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Deep Adaptation opens up a necessary conversation about the breakdown of civilisation

Many scientists say that societal collapse is now a likely outcome. We must prepare for this possibility and not deny its plausibility.

Pablo Servigne Raphaël Stevens Gauthier Chapelle Daniel Rodary
3 August 2020
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

A recent essay published at openDemocracy questioned the science background of the Deep Adaptation agenda and movement. As we have been working for more than five years on the likely possibility of a global collapse, this came as a surprise to us, given the increasing number of leading scientists and scientific publications addressing this topic.

In this article we argue that the science behind the possibility of a global collapse is robust, and show how this idea should be taken seriously. This perspective has already transformed debate and preparations in the French-speaking world (including the general public) and beyond. It is important that English-speakers are not dissuaded from engaging in such important discussions. Given the claims of critics about mental health and motivation for activism, we will also explore the psychological impacts. This ranges from the "fear of fear" induced for some by our climate predicament, to the liberating and transformative changes it has enabled for many others.

If you have read either the original Deep Adaptation paper or recent critiques of it, then we encourage you to read on. Unfortunately, the matter is not going to disappear just because some organisations would prefer it to.

Collapsology

In 2015, some of us published a book in French called ‘How Everything Can Collapse’. The book was a best-seller and has since been translated into six languages, including in English. In the book we reviewed dozens of the most recent peer-reviewed publications and institutional reports on global catastrophic risks. Our aim was to present a systemic account of the current situation and of the risks of civilisational/biosphere collapse as envisioned in the scientific literature in order to foster a public debate.

What are these risks? Can we predict their occurrence? What tools and methods are used? How did past societies face them? Are they inevitable? Should we plan and prepare?

While many disciplines have explored these questions through thousands of scholar papers, and many books have been published, none pursued a transdisciplinary approach. This is why we’ve coined a neologism – collapsology – which refers to the field of research in the scientific community that studies existential risks, including civilisational collapse, in order to invite scholars, academic and independent experts, and the public alike, to join together and engage in a meaningful conversation on these urgent and vital questions.

They are so vital that, in our opinion, they must be studied as seriously as possible, even the most extreme ones – and we should prepare for every eventuality. Indeed, abrupt climate change, a mass extinction of species, a multiple breadbasket failure, a major pandemic, an artificial intelligence or geo-engineering scheme that has gone out of control, a nuclear winter, a major disruption of fossil fuels supply, amongst other scenarios, are not risks that we can manage with our conventional risk management tools and methods. They are part of a special risk class — the 'Global Catastrophic Risks' — defined as those that could kill at least 10% of the global population (see for example 1, 2). Yes, that is a field of scholarship and research – something which may have been lost on readers of the critique of the original Deep Adaptation paper.

What we highlighted in our academically supported reviews is that these aspects of collapse could happen in our lifetime, for the present generation. Above all our aim was to inform as many people as possible what scientists and institutions are saying about these little-considered hazardous scenarios, so that everyone could get moving and society could organise itself politically to mitigate these existential risks. We were not trying to frighten people, but we must acknowledge that these subjects can be scary. Rather than shooting the whistleblowers, it seemed to us to be more constructive to listen to them and start organising ourselves accordingly.

If the fire brigade tells you that there is a possibility that your home could go up in smoke and kill your family, you do not silence them by calling them alarmists. You take this risk seriously, manage your fear, take out insurance, check appliances and furnishings, assess cladding and escape routes, advise or train colleagues, and install smoke detectors and extinguishers. You try to make sure a fire never happens, and you adapt to this eventuality in a concrete way.

In our view, the key to understanding the subject lies in the subtlety of the notion of uncertainty and the paradoxes it generates in the current situation. We are obviously in a period of radical uncertainty, and as we and many others have shown, science will never have absolute certainty about the future. Moreover, since this is an existential risk, we cannot afford to experience it in practice, as the usual scientific approach would require. Making society collapse in order to know for sure if and how it can collapse is obviously not possible.

Therefore, there are two problematic stories coming from some scientists: the first is to engage in endless scientific discussion before preparing for such an eventuality; the second is to take this scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not acting, or simply ignore the question. It is strange that many climate scientists assume that the burden of proof in relation to anticipated collapse is with those who warn and ask us to prepare, rather than themselves who do not want to discuss the matter.

So what do we do? The house fire isn't certain, but because you take it seriously (it certainly can happen) you act accordingly. And if you act, then it is less likely to happen. In other words, we better take societal collapse for granted to have any chance of avoiding it or, at least, reducing its worst effects.

This is the paradox that the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy called “enlightened catastrophism”, and it is this philosophical pirouette that causes so much misunderstanding. If the norms of science mean that something can only be concluded as likely (and therefore still fundamentally uncertain), this should not translate into the general public awareness as a reason to hesitate.

