Deep Adaptation Primer

This is post functions as a constantly evolving primer for most things Deep Adaptation – a framework first 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 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 of “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 a lecture by Rupert Read (below) the argument is made that the Deep Adaptation agenda is about  emphasizing how we need to revise our thinking and acting in ways that take seriously the possibility that very soon we will not be able to intervene to avert future catastrophes in the same way could have until now:

Deep Adaptation initially involved the following three key concepts (Bendell 2018):
Resilience which asks us “what do we need to keep that allows us to survive and potentially flourish?” 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).”
In a later blogpost, “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 different forms of hope.
In his subsequent revisions Bendell talks about the idea of “radical hope”, which he summarizes as,
 “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.
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.
A fifth ‘R’? Resistance…
Deep Adaptation differs greatly from mainstream Climate Change Adaptation (i.e. CCA) approaches. It 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.
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. This understanding privileges mitigation and reactive measures to adjust after disruptive ents occur. In Deep Adaptation resilience takes on more nuance to include proactive adjustment to ensure continuities in core capacities.
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.
The question remains: given the possibility near term human extinction (NTHE) how do we, as individuals and/or communities prepare and adapt? 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.
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.



3 responses to “Deep Adaptation Primer

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

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