Professor Jem Bendell

notes from a strategist and educator on social and organisational change

Archive for the ‘deep adaptation’ Category

The study on collapse they thought you should not read – yet

Posted by jembendell on July 26, 2018

A research paper concluding that climate-induced collapse is now inevitable, was recently rejected by anonymous reviewers of an academic journal.

It has been released directly by the Professor who wrote it, to promote discussion of the necessary deep adaptation to climate chaos.

“I am releasing this paper immediately, directly, because I can’t wait any longer in exploring how to learn the implications of the social collapse we now face,” explained the author Dr Bendell, a full Professor of Sustainability Leadership.  deep adaptation paper

In saying the paper was not suitable for publication, one of the comments from the reviewers questioned the emotional impact that the paper might have on readers. “I was left wondering about the social implications of presenting a scenario for the future as inevitable reality, and about the responsibility of research in communicating climate change scenarios and strategies for adaptation.” wrote one of the reviewers. “As the authors pointed out, denial is a common emotional response to situations that are perceived as threatening and inescapable, leading to a sense of helplessness, inadequacy, and hopelessness and ultimately disengagement from the issue…”

That perspective is discussed in the paper as one that enables denial. Professor Bendell explains in his response to the Editor, that the response may reflect “the self-defeating hierarchical attitude towards society that many of us have in both academia and sustainability, where we censure our own exploration of a topic due to what we consider should or should not be communicated. There is both scholarship and experience on the impact of communicating about disaster, and I discuss that in the paper.” Moreover, Bendell consulted with practicing psychotherapists on both the motivational and mental health implications of this analysis and was reassured that perceptions of a collective tragic future should not in itself be a cause for depression. Instead, it could trigger transformative reflection which could be supported – and would be inevitable one day, given the inevitability of mortality for all human life.

The paper offers a new framing for beginning to make sense of the disaster we face, called “deep adaptation.” It is one that Professor Bendell proposed in a keynote lecture two years ago and has influenced community dialogue on climate change in Britain in the past two years, including in Peterborough and Newcastle as well as being used by the Dark Mountain network.

The paper “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” is downloadable in pdf format, or in mp3 audio format.

The response of Professor Bendell to the Editor of the journal follows below.

A list of resources to support people as they process this information, including emotional support is here.

A LinkedIn group on Deep Adaptation exists to support professional discussion of the topic.

Letter to the Editor of SAMPJ, Professor Carol Adams, from Professor Jem Bendell, 26th July 2018.

Dear Professor Adams,

It is an odd situation to be in as a writer, but I feel compassion for anyone reading my Deep Adaptation article on the inevitability of near term social collapse due to climate chaos! I am especially grateful for anyone taking the time to analyse it in depth and provide feedback. So, I am grateful to you arranging that and the reviewers for providing their feedback. Some of the feedback, particularly recommendations for a better introduction, were helpful. However, I am unable to work with their main requests for revisions, as they are, I believe, either impossible or inappropriate, as I will seek to explain.

I agree with Professor Rob Gray that “The journal’s constant exploration of new and challenging perspectives on how accountability and sustainability might play out in organisations ensures a stimulating source of articles, experiences and ideas.” It is why I was pleased to guest edit an issue last year and bring critical perspectives on leadership to its readership. However, the topic of inevitable collapse from climate change is so challenging it is not surprising it didn’t find support from the anonymous peer reviewers.

I would have had difficulty finding motivation for undertaking a complete re-write given the conclusion of the paper – that the premise of the “sustainable business” field that the journal is part of is no longer valid. Indeed, the assumptions about progress and stability that lead us to stay in academia in the field of management studies are also now under question.

The first referee questioned “to which literature (s) does this article actually contribute” and stated that “the research question or gap that you intend to address must be drawn from the literature,” continuing that “to join the conversation, you need to be aware of the current conversation in the field, which can be identified by reviewing relevant and recent articles published in these journals.” That is the standard guidance I use with my students and it was both amusing and annoying to read that feedback after having dozens of peer reviewed articles published over the last 20 years. The problem with that guidance is when the article is challenging the basis of the field and where there are not any other articles exploring or accepting the same premise. For instance, there are no articles in either SAMPJ or Organisation and Environment that explore implications for business practice or policy of a near term inevitable collapse due to environmental catastrophe (including those that mention or address climate adaptation). That isn’t surprising, because the data hasn’t been so conclusive on that until the last couple of years.

It is surprising therefore that the first reviewer says “the paper does not contain any new or significant information. The paper reiterates what has already been told by many studies.” The reviewer implies therefore that the paper is about climate change being a big problem. But the article doesn’t say that. It says that we face an unsolvable predicament and great tragedy. When the reviewer says “There are not clear contributions that can be derived from the article” then I wonder whether that is wilful blindness, as the article is saying that the basis of the field is now untenable.

At a couple of points, I attempted to cut through the unemotional way that research is presented. Or instance, when I directly address the reader about the implications of the analysis for their own likely hunger and safety, it is to elicit an emotional response. I say in the text why I express myself in that way and that although it is not typical in some journals the situation we face suggests to me that we do try to communicate emotively. The reviewer comments “the language used is not appropriate for a scholarly article.”

The second reviewer summarises the paper as “the introduction of deep adaptation as an effective response to climate change” which suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding despite it being made clear throughout the paper. There is no “effective” response. The reviewer also writes “I am not sure that the extensive presentation of climate data supports the core argument of the paper in a meaningful way.” Yet the summary of science is the core of the paper as everything then flows from the conclusion of that analysis. Note that the science I summarise is about what is happening right now, rather than models or theories of complex adaptive systems which the reviewer would have preferred.

One piece of feedback from the 2nd reviewer is worth quoting verbatim:

“The authors stress repeatedly that “climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable” as if that was a factual statement… I was left wondering about the social implications of presenting a scenario for the future as inevitable reality, and about the responsibility of research in communicating climate change scenarios and strategies for adaptation. As the authors pointed out, denial is a common emotional response to situations that are perceived as threatening and inescapable, leading to a sense of helplessness, inadequacy, and hopelessness and ultimately disengagement from the issue…”

This perspective is one I discuss in some detail in the paper, as one that enables denial. It reflects the self-defeating hierarchical attitude towards society that many of us have in both academia and sustainability, where we censure our own exploration of a topic due to what we consider should or should not be communicated. There is both scholarship and experience on the impact of communicating about disaster, and I discuss that in the paper.

The trauma from assessing our situation with climate change has led me to become aware of and drop some of my past preoccupations and tactics. I realise it is time to fully accept my truth as I see it, even if partially formed and not polished yet for wider articulation. I know that academia involves as much a process of wrapping up truth as unfolding it. We wrap truth in disciplines, discrete methodologies, away from the body, away from intuition, away from the collective, away from the everyday. So as that is my truth then I wish to act on it as well, and not keep this analysis hidden in the pursuit of academic respect. Instead, I want to share it now as a tool for shifting the quality of conversations that I need to have. Therefore, I have decided to publish it simply as an IFLAS Occasional Paper.

The process has helped me realise that I need to relinquish activities that I no longer have passion for, in what I am experiencing as a dramatically new context. Therefore, I must step back from the Editorial team of the journal. Thank you for having involved me and congratulations on it now being in the top ten journals in business, management and accounting.

Please pass on my thanks to the reviewers. On my website http://www.jembendell.com I will be listing some links to articles, podcasts, videos and social networks that are helping people explore and come to terms with a realisation of near term collapse (and even extinction), which they may be interested in. 

