-limits/introduction-to-deep-adaptation-book-jem-bendell-and-rupert-read
Teaser photo credit: Screen shot from interview with Facing Future TV