Professor Jem Bendell

notes from a strategist and educator on social and organisational change

Barriers to Dialogue on Deep Adaptation

Posted by jembendell on August 20, 2018

The starting point for a generative discussion of the deep adaptation agenda is a difficult one. Because to begin to rigorously and imaginatively discuss this topic first requires us to accept the likelihood of near term societal collapse. By which I mean that within ten years, in whatever society we are living in, that we will find ourselves in a situation where our normal means of income, sustenance, security, pleasure, identity and purpose all disappear. As it is impossible to predict the future within complex systems, “ten years” is not my prediction, and I mention it as a device to help focus this discussion without making people run out the room to stock their bunker. Please note that I am not suggesting we have the whole ten years: we might have less than that. Havent a clue about what I am talking about? Then please read my paper on Deep Adaptation.

grayscale photo of man grabbing using right hand

Photo by lalesh aldarwish on Pexels.com

As I have been talking with people about this topic over the past few years, I’ve become aware of the barriers accepting near-term societal collapse and therefore barriers to rigorous and creative thinking and discussion about what we might do about it, personally and collectively. I have also become aware of the barriers I had for a few years to avoid addressing this topic with the seriousness it merits. So before outlining either the analysis of our environmental predicament or the new agenda this opens up, it may be useful to outline some of these barriers to useful dialogue. I do that as part of my invitation for you to either avoid – or momentarily suspend – such responses and adopt a “what if” perspective on societal collapse. Only then can one explore what a deep adaptation agenda might mean for oneself, one’s work and wider society.

I am not a psychologist. I presume there is a lot of psychological theory related to what I am perceiving when I discuss climate-induced collapse. Some theories like confirmation bias, wilful blindness, cognitive dissonance and the relatability of new information are ones that have reached me via the mainstream. But rather than attempt a poor hack of psychological theory to validate or explain my perceptions, I will instead share a purely layman’s perspective of the attitudes and responses I have encountered. I will therefore leave it to psychologists to come to my aid in elaborating on these experiences. In the following discussion, I may also be exhibiting certain fallacies that psychologists could point out for me. Any feedback is welcome (in the comments below). For ease of future discussion, I will label each of the following twelve types of dialogue-barring response with a somewhat catchy title.

The “Problem Person” Response

The first response that is a barrier to discussing deep adaptation is an “ad hominem” response, where we question the credibility of the person sharing the analysis. It is a response we all have when confronted with uncommon views. Is he credible? Is he an expert? Is this view widely shared? These are obvious and important questions to ask. But should not mean you avoid looking at the evidence yourself. Therefore, when asked that question, I suggest people read the summary of climate science and current measurements, in the first part of my Deep Adaptation paper.

The “Objectifying” Response

The second response that is a barrier to generative dialogue on this topic is to label the analysis of collapse as just one type of analysis amongst many. This approach sometimes includes expressing how apocalyptic thinking is a cultural trope throughout human history. This means that one can feel one has a broader perspective of a range of different views held by different people and organisations. Therefore, the emotional charge of the analysis of near-term collapse is reduced. One’s worldview is maintained including the view that one is a reasonable balanced person operating sensibly within a reasonable balanced society. The problem with this perspective is you are choosing to “sit on the fence” on the most important matter in your lifetime.

The “Polite Avoidance” Response

The third response that is a barrier to generative dialogue is to renegotiate for yourself what I am saying. It’s a polite conflict-avoiding form of response. It is where you might choose to focus on what you think is the useable bit of what I’m saying, where you conclude that things are very bad and therefore we need to increase our efforts to stave off collapse. But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying societal collapse is now inevitable within, probably, the next ten years. And I’m using the concept of “inevitable” because even if there is a eureka technology right now that is deployed at scale to take carbon out of the atmosphere, the heating that’s pre-determined from existing atmospheric CO2 plus the escalating feedback loops means societies will collapse anyway.

