- Words by Jem Bendell
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 issue which is fundamentally important to our whole field as well as our personal lives. To explore that, I drew on psychological analyses, conversations with colleagues, reviews of debates among 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 social 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.
The result of these five questions is an article that does not contribute to one specific set of literature or practice in the broad field of sustainability management and policy. Rather, it questions the basis for all the work in this field. It does not seek to add to the existing research, policy and practice on climate adaptation, as I found that to be framed by the view that we can manage the impacts of a changing climate on our physical, economic, social, political and psychological situations. Instead, this article may contribute to future work on sustainable management and policy as much by subtraction as by addition. By that I mean the implication is for you to take time to step back, 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 may be in the fields of academia or management – or could be in some other field that this realisation leads you to.
As researchers and reflective practitioners, we have an opportunity and obligation to not just do what is expected by our employers and the norms of our profession, but also to reflect on the relevance of our work within wider society. I am aware that some people consider statements from academics that we now face inevitable near-term social collapse to be irresponsible due to the potential impact that may have on the motivation or mental health of people reading such statements. My research and engagement in dialogue on this topic leads me to conclude the exact opposite. It is a responsible act to communicate this analysis now and invite people to support each other in exploring the implications.
Our non-linear world
The simple evidence of global ambient temperature rise is indisputable. Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, and global temperatures have increased by 0.9°C since 1880. The most surprising warming is in the Arctic, where the 2016 land surface temperature was 2.0°C above the 1981-2010 average, breaking the previous records of 2007, 2011 and 2015 by 0.8°C, representing a 3.5°C increase since the record began in 1900.
This data is fairly easy to collate and not widely challenged, so swiftly finds its way into academic publications. However, to obtain a sense of the implications of this warming on environment and society, one needs real-time data on the current situation and the trends it may entail. This review draws on a range of sources with a focus on data since 2014. That is because, unfortunately, data collected since then is often consistent with non-linear changes to our environment. Non-linear changes are of central importance to understanding climate change, as they suggest that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections.
The warming of the Arctic reached wider public awareness as it began destabilising winds in the higher atmosphere, specifically the jet stream and the northern polar vortex, leading to extreme movements of warmer air north into the Arctic and cold air to the south. At one point in early 2018, temperature recordings from the Arctic were 20°C above the average for that date. The warming Arctic has led to dramatic loss in sea ice, the average September extent of which has been decreasing at a rate of 13.2 per cent per decade since 1980, so that over two-thirds of the ice cover has now gone. One of the most eminent climate scientists in the world, Peter Wadhams, believes an ice-free Arctic will occur one summer in the next few years and that it will likely increase by 50 per cent the warming caused by the CO2 produced by human activity.
Already we see impacts on storm, drought and flood frequency and strength due to increased volatility from more energy in the atmosphere. We are witnessing negative impacts on agriculture. Climate change has reduced growth in crop yields by 1-2 per cent per decade over the past century. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that weather abnormalities related to climate change are costing billions of dollars a year and growing exponentially. For now, the impact is calculated in money, but the nutritional implications are key. We are also seeing impacts on marine ecosystems. About half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years, due to a mixture of reasons including higher water temperatures and acidification due to higher CO2 concentrations in ocean water. In the 10 years prior to 2016, the Atlantic Ocean soaked up 50 per cent more carbon dioxide than it did the previous decade, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean. This is indicative of oceans worldwide, and the consequent acidification degrades the base of the marine food web, thereby reducing the ability of fish populations to reproduce themselves across the globe. Meanwhile, warming oceans are already reducing the population size of some fish species. Compounding these threats to human nutrition, in some regions we are witnessing an exponential rise in the spread of mosquito and tick-borne viruses as temperatures become more conducive to them.