Yours sincerely,

Jem Bendell
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Emotional support in face of climate tragedy

Posted by jembendell on July 26, 2018

If you have come to recognise that climate change will lead to a near term collapse in our way of life, or even worse, then this can be a very difficult realisation to process, integrate into our lives, or communicate to other people.

Here are some links to resources that I have found helpful.

Lifeboat Hour podcast
Any books and articles by Caroline Baker
Joanna Macy lecture
Human Near Term Extinction Support Group on Facebook
Reframing Collapse Facebook Group
The Dark Mountain network
Deep Adaptation LinkedIn group (more for professionals working on this).
Climate Psychology Alliance (again more for professionals, but requests for advice can be made).

I write up some of my own reflections on how I have been trying and wobbling to integrate this awareness into my life and work, in this rather long reflective piece called “After Despair

Ultimately, I think we will best supported by activities that support our transcendence from our normal fears, whether those activities are spiritual or agnostic. There are an increasing number of spiritual coaches appearing online such as my friend Zori. These forms of grassroots, diverse, non dogmatic, spiritual inspiration and support will become more important.  If you have suggestions, please enter them in the comments below.

My academic paper on the latest climate science as well as the many forms of denial about our situation is available for download here.

 

Posted in deep adaptation, Uncategorized | 21 Comments »

Doctoral Study on Deep Adaptation to Climate Disruption

Posted by jembendell on March 22, 2018

Some of us are waking up to the climate tragedy we face. To the disruptions to our way of life that will be unfolding over the next decade or so. To the inevitable collapse of our social and economic systems.

If this sounds too dark to you, please catch up on the latest climate science here.

There are so many ways to respond: some nihilist, some hedonist, some delusional, some loving, some ambitious. One way to respond includes attempts at combining our existing skills, knowledge and networks with the intention of growing into a different way of life.

In this situation we do not have time to waste on activities which are not, in some way, truly beautiful. For me there is something truly beautiful about research, which is now so often lost in institutional settings. That beauty is the transdisciplinary exploration of subjects, unlearning unhelpful assumptions, and making new sense of situations in ways that are meaningful to share. It is that kind of enquirer I seek to support and learn with.

globalmeditation

I am inviting initial enquiries, before the end of April 2018, to research for a PhD on deep adaptation to climate change that would start on October 1st. Information what that topic involves is here. These will be interdiscipinary studies, that parrallel your engagement with this subject in your daily life over the coming 3 to 4 years. Therefore, appropriate methods will be either action research, cooperative inquiry or living theory (google these if they are new to you, before getting in touch).

The PhD research can be undertaken either in residence in Cumbria for 3 years full-time, or part-time over 4 years, via remote-working with visits to Cumbria. These PhDs are entirely self-funded, we do not have scholarships for this opportunity. Information on fees etc is here.

Information on me, your prospective supervisor, and how I am approaching this deep adaptation topic is here.

I am also accepting PhD applications for people working on currency innovation and alternative exchanges systems as methods for community-based resilience.

Do you meet the following criteria?

  • You have a Masters degree
  • You have a 2.1 or above at undegraduate level
  • You can self-fund your studies
  • You can either move to Cumbria or do this PhD remotely part time with a few visits to Cumbria each year
  • You can start on October 1st 2018
  • You know what Im talking about by having read information on the links above

If so, then please prepare one page of A4, maximum, by May 1st 2018, detailing the following

  • What your topic is
  • Why you are interested in it
  • What intellectual schools of thought you anticipate drawing upon to research it
  • What your Masters was in
  • What your current work or volunteering is in and how it relates to your proposed topic
  • A statement that you have read my blogs on latest climate science on the deep adaptation agenda (the links above).

Please note that

  • We do not offer PhDs by publication
  • We do not accept people who have their own mega theory that they have already half written and would like a PhD for when they finish writing it.. because a PhD is about becoming a skilled researcher through the process of the 3 years, not just getting a label for existing ideas.

Send this to me via drjbendell AT (the ubiquitous) gmail.com

Unfortunately due to a full inbox, tennis elbow, and a growing self-respect, I will only reply to people who exactly follow the information above.

Posted in deep adaptation, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

A Summary of Some Climate Science in 2018

Posted by jembendell on March 22, 2018

CaptureConversations we have with people about climate change are rarely based on a comprehensive assessment of the current state of knowledge on atmospheric changes and the implications for our environment and society. We receive bits and pieces of news, often shared by friends on Facebook or Twitter, which make us worry for a few moments, before returning to busy daily life. We may think we have already integrated an awareness of climate change into our lives, by the career choice we made, or the way we shop, recycle or don’t eat meat. Most of us are not climate scientists anyway, there’s all kinds of other things to take care of, and we have bills to pay!

That was me, anyway, until this year. I decided to look more closely at the latest information from the range of sciences that give a perspective on our situation. The last time I studied climate closely was in 1994 when I was being taught climate science at Cambridge University. I do not claim to be an expert in any one climate-related field, but as a Professor who has worked and published in a range of disciplines, I have experience in assessing knowledge claims from various sources. In this summary I provide references as much as possible, so you can investigate further.

Many people working in the climate field look to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide the calm and authoritative voice on this complicated subject. That is what I used to do, as it made sense as a busy person who wanted to have a quick way of “making the case” to others. However, given that the IPCC has proven over the past decades to be woefully inaccurate in the cautiousness of its predictions, I now agree with some of the most eminent climate scientists that the IPCC cannot be looked to for telling us what the situation is. That is why I spent a few weeks returning to primary sources in academic journals and research institute reports, and piecing together a perspective myself. Given the long time span it takes for data to appear in academic journals, I often turn to the information direct from research institutes and their individual experts. The result of that process follows below.

This is Our World Right Now – not theory!

The simple evidence of global ambient temperature rise is undisputable. 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).

The warming of the Arctic reached wider public awareness this year 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 in to the Arctic and cold air to the south. At one point in early 2018, temperature recordings from the Arctic were 20 degrees Celsius 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). This data is 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 cut CO2 emissions by 25% and it is already 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 double the warming caused by the CO2 produced by human activity (Wadhams, 2016). 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-elevation and coastal areas experienced up to 13.1 feet (4 meters) of ice mass loss (expressed in equivalent-water-height) over a 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 shows that the upward trend is non-linear (Malmquist, 2018). That means sea level is rising due to non-linear 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 non-linear 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 percent 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. For 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 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 percent more carbon dioxide than it did the previous decade, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean (Woosely 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).

To conclude, this data is 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.’

Looking Ahead

The impacts I just summarised 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 1990s – 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 Kumar et 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 (Rogers et al, 2017). The rates of sea level rise suggest they may be 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 (Rigaud et al, 2018), in addition to millions of international refugees. This situation 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 and Craig, 2014; Foster, 2015).

The politically permissible scientific consensus is that we need to stay beneath 2 degrees 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 degrees 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 tonnes of carbon we are not likely to keep average temperatures below 2 degrees of global averaged warming. That left about 270 billion tonnes of carbon to burn (Pidcock, 2013). Total global emissions remain at around 11 billion tonnes of carbon year (which is 37 billion tonnes of CO2). Those calculations appear worrying but give the impression we have at least a decade to change. It takes significant time to change economic systems and 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 degrees 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 times within 2 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 and Wilkinson, 2017). These include planting trees, restoring soils used in agriculture, 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 (Flanery, 2015) indicate we could be taking millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere immediately and continually if we had a massive effort to restore seagrass meadows and to farm seaweed. 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, show 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. 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 is 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 only offers a limited effect, as the absolute level of CO2 in the atmosphere is continuing to rise, breaking the milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) in 2015. Given that changes in seasons, temperatures extremes, flood and drought are beginning to negatively affect ecosystems, the risk exists that this global greening effect may be 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 0.5ppb each year, compared with 10ppb in 2014 and 2015. Various sources were identified, from fossil fuels, to agriculture to melting permafrost (Saunois et al, 2016).

