This article was first published on Medium.
A friendly critique of Bendell’s ‘Deep adaptation’ paper
Climate-nemesis is near-certain. But “near-certain” is not yet “inevitable”. On the contrary, it is still uncertain. By making it sound inevitable, we run the risk of fomenting inaction at the worst possible time. We need to prepare for what is near-certain. But if we give up trying to stop it then it will become inevitable. We need to try to stop it: roll on the eXtinction Rebellion.
The (exciting, but mainly terrifying) 1.5degrees report from the IPCC made (some of) the headlines; and now the media have mostly moved on. The mega-story of potential #climatebreakdown, the long emergency that threatens to take us, the news-story that should be on our screens every night, has been overtaken by dramas in Brussels and Westminster (not to mention on Strictly Come Dancing).
I pray every day that the world will undertake the vast unprecedented transformation that that IPCC report — which is highly conservative about the dangers, and which dares not challenge capitalism or ‘growth’ — just about sketches the barest basic elements of.
But: An increasing number of voices are being raised, to argue that it is no longer enough to stake everything on that being achieved. (For it would certainly be a rash person who would bet on it being achieved. The IPCC report is if anything considerably too optimistic. For a soberer view, see Green House’s ‘Facing up to climate reality’ project.)
Some of those voices got a rare outing in the mainstream media recently, over at Bloomberg of all places.
Possibly the most important such voice is that of my friend and colleague Professor Jem Bendell: because his recent ‘Deep adaptation’ paper, unlike the stuff I’ve been writing on this for the last couple of years, seems to have made a really mass impact. Which is really helpful. A sign of the times.
Jem has struck a chord. And this is really waking some people up. Or allowing people to share the fears that they have been having privately for, in many cases, years now.
Given the welcome impact that Jem’s paper is having, I’ll take a moment to spell out here my two key differences from him. These differences may sound small, but I think they are significant enough to be worth dwelling on for a little while. In part, because they may make a significant difference to how our message is received:
1. Jem claims that societal collapse is now “inevitable”. I think collapse not certain, but ‘only’ almost inevitable. Because with human beings there is always an openness in the future, however slight. It makes no sense to make hard predictions about a system of which one is a part; for what happens depends in part on what we do. And we don’t know (the limits of) what we are capable of, until we try. It is still in principle perfectly possible for us to escape the dire future that awaits us if we attempt merely reform and not revolution. Here is a sketch of one way in which a better future remains perfectly possible. (This point, about it being in principle impossible to predict the human future, because of our agency, is very important. For it helps keep open a space of freedom and faith and courage that too much of a ‘doomer’ message risks closing down; such a message potentially risks seeming to turn us into observers rather than actors. I know that that is the opposite of the intention of Bendell’s exciting ‘deep adaptation’ agenda (an agenda similar to my ‘lifeboat civilisation’ schema.), but it is a risk that his choice of “inevitable” carries within it; for some will probably find that message (of “inevitability”) disempowering, undermining as it risks doing the open potentiality of humanity.
2) Jem claims that collapse is ‘near-term’, and gives an upper bound for it of a decade from now. I think we can’t know that collapse is near-term. For the reason already sketched in (1), but also because we have to be humble and accept the limits of our knowledge. To think that we can know when collapse will come is to make the same kind of mistake of hubristic over-confidence in predictions that is commonly made in the mainstream, among scientistic thinkers over-confident in their models, etc. . My work in recent years on precaution has convinced me of this. It is hubristic to claim that we can know the future. It is, as I say, exactly a symptom of how our society has got itself into such trouble. The point, as I’ve stressed in my joint work on this with Nassim Taleb, is that we have to get used to living as safely as possible in a world that we do not (‘fully’) understand (and never will). This has radical implications for how we change how we are living. We should seek to ‘build down’ fragile systems, and reduce our dependency on predictions.
I think that we need to be wary of hostages to fortune. If in 2028 we are somehow still standing, then people will come back and refer negatively to Jem’s ’10 years’ semi-prediction. (Remember the treatment meted out to the ‘Limits to Growth’ pioneers.) It will be used to discredit him/us.
(1) and (2) are two sides of the same coin; they are inter-related points. One has to be very careful how one handles them, however. If one isn’t strong-willed, then one will think that they deliver one a ‘reprieve’; one will think that one can then put aside the strong medicine that Jem is prescribing. That would be a drastic mistake; and the last thing I want. Neither (1) nor (2) undermines the centrality of the deep adaptation agenda to what is now needful. They only complicate the picture slightly, make it a little more uncertain in application, take it further from the dangerous certainties of the ‘doomer’ or the survivalist.