It is difficult to predict future impacts on our ecosystems, soils, seas and societies. But current models suggest an increase in storm number and strength and a decline of normal agriculture, including the compromising of mass production of grains in the northern hemisphere and intermittent disruption to rice production in the tropics. That includes predicted declines in the yields of rice, wheat, and corn in China by 36.25, 18.26 and 45.10 per cent, respectively, by the end of this century and a 6-23 and 15-25 per cent reduction in the wheat yield in India during the 2050s and 2080s respectively. The loss of coral and the acidification of the seas is predicted to reduce fisheries productivity by over half. The rates of sea level rise suggest they may soon become exponential, which will pose significant problems for billions of people living in coastal zones. About half of all plants and animal species in the world’s most biodiverse places are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Environmental scientists are now describing our current era as the sixth mass extinction event in the history of planet Earth, with this one caused by us. The World Bank reported in 2018 that countries needed to prepare for over 100 million internally displaced people due to the effects of climate change, in addition to millions of international refugees.
Half of all plants and animal species in the world’s most biodiverse places are at risk of extinction due to climate change
It is useful to recap simply to invite a sober acceptance of our current predicament. It has led some commentators to describe our time as a new geological era shaped by humans – the Anthropocene. It has led others to conclude that we should be exploring how to live in an unstable post-sustainability situation.
The politically permissible scientific consensus is that we need to stay beneath 2°C warming of global ambient temperatures, to avoid dangerous and uncontrollable levels of climate change, with impacts such as mass starvation, disease, flooding, storm destruction, forced migration and war. That figure was agreed on by governments that were dealing with many domestic and international pressures from vested interests, particularly corporations. It is therefore not a figure that many scientists would advise, given that many ecosystems will be lost and many risks created if we approach 2°C global ambient warming.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agreed in 2013 that if the world does not keep further anthropogenic emissions below a total of 800 billion tonnes of carbon, we are not likely to keep average temperatures below 2°C of global average warming. That left about 270 billion tonnes of carbon to burn. Total global emissions remain at around 11 billion tonnes of carbon per year (which is 37 billion tonnes of CO2). Those calculations appear worrying but give the impression we have at least a decade to change. It takes significant time to change economic systems, so if we are not already on the path to dramatic reductions it is unlikely we will keep within the carbon limit. With an increase of carbon emissions of 2 per cent in 2017, the decoupling of economic activity from emissions is not yet making a net dent in global emissions. So, we are not on the path to prevent going over 2°C warming through emissions reductions. In any case the IPCC estimate of a carbon budget was controversial with many scientists who estimated that existing CO2 in the atmosphere should already produce global ambient temperature rises over 5°C. So there is no carbon budget – it has already been overspent.
That situation is why some experts have argued for more work on removing carbon from the atmosphere with machines. Unfortunately, the current technology needs to be scaled by a factor of two million within two years, all powered by renewables, alongside massive emission cuts, to reduce the amount of heating already locked into the system. Biological approaches to carbon capture appear far more promising. These include planting trees, restoring soils used in agriculture, and growing seagrass and kelp. They also offer wider beneficial environmental and social side effects. Studies on seagrass and seaweed indicate we could be taking millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere immediately and continually if we had a massive effort to restore seagrass meadows and to farm seaweed.
Research into ‘management-intensive rotational grazing’ (MIRG) practices, also known as holistic grazing, shows how a healthy grassland can store carbon. A 2014 study measured annual per-hectare increases in soil carbon at 8 tonnes per year on farms converted to these practices. The world uses about 3.5 billion hectares of land for pasture and fodder crops. Using the 8 tonnes figure above, converting a 10th of that land to MIRG practices would sequester a quarter of present emissions. In addition, no-till methods of horticulture can sequester as much as two tonnes of carbon per hectare per year, so could also make significant contributions. It is clear, therefore, that our assessment of carbon budgets must focus as much on these agricultural systems as we do on emissions reductions.
