A Deep Adaptation Primer

This is post functions as a constantly evolving primer for most things related to Deep Adaptation – an intellectual and pragmatic framework proposed by Dr. Jem Bendell in his July 2018 paper, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy“.
Bendell’s original paper was rejected at the peer review stage because reviewers thought it might potentially have a negative effect on reader’s mental health, but has since gone on to be downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. Bendell’s work continues to become a major area of discussion and inspiration in several communities and academic fields.
From the paper’s abstract:
“The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change.”
Deep Adaptation was developed as a heuristic framework for confronting, interpreting, and integrating recent climate change trends and the related implications for “inevitable near term social collapse”. This framework asks us to shift the focus of mainstream sustainability efforts and environmental movements from mitigation and reactive adaptation to acceptance and proactive adaptation.
 Bendell writes:
“…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.”
You can listen to an audio reading of the full paper here:
With regards to Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction (INTHE) Bendell writes:
 “….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 the lecture given at Churchill College, Cambridge linked below, Dr. Rupert Read extends the argument that the Deep Adaptation agenda is about how we need to revise our thinking and acting in ways that take seriously the possibility that we will not be able to avert major future catastrophic ecological and social events:

Deep Adaptation’s operational thesis is not only that societal collapse due to climate change is on its way, but that it is, in effect, already here. “Climate change will disrupt your way of life in your lifetimes,” Bendell told the audience at a climate change conference organized by the European Commission.
Devastating consequences, like “the cascading effects of widespread and repeated harvest failures” are now unavoidable, Bendell’s paper says.
“Because it’s not a drill”: talk by Jem Bendell at European Commission:
Catastrophe is “probable,” Bendell suggests, and extinction “is possible.” Over coming decades, we will see the escalating impacts of the fossil fuel pollution we have already pumped into the atmosphere and oceans. Even if we ceased emissions tomorrow, Bendell argues, the latest climate science shows that “we are now in a climate emergency, which will increasingly disrupt our way of life… a societal collapse is now inevitable within the lifetimes of readers of this paper.”
Bendell argues the Deep Adaptation approach does not so much offer a doom-and-gloom scenario as a case of waking up to reality, so that we can do as much as we can to save as many lives as possible. His recommended response is what he calls “Deep Adaptation,” which requires going beyond “mere adjustments to our existing economic system and infrastructure, in order to prepare us for the breakdown or collapse of normal societal functions.”
Bendell’s message has since gained a mass following and high-level attention. It is partly responsible for inspiring the new wave of climate protests reverberating around the world.
Deep Adaptation Q&A with Extinction Rebellion co-founder Gail Bradbrook hosted by Jem Bendell:
In March 2019, he launched the Deep Adaptation Forum to connect and support people who, in the face of “inevitable” societal collapse, want to explore how they can “reduce suffering, while saving more of society and the natural world.” Over the last six months, the Forum has gathered more than 10,000 participants.
Bendell’s initial work on Deep Adaptation focused on developing three key concepts that can help guide in efforts to accept and them makes changes in relation to the various crisis and collapses we may be inhabiting soon (Bendell 2018):
Resilience which asks us “what do we need to keep that allows us to survive and potentially flourish?”:
“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).”
In subsequent work (see: “Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse – The 4th R of Deep Adaptation”), Bendell added a fourth ‘R’ to the Deep Adaptation Agenda:
Reconciliation – which asks us “how can we process what is happening to arrive at a state of well-being and vision despite imminent societal collapse?” To do this one is asked to consider what Bendell calls “radical hope”, which he summarizes as,
 “Radical hope is 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.”
For Bendell, 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.

[see my reflection on adaptation and hope: here]

Note: that the notion of radical hope is not meant to discourage people 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 might ultimately fail.
The Deep Adaptation framework differs greatly from mainstream Climate Change Adaptation (i.e. CCA) approaches.
Traditional approaches privilege mitigation and reactive measures after disruptive events occur. A Deep Adaptation approach understands resilience, in contrast, also focuses on adopting more proactive adjustments to ensure continuities in core capacities before during crises and after catastrophic events. Deep Adaptation attempts to analyse complex and multi-level risks and propose actions to reduce those 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.
Bendell has elaborated on how the West’s current mainstream responses to environmental issues have been dominated by 5 faulty assumptions at the core of neoliberal economics since at least the 1970’s. By highlighting these Bendell asks us to reflect such flawed assumptions can lead to manipulative practices and toxic behaviors in our own lives:
  • Hyper-individualism – The focus on individual action as consumers, switching light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than promoting political action as engaged citizens.
  • Market fundamentalism – 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.
  • Incrementalism – 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.
  • Atomism – 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.
Bendell’s initial paper intentionally avoided discussions of some of the more nuanced implications, stating that the purpose of Deep Adaptation is to provide a “useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change.” The question that we must continually ask each other is ‘given the possibility near term human extinction (NTHE) how do we, as individuals and/or communities prepare and adapt?’ How we answer this question depends on where we live, the resources we have, the political circumstances we face, etc.
However, Bendell has offered some hints and ideas about some of the things we may need to consider:
  • 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.
The conceptual lens of Deep Adaptation captures both the dire nature of the climate crisis/emergency, and provides a framework for dialogue on how individuals and communities can adapt psychologically and physically.  Taking up this framework and applying it to our own lives might just allow us the possibility of some sort of radical hope that post-climate-ravaged societies could be planned and created.
Some related videos:
“A Pandemic of Love: Deeply Adapting to Coronavirus”
• Jem Bendell in conversation with Michael Dowd • 17 March 2020
In the is 19th episode in the “Post-Doom Conversations” series, Bendell and Dowd draw from their respective deep adaptation and post-doom perspectives and learnings in sharing initial responses, questionings, and psycho-spiritual approaches for “Deeply Adapting to Coronavirus.”



3 responses to “A Deep Adaptation Primer

  1. Pingback: Bendell’s Bristol Lecture on Deep Adaptation | synthetic zerø·

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