“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 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.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Although I had been an occasional reader of Jem’s blog for some time, this was not the kind of discussions I had been expecting when I arrived in Bali a few days earlier.
I was mainly in touch with Matthew Slater, a self-styled “barefoot economist” and leading community currency engineer; fascinated with the prospect of relying on new forms of money to counteract the noxious effects of the global financial system, I had decided to take part in the “Money and Society MOOC” that he co-authored with Jem – and for good measure, I also asked Matthew if I could do anything extra to help promote these ideas.
“Would you like to come to Bali and help Jem and I out in researching for the book we are working on? We’re staying in the first village outside Ubud. There are lots of social possibilities!”
That was the most exciting email I had received in a while. I was unfettered by work or sentimental attachments. I was looking for a new path in my life. I was travelling through Asia – and I had never been to Bali. So a few weeks later, I found myself sipping pumpkin soup on the terrace of that restaurant with Jem and Matthew, in that little village outside Ubud.
Although the two of them ended up putting their book project on the backburner, we spent most of the next two months working on a funding proposal for another project instead: the Credit Commons protocol. Despite its revolutionary potential – it aims at federating mutual credit networks, worldwide, into an integrated system – or perhaps because of that, we failed to raise funding for the project… Irony, anyone?
But something else came out of our collaboration which would change our lives profoundly.
THE SCIENCE OF CATACLYSM
For a couple of weeks, Jem tasked me with helping him research key facts for his sabbatical paper. It had to do precisely with that conversation we had had at Prima’s, the very first time we spoke: he wanted to produce a rigorous synthesis of recent climate research, to confirm and to summarise the conclusions he had drawn from it over the past few months. 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 denial stirring inside of me. The skepticism. 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 its 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 website of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, at the University of Cumbria, where Jem teaches as a professor. Another 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 Matthew believes it has 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 I personally find it flows well, and avoids most of the turgid, impenetrable jargon that plagues so much academic writing (I won’t claim credit for that, as I spent much more time tidying up the endnotes than contributing any breakthrough ideas).
“Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” was written for the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, a publication for which Jem had worked as Guest Editor in 2017. It was rejected by the reviewers of that journal, who found 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 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 – which Vice claims has been “sending its readers to therapy” – possibly go viral, among the millions of fluffy cat videos shared over the Internet?
The paper starts off by reviewing the latest climate science. It notably points out that while previous climate models predicted a linear degradation of the climate system, recent data shows that the climate is responding non-linearly, meaning that impacts will happen more rapidly and severely than anticipated. In particular, food security worldwide will be massively impacted, leading to the aforementioned consequences on well-being 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 collapse is inevitable; catastrophe is probable; and human extinction is possible.
However, this does not mean we should all throw our hands up to the sky. 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:
(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) Relinquishment – What do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse? What are the assets, behaviors 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, contrary to what the reviewers feared, 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 participants on the three platforms that comprise it – and I have become the curator of one of these platforms. 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 faraway to me now – but what has followed it is now with me day by day, as I spend a seizeable 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.
1 Jem added the 4th “R” later. See https://jembendell.com/2019/01/09/hope-and-vision-in-the-face-of-collapse-the-4th-r-of-deep-adaptation/
NB: This is an extended version of the article published in Issue #61 of the magazine Dumbo Feather.