What is Deep Adaptation?
Deep Adaptation is a way of viewing our current global situation that can help refocus people on what’s important in life while our social order collapses under the weight of its own consumption and pollution.
Why do we need Deep Adaptation?
Professor Jem Bendell coined the phrase after coming to the conclusion that life as we ‘developed’ nations know it, is unsustainable. Despite knowing of humanity’s contribution to destabilising the climate 1We’ve been living in the Holocene climate for all our time on Earth and it’s been marvellous. It’s changed, weather always does, but it usually takes thousands of years to make the changes in atmospheric and ice levels that we’ve seen in our lifetimes., global leaders haven’t done a fantastic job of changing our trajectory2Quite the reverse, it seems to be a case of whatever was easiest and made the most money at the time, and future innovations would take care of any future problems..
When I asked John Sununu about his part in this history — whether he considered himself personally responsible for killing the best chance at an effective global-warming treaty ‘It couldn’t have happened,” he told me, “because, frankly, the leaders in the world at that time were at a stage where they were all looking how to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources.” He added, “Frankly, that’s about where we are today.”Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine, 2018,
After immersing in sustainability, economics and leadership initiatives for many years, working to improve our outlook, Jem has come to the well-informed position that climate change can not be stopped, sustainability isn’t sustainable and disaster is unfolding. He figures that we’d better start planning for the worst of times, while working towards stemming the wounds of industry. And I agree. I’ve been tracking news about the precarious nature of our existence for many years but not felt like any of the activist groups or community initiatives were where I belonged. Then I read Deep Adaptation and here I am writing this.
If global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers it likely that the rise in atmospheric temperature will reach 1.5°C degrees within the next 35 years. Forestalling this will require unprecedented action to drive decarbonization of agriculture, energy, industry and transport. It appears increasingly unlikely that the world will meet even the 2°C upper limit identified by the Paris Climate Agreement. The current trajectory is towards a rise of around 3.2°C.World Economic Forum, Global Risk Report, 2019
With that knowledge, it appears that we might all be having dinner at Milliways (Earth edition) sooner rather than later. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t expecting that at all. And it’s truly a devastating set of realisations. I’m terribly sorry if you’re coming to this understanding for the first time. When it really sank in for me I spent months crying every day and found it hard to fully take pleasure in life, as every moment was being tinged with if-only-coloured glasses. Seeing our beautiful sky, hurt me. Hugging my kids, hurt me. I had so many questions and pains.
Can’t this go on forever? Can’t this life we were sold keep going but in a green way? Was my life to date a fairytale? My plans and dreams – now hurtling over the edge of a waterfall, with me in the barrel praying to land safely. Is there safety? What can I do? How can I do anything when this is such a complex and interconnected problem? What will happen to my loved ones? To everyone?
Clearly, Earth will endure despite us. She is very large, has been around a long time, and we will not obliterate her. But we are busily annihilating the thin wedge of soil, air, water and atmosphere that sustains complex life like us. Between pollution, poor soil practices, poor water management, and intense resource extraction we’ve made a big mess of our Home. The science is pretty clear that we’re (literally) paving the way3I love Joni Mitchell, I don’t want to relinquish her music and so many others to a planet that’s inhospitable for us and for a lot of the ecosystem on which we depend.
… perhaps the most important conclusion in the Nature Climate Change paper is the simplest and the one that we already knew:David Roberts, Vox, 2018
“a rapid transformation in energy consumption and land use is needed in all scenarios.” At this point, whether it’s possible to hit various targets is almost beside the point. All the science and modeling are saying the same thing, which is that humanity faces serious danger and needs to reduce carbon emissions to zero as quickly as possible. There are so many vested interests and so much public aversion to rapid change, so many governments to be coordinated, so many economic and technology trends that must fall just the right way.
What a terrible, sad tale we’ve found ourselves living through. Maybe all humans feel like their time is special, but existentially, this is different. So I let my emotions flow through me like the weather they are. I read books I’d forgotten I knew 4The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Staring at the Sun are beautiful reminders that suffering was always inescapable and that everything will always end and found new authors to help me process my feelings5Joanna Macy, and Catherine Ingram, and Mary Oliver. I took a holiday and reconnected with my family of birth who are scattered to the four winds of the earth. I talked to my nearest and dearest with honesty and vulnerability. I began to really consider what life would look like if it didn’t look like it currently does. And that’s where the deep adaptation framework fits in.
What are the Rs?
Deep Adaptation invites us to take a look at our future, acknowledging that there is no stopping the climate and biosphere crisis. It’s already occurring – distributed unevenly across the globe. And it will eventually destabilise everything. We should definitely keep working on adaptive mitigation strategies though – gliding to a standstill would be infinitely preferable to crash-landing. But adaptation needs to occur if we are to weather any of what occurs. The Deep Adaptation framework provides four Rs to consider.
Deep Adaptation asks us to Restore what’s life-giving, Relinquish what isn’t, live with Resilience, and Reconcile with change.Me, now.
What can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies? The capitalist system does not reward reuse and repair mindsets. Though our older generations have explicit knowledge about living more simply, my generation does not. We were sold a promise of endless growth, progress ever upwards and disdain for the old ways. How can we reconnect with pre-industrial modes that worked well?
It involves people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded. Examples include re-wilding landscapes, so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play, and increased community-level productivity and support.Jem Bendell, 2018
What do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse? There are developments we’d hate to lose and others we can do without. We’ve been told to buy, use, discard and re-purchase willy-nilly for years now. Do we really need all the ‘things’ this modern society tells us we ‘need’? This R asks us to consider which assets, behaviors, and beliefs we can relinquish.
It involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption.Jem Bendell, 2018
How do we keep what we really want to keep? What ways do we wish to maintain as we seek to survive? We need to really have a good hard think about which of our constructed social and cultural norms and behaviours we want/need to keep, and which we can do away with. Resilience involves developing new ways of acting and co-creating reality. The way we’ve created now isn’t working any more. I believe that resilient communities accept differences, have multiple fail-safes, respect their ecosystems and can accommodate difficulties with grace.
How a person “bounces back” after difficulties or loss, may be through a creative reinterpretation of identity and priorities. The concept of resilience in psychology does not, therefore, assume that people return to how they were before.Jem Bendell, 2018
What do we need to come to terms with to lessen suffering?
Are there important relationships or emotions you need to make peace with? Can you come together with all the people around you, without divisions of class, race, generation, borders, religions and political persuasion? As things become harder for everyone we run the risk of losing our generosity of spirit unless it’s placed intentionally. The time for seeing ourselves as Other to each other and to the Earth is over. We are far more similar than we are different in all the ways that count. We must come together peacefully if we are to have any chance6Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse – the 4th R of Deep Adaptation .
We can no longer stop disruptive climate change. We might be able to slow it. We can try to reduce the harm coming from it. We can explore how to live and die lovingly because of it. But all of that we can do because we have a faith or sense that this is the right way to be alive, not because it will work.
Most calls for hope that I’m hearing are from, or for, those fearful of living with death in their awareness. That’s typical, but also a recipe for discussion and action that is counter-productive to life, love and understanding. Which is exactly the opposite of the effect of those who say “don’t take away our hope”. It is time to drop all hopes and visions that arise from an inability to accept impermanence and non-control, and instead describe a radical hope of how we respond in these times.
I believe it’s possible and necessary, though mutual inquiry and support, for our fears, beliefs or certainties of collapse to be brought to a place of peaceful inner and outer resourcefulness. Ours is a time for reconciliation with mortality, nature and each other.
We can develop and share a vision of more of us experiencing the invitation to live lovingly, creatively, and truthfully, in acceptance of mortality and impermanence.
After all, any other hope or vision were always a tactical delusion for temporary benefit. Ultimately, many more of us may come to see that we love love more than we love life. Hopefully before too much unnecessary suffering and destruction.Jem Bendell, Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse – The 4th R of Deep Adaptation, 2019
That’s going to look different for everyone. For me, that’s meant involving myself in the Deep Adaptation movement purposefully, and using my skill-set to help people land and pivot safely in the space. I feel enormously grateful for my privileged position and my years of learning about emotions and coping. I’m so pleased that the psychological and project management skills I’ve developed over the years can be useful in this time, because my body is no good for manual labour and I’ve a black thumb!
There are two broad paths within Deep Adaptation:
- Inner adaptation: exploring the emotional, psychological, and spiritual implications of living in a time when climate-driven societal collapse is likely, inevitable, or already happening.
- Outer adaptation: working on practical measures to support wellbeing, ahead of and during collapse (e.g. regenerative living, community-building, policy activism).
Many people spend time processing the emotional implications of the coming collapse before looking outwards to find roles on the local and global levels. Others, in the wake of their grief, turn inward and learn to trust their own hearts and evolution, which can be an invitation to others to do the same.
I admin the Positive Deep Adaptation – Australia/Oceania Facebook group, and help moderate the main Facebook Group and the Parenting group – you are welcome to join those conversations and connect with like-minded souls. I am a Deep Adaptation advocate and speak about Deep Adaptation when invited to do so.
Reach out and email me if you want to talk about any of this, or if you’d like me to present on, or come and facilitate a Deep Adaptation gathering. I happily provide ‘Deep Listening’ and ‘Tree of Life – regenerative activism’ workshops.
Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy
Hope and vision in the face of collapse: The 4th R of deep adaptation by Jem Bendell
Latest IPCC report on the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate
David Attenborough speaks about climate change
Facing Extinction by Catherine Ingram
Joanna Macy and The Work the Reconnects
Everything matters: Why this is no time for cynicism by Dave Meesters and Janet Kent
The power of hopelessness by Shya Scanlon
Retrosuburbia – by Dave Holmgren
This is the Climate Crisis – listen to Michael Shaw interview me on why Climate Crisis creates division between friends and groups, how to understand and deal with climate deniers, and how to talk to children about climate issues.