Sunday, March 17, 2019

Deep adaptation, post-sustainability and the possibility of societal collapse

I write this piece primarily to get you to read an academic paper that has attracted relatively widespread attention. It is entitled "Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy."

It is remarkable in a number of aspects. First, it was written by a professor of sustainability leadership who has been heavily involved for a long time in helping organizations including governments, nonprofits and corporations to become more sustainable. Second, the author, Jem Bendell, has now concluded the following after an exhaustive review of the most up-to-date findings about climate change: "inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction." Third, his paper was rejected for publication not because it contained any errors of fact, but largely because it was too negative and thought to breed hopelessness.

It is important to understand what Bendell means by "collapse" in this context. He does not necessarily mean an event taking place in a relatively short period of time all over the world all at once. Rather, he means severe disruptions of our lives and societies to a degree than renders our current institutional arrangements largely irrelevant. He believes we won't be able to respond to the scope of suffering and change by doing things the way we are doing them now with only a few reformist tweaks.

That this idea doesn't go down well in sustainability circles should be no surprise. That's because our current arrangements, even if "reformed" to take environmental imperatives into account, are in no way equal to the task ahead. Our existing institutions are structurally incapable of responding to what is coming and so consulting about how to reform them is largely a fool's errand—not the way sustainability experts and consultants want to be thought of.

Instead, Bendell proposes a "post-sustainability" ethic. We must give up on the hope that our society can proceed largely on its current trajectory—with proper allowances, of course, for carbon emission reduction and climate change adaptation—and embrace what he calls "deep adaptation." That agenda calls for resilience, relinquishment and restoration. The words themselves, especially "relinquishment," convey something of the radical approach Bendell believes is now necessary. For details I implore you to read the paper.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this paper is its detailed discussion of what Bendell calls "collapse denial." Understanding the psychology behind the denial of collapse as a possibility and the opprobrium visited on those who speak of it openly is essential for grasping the current discourse on climate change (and many other existential environmental topics).

Hope, it turns out, can be an opiate. It can keep you from thinking about what you might have to do if the worst happens. Whether you agree with Bendell or not about the inevitability of collapse, reading him will likely disrupt your usual ways of thinking about responses to our environmental challenges and likely increase the scope of responses you are willing to consider.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Iaato said...

We need death doulas for our culture.

Joe Clarkson said...

If CO2 emissions need to be reduced by 45% in the next 11 years and go to zero by 2050, as recommended by the IPCC, then deliberate mitigation has become the same as collapse. This is what happens when mitigation is delayed too long. And this is why everyone should be preparing to live without industrial civilization; our best chance of long term survival for the most people is immediate collapse.

Much of the world is already prepared, mostly those subsistence farmers in the Global South, but almost all of us in developed countries are far from ready. The key metric, one's guiding star, should be the ability to provide one's needs without money. Once that is accomplished, start work on auxiliary preparations like dealing with the consequences of a limited nuclear exchange somewhere in the world (a large nuclear exchange cannot be prepared for or survived long term no matter what one does).

Walter said...

It seems that Jem Bendall has been reading my books. OR collapse has become so obvious he arrived at the same conclusions independently. Now he needs to work on actually adapting. This requires getting one's hands dirty through manual labor. I have an extra shovel.

ChemEng said...

Thank you for sharing this. I had skimmed the paper, but will now read it more thoroughly.

Robin Datta said...

An audio reading:

ChemEng said...

I took a closer look at this paper. My first reaction was that most readers of this blog will be familiar with his arguments, particularly the idea that we are heading toward irreversible collapse. He is drawing the distinction between problems and predicaments. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) This is not a new thought for most of the people here.

Readers will also accept his argument that most previous official projections have underestimated the seriousness of our situation, and that today’s projections are no better. For example, his comment that the IPCC report does not consider the loss of reflective ice or the impact of methane releases. Moreover, we have a non-linear situation because these events all interact with one another. Non-linearities are difficult to model and predict, especially step changes.

Here are a few other thoughts.