Given the controversy around 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 and 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 (Schuur et 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 degrees 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 understandably 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 destabilise 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 and 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 parts per billion (ppb), which represents a 1.8 percent 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 non-linear 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 destabilising hydrates (The Artic, 2017). That report of subsea permafrost destabilisation in the East Siberian Arctic sea shelf, the latest unprecedented temperatures in the Arctic, and the data in non-linear rises in high-atmosphere methane levels, combine to make it feel like we are about to play Russian Roulette with the entire human race, with already two bullets in the chamber. 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.

Apocalypse Uncertain

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 so the Sun’s rays are reflected. 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 sulphur 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 channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.

We do not know for certain how disruptive the impacts of climate change will be or where will be most affected, especially as economic and social systems will respond in complex ways. But the evidence is mounting that the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live within. Our norms of behaviour, that we call our “civilisation,” may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. 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 neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.

What Now Then?

My conclusion from analysing the latest climate science is that we can ask ourselves questions about what is fundamentally important to us in our own lives. We are being confronted by our own mortality and that of everything we could contribute to. That reflection and reorientation is not a simple or fast process, and I recommend it is explored in community. Share this blog with friends and talk to them. I recommend Dark Mountain Facebook group as one place for that. I would like to recommend other very popular Facebook groups on this topic, but I have found them to reflect a lot of repressed anger. My own hope is that we can cultivate love within this darkness.

Then there is the broader question of how we could help our communities, countries and humanity 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. I have created a LinkedIn group for people who work in related areas in a professional capacity.

All manner of personal and institutional pressures and incentives work towards making us ignore or de-prioritise the kind of information and analysis I have presented above. It will be difficult not to be seduced by those who make us think we have more time, or that things aren’t so bad, or that planting more kelp will save us. It will also be difficult to avoid seduction by those saying that praying will help fix things, or that this tragedy can be welcomed as God’s moment of return. Instead, I recommend exploring what is your heart’s desire after you relinquish concern for either conformity, certainty, status, security or self-preservation. That’s probably how we should approach life anyway… Oops. Not to late for that then!

I have written in length about my own journey on this issue here. I was interviewed by Dark Mountain about it here.

I will be exploring implications of this information for our own agency as professionals in a Sustainable Leadership course. Info here.

My thanks to Chris Erskine at Seedbed and Dougald Hine at Dark Mountain for encouraging me to prioritise this path.

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After Climate Despair – One Tale Of What Can Emerge

Posted by jembendell on January 14, 2018

Last week I was interviewed by the co-founder of the Dark Mountain project. Dougald Hine has been promoting creative reflection on the future of culture during the decay and ultimate collapse of this civilisation due to environmental degradation and climate chaos.

Funzies.

Actually, I did enjoy it, as it was was the first time I’ve been asked to make sense of my own reaction to a realisation of that probable collapse. Ahead of the interview, I started to write down ideas for my own sense making. I dont keep a diary, and so this was a useful moment of reflection. It is what some of my postgraduate students do as part of a method called “Living Theory,” where they reflect on any “living contradictions” in their work that are causing emotional discomfort. Given that I have been troubled by the climate science emerging over recent years, it was about time I joined them in exploring my own discomfort!

As I reflected ahead of the interview, I realised that communicating my experience may be useful for others as they try to integrate the latest depressing climate science into their outlook and plans. I also realised that some of the decisions I have been taking may have been because of not having a community of fellow travellers… and if I want that now, then I should start by getting more honest about what is going of for me right now.

So, hello. What follows is a personal story of my journey over almost 4 years since I began to accept the scale of the climate tragedy and what that could mean for my life. This blog does not present the latest science that forms my starting point. For some information on that see here. To summarise, I have come to the view that when contrasting progress on climate action with the latest climate science, it is probable that our civilisation will collapse within the lifetimes of people alive today, and it is possible that humanity will be extinct by the end of the century. Some scientists are concluding a swifter demise than even that! I dont like exclamation marks but that one seemed appropriate. The main reason for this view about collapse and possible extinction is how feedback cycles are heating up the Arctic so fast it will release huge amounts of methane that will then trigger more feedbacks and thus ecosystem collapse, mass starvation and related conflicts. To speak of nearterm collapse and possible human extinction is seen by some people as ridiculous, alarmist, defeatist, irresponsible, or confused. Or all of that. Lots of words are thrown at people who are concluding it’s goodnight humanity. Typically such criticism comes from people who haven’t studied things closely. Or from those who censor this view by claiming it won’t help us to change. My experience has been the opposite. Seriously considering nearterm collapse and possible extinction has triggered major changes in me and others which didn’t lead to paralysis. But I will come back to that later.

Before I dive into the story, knowing some of you will be busy people wanting to cut to the chase, I will start back-to-front with some of the recommendations about how to approach the possibility that we face an unavoidable climate tragedy. I drew these up as a first attempt to share some lessons, after the reflection triggered by the interview with Dougald. I am very aware I am not a psychotherapist and so my basis upon which to analyse myself and draw out lessons is a bit shaky. But if things are as bad as just suggested, it’s time to get started. My recommendations are for people who are professionally involved in social, environmental or ethical careers, rather than the general public. That is because I am sharing from personal experience rather than broader research on how people respond when they conclude we face nearterm collapse and possible extinction…

Recommendations when facing the possibility of climate tragedy

Here are fourteen recommendations based on what has been helping me, or what, in hindsight, I think could have helped me!

Return to, or explore afresh, the idea of a divine or a spirit or a consciousness or a God that is prior to the Earth and moves through the Universe right now and forever more. Do so without seeking a simple story of explanation but a sense of faith that there is an existence and a meaning beyond our culture, our species and our planet. Such ‘faith’ helps anyone to experience and process the inevitable difficulties and traumas of life.

Listen to those stories from people both past and present who tell us that despair is not the end and therefore does not have to be avoided. Recognise how many spiritual traditions see despair as a gateway to our growth.

Beware when people are promoting their views on what they think the implications of information will be, rather than views on the information itself. The impacts of certain information about climate on other people’s motivations are not certain, and in many cases the darkest analyses have triggered a new level of creativity and boldness. Instead, look at the information and analysis directly for yourself, without second guessing what some interpretations might lead to.

Recognize that any emotional or intellectual resistance you may experience to information which implies catastrophe may come from what you have been consciously or subconsciously telling yourself about your own self-worth, purpose and meaning. Then remember how your views of yourself and the world have evolved through your life and still can.

Don’t panic. Give yourself time to evolve both personally and professionally in response to your emerging awareness, but ensure you stay connected to a group or an activity which keeps reminding you of the basis for your emerging awareness.

Recognize there is much work ahead for you to reconstitute concepts of meaning and what’s good and to align your life with those. It will not happen overnight, yet it will not happen if you do not give time to this work. There may be some time needed to bridge your existing life with the way you will want to live in future.

Plan more time and resources for you to do things which inspire wonder at life. This could be more time in beautiful environments, or with uplifting music, or in contemplation, or through creative writing, or being with loved ones and close friends. That means freeing up time from other activities such as TV, social media and mainstream news. It may also mean downshifting from your workload.

Look for opportunities for supported self-reflection and sense-making. This is because your worldview and self identity will undoubtedly transform overtime as you process the new information and analysis.

Expect a catharsis, both personal and professional. This will occur because the subconscious or conscious limits that you placed on yourself until now will be lifted. Go with that rush of energy and creativity, but be vigilant that those new activities don’t become so consuming they distract you from the personal work you still need to do.

