In 2018, one study on climate change broke ranks by integrating a range of sources to conclude that the situation was far worse than the official consensus was letting on. It went so far as to warn about widespread societal collapse. A banker for almost 30 years, it troubled me enough to give up my job and become an activist to raise the alarm. But now, five years on, Professor Bendell’s new paper drills down through the climate crisis to focus on food security and makes me want to start a farm.
His original paper was supported by some climatologists and earth system experts but criticised by others. That debate helped bring attention to how the climatology establishment had tried to avoid sounding too alarmist or impractical; a reticence that had already been documented by top scientists, including James Hansen. As Bendell describes in the preface to the new paper, the perspective of generalists who integrate findings from multiple scientists may not always be welcomed. My key take away from such debates was that by previously accepting the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), people like me had been working toward sustainability with the dubious assumption that there were decades of normality within which to act.
Sensing how bad the climate predicament had become, in 2018 I needed to meet other people with this same awareness. Those were the formative months of Extinction Rebellion, or XR. The aim of this activist group in the UK was to force climate urgency onto the news agenda, so that the government would act. I volunteered and ended up serving as their Finance Lead.
Nearly 5 years on from my awakening to the crisis, it’s difficult to claim any progress in real terms. Yes, we made climate a headline topic. We helped to educate more people as well as ourselves. Some local governments in the UK adopted some new policies, but without any real teeth. The government and opposition both accepted we need to decarbonise the economy. But in the UK and worldwide, emissions have increased in the last couple of years, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have increased, impacts have become more extreme, and ecological destruction continues. The mainstream science has become more scary, catching up with Bendell’s 2018 paper, but not discussing whether and how to prepare for societal collapse. However, hundreds of other scholars from dozens of countries in many subject areas are now warning of societal collapse.
Looking back, the focus of XR was all on leveraging media, influencing government, changing the narrative, and not at all on how to cope with the growing disruptions resulting from global heating, of which we had an unexpected foretaste with the pandemic. I’m referring to the disrupted global supply chains for everything we use in daily life; the more erratic availability and cost of food supplies; the new and spreading diseases; and more storm damage, refugees, and conflict.
Bendell’s new paper on the unfolding food crisis brings the climate issue back home. He lists what he calls six ‘hard trends’. First, humanity is hitting the biophysical limits of food production and “could hit ‘peak food’ within one generation.” Second, “our current food production systems are actively destroying the very resource base upon which they rely, so that the Earth’s capacity to produce food is going down, not up.” Third, the majority of our food production and all its storage and distribution is critically dependent upon fossil fuels, “not only making our food supply vulnerable to price and supply instability, but also presenting us with an impossible choice between food security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Fourth, climate change is already negatively impacting our food supply and “will do so with increasing intensity as the Earth continues to warm and weather destabilises.” Fifth, “we are locked into a trajectory of increasing food demand that cannot easily be reversed.” And finally, “the prioritisation of economic efficiency and profit in world trade has undermined food sovereignty and the resilience of food production at multiple scales, making both production and distribution highly vulnerable to disruptive shocks.” Bendell calls these ‘hard trends’ “because they pose catastrophic implications for humanity unless all of them are reversed, and yet they are difficult or impossible to even slow, while also amplifying the negative impacts of each trend.”
His approach to integrating insights from multiple disciplines will probably alienate some purists but has been welcomed by Scott Williams. He notes that “we are conditioned to fear disorientation and seek safety in certainty and solutions regardless of the information available to us. Breaking that protective screen, this paper adds to the weight of analysis that the collapse of food systems and societies more broadly is inevitable.” As coordinating lead author of the United Nations’ report on disaster risk, he probably knows what he is talking about.
Since stepping down from my XR role two years ago, I sense I have lost time for engaging people who I can directly influence or work with to prepare for more disruption to the basic necessities of our lives. The global food crisis can seem insurmountable, as well as just being one of many aspects of what is now being called a polycrisis, permacrisis or meta-crisis. But I want to at least try to reduce looming hunger, and not just in less fortunate countries but in my own neighbourhood as well.
Much of what needs to be done is obvious. Push for policies for less food waste, and for a coherent food security strategy from governments at all levels. Eat less meat and dairy. Promote more horticultural farms and allotments applying the concept of agroecology, so they rely less on industrial inputs. Then there are some of the novel ideas, like trialling some food technologies such as fermenting proteins, so long as it is well-regulated for personal and ecosystem health.
The food paper is taken from Bendell’s forthcoming book, Breaking Together, which I hope will offer some ideas on what to do. But as I consider joining others in growing food in my local area, I’m under no illusions. As our farmers have been warning us over the past year, in Britain we rely on the rest of the world for over half our food. Even with just a few disruptions some shelves can suddenly go bare. If food systems collapse then it will be a lot worse than that, and a few thousand jaded XR activists growing their own food will not make a massive difference. However, I have come to realise that we don’t need to grow more of our own food with an ‘organic bunker mentality’. Instead, we can grow food to set an example. We can also set out to share food, right from the start, and stop pretending that our fortunes are not intimately connected with those of our neighbours.
Which brings me to the crux of the climate matter that really can’t be downplayed any more by anyone in the climate movement – economic justice. There simply must be more redistribution, so that as costs continue to spiral, people can afford to meet their basic needs and we see profligacy curbed. That’s in keeping with the kind of fair adaptation to climate change that Professor Bendell spoke of in his interview with Extinction Rebellion. It is also the only way to effectively address the cost-of-living concerns being raised by the new sceptics of climate action. That is what XR must now address in its future campaigns. In the UK it has paused its disruption and mass arrests tactics, instead calling for all kinds of people to join to demonstrate their desire for government action next month. Their focus remains on emissions reductions, rather than wider responses to the inevitable disruptions.
“Perhaps what this paper is calling for is the spaciousness to ask new questions, to challenge habits and myths, that may then shift perceptions,” notes Scott Williams. “Consequently, we could be in relationship differently with the inevitability of collapse, and sense the possibilities that are perceivable with renewed care, compassion and generosity to ourselves and to all life.”
It is with that in mind I’ve been paying attention to the latest ideas of people who were leading voices in XR. Dr Rupert Read has been working on a ‘moderate flank‘ to nurture acting locally due to the intransigence of our government. Co-founder, Dr Gail Bradbrook, believes we should prioritise support for people on the sharp end of the unfolding crises, with Being The Change a vehicle for that. Although no longer involved in XR, co-founder Roger Hallam explained on a podcast from prison that we need to design a revolution in the anticipation of collapsing systems, which also reflects his shift towards sensing inevitable collapse. Roger was previously an organic farmer but kept being battered by irregular weather and became a full time activist. Professor Bendell just started an organic farm, focusing on resilience to both climate and societal collapse, and facilitating others to do the same. I’m beginning to see why.
Teaser photo credit: By Josh Larios from Seattle, US – DSC03385, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5861751