Moreover, ethically, it is not acceptable not to think about these catastrophic outcomes. It is a matter of the precautionary principle, as XR activist and associate Professor in philosophy at the University of East Anglia Rupert Read says, “collapse would probably be so dreadful that not preparing for it to make it less so is now gross irresponsibility” (see also his book).

But wait. Which collapse? Here is another source of confusion. On the one hand, societies (as shown in the past, see for example 1, 2, 3, 4) and industrial civilisation (as projected by numerous models, see for example 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), can collapse. On the other hand, the biosphere could also switch irreversibly towards an unliveable state for many populations and species, including our own (see for example 1, 2, 3, 4). But these two dynamics are asymmetrically linked: if we choose to “save” the industrial civilisation by pursuing material and energetic growth, the earth-systems will accelerate towards a possible tipping threshold, which in turn could end life as we know it.

If, on the contrary, we choose to preserve the biosphere, it means that we must stop the mad race of our civilisation within a few months, which would amount to an intentional social and economic collapse.

Indeed, following the recommendations of the IPCC, the necessary mitigation efforts would in a way amount to bringing about the end of thermo-industrial civilisation. With such a forced decrease, the world's economies would not survive in their current structure. The necessary reduction in emissions is -7.6% per year for 10 years to maintain a 66% probability of remaining below 1.5°C (-2.7% per year for 10 years to maintain a 66% probability of remaining below 2°C). That would mean extending (and even strengthening) the strongest economic effect of the COVID-19 lockdown for 10 continuous years!

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a valid comparison, as the World Bank estimates that the global economy will shrink by 5.2% due to the pandemic in 2020 (7% for advanced economies), and indicates that it is unparalleled since 1945, and perhaps even 1870.

Moreover, mitigation efforts in order to preserve the biosphere have shown to be really hard to achieve in a short-time frame as we must face a series of wicked problems such as rebound effects and seemingly unfeasible impact and resource decoupling, as well as socio-technological, cognitive and behavioural lock-ins.

Whatever happens, if one is paying proper attention, it has become difficult to imagine a future for our industrial civilisation.

In 2015, the rational and scientific approach of collapsology was considered plausible but pessimistic by the political landscape and various media outlets in France. Nevertheless, we found that the general public and some people across different institutions (administrations, unions, corporations, academics, army, etc) were really open and ready to discuss the matter. We saw a growing number of people reaching the conclusion that trying to solve our problems with more economic growth would speed-up our demise, yet stopping economic growth could also speed-up our demise. In other words, we face a predicament.

Five years later, not only has collapsology entered French dictionaries and provoked a significant transformation of the French social and political landscape (the prime minister and other ministers have repeatedly mentioned collapse in public speeches), but the scientific findings about catastrophic shifts and risks are unfortunately even more robust.

The idea that societies around the world can conceivably collapse in the coming years is now widespread. In February 2020, an opinion poll on “collapsology” conducted by IFOP on 5,000 people in France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany found that 56% of British people and 65% of French people think that western civilisation as we know it will soon collapse (23% of British people expect it within 20 years, and 9% before 2030).

Hints of the end of this world are appearing everywhere – in recent scientists’ warnings (see for example 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6); in papers and books by independent scholars (see for example 1, 2, 3); in the writings of leading reporters (see for example 1, 2, 3); in the speeches of activist Greta Thunberg and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez; in World Bank and army reports; in Davos discussions; and in the media commentaries about the fires in Australia, Brazil and Siberia, as well as in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A growing number of scientists now consider that the most likely outcome of climate change, if the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations keep growing from human activities as they always have, is a global societal collapse. Twelve top climate scientists recently said publicly that “it is game over for preventing dangerous climate change now”. For them, “it is time to acknowledge our collective failure to respond to climate change, identify its consequences and accept the massive personal, local, national and global adaptation that awaits us all.”

Joachim Schellnhuber, one of the world’s leading authorities on climate change, recently said that if we continue down the present path, “there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years.”

This awful possibility doesn't even take into account the other global systemic risks, their tipping-points and their nexus. Hundreds of scientists and experts agree that global systemic risks, which include climate change, biodiversity and resource depletion, financial crises, and societal breakdown, must be taken seriously. It is a nascent field of scholarship that is neither peculiar nor unscientific (see for example 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Recently, the doomsday clock – which symbolises the imminence of a planetary cataclysm – was brought forward at midnight minus 100 seconds, the first time since 1953, due to the inability of world leaders to deal with the imminent threats such as climate change. As Will Steffen, a leading Professor of climate science and co-author of major studies on tipping points and earth system trajectories, concludes: “collapse is the most likely outcome of the present trajectory of the current system”.

What do we do with this?

