To criticise Deep Adaptation, start here

There is no one right way to respond to an anticipation or experience of societal disruption. We all have much to learn and unlearn as we go.

Jem Bendell
31 August 2020, 12.12pm
Image: K. Kendall, CC BY 2.0

If you reach a conclusion that it is too late to prevent massive disruption, or even collapse, of the society that you live within, then you will likely experience some emotional pain about that for the rest of your life. Such psychological distress is even prior to experiencing specific disruptions from the direct and indirect impacts of a degrading environment and growing public anxieties. Those disruptions are often explained in mass media without mention of our degrading environment.

Yet if you look behind the headlines, there is credible evidence that rising prices, coronaviruses, financial instability, mental illness, displaced persons and xenophobia are being made worse by the declining health and stability of our natural world. To anticipate societal collapse means one feels personally vulnerable as well as afraid for the future of people dear to us. Faced with such difficult emotions it can be easier to ignore for a time. But that becomes difficult when more people are talking about collapse. So, if the people discussing collapse can be admonished for being wrong, marginal, bad or counterproductive, then others can resist their perspective for a little longer. However, that resistance could be damaging to society by reducing the time people have to explore what emotions they are suppressing, the disruptions that await us, and so what could be done to help reduce harm.

Although one can argue against it, anticipating societal collapse is not necessarily wrong, marginal, bad or counterproductive. Such a collapse due, in part, to the direct and indirect impacts of climate change is a debatable but plausible perspective. As climatologist Dr Wolfgang Knorr has explained, climate scientists “have only a very superficial understanding of how vulnerable our modern society is to climate chaos and unexpected climate-related events." Despite those limitations, there is new research that indicates abrupt climate change is already impacting on agriculture. That is why some leading climate scientists have said “it’s time to talk about near-term collapse.”

That means to view collapse anticipation as ‘wrong’ would be simplistic and unscientific. Whether one considers such a situation to be unavoidable, as I do, or as potentially avoidable, is something that can be discussed, with respect and curiosity. To dismiss collapse anticipation as a scientifically marginal view would be to ignore the growing scholarship on the topic. It is now an established field, which some call ‘collapsology’ and includes various subject areas such as catastrophic risks, disaster risk reduction, and food security.

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The argument that to anticipate collapse is an ethically ‘bad’ view to hold is an intriguing one from a psychological perspective. The argument made is that if people hear about societal collapse then they will experience difficult emotions and even difficult mental health episodes. That is a serious issue, and one of the main reasons I launched and volunteered for an international forum on the topic. I have learned from psychologists that the emotional impact of bad news is not a good reason to withhold one’s perspective on a bad situation. Instead, it is a reason to pay close attention to how one shares that bad news and supports someone to process and integrate it into their awareness. The argument that to anticipate collapse is counterproductive for generating political pressure is a suspect one, given there is much evidence to the contrary. Although more research is required, an initial study finds that people are more likely to lead in their community if they anticipate societal collapse. The claim it is counterproductive may reveal more about the psychology of the people making that claim, where their own motivation is attached to expectations of success. Other people can believe in doing what is right whether or not it will work. The argument about counterproductivity downplays how young people are living into a climate disturbed future, so true solidarity with them must include efforts at practical and psychological adaptation to that future. As I wrote with the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, Dr Gail Bradbrook, “it would be defeatist to think we can’t imagine how we might reduce harm during a potential collapse and transformation of societies."

I explain these criticisms of collapse anticipation to you here because they have been spreading. In July, an essay was published in openDemocracy from a couple of physics PhD students and their biology graduate colleague, which argued that to anticipate societal collapse is wrong, marginal, bad and counterproductive. Unfortunately their essay included 26 misrepresentations of the arguments in the original Deep Adaptation paper, which I have detailed here. This means that many people’s discussions of the plausibility and implications of anticipating societal collapse has been based on a false starting point. For instance, it is not controversial amongst scientists to question the validity of the IPCC predictions, and I did not claim that significant amounts of methane are already being released from the Arctic floor. Nor did I argue against meaningful efforts to cut and drawdown carbon. In the paper I wrote “ambitious work on reducing carbon emissions and extracting more from the air (naturally and synthetically) is more critical than ever.”

