Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos

'Deep Adaptation' (2021), highlights the dangers of trying to cover too many bases. Deep Adaptation serves to illustrate the deep truth of our times: that, desperate as our plight may appear, hopeful adaptation however characterised cannot be of the self to an inevitably collapsing world

Book cover of Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos
Book – Edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read

Facing up – facing out or facing in?

Published by Polity, 2021

There are dangers in the recently fashionable notion of Deep Adaptation, and this book exhibits them very clearly. That is not its only contribution – it also contains some brave and timely argument and advocacy – but it is certainly an important one as the anticipated drastic consequences of climate destabilisation become both more imminent and less ignorable.

One danger is that of simply trying to cover too many bases. This is apparent from early in the Introduction, where the joint editors describe their concept as “an agenda and framework for responding to the potential, probable or inevitable collapse of industrial consumer societies due to the direct and indirect impacts of human-caused climate change and environmental degradation” (p.2). But responses to potential and to inevitable collapse are surely going to be so different that any such ‘framework’ must suggest nothing so much as those impossible Escher staircases up which one can ascend downwards. If societal collapse, which they take to involve the unravelling of those “modes of sustenance, shelter, health, security, pleasure, identity and meaning” (ibid.) on which we currently depend, is seen as still only potential, then – recognising the associated massive damage, disruption and pain – we shall instinctively seek for ways of preventing it (albeit, if we are sensible, ways which try to grapple with the very serious deficiencies which are provoking the unravelling). If however we see it as now genuinely inevitable, we shall be looking for material and psychological resources which might enable us, individually or collectively, to meet it if not to survive it.

Among the book’s more interesting contentions is that these contrasting reactions can offer learning points to one another; they do, however, undoubtedly not only contrast but pull in significantly different practical directions. Acknowledging this, the editors – representing between them the two attitudes in question – describe Deep Adaptation as a “broad church” (p.287), and Rupert Read, who is the one unconvinced of the inevitability of collapse, writes doggedly of “riding two horses” (p.240) , by which he means fighting to transform society while precautiously accepting one’s very likely failure. But these metaphors could also prompt the reflections that a church can broadened sufficiently for the roof to fall in, and that if one’s horses diverge too vigorously, the most dazzling display of equestrianism must end in a nasty rupture. For it is surely a well-enough attested human truth that to be still fighting – really fighting – you must believe at some level that you are not yet really beaten. And that takes us straight to the question of what is to be understood by collapse.

About this key notion, the book offers what is for such a collection a singular lack of clarity. The prospect is invoked frequently throughout, but its extent and implications are nowhere subjected to any close scrutiny. It is equated by the editors in their Introduction with the uneven, but comprehensive and irreversible, coming to an end through accumulating climate-driven disasters of a biocidal way of life energised by consumerism and policed by global capitalism. Fair enough, but then a number of subsequent scenarios could be envisaged. Perhaps the least plausible, given the trauma of such an ending, albeit not strictly impossible, is seamless replacement of this civilisation by something comprehensively preferable – sustainable, more equitable, more humanly habitable. Much more likely is a situation where at least some existing states remain in being, their coherence and capacity to ride out climate disaster depending on various kinds of authoritarian rather than liberal-democratic rule – something like the world of John Lanchester’s novel The Wall. (It is no accident that we have to turn to fiction, since would-be socio-scientific prediction is plainly way out of its depth beyond this point.) Further along the path of unravelling might come some combination of failing central authority and local communities distributed across the still-habitable lands, surviving independently and no doubt on harsh conditions but each providing its own members with at least the semblance of an organised life – the world, perhaps, of Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army. And there must be several more intermediate possibilities before, at the end of the line, the total breakdown of any kind of order or collective human life yields the nightmare world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Which of these various upshots you see the ending of liberal-capitalist civilisation as bringing forth, and with what degree of likelihood or inevitability, ought to make a big difference to the particular resonance which its anticipated collapse has for you – but none of them is explored, nor indeed even canvassed, in this book.

What is thus demonstrated is how easily, in understandable horror at any of these prospects other than the implausible first, the differences between them can be elided and the associated resonances blurred. This is a tendency incident even to the allegedly “rational and scientific approach” (p.91) of collapsologie (a neologism slightly less ugly if kept in its original French), represented here by a chapter from, inter alia, the authors of Comment tout peut s’effondrer, published in English as How Everything Can Collapse.[1] They say of that work’s reception by the public and officialdom of France that

“We saw a growing number of people reaching the conclusion that trying to solve our problems with more economic growth would speed up our demise, yet stopping economic growth could also speed up our demise. In other words, we face a predicament”(ibid.).

But this summary of research impact, if that is what it is, has been quite misleadingly shaped by a Gallic affection for paradox, since the two outcomes are patently not equivalent: pursuing further economic growth could now readily tip the biosphere into systemic collapse, while stopping economic growth need only end liberal-progressive (or what they call, more technocratically, ‘thermo-industrial’) civilisation. Obviously a disintegrating biosphere would achieve this too, but the false neatness of ‘demise either way’ occludes the vital space for manoeuvre remaining between the two senses of collapse tacitly in play: the uneven ending of this civilisation, and the catastrophic unravelling of life on Earth.

