On the 28th of December, 2020, my friend the eco-artist, researcher and educator Cathy Fitzgerald emailed me to ask if I’d come across the work of Professor Jem Bendell. He’d been on her radar for some time because of his argument about imminent societal collapse – Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. Cathy felt, in my view probably rightly, that this was not something she should teach to course participants on the seven week Haumea Ecoliteracy courses she runs, since such online teaching is not an appropriate space for discussing this without psychosocial support. However, she also felt that it was an important paper that could not simply be ignored and asked me what I thought. I’d read Bendell’s first deep adaptation paper but not its follow-up, written with Katie Carr: Facilitation for Deep Adaptation: enabling loving conversations about our predicament, so I said I’d read both and get back to her.
What follows here is based on my various responses to Cathy’s request since then, intercut with some of her own reflections.
The first thing to say is that, on the basis of what I know, I accept Bendell’s claim that climate-influenced “societal collapse” in most parts of the world in the coming decades is either “likely, inevitable or already unfolding”. (Since his original paper, he’s qualified this by adding that ‘near-term collapse’ is not inevitable). My personal view, however, is that this ‘collapse’ has indeed been unfolding, in different ways and for many years, in different parts of the world. What needs to be acknowledged is that better-off people in the Global North have not yet, or only recently, begun to acknowledge that this is already unfolding. (I’ll return to this later).
In what follows I’ll take up Carr and Bendell’s concern: “to help reduce harm, save what we can, and create possibilities for the future while experiencing meaning and joy in the process” by suggesting that what they propose needs to be inflected differently. What follows are, however, very much my provisional thoughts. I stress this because I have sent Bendell some questions, which he’s kindly forwarded to Carr as being best placed to answer them. At the time of writing this I’ve not heard back from her, so I may very well need to qualify what I write here when (if) I do.
I think it may help if we start by seeing Bendell’s prediction about societal collapse as being “likely, inevitable or already unfolding” from a historical perspective. I suggest this because I think we need to generate a more nuanced understanding of what deep adaptation is likely to require if it’s to be helpful to different individuals and communities. Consequently I think it’s important to remember that wide-scale climate-related societal collapse has happened before, even in the West. Our culture has simply chosen to ignore this in favour of adopting the modernist belief in gradual but inevitable progress. (See, on this, Amitav Ghosh’s excellent book The Great Derangement).
Cathy is not sure about this thinking, given that previous examples have not involved mass ecocide. (This is debateable of course. Some might argue that the wholesale destruction of British wildlife that accompanied the enclosure of the Commons exactly anticipates, albeit on a smaller scale, our current situation of interwoven ecocide and social injustice). Be that as it may, I think it’s useful to remember that the Seventeenth Century was a catastrophic period of global crisis and social breakdown, one clearly linked to ‘climate change’ (see Geoffrey Parker Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century). It took place during what’s often referred to as ‘The Little Ice Age’, extended over a period of more than one hundred years, and had world-wide consequences. (It’s estimated that it killed as much as one-third of the global human population). It’s important, I think, both to remember that humanity as a whole has faced this type of apocalyptic situation before, but equally to acknowledge that our current situation is very probably considerably more serious. Cathy’s view is, I think, that “looking to past ‘climate’ breakdown situations is too narrow”, since the crisis we face is the consequence of “an ecocidal misperception” that, as Bateson and Guattari realised, “has led to gross alienation of the dominant society’s place in the wider community of life. It is a spiritual crisis of misunderstanding life / consciousness / reality as an interwoven experience”.
I don’t necessarily disagree. However, the aspect of Carr and Bendell’s approach that most troubles me, as someone who has spent a working lifetime in arts and humanities education, is their particular ‘therapeutic’ approach, one based on an amalgamation of Critical Theory and Buddhism, has the appearance of a single ‘silver bullet’ that overlooks the need for other, alternative, possibilities. I should add that I have no quarrel with their approach in itself. However, I do wonder whether it isn’t oriented by its authors’ underlying intellectual ‘centre of gravity’. One that, in my view, means that their approach will be of help primarily to people who share that ‘centre of gravity’. People in different circumstances, from different backgrounds, and with different ‘centres of gravity’ (that is, who are primarily animated by a physical or emotional orientation), will need to come to deep adaptation via other routes.
Cathy’s own reflections on this are particularly helpful. She tells me that she and many of her network see Joanna Macy’s work, also influenced by Buddhism, as hugely important for deep adaptation: “because she so skillfully connects her early Calvinist worldview – and all the trouble that Christianity entails – with her review that Buddhist philosophy and practices for everyday living are more aligned with an ecological worldview of grounded, impermanent, interconnectedness and compassion”. However, I think what is important here is that Cathy, like me, understands that there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to deep adaptation if it is to be genuinely inclusive.
Significantly, alongside Macy she references Julian of Norwich, Matthew Fox, and Pope, Francis, alongside Sister Chan Khong’s simple but moving book Learning True Love, an account of her deep innate desire to help the poor in Vietnam and development of more social focussed practices for Buddhists today – ‘engaged Buddhism’. In short, the clear implication for me is that deep adaptation requires acknowledgement of our living in a pluriverse, one in which there will always need to be multiple approaches to deep adaptation that speak in different ways to different people and communities.