Clearly a massive campaign and policy agenda to transform agriculture and restore ecosystems globally is needed right now. It will be a huge undertaking, undoing 60 years of developments in world agriculture. In addition, it means the conservation of our existing wetlands and forests must suddenly become successful, after decades of failure across lands outside geographically limited nature reserves. Even if such will emerges immediately, the heating and instability already locked into the climate will cause damage to ecosystems, so it will be difficult for such approaches to curb the global atmospheric carbon level. The reality that we have progressed too far already to avert disruptions to ecosystems is highlighted by the finding that if CO2 removal from the atmosphere could work at scale, it would not prevent massive damage to marine life, which is locked in for many years due to acidification from the dissolving of CO2 in the oceans.
Despite the limitations of what humans can do to work with nature to encourage its carbon sequestration processes, the planet has been helping us out. A global ‘greening’ of the planet has significantly slowed the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the start of the century. Plants have been growing faster and larger due to higher CO2 levels in the air and warming temperatures that reduce the CO2 emitted by plants via respiration. The effects led the proportion of annual carbon emissions remaining in the air to fall from about 50 per cent to 40 per cent in the last decade. However, this process only offers a limited effect, as the absolute level of CO2 in the atmosphere is continuing to rise, breaking the milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) in 2015. Given that changes in seasons, temperature extremes, flood and drought are beginning to negatively affect ecosystems, the risk exists that this global greening effect may be reduced in time.
These potential reductions in atmospheric carbon from natural and assisted biological processes is a flickering ray of hope in our dark situation. However, the uncertainty about their impact needs to be contrasted with the uncertain yet significant impact of increasing methane release in the atmosphere. It is a gas that enables far more trapping of heat from the sun’s rays than CO2, but was ignored in most of the climate models over the past decades. The authors of the 2016 Global Methane Budget report found that in the early years of this century, concentrations of methane rose by only about 0.5ppb each year, compared with 10ppb in 2014 and 2015. Various sources were identified, from fossil fuels to agriculture to melting permafrost.
In 2017 scientists working on the Eastern Siberian Sea shelf, reported that the permafrost layer has thinned enough to risk destabilising hydrates. That, along with unprecedented temperatures in the Arctic and the data in non-linear rises in high-atmosphere methane levels, combine to make it feel like we are about to play Russian roulette with the entire human race, with already two bullets loaded. Nothing is certain. But it is sobering that humanity has arrived at a situation of our own making where we now debate the strength of analyses of our near-term extinction.
We do not know if the power of human ingenuity will help sufficiently to change the environmental trajectory we are on. Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.
We do not know for certain how disruptive the impacts of climate change will be or where we will be most affected, especially as economic and social systems will respond in complex ways. But the evidence is mounting that the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live within. Our norms of behaviour, that we call our ‘civilisation’, may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. 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.
These descriptions may seem overly dramatic. I chose the words above as an attempt to cut through the sense that this topic is purely theoretical. 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.
We are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war
Some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amid collapse. Others will consider that the probability of collapse means that effort at reforming our current system is no longer the pragmatic choice. My conclusion has been that we need to expand our work on ‘sustainability’ to consider how communities, countries and humanity can adapt to the coming troubles. I have dubbed this the ‘deep adaptation agenda’, to contrast it with the limited scope of current climate adaptation activities. My experience is that a lot of people are resistant to the conclusions I have just shared. So before explaining the implications, let us consider some of the emotional and psychological responses to the information I have just summarised.Some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amid collapse. Others will consider that the probability of collapse means that effort at reforming our current system is no longer the pragmatic choice. My conclusion has been that we need to expand our work on ‘sustainability’ to consider how communities, countries and humanity can adapt to the coming troubles. I have dubbed this the ‘deep adaptation agenda’, to contrast it with the limited scope of current climate adaptation activities. My experience is that a lot of people are resistant to the conclusions I have just shared. So before explaining the implications, let us consider some of the emotional and psychological responses to the information I have just summarised.
Systems of denial
It would not be unusual to feel a bit affronted, disturbed or saddened by the information and arguments I have just shared. In the past few years, many people have said to me that, ‘It can’t be too late to stop climate change, because if it were, how would we find the energy to keep on striving for change?’ With such views, a possible reality is denied because people want to continue their striving. What does that tell us? The ‘striving’ is based on a rationale of maintaining self-identities related to espoused values. It is understandable why that happens. If one has always thought of oneself as having self-worth through promoting the public good, then information that initially appears to take away that self-image is difficult to assimilate.