Perhaps the most misleading criticism of the essay from Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall and Coleen Schmidt, was that it equated Deep Adaptation with one paper from 2018, rather than the broad field of scholarship and activism that it has become. Rather than one paper, Deep Adaptation is a term to describe the inner and outer processes that occur – ultimately positively – as we consider the collapse of our own societies to be likely, inevitable or already unfolding. People have different understandings of the nature of societal collapse, and the definition I offer is that it involves the uneven ending of normal modes of sustenance, shelter, security, health, pleasure, identity and meaning. The Deep Adaptation agenda is explicitly about helping us prepare in ways that may reduce harm, especially by reducing conflict and trauma. To help with that, it is also a framework of four questions, which offers people a way of exploring those potential changes together. They are called the 4Rs. What do we most value that we want to keep and how? That’s a question of resilience. What could we let go of so as not to make matters worse? That’s a question of relinquishment. What could we bring back to help us with these difficult times? That’s a question of restoration. With what and whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our common mortality? That’s a question of reconciliation.

The concept and framework is now being used by the thousands of participants and over a hundred volunteers in the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF). Some of us believe that collapse is inevitable, some of us don’t. Some think it will happen in many countries this decade, some don’t. Some think it has started already, some don’t. Some think it will lead to the extinction of the human race, some don’t. Some think it will lead to a new ecological civilisation to emerge with regenerative communities, some don’t.

Most of us think the concept implies we try to reduce the human contribution to our predicament, through carbon cuts and drawdown, along with ecosystem regeneration, though a minority of people don’t. Deep Adaptation is not a creed, but described by French collapse scholars as a “necessary conversation about the breakdown of civilisation.” That conversation is now international and vibrant, with hundreds of people engaging each other on ideas about how we can reduce harm in the face of societal disruption.

Unfortunately, some of the criticisms of Deep Adaptation mislead people on the basics, which then impairs the potential for generative dialogue. That might be because some people do not want to seriously consider any anticipation of societal collapse. It is important that any misleading criticisms do not reduce the potential for informed and meaningful differences of opinion and dialogue about collapse anticipation. There is much that one can critique and discuss about the way people are currently acting on their collapse anticipation. Therefore, to encourage the conversation about the pros and cons of Deep Adaptation to be as generative as possible, in this article I will summarise the seven main criticisms of substance that I have heard from people over the past two years. As humanity is entering uncharted territory, there will not be simple answers to these issues. If we can explore them with compassion, curiosity and respect, then that will be as important as any conclusions that are reached.

Speak out?

The first topic of disagreement in the Deep Adaptation field, is the matter of a responsible communication strategy. Is it best that people who believe societal collapse is likely, inevitable or occurring then avoid promoting their knowledge and opinions to the general public? Most people involved in the Deep Adaptation field are focused on processing what their collapse anticipation means for their own lives and then seek to create resources for other people who come to the same realization. For instance, that is why I launched the DAF and supported the Guidance Database of therapeutic support.

In 2018 I turned down major publishers and TV stations, as I did not want to bring my perspective to members of the general public without the right context for supporting them to process this information. Likewise, very few people in the Deep Adaptation field have focused on how to promote the anticipation of collapse amongst the general public. There are many reasons for that, including the belief that the mass media will not address the matter seriously and give the relevant psychological advice. Without the ability for people to talk with others and find a community of support, then such information might just shock and alienate people. It might also make them unconsciously more susceptible to duplicitous messaging supported by vested interests. But there is another reason for our reticence. It is emotionally very tough to bring this news to other people. It will inevitably lead to difficult emotions and so needs to be done sensitively and while recognising the emotional toll it can exert on oneself when doing so.

In many cases, people have decided to keep their collapse anticipation to themselves and instead focus their public communication on the need for bold mitigation and drawdown. Many of us have therefore contributed to the protest movement Extinction Rebellion. The rationale is that it is worth trying to achieve bold mitigation and drawdown measures from policy makers and the general public, while then working on developing inner and outer resilience to future collapse through the person-to-person conversations that occur amongst activists. However, as the initial excitement about new tactics for generating climate policies begins to wane, some activists are looking again at this choice of focus.

A lack of mainstream outreach on the risks of societal collapse and the most kind, wise and accountable ways of responding to it does not come without drawbacks. It has meant that people who are antagonistic to such an outlook misrepresent it and criticize it in the public domain. Therefore, whereas people like me have communicated via blogs and alternative media to those who already anticipate collapse, our critics engage mass media to criticise it and then have their misrepresentations cited on Wikipedia as definitive. Does that mean people who anticipate collapse should do more proactive outreach? To ensure that at least there is some accurate information about this topic in the mainstream media? Perhaps there is an even more important reason. If this is our truth, then should we look for more ways to share it? By doing so, might we help more people to prepare themselves and their communities?