The “Moral Superiority” Response

The fourth response that is a barrier to generative dialogue on this topic is what I will call the “moral superiority” response. It is when people ask “is he being irresponsible for expressing this view?” The supposition made, most often without evidence, is that it will make people panic or become apathetic, and therefore we shouldn’t even be discussing it. Yet silencing our own thinking and discussion because of speculation on what this might do in the wider world is an illogical way of thinking. It is a response that I examine in my Deep Adaptation paper and contrast with the evidence from worldwide opinion surveys that suggests more people are becoming doubtful about the future. This objection often comes with accusations that people like me are “giving up” and irresponsibly implying everyone should “give up.” That is often said rhetorically without specificity of what exactly we are giving up on. Therefore, such statements reflect an annoyance a person is experiencing when hearing the idea of collapse. I am suggesting people give up efforts at the incremental reform of existing systems. I am suggesting people give up on any dependence on the status and security associated with their current way of life. I am suggesting people give up on assuming their lives have meaning by contributing to progress. I am suggesting people give up in postponing their attention to their own mortality and the meaning of life. I am not suggesting we give up on carbon reductions or active engagement in society. Quite the opposite. Many things can be discussed, as a result of this switch in thinking.

The “Postpone Judgement” Response

The fifth response that is a barrier to generative dialogue on this topic involves thinking to oneself that it might be true, but to know for sure then I’d have to really study and think, and I am too busy right now so will aim to analyse this later. Being busy is comprised of so many things. We could be having so much fun, or having invested so much of our time, money and spirit into a project that hasn’t yet succeeded, or know we want to have the fun we haven’t had before looking at this topic more. Why? Because we sense that looking more closely at near term societal collapse risks disrupting everything think about ourselves, the world and all that we have worked towards. The problem is that while one postpones, a subconscious panic can set in as more information about our current situation passes across our screens. Yes, I speak from experience on that one!

The “Fairy-tale” Response

A sixth response that is a barrier to generative dialogue on deep adaptation arises from a belief that we create the reality we experience, so we can help avoid a collapse by imagining something else. Within an individualistic framing, there is positive psychology, whether the moderate kind that involves believing ‘where the attention goes so energy flows’, or the extreme kind, where people want to believe in their own cosmic power to manifest anything they want by focusing their desire. Such a view ignores how we co-create our reality with other people and the more-than-human world. It stores up greater pain for when things don’t work out according to ones hopes and dreams. It might also restrict people from applying their minds to the world as it is now. A different version of this “fairy-tale” response to the latest climate science is the idea that so long as we identify with a new story of reality, beyond separation, we will be able to overcome a climate catastrophe. Although our current climate predicament is the result of a warped story of reality and place within it, the idea that by identifying with a new story of interbeing that we can reshape the world around us to avoid a collapse seems like wishful thinking. It may also be seeking to justify a view on reality and metaphysics by arguing for the utility of that view to an individual self – a highly seductive trap for spiritual teachers and their followers.

The “Not Bothered” Response

The seventh response that is a barrier to generative dialogue, is to think that because this analysis means it’s too late to fix things and maintain society as we know it, therefore we “may as well” just forget about climate change and do something else. In my experience, this view is shared by people who were not actively participating in society beyond their own self-interest. They may have accepted socially-defined notions of success and seek to avoid pain and maximise superficial pleasures. Therefore, they were not likely to contribute much to dialogues on social change in any case. So, we could let them go on their way. But sometimes I hear people express this view because they are angry at the injustice and inequality in our societies and could welcome how collapse will punish elites. When I hear that, then there is an opportunity to channel that anger at injustice into something more useful, given that it is the poor and marginalised who may suffer the worst in early stage of collapse.

The “Distract-Me Please” Response

An eighth response is to take on board the view that we face inevitable near-term collapse and decide one can’t live with the emotions this causes, so set it aside and work on something else, as if it didn’t exist. That is understandable, but impossible. I know, as this is how I responded for a few years. As more and more information is shared about the state of our climate and impacts on our agriculture and societies, the unresolved emotions lurk ready to interrupt your work and life.

