A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy: Deep Adaptation - Part 1
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy: Deep Adaptation - Part 1 Jem Bendell, BA (Hons), PhD
(From LEARNING FROM OUR MISTAKES, II , Issue #112 • MAY/SUMMER 2019 Subscribe) 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 civilization?
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 analyze 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 to 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 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 conceptualizations 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 a 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 realization leads you to.
First, I briefly explain the paucity of research that considers or starts from social collapse due to environmental catastrophe and give acknowledgement to the existing work in this field that many readers may consider relevant. Second, I summarize what I consider to be the most important climate science of the last few years and how it is leading more people to conclude that we face disruptive changes in the near-term. Third, I explain how that perspective is marginalized within the professional environmental sector—and so invite you to consider the value of leaving mainstream views behind. Fourth, I outline the ways that people on relevant social networks are framing our situation as one of facing collapse, catastrophe, or extinction and how these views trigger different emotions and ideas. Fifth, I outline a “Deep Adaptation Agenda” to help guide discussions on what we might do once we recognize climate change is an unfolding tragedy. Finally, I make some suggestions for how this agenda could influence our future research and teaching in the sustainability field.
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, some of which I will outline in this paper, lead me to conclude the exact opposite. It is a responsible act to communicate this analysis now and invite people to support each other, myself included, in exploring the implications, including the psychological and spiritual implications.
Locating this study within academia
When discussing negative outlooks on climate change and its implications for human society, the response is often to seek insight through placing this information in context. That context is often assumed to be found in balancing it with other information. As the information on our climate predicament is so negative, the balance is often found in highlighting more positive information about progress on the sustainability agenda. This process of seeking to “balance out” is a habit of the informed and reasoning mind.
Yet that does not make it a logical means of deliberation if positive information being shared does not relate to the situation being described by the negative information. For instance, discussing progress in the health and safety policies of the White Star Line with the captain of the Titanic as it sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic would not be a sensible use of time. Yet given that this balancing is often the way people respond to discussion of the scale and speed of our climate tragedy, let us first recognize the positive news from the broader sustainability agenda.
Certainly, there has been some progress on environmental issues in past decades, from reducing pollution, to habitat preservation, to waste management. Much valiant effort has been made to reduce carbon emissions over the last 20 years,one part of climate action officially termed “mitigation”(Aaron-Morrison et al. 2017). There have been many steps forward on climate and carbon management from awareness,to policies, to innovations (Flannery, 2015). Larger and quicker steps must be taken. That is helped by the agreement reached in December 2015 at the COP21 intergovernmental climate summit and now that there is significant Chinese engagement on the issue. To support the maintenance and scaling of these efforts is essential. In addition, increasing action is occurring on adaptation to climate change, such as flood defenses, planning laws, and irrigation systems (Singh et al.2016). Whereas we can praise these efforts, their existence does not matter to an analysis of our overall predicament with climate change.
Rather than building from existing theories on sustainable business, this paper focuses on a phenomenon. That phenomenon is not climate change per se, but the state of climate change in 2018, which I will argue from a secondary review of research now indicates near-term social collapse. The gap in the literature that this paper may begin to address is the lack of discussion within management studies and practice of the end of the idea that we can either solve or cope with climate change. In the Sustainability Accounting Management and Policy Journal (SAMPJ), to which this paper was originally submitted, there has been no prior discussion of this topic, apart from my own co-authored paper (Bendell et al.2017). Three papers mention climate adaptation in passing,with just one focusing on it by considering how to improve irrigated agriculture (de Sousa Fragoso et al. 2018) (1).
Organization and Environment is a leading journal for discussion of the implications of climate for organizations and vice versa, where since the 80s both philosophical and theoretical positions on environment are discussed as well as organizational or management implications. However, the journal has not published any research papers exploring theories and implications of social collapse due to environmental catastrophe (2). Three articles mention climate adaptation. Two of those have adaptation as a context, but explore other issues as their main focus, specifically social learning (Orsatoet al. 2018) and network learning (Temby et al. 2016). Only one paper in that journal looks at climate adaptation as its main focus and the implications for organization. While a helpful summary of how difficult the implications are for management, the paper does not explore the implications of a widespread social collapse (Clément & Rivera, 2016).
Away from management studies, the field of climate adaptation is wide (Lesnikowski et al. 2015). To illustrate, a search on Google Scholar returns over 40,000 hits for the term “climate adaptation.” In answering the questions I set for myself in this paper, I will not be reviewing that existing field and scholarship. One might ask “why not?”