In the original Deep Adaptation paper I mention some data which suggests that over the last ten years people are intuiting the end of the story of economic progress. Environmental degradation may be part of that. New research finds that half of British and French people expect a societal collapse within the next 20 years, and that was before COVID-19. Therefore, could it be a narcissistic delusion that those of us who consider collapse to be likely, inevitable or already unfolding should hesitate before speaking to the masses about that? By not speaking about it and inviting generative dialogue about what it means, then we lose time. In particular, an intuition of future malaise could be leading people to engage with right wing and authoritarian messages that offer a counterproductive means of restoring a sense of psychological safety. If people without such politics do not engage in the conversation about safety and purpose in the face of turbulence, then that could become a massive and historical political blunder.

This relates to another argument for why it may be time to outreach to the general public on matters of collapse. There is evidence that the militaries of many countries have anticipated how climate change will disrupt societies and the global economy. The Pentagon and the US Navy are well known examples. If they have known this situation is coming, then what other departments of what other governments have also known? What might they have been discussing and deciding away from the gaze of the mass media and the normal process of discussion in civil society? How might that be affecting current political trends, in ways that we do not understand? Instead of moving into the realm of conspiracy theories, there is a simpler and pragmatic answer: normalise discussions of collapse-readiness in the public domain.

the militaries of many countries have anticipated how climate change will disrupt societies and the global economy.

One argument against more outreach is that it will invite a lot of criticism from people who have adopted a public role in environmental communications and do that from within an ideology of modernity and control which means they are averse to collapse anticipation. The reason why that could be a problem is it means that people engaged in Deep Adaptation might spend much time engaged in the ideas and modes of communication of people existing within that paradigm, rather than embodying and expressing something altogether new.

Yet are they mutually exclusive? Could we engage critics and general publics in a way that maintains our ethos and does not distract from the core work of our own Deep Adaptation? In turning away from public communication, would we be prioritising an easier life over staying with the full difficulty of our time, which will include more moments of panicked and aggressive criticism?

In the last month we have seen critics bring new attention to the matter of societal collapse, which have been responded to by articles that seek to correct and inform, including from Transition cofounder Naresh Giangrande, senior climatologist Wolfgang Knorr and a team of French scholars led by Pablo Servigne. I responded with a new version of the original paper, and gave detailed feedback on the misrepresentations. I also wrote a piece for Resilience with Extinction Rebellion co-founder Gail Bradbrook that invites more courage from climatologists, and drafted these reflections on meaningful collapse discussions, for you to read in open Democracy. The time has come for more people to engage responsibly in mainstream media and policy discussion about transformative and deep adaptation.

When doing new outreach, it will be important to maintain a gentleness, even when under fire. It would also best be done with the advice and feedback of mental health professionals and with requests for media outlets to provide means for audiences to connect with people to express and explore reactions together, with attentiveness to the different interests of people of different ages. In addition, all Deep Adaptation volunteer groups could be ready to point people to mental health support services in any emergency situations. Anxieties in societies are likely to increase, whether or not anyone chooses to do outreach about climate or not, and so Deep Adaptation groups could provide a helpful supplement to how societies support mental health. So before continuing, here is a list of resources you can consult for psychological support.

Seek more justice?

Some people have asked whether the people engaged in collapse-anticipation in general are focused more on their own vulnerability and survival in the future than on the experience of others’ suffering at present. It does appear that many of the stories that reach the media about previous collapse-anticipating households and communities suggest they are focused on hyper-local resilience, whether that is off-grid living or concerns about personal security. This is the image of the ‘prepper’ who learns to grow food and shoot. Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of the diversity of people who anticipate collapse is unclear to me. For decades, the Transition Towns movement has involved people who are preparing for a breakdown in society and their vegetable allotments and knitting clubs are probably less ‘media friendly’ than the gun-toting prepper. So what of the concept and people involved in ‘Deep Adaptation’? The concept and growing movement is explicitly about enabling and embodying loving responses to our predicament. It is therefore a peace movement alternative to the image of preppers readying themselves for crime and civil conflict.

