A Deep Adaptation Primer

This is post is intended as an perpetually evolving primer of Deep Adaptation, a framework first proposed by Dr. Jem Bendell in his July 2018 paper, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy“.
From Bendell’s paper:
“…recent research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress.  Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations. This situation makes redundant the reformist approach to sustainable development and related fields of corporate sustainability. Instead, a new approach which explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse is important to develop. In support of that challenging, and ultimately personal process, understanding a ‘deep adaptation agenda’ may be useful.”
The Deep Adaptation framework is intended as a heuristic for integrating and interpreting recent climate change trends with the implications of “inevitable near term social collapse”. Deep Adaptation as an agenda is meant to expand the focus of mainstream sustainability efforts and environmental movements from mitigation to acceptance and adaptation. 
In a lecture called ‘Shed a Light’ (video below) Rupert Read says regarding the deep adaptation agenda and its consideration of probable collapse of civilization:
“The Deep Adaptation Agenda says we need to be thinking and acting now in ways that take seriously into account the possibility that we will not be able to do the kinds of interventions in future that we can do now.”

With regards to the even more dire idea of Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction (INTHE) the paper says:
 “….I have seen how the idea of INTHE can lead me to focus on truth, love and joy in the now, which is wonderful, but how it can also make me lose interest in planning for the future. And yet I always come around to the same conclusion – we do not know. Ignoring the future because it is unlikely to matter might backfire. “Running for the hills” – to create our own ecocommunity – might backfire. But we definitely know that continuing to work in the ways we have done until now is not just backfiring – it is holding the gun to our own heads. With this in mind, we can choose to explore how to evolve what we do, without any simple answers. In my post-denial state, shared by increasing numbers of my students and colleagues, I realised that we would benefit from conceptual maps for how to address these questions. I therefore set about synthesizing the main things people talked about doing differently in light of a view of inevitable collapse (i.e. near term societal collapse) and probable catastrophe. That is what I offer now as the “deep adaptation agenda’.”
The deep adaptation agenda involves the following three concepts or ideas (Bendell 2018):
Resilience – which asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?”
A number explanations or definitions are given from both a physical and psychological perspective:
the resilience of human societies can be conceived as the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviors. The question is asked “What are the valued norms and behaviors that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive?”.
Relinquishment – which asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?”
“The concept involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviors, and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse (e.g. withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption).”
Restoration – which asks us “what do we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?”
“It involves people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our fossil fuel-based civilization has eroded. (e.g. 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).”
Bendell’s aim in developing such a framework is explicit:
“It is hoped that the “deep adaptation agenda”, consisting of the above three concepts or ideas, can serve as a useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change.”
In one of Bendell’s most recent blog posts, called “Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse – The 4th R of Deep Adaptation”, a fourth ‘R’ is added to the three ‘R’s’ of the Deep Adaptation Agenda as follows:
Reconciliation – To summarize, it speaks to moving through a process to arrive at a state of hope and vision despite imminent societal collapse. To do this one is asked to consider different forms of hope.
In that consideration, the idea of radical hope is arrived at, which is summarized to mean “a form of hope that’s consciously chosen after denial. It is a form of hope that is ’empowered surrender’ to a situation. It accepts difficult realities about what is happening as well as one’s capabilities to influence things, but still connects with deeper values and requires action to make it real.”
The next step is to ask the question:
“What could I make peace with to lessen suffering? This question incorporates the idea of Reconciliation with one’s death, including any difficulties and regrets in one’s life, any anger towards existence itself (or God). It also invites reconciliation between peoples, genders, classes, generations, countries, religions and political persuasions. Because it is time to make our peace. Otherwise, without this inner deep adaptation to climate collapse we risk tearing each other apart and dying hellishly. My radical hope is that more of us work together to achieve this reconciliation, in all its forms, as a basis for the fuller deep adaptation agenda that I explain in my paper.”
The Deep Adaptation framework differs greatly from mainstream Climate Change Adaptation (i.e. CCA) approaches. It attempts to analyse risks and propose actions to reduce risks. It involves adjustments to natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate change including increases in the frequency and severity of weather related disasters such as droughts, floods, severe storms, wildfires, hurricanes etc.
The term “Resilience” in this context is defined as the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse weather events.
These ideas are summarized in the Deep Adaptation Agenda paper as follows:
  • “The term “Climate Adaptation”, which aims to give more attention to how societies and economies could be helped to adapt to climate change, is highlighted. A summary of the steps taken by various international organizations towards this goal starting with the IPCC in 2010 are given. There is a long list of organizations involved in these actions.”
  • “The term “Disaster Risk Reduction” is introduced, which has the aim of reducing the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones, through reducing sensitivity to these hazards as well as the capacity to respond when these disasters hit.”
These measures can be contrasted with the Deep Adaptation Agenda (i.e. DAA) which speaks to how we plan and prepare for change given an acceptance that societal collapse due to climate change is likely inevitable.
Given this inevitability how does one, as an individual and/or community prepare and adapt?
The adjective “Deep” implies a need for an individual psychospiritual adaptation in the form of an acceptance that the current socioeconomic system, or industrial civilization, will likely fail. That process allows for a grieving for this sense of loss which is best done by sharing this information with other like-minded individuals. From this, an individual emerges from a process of ‘reconciliation’ equipped with “radical hope” empowering them to take action, in service to humanity, despite the knowledge that societal collapse is likely inevitable.
Besides the psychospiritual aspect of DAA the physical planning and preparation aspects are framed more from a post-industrial collapse perspective. Note that DAA’s idea of ‘radical hope’ does not discourage an individual from taking part in actions towards mitigation (e.g. political engagement, civil disobedience, being green, or being the change). It just accepts that these types of actions may ultimately fail.
Bendell’s paper intentionally avoids the discussion of more detailed implications stating that its purpose is to provide a “useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change.” Despite this statement, there are hints and ideas about what some of those practical implications might be such as:
  • People need support to access information and networks for how to attempt a shift in their livelihoods and lifestyles.
  • Free online and in-person courses as well as support networks on self-sufficiency need to be scaled.
  • Local governments will need similar support on how to develop the capabilities today that will help their local communities to collaborate, not fracture, during a collapse. For instance, they will need to roll out systems for productive cooperation between neighbors, such as product and service exchange platforms enabled by locally issued currency.
  • At an international level there is need to work on how to responsibly address the wider fallout from collapsing societies (Harrington, 2016). These will be many, but obviously include the challenges of refugee support and the securing of dangerous industrial and nuclear sites at the moment of societal collapse.
Bendell makes some interesting observations about the West’s current mainstream responses to environmental issues in the context of the dominance of neoliberal economics starting in the 1970’s as follows (A humorous cautionary note that you may recognize your own behaviors in some of these) :
  • Hyper-individualist
    The focus on individual action as consumers, switching light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than promoting political action as engaged citizens.
  • Market fundamentalist
    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.
  • Incremental Approach
    A focus on celebrating small steps forward such as a company publishing a sustainability report, rather than strategies designed for speed and scale of change suggested by the science.
  • Atomistic Approach
    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.
A Summary:
The Deep Adaptation Agenda captures the dire nature of the Climate Change Emergency and provides a framework for dialogue on how individuals and communities can adapt psychologically and physically.  It offers hope with the idea that a post-collapse society could be planned in such a way as to survive with valued norms and behaviors. It fosters the idea of ‘radical hope’ which empowers one to take action in our current ‘pre-collapse societal state’ on matters such as mitigation and adaptation despite one’s understanding that a societal collapse is likely.


2 responses to “A Deep Adaptation Primer

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