Critiquing the Critique of Deep Adaptation

In 2018, I came across an academic paper entitled “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” Early in my career I worked as the managing editor of two academic research journals so I understand the process of academic review and what an academic paper looks like (ho hum). This was like no paper I had ever seen before.

“Should you be spending time reading the rest of this article? Should I even finish writing it?”

Jem Bendell, a professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria (UK), was asking some critical questions to his professional colleagues. 

  1. Can professionals in sustainability management, policy and research continue to work with the assumption or hope that we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilization?
  2. Have professionals in the sustainability field discussed the possibility that it is too late to avert an environmental catastrophe, and the implications for their work?
  3. Why are sustainability professionals not exploring this fundamentally important issue to the whole field as well as their personal lives?
  4. What are the ways that people are talking about (climate-instigated societal) collapse on social media?
  5. Can we provide a map for people to navigate this extremely difficult issue?

In essence, he was asking if the science of climate change was such that we could rule out catastrophe and therefore could ignore issues that would be critical in a period of societal collapse. He was asking if his fellow sustainability academics were talking about it and how others were talking about it. Are they in the conversation? And finally, I would say he was challenging his colleagues to consider whether they might be able to help people if they were to engage in this conversation.  

The 35-page article spent 3-1/2 pages talking about aspects of the science of climate change that pose such critical concerns that it is, in fact, possible that we cannot prevent climate catastrophe. He then discusses the nature of denial and why it is so hard for us to overcome denial so that we can acknowledge and tackle the problems ahead.

And finally, it provided a model for future action (examples are mine):

Resilience: Given that some societal collapse is now likely, inevitable, or already occurring, what are the valued norms and behaviors that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive? [For example, how will we value the lives of elderly and vulnerable people? Will sharing and cooperation or competition be the norm?]

Relinquishment: What assets, behaviors and beliefs do we need to let go of because retaining them could make matters worse? [For example, developing beachfront property, expectations for certain types of consumption, flying.]

Restoration: How can we rediscover attitudes and approaches to life and society that previously existed before we used fossil fuels. [For example, edible landscapes, seasonal diets, non-electronically forms of play.]

Reconciliation: We know disruption lies ahead and we do not know whether our efforts will make a difference. Regardless, how do we reconcile with each other and with the predicament we must now live with? How do we avoid creating more harm by our actions?

The article didn’t make it through the editorial review process. Ironically, one of the reviewer complaints was that it did not build upon existing literature. The point of the article was that there was not existing work because academia itself was in denial.

Professor Bendell published his paper on the internet, where it has been downloaded more than 450,000 times by people across the globe. It laid the groundwork for the Deep Adaptation movement, with a Facebook group of 12,400, a professional LinkedIn group of 3,693, and now its own journal.  

When Friends Become Foes

In July 2020, three “members” of Extinction Rebellion published a blistering critique of Bendell’s paper. (Bendell is, himself, a “member” of Extinction Rebellion and wrote a chapter for their handbook.) They said that his portrayal of the science positing runaway climate change leading to societal collapse was wrong. While agreeing that societal collapse is plausible and that climate change is not being treated with sufficient urgency, they wrote that:

“…neither social science nor the best available climate science support Deep Adaptation’s core premise: that near-term societal collapse due to climate change is inevitable…. This false belief undermines the environmental movement and could lead to harmful political decisions, overwhelming grief, and fading resolve for decisive action.

“Bendell has encouraged this development and goes as far as to frame Deep Adaptation as something akin to a spiritual movement, while also sheltering online groups like the “Positive Deep Adaptation” Facebook page from dissenting views. (The page discourages any discussion of climate change mitigation.) We trust the good intentions of setting up a compassionate space for people to share feelings of grief and loss, as many of us share similar feelings. Nonetheless, the central premises shared by these Deep Adaptation groups are based fundamentally on faulty science.”

Their critique goes on to talk about specific aspects of the climate science that they believe are wrongly represented.

(As a member of the Deep Adaptation Facebook group I can say that their characterization of the group is false. It does not discourage discussion of mitigation. It disallows posts about climate disaster, which would be endless and distressing. It discourage posts about non-existent and unproven “green” technologies that seem to promise a quick fix with no effort. It is very open to stories of solutions and has a spinoff group called Practical Deep Adaptation.

The Facebook page is often the first place people come to after overcoming their denial of climate change, so many people are deeply distressed, and the page provides a community of caring support for those experiencing shock and grief.)

A Flawed Premise – A Call for Silencing?

The XR critics are claiming that the central premise of Deep Adaptation and its belief in (inevitable or likely) societal collapse is based on faulty climate science, and further, they claim that (imagining? considering? speaking? publishing) such a view is harmful, and even dangerous.

My critique of the critics centers around these questions:

  • Is the premise of inevitable or likely societal collapse based solely only on climate science?
  • Does the Deep Adaptation movement rely upon the few areas of climate science that were highlighted in the article?
  • Is it harmful and dangerous for the human imagination to explore the practical implications of such a future?

The critics say: “The core of Deep Adaptation’s argument depends on two particular feedback loops: Arctic ice melt and methane release from permafrost. Although the discussion of these processes occupies only a small section of the paper, Bendell’s argument that societal collapse is now inevitable, and thus the basis for the Deep Adaptation philosophy, stands or falls depending on whether they are correct. They are not.”

I find this statement to be untrue in two ways: first that the “philosophy” of Deep Adaptation stands or falls on the correctness of a few particular pieces of climate science, and second that this science is in error and it is the only bit of science that matters. 

Bendel has engaged with climate science to some degree throughout his career, although he is not a climate scientist. Since his paper came out he has engaged with climate scientists who both agree and disagree with his points and he has written about this and amended his original paper to include two corrections and two clarifications.

But more fundamentally, is the premise of societal collapse based only on climate science? The critics said:

“Supporters of Deep Adaptation often claim that understanding social collapse requires a holistic understanding of physical science, economics, culture, food systems, and so forth. Bendell himself has argued that opinions about the effects of climate change on human society “are not climate science,” and we agree.”

These two sentences do not belong in the same paragraph. They are separate ideas.

The first sentence is systems thinking and the basis for the global Transition Town movement. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that many people in Transition are attracted to Deep Adaptation. The founders and followers of Transition do far more than “claim” that climate change is an element of societal collapse. They present a clear and compelling case for how various physical sciences, global economic interdependence and capitalism, food systems, and culture have indeed set us on a course for societal collapse (not the first in world history, but certainly it will be the biggest).

Much has been written of this interconnection in books like:

  • “Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change”
  • “Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World”
  • “The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval”

The critics have misconstrued the second sentence. There is ample support for the proposition of breakdown and collapse to be found in the study of other physical sciences. Leaving them out of the equation, as these writers do, to focus only on climate science is disingenuous. Jem Bendel responded this this critique by saying:

“Assuming a climate scientist is the best predictor of how your society will fare within a changing climate is like asking the engineer who made one of the components in your oven to predict how your dinner party will go. Both climate scientists and journalists on climate issues need to be cognizant not only of the limits of climate science but also the limits of their likely worldview on what can be known and how (i.e., their epistemology).”

A Dangerous – and Limiting – Assumption

While the critics charge that the philosophy of Deep Adaptation is dangerous and damaging, I believe it is the critic’s claims to know how people will respond, their undermining of a movement of people coming to terms with climate change, and their unspoken demand that some conversations cease that is dangerous and damaging.

The critics position is this: if the people who are most aware of the climate crisis, and thus likely to drive change, consciously accept the near certainty of collapse, this will lead to inaction and cynicism on their part, which will only worsen the situation.

This is an assumption. It’s the same assumption that has prevented scientists of many stripes from speaking honestly, that has prevented communicators from sharing important messaging. It is an assumption that has stifled our collective imagination about what is possible.  

In my last post I wrote about how unaddressed climate catastrophe is bubbling up in our collective subconscious and gaining expression in apocalyptic literature and movies. We need more than movies; we need our words.

When my husband and I read Bendell’s paper, our imagination had already been stretched by our involvement in the Transition Town movement to accommodate the possibility of catastrophe, collapse, and extinction, not 100 years from now but within our remaining lifetime.

Because of our engagement with the Inner Transition movement and the work of people like Joanna Macy, Carolyn Baker, and Phyllis Wheatley, we were also aware of the many ways people can and do respond to the realization of impending or potential societal collapse.

While the critics believe it causes people to become apathetic and disengaged, we have experienced completely the opposite. Bendell said:

“In my work with mature students, I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable, and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression. Instead, in a supportive environment, something positive happens. I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward.”

We found the new adaptation agenda presented in the paper to be a particularly useful framework for conversation AND action, in much the same way as the Transition movement, which is focused on head-hands-heart solutions.

The questions raised by the model of resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation were extremely useful in both personal decision-making for our household and in guiding our thoughts about the kind of work we wanted to do in our community.

Reconciliation was particularly impactful in helping us deal with negative emotions toward family members who deny climate change. Human climate-changing activity began in the mid 1800s, not in my generation, or my parents’ generation. Anger toward family members who have no understanding of or power over the issue is useless. Our time on Earth is short, it would be far better to feel compassion for those caught up in denial, as we, too, are caught up in some denials of our own.

Those in power deserve another response.

Denial and Reconciliation in the Church of the Believers

We first learned about the Transition movement from Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. Heinberg recently wrote about the conflict taking place between followers of XR and Deep Adaptation. He said that denial is a deeply entrenched human capacity and can take several forms.

  • Reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings when they contradict our existing views (such as disinclination to believe in climate change).
  • Disavowal – a state in which we’re aware of climate change and its effects, but are undisturbed by its implications, rather than being stirred to action.

“Denial of climate change (and the likelihood of societal collapse) is more than a political tool for maintaining corporate profits of the fossil fuel industry. It is a complex collective coping mechanism. We’re all in denial.”

He asks if there may be “a sliding scale for how much “doom” each of us can handle. In which case, the XR vs. DA quarrel could at least partly be about groups of people sorting themselves according to their levels of psychological tolerance, then walling themselves off from one another through cognitive dissonance.”

“I counsel DA folks not to waste effort trying to convince their XR critics that catastrophic collapse is indeed inevitable within the next few years,” said Heinberg. “Resist the pitfall of certitude. Instead, concentrate on areas of agreement, and join with XR critics in taking action—which, among other things, is an effective way of managing terror.

“For XR critics of DA: go easy. DA provides a support system within which people can undertake the inner work entailed in facing the reality of the great unraveling that is upon us. While that inner work shouldn’t become an end in itself, it is a necessary stage in moving beyond denial.”

Heinberg ends his plea to the two sides with a call to action.

“Those of us with awareness of the crises ahead must understand that action will have largely unknowable consequences. Despite that limitation, it’s up to us to play our role in the defense of nature and humanity as cleanly and selflessly—and as effectively—as possible.”

About thinkofitasanadventure

My husband Peter and I attended a sustainability conference with Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute in 2010. We learned some hard truths about climate change that shook us to our core. We knew we needed to transition away from fossil fuels as soon as possible, for the sake of our children. We initiated a neighborhood Transition group (Transition Longfellow). It became the center of our lives. In 2019, we downsized and moved to a tiny rural village. It's a whole new way of life and we've got a lot more learning to do. We're choosing to continue to "think of it as an adventure."

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