If 'collapse' is not merely in the realm of concept, but a label for some difficult experiences in the real world, then arguing whether it is good for people to communicate about it could be a form of solipsism. Instead, our task can be how we make sense of our situation in ways that discourage defensive or violent approaches and encourage more kind, wise and accountable responses.

With this intention in mind, one can question whether the present discussions and initiatives in the field of Deep Adaptation are too focused on the anticipation of future collapse rather than people’s current experience of collapse and the ongoing harm caused by our current systems. When looking at our current system’s production of inequality, poverty, poor mental health, animal suffering, toxic pollution and habitat destruction, there is enough to criticise and challenge without focusing on future trends and probabilities.

For many people and other forms of life, collapse is a current experience directly resulting from the continuance of the societies that most of you reading this article benefit from. They are experiencing high-intensity disruptions and struggles for justice and healing. It is important to note that some people in Deep Adaptation networks have been badly affected by forest fires, storm damage, rising costs of living and the impacts of a pandemic made more likely by environmental degradation. However, most people are not yet experiencing the extreme impacts of climate disruption. That brings us to the matter of whether their engagement in Deep Adaptation is enabling people to change in ways that reduce intense suffering, either by reducing their complicity, challenging systems, or supporting humanitarian action. Some people who have roles within the Deep Adaptation field are promoting such responses. But it is not the main focus for people who engage in this discussion, who tend to be middle-class people in modern consumer societies. Nevertheless, it is possible to reduce daily suffering and injustice from our current lifestyles, while also preparing for societal collapse. The issue is one of emphasis, rather than an insurmountable barrier.

For many people and other forms of life, collapse is a current experience directly resulting from the continuance of the societies that most of you reading this article benefit from.

A related issue is the limited diversity of people engaged in Deep Adaptation at present. The concept was published in the English language from the UK and the main networks are in English, so a preponderance of white people might be expected. However, that means the communities emerging around Deep Adaptation may operate in ways that feel unwelcoming to people of colour. For instance, some of the emphasis on grief, love and wisdom may seem somewhat self-soothing, and downplay matters of complicity, accountability, justice, reparations and healing. They may see this as a means of depoliticising a topic to make it attractive for people who are less oppressed or less concerned with oppression.

Another aspect of diversity is economic class, both in and between countries. Many people find it difficult to earn their living and have little spare time for engaging in discussions on public matters or to volunteer. That situation is becoming worse with declining pay and working conditions in many countries. Should engaging in the anticipation of collapse become helpful to them and if so how?

Whether Deep Adaptation initiatives and people should seek to actively engage people who are not well represented at present, or seek to complement other frameworks and initiatives, is open to discussion. Different countries and cultures will have their own concepts, phrases and places for discussion. For instance, in France, ‘collapsologie’ has developed as an academic field. Within the DAF there is a working group on this issue, and diversity training is being offered to the 100+ volunteers. In addition, as the concept and community has been associated with me, a white male professor from the UK, I am stepping down from a role in daily activities to become one member of a diverse group of fourteen people that provides guidance when asked.

A related issue to both solidarity and diversity is our avoidance of the patterns of thought and emotional reactions that have created our predicament in the first place. The concepts of anti-patriarchy and decolonisation are about this deeper consideration of people’s habits of privilege and supremacy. In the case of Deep Adaptation, this gives rise to the question of how people can avoid making this agenda one primarily about commodified solutions for the emotional pain of the privileged, through various kinds of therapeutic support. One response to this criticism is to keep everything as free as possible, but that can also create dependence on rich donor patronage, and hence priorities being set by the wealthy. Another response would be to give much more attention to matters of complicity and accountability, so that we are all encouraged to recognise how we each rehearse colonialist and supremacist patterns of thought and behaviour because of our culture.

These issues all relate to a broader question of the extent to which Deep Adaptation could or should become a new social movement that seeks to secure changes to power relations in societies. Some criticise participants in Deep Adaptation for not being explicit about such an agenda, and the DAF for not helping to enable collaboration towards a political agenda and strategy. Part of the reason for not doing that is because of the previous reticence about mass public outreach, described above. Another reason is much of the early focus has been on inner changes and developing support systems for people who anticipate collapse. A third reason is much of the impetus for political action on climate has been channelled towards and through Extinction Rebellion, which launched at a similar time. However, given that collective action through local, national and international government will be essential to reduce harm from climate disruption, the lack of a clear political agenda from Deep Adaptation is likely to be a cause of future criticism, discussion and perhaps new initiatives.