If you are a mission-driven professional in fields related to environment or social justice then expect that you may be driven to rebuild a sense of self worth and that this need of the ego, while natural and potentially useful, could become a frantic distraction.

Expect a change in your personal relationships and how you spend your spare time. Some forms of small talk and light-hearted social interaction with acquaintances may seem pointless, while you may wish to spend more time with close friends and family. While for some this could be a welcome rebalancing, for others this can become a vector of reclusiveness and loneliness. Therefore it is important to find new ways of connecting with people on the new levels that feel meaningful to you.

Create a positive vision of people sharing compassion, love and play. It may feel that an eco-tragic outlook means you cannot have any meaningful vision of a better future for yourself, your community, or humanity. An absence of something positive to work towards can be destabilising and limiting. Some people will think you are depressed – or depressing – and need some “positive thinking”. For a personal vision, the answer may lie in developing a vision for how you will be approaching life, rather than imagining attributes of a lifestyle. This may parallel the dimensions of a collective vision. A future full of love and learning, rather than flying cars and fancy robots, could be a way to imagine a more beautiful world. And remember, the future will still be beautiful in its own way, no matter what life forms are in it – or if your favourite town is under water!

Don’t get dogmatic and avoid those who do. That comes from recognising that our terms for phenomena are not the same as the phenomena themselves. The words we use imply things which may have effects on us but aren’t necessarily so. Words like nearterm, civilisation, collapse, and tragedy, are our words, and may trigger ideas, images and emotions which aren’t inevitable consequences of the phenomena being described (more on that “social constructionism” later).

Do not prioritise maintaining your own mental and physical situation at the expense of the need to act in solidarity with future generations who will live with the future we are creating for them. Tomorrow’s children won’t thank us much for having joined a support group on facebook or taken up yoga!

OK, that ends my summary of recommendations which I have identified based on my experience over the past four years since I woke up to the scale and dimensions of our climate tragedy. The rest of this piece (after the picture) recaps some of that journey that made me conclude with those recommendations. It’s a long read, so now would be a good time to make a cuppa as you appreciate the sunrise over the Aegean from, Kalikalos Retreat.

Sunrise2

Climate Fever and Revelation

My journey with climate change really took a turn in March 2014. I had just finished delivering my inaugural lecture as a Professor at Cumbria University. I gave the lecture at a Literary Festival and the topic I chose was “the adventure of sustainability”. In preparation for the talk I sought to identify the common theme across my previous 20 years of research, teaching, advocacy and practice. A key theme was how we need to tell new stories about ourselves and society. I described how corporations are the most influential storytellers of our time. That is probably obvious to you, given the role of marketing and advertising. I explained how the influence of corporate storytelling went deeper than that into how we think about what is real or true in fields we might not consider corporate at all. I gave the example of diamond engagement rings, which is a corporate-produced tradition. And I also described how the banking system tells society a story of what is wealth, what life is like and the decisions we have to make in order to get by or succeed. It does that through its creation of our money as credit with interest to those it decides to empower with that new spending power. The speech was offering a “critical social constructionist” viewpoint. I suggested we needed to free ourselves from a dominant worldview to escape to sustainability. By that, I meant that unsustainability is not the result of a lack of ideas and effort, but the result of us being cajoled into certain ideas and efforts that are contrary to the original wealth around us. I framed the challenge as an adventure towards sustainability, because I already realized that the presumed pragmatism of an incremental approach to change, by engaging business and investors, was no longer a credible view. I also used the idea of adventure to reflect how uncertain our future path has become and to reframe the daunting challenge as something to inspire rather than discourage.

I didn’t practice my speech much because I was losing my voice with the onset of a flu. And what an awful flu it was, putting me in bed for a week from the day after the lecture. I was to discover just how emotionally powerful giving a speech that summarized and concluded a part of my life would be. In preparing for the speech I had thought it important to remind myself of the bigger context within which I had been working over the previous 20 years. I looked at the latest data on environmental degradation and poverty reduction, amongst other aspects of what we term “sustainable development”. So I knew that despite progress in changing some organizations and attitudes, the data on the big picture was really bad. I wanted my speech to summarize a key theme and truth from my range of professional activities over the previous 20 years. But it also needed to be somewhat relatable – and therefore somewhat acceptable – to my colleagues, wider academia, and the general public who would be paying to be in the audience. So although I had this grave fear I was coming to doubt the very possibility of sustainability I didn’t let myself explore that ahead of my inaugural.

Now in bed with a fever, I went back to some of the worrying stuff I had skimmed over during the past weeks. I read about methane. I read blogs, watched videos and then accessed the scientific papers that were being referred to. I learned about the amount of methane in the permafrost and the current rate of release. I learned about the amount of methane frozen in solid form on the Arctic sea floor. I learned about how geologists had concluded that the last mass extinction event which wiped out about 95% of life on Earth was most likely caused by methane release from the Arctic sea floor triggering a rapid warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. The quivering voice and slightly moist eyes of one of the Russian scientists when she was pushed to comment on the implications of ice shrinkage and temperature measurements was a memorable moment for me as I slumped feverish in bed.

Perhaps because of an experience of validation and conclusion from my inaugural, as I lay in bed, I was more able to let myself accept not only the probability of a near-term collapse of civilization, but even the possibility of the near-term extinction of the human race. That led me into a multi-dimensional experience of loss and of grief. There is the sadness about the suffering of all people, and of the people you know who are alive today. There is the fear of what will happen, and when, to your own life and to your loved ones. “How much time have we got?” one asks. There is sadness with the suffering and death of all other life forms. There is the trauma of having in one’s mind an imagined future so disturbed from how things look and feel today. I could no longer look at the beautiful landscapes in the Lake District and appreciate them for what they were without imagining what it might look like in 50 to 100 years. Would it be scorched, flooded, uninhabited, polluted?

Then there was a sadness, grief and confusion about a loss of my own self worth. Because a key part of my identity was regarding myself as an informed, dedicated and sensible agent of good who sought sustainability. Over the previous decades I had made conscious sacrifices to give my life to that work. Or at least, I had justified a lack of balance in my life and an absence of diverse forms of joy, as a necessary side effect of my commitment to a cause. So suddenly I experienced a wave of regret. This personal loss of self-identity and feelings of regret are something that I now see shaped some of my actions over the 4 years that were to come, in ways I was not fully aware of at the time. I’ll have to come back to that. Another form of loss and grief was of the cultural frame of reference for helping me determine what, from now on, might be right to think and to do. That is because I sensed our contemporary culture was no longer a solid framework from which to develop my ideas. I had difficulty finding people with whom to talk to about what I might think and do next. Related to that was a sense that nothing I could create or contribute to, at any level of physical, intellectual or cultural form, would last for much more than a few decades. As someone who was so focused on communicating ideas, at-scale, this was particularly difficult.

Looking back, I realize that I had some kind of faith or insight that there is an ultimate meaning to existence in general, and therefore to mine in particular, and therefore a meaning to my relationships with others. That has become more clear to me as I see how many people appear too fearful of despair to let themselves even consider possibilities that would trigger such despair. In my case, it might be a philosophical hangover from when I was a teenage Christian, who believed that God’s love for us transcends our understanding of it. It could also be because since I had become post-Christian (no, not an official designation), I had read Vedic, Jain and Buddhist philosophies about the nature of reality and the idea that consciousness precedes matter and energy. I had studied some of the latest insights from the Natural Sciences that seriously undermine the view of nature as an unthinking machine of separate parts. In physics we have quantum mechanics which suggests that matter is connected to a universal field no matter where it is. In biology we now not only have epigenetics to show environmental influences on gene expression, and more evidence of group selection. We also have evidence of mutations not being entirely random as they sometimes correlate with parents’ perception of their changing environment. This, coupled with knowledge that there were at least a dozen hominids that evolved from apes but which went extinct rather than evolving into homo sapiens, also made me see how our planet is constantly evolving life forms towards species like our own, as well as all others. I suppose this perspective that there is a divine or spiritual dimension to existence which gives rise to the flow and patterns of life on Earth meant I knew that the end of our culture and the end of our species would not be the end of meaning itself. I describe this worldview with an emphasis on concepts but what has been as key to me is that I have experienced this perspective in states of altered consciousness. The memory of those experiences gave me a life jacket as I slipped into despair.