That space for manoeuvre is the proper terrain of kinds of adaptation which a well-known and much-downloaded paper from 2018 by Jem Bendell (reprinted here, in slightly updated form, as Chapter 2) first christened deep. Reviewing the evidence both of intensifying climate destabilisation and of determinedly inadequate global policy responses to it, he there pointed unambiguously to the probability that “the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live in” (p.58). He also noted the various forms of denial which many of those now alert to this probability employ to minimise it – ranging from ‘scientific reticence’ in pursuit of objectivity, through activist insistence that the worst must be preventable if we are to find the energy to go on campaigning, all the way to the fear that telling the general public the truth would encourage a hopelessness making catastrophe still more inevitable. All of this analysis is cogent, and the critique of would-be detached scientific understatement, in particular, has already been developed with power and originality in Chapter 1 of the book.

It would be peculiarly indecent in the present reviewer to raise objections to any of this, since his own work[2] (duly referenced by the editors here) was indicating the same trajectory and habits of defensive pretending several years before Bendell’s reflections became an internet hit.[3] Nor can there any longer be much dispute that when or if we do move beyond denial, it must be by recognising the unravelling of our present civilisation, structurally locked in through commodity-addiction as it is to the climate disruption and ecologically destructive consumption driving disaster, to be now indeed inevitable. Accordingly, that means premising what we then attempt on preserving the preservable, a mode of adaptation which by contrast with continuing to resist the irresistible might very well be called deep.

It might also be called transformative, as Read does in easily the best chapter of the book, where he considers the implications of such a recognition for politics and activism. Broadly, it means for him that we should continue along the path marked out by Extinction Rebellion in terms of generating citizen involvement, including the proactive creation of citizen deliberative fora rather than waiting for government to introduce them under pressure, and meanwhile develop alliances with the permaculture and Transition Towns movements. In doing so,

“we need to seek to adapt to the change that is coming not shallowly in a way that (self-defeatingly) tries to keep the show of this civilisation on the road a bit longer, but instead transformatively, simultaneously drawing down carbon, building resilience and starting to ‘model’ the new society that could last” (p.245).

And as this collocation of the transformational and the non-shallow indicates, he thinks that the approaches which have been labelled and cultivated respectively as Deep and as Transformative Adaptation “overlap to a considerable extent” (p.246). In fact, insofar as the former does constitute a positive response to our plight, an attempt to reckon with disaster in the hope of averting catastrophe, one is rather inclined to identify these approaches. The different designations would then simply mark different contrasts – the same mind-set and practical agenda would be deep as against a facile optimism about what might be achievable, and transformative as against an undue attachment to preserving familiar institutional and economic structures. It is in this spirit, too, that the chapters on re-localising life support systems (rebuilding economic, energy-supply and social resilience at local level) and on education (practical re-skilling, heuristic self-development and a community focus) offer sensible, though in neither case particularly novel nor unexpected, suggestions.

These various chapters represent the book’s clear strengths. But in thus distinguishing them from the remainder, we come to the really significant danger haunting Deep Adaptation. This is that thoughtful, liberal-minded people, appalled by the now-inescapable unravelling of liberal-Enlightenment civilisation and conflating this, through the kinds of elision noted above, with the inevitable catastrophic collapse of any tolerable human society, take the ‘deep’ orientation as a licence to turn inwards in quest of a safe space for preserving liberal, or what are held to be life-affirming, values.

This can start with what looks like responsible self-examination. In Chapter 5 here, Bendell diagnoses his own past subjection to an ideology of entitlement, certainty, autonomy and control which he claims to lie at the root of anthropogenic climate chaos. But as he proceeds, with demure immodesty, to document his embrace of compassion, openness, serenity and mutality instead, the essentially self-regarding nature of the process becomes embarrassingly evident. Pursuing “the psycho-social, the emotional…the spiritual aspects of integrating collapse awareness” (p.183), that is, can turn facing up to climate reality into something much more like facing up to one’s own looming mortality and associated need to be ‘saved’ – a process in which “acceptance of our predicament…is one way of finding loving equanimity in collapse” (p.188). There has even emerged, it appears from Chapter 7, an online Deep Adaptation Forum which runs sessions to facilitate, for concerned participants, “…ongoing courageous self-inquiry and a willingness to let go within a wider container of compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, humility” (p.178).

Now there can be no doubt that this sort of thing is answering a real need. Adrian Tait of the Climate Psychology Alliance observes wisely in Chapter 4 that

“what humankind is collectively doing to our planetary home is undeniable, but its significance is also unthinkable and unbearable” (p.106).