The “God’s Will” Response

A ninth response that is a barrier to generative dialogue is to say yeah, I know we screwed, and that’s OK as our true nature is eternal spirit and therefore the end of society, civilisation, even our species, is just the normal passing of things. Such a perspective means you might say let’s take a deep breath in together and chant Om, then go get a green juice or glass of red wine. Another form of this response that is more likely in cultures shaped by Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Bahai) is that whatever is going to happen to our species is God’s will, and therefore we don’t need to discuss what to do about it.

The “Personal Survival” Response

The tenth response I have experienced over the years is to take the analysis of collapse on board and then let the fear-response shape one’s priorities and decisions, so begin to look for means of self-preservation. Many people with that kind of response think they are fully accepting the situation and integrating it into their lives. But being a “prepper” in the complex system of human society within the wider complex system of nature means that this kind of “bunker mentality” is unlikely to work. Not that we shouldn’t look to create arks.

The “Extinction Wins” Response

An eleventh response to generative dialogue on deep adaptation is the view that near term human extinction is inevitable or very likely. Some people with such a view consider any discussion about what to do to reduce the impact of collapse, save the species, or support what might come after this civilisation is gone, are all forms of deluded hope. That one thinks human extinction is inevitable would not necessarily preclude working on the things I just mentioned, as one can act as if it might still be possible to achieve such things, just in case that it is. Or, it might even be possible to accept human extinction and seek to reduce the radioactive legacy we would leave the rest of planet Earth. Those who dismiss any such dialogue are therefore likely trying to find solace in certainty, rather than reconsider everything and consider being active in society.

The “Nit Picking” Response

Rather than deal with the gravity of the analysis, the twelfth barrier is to focus on a detail of communication. For instance, a mistake in a piece of data, or a reference, or annoyance at the tone or content of once utterance. Or perhaps focusing on the lack of depth of discussion in one paper on one set of ideas – from permaculture to geoengineering – which are seen as the be all and end of what should be discussed. This is milder than an ad hominin attack, but helps someone engage with the material without engaging with the significance of the material and thus avoiding meaningful dialogue on deep adaptation.  I left it to last in my list as this response is such a boring one, I find it draining to even mention.

Beyond Those Barriers: The Power of “What If?”

These twelve types of response all share the implication that we don’t have to sit with the analysis of near term collapse and explore openly with others all the possible implications. I think these forms of response may therefore all respond to the subconscious desire to close-down this awkward topic as quickly as possible. But I’m not a psychologist. So, to any psychologists reading this, if you can add any context to the ideas I have outlined that could help me (and others). Then any advice for how to help people awaken to such patterns and move beyond them would be great. Also, if I’m exhibiting a pattern as well, then go let me know 😊

If people avoid or overcome the twelve barriers I have described, to then discuss the components and implications of a deep adaptation agenda, or similar, then this doesn’t mean people will agree with each other. Not at all. Someone may turn to religion. Some to nationalism. Some to principles of universal love and compassion. Some may focus on geoengineering. Others on humanitarian action. Some on moving beyond capitalism. And so on. But that’s where our dialogues should be focused on now. Sadly, our dumbed-down establishment-aligned media still think it is best to debate whether climate change is real or associated with extreme weather events that, by repeating regularly, show how climate has changed.

In future I will write more about some avenues for discussion, for those who want to seek meaning, potency and urgency within a context of impending collapse. But my conviction is that once people overcome the twelve barriers I have just described, then hopefully many better views on what to do than my own will begin to emerge.

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8 Responses to “Barriers to Dialogue on Deep Adaptation”

  1. uilyam said

    You might consider the possibility of “defense in depth” with multiple barriers. For example, a person quite close to me accuses me of being an “evil person” if I mention the problems most on my mind (The “Problem Person” Response). Why do you think I’m evil? Because you think about ways that people will suffer. But I think about it trying to discover was to avoid suffering or at least minimized unavoidable suffering.