That did not mean I was going to swim through despair that well. Since that time in bed with the flu, I have recognised it as a moment of change for me. But only when Dougald from Dark Mountain asked to interview me did I reflect on what I have been doing over almost 4 years since that moment. I think there is value in analyzing what happened to me and sharing it with others, which is why I am writing it down now. The value has become apparent to me as I’ve witnessed more and more people express their fear that despair leads nowhere. Not so. I have seen despair is not the end. It led to a range of new perspectives and activities for myself and then those I engaged with as a result. Some good, some not so good, some conscious and some not so conscious. Sharing this may help you reflect on what you are going through, or might experience if you ever come to despair. I say that while fully recognizing I am not a trained psychoanalyst of psychotherapist nor am I steeped in any one particular spiritual tradition or methods for its instruction. I still have much to learn.

A Climate Catharsis

Looking back now I realize that my past few years have been characterized in part by a professional catharsis. By which I mean an effort to express myself professionally in areas and ways that I restrained myself from in the past due to old stories which no longer made sense to me. My previous focus had been on having the most expertise and experience in a particular niche that was concerned with persuading and enabling large organizations to change. In effect, I was offering myself to existing power structures. In the name of being professional in the field of management studies and management consulting I was therefore very careful about how I presented ideas such as transforming capitalism. Now with the idea that this system is dying, the lid came off.

My first professional shift was to rework the leadership course I was about to teach into one that was explicitly focused on intellectual and emotional emancipation. The idea was already in the course outline, just as so many leadership courses offer self discovery. But I took it a step further in explicitly exploring the ways that our consciousness is held back by dominant ideas in our society. My idea was that if we arrive at a position of suspicion towards social norms, and connect to timeless wisdom, we will be more robust in taking a new approach to social and environmental issues, on the one hand, and professional development on the other. On the final day of the course I explained how I felt about the latest climate science and how it was currently destroying my sense of self-worth and leading to something else… which I wasn’t sure of, but which the course was part of. The course was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life, and some of the students who participated in it became co-travellers in this post-sustainability exploration.

I had worked on currency innovation since 2011, and suddenly felt ambivalent about the long term resilience of technologically-dependent local currency systems. But I realised that rather than these systems being important to help complement the mainstream money systems, that they would help communities shift back to more local community reliance. I also felt that our delusions about money and wealth have been at the heart of the destructive path humanity embarked on to produce the climate tragedy, and so better understanding the history and nature of this phenomenon made sense. I immersed myself in this and produced a free online course on the history and future of money, which has been taken by thousands of students around the world. Key to this process was the ability to step outside my comfort zone and use insights from disciplines that I had not worked with before. Without my newfound boldness that would not have happened. It began a whole new dimension to my intellectual life, which is reflected by this book on my desk today “Money and the Ancient Greek Mind.”

A key step for me was to resign as Director of the Institute I had established, and go part time so I could free up some time and space to explore how I would integrate the new awareness into my life and work. I am still grateful for my University for supporting that move, which made the next phase of my life less scary. With that freedom, I joined the board of a multimillion-dollar social and environmental impact investing fund, specialising in technology and financial services. Sound a bit odd for an existential crisis? I liked the idea of being involved in the governance and funding start-ups that were using technology to try and unseat major incumbent businesses. It contrasted nicely to the past decades of seeking to make the large firms nicer from the edges. But, yes, it was still a bit corporate. And by 2016 I was beginning to let out a bit of a roar…

Suddenly I felt compelled to write in mainstream publications about mainstream politics. Trimming the edges of capitalism wasn’t enough. I was not going to be silent anymore about politics, and published on topics ranging from issues of security through to economy. Suddenly I was debating the former Lord Admiral of the fleet about Trident renewal and writing columns on Corbynism. This new line of work eventually led me to providing strategic communications advice to the Office of the Leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom during the first 6 months of 2017. During the General Election campaign I ended up co-writing speeches and other documents. What was the connection to climate tragedy? For me it was clear. To avoid making matters worse as we experience the impacts of climate chaos on the UK directly and through supply chains and financial systems, we need to turn away from the neoliberal value set that leaves everything to market forces and disparages social solidarity through political action. I think we need some emergency socialism. For the first time in my life I was hearing a leader of a political party in the UK speak about how we are proud of our systematic compassion, that we are great because we care for each other. Jeremy Corbyn was bringing these ideas back into the mainstream of public life.

Looking back over the few years since my flu-bound revelations I can see how extremely busy I became during a time when I really needed to reflect. The rush of energy from this professional catharsis was also, in retrospect, fueled by the reaction of my ego to my new awareness. I had lost my previous identity and sense of self-worth. Part of my busy-ness may have been a felt need to reconstruct a sense of self-worth. It may also have been a desire for meaningful and consuming distractions from climate tragedy, as I did not know how to live day-to-day with that at the front of my mind.

The Personal Impacts

I have focused most of my reflections on professional matters. That is because my sharing on this topic is primarily about how we “work” in relation to it. But the distinction with personal life is not so solid, especially for something so profound as this. Looking at what has changed, I see that my social circle shrank. That can be normal for someone entering their 40s. But in my case, as a single guy with no children, that might not be so normal. I spent more time with closer friends and family. I found it more tiring and pointless to have small talk and thus more difficult to meet new people. Dating apps seemed torture. Instead, I felt drawn to spend more time in nature. I organised my life so I could take time out and live for some months in Bali, Indonesia, finding the beauty of the nature and the culture a balm for my concerns and a suitable backdrop to more philosophical explorations. I realise that I have not shed desires for wealth, status, fun and security, though I now aspire to. The fear of not progressing as I thought I might, or in comparison to others, as I age, still lingers in the background. Looking at that now, I think such factors have influenced my decisions and I feel disappointed about that.

Things may change, but for the past few years it hasn’t been easy to discuss this topic casually with either family, friends or colleagues. And as it is such an encompassing issue, this inability to communicate one’s reality can be isolating and diminishing. I limited my explicit exploration of climate tragedy to conversations and correspondence with a handful of people who had come to the same realisation. By mid 2016 I was not happy with myself for keeping this matter to that small group. I had been invited to keynote at a conference of climate academics and policy makers, in Australia. It was a long way to go and I don’t like to fly without a rationale. Another speech about corporate steps towards environmental sustainability felt a depressing idea to me. I was worried about how I would come across, but decided to go for it. I described climate change as a tragedy not a problem that would be fixed, and how we now need to spend as much time on what adaptation would involve, including adaptation to a collapse of civilisation as a result. It does not mean stopping efforts to curb emissions or capture more carbon, but means accepting that immense suffering and loss is going to happen – and soon. It means actively working on how to not make matters worse. I realised that people, like me, might be able to consider this if they had a map or a framework to help them navigate it, and so I offered one as a “deep adaptation agenda”. I was surprised and delighted at the response, with people coming up to me afterwards thanking me for my courage and sharing their reflections and metaphors on the same subject. Then a year later I discovered that the concept had been used by funders in the UK for their grantmaking.