As more and more intelligent people, rejecting denial, are assailed by awareness of our time’s existential and agonising challenges, neither the personal costs of such exposure nor the importance of support through it should be minimised. But it is also perilously tempting to address that need by promoting in oneself and others the habit and practice of what, for the sake of a label, one might call performative adaptation – that is, arranging one’s lifestyle, engagements and commitments in ways the point of which is to act out one’s own continuing, self-comforting attachment to uplifting values and ideals, rather than to generate plausible transformation in the public world where catastrophe actually threatens. The most florid example of this cast of mind in the present book comes from Sean Kelly and Joanna Macy in Chapter 8, where we are invited to
“see ourselves as participants in a grand evolutionary adventure and as vehicles for an emerging planetary, or Gaian, consciousness…waking up to, and celebrating, our radical inter-being, our inseverable participation in the sacred web of life, affirming and enacting our solidarity with all members of the earth community” (p.199 ).

But you don’t have to endorse any such Californian agenda to be adapting performatively. Nor is it just a matter of those festival-like displays which tend to accompany XR actions – the masks, the flowing robes, the dancing – or the discussion meetings which commence with deep breathing exercises or imagining oneself as some threatened creature of the wild. Much more mundanely, there are all the daily observances so meticulously policed by the contemporary environmental conscience: the dietary puritanism, the dutiful recycling, the anxious shopping…And of course, each of these things can be defended as, in the right context, more than just a displacement activity – even donning scarlet robes can mark a useful public stand against a blood-stained consumer capitalism, and we do need to prepare ourselves for many changed demands on ordinary living. What is so insidiously treacherous, however, is the readiness with which, at moments of flagging energy and fading hope, the would-be transformative at any of these levels can lapse unnoticed into the performative – the rationale ceasing to be “Maybe, just maybe, we can retrieve something here” and quietly becoming “At least we’re not complicit”. The crucial point is not so much the lure of bad faith, as the way this always-available slide renders the business of transformative adaptation seriously – one might even say, deeply – unstable: conscious of the escape route, it can persist in untroubled utopian aspiration however tragic its actual case, and need never really confront the utter futility of pursuing liberty and equality and justice and material welfare and compassion and all the rest of the Enlightenment list, into the turmoil of a breaking world. To the extent that Deep Adaptation is preparing people for, if not actually encouraging, that instability, it is doing us all a very deep disservice.

For of course, in the Western world where the human future will be decided, we are all of us, bar the odd hermit, always unavoidably complicit. (There is much complicity in places like China too, but it is ultimately driven by Western commodity-addiction to which China, defying its own real cultural heritage, now panders in imitation.) And the proper response to this situation is surely not quasi-Buddhist detachment and a carefully curated loving equanimity. That it should offer that stance as a good idea in the face of climate crisis is indeed a fairly damning comment in itself on the dangerous side of Deep Adaptation. The real living response on the part of those who now fully recognise our plight ought rather to be breathless rage – fury as at near-suffocation, a passion of indignant recoil from the enforced complicity in biocide which goes with being born into a destructively addicted civilisation of unprecedented banality, venality, vulgarity and ever-intensifying hysterical unrealism. Only the energy of such recoil will be enough to drive the thoroughgoing transformation which the informed and life-responsible vanguard must now lead. Jonathan Gosling, in his thoughtful chapter on leadership in these conditions, also writes of “enabling equanimity” as an important function of leading through adaptation, and that can make good sense if it means helping people to master their panic. (When Greta Thunberg says she wants people to panic and then to act [4], she skips for rhetorical effect the crucial intermediate stages of getting a grip and getting organised.) If it means facilitating what Bendell calls reconciliation, however (“With what and with whom can we make peace as we face our shared mortality?” – p.73), then it represents yet another disabling intrusion of the performative. The state of soul which we should be cultivating, insofar as we have time to bother with our souls at all in this uniquely exacting emergency, is that captured vividly by Yeats:

“…when all words are said And a man is fighting mad, Something drops from eyes long blind, He completes his partial mind, For an instant stands at ease, Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.” [5]

That cold-eyed, vibrant self-collectedness, wholly undeceived and implacably engaged, is tragic equanimity – the only kind which matters now. But there is little hint of it in the larger part of this book, much of which indeed seems actively opposed to the spirit of it.
    We should nevertheless thank Bendell and Read for assembling the collection (an expression of gratitude not intended ironically – these very difficult issues can only be tackled with any approach to authenticity by people prepared to lay themselves unflinchingly on the line, which is admirable whether one agrees with them or not). Explored critically, these chapters on Deep Adaptation serve together to illustrate the deep truth of our times: that, desperate as our plight may appear, hopeful adaptation however characterised cannot be of the self to an inevitably collapsing world. Rather, it must be adaptation of the world’s remaining possibilities to the priorities of the intelligently proactive – by all the means which offer themselves.

Originally published on the Global Discourse Blog at  and republished under a Creative Commons licence.

[1] Pablo Servigne and Raphael Stevens, trans. Andrew Brown How Everything Can Collapse (Cambridge: Polity, 2020).
[2] See especially After Sustainability (Earthscan from Routledge, 2015).
[3] The past year’s experience should perhaps dissuade one from future use in such contexts of the expression went viral.
[4] Originally in a speech to the World Economic Forum at Davos – reprinted in her No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (London: Penguin, 2019), p.24
[5] ‘Under Ben Bulben’, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1967), p.398

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