If collapse anticipation does give rise to political movements, then serious attention will need to be given to where influential and legitimate allies might be found. Surprisingly, perhaps, those allies are unlikely to be members of the environmental profession. The aforementioned essay critiquing Deep Adaptation received enthusiastic support online from many British environmental professionals. Their comments on Twitter indicated their pleasure at reading that environmental destruction does not mean that their own society is at risk of collapse. That reaction contrasts with the lack of enthusiasm from the same people when some of the world's leading climate scientists predict societal collapse. For instance, when climatology Professor Will Steffen concludes that “collapse is the most likely outcome of the present trajectory of the current system.”

That so many British environmentalists endorsed the arguments of three non-climatologists in dismissing one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Professor Peter Wadhams, could raise questions about their attentiveness to the situation. If some of the leading climatologists are right about the likelihood of collapse, then reformist eco-centrism is now redundant and counterproductive. I explained that in my original Deep Adaptation paper, when I detailed how the personal and institutional denial within the environmental profession is an impediment to honest exploration of humanity’s predicament. In recently demonstrating resistance to exploring the possibility of societal collapse, eco-centrists exhibit their allegiance to current institutions of economy, culture, and politics. As such, they are a form of ‘dead wood’ that is suffocating the potential for this time to be a revolutionary moment in the history of environmentalism. This ‘dead wood’ effect is not just theoretical. For instance, the influence of mainstream environmental NGOs on the possibility of adult support for youth climate strikers has downplayed the potential for a global general strike of adults. Therefore, the mainstream environmental sector continues its resistance to analyses that invite revolutionary praxis, with the personal sacrifices and risks that would involve.

If some of the leading climatologists are right about the likelihood of collapse, then reformist eco-centrism is now redundant and counterproductive.

Where does this conservatism of the environmental sector leave people seeking a political strategy for their collapse anticipation? Peaceful revolutionary libertarian-socialism or radical communitarianism, pursued through engagement in local politics may be options. How does one begin that quest? I wonder how many regular readers and tweeters of openDemocracy would actually risk losing everything, going to jail, to help other people gain influence in changing society? The point of solidarity is that one’s unity in struggling against a common enemy is more important than oneself being heard for how ethically correct one is. Unfortunately, the rise of reactionary populism is demonstrating how the chattering progressive classes are proving themselves to be politically inert and a drag on serious efforts at change.

Integrate more clearly?

A third important criticism is that many people involved in Deep Adaptation have been treating it as a separate field from mainstream Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) and its subfield of ‘transformative adaptation’. For some decades there has been research and policy making to enable changes in practices so they are less disrupted by climate change. These changes include irrigation for agriculture, new sea defences, storm-proofing buildings and such like. Within that field, there is also growing attention to, though little implementation of, transformative adaptation, which considers how to adapt in ways that are low-carbon and adjusted to more severe impacts. Some people involved in those fields suggest that the collapse-readiness aspects of Deep Adaptation could find an audience within the international and national policy processes on these mainstream approaches to adaptation. There could be connections in the areas of disaster risk reduction and preparedness for delivering humanitarian relief. If Deep Adaptation ideas and initiatives were able to be connected with these existing fields, then there might be more opportunity to mainstream the ideas in sectors such as education.

A contrary view is that the concept of Deep Adaptation is defined as distinct from, and as a criticism of, mainstream superficial adaptation approaches. The mainstream adaptation field can be regarded as counterproductive, by assuming the aim of maintaining industrial consumer societies, despite their contribution to climate change and forthcoming severe disruption from its direct and indirect influences. If the people, ideas and initiatives in the Deep Adaptation movement begin to be incorporated into mainstream adaptation contexts, then they may lose what is making them vibrant and imaginative. Worse, it might lead to a compromise with the eco-centrist ideology of mainstream environmentalism and thus the marginalisation of a revolutionary political agenda.

Given the differences of opinion, it appears that some mixing may happen in future, and the implications will depend on how much time we have before more societies become severely disrupted.

Map collapse better?

A fourth criticism from some people involved in the Deep Adaptation field is that the myriad drivers of societal collapse, in addition to climate change, and the mechanisms or stages of that collapse, have not been sufficiently mapped out. One part of this argument is that collapse needs to be better understood so that people can more confidently engage on implications and be listened to by others. Another part of the argument is that with more detailed mapping of collapse pressures and processes then people and policy makers will be more able to decide how to slow the process, reduce harm and prepare for what happens next.