Discovering that I wasn’t speaking into a void, that in fact there was resonance and people could amplify these ideas, helped me conclude the catharsis. It seems I had roared enough. The last four years were professionally transformative. I am now a political communications trainer and advisor and a leadership trainer and researcher with a consciously emancipatory approach to both. I am a currency innovation consultant with an overt attention to the social and environment implications. I have also now published academic papers in these areas as an academic, so have transitioned that aspect of my work into this new phase. But there has been a professional cost, as I disengaged with a community of research where I had status, expertise and networks, so might have been included in funding bids and special issues of top journals. To help those who respect my past work to consider a more radical approach today, I published a reflection on some of the implications of the useful but limited impact of existing partnerships. I have not yet published anything academic on the “deep adaptation agenda,” in part due to the cathartic rush I have been on with other work. Fortunately, I have begun to find academics in related fields who are explicitly addressing aspects of this agenda, such as Professor Jonathan Gosling in his recent papers on leadership during periods of cultural collapse. He will be keynoting at our next conference on leadership in September in the Lake District.

Interbeing

Where to now? Come the summer of ‘17 I knew I had not given myself space to explore the “deep adaptation” agenda as much as I had wanted to. Within that, I had not developed the kind of equanimity – or peace of mind – about climate chaos that would mean I could work on it directly. I realise many other people must be in this situation. If you have read this far, then I guess that includes you. I see equanimity as important if we are to respond to changing realities without fear, anger or sadness clouding our judgement. I see equanimity as a means of usefulness rather than simply coping emotionally. Where might that equanimity come from? In the past few months I have been in discussions and correspondence with people as I explore the spiritual or metaphysical perspectives that might make some sense in the face of our climate tragedy. I was fortunate enough that my University agreed for me to take a year unpaid leave from September 2017, and this has allowed me time to reflect, read, discuss, as well as participate in various meditative practices. In particular, I have been exploring the idea of “interbeing”, a term from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn and popularised by author Charles Eisenstein. Being asked by Charles for feedback on a first draft of his forthcoming book on climate change also prompted me to clarify some thoughts. So here goes… (and this is a good moment to make another cuppa)…

Interbeing is a word describing a conscious experience of being more than our physical body and separate mind. It is another way of describing higher consciousness, so as to emphasise its more embodied form. The idea is fairly well established in non-Abrahamic spiritual traditions, as well as within the more gnostic threads of Abrahamic religions. The idea is that although we experience ourselves as separate due to our senses, consciousness is not limited to our brains or bodies. Rather, it is like a field of magnetism or gravity. Moreover, it may be like a field that is not limited in time and space as magnetism or gravity are, instead encompassing all of existence. From this perspective it can be said that consciousness is having an experience of itself through us.

How might interbeing raise you from the threat of depression if you sense the end of everything one can contribute to due to near-term extinction of the human race and the majority of species? Not by making us feel more as one with all humans who will be born to die young. Or more as one with all dogs and cats who will starve to death. Nor by feeling more as one with all the birds in the trees who will die of heat exhaustion. Or more at one with those landscapes we most enjoy seeing and experiencing which will transform out of recognition. Or more as one with the wonderful culture of ideas that we have enjoyed learning and contributing to, but that will vanish into ruins like other lost civilisations. The more we experience interbeing with all these deeply important things, the more we may suffer. An answer may lie in our sense of what there “is” to inter-be with. There are no half measures with interbeing. All is one, as that great phrase explains.

OK, you might say, “We are at one with everything. And if we are lucky we might experience states of consciousness where that feels real to us. But how does that help us deal emotionally with the loss of civilisation, the mass extinction of other species and potentially even human extinction?”

I think the answer lies in whether we see that greater consciousness as a source. In particular, does consciousness exist as an original phenomenon that gave rise to matter (and so lies within it, finding new forms through it), or does consciousness arise out of matter (which logically would imply randomly). There is a lot of support in the history of human thought for the former view of consciousness giving rise to matter. Now there is a lot of new scientific evidence for that view, including the latest in evolutionary biology and in quantum physics (which I will summarise elsewhere). If we have the view that consciousness gave rise to and works through matter, then we see how it gave rise to species, all humans and all civilisations. Therefore we are one with the potential for all things.

Thich Nhat Hahn has suggested we take time to reflect on the number of civilizations that have collapsed in the past. We could walk around the ruins, or watch a video of someone doing so. Imagine the thousands of lives, with the joys, heartaches, intense discussions, hopes for the future and stories of the past. All so intense at the time and all now gone. Then consider how these civilisations have kept arising again and again in different places and times. There appears to be an underlying impulse towards them. Or let’s go a step further. Take a moment to reflect on the way our planetary ecosystem has kept producing hominids, most of which never evolved into humans but went extinct. They were bipedal large brained animals with opposable thumbs and in many cases the desires to draw and to burn. Therefore, some scientists are beginning to consider whether evolution is entirely random. That doesn’t imply an anthropomorphic God that designs species, but a field of consciousness that gives rise to similar patterns of life. In one ancient tradition this is called the Akashic Record. It means that who we are and what we do now is both influenced by and will influence an eternal record that pervades all time and space. If a collective consciousness is understood and experienced in this way, the pain of the passing of life as-we-know-it may be lessened. Because we are one with the source consciousness that gives rise to all life and will do so again and again.

Many people who are troubled by climate change are “environmentalists” and many such people are interested in reconnecting with non human “nature”, as a means of sensing our interbeing. While this can be a useful first step, it may extend the awareness of self only partially in both time and space and could lead to new waves of pain, anger, sadness, distraction, and therefore distorted thinking on what to do now. Therefore, the climate tragedy invites us to see interbeing as all or nothing. You might rightly point out that I am at risk of proposing a worldview because it makes one feel better. This subjective distortion is the root of confirmation bias as well as the flaw of so many religions. “It must be right because it feels wonderful.” I currently have no answer to that problem, apart from that I know in my own life I have not arrived at this perspective quickly as a means of tranquility. Indeed, I think the more I embrace it and bring it into my daily consciousness, the implications may not be so easy after all.

The pain associated with an awareness of climate tragedy may be deadened with this perspective on total interbeing, but there remains a question of meaning for our individual lives. Given that our previous ideas of purpose and meaning have been shaken with the awareness of impending collapse, most people would seek a new basis for the meaning of their lives. That is something I will need to spend more time on this year, perhaps always. But I am already wondering whether our meaning can be found within a purpose of approaching this moment with as much awakened connection to universal source consciousness as possible. In that way, contributing to the akashic memory of that source consciousness at an unusual time in existence. I have a feeling that such an approach would involve heightened compassion and wonder. I also sense that the positive “vision” for what we can work towards while accepting a coming collapse will be about communities that nurture that compassion and wonder. But it is something I need to reflect on and discuss some more.

The perspective I have just expressed assumes some “free will” within us. Or to put it another way, some ability for original phenomena to be created by us, within us, to then add back to the source consciousness. How is it possible for there to be any agency in a part of a whole if all is one? How would we know if our view that we have free will isn’t actually determined for us? We don’t. But if we didn’t have free will to exist in ways that create novel input into the akashic record, then what is the consciousness within individual organic lifeforms for? Perhaps nothing. Or perhaps simply to express the intention of the whole. And that is what I have to conclude at this time: I do not know if there is any individual agency. Nevertheless, the implication is that to approach life from from a heightened connection to source consciousness will more likely align with the purpose of source consciousness, if there is one. Now is when we begin to speculate. It appears that source consciousness tends to diversify the complexity of matter. It appears it creates sentient beings who wish to avoid pain and experience pleasure. It appears that the process of unfolding complexity leads to new forms of reflective consciousness. Therefore, I could choose a purpose to reduce suffering, promote joy, enable reflection, and unleash emergence. This does not sound so different from the great wisdom traditions, as well as the common sense knowledge of most people I know, if not deluded by obsessions over race, nation, politics, status, wealth or religious correctness.

