Climate change and deep adaptation

Facing up to climate crisis necessitates a process of deep, transformational adaptation.

This article was first published in The Ecologist.

I want to start out by addressing younger readers in particular. And what I have to say to you is stark. It is this: your leaders have failed you; your governments have failed you; your parents and their generation have failed you; your teachers have failed you; and I have failed you.

We have all failed to raise the alarm adequately; and so of course we have failed to prevent the dangerous climate change that is now here, and the worse climate change that is coming and that is definitely going to get a lot worse still: definitely, because of time-lags built into the system.

This crisis already shows our failure. For, if we had been going to tackle this in such a way as to actually get a grip on it, we would have done so a generation ago (at minimum).

True leadership

Roughly speaking, we would have elected Green or genuinely green-friendly, non-growth-obsessed governments everywhere in the world a generation ago and they would have done things that were quite unpalatable to a lot of us. That would have been true leadership.

But of course nothing remotely like this has happened. So now we're in a real last chance saloon. The globally hegemonic civilisation of which we are all a part is in an end-game. Those who wanted to preserve it have already definitively failed.

Because of that failure I'm afraid for you, reader, especially if you are younger than me (I’m 52). I have fear for you: I fear that (some of) you are unlikely to grow old.

We’ve gambled too much on succeeding in preventing/mitigating anthropogenic dangerous climate change and the anthropogenic extinction crisis. Because we were unwilling to face up to the alternative.

But the alternative is not as simple as an instantaneous end of life would be. The alternative is complex, involving many possible variants of ‘unthinkably’ horrendous, bad, and even (in some respects) good.

Transformational adaptation

Most crucially: there is a huge difference between the various versions of complete irrecoverable societal/species collapse, on the one hand, and the rise of a successor civilisation(s) out of the wreckage of this one, on the other.

We have to be willing to think this - and face it. Which means that we have to look beyond mitigation alone; we have to get serious about the processes of transformational adaptation and deep adaptation that are now necessary.

We cannot continue to avoid the vast effort necessary in attempting to adapt our communities to cope with our changed and changing world. Not least because the time-lags built into the climate system mean that - even in the extraordinarily unlikely event that we manage to stop massively damaging our climate further - it is bound to deteriorate further for a long time to come.

The only way that our civilisation might appear to persist is if we manage to transform it beyond recognition. But that transformed civilisation would then in no meaningful sense be the same civilisation as ours.

It would be radically relocalised, degrowthist, energy-descended; it would have ended consumerism and foregrounded ecology; it would have learnt indigenous and peasant wisdom and have left behind most of the wrong turn of industrial capitalism; in short, it would probably be as different from our present world as that world is from the pre-industrial-revolution world.

Irrevocable changes

It is in the context of the present civilisation being finished that I have just had a paper published which this Ecologist article précis’s and builds upon. My paper asks, given that this civilisation is finished, what exactly, among those willing to face up to this terrifying and liberating reality, is to be done?

Let me now turn more directly to that. To the great work of taking the effort of adaptation to our irrevocably changed world seriously, this great task that now lies ahead of us.

In my new paper, published as IFLAS Occasional Paper 3, I build on and complement the work already done by Jem Bendell, in his widely-read, extremely-influential IFLAS Occasional Paper 2, on “Deep Adaptation”.

Deep Adaptation means adaptation premised upon collapse. And it has to be faced plainly that such collapse is likely.

For instance: How many more summers like 2018’s can we take? In my own neck of the woods, in Norfolk, many crop yields were massively down. And this is while we deal with the effects of only 1 degree of global over-heat. What will things be like, when we reach 2 degrees, or even 3, as it is now only realistic to expect we will.

Social collapse

I have also argued there that Bendell’s claim that we face "inevitable", "near-term" social collapse is nevertheless not valid. I think that the evidence he puts together in ''Deep Adaptation’' does not justify that double-claim.

The claim that I have been making for some time now 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:

Firstly, I do not put a time-limit down; I think we really don’t know what the time interval is. Secondly, I leave open that the ending still 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, but to pretend that we can be certain that it won't happen is to close down the open-endedness of human being and to overstate our own epistemic powers. It is to be unhumble before the future. To repeat, in a way, the kind of mistake that got us into this horrendous situation.

It still just might be social transformation, not social collapse, that our future holds.

Precautionary logic

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.

We do not need certainty 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. It directs us to 'prep’, especially together, even if we do not know when or if collapse will occur. Doing so is simply a sensible precaution.

This precautionary logic may be (more) helpful to our cause, unlike the standard scientific ‘evidence-based’ logic that is more-or-less hegemonic among g/Greens and policy-wonks alike, a logic that is actually often harmful.

I think that my way of characterising our situation is more likely to be energising and motivating than a message of inevitable doom. The Extinction Rebellion now beginning, could be our last chance to begin to do enough to stop full-scale climate catastrophe, or at the least to significantly slow it.

But Extinction Rebellion risks being undermined by a ‘doomer’ message that says near-term social collapse is inevitable.

Extinction Rebellion

We must bend our wills to deep adaptation, as an insurance policy against the likely eventuality of collapse. And to transformational adaptation, adaptation that seeks simultaneously to mitigate and to transform our society in the direction it desperately needs to change in. The latter points too toward the hope for that transformation, a hope that remains, even in the darkness of this time.

Insofar as human beings are willing to wake up and to look the dark reality of climate crisis in the eye, so we rise up to meet it. That is true courage. That is still at the heart of the task now upon us. A task that Extinction Rebellion is leading the way towards.