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 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. 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 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 a blog post, Daniel Aldana Cohen (2017) an assistant sociology professor working on climate politics, called the piece ‘climate disaster porn’.
There are three main factors that could be encouraging professional environmentalists in their denial that our societies will collapse in the near-term. The first is the way the natural scientific community operates. Eminent climate scientist James Hansen has always been ahead of the conservative consensus in his analyses and predictions. Using the case study of sea level rise, he threw light on processes that lead to ‘scientific reticence’ to conclude and communicate scenarios that would be disturbing to employers, funders, governments and the public. Combined with the norms of scientific analysis and reporting to be cautious and avoid bombast, and the time it takes to fund, research, produce and publish peer-reviewed scientific studies, this means that the information available to environmental professionals about the state of the climate is not as frightening as it could be.
A second set of factors influencing denial may be personal. George Marshall summarised the insights from psychology on climate denial, including the interpretative and implicative denial of those who are aware but have not prioritised it. In particular, we are social beings and our assessment of what to do about information is influenced by our culture. Therefore, people often avoid voicing certain thoughts when they go against the social norm around them and/or their social identity. Especially in situations of shared powerlessness, it can be perceived as safer to hide one’s views and do nothing if it goes against the status quo. Marshall also explains how our typical fear of death means that we do not give our full attention to information that reminds us of that. According to anthropologist Ernest Becker: ‘A fear of death lies at the centre of all human belief’. Marshall explains: ‘The denial of death is a “vital lie” that leads us to invest our efforts into our cultures and social groups to obtain a sense of permanence and survival beyond our death. Thus, [Becker] argued, when we receive reminders of our death – what he calls death salience – we respond by defending those values and cultures’.
Research has revealed that people who have a higher level of formal education are more supportive of the existing social and economic systems than those that have less education. The argument is that people who have invested time and money in progressing to a higher status within existing social structures are more naturally inclined to imagine reform of those systems than their upending. This situation is accentuated if we assume our livelihood, identity and self-worth is dependent on the perspective that progress on sustainability is possible and that we are part of that progressive process.
The third factor influencing denial is institutional. I have worked for over 20 years within or with organisations working on the sustainability agenda, in non-profit, private and governmental sectors. In none of these sectors is there an obvious institutional self-interest in articulating the probability or inevitability of social collapse. Not to members of your charity, not to consumers of your product, not to voters for your party. The internal culture of environmental groups remains strongly in favour of appearing effective, even when decades of investment and campaigning have not produced a net positive outcome on climate, ecosystems or many specific species.
Let us look at the largest environmental charity, WWF, as an example. I worked for them when we were striving towards all UK wood product imports being from sustainable forests by 1995. Then it became ‘well-managed’ forests by 2000. Then targets were quietly forgotten while the potensiphonic language of solving deforestation through innovative partnerships remained. If the employees of the world’s leading environmental groups were on performance-related pay, they would probably owe their members and donors money by now. The fact that some readers may find such a comment to be rude and unhelpful highlights how our interests in civility, praise and belonging within a professional community can censor those of us who seek to communicate uncomfortable truths in memorable ways (like that journalist in the ).
These personal and institutional factors mean that environmental professionals may be some of the slowest to process the implications of the latest climate information. The idea we ‘experts’ need to be careful about what to tell ‘them’, the ‘unsupported public’, may be a narcissistic delusion in need of immediate remedy. Emotional difficulties with realising the tragedy that is coming, and that is in many ways upon us already, are understandable. Yet these difficulties need to be overcome so we can explore what the implications may be for our work, lives and communities.