I am currently in Ubud, Bali, which attracts many spiritual seekers from around the world. It is a Hindu island, with an animist flavour, and many religiously observant families. Many of the foreigners participate in what some would call “new age” spiritual practices, such as shamanic breathwork or cacao ceremonies. Despite that, I have not yet discussed any of what I have written above with the people I meet here. Because I have often felt lonelier with people who are overtly on a spiritual path. When I hear of their focus on positive thinking, visioning, and being in touch with one’s body and emotions, I wonder if this is naive and self-serving. Yet the effect is nice enough and I don’t want to upset them. It is a cliche that some of the people with the most needs and fears gravitate to either religious devotion or new age spirituality. I do not think the worldview I have described in my writing today is an immediately self-serving one. It would be far easier to dismiss climate tragedy as hype and block it out as one does a warrior pose while breathing incense. I am discovering, therefore, that I may need to be proactive if I want to be part of a community of “spiritual” people, approaching life in full awareness of the climate tragedy.

Spiritual Critical Social Constructionism

From the amount I write, you may have noticed that I’m an academic. Though you also may have noticed I am not limited to one discipline or a narrow concept of validity for knowledge claims. I see logical positivism as a tool not a totality. Mostly I’m a sociologist, and before wrapping up these reflections, I’d like to share a realisation that critical social theory could be essential for developing equanimity in the face of the climate tragedy.

Social constructionism is a philosophy that recognizes that the words we use to describe phenomena are not synonymous with the phenomena themselves. Because the phenomena themselves are simply phenomena and our experience of them is simply experience. We label phenomena with words in order to communicate about them, but that does not mean that they exist only in the way that our words describe them. Social constructionism helps us to be aware of how we are applying the lens of our language to reality, in ways emphasise certain patterns and not others. Social constructionism does not deny that there is a reality but that such reality is prior to our interpretation of it. Critical social constructionism goes a step further in questioning how certain terms or “constructions” sustain certain power relations in human society, and are themselves the result of such power relations. So by “critical” we do not mean negativity or questioning. Instead, it reflects an emancipatory interest in the application of social constructionism. “Spiritual critical social constructionism” is a label I wish to offer for the importance of our exploration of how concepts used for the “spiritual” or the “ineffable” or the “divine” or the “metaphysical” or the “Godly”, are not synonymous with the phenomena being described. That also goes for any terms that relate to such matters – whether in religious or somewhat “new age” communities of discourse. The astute reader will see how this begins to sound very similar to the central teaching of Lao Tsu, who opened his book with “the truth that can be told is not the truth”. You might think he would pack up with his book writing ruse there and then. But with that caveat he then delivers a massive book. Because although words are limited tools, they are darn useful. As I hope you are finding right now.

The social constructionist perspective reminds us that when we speak of “probable near-term collapse of civilization” that each of those words mean different things to different people and, more importantly, are not synonymous with the realities they are helping us to consider. Words like nearterm, civilisation, collapse, and tragedy, are our words, and may trigger ideas, images and emotions which aren’t inevitable. In this field, like in any other, we must be vigilant against any new dogmas emerging.

New Community

Being without a partner or children, it may have been easier for me than most to take the time to explore the issues I’ve described in this piece. I realise that for many people it is tough to change the focus of one’s career or the situation at home in light of new information, simply because modern life is so jam packed with activities, responsibilities and the need to earn a living. So I see the need to support people with the process I went through. Therefore, I am trialling a “deep adaptation retreat” later this year, where participants who have reached or gone through despair over the climate tragedy will explore together how we reconstitute meaning and sustain ourselves.

The retreat is also a response to my realisation I need a form of philosophical community around the perspectives and processes I’ve described above. It starts by sharing more. So I have begun writing up my reflections and sharing them. This writing is also going to be key sensemaking so I more consciously choose what to do next. I will stick mostly to personal reflections, rather than extensive academic-style research. At this stage I don’t know how my participation in a philosophical community on this topic will develop. To help connect with people exploring what this path means for their professional work, I have created a Deep Adaptation group on LinkedIn. If you aren’t on that platform, then please join my mailing list as a way to keep updated. If you are organising activities on these matters, please let me know (or post to the LinkedIn group). And please tell your networks about the retreat.
It is possible that Dark Mountain may grow into the philosophical community I think is needed. Whatever happens, I’ll always be grateful that they kept this topic alive over the past decade, and then prompted me to reflect in this way. Dougald’s take on the interview with me, as well as an audio, will be appearing on their site soon.

My thanks to Katie Carr, Cam Webb, Susan Holden, Marc Lopatin, Charles Eisenstein, Jonathan Gosling, Dougald Hine, Georgia Wingfield-Hayes, Chris Erskine and Jonathan Leighton for correspondence and conversations along the way as I’ve pieced these ideas together, as well the facilitators of spiritual practices at Yogabarn and The Ark, Ubud. Thanks to Matthew Slater for showing me what dedication to one’s contrarian truth looks like.

Posted in Academia and Research, climate, deep adaptation, Sustainable Development | 9 Comments »

What after we stop pretending? Quarterly 11

Posted by jembendell on December 1, 2017

Hello from Athens where I’ve started my sabbatical year researching a book and supporting an NGO creating systems for local currencies that enable the solidarity economy.

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Have you ever wondered what we might do if we stopped pretending we can prevent climate change from wreaking havoc? Next summer I’m hosting a retreat for environmentalists who sense despair at the current trends. It’s at the Kalikalos eco-retreat in Greece, a spin off from the Findhorn centre in the UK. The retreat explores the contours of the deep adaptation agenda (from personal to political). Please get in touch with me if this resonates and you are considering joining us (dr j  bendell at gmail).

The retreat builds on what I have learned by teaching the University of Cumbria’s sustainable leadership courses. I summarise the ideas on leadership which underpin those courses in a new journal article. I really enjoy what my students do once freed from the cautious narratives of incremental (often inconsequential) change. One of our new graduates, Julie Hutchison, was featured last week for launching a new charity trustee training programme. We are taking applications now for the September 2018 intake of this course. We are also keen to hear from organisations that could sponsor the student fees, so we could offer free places to people with potential to create major change.

Another of our students, Cheryl Clarke, is part of a team which today launches a pre-sale on a new blockchain platform and token, with the smallish aim of disrupting Hollywood! This field of crypto currencies has boomed in 2017. Previously I was only contacted about currency innovation by people with a passion for crazy ideas or creating change. My inbox now bulges with people serious about the commercial and investment opportunities. It makes writing a book about the future of money an interesting challenge. I’m currently sorting out which are my favourite blockchain projects and related start-ups and how I will support them (so watch this space). Certainly there are many better approaches than bitcoin, which has a horrible and unnecessary carbon footprint.

I’m really looking forward to the leadership conference we, that’s IFLAS, are hosting in the Lake District next September. The deadline for submitting an abstract for either a paper, poster or a workshop is January 30th. The conference is FREE, and is hosted with Crossfields Institute and Alanus University. Stunning location, fab keynotes, highly interactive, some stuff outdoors, cutting edge insights on heartfelt approaches to professional development. You should come. But the only way to make sure you have a place is to submit your idea now.

Volcano permitting, my research takes me to Bali for 3 months from January 1st. If you are volcanologist, maybe I’ll see you there?