The answer is that the field of climate adaptation is oriented around ways to maintain our current societies as they face manageable climactic perturbations (ibid). The concept of “deep adaptation” resonates with that agenda where we accept that we will need to change, but breaks with it by taking as its starting point the inevitability of societal collapse (as I will explain below).
Our non-linear world
This paper is not the venue for a detailed examination of all the latest climate science. However, I reviewed the scientific literature from the past few years and where there was still large uncertainty, then sought the latest data from research institutes. In this section, I summarize the findings to establish the premise that it is time we consider the implications of it being too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today.
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 (NASA/GISS, 2018). 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 (Aaron-Morrison et. al. 2017).
These data are fairly easy to collate and not widely challenged, so swiftly find their 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 that it may imply. Climate change and its associated impacts have, as we will see, been significant in the last few years. Therefore,to appreciate the situation, we need to look directly to the research institutes, researchers, and their websites, for the most recent information. That means using, but not relying solely on, academic journal articles and the slowly produced reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC). This international institution has done useful work but has a track record of significantly underestimating the pace of change, which has been more accurately predicted over past decades by eminent climate scientists. Therefore, in this review, I will draw upon 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 both that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections and that the changes no longer correlate with the rate of anthropogenic carbon emissions. In other words—‘runaway climate change.’ The warming of the Arctic reached wider public awareness as it has begun destabilizing 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 (Watts, 2018). 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 decade since 1980, so that over two-thirds of the ice cover has gone(NSIDC/NASA, 2018). These data are made more concerning by changes in sea ice volume, which is an indicator of resilience of the ice sheet to future warming and storms. It was at the lowest it has ever been in 2017, continuing a consistent downward trend (Kahn, 2017).
Given a reduction in the reflection of the Sun’s rays from the surface of white ice, an ice-free Arctic is predicted to increase warming globally by a substantial degree. Writing in 2014, scientists calculated this change is already equivalent to 25% of the direct forcing of temperature increase from CO2 during the past 30 years (Pistone et al. 2014). That means we could remove a quarter of the cumulative CO2 emissions of the last three decades, and it would already be outweighed by the loss of the reflective power of Arctic sea ice. 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%the warming caused by the CO2 produced by human activity(Wadhams, 2016) (4). In itself, that renders the calculations of the IPCC redundant, along with the targets and proposals of the UNFCCC.
Between 2002 and 2016, Greenland shed approximately 280 gigatons of ice per year, and the island’s lower elevations and coastal areas experienced up to 13.1 feet (4 meters) of ice mass loss (expressed in equivalent-water-height) overa 14-year period (NASA, 2018). Along with other melting of land ice, and the thermal expansion of water, this has contributed to a global mean sea level rise of about 3.2 mm/year, representing a total increase of over 80 mm since 1993 (JPL/PO.DAAC, 2018). Stating a figure per year implies a linear increase, which is what has been assumed by IPCC and others in making their predictions. However, recent data show that the upward trend is nonlinear (Malmquist, 2018). That means sea level is rising due to nonlinear increases in the melting of land-based ice.
The observed phenomena, of actual temperatures and sea levels, are greater than what the climate models over the past decades were predicting for our current time. They are consistent with nonlinear changes in our environment that then trigger uncontrollable impacts on human habitat and agriculture, with subsequent complex impacts on social, economic,and political systems. I will return to the implications of these trends after listing some more of the impacts that are already being reported as occurring today.
Already we see impacts on storm, drought, and flood frequency and strength due to increased volatility from more energy in the atmosphere (Herring et al. 2018). We are witnessing negative impacts on agriculture. Climate change has reduced growth in crop yields by 1-2% per decade over the past century (Wiebe et al. 2015).
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that weather abnormalities related to climate change are costing billions of dollars a year and growing exponentially.
Now, the impact is calculated in money, but the nutritional implications are key (FAO, 2018). 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 though higher water temperatures and acidification due to higher CO2 concentrations in ocean water being key (Phys.org, 2018). In ten years prior to 2016, the Atlantic Ocean soaked up 50% more CO2 than it did the previous decade, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean (Woosley et al. 2016). This study 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 (Britten et al. 2015). Meanwhile, warming oceans are already reducing the population size of some fish species (Aaron-Morrison et al. 2017). 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 (ECJCR, 2018).
Looking ahead to the impacts
The impacts I just summarized are already upon us, and even without increasing their severity, they will nevertheless increase their impacts on our ecosystems, soils, seas, and our societies over time. It is difficult to predict future impacts. But it is more difficult not to predict them. Because the reported impacts today are at the very worst end of predictions being made in the early 90s—back when I first studied climate change and model-based climate predictions as an undergraduate at Cambridge University.