It is high time to fully acknowledge the existence and the nature of these risks and act as if it was the most likely future. From that starting point, two questions become important to clarify: firstly, how to live with recurrent bad news of these mega threats? And secondly, how do we organise in order to respond to catastrophic risks and events?

The first question emerges because almost everybody finds themselves running on a perpetual treadmill of emotions including anger, fear, sadness, grief and guilt. Yet, according to Will Steffen, “the science of global warming has failed spectacularly to emotionally connect with much of society, particularly those in the most powerful positions – rendering policymakers ineffective despite repeated warnings”.

Our recent book ‘Another End of the World is possible’ (Polity Press, forthcoming this autumn) tries to answer this first question with psychological, emotional, metaphysical and spiritual answers. It is about our relationship to the world, about interdependencies between humans as well between humans and non-humans, about meaning, narratives, grief, rituals, and so on. There is wisdom that can and must emerge from this predicament.

One important controversy deals with whether bad news necessarily leads to inaction, or whether fear does always paralyse. Many critics of collapsology and now Deep Adaptation often assume they do not use scholarly insight in support of their assumptions. On the contrary, we argue that fear, despair or rage are (and always will be) part of the process of action. We have to get through this, together.

Many studies show that so-called "positive" emotions (such as hope, joy, compassion, etc) promote well-being, fulfilment, taking action, developing networks and skills, and relating to others and to nature. They are undoubtedly indispensable for the rough weather to come. On the other hand, unpleasant emotions are logical and healthy responses of a human being who is witnessing the destruction of what he or she cares about. They also help us to stay alert and seek out information (a fundamental step before setting out on a journey), to refine our perception of risks and to turn indifference into urgency.

In a comprehensive meta-analysis on fear, a team of researchers led by the psychologist Melanie Tannenbaum concluded that: “(a) fear appeals are effective at positively influencing attitude, intentions, and behaviors, (b) there are very few circumstances under which they are not effective, and (c) there are no identified circumstances under which they backfire and lead to undesirable outcomes”. However, we believe that the science on this complex subject is certainly not settled and further studies are needed.

For more than 40 years, the work of Joanna Macy, the environmental activist and eco-psychologist, has shown that no longer hiding the facts, no longer holding back in the expression of our truths, and sharing within a benevolent collective all that we feel, provokes a revival of energy and a kind of release of enthusiasm leading to joy and action. This is something we have experienced ourselves, which helped us to deal with the constant flux of “bad news” and connect to another kind of hope. Emotions are not enemies, denial is. Moreover, as Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone say, hope does not come from good news or from hiding emotions – but from community and action.

Last year in France, a psychologist and a professor of economy created the Observatory of Collapse Experiences (OBVECO). They conduct surveys, questionnaires and lexical analysis, concluding that contrary to popular belief, the anguish of finitude is a driving force for action. “Far from making them pessimistic and passive, after a vacuum caused by the anguish of finitude, the collapsological narrative has made [people] optimistic and active, because through their concrete and organised action they show that it is possible to envisage a life after the collapse rather than an apocalypse where only death would be at the rendezvous.“

These findings are in agreement with research by Jem Bendell and Dorian Cave on the perceptions of participants in the Deep Adaptation Forum which found that, as a result of their involvement, far more people feel less apathetic and less isolated than the reverse. Many describe taking leadership to help their communities become more resilient to future disruption. Two recent studies on collapse-centered communities in France and the UK concluded that the cliché that “people do not react well when hearing bad news” should not be taken for granted anymore, although the science on this subject is certainly not settled, and further studies are needed.

One originality of the XR movement (from which the authors of the article critiquing Deep Adaptation claimed to be part), was to share a very powerful motto suggesting that realisation of the true dimension of the situation, while literally despairing, could also be a strong incentive to action: “Hope Dies, Action Begins”. In a recent interview the scientist and one of the co-founders of XR, Gail Bradbrook, explains (highlights added by us):

“Children alive today in the UK will face unimaginable horrors as a result of floods, wildfires, extreme weather, crop failures and the inevitable breakdown of society when the pressures are so great. We are unprepared for the danger our future holds. The time for denial is over – we know the truth about climate change and we know the truth about current biological annihilation.”

That second question is also fundamental: how do we organise in order to respond to catastrophic risks and cascading events? To help people engage with that matter creatively, the Deep Adaptation movement began in 2018 by proposing that we explore ‘4Rs’ – resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation. People involved in such conversations and initiatives have been holding space for discussions infused with attention to anti-patriarchy, social justice, decolonisation, and inequality. Debates around collapse issues should not be western-centric as they concern all living communities (and species) on earth. Indigenous communities have been experiencing collapses for years, and the western white middle classes should learn from them. In the same way, collapse narratives must not become the only vision of our future. We need a diversity of points of view, and even dissensus.