Posted in deep adaptation, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Engaging the Climate Tragedy

Posted by jembendell on November 26, 2016

When discussing the sorry state of efforts to address climate change with professionals working on this topic, across sectors, I often hear a reluctance to question whether it is too late to avert catastrophic climate change, or what such a view might mean for the focus of our work. Various objections to this view are raised and prevent open discussion or an evolution of work. Therefore, I decided to deliver a speech at a leading climate business and finance event in Australia, at Griffith University, to seek feedback on my argument that we must now shift focus.

In my keynote, Nov 29th, I’m outlining the following:

  1. There has been some progress on environmental issues in past decades, from reducing pollution, to habitat preservation, to waste management.
  2. Much valiant effort has been made to reduce carbon emissions over the last twenty years.
  3. There have been many steps forward on climate and carbon management, from awareness, to policies, to innovations.
  4. Larger and quicker steps must be taken and can be now that there is COP21 and major Chinese engagement on the issue.
  5. To support the maintenance and scaling of these efforts is essential.
  6. Small steps have been taken on adaptation to climate changes, such as flood defences and planning laws.
  7. Yet these steps on climate mitigation and adaptation are like walking up a landslide. If the landslide had not already begun, then quicker and bigger steps would get us to the top of where we want to be. But the latest climate data, emissions data and data on the spread of carbon-intensive lifestyles tell us that the landslide has already begun.

That the ground is already moving beneath our feet is summarised thus:

  1. The politically permissible scientific consensus is that we need to stay beneath 2 degrees warming of global ambient temperatures to avoid dangerous and uncontrollable levels of climate change, with impacts such as mass starvation, disease, flooding, storm destruction, migration and war
  2. If the world does not keep further anthropogenic emissions below a total of 1,300 billion tonnes of carbon, we won’t keep average temperatures below that 2 degrees warming.
  3. If we are not already on the path to dramatic reductions we will not keep within this limit.
  4. We are not on such a path, with emissions still at around 40 million tonnes of CO2 a year and the decoupling of growth from emissions minimal.
  5. The uncertainties on the edge of scientific consensus do not suggest a respite, with some increased carbon sequestration through increased vegetation not as significant as the methane emissions not factored into most models, and where Arctic warming is already progressing beyond even the most extreme predictions.
  6. Therefore, we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.
  7. The implication is that we need to expand our climate work into a deep adaptation agenda, including resilience, relinquishment and restoration while learning why this tragedy is occurring.

I will explain more about that deep adaptation agenda in a moment. I realise that at this point the reader, or listener, might feeling a bit affronted, disturbed, or saddened. 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 to permit a continued striving which has its rationale, therefore, not in serving the expressed goal but in maintaining self-identities related to espoused values. This form of denial is different from outright climate denial, but is also unhelpful, as John Foster argues well in his book After Sustainability (2015).

It is emotionally difficult at first, but we need to move beyond that pretence if we are to remain relevant. In doing so, we open ourselves up to discuss a ‘deep adaption’ agenda as well as exploring why this tragedy has begun and why we have been so poor at responding effectively. I will make some brief comments on these topics before concluding with some thoughts on how we evolve our research accordingly.

A deep adaption agenda will involve increasing resilience, relinquishment and restoration Resilience involves people and communities better coping with disruptions. Examples include how river catchments can better cope with rains, or how buildings can better cope with floods. What I’m calling relinquishment, involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption. Restoration involves people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that the hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded. Examples include re-wilding landscapes so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, or increased community-level productivity and support.

There will be increasing discussion about what is to be learned from the tragedy of climate change, and honest inquiry existing alongside strategic attempts at framing disruption, degradation and loss to maintain one’s relative power in society.  Disruption, degradation and collapse will be framed by different people as a resulting from foreigners, capitalism, industrialism, individualism, consumerism, patriarchy, anthropomorphism, secularism, liberalism, progressivism, and atomism (where we see things as separate). We are even seeing framing of disruption by religious fundamentalists, who, to my knowledge, don’t discuss climate but seek to respond to the disruption it has already caused. One study by Columbia University argues that in Syria, the worst drought in 100s of years, made worse by climate change, led to 1.5 million people being displaced from their lives in rural areas and increased food prices in cities. Some radical Islamists were able to thrive in this situation with their explanations of cause and solution, replacement stories of personal identity and purpose, and offers of sustenance.

My own analysis is that the West’s response as restricted by the dominance of neoliberal economics since the 1970s. That led to hyper-individualist, market fundamentalist, incremental and atomistic approaches. By hyper-individualist, I mean a focus on individual action as consumers, switching light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than promoting political action as engaged citizens. By market fundamentalist, I mean a focus on market mechanisms like the complex, costly and largely useless carbon cap and trade systems, rather than exploring what more government intervention could achieve. By incremental, I mean a focus on celebrating small steps forward such as a company publishing a sustainability report, rather than strategies designed for a speed and scale of change suggested by the science. By atomistic, I mean a focus on seeing climate action as a separate issue from the governance of markets, finance and banking, rather than exploring what kind of economic system could permit or enable sustainability.

Given this context, while the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the culture they reflect are helpful for non-climate related matters, given the systemic nature of the impacts of global warming, they may be ill-focused. Instead “minimum survival goals” would be more appropriate, to reduce the rate of increase in starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war. We don’t need consensus on that, but a shift right now from those who have a professional income, skill set and network to work on matters broadly related to climate change and its effects.

The implications for researchers working on climate issues, whether on campaigning, policy, business, finance, include asking the following questions:

On other’s research:

“How might these findings inform efforts for a more massive & urgent transformation to resilience & relinquishment in face of collapse?”

On one’s own research:

“If I didn’t believe in incremental incorporation of climate concerns into current organisations and systems, what might I want to know more about?”

“How might neglected theories of political economy suggest I inquire into this or related topics?”

To explore some of these ideas further, my recent writings may be of interest, on implications for the future of the climate debate, on what sustainability leadership involves, on how we need to heal capitalism, and how we need to ask ourselves tough questions if we consider ourselves climate activists. Better still, these publications will help you explore this emerging “post-sustainability” paradigm:

Benson, M. and Craig, R. (2014) ‘The End of Sustainability’, Society and Natural Resources 27; 777-782

Foster, J. (2015) After Sustainability (Abingdon: Earthscan from Routledge)

Hamilton, C. (2010) Requiem for a Species (London: Earthscan)

Hamilton, C. et al. (eds.) (2015) The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis (Abingdon: Routledge)

Jamieson, D. (2014)  Reason in a Dark Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Mulgan, T. (2011) Ethics for a Broken World  (Durham: Acumen)

As the point of no return can’t be fully known until after the event, ambitious work on reducing carbon must increase. But a new front of work on deep adaptation is as important today. Understandable emotional traumas from realising the tragedy that is coming, and in many ways upon us already, shouldn’t prevent us from exploring what this probable reality could mean for our choices now. Moreover, from social psychology, there is some evidence to suggest that by focusing on impacts now, it makes climate change more proximate, which increases support for mitigation.

In my talk at Griffith I explore more about the nature and future of leadership in light of this assessment of the climate tragedy.

More on the event is here.

UPDATE: Until June 1st 2018 I am receiving PhD applications on the topic of deep adaptation, connected to either organisational studies, policy or sociological disciplines, for starting Oct 1st 2018. Either based in Cumbria or remote working, full time or part time. There are no scholarships for these. Fees information from http://www.cumbria.ac.uk If you have a masters degree and are interested in this topic and self fund, then please drop me a note.

Posted in Academia and Research, deep adaptation, Sustainable Development, Talks | Tagged: | 7 Comments »