Framing after denial
If we allow ourselves to accept that a climate-induced form of economic and social collapse is now likely, then we can begin to explore the nature and likelihood of that collapse. That is when we discover a range of different views. Some frame the future as involving a collapse of this economic and social system, which does not necessarily mean a complete collapse of law, order, identity and values. Some regard that kind of collapse as offering a potential upside in bringing humanity to a post-consumerist way of life that would be more conscious of relationships between people and nature. Some even argue that this reconnection with nature will generate hitherto unimaginable solutions to our predicament. Sometimes that view comes with a belief in the power of spiritual practices to influence the material world according to human intent. The perspective that natural or spiritual reconnection might save us from catastrophe is, however, a psychological response one could analyse as a form of denial.
Some analysts emphasise the unpredictable and catastrophic nature of this collapse, so that it will not be possible to plan a way to transition at either collective or small-scale levels to a new way of life that we might imagine as tolerable, let alone beautiful. Others go further still and argue that the data can be interpreted as indicating climate change is now in a runaway pattern, with inevitable methane release from the seafloor leading to a rapid collapse of societies that will trigger multiple meltdowns of some of the world’s 400 nuclear power stations, leading to the extinction of the human race.
With each of these framings – collapse, catastrophe, extinction – people describe different degrees of certainty. Different people speak of a scenario being possible, probable or inevitable. In my conversations with both professionals in sustainability or climate, and others not directly involved, I have found that people choose a scenario and a probability depending not on what the data and its analysis might suggest, but what they are choosing to live with as a story about this topic. That parallels findings in psychology that none of us are purely logic machines but relate information into stories about how things relate and why. None of us are immune to that process. Currently, I have chosen to interpret the information as indicating inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction. There is a growing community of people who conclude we face inevitable human extinction and treat that view as a prerequisite for meaningful discussions about the implications for our lives right now. For instance, there are thousands of people on Facebook groups who believe human extinction is near. In such groups I have witnessed how people who doubt extinction is either inevitable or coming soon are disparaged by some participants for being weak and deluded. This could reflect how some of us may find it easier to believe in a certain than an uncertain story, especially when the uncertain future would be so different to today that it is difficult to comprehend. Reflection on the end of times, or eschatology, is a major dimension of the human experience, and the total sense of loss of everything one could ever contribute to is an extremely powerful experience for many people. How they emerge from that experience depends on many factors, with loving kindness, creativity, transcendence, anger, depression, nihilism and apathy all being potential responses. Given the potential spiritual experience triggered by sensing the imminent extinction of the human race, we can appreciate why a belief in the inevitability of extinction could be a basis for some people to come together.
In my work with mature students, I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression. Instead, in a supportive environment, where we have enjoyed community with each other, celebrating ancestors and enjoying nature before then looking at this information and possible framings for it, something positive happens. I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward. Despite that, a certain discombobulation occurs and remains over time as one tries to find a way forward in a society where such perspectives are uncommon. Continued sharing about the implications as we transition our work and lives is valuable.
Loving kindness, creativity, transcendence, anger, depression, nihilism and apathy are potential responses for people reflecting on the end of time
One further factor in the framing of our situation concerns timing. Which also concerns geography. Where and when will the collapse or catastrophe begin? When will it affect my livelihood and society? Has it already begun? Although it is difficult to forecast and impossible to predict with certainty, that does not mean we should not try. The current data on temperature rise at the poles and impacts on weather patterns around the world suggests we are already in the midst of dramatic changes that will impact massively and negatively on agriculture within the next 20 years. Impacts have already begun. That sense of near-term disruption to our ability to feed ourselves and our families, and the implications for crime and conflict, adds another level to the discombobulation I mentioned. Should you drop everything now and move somewhere more suitable for self-sufficiency? Should you be spending time reading the rest of this article? Should I even finish writing it?