The models today suggest an increase in storm number and strength (Herring et al. 2018). They predict 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%, respectively,by the end of this century (Zhang et al. 2016). Naresh Kumaret al. (2014) project a 6-23% and 15-25% reduction in the wheat yield in India during the 2050s and 2080s, respectively,under the mainstream projected climate change scenarios.
The loss of coral and the acidification of the seas is predicted to reduce fisheries productivity by over half (Rogerset al. 2017). The rates of sea level rise suggest they may soon become exponential (Malmquist, 2018), which will pose significant problems for billions of people living in coastal zones (Neumann et al. 2015). 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. About half of all plants and animal species in the world’s most biodiverse places are at risk of extinction due to climate change (WWF, 2018). 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 (Rigaudet al. 2018), in addition to millions of international refugees.
Despite you, me, and most people we know in this field already hearing data on this global situation, 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 (Hamilton et al. 2015). It has led others to conclude that we should be exploring how to live in an unstable post-sustainability situation (Benson & Craig, 2014; Foster, 2015). This context is worth being reminded of, as it provides the basis upon which to assess the significance, or otherwise,of all the praiseworthy efforts that have been underway and reported in some detail in this and other journals over the past decade. I will now offer an attempt at a summary of that broader context insofar as it might frame our future work on sustainability.
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 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 (Wadhams, 2018). The IPCC agreed in 2013 that if the world does not keep further anthropogenic emissions below a total of 800 billion tons of carbon, we are not likely to keep average temperatures below 2°C of global averaged warming. That left about 270 billion tons of carbon to burn (Pidcock, 2013). Total global emissions remain at around 11 billion tons of carbon per year (which is 37 billion tons 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% in 2017, the decoupling of economic activity from emissions is not yet making a net dent in global emissions (Canadell et al. 2017). 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 and so there is no carbon budget—it has already been overspent (Wasdell, 2015).
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 2 million within two years, all powered by renewables, alongside massive emission cuts, to reduce the amount of heating already locked into the system (Wadhams, 2018).
Biological approaches to carbon capture appear far more promising (Hawken & Wilkinson, 2017). These include planting trees, restoring soils used in agriculture, and growing seagrass and kelp, amongst other approaches. They also offer wider beneficial environmental and social side effects. Studies on seagrass (Greiner et al, 2013) and seaweed (Flannery, 2015) indicate we could be taking millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere immediately and continually if we had a massive effort to restore seagrass meadows and to farm seaweed. The net sequestration effect is still being assessed but in certain environments will be significant (Howard et al.2017). Research into “management-intensive rotational grazing”practices (MIRG), 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 tons per year on farms converted to these practices (Machmulleret al. 2015). The world uses about 3.5 billion hectares of land for pasture and fodder crops. Using the 8 tons figure above, converting a tenth 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 tons 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 of 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 (Mathesius et al. 2015).
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 anyway. 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% to 40% in the last decade.
However, this process offers only 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 maybe reduced in time (Keenan et al. 2016). 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 0.5 part per billion(ppb) each year, compared with 10 ppb in 2014 and 2015. Various sources were identified, from fossil fuels—to agriculture to melting permafrost (Saunois et al. 2016).
Given the contentiousness of this topic in the scientific community, it may even be contentious for me to say that there is no scientific consensus on the sources of current methane emissions or the potential risk and timing of significant methane releases from either surface or subsea permafrost.A recent attempt at consensus on methane risk from melting surface permafrost concluded methane release would happen over centuries or millennia, not this decade (Schuuret al. 2015). Yet within three years, that consensus was broken by one of the most detailed experiments which found that if the melting permafrost remains waterlogged, which is likely, then it produces significant amounts of methane within just a few years (Knoblauch et al. 2018). The debate is now likely to be about whether other microorganisms might thrive in that environment to eat up the methane—and whether or not in time to reduce the climate impact.
The debate about methane release from clathrate forms,or frozen methane hydrates, on the Arctic sea floor is even more contentious. In 2010, a group of scientists published a study that warned how the warming of the Arctic could lead to a speed and scale of methane release that would be catastrophic to life on earth through atmospheric heating of over 5°C within just a few years of such a release (Shakhova et al. 2010). The study triggered a fierce debate, much of which was ill considered, perhaps understandable given the shocking implications of this information (Ahmed, 2013). Since then, key questions at the heart of this scientific debate (about what would amount to the probable extinction of the human race) include the amount of time it will take for ocean warming to destabilize hydrates on the sea floor, and how much methane will be consumed by aerobic and anaerobic microbes before it reaches the surface and escapes to the atmosphere. In a global review of this contentious topic,scientists concluded that there is not the evidence to predict a sudden release of catastrophic levels of methane in the near term(Ruppel & Kessler, 2017).
