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Embracing Deep Adaptation
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Embracing Deep Adaptation
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12 December 2019

Embracing Deep Adaptation

Dorian Cavé examines Jem Bendell’s paper Deep Adaptation, a paper that Dorian helped to create and probably the most widely read climate science paper in history.

Written by Dorian Cavé

This story originally ran in issue #61 of Dumbo Feather

“Society’s going to collapse, you know. Our global civilisation is heading for the abyss.” The conversation veered in an unexpected direction, that evening of February 2018 at Prima’s Pure Vegetarian restaurant. Nearby, a gecko let out his sonorous mating call in the fragrant, tropical air. A scooter zoomed at breakneck speed down steep Penestanan road—they say it was a dirt path between paddy fields just five years ago. I frowned, and had another spoonful of spicy pumpkin soup. “What makes you think that?”

Jem Bendell finished his fried satay skewer, and scooped up some spinach in gado-gado sauce. He looked tired, preoccupied and somewhat fatalistic. “The IPCC is behind on the latest climate science. Their reports are consensual and conservative, and cannot be trusted. Positive feedback loops might have already started kicking in, and if so, things are spinning out of control. Crops will start failing, and people will go hungry soon, even in the West.” He slurped from the straw dipped into his fresh coconut. “And who d’you think will take care of nuclear power plants when that happens?” I glanced around the table, unsure whether this was a joke. You never know with first-time encounters. But nobody was smiling.

The Science of Cataclysm

Although I had been an occasional reader of Jem’s blog for some time, this was not the kind of discussion I had been looking forward to when I arrived in Bali a few days earlier. His colleague Matthew had invited me to join them there so we could work together on disseminating and federating mutual credit networks around the world, to sow the seeds of an alternative money system, more resilient and community-oriented than cryptocurrencies. I didn’t know at the time that this very first conversation with Jem was to be the starting point, for me at least, of an equally exciting adventure.

In the midst of our collaboration over new money systems, Jem asked me to give him a hand with some research for his sabbatical paper. He
wanted to produce a rigorous synthesis of recent climate research, to confirm and to summarise the conclusions he had recently drawn from it.
So I dove into academic databases. I travelled to the shrinking Arctic ice cap; trudged through the melting permafrost and its pockets of methane; and ventured into the dark psychology of human denial.

Even as I dug through hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, I could feel the root cause of that very denial stirring inside of me. The scepticism. The wariness. The reassurance found in the scientific uncertainties— indeed, the urge to point out these uncertainties, and the conservative estimates. Anything to prevent myself from slipping into a nauseating state of fright, which would surely turn my life inside out. But in the final analysis, although I didn’t fully agree with all his conclusions, I had to admit, reluctantly, that Jem’s theory held water. The world started to look quite different.

Three months later, the “Deep Adaptation” paper was published on the blog of IFLAS at the University of Cumbria, where Jem teaches as a professor. A month or so went by. One day, I received a message from him: “It’s going viral.”

Unlikely Viral Content

Today, this paper has probably become the most widely read climate science paper in history. Download stats are very hard to interpret, but it’s believed to have been read much more than the IPCC reports. This is all the more remarkable that it is a dense, lengthy, heavily-referenced piece of academic literature: the kind of writing we researchers are infamous for. It is definitely not an easy read, although it flows well and avoids most of the turgid, impenetrable jargon that plagues so much academic writing.

“Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” was written for the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal. It was rejected by the reviewers of that journal, who found it unacceptable that the paper didn’t build off existing scholarship—while the paper’s aim was in fact to
fill in a gap in such scholarship—and who found it inappropriate, moreover, to “dishearten” readers with its central claim: that the collapse of global civilisation is inevitable within the coming decade, due to the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Jem defines social collapse as an uneven ending of normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning and hope. As he puts it emphatically, this is not something that will just happen elsewhere: “When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.”

How could such a gloomy and difficult text possibly go viral, among the millions of fluffy cat videos shared over the Internet?

The Argument

The paper starts off by reviewing the latest climate science. It notably shows that while previous climate models predicted a linear degradation of
the climate system, recent data shows that the climate is changing more rapidly and severely than anticipated. In particular, food security worldwide will be massively impacted, leading to the aforementioned consequences on wellbeing and social stability.

The paper also argues that technological progress, including geoengineering, cannot save us. One of the chief reasons why we won’t react in time to prevent such foreseeable consequences holds in one word: denial. The paper sheds a harsh light on the various psychological and social strategies that have prevented, and still prevent us, from taking meaningful action and acknowledging the severity of our situation. Denial extends even to environmental NGOs committed to an incremental, “pragmatic” approach, and who claim “there is still time to act.” But what if there isn’t? We must realise what this entails: according to the paper, near-term social collapse is inevitable; catastrophe is probable; and human extinction is possible.

However, this does not mean we should all throw our hands up. On the contrary, Jem argues that by fully embracing the meaning of our predicament, and a more radical or active kind of hope, we can choose to explore how to evolve and take action collectively. Carbon emissions must be cut aggressively, to soften the impacts that so many of us are already experiencing. But on top of that, he suggests new conversations should unfold by approaching these topics using what he calls the “Deep Adaptation Agenda.” This agenda is structured around four main “Rs”:

(1) Resilience: How do we keep what we really want to keep? What are the valued norms and behaviours that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive?

(2) Resilience: What do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse? What are the assets, behaviours and beliefs that would make matters worse if we keep them?

(3) Restoration: What can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies? What attitudes and approaches to life, eroded by hydro-carbon society, should we rediscover?

(4) Reconciliation: What could we make peace with to lessen suffering?

Many readers have testified that it is both this open- hearted acknowledgment of how terrifying the situation actually is—for humans and the living world everywhere, including in Western countries—but also this clear and stimulating perspective on what to do about it, that have struck such a deep chord within them.

Moreover, far from “disheartening” people, this message has in fact been a catalyst for action, for example among activists driving today’s leading environmental movement: Extinction Rebellion.

The Deep Adaptation Forum

The sudden and unexpected response this paper generated has had a deep impact on our lives. Late last year, a private sponsor approached Jem, pledging some financial support if Jem chose to launch an initiative in response to the conversations around his work. Eventually, after a period of soul-searching, the initiative took shape under the form of the Deep Adaptation Forum.

Launched formally in March 2019, the Forum now gathers over 10,000 members on the main networks that comprise it. These include spaces for mutual emotional support and community-building, as well as a place designed to explore how professional fields and industries should evolve to face the prospect of societal collapse. We have also been organising and supporting local gatherings, providing strategic advice to XR, and accompanying an emerging network of Deep Adaptation regional groups around the world (including one in Australia), among other activities. And we hear that Deep Adaptation is now being discussed at the highest levels of government.

That evening in Bali seems eerily far away to me now, and yet ever so present as I spend a sizable part of my time engaging with thoughts of what may come next. Undeniably, living with the consciousness of impending catastrophes can be a painful lot; but to me, it has also been the entry point into a caring, generous and inspiring community of people intent on exploring creative and compassionate ways of facing and shaping the future. Together, we hope to reduce harm—and to ensure that experiencing the joy of being alive remains an option, for humans and our fellow species alike.

Dorian Cavé

Dorian Cavé is curator of the Professions’ Network on the Deep Adaptation Forum (deepadaptation. ning.com). He is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, University of Cumbria with a focus on online self-organised communities and social change.

Image supplied by Dorian

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