Sometimes this particular criticism is offered as an invitation for me to study the various fields of scholarship that relate to societal collapse risks, and publish my views on that. I was reluctant to do so, as I did not want to be seen as someone who can tell you what to do about our situation. It was also difficult to find the motivation to explore the many different fields related to collapse so as to confirm a view that I had already concluded for myself and which had opened up a whole new arena of personal interests in psychology, facilitation, and spirituality. However, that does not mean other scholars should not do this work. It appears that people would be helped with more information on the processes of collapse, and so bringing more ‘collapsology’ to the Deep Adaptation movement appears important to do. That would enable more specific policy debates to emerge, such as what should be the best approach to nuclear power, what to do with industrial agriculture, how to develop and govern any geoengineering, how to change banking and finance, and what the future of foreign policy could be. It would also mean the general public and policy makers will have more knowledge to understand what the hedge funds and other financial institutions may be planning to do with their superior assessments of risk, and therefore respond better to any unhelpful pressures from those institutions. This enhanced expertise will also better inform any initiatives to develop Deep Adaptation as a social movement that seeks political influence.

Through work on mapping collapse better, this may help respond to criticism from some people that using the term ‘collapse’ is unhelpful. They point out that many people regard ‘collapse’ as something which must be complete and sudden, so do not consider how to moderate it in a more granular way, or consider how forms of collapse may be underway already. Therefore, some people argue that the term ‘breakdown’ may be more suitable as it conveys less of a total and permanent situation. Perhaps more mapping of the ways climate amplifies other stressors and the way these are then felt in societies will be helpful for that. This issue relates to the nature of sensemaking about the various disruptions that are happening already within societies around the world. Outbreaks of coronaviruses are made worse by habitat destruction and climate change, and it is clear that the pandemic of COVID-19 has led to a momentary collapse of some communities and the livelihoods of millions of families. However, this is not yet understood widely as a climate-related disruption.

Avoid safety of frameworks?

A fifth criticism is quite the contrary to the last two criticisms. It is based on the idea that there are extremely deep causes for our destruction of the biosphere, that involve our psychological and emotional states within a culture of modernity. We have become a species that experiences life as separate with the natural world and each other, which generates a deep and suppressed fear that then informs a range of assumptions and behaviours. This perspective on the deeper psychological processes that lead us to uphold a range of problematic aspects of modernity, colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy, is not something widely understood but sensed in some way by many people who are able to let despair melt away their previous unquestioning allegiance to current systems and cultures.

This perspective suggests that any short cut to the path of personal identity disintegration and reconfiguration could impair the process for people. Therefore, by giving collapse anticipation a terminology and framework for discussion (with the 4Rs) that might give people a false sense of tangibility in a way that means they might not let themselves dissolve and reconstitute their own knowing and identity. That is because we have been schooled in a culture that invites us to feel better for knowing the ‘right answer’ in terms of correct facts, models, values and beliefs. That desire is related to the insecure ego that arises from a worldview of separation.

On the other hand, there is a benefit of there being a name for this field, like a kite in the sky that people can spot and orient towards to then meet other people, support each other and discuss ideas. The framework is deliberately just a set of four questions without answers, in order to keep the space fluid and emergent. Likewise, the DAF seeks to enable emergence of ideas and initiatives, and therefore a key focus for the forum is on ways of organising dialogues. However, even with that process focus, the framework and Forum arise from a particular culture and therefore will carry that legacy into those conversations. For instance, one legacy could be the assumed importance of meaning making and meaning sharing, rather than recognising it as inherently fallible and not the basis for right action in the world (which a more decolonised approach might invite).

The problem of a name and framework that has ‘gone viral’ is that some people are thinking of Deep Adaptation as a brand that has emotional resonance and therefore might be attracted for the wrong reasons – popularity! Some people might be engaging partly for wanting to be involved in the latest ideas and discussions about society and the environment. As such they might bring an unhelpful energy and attention to how to grow, maintain or adjust the brand so that more people can be engaged and fewer people upset by this conversation spreading around the world.

Be less positive?