The political question is the great work of the months and years to come. The task ahead is devising policies of resilience to cope with the unpredictable rollercoasters of the Anthropocene, managing great "collapses" and imagining what could come "after".

This task is made all the more urgent by the fact that this year, a microscopic Coronavirus unleashed a series of cascading effects: fears and entrenchments, a chosen slowdown of economic activity, domestic political upheavals, diplomatic and geopolitical crises, shortages of medicines, masks and food, and the injection of massive amounts of liquidity into the markets by central banks around the world to stabilise the financial system and avoid a financial crunch. COVID-19 is proving to be a huge stress-test for the globalised economy, but also a stark reminder of what deeply matters in our daily lives and a real-time dress rehearsal of future disasters and psychological unease. And more unexpectedly, the lockdown of half of the world’s population demonstrated the extraordinary capacity of wildlife to adapt and self-regenerate!

When some people consider societal collapse to be an abstract and theoretical matter, it is worth noting that the UN has warned us that outbreaks of COVID-19 are more likely because of both environmental destruction and climate change. Therefore, disruptions from the indirect impacts of climate change are already upon most societies in the world.

We know that some people continue to look for some technofix solutions, while some billionaires try space escapism. Other closed communities build bunkers. But for most people, who care about the commons and each other, it is time for both mitigation and adaptation policies, even if the window of opportunity of the first is rapidly shrinking. We have to slow down simultaneously the predicament and to prepare for the consequences that are already here.

So what about Deep Adaptation?

Coming to terms with the conclusions of Deep Adaptation is not easy, and we recognise that it is not a topic for the faint-of-heart. But we are glad that we go on exploring it, because now we see so much creativity from people in the field of collapsology, XR and Deep Adaptation.

In the end, Deep Adaptation is very close to the analyses and postures that we have been developing in parallel since 2015: synthesising scientific information on major risks and on the possibilities of collapse, taking these risks seriously (considering that it is certain is part of it), informing as many people as possible, taking care of emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects, and organising ourselves politically accordingly.

When the Deep Adaptation publication was written in 2018 and was quickly downloaded hundreds of thousand times, we were happy to share these questions, and to see the levels of enthusiasm in the public. Quietly and without promotion, the Deep Adaptation movement managed, in a very short time, to talk about the scientific, emotional and spiritual issues, as well as possible political proposals, with a measured and subtle attitude, and while touching the themes of injustice, colonialism, patriarchy, etc. This rapidity has been a strength (for the English-speaking movement), but it also proves to be a weakness in terms of the issues at stake and the amount of information to be processed. The need is therefore to help the movement mature and evolve, so that it reaches even more people. Certainly not to try to silence it.

The original Deep Adaptation paper focuses on climate and misses some studies about other predicaments. Nevertheless, it is an update of the 2018-2019 climate data, and its dialogues with scientists are welcome. We find the Deep Adaptation work to be credible, and the criticisms often misleading. Those criticisms do not invalidate the main message that the probability of collapse is high enough to engage in mitigation, adaptation and Deep Adaptation as early as possible.

A limitation of the Deep Adaptation paper in 2018 was that Professor Bendell did not define societal collapse or detail the mechanisms by which it can happen, but we see that he was new to the topic at the time and has been engaging in it further since then. Bendell’s approach is remarkable by its transdisciplinarity, and how it upholds uncomfortable truths rather than caring to safeguard his academic position. He also tries a radical style of communication with the reader that aims at involvement and provokes reflection. He has helped more people in the English-speaking world to engage with the risks humanity now faces with far more seriousness than we had witnessed before. We invite scientists from both human and natural sciences to cooperate, reach out to the public and resolve to go forward in this discussion.

The need for care and action

Although it is deeply troubling to accept, we believe that claims of imminent societal collapse are based on credible analysis from a range of scholarly fields, including climate science. By using the status of science to criticise anyone talking about the possibility of such collapse, some scientists are promoting falsehoods. To these scientists we wish to repeat: it is impossible to prove scientifically that collapse will happen or not happen. The debate on the possibility of collapse will never be settled – this is a matter for historians of the future. So what do you do with systemic risks? What do you do with emotions? What is your analysis of the collective failure to address systemic threats?

Our generation must lead on three fronts simultaneously. As Rob Hopkins and Joanna Macy say, we must lead with our heads, hearts and hands: understanding what is happening (collapso-logy), imagining and believing in other worlds, and finding courage (collapso-sophy) as well as gathering living forces to build alternatives and lead the fight against destructive powers (collapso-praxis). Deep Adaptation helps us in this task, so we should be careful with unnecessary divisions in the climate movement, and move forward with Deep Adaptation, and obviously with all the other voices from scientists caring for our common future.

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