    Then, all the same it’s not a real problem. People just need to get on a higher spiritual plane and everything will be okay (The “Fairy-tale” Response).

    I’ll stop the example here because defense in depth idea should be clear. On an unrelated point (not really The “Nit Picking” Response), I am not sure that climate change will cause near-term social collapse (although it is certainly a contributing factor). Social collapse could result from financial system failure, energy system failure, or social/governmental failure. Here is not the place to discuss any of these in more detail, except perhaps: Can a government exhibit signs of approaching senility (e.g., uncoordinated actions, memory lapses, irrational decisions, disconnection from reality, fantasies about earlier times, etc.)? In any event, the near-term collapse seems almost certain regardless of the proximate cause. Climate change will set boundary conditions for what is possible in the future and musty be considered in any planning.

  2. Paul Heft said

    Regarding the question of what causes collapse of civilization:
    I agree, there are other predicaments which also threaten to collapse basic structures and institutions upon which our civilization depends. Our economic system is fragile (and increasing income/wealth inequality is removing its legitimacy), our environment is continually degraded (beyond just climate), our main source of energy (fossil fuels) is becoming too expensive to extract, our political institutions are losing legitimacy.

    It’s debatable which of these might be the weakest link, forcing the whole structure to tumble down. And these factors interact, they are not independent. Climate change gets my vote for being especially difficult to avoid or postpone: if the others don’t weaken the system sooner, climate change will inexorably hit it hard enough to destroy it.

  3. […] There have been persons and orgs concerned about collapse and extinction for many years, but estimating them to occur at the end of the century – after they were dead. Now, ALL HUMANS (except those who will die in the next few years) will experience and be participants in the extinction. Jem Bendell was an accomplished corporate professional who converted to an activist on Deep Adaptation  while facing collapse and extinction. As I compose this post (08/20/2018), Jem posted on Barriers to Dialog on Deep Adaptation. […]

  4. Dion Rezki said

    Hi Jem

    Thanks for continuing this dialogue. Along with the work of Joe Brewer, Nafeez Ahmed, Peter Turchin and the more accessible material on collapse by Jared Diamond, your paper on Deep Adaptation has triggered a sense of urgency in me that I’m still learning how best to respond to in light of the unease that it brings.

    I would like to humbly offer some thoughts on the possible scenarios and potential strategies that I anticipate will lead to widespread dialogue on Deep Adaptation (D.A). I’ll speak about recent observations on ‘conventional adaptation’ (C.A) dialogue and some other frameworks found within other interdisciplinary fields – e.g – extreme weather events & the salience bias, regime resistance, complex adaptive systems & social tipping points.

    First of all , Have you seen the 2018 release of this report?
    What Lies Beneath: The scientific understatement of climate risks
    https://www.breakthroughonline.org.au/publications

    It has a forward by Hans Joachim SchellNhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute responsible for the recent ‘Hothouse Earth’ study. He mentions that,

    ‘…scenario planning, now being proposed for assessing climate risks in the corporate sector, where the consequences of a number of future possibilities, including those which may seem highly unlikely, but have major consequences, are evaluated. This way one can overcome the probability obsession that not only fantasizes about the replicability of the singular, but also favours the familiar over the unknown and unexpected. ‘

    So it would seem from this assessment that those most receptive to dialogue on D.A may surprisingly be found in the corporate and financial risk sector; Those who are finally coming to factor in the possibility of ‘unthinkables’ in their risk assessment – to safeguard investors and themselves. With HSBC’s Feb 2018 ‘Fragile Planet’ report and their recent statement that ‘governments are not prepared for climate change’, it would seem like an influential and disruptive voice could emerge from those who actually have enough capital and power to be heard by the incre-mentalist policy makers. This could be one factor that moves C.A further up the policy agenda which would in theory , eventually open the doors to a D.A mindset.