A sixth criticism is that Deep Adaptation is a framework that is a means of avoiding some of the worst-case scenarios, and so it could be less positive. Rather than looking closely at the evidence and theories for the risk of human extinction this century, the framework side-lines that issue by provisionally concluding that it is uncertain and merely a possibility. In the DAF platforms we even go as far as saying that people should not cite the possibility or probability of human extinction as a reason for silencing other people’s discussions on adaptation.

By side-lining the topic of human extinction, some people argue that we are not fully addressing the full information and possibilities. Or, they explain that although some of us have personally taken the threat of human extinction to heart in a way that has transformed us, we have decided not to bring this perspective to other people or discuss its implications. What might be being missed by that? Given that believers in ‘Inevitable Near-Term Human Extinction’ (INTHE) have their own networks to engage in, perhaps nothing is lost. But given that Deep Adaptation generates creative compassionate dialogue and initiative, perhaps a fuller engagement in the possibility of human extinction might lead to important insights and approaches. For instance, people might discuss whether to try and speed up the collapse of the current global order in order to reduce carbon emissions as swiftly as possible to give either humanity or other life-forms a better chance of making it through the current mass extinction event. One cannot know the kinds of conversations that might emerge once the handbrake of positivity is taken off.

Be more positive?

The seventh and final criticism I would like to describe to you here is the opposite of the last, suggesting that Deep Adaptation concepts and participants could be more positive. The way the DAF discussions are curated at present is with an agnosticism on what comes during and after any societal collapse. Perhaps there will be a chance for a new ecological civilisation, but perhaps there will not. The ethos of the Deep Adaptation concept and spaces at present is not to colonise people’s own explorations of the topic and to welcome unknowing. That is partly because a key aspect of the Deep Adaptation ethos is to find a motivation for enabling and embodying loving responses to our predicament without the expectation of a specific outcome.

However, many people disagree with not having a specific vision of a hopeful future. Some people believe they must have a material hope for the future because of their religious perspective. For instance, some Christians assume that the hope they are invited to have by their faith is a physical one rather than a metaphysical or spiritual hope. ‘Positive thinking’ has also become central to modernity and the assumption of progress. Some views on quantum mechanics have spread in popular culture in ways that are misleading about the implications. In particular, our individualist culture means that some people believe that each individual’s perspectives and intentions will shape what is manifested, no matter what anyone else is thinking or doing. Some other people think we all have to think a certain way for something to be manifested. This is not the place for me to explain the fallacies of such magical thinking. Suffice to say, we all are co-creating our realities with the rest of the cosmos at all times, and any desires for physical manifestations are more likely to arise from separation than unity consciousness and thus not have any effect at the metaphysical level. I realise that sentence might need re-reading a few times and then some discussion. But I would like to add that it corresponds with the mystic traditions of many mainstream religions that invite alignment with divine will, rather than petitioning it for our own ends.

Despite the various concerns, some critics still assert the usefulness and power of being clear about what it is that a person, group or organisation wants to see in the world. In the case of the DAF, we say we want to see more loving responses to our predicament and to embody that in the way we go about our efforts. For me that means building a culture that is less dominated by colonial patriarchal modernity and more welcoming of the wisdom from Buddhism and the mystic strands of most religions. However, I admit I am unwilling to answer critics who wish to hear something more specific than that.


The seven areas I have listed here are just a few of the significant criticisms and areas of discussion that exist in the growing field of Deep Adaptation. There are other criticisms which I have not listed as they are, in my opinion, based on misinformation about Deep Adaptation. For instance, that people become apathetic, despite empirical evidence to the contrary and the well-known synergies with Extinction Rebellion.

Some people’s resistance to the Deep Adaptation agenda is understandable, as it challenges assumptions of personal identity and purpose. As the climate worsens and societies become more challenging, so the ideas, initiatives, confusions and backlashes will all grow. Given the increasing stresses in society and on individuals, the way we show up in those conversations is key. The work of the DAF has therefore focused on enabling open-hearted and open-minded dialogue on various topics, with ways of holding space and facilitation being key. Volunteers from around the world have been collaborating to create ideas for what can be done to reduce harm in the face of societal disruptions. These ideas and growing projects form a necessary complement to bold efforts to cut and drawdown carbon, while regenerating ecosystems.

If you have considered the anticipation of societal collapse to be wrong or unhelpful, then we will still be here for when you are ready. As I hope you will agree, there is no one right way to respond to an anticipation or experience of societal disruption, with much to unlearn and learn as we go.

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