• There is a suggestion that collapse is a single event in time. But collapse has already started for some people. It’s likely to be a ragged, downhill process — with a few ups along the way. It will also vary from person to person and group to group. Some people will even prosper. It is unlikely that we will be able to identify a specific date or period as to when collapse occurred.
• A related concern is to do with the definition of the phrase “near term”. When is that?
• Much of the paper was to do with defining the meanings of words such as ‘resilience’, ‘sustainability’, ‘collapse’, ‘catastrophe’ and ‘extinction’.
• I liked his comment about how charities such as WWF tend toward “implicative denial”, and that they should repay their donors.
• The comment to do with balancing bad news with good was useful. He is identifying the “both sideism” difficulty.

At times, I found the paper difficult to follow. However, his blog (reference in the paper) is more readable and is worth visiting.

sv koho said...

Jem Bendell has elevated the discussion on the trajectory of our fossil energy based economic system and what consequences await us. I'm not sure it matters whether the triggering event is cultural, social, political, environmental or financial. The system is too complex and networked and not comprehensible which impairs mitigation strategies if any. People like us who follow this meme already know and feel that we are riding one of those 737 Max 8 aircraft trying to figure out what to do next and what comes first. I'm not sure it matters. Jem says it's already baked into the cake. we'll see.

Dick Vodra said...

I was struck that his exclusive concern was climate, with little or no mention of real resource constraints. Peak oil, aquifer depletion, soil destruction, and plastics pollution are each critical problems that limiting temperature increases don’t solve. There was no awareness of the biophysical economics work of Charlie Hall. It’s good that he stresses the role of agriculture in carbon sequestration. Whenever I see an article that claims to present a worst case scenario, I find that there are lots of threats not even included.
Thanks much for pointing this out. I am happy I read it, and Gemmell’s website seems more comprehensive.

fpteditors said...

Another opportunist feeding off of Guy McPherson.

Anonymous said...

Kurt - thanks for this review and link.

A representative quote from the paper's Conclusions:
"Disruptive impacts from climate change are now inevitable.
Geoengineeringis likely to be ineffective or counter-productive.
Therefore, the mainstream climate policy community now recognises the need to work much more on adaptation to the effects of climate change."

The first sentence is broadly correct but the language is very suboptimal. We are already seeing impacts that are beyond 'disruptive': they are downright 'destabilizing' of impoverished communities. Similarly the euphemism 'climate change' needs replacement urgently with climate destabilization (as Sir Crispin Tickell pointed out in 2008).

The second sentence makes a sweeping unsupported assertion of the innefficacy of all the diverse techniques of both the Carbon Recovery and Albedo Restoration modes of 'geo-engineering'. The latter term is inappropriate here and should have been "Climate Engineering". The author appears unaware of Carbon Recovery being a mode of Climate engineering as he writes positively of a few of the dozen or so leading techniques efficacy. The efficacy of both modes has yet to be demonstrated currently at scale, but if the RD&D of the most promising options prove useful, the entire assessment of a predictable collapse will be shown to be wrong.

The third sentence refers to the parts of the 'mainstream climate policy community' with which he is in touch, and claims that they now see the need to work much more on adaption to climate impacts. Given that the proximate extreme threat is of the onset of serial global crop failures, and that there is no prospect of people adapting to going without food, it could be argued that this statement is ill-informed. What the IPCC's belated 1.5C study has done is to refocus attention on and multiply efforts for the mitigation of AGW. This has begun to bear fruit in that there is growing recognition that a strategy Emissions Control alone cannot control the warming we are committed to, and that the additional deployment of a global program of Carbon Recovery will be prerequisite for that control, but that a further program for the RD&D of Albedo Restoration will be necessary and potentially sufficient to cool the planet and thereby to decellerate the Major Interactive Feedbacks [MIFs].

On balance I'm not at all surprised that the author has difficulty getting such a broad-brush overview published - particularly when he draws conclusions without exploring relevant mitigation options. I don't knock his effort, for I know what it costs to study this material decade after decade; I hope for the sake of his wellbeing that he'll choose to discipline his enquiries to focus primarily on the mitigation options. The example of McPherson's seriously unbalanced outlook and unintended promotion of isolationism and apathy is a warning he should take seriously.

All the best,