I have seen how the idea of Inevitable Near-Term Human Extinction (INTHE) can lead me to focus on truth, love and joy in the now, which is wonderful, but how it can also make me lose interest in planning for the future. And yet I always come around to the same conclusion – we do not know. Ignoring the future because it is unlikely to matter might backfire. ‘Running for the hills’ – to create our own eco-community – might backfire. But we definitely know that continuing to work in the ways we have done until now is not just backfiring – it is holding the gun to our own heads. With this in mind, we can choose to explore how to evolve what we do, without any simple answers. In my post-denial state, shared by increasing numbers of my students and colleagues, I realised that we would benefit from conceptual maps for how to address these questions. I therefore set about synthesising the main things people talked about doing differently in light of a view of inevitable collapse and probable catastrophe. That is what I offer now as the ‘deep adaptation agenda’.
The deep adaptation agenda
For many years, discussions and initiatives on adaptation to climate change were seen by environmental activists and policymakers as unhelpful to the necessary focus on carbon emissions reductions. That view finally changed in 2010 when the IPCC gave more attention to how societies and economies could be helped to adapt to climate change, and the United Nations Global Adaptation Network was founded to promote knowledge sharing and collaboration. Five years later the Paris Accord between member states produced a ‘Global Goal on Adaptation’ with the aim of ‘enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the global temperature goal’. Countries committed to develop National Adaptation Plans and report on their creation to the UN.
Since then the funding being made available to climate adaptation has grown, with all the international development institutions active on adaptation finance. In 2018 the International Fund for Agricultural Development, African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the World Bank each agreed major financing for governments to increase resilience of their communities. Some of their projects include the Green Climate Fund, which was created to provide lower income countries with assistance. Typical projects include improving the ability of small-scale farmers to cope with weather variability through the introduction of irrigation and the ability of urban planners to respond to rising sea levels and extreme rainfall events through re-engineering drainage systems (Climate Action Programme, 2018). These initiatives are falling short of the commitments made by governments over the past eight years, and so more is being done to promote private bonds to finance adaptation as well as stimulate private philanthropy on this agenda.
These efforts are paralleled by an increased range of activities under the umbrella of ‘Disaster Risk Reduction’, which has its own international agency – the United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction. The aim of its work is to reduce the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones, through reducing sensitivity to these hazards as well as increasing the capacity to respond when disasters hit. That focus means significant engagement with urban planners and local governments. In the business sector, this disaster risk reduction agenda meets the private sector through the well-established fields of risk management and business continuity management. Companies ask themselves what the points of failure might be in their value chains and seek to reduce those vulnerabilities or the significance of something failing.
Given the climate science we discussed earlier, some people may think this action is too little too late. Yet, if such action reduces some harm temporarily, that will help people, just like you and me, and therefore such action should not be disregarded. Nevertheless, we can look more critically at how people and organisations are framing the situation and the limitations that such a framing may impose. The initiatives are typically described as promoting ‘resilience’, rather than sustainability. Some definitions of resilience within the environmental sector are surprisingly upbeat. For instance, the Stockholm Resilience Centre explains that ‘resilience is the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about how humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking’.
Two issues require attention at this point. 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. In psychology, ‘resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back from difficult experiences’. How a person ‘bounces back’ after difficulties or loss, may be through a creative reinterpretation of identity and priorities. The concept of resilience in psychology does not, therefore, assume that people return to how they were before. Given the climate reality we now face, this less progressivist framing of resilience is more useful for a deeper adaptation agenda.
In pursuit of a conceptual map of ‘deep adaptation’, we can conceive of resilience of human societies as the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours. Given that analysts are concluding that a social collapse is inevitable, the question becomes: what are the valued norms and behaviours that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive? That highlights how deep adaptation will involve more than ‘resilience’. It brings us to a second area of this agenda, which I have named ‘relinquishment’. It involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption. The third area can be called ‘restoration’. It involves people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded. Examples include rewilding landscapes, so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play, and increased community-level productivity and support.
It is not my intention in this paper to map out more specific implications of a deep adaptation agenda. Indeed, it is impossible to do so, and to attempt it would assume we are in a situation for calculated attempts at management, when what we face is a complex predicament beyond our control. Rather, I hope the deep adaptation agenda of resilience, relinquishment and restoration can be a useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change. Resilience asks us ‘how do we keep what we really want to keep?’ Relinquishment asks us ‘what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?’ Restoration asks us ‘what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?’
