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Does Avoiding Climate 'Hopelessness' Delay Adaptation?

In a tribe, we tend to think what our neighbors think — we reach a tribal consensus. That was a virtue till the global tribal mind was created. Thank you, Fox and MSNBC. (Image source:

By Thomas Neuburger

For this piece I had to make a choice. There were two topics I could write about today. One of them has been on my mind a lot — so much so that I've written a thriller with this as a theme — is the theme of collapse. (If you personally know any literary agents, please write to me.) For the other, see below.

Collapse. Not just the political collapse we're currently watching — the slow drift into failed-state status that looks like molasses crawling its way into a jar. But the other collapse, the bigger one — the end of human civilization.

That sounds dramatic, doesn't it, the end of civilization? Probably too dramatic for most people. But that's only because there's no "social proof" — better stated as "permission to think this way" — that lets people even entertain even the thought. Apocalypticists are regularly trashed and dismissed by the writers of the right, and no countervailing voices — not from scientists (who I know know differently), nor the bought-off press, nor our bought-and-paid politicians — will say otherwise.

In other words, the Overton Window on discussing the possibility of collapse is completely closed. No wonder even the wealthy, some of whom I've discussed this with, don't seem alarmed. (I'm certain, though, that the very very wealthy are making plans as we speak, or have made them already.)

But ask the ordinary Jane or Jeffrey what the odds of total collapse are, and the answer will, if expressed in words, be the same as the odds seeing of a lasting snowfall in April in Portland, Oregon. (Yet as I write, I look out my Portland window and see two inches of the whitest snow, sitting on the rooftop next to me, proud and lovely, barely melting at all.)

Despite the near total silence on the subject of collapse, some are starting to speak about its nearer certainty, and more importantly, speak about how to process and deal with it. To that end, I offer this, a preliminary look at a 35-page paper entitled, "Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy," by Professor Jem Bendell, published 2018, revised 2020. It made enough splash when first published it sparked a movement named for its title.

The Unspeakable Word

As Bendell says in the Abstract, "The author believes this is one of the first papers in the sustainability management field to conclude that climate-induced near-term societal collapse should now be a central concern for everyone, and therefore to invite scholars to explore the implications" (emphasis added). Yes, there is a field called "sustainability management," and it's an important one.

Early on, he asks these important questions:

Can professionals in sustainability management, policy and research – myself included - continue to work with the assumption or hope that we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilisation? As disturbing information on climate change passed across my screen, this was the question I could no longer ignore, and therefore decided to take a couple of months to analyse the latest climate science. As I began to conclude that we can no longer work with that assumption or hope, I asked a second question. Have professionals in the sustainability field discussed the possibility that it is too late to avert an environmental catastrophe and the implications for their work? A quick literature review revealed that my fellow professionals have not been publishing work that explores, or starts from, that perspective. That led to a third question, on why sustainability professionals are not exploring this fundamentally important issue to our whole field as well as our personal lives. To explore that, I drew on psychological analyses, conversations with colleagues, reviews of debates amongst environmentalists in social media and self-reflection on my own reticence. Concluding that there is a need to promote discussion about the implications of a societal collapse triggered by an environmental catastrophe, I asked my fourth question on what are the ways that people are talking about collapse on social media. I identified a variety of conceptualisations and from that asked myself what could provide a map for people to navigate this extremely difficult issue. For that, I drew on a range of reading and experiences over my 25 years in the sustainability field to outline an agenda for what I have termed “deep adaptation” to climate change.

Again, the questions are:

  1. Can professionals in sustainability management, policy and research continue to work with the assumption or hope that we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilization?

  2. Have professionals in the sustainability field discussed the possibility that it is too late to avert an environmental catastrophe and the implications for their work?

  3. Why are sustainability professionals not exploring this fundamentally important issue to our whole field as well as our personal lives?

  4. What are the ways that people are talking about collapse on social media?

  5. What could provide a map for people to navigate this extremely difficult issue?

He concludes this section: "The result of these five questions is an article," meaning the one you're reading, "that does not contribute to one specific set of literature or practice in the broad field of sustainability management [but] questions the basis for all the work in this field.... [T]he implication is for you to ... consider 'what if' the analysis in these pages is true, to allow yourself to grieve, and to overcome enough of the typical fears we all have, to find meaning in new ways of being and acting."

That's certainly the problem, isn't it? To find meaning, if collapse is inexorably coming, in life itself.

The Non-Linear World

In a section titled "Our Non-Linear World," Bendell goes through the data that suggests that the IPCC is constantly (in my phrasing) "wrong to the slow side." Later he confronts the bloodlessness of the descriptions of the disaster we face.

"When we contemplate this possibility of ‘societal collapse’, it can seem abstract. The previous paragraphs may seem, subconsciously at least, to be describing a situation to feel sorry about as we witness scenes on TV or online. But 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."

It's that last — that this is about "you" (the reader) — that's both hard to face and hard for the scientists to say. Yet it's absolutely true.

"As we are considering here a situation where the publishers of this journal would no longer exist, the electricity to read its outputs won’t exist, and a profession to educate won’t exist, I think it time we break some of the conventions of this format."

I find this a striking passage. It's worth reading again before going on.

Strategic Denial

Given the preponderance of evidence that societal collapse is at least one of the likely outcomes, Bendell tries to explain its denial (an explanation on which he and I part company, by the way).

Bendell defines "strategic denial" as the impulse to avoid admitting the likelihood of collapse "because people want to continue their striving ... based in a rationale of maintaining self-identities related to espoused values."

In plain terms, people's image of themselves as doers of good in the world is threatened if collapse is inevitable. How can you define yourself as a doer of good of no real good can be done, if failure to stop the crisis is either likely or worse, inevitable? (I'm of the opinion that collapse is inevitable, given our broken-by-design politics and the lateness of the hour. I also think that the explanation lies elsewhere — firmly seated in our broken-by-design politics and the psychopaths who own those who lead us. But I've been wrong before, even about psychopaths.)