However, a key reason for their conclusion was the lack of data showing actual increases in atmospheric methane at the surface of the Arctic, which is partly the result of a lack of sensors collecting such information. Most ground-level methane measuring systems are on land. Could that be why the unusual increases in atmospheric methane concentrations cannot be fully explained by existing data sets from around the world (Saunois et al. 2016)? One way of calculating how much methane is probably coming from our oceans is to compare data from ground-level measurements, which are mostly but not entirely on land, with upper atmosphere measurements, which indicate an averaging out of total sources. Data published by scientists from the Arctic News (2018) website indicates that in March 2018 at mid-altitudes,methane was around 1865 ppb, which represents a 1.8%increase of 35 ppb from the same time in 2017, while surface measurements of methane increased by about 15 ppb in that time. Both figures are consistent with a nonlinear increase—potentially exponential—in atmospheric levels since 2007.That is worrying data in itself, but the more significant matter is the difference between the increase measured at ground and mid-altitudes. That is consistent with this added methane coming from our oceans, which could in turn be from methane hydrates.
This closer look at the latest data on methane is worthwhile given the critical risks to which it relates. It suggests that the recent attempt at a consensus that it is highly unlikely we will see near-term massive release of methane from the Arctic Ocean is sadly inconclusive. In 2017, scientists working on the Eastern Siberian sea shelf, reported that the permafrost layer has thinned enough to risk destabilizing hydrates (The Arctic, 2017).
That report of subsea permafrost destabilization in the East Siberian Arctic sea shelf, the latest unprecedented temperatures in the Arctic, and the data in nonlinear 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.
The truly shocking information on the trends in climate change and its impacts on ecology and society are leading some to call for us to experiment with geoengineering the climate, from fertilizing the oceans so they photosynthesize more CO2, to releasing chemicals in the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun’s rays. The unpredictability of geoengineering the climate through the latter method, in particular the dangers of disturbances to seasonal rains that billions of people rely on, make it unlikely to be used (Keller et al. 2014). The potential natural geoengineering from increased sulfur releases from volcanoes due to isostatic rebound as weight on the Earth’s crust is redistributed is not likely to make a significant contribution to earth temperatures for decades or centuries.
It is a truism that we do not know what the future will be. But we can see trends. 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 channeled 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 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 behavior, that we call our“civilization,” may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. The words I ended the previous paragraph with 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 neighbors 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. Some readers might consider them an unacademic form of writing. Which would be an interesting comment on why we even write at all. I chose the words above as an attempt to cut through the sense that this topic is purely theoretical.
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. However, some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amidst collapse. Even though some of us might believe in the importance of maintaining norms of behavior, as indicators of shared values, others will consider that the probability of collapse means that effort at reforming our current system is no longer the pragmatic choice. My conclusion to this situation 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 summarized.
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 was, 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 in 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 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 social 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 sense-making 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 see four particular insights about what is happening when people argue we should not communicate to the public the likelihood and nature of the catastrophe we face.
First, it is not untypical for people to respond to data in terms of what perspectives we wish for ourselves and others to have, rather than what the data may suggest is happening. That reflects an approach to reality and society that may be tolerable in times of plenty but counterproductive when facing major risks.
Second, bad news and extreme scenarios impact on human psychology. We sometimes overlook that the question of how they impact is a matter for informed discussion that can draw upon psychology and communications theories. Indeed, there are journals dedicated to environmental psychology. There is some evidence from social psychology to suggest that by focusing on impacts now, it makes climate change more proximate, which increases support for mitigation (McDonald et al. 2015). That is not conclusive, and this field is one for further exploration. That serious scholars or activists would make a claim about impacts of communication without specific theory or evidence suggests that they are not actually motivated to know the effect on the public but are attracted to a certain argument that explains their view.
A third insight from the debates about whether to publish information on the probable collapse of our societies is that sometimes people can express a paternalistic relationship between themselves as environmental experts and other people whom they categorize as “the public.” That is related to the non-populist anti-politics technocratic attitude that has pervaded contemporary environmentalism. It is a perspective that frames the challenges as one of encouraging people to try harder to be nicer and better, rather than coming together in solidarity to either undermine or overthrow a system that demands we participate in environmental degradation.