Research futures in the face of climate tragedy
If all the data and analysis turn out to be misleading, and this society continues nicely for the coming decades, then this article will not have helped my career. If the predicted collapse comes within the next decade, then I won’t have a career. It is the perfect lose-lose.
The West’s response to environmental issues has been restricted by the dominance of neoliberal economics since the 1970s. That led to hyper-individualist, market-fundamentalist, incremental and atomistic approaches. By hyper-individualist, I mean a focus on individual action as consumers, switching light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than promoting political action as engaged citizens. By market fundamentalist, I mean a focus on market mechanisms like the complex, costly and largely useless carbon cap and trade systems, rather than exploring what more government intervention could achieve. By incremental, I mean a 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 suggested by the science. By atomistic, I mean a focus on seeing climate action as a separate issue from the governance of markets, finance and banking, rather than exploring what kind of economic system could permit or enable sustainability.
In ‘deep adaptation’ resilience of human societies is the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours
In my own work, I stopped researching corporate sustainability. I learned about leadership and communications and began to research, teach and advise on these matters in the political arena. I began to work on systems to enable re-localisation of economies and support for community development, particularly those systems using local currencies. I sought to share that knowledge more widely, and therefore launched a free online course (The Money and Society Mass Open Online Course). I began to spend more time reading and talking about the climate tragedy and what I might do, or stop doing, with that in mind. This rethinking and repositioning is ongoing, but I can no longer work on subjects that do not have some relevance to deep adaptation. Looking ahead, I see the need and opportunity for more work at multiple levels. People will need more support to access information and networks for how to attempt a shift in their livelihoods and lifestyles. Existing approaches to living off-grid in intentional communities are useful to learn from, but this agenda needs to go further in asking questions like how small-scale production of drugs like aspirin is possible. Free online and in-person courses as well as support networks on self-sufficiency need to be scaled up. Local governments will need similar support on how to develop the capabilities today that will help their communities to collaborate, not fracture, during a collapse. For instance, they will need to roll out systems for productive cooperation between neighbours, such as product and service exchange platforms enabled by locally issued currency. At the international level, there is the need to work on how to responsibly address the wider fallout from collapsing societies including the challenges of refugee support and the securing of dangerous industrial and nuclear sites at the moment of a societal collapse.
Other intellectual disciplines and traditions may be of interest going forward. Human extinction and the topic of eschatology, or the end of the world, is something that has been discussed in various academic disciplines, as you might expect. In theology it has been widely discussed, while it also appears in literary theory as an interesting element to creative writing, and in psychology during the 1980s as a phenomenon related to the threat of nuclear war. The field of psychology seems to be particularly relevant going forward: whatever we choose to work on in future will be shaped by the emotional or psychological implications of this new awareness of a societal collapse being likely in our own lifetimes.
Important steps on climate mitigation and adaptation have been taken over the past decade. However, these steps could now be regarded as equivalent to walking up a landslide. If the landslide had not already begun, then quicker and bigger steps would get us to the top of where we want to be. Sadly, the latest data on climate, emissions and the spread of carbon-intensive lifestyles show that the landslide has already begun. As the point of no return can’t be fully known until after the event, ambitious work on reducing carbon emissions and extracting more from the air (naturally and synthetically) is more critical than ever. That must involve a new front of action on methane.
Disruptive impacts from climate change are now inevitable. Geoengineering is likely to be ineffective or counterproductive. Therefore, the mainstream climate policy community now recognises the need to work much more on adaptation to the effects of climate change. That must now rapidly permeate the broader field of people engaged in sustainable development as practitioners, researchers and educators. In assessing how our approaches could evolve, we need to appreciate what kind of adaptation is possible. Recent research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than 10 years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations. This situation makes redundant the reformist approach to sustainable development and related fields of corporate sustainability that has underpinned the approach of many professionals. Instead, it is important to develop a deep adaptation agenda that explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse.