“The millions of people being uprooted by climate change do not benefit from the ‘stubborn optimism’ of environmental elites. Instead, they will be better served by the stubborn realism of the experts and activists now brave enough to call for urgent degrowth in rich countries and fair adaptation everywhere.” – Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau
The weather events of the past months have placed climate change at the centre of many conversations. While this is not new for millions of people in the global south, more of us in the global north are realising that our lives will also be directly affected.
However, much of the narrative we get from politicians, mainstream media and NGOs in the north tends to be balancing the dangers with progress, or good news. There is also little or no recognition that countries in the north bear much greater responsibility for the crisis and thus have a duty of care for people already most impacted elsewhere.
So despite mounting evidence that climate threats to our societies are increasing and multiplying, we are made to believe that while things are bad, there are also good things happening: we are working towards solutions, we can prevent the worst from happening, we can fix it, technology will save us, etc. Essentially, the main narrative is: we can control the climate.
But isn’t that just rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic?
There is of course the possibility that governments are worried about civil unrest if we all knew the real scale of the threats to our ways of life. Many scientists have been reluctant to speak publicly as it was deemed to be irresponsible and for fear that people might fall into despair, depression or inaction.
If we look at the work of the environmental community, much of the focus has been on mitigation. This means, for example, reducing carbon emissions, and systems transformation, like circular economies, green policies, etc. There is also a growing and more quiet element of this work called adaptation which the UN body in charge of our global response to climate change, the UNFCCC, defines as: “adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts.”
Yet many are reluctant to speak of adaptation as it somehow suggests that we are giving up, and that strategies such as setting ourselves a number of years as a deadline, or other numerical measurements, make us more likely to succeed (even though, as evidence suggests, seems improbable).
The narratives of positivity give us a sense of (false) hope, and may in fact prevent us from seeing clearly and therefore actually finding strategies that will allow us to better adapt to foreseeable changes, both practically and emotionally. This “hope agenda” may be harming us in the long run.
In a 2018 paper that went viral and caused a lot of upset, Professor Jem Bendell introduced the concept of deep adaptation, also sometimes referred to as transformative adaptation, as a framework for facing up to climate tragedy, both in terms of policies for reducing our ecological impact, but adding a psychological dimension.
After reviewing evidence, research and numbers on climate change, Bendell came to the conclusion that there are many signs of an already irreversible climate change, meaning we’re not in control. We therefore will face growing disruptions that include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and affluent nations will not be spared.
This, he explains, will likely lead to societal collapse within ten years, which he defines as “an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning.” It is not hard to identify this already happening for millions of people around the world.
Many scientists and experts of course already knew this, but were remaining quiet in public. “Fear was blocking acceptance,” Bendell says, but, he continues, “unless we begin to accept where we’re at, we can’t have generative conversations about what we do now.”
His framework for deep adaptation, however, is not about giving up, nor is it about replacing mitigation or other strategies. Rather, it’s an invitation for people to explore new paths and develop a new agenda.
Importantly, he says, “it’s not about the new, it’s about going deep inside into what we most value, rather than the stuff we most prioritise because of fear, or busy-ness or status or what was expected of us from friends and family and employers.”
Specifically, he offers four questions to explore, whether at the societal, institutional or personal level: The first one is resilience, which asks us to consider the following question: “how do we keep what we really want to keep?” Second is relinquishment which asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?” Third is restoration which asks “what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?” And finally, we have reconciliation which asks us “how can we reconcile with each other, and with the predicament we must now live with in order to avoid creating more harm by acting from suppressed panic?”
While denial in various forms is a very human response to what is effectively an existential crisis, there is evidence from social psychology that by focusing on impacts now, it makes climate change more proximate and thus increases support for mitigation. Interestingly, Bendell also found research that suggests that highly educated professionals are more supportive of the existing social and economic system - thus less willing to discuss deep adaptation - because they have a vested interest in it.
When discussing his paper with children, on the other hand, Bendell found that they were more curious and open to discuss the practical implications that deep adaptation will have on their future. He suggests that perhaps it is because children have less to unlearn, don’t have the same responsibilities and are less invested in the current system. This led him to conclude that it is those who are not embedded within the existing system who will likely be the ones more able to lead this agenda.
Ultimately, Bendell hopes more people will explore this in the spirits of love and curiosity, rather than panic, fear and saving oneself; “that’s the big challenge of our time,” he says, “to make sure that when our hearts break we stay open, connected and curious.”
Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes
‘Misplaced positivity on climate is harmful. Preparing for breakdown could help,’ Stella Nyambura Mbau, Resilience.org.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC
The United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, Adaptation and Resilience
‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy,’ Professor Jem Bendell, originally published July 27 th 2018, revised 2nd Edition released July 2020. Download here
‘Jem Bendell on Deep Adaptation, Climate Change and Societal Collapse // Acceptance and evolution in the face of global meltdown,’ from the all that we are podcast, with amisha ghadiali, Episode 45
“Climate change is hitting the planet faster than scientists originally thought,” by Jeff Tollefson for Nature Magazine, 28 February 2022
Further useful resources
‘Emotional Resilience and the Climate Crisis,’ with Malte Klar, Psychologists for Future
Interview with Professor Jem Bendell on Deep Adaptation to climate chaos, by Facing Future TV, Resilience.org
Climate Change Inaction and Optimism, Philip J. Wilson, Philosophies 2021 Open Access Journal
When Things Fall Apart, Heart advice for difficult times, Pema Chödrön
Finding Our Way, Leadership for an uncertain time, Margaret Wheatley
Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, Thich Nhat Hanh
A year to Live, How to live this year as if it were your last, Stephen Levine
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