    Another pathway may be found through the general enhancement of what I call ‘collapse-literacy’. Maybe this is stating the obvious but just as the worldwide lack of eco-literacy has resulted in the catastrophically inadequate climate and ecological response we see, I suspect that dialogue on D.A will be stalled until the deficit of collapse and C.A-literacy has been addressed. If an emergency dialogue on D.A and ‘unthinkable’ risk is what we are in need of, then C.A must be properly harnessed and leveraged in it’s *current state* so that it can expand and evolve to that of D.A as a matter of logical progression. In practical terms this means things like working to ensure that ALL countries and states have advanced climate early-warning signal devices along with short and long term national adaptation plans and crisis management protocols. Those states most vulnerable to climate impacts, food/water shortages and civil conflicts should be prioritized since these places have all of the conditions for collapses to more readily occur with potentially global shock-waves. Dr Nafeez Ahmed’s work, ‘Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence’ has more on this. Partly summarized in a recent article on Medium;

    “Collapse does not arrive in this scenario as a singular point of terminal completion. Rather, collapse occurs as a series of discrete but consecutive and interconnected amplifying feedback processes by which these dynamics interact and worsen one another.

    Earth System Disruption (ESD) — the biophysical processes of climate, energy and ecological breakdown — increasingly lead to Human System Destabilisation (HSD). HSD in turn inhibits our capacity to meaningfully respond and adapt to the conditions of ESD. ESD, meanwhile, simply worsens. This, eventually, leads to further HSD. The cycle continues as a self-reinforcing amplifying feedback loop, and each time round the cycle comprises a process of collapse.”


    If the speed of the above factors is too slow-going, then it’s inevitable that nature’s display will push us towards a D.A mindset as the frequency and magnitude of extreme events and human impacts increases, just as they are expected to from now and beyond ≤ 1.5 degrees.

    There’s a growing body of research on tipping-points as found not just in earth systems but also in social systems. Some studies look at how the salience of events like flooding and drought can shape public opinion and then finally policy and adaptation measures. As summers like 2018 become the new norm and other disasters strike in quick succession with less respite, I’m expecting the climate ‘salience bias’ of the world at large to both gradually and abruptly dissolve, enabling a longer-term C.A and D.A mindset to emerge ( which in the beginning stages may just look like C.A initiatives half-heartedly factoring in ‘unthinkables’ until they seem more possible.)

    The challenge here is ensuring that our responses to extreme weather and social events are appropriate to place , time and non-linear dynamics. Measures that may seem adaptive in the short term may prove to be maladaptive in the longer-term. This is where a complex adaptive systems approach may prove useful so that we’re best prepared to identify early warning signals within socio-ecological systems. Advances in socio-ecological modelling may help us harness feedback loops as leverage points for adaption while enabling us to more readily overcome structural and regime resistance. I envision these sense-making tools tools as something akin to what we see with existent bio-feedback and eco-feedback tools but applied to whole societies – ‘eco-social feedback’. This is all assuming we actually have enough time to design tools that can be of practical rather than just academic value.

    I think for now all we can realistically do is take the advice of Maya Angelou

    “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

    • John Burnett/Redpanther said

      Dr. Ahmed has articulated the process better than I could.

      The capitalist oligarchy does not even have cohesion as an oligarchy. Far less the social will (despite VAST resources at their disposal) to implement any of the policies you mention here. They are investing in (doomed) individual escape hatches – see: How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse, The Guardian, 7-24-18. As Collapse really begins to unfold, they are likely to forment toxic identity politics/race war (which is VERY easy to do) in order to hang on to power.