It may also be helpful to look at recent periods of trauma in our own ‘backyard’ if we want to start to identify something of these other routes. I’ve just read Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s book Thin Places, an account of how she discovered a sense of self after being traumatised by growing up in Derry as the child of a Protestant father and Catholic mother, during what are euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’. For myself, that book suggests an alternative, more heart-felt route into deep adaptation to that advocated by Bendell and Carr. I would describe her process of adaptation as made possible by something closer to a (secular or ‘pagan’?) equivalent to the Hindu concept of bhakti, or to the nature mysticism of St. Francis of Assisi, than to Carr and Bendell’s amalgamation of Critical Theory and Buddhism.
I want to stress that in writing this I am not about arguing for or against any particular route into deep adaptation. I simply want to suggest that people oriented differently will need to develop particular forms of deep adaptation via a variety of different approaches. Also that, importantly, this relates to a need to avoid forms of tacit exclusion that relate to, but cannot simply be reduced to, issues of class, race, gender, etc., as well as to the issue of ‘deconstructing’ power on which Carr and Bendell focus.
Cathy and I may have a different sense of emphasis here, in that she thinks very firmly that: “we have to move toward understanding the ecological catastrophe as a systemic breakdown and that it will need systemic restoration”. A situation that will require the development of “a real fluency” or “ecoliteracy” that enables us all to understand that “environmental and social challenges are always entangled” Her concern is that we must move out of a mindset that can only “focus on just one symptom of our alienation from life, like that its ‘about’ climate change’, or ‘the pandemic’, or the ‘6th great mass species extinction’ event or ‘mass social injustices’.” She adds: “intersectionality here is so important. But this is hard, especially when ecoliteracy and the fact of thinking this way is new… even our Green politics is riven with camps ‘for social’ or ‘for environmental’ progress but not often working together”. The implication being, of course, that there may need to be an agreed, overarching understanding – a common level of ecoliteracy – if we are to grasp what needs to change. While I understand and respect this view, I also wonder whether the best way to achieve the necessary fundamental change of heart is to undertake it incrementally, by enabling the following of the different routes most appropriate to different individuals and communities?
The issue of what is practical seems central here. Having discussed the practical, group-based elements of Carr and Bendell’s approach with someone better placed to assess their therapeutic value than me, I’m very happy to accept that these are a practical and effective way forward for the constituencies they address. But it also seems to me that there may be an unacknowledged bias (for want of a better word) towards certain types of individual and community here that, as someone involved in education, I want to keep in mind. The historian David Gange, in his The Frayed Atlantic Edge, draws attention to the means by which remote rural ways of life have survived, despite the increasingly absolute dominance of the urban mentalité. Survived in places that have already experienced, within recent historical times, societal collapse and loss of their previous way of life. (And for reasons intimately bound up with the causes of our current socio-environment crisis). As Gange’s account of the activities of Annie MacSween and others show, “enabling loving conversations about our predicament” might equally take place in more social, that’s to say more collectively-oriented, contexts than those implicit in Carr and Bendell’s professionally-oriented therapeutic concern of “safe and confidential settings” to enable people to talk about, for example, death and dying.
I wrote earlier that, in my view, the “societal collapse’ that Bendell identifies has indeed been unfolding over many years, even in the Global North. This brings me to what I feel is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of beginning the process of deep adaptation.
If by ‘society’ we mean the complex, now global systems that ensure that there is food, shelter, education, energy, etc. to be had by the beneficiaries of the dominant ethos, along with the continued production of techno-scientific ‘advances’ to facilitate those systems, then the ‘society’ promulgated by the ethos often referred to as ‘the Global North’ has yet to collapse. If, however, we mean a civil society, a community of citizens linked by shared (if constantly and democratically debated) values and interests, and by collective, mutually sustaining, collective activity, then arguably that civil society has been collapsing for many years. Or, more accurately, it has been steadily eroded from within. By 1987, for example, Margaret Thatcher could announce to the British public that: “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”. That view is, of course, as operationally absurd, as fundamentally opposed to any form of deep adaptation, as it is inseparable from the mentalité of possessive individualism that has been a principle driver in generating our current eco-social crisis. However, it was and is an understanding that suits those who gain most from the ‘global society’ of consumer capitalism that thrives on the extractive ethos responsible for ever-increasing levels of ecocide and social injustice. We cannot and should not ignore this socio-political reality.
Why does acknowledging these different understandings matter? Because how we each respond, both intellectually and emotionally, to Bendell’s notion of ‘societal collapse’ will inflect, if not wholly determine, how we approach deep adaptation. Unless we keep this in mind, the phrase itself risks becoming an increasingly empty catch-all, one that masks fundamental differences that can and are being experienced in different ways in different places. This needs to be understood and acknowledged if we are to have any hope of achieving the inclusivity vital to what Cathy refers to as an effective level of ecoliteracy.
I cannot, and indeed should not, attempt any single, ‘conclusive’, statement that tries to summarise all this. That’s neither possible nor what is needed. What’s necessary now, surely, is for us to be participants in an ongoing, heart-felt conversation that builds mutual understanding, respect for differences, and trust. One that’s based on a willingness to genuinely listen, learn and acknowledge that, as Ursula Le Guin reminds us, a sense of commonality – with both the human and the more-than-human in the polyverse – begins in a shared acknowledgement of pain. Building that sense of commonality is, I believe, the greatest task we face and, for myself, I take as both comfort and challenge Bruno Latour’s insistence, in Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime that, today, ‘what counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world’ (Italics mine).