For let me stand shoulder to shoulder with Jem in saying that the future looks extremely grim (unless we somehow manage to transform our entire way of life beyond recognition, rapidly). The situation is particularly grim in the Arctic. The albedo loss there is highly disturbing, threatening in itself to blow the IPCC scenarios away, as Jem details. And above all there is the methane time-bomb. If that gets unleashed — if the staggeringly vast amounts of methane buried below now-thinning ice and ‘permafrost’ (sic) start to get liberated — then we will be not looking ‘only’ at the end of human civilisation, but at the possible extinction of humanity and of most animals. Perhaps within a decade.
What I think we can know is that this civilisation is finished. We don’t quite know for certain that it will end in collapse; and we don’t know how long it will last; but we can be fully confident that it will not survive in anything even remotely resembling its current form. For that form is cancerous. If our civilisation survives then it will have utterly transformed. It will no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation.
Again: I think that outcome — transformational adaptation and mitigation, an utter, rapid changeover to an ecological civilisation — deeply, obviously desirable. And again: I’m very sceptical that it will be achieved.
So I’ve even started doing a little ‘prepping’. E.g. I’ve bought a bullet-proof vest for my partner and I.
Does that mean that I >doinevitable
No. Rather, I’m acting precautiously. That’s the beauty of the precautionary-principle-style approach; we don’t NEED to make predictions about ‘inevitability’ or about a specific time-period. The logic of precaution points us in the exact correct direction anyway, whether the chances of collapse are 30% or 100%, whether it will probably be in 3 years (or months!) or in 30.
(My actual rough best guess right now would be that we are facing a very very severe but probably nontotal collapse, that will unfold over a generation or so.)
To sum up: My main disagreement with Jem’s (brilliant, necessary, epochal) paper is with his claim that we face >inevitablenear-term
The claim that I have been making is that our civilisation will inevitably end. This may sound much the same as Jem’s claim. But it is different in two crucial respects. I do not put a time-limit down; I think we really don’t know what the time interval is. And I leave open that the ending might be by way of a positive transformation, the opposite of collapse. We don’t know that this isn’t possible, because we don’t know what human beings are capable of in novel circumstances. Tragically, I definitely would not bet on it (even while I try to throw myself into enabling it to have a chance of happening: see below), but to pretend that we can be certain that it won’t happen is both prematurely to close down the open-endedness of human being and to overstate our own epistemic powers.
I.e. It still just might be social transformation, not social collapse, that our future holds. (And even if it isn’t, then a slow, ‘managed’ collapse is almost certainly better than a relatively uncontrolled one.)
It is plain that climate-nemesis is coming our way on a business as usual pathway or any likely pathway — catastrophic climate change is a white, not a black, swan — but we can’t know for certain when it will arrive by, nor even (for certain) that it will arrive.
Moreover, we do not need certitude about collapse (or whatever) in order to guide our actions; the Precautionary Principle already guides them powerfully, by pointing us somewhat more specifically to what we need to do in order to guard against worst-case scenarios, etc. . E.g. It directs us to ‘prep’, etc., especially together (what we need to rebuild, above all, is resilience of both communities and ecosystems) even if we do not know when or if collapse will occur. Doing so is simply a sensible precaution.
I think that this precautionary logic, and not just the standard scientific ‘evidence-based’ logic that Jem attempts to extrapolate from, — a logic that is so pervasive in the rhetoric of our world now, but that is actually often harmful — may be (more) helpful to our cause. I think that my way of characterising our situation is more likely to be energising and motivating than Jem’s. The Extinction Rebellion now beginning, which is probably close to a last chance for us to begin to do enough to stop climate catastrophe, or at the very least to significantly slow it, is based in a very sober analysis. But I think that the Extinction Rebellion — which I am joining and that I hope you will too — risks being undermined by a message that says near-term social collapse is inevitable. Given that I don’t quite think it is, I think that the slightly different analysis I’ve laid out here is not only legitimate but clearly preferable.
A final point. While I’m a tiny bit more optimistic than Jem, the emphasis needs to be on the word tiny. The crucial thing is to start taking seriously the strong likelihood, unless together we make something miraculous happen, that collapse is coming, and probably not in the distant future. So, while still seeking to enable the miraculous, and feeling liberated by the direness of the emergency from normal norms of politeness, law-abidingness, etc., we must also have a plan B. We have to start talking about and preparing for the probability of failure. We have to start e.g. trying to make nuclear waste relatively safe against a future in which our governmental institutions will not be there to prevent it melting down / catching fire. It would be plain reckless, at this point, to bet everything on our pre-empting collapse.
And that is still a very fearful message. So my final point is: let’s create a place where that fear can be felt, voiced, shared.
One of the most powerful things we can do right now is share not our predictions or our precautions but our emotions.
I’m afraid. For my students. For all our children. For my loved ones. For myself.
When one bonds emotionally about this with those one is communicating with (especially if they are younger than one) then that is powerful. That is the power of the so-called ‘powerless’. That’s the truth I want to speak.
I’m scared, dear reader. Not ‘just’ for ‘future generations’. For you, and for me. Join me, in this honest fear.