A fourth insight is that “hopelessness” and its related emotions of dismay and despair are understandably feared,but wrongly assumed to be entirely negative and to be avoided whatever the situation. Alex Steffen warned that“Despair is never helpful” (2017). However, the range of ancient wisdom traditions see a significant place for hopelessness and despair.
Contemporary reflections on people’s emotional and even spiritual growth as a result of their hopelessness and despair align with these ancient ideas.
The loss of a capability, a loved one, or a way of life, or the receipt of a terminal diagnosis have all been reported, or personally experienced, as a trigger for a new way of perceiving self and world, with hopelessness and despair being a necessary step in the process (Matousek, 2008). In such contexts,“ hope” is not a good thing to maintain, as it depends on what one is hoping for. When the debate raged about the value of the New York Magazine article, some commentators picked up on this theme. “In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes,” wrote Tommy Lynch (2017).
This question of valid and useful hope is something that we must explore much further. Leadership theorist Jonathan Gosling has raised the question of whether we need a more“radical hope” in the context of climate change and a growing sense of “things falling apart” (Gosling, 2016). He invites us to explore what we could learn from other cultures that have faced catastrophe. Examining the way Native Americans coped with being moved onto reservations, Lear (2008)looked at what he calls the “blind spot” of any culture: the inability to conceive of its own destruction and possible extinction. He explored the role of forms of hope that involved neither denial nor blind optimism. “What makes this hope radical, is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is” (ibid). He explains how some of the Native American chiefs had a form of “imaginative excellence” by trying to imagine what ethical values would be needed in their new lifestyle on the reservation. He suggests that besides the standard alternatives of freedom or death (in service of one’s culture) there is another way, less grand yet demanding just as much courage:the way of “creative adaptation.” This form of creatively constructed hope may be relevant to our Western civilization as we confront disruptive climate change (Gosling & Case, 2013).
Such deliberations are few and far between in either the fields of environmental studies or management studies. It is to help break this semi-censorship of our own community of inquiry on sustainability that motivated me to write this article. Some scholarship has looked at the process of denial more closely. Drawing on sociologist Stanley Cohen, Foster(2015) identifies two subtle forms of denial—interpretative and implicative. If we accept certain facts but interpret them in a way that makes them “safer” to our personal psychology, it is a form of “interpretative denial.” If we recognize the troubling implications of these facts but respond by busying ourselves on activities that do not arise from a full assessment of the situation, then that is “implicative denial.” Foster argues that implicative denial is rife within the environmental movement, from dipping into a local Transition Towns initiative, signing online petitions, or renouncing flying,there are endless ways for people to be “doing something”without seriously confronting the reality of climate change.
This article along with a list of references and resources will continue in the August 2019 issue (#113).
Acknowledgments from the author. To write this paper, I had to block out time to review climate science for the first time since I was at Cambridge University in 1994 and to analyse implications in a rigorous way. I would probably not have done that without the encouragement of the following people for me to prioritise the issue: Chris Erskine, Dougald Hine, Jonathan Gosling, Camm Webb, and Katie Carr.
I thank Dorian Cave for research assistance and Zori Tomovafor helping me to prioritise my truth. I also thank Professor Carol Adams for finding reviewers for this paper, and the two anonymous reviewers who provided some usable feedback despite requiring such major revisions that conflicted with the aim of the paper. I also thank Carol for involving me in the SAMPJ as a Guest Editor in the past. Some funding for my focus on deep adaptation during my sabbatical was provided by Seedbed. If you edit an open access peer-reviewed academic journal and would like this paper to be submitted, please contact the author.
A list of readings, podcasts, videos and networks to support us in our emotional responses to the information contained in this paper is available at www.jembendell.com
1. A full text search of the journal database shows that the following terms have never been included in articles in this journal:environmental collapse, economic collapse, social collapse,societal collapse, environmental catastrophe, human extinction. Catastrophe is mentioned in 3 papers, with two about Bangladesh factory fires and the other being Bendell et al (2017).2. A full text search of the journal database shows that the terms environmental collapse, social collapse and societal collapse have been mention in one different article each. Economic collapse has been mentioned in three articles. Human extinction is mentioned two articles. Environmental catastrophe is mentioned in twelve articles. A reading of these articles showed that they were not exploring collapse 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 to our personal lives?
This paper was rejected for publication for reasons given at the author’s website above. It was released as an Occasional Paper from the Institute of Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria, UK, and has attracted considerable attention worldwide. We have reprinted it here by permission of Prof. Bendell.