Professor Jem Bendell of Cumbria University in the UK has been exploring how human society will adapt to the existential crisis that climate change is posing to our world as we fail to keep global warming below 2%. Positive feedback loops will act to accelerate the impact of climate change on weather systems, the environment, and all the species who call Planet Earth home, including the human species.
He proposes a program of Deep Adaptation based on three approaches: resilience; relinquishment; and restoration.
Resilience—is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress, involving the creative reinterpretation of identity and priorities
Relinquishment—is people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse
Restoration—is people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded. Includes re-wilding landscapes, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play and increased community-level productivity and support.
Bendell contrasts these three strategies of deep adaptation to the dominant climate change adaptation strategies that have been pursued since the 1970s era of Reagan and Thatcher, known as neo-liberalism. While all of these might achieve small changes, they are inadequate to deal with the profound economic, political and social impacts of climate change.
Hyper-individualism—is a focus on individual action as consumers (switching light bulbs, buying sustainable furniture, giving up plastic bags and straws, etc)
Market fundamentalism—is a focus on market mechanisms like complex, costly and largely useless carbon cap and trade systems, rather than direct government intervention
Incrementalism—focus on celebrating small steps forward such as a company publishing a sustainability report, rather than strategies designed for a speed and scale of change needed suggested by science
Atomism—is a focus on seeing climate action as a separate issue from the governance of markets, finance and banking, rather than exploring what kid of economic system could permit or enable actual sustainability, and an inability of the political structure of human societies based on the nation state and the global structure of oligarchic capitalism, to effectively collaborate on a global level to meet the challenges of the impact of human industrialised development on the world’s climate system and natural environment.
Bendell accuses the environmental sustainability community of failing to come to grips with the real extent of the impact of global warming given the failure of governments and industry to adopt measures to reduce carbon emissions and environmental destruction through land clearing, mining and industrialised agriculture and fishing industries.
To meet this challenge he has established the Deep Adaptation Forum, and published an Occasional Paper, Deep Adaptation: A Map fo Navigating Climate Tragedy, published July 2018 by the IFLAS, the Institute of Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cambria where he is based. Four questions are guiding the Forum’s work to invite deep personal and community deep adaptation to our climate predicament in order to develop both collapse-readiness and collapse-transcendence:
- Resilience; what do we most value that we want to keep and how?
- Relinquishment: what do we need to let go of so as to not make matters worse?
- Restoration: what could we bring back to help us with these difficult times?
- Reconciliation: with what and whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our mutual species mortality?
Bendell notes that:
Deep Adaptation refers to the personal and collective changes that might help us to prepare for – and live with – a climate-induced collapse of our societies. Unlike mainstream work on adaptation to climate change, it doesn’t assume that our current economic, social, and political systems can be resilient in the face of rapid climate change.
When using the term social or societal collapse, we are referring the uneven ending to our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning. Others may prefer the term societal breakdown when referring to the same process.
We consider this process to be inevitable, because of our view that humanity will not be able to respond globally fast enough to protect our food supplies from chaotic weather. People who consider that societal collapse or breakdown is either possible, likely or already unfolding, also are interested in deep adaptation.
As Blendell says in his blog:
One thing that rapid climate change can help us to learn is the destructiveness of our delusions about reality and what is important in life. Key to this delusion is the emphasis many of us place on our separate identities. Since birth we have been invited to “other” people and nature. We often assume other people to be less valuable, smart or ethical as us. Or we assume we know what they think. We justify that in many ways, using stories of nationality, gender, morals, personal survival, or simply being “too busy”. Similarly, we have been encouraged to see nature as separate from us. Therefore, we have not regarded the rivers, soils, forests and fields as part of ourselves. Taken together, this othering of people and nature means we dampen any feelings of connection or empathy to such a degree that we can justify exploitation, discrimination, hostility, violence, and rampant consumption.
Seeking physical and psychological security and pleasure through control of our surroundings and how people interact with us is both a personal malaise and at the root of our collective malaise. Yet, as we see more pain in the world, and sense that it will get worse, it is possible that we will shrink from it. It is easier to consider other people’s pain as less valid as one’s own pain or that of the people and pets we know. But there is another way. The suffering of others presents us with an opportunity to feel and express love and compassion. Not to save or to fix, but to be open to sensing the pain of all others and letting that transform how we live in the world. It does not need to lead to paralysis or depression, but to being fully present to life in every moment, however it manifests.
This approach is the opposite of othering and arises from a loving mindset, where we experience universal compassion to all beings. It is the love that our climate predicament invites us to connect with. It is the love in deep adaptation.
Therefore, in our work with others on deep adaptation, we wish to pursue and enable loving responses to our predicament. Every interaction offers an opportunity for compassion. It can seem difficult when it feels as if someone is trying to criticise your view, perhaps because they prefer to see collapse as unlikely or human extinction as certain. But to return to compassion, even if we fall away from it in the moment, feels an important way of living our truth. And it is something we can do at any time. As leadership coach Diana Reynolds recently explained, “the incredible compassionate revolution starts here, starts now.”
As this topic involves questions of mortality, impermanence, insecurity and uncontrollability, everyone who is finding themselves navigating their way through is experiencing many strong emotional responses, which may feel turbulent, overwhelming, exhausting as well as energising or enlivening. Often these emotions affect us, including ourselves and our colleagues, in ways that we may not be aware of.
To counter feelings of despair Blendell and his Deep Adaptation community invite each of us to consider three principles:
- Return to compassion. We shall seek to return to universal compassion in all our work, and remind each other to notice in ourselves when anger, fear, panic, or insecurity may be influencing our thoughts or behaviours. It is also important to remember to take care of ourselves, especially when the urgency of our predicament can easily lead to burnout.
- Return to curiosity. We recognise that we do not have many answers on specific technical or policy matters. Instead, our aim is to provide a space and an invitation to participate in generative dialogue that is founded in kindness and curiosity.
- Return to respect. We respect other people’s situations and however they may be reacting to our alarming predicament, while seeking to build and curate nourishing spaces for deep adaptation.
To find out more, visit and participate in the work of Deep Adaptation: