Jem Bendell & Rupert Read, editors
Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos
Polity Press, 2021
reviewed by Chris Saltmarsh
Activists in Extinction Rebellion, in England, are currently discussing the movement’s new published strategy. The debates within XR often center on a difference of approach between long standing members who were influenced by Dr Jem Bendell’s paper calling for “deep adaptation” and those who want to focus on climate justice and a rapid dismantling of “fossil fuel capitalism” to avoid the need for such adaption.
This is the context in which many people are now reading Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos, a collection of essays brought together by Blundell and Dr. Rupert Read, his long time collaborator and one of the many XR co-founders.
The book starts from the premise that societal collapse induced by climate change is inevitable or highly likely, arguing that humans should adapt to this new reality by moving away from industrial consumer society. This retains and amplifies the main arguments first proposed by Bendell in his online paper, which went viral and became influential within Extinction Rebellion, including among its co-founders.
The main strength of the book is that the contributors are unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom on the climate crisis and go against the grain with a provocative assessment of what we are now able to achieve and where we should focus our efforts. The claim made that we should begin to consider what it means for humanity to adapt to a changed climate is convincing.
Bendell’s interpretation of the climate science is of “inevitable collapse, probably catastrophe and possible extinction.” Descriptions of societal collapse focus on food and extreme weather. “You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go.” We are warned of looming disease, civil conflict and war.
The validity of the science on which Bendell relies has been called into question, but given the current trajectory their pessimism seems justified. Bendell and Read argue, rightly: “When it comes to global heating, there is still no sign of an action that would resemble a true case of emergency.”
They are also right to reject the scientific basis of the global aim to limit global average temperature rises to 2.0ºC: “That figure was agreed by governments that were dealing with many domestic and international pressures from vested interests, particularly corporations.” Emissions are already beyond safe levels. We are not on track to avoid runaway climate breakdown. The social and economic transformations necessary for climate justice do not appear in close sight.
Less compelling, though, is the tendency towards an anti-humanist primitivism. An entire book later, the politics of Deep Adaptation remain loosely defined and worrying in their implications. The contributors avoid the difficult questions emanating from their worldview, leaving too much to the imagination. Among the foundational claims of Deep Adaptation is the argument that inevitable societal collapse is human caused and that industrial consumer society cannot continue.
More objectionable is the claim, repeated with unrivalled certainly throughout the book, that “humanity” is to blame for the climate crisis.
For example, Adrian Tait asserts: “What humankind is collectively doing to our planetary home is undeniable.” Bendell writes: “That modern humans have been oppressing and destroying life on earth is indisputable.”
Despite their conviction, these are ideological claims and not statements of fact. Contributors choose to assign blame to humanity in general instead of the capitalist system which puts profit ahead of all else.
This is the basis of Deep Adaptation’s anti-humanism. Bendell describes an ideology which he blames for humanity causing the ecological crisis. E-S-C-A-P-E is an ideology of mental habits: entitlement, surety, control, autonomy, progress, exceptionalism. He argues that these psychological elements of human civilization have given rise to our own societal collapse.
There is no room here to consider the mode of production in which human activity occurs: industry and consumption are rendered essentially destructive, regardless of wider political economic context.
There is no room for an alternative economy where democratic planning and collective ownership allow us to balance material progress with ecological stability and human welfare. Instead, Bendell calls for “an era for the conscious retreat of humanity.” What this precisely means is left eerily unclear.
Deep Adaptation offers a framework of “four Rs” to facilitate thinking about what this conscious retreat entails: resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation.
A justice-oriented interpretation of these imperatives could point towards investing in resilient infrastructure, phasing-out high-carbon industry, restoring natures and reconciling our economic system with ecological limits.
Instead, Deep Adaptation gestures towards an austere post-civilization. Resilience and reconciliation are seen primarily as psychological adaptations to a society in which humans have relinquished much of modern civilization with ‘nature’ restored in its place.
Bendell describes relinquishment as “people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviors and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption.”
He writes at a level of abstraction which avoids committing to the worst inferences from that passage, but nor does he disabuse us of them. Withdrawing from coastlines and relocating some industry may prove necessary, but what precisely is to be included in “certain types of consumption?” The absence of detail is worrying.
Bendell and Katie Carr indeed suggest that “rather than offering a map, Deep Adaptation is more of an invitation into maplessness.” This imprecision allows the contributors to flirt with primitivism without seriously confronting its implications.
In their chapter, Pablo Servigne et al invoke indigeneity as a model for the conscious retreat. The experiences of Indigenous communities are idealized, promoting an imagined primitive mode of social organization while demonstrating little concern for contemporary questions of Indigenous justice and liberation.
What does societal collapse mean for Indigenous peoples and communities? How can we re-organise our political economy to re-empower them? What does Deep Adaptation have to say about reparations in the context of collapse?
Arguments for “relocalization” is the closest contributors come to tangible proposals. In their chapter, Matthew Slater and Skeena Rathor argue that localization and self-sufficiency equal resilience.
They argue against key tenets of modern industrial economies: scale and specialization. Instead they propose measures like houses storing their own rainwater in underground tanks and local food growing — including the abandonment of modern regulatory standards.
It is through these rare glimpses of detail that the mask begins to slip. The rejection of national and international socio-economic organization is as much about a spiritual preference as it is supposed necessity.
When Deep Adaptation does discuss its own material implications, it reveals an utterly unappealing world of pre-industrial toil and poverty under the guise of response to climate breakdown.
More often, the advocates of Deep Adaptation prefer to stay on the comfortable terrain of psychological adaptation to societal collapse. Mitigation is not rejected outright but is seen as highly improbable.
They do not believe that “a reform of capitalism or modern society is realistic.” As such, the book’s focus is not on solving the problem but learning to navigate the chaos of societal collapse by promoting “emotional wellbeing” and “loving responses.”
Sean Kelly and Joanna Macy write in their chapter: “We might be able to slow it. We can try to reduce the harm coming from it. We can explore how to live and die lovingly because of it.” Societal collapse is understood most enthusiastically an opportunity through which humans may reconnect with nature and each other.
Tait discusses the grief, anger, guilt, fear and depression we might experience. He validates those feelings, arguing that “climate distress is, broadly speaking, not something to be massaged away but a sane response to danger and harm on a global scale.”
We are not just asked to hold those feelings but to lean into them. Deep Adaptation expands traditional conceptions of denial to not just mean disbelief in climate science.
It is also used to encompass those ignoring those negative feelings or disbelieving the likelihood/inevitability of collapse. “Denial can persist among those who admit there is a problem but avoid giving expression to the powerful emotions this evokes.”
Rene Suša et al focus on four constitutive denials “preventing us from engaging with the multiple crises we are facing.” They are denial of systemic violence, unsustainability, entanglement and magnitude/complexity.
The conclude by proposing a “rehab” approach — explicitly rejecting others, including “revolutionary” and “rationalist” — which “seeks to explore ways to wean us off the neurophysiological addictions and attachments to our current modern/colonial unsustainable habits of being.”
This is emblematic of a fixation on denial which runs throughout the book and can also be seen the language of Deep Adaption’s disciples in Extinction Rebellion. It reflects a prominent liberal understanding of the politics of climate change: mass denial leads to disengagement which leads to inaction.
Ultimately, “inaction” is seen as a problem of psychology rather than class relations or political economy — or a response to the repressive power of the police, for example.
Deep Adaptation seeks to jolt people out of this culture of denial and into an embrace of all the negative emotions we should be feeling. Its pessimistic affectation, though, is that its too late for action anyway. All we have left is learning to live — and love — through catastrophe.
Read’s chapter on politics and activism is the closest the book comes to advancing something like a political program and propositions for a movement based around it.
His are mostly the demands of Extinction Rebellion, articulated within the Deep Adaptation framework, plus calls to make nuclear and toxic chemicals safe, pulling away from investment in infrastructure which will be overwhelmed by sea-level rises, and “relocalization.”
These are just his suggestions, though. Overall, the editors do not successfully pull together a coherent or compelling political program for Deep Adaptation. Instead, we are left to reflect on a sometimes repetitive, sometimes divergent collection of idiosyncratic interpretations of Bendell’s founding principles.
Read’s optimism for the prospects of a movement for deep adaptation rest on his argument that, despite the conventional wisdom of the mainstream climate movement, mass mobilization need not rely on “strategic denial” of the scale and likelihood of collapse.
He points to the mobilizing success of Extinction Rebellion as a case in point for stark and depressing messaging motivating people to take part in civil disobedience. The difference, however, is that — regardless of broader limitations — Extinction Rebellion’s stated aims are to stop the crisis.
Deep Adaptation, on the other hand, is a long-winded way of saying it’s time to give up, embrace the suffering, and make the best of catastrophe. However you package it, these political foundations obviously lack the same mobilizing potential as taking our last chance to avoid collapse.
This does not mean, though, that Deep Adaptation will go away. Objectionable as its implications may be, it is easy to see why people may gravitate towards such a politics as the climate situation continues to worsen. It is important that the climate justice movement develops an antidote which speaks to those concerns without indulging in reactionary primitivism and anti-humanism.
I have argued elsewhere for a politics of Just Adaptation which refuses to abandon the importance of rapid and fair decarbonization for climate justice, but also prepares for the climatic changes we are beginning to see.
This would be a suite of measures rooted in the principles that we can make material changes to our society and economy to put peoples’ lives and welfare ahead of profit.
Proponents of Just Adaptation should demand investment in infrastructural resilience including flood defenses and robust buildings; well-resourced emergency services, evacuation plans and emergency shelter; food distribution networks; and a public system of insurance for all loss and damage not dependent on the profitability of private providers.
We should not entirely disregard the need to work on psychological resilience in the face of inevitably traumatic events, but nor should it be the primary element of our response. As long as its possible, we should not give up the fight for climate justice realized through a transformation of our economy which eschews profit.
It is the global poor and working-class — the most vulnerable and marginalized — who will be hit hardest by the practical implications of Deep Adaptation. Anyone interested in climate justice should not countenance its defeatist and neglectful rejection of human wellbeing.
Chris Saltmarsh is a co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal and author of Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice. This article was first published in The Ecologist, and is republished here with their kind permission.