Profound climate change may be inevitable, but society can continue
The reports from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this month followed a predictable pattern. World leaders took to the stage one after the other, each of them emitting terrible warnings on the impending climate catastrophe and conclude with urgent calls To action: It is not too lateâ¦ but we must act now!
This message appears tired, its urgency mitigated by decades of repetition. âNowâ was once the 1970s, with the birth of the modern environmental movement; âNowâ was the Kyoto Protocol and its 90s carbon reduction commitments; âNowâ was Paris 2015. Now some think it is now too late: the tipping point has arrived. We are at the top of the curve, at the edge of an unstoppable waterfall that will irreversibly alter the systems governing the natural world. It’s too late. And if we as a society accepted this fact, we would all benefit tremendously.
That’s the argument of Deep Adaptation, a movement launched in 2018 by Jem Bendell, professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria in the UK. The movement places the conversation about the future of society in a new area, in which catastrophic climate change is taken for granted. Bendell says the world will become an unknown place: Everything we know about the dynamics that govern our lives will be turned upside down by climate-induced disruption, leading to the collapse of society. It is only when we accept this inevitability that we can prepare for the disaster to come “in a way that minimizes damage, especially by reducing conflict and trauma,” Bendell writes.
Deep Adaptation has attracted a worldwide audience: founding act has been downloaded over half a million times, according to Bendell, and forum have solidified a base of participants, from students to psychologists to academics. Recently, more than 500 academics signed a open letter espousing the main principles of deep adaptation and urging policy makers to âengage openly in the face of the risk of disruption and even collapse of our societiesâ.
As the author who delved into the science of climate change for my book “Deep Salt Water”, I am compelled by the sober and unbiased honesty of Deep Adaptation. I find Bendell’s scientific findings convincing, although many experts to disagree with them. I am also encouraged by its framework: solutions can only be found if the problem is posed correctly. Where I digress from Deep Adaptation is in the focus on the collapse of society. Where Bendell sees some sort of fait accompli, I see evidence accumulating that, despite the looming climate crisis, technology will strengthen the pillars that support society.
I discovered Deep adaptation after reading a pre-printing study on climate anxiety in young people. The study – submitted to Lancet Planetary Health but has not yet been peer reviewed – interviewed 10,000 people aged 16 to 25, in 10 countries. It revealed a population plagued by fear and irritated by the betrayal it attributes to those in power. The study authors are part of a growing community of psychologists specializing in the treatment of climate anxiety.
These psychologists urge their colleagues to recognize climate-related grief and fear as a rational response to real events, and not as a manifestation of an underlying psychopathology such as anxiety or depression. Although it provides a necessary forum for young people in distress, this therapy continues to promote the idea that climate catastrophe can be avoided, or at least reduced. As Caroline hickman, co-author of the study on climate anxiety in young people and lecturer at the University of Bath, tweeted last month: âBetween apocalyptic thought and misplaced naive optimism, there is radical hope. Things are bad, AND we can change the end of this story.
For me, this message is misleading, even unintentionally cruel. How to support young people if their anxieties are initially validated, only to then be amplified as climate commitments are broken by leaders and disasters continue to occur?
The deep adaptation movement creates a better framework, claiming that people strengthen their psychological resilience by contemplating four guiding questions:
What do we value most that we want to keep and how? It’s a matter of resilience. What could we let go so as not to make matters worse? It is a question of surrender. What could we bring back to help us in these difficult times? It is a question of restoration. With what and with whom will we make peace as we awaken to our common mortality? It is a matter of reconciliation.
Through this framework, Bendell succeeds in distilling a terrifying future into a series of questions that invite people into conversation. In doing so, he gives us a language to talk about the unthinkable.
Bendell’s 2018 manifesto, which laid the groundwork for the movement, has been heavily criticized on scientific and moral grounds. most full review argues that Bendell misinterprets climate model predictions, ignores important caveats, and adopts a “catastrophic” narrative that critics say will lead to desperation and inaction, exacerbating existing inequalities and undermining the energy of fight for climate justice. Bendell accepted some of this criticism, making some corrections and updates to its original manuscript. But he versus others, sticking firmly to the broader principles behind deep adaptation. (The New York Times reported that Bendell’s original manuscript was “submitted to and rejected by a peer-reviewed sustainability journal.” )
In my opinion, the political context tilts the scales in favor of Bendell’s point of view: even if, on a purely scientific level, we could stop the feedback loops already start, our political, economic and governance structures have proved incapable of reacting proactively with measures proportionate to the threat.
Despite its significant contribution to climate change thinking, Deep Adaptation contains a weakness at its heart: the premise that climate change will lead to the collapse of society, defined as “the unequal end of normal livelihoods, shelter, security, pleasure, identity. , and meaning, âBendell writes.
How to support young people if their anxieties are initially validated, only to then be amplified as climate commitments are broken by leaders and disasters continue to occur?
Bendell’s logical leap from catastrophic climate change to societal collapse betrays his position against capitalism, which he blamed on the climate crisis. Bendell denigrates traditional adaptation efforts as “encouraging people to try harder to be kinder and better rather than coming together in solidarity to undermine or overthrow a system that requires us to participate in environmental degradation.” . By implication, these efforts – the unglamorous work of redeveloping infrastructure, engaging in urban and ecosystem planning, coordinating supply chains for food, water and raw materials – are superficial, unlike the deep ethical and spiritual transformation envisioned by Deep Adaptation. The collapse of society, in this worldview, becomes the event that triggers a creative re-imagery of human civilization.
Blinded by utopian visions, Bendell seems to ignore advancements, in science and technology and other fields, which are capable of sustaining society. In sectors such as energy, water, materials science and agriculture, basic science and innovative technologies are spawning new realities that could stabilize societies even amid horrific changes in the natural world. . Some of these technologies, including large-scale nuclear fusion reactors and smaller nuclear batteries, will reduce carbon emissions. Other technologies, especially those developed with synthetic biology, can help us adapt to a warming planet by improving crop yields and revolutionizing manufacturing, for example. By seizing a power formerly reserved for nature, that of direct evolution – scientists can tackle some of the very problems that humans have created by their consumption of fossil fuels.
None of these developments is a panacea. None will stop catastrophic climate change. None foreshadows a world in which I want to live. Yet they all refute the idea of ââa societal collapse.
Bendell’s failure to recognize the promise of technology is a huge loss for policymakers, activists, psychotherapists, and the industry. We currently lack a framework to discuss the work needed to prepare for climate change. This work concerns not only the physical infrastructure, but also psychology and ethics – especially as it relates to forecasting. mass migration people whose homeland will no longer be habitable.
In my opinion, deep adaptation is perfectly poised to facilitate this difficult conversation – if it puts less emphasis on the collapse of society. Bendell’s framework encourages us to “make sense of our situation in a way that discourages defensive or violent approaches and encourages kinder, wise and responsible responses.”
This type of thinking is lucid, productive and necessary. I’ll hold it more fiercely than any bland statement from Glasgow.
Marianne Apostolide is the award-winning author of seven books, the most recent of which is the novel âI Can’t Get You Out of My Mindâ.