  5. Phoebe Anne Sorgen said

    I’m altruistic but, unfortunately, this seems unrealistic: “Those states most vulnerable to climate impacts, food/water shortages and civil conflicts should be prioritized.” Yes, ideally we leave no one behind, but to avoid human (and other) extinction, perhaps we need to prioritize survival of and peace-keeping by the nuclear states, including those states that are storing so-called “spent” nuclear fuel from nuclear power production. Doing so will be quite challenging. Pie in the sky? We must try, because If there’s nuclear war or if the radioactive waste from approx. 400 northern hemisphere nuclear power plants cannot be contained for centuries, most higher life on planet earth goes belly up with massive misery along the way. Ours is a highly intelligent, creative, flexible and caring species. Let’s figure this out together.

  6. B Haury said

    As you’ve asked for a psychologist’s opinion, I’ll attempt to formulate a reply with professional and personal thoughts.
    From a psychologist’s perspective, I can understand the urge to categorize and label people and their responses (this post and your latest one) as it offers a sense of control and security…but how does this reflect your shift of awareness, your spiritual insights (that you so impressively described in ‘After Climate Despair – One Tale Of What Can Emerge’) ? Doesn’t the concept of Interbeing try to overcome separation (and thus categories)?
    Or is it simply reflecting the conflict of role between Professor and ‘Awakened’?

    It seems to me what you are describing in ‘Barriers to Dialogue’ and perhaps to a lesser degree in ‘ After acceptance’ are different types of defense mechanisms – or, perhaps, in a broader sense coping mechanisms. If these are defense mechanisms then you probably won’t succeed in (what you are hoping for) responding to each in a specific way “…to move beyond them..”. According to (my limited knowledge of) Freudian theory, there is no specific response to a specific defense mechanism . In fact, one (a therapist) shouldn’t try to ‘break’ the defense as that is what keeps the client somewhat ‘sane’ or at least functional – whatever that means in this context.

    So…. does trying to IDENTIfy these people and their responses help regain control in an uncontrollable situation?
    Does this have something to do with your own IDENTITY?…or could it be that this is your type of defense mechanism coping with chaos 😉 ?

    We all have defense mechanisms and they help us survive, especially in the face of trauma – as strange as it sounds in this whole scenario, as they seem to be working against us. Climate Catastrophe has put us into a pretraumatic stress condition, I’m pretty sure and some of my clients have been the best indicators, we’re all feeling it – consciously or subconsciously – our psyche is trying its best to give us a sense of control. Denial is probably one of the more common and blatant reactions. Our brain just isn’t wired for a potential or even an impending collapse in the future.

    There’s definitely more to discuss on this whole topic. There’s a great need for more awareness among psychotherapists about these issues and their effects (my colleagues have no clue) …for those who have identified what the root of their anxieties is and those that may not even know at this point. Not many of us who have come to the same conclusions about impending collapse – as you have – can openly talk about it too afraid being labelled ‘crazy’. I applaud your ‘speaking up’ and risking your reputation on the professional level as well as the attempt to create a forum for those who’ve come to the same realization. I see the need for those kinds of workshops and am hoping to some day facilitate or co-facilitate some. I really enjoyed the honesty in ‘After Climate Despair’ and hope to see more of that type of writing. Like you, knowing / having experienced a ‘greater consciousness’ has given me comfort in the face of chaos.

    • Bill Everett said

      On the other hand, I have found Bendell’s categories and labels and in the subsequent post here quite useful in two ways. Personally, it helps me quickly scan myself and laugh when I find myself falling into one of the list “traps.” And laughing at silly me seems to help me get out of it and pass on to some other trap. Interpersonally, it helps me quickly identify where some people I interact with seem to be, and I can then think, “Okay. That’s where they are. Let it be.”

      In particular, one FB friend seemed to consistently comment on posts to the effect that “I’ve written what needs to be done long ago. All we need is for everybody to understand and apply my diagram” with diagram of how communities and governments should be organized. After the umpteenth time, it became irritating, but with the categories and labels now available to me, I can easily identify, label, laugh, and move on.

      I have found Bendell’s lists a useful addition to Robert Gifford’s taxonomy of dragons (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21553954).

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