Bendell provides examples. (My paragraphing below.)

That process of strategic denial to maintain striving and identity is easily seen in online debates about the latest climate science. One particular case is illustrative.
In 2017 the New York Magazine published an article that drew together the latest data and analysis of what the implications of rapid climatic warming would be on ecosystems and humanity. Unlike the many dry academic articles on these subjects, this popular article sought to describe these processes in visceral ways (Wallace-Wells, 2017).
The reaction of some environmentalists to this article did not focus on the accuracy of the descriptions or what might be done to reduce some of the worst effects that were identified in the article. Instead, they focused on whether such ideas should be communicated to the general public.
Climate scientist Michael Mann warned against presenting “the problem as unsolvable, and feed[ing] a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness” (in Becker, 2017). Environmental journalist Alex Steffen (2017) tweeted that "Dropping the dire truth... on unsupported readers does not produce action, but fear." In a blog post, Daniel Aldana Cohen (2017) an assistant sociology professor working on climate politics, called the piece “climate disaster porn.”
Their reactions reflect what some people have said to me in professional environmental circles. The argument made is that to discuss the likelihood and nature of societal collapse due to climate change is irresponsible because it might trigger hopelessness amongst the general public.
I always thought it odd to restrict our own exploration of reality and censor our own sensemaking due to our ideas about how our conclusions might come across to others. Given that this attempt at censoring was so widely shared in the environmental field in 2017, it deserves some closer attention.

I can personally attest to the desire not to "trigger hopelessness" among the general public as a reason to alter the message from truth to (sorry to say it) something that approaches manipulation.

Bendell calls this desire understandable, and it certainly is, but he deplores it as "paternalistic" nonetheless. He also points out, correctly, the positive effects on many people of hopelessness — how people redefine their relationship with time, their families and the world, for example, after a terminal diagnosis. He adds that the "question of valid and useful hope is something that we must explore much further." Indeed.

Deep Adaptation

Bendell's solution to all the problems posed by what he considers the new reality — which for him is "collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable, extinction as possible" — is Deep Adaptation, something far different from the shallow and narrow adaption of current academic focus. Why is deep adaption needed? (Again, my paragraphing.)

First, the upbeat allegiance to “development” and “progress” in certain discourses about resilience may not be helpful as we enter a period when material “progress” may not be possible and so aiming for it might become counterproductive.
Second, apart from some limited soft skills development, the initiatives under the resilience banner are nearly all focused on physical adaptation to climate change, rather than considering a wider perspective on psychological resilience."

Both points are important.

About the first, adherence to progress — or at least adherence to what I've called our "smart-phone big-screen lifestyle" ­— may drain resources from where they can be actually useful, lost in service of a doomed cause, Early Twenty-First Century American Comfort. If that cause is lost, how tragic to focus resources, time and energy on preserving it, when things that can be preserved are also at risk?

About the second, focus on "psychological resilience" is almost entirely ignored today, save misguided (in my view) attempts to stave off hopelessness despite its inevitable arrival. Why not work instead to deal with hopelessness in more positive ways than mere denial? After all, if hopelessness will inevitably turn up in everyone's life, handmaid to the certainty of death. Best be prepared ahead of it. Is the optimum plan to dance until we die? Some say yes, but most can't do that and not go mad.

Neoliberal Solutions to Socialist Problems

Only near the end does Bendell get to the actual root of the problem: "The West’s response to environmental issues has been restricted by the dominance of neoliberal economics since the 1970s." (The exception is a wonderful takedown of the World Wildlife Fund he offers in an earlier example.) And even there his focus is narrow, primarily on his and his colleagues' lives as academics in a corporate-funded world.

Yet the obvious overall cause of both the physical problem (persistent burning of carbon) and the political problem (capture of governments by ideologies that conveniently glorify wealth-acquisition by the already gloriously wealthy) sit nakedly in front of us.

No one with money will tell us there's a problem, except as virtue-signaling. So "we," social creatures as we are, normalized to the thoughts of our neighbors (a virtue in a species that lives in tribes), eat what we're fed instead of what we forage for ourselves.

By that I mean, we think what our neighbors — the blonde and the serious on Fox and MSNBC — tell us that they think they think, and we act when we're told to act — in defense of the Ukrainian people, for example, but not for the Yemeni, who, for most Americans, don't by design exist.

If we had control of our own government, "we" meaning the actual people, we'd know in a flash what to do. After all, our popular fiction is filled with our fears, from Mad Max to The Windup Girl. In our hearts we know what's going to happen, even on the right. It's our inaction we need to get control of, our denial.

That Other Topic For Today — Biden's Betrayal of Medicare

Which leads me to today's competing topic, the shameless effort by the Biden administration to privatize Medicare. We're out of time, so I suggest the following video. Note the courageous callout of bribery near the end. Note also the dollar amounts.

MSNBC won't tell you how much "our" mainstream Democrats are paid to destroy Medicare. This isn't "ideology" or dearth of feck. It's simple, straight-up bribery.

1 Comment

Apr 12, 2022

some value here in certain rhetorical questions asked.

Clearly the reason NOBODY AT ALL will tell the truth about climate (unavoidable disaster) and the inevitable collapses (not just societal) is because of the lesson that Upton Sinclair imparted 90 years ago: "“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

the obvious corollary here is that it is impossible to get an academic to objectively describe something when his funding absolutely depends upon him lying about it.

or worse. "Concluding that there is a need to promote discussion about the implications of a societal collapse triggered by an environmental catastrophe, I asked my fourth question on what are the way…

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