Deep Adaptation is a concept and social movement based on the view that humanity needs to prepare for the possibility of societal collapse, as environmental change increasingly disrupts social, economic, and political systems. Unlike climate change adaptation, which aims to adapt societies gradually to the effects of climate change, Deep Adaptation is premised on acceptance of impending abrupt transformations of the environment. The concept was originally shared in a paper released by the University of Cumbria in July 2018, from sustainability leadership professor Jem Bendell. This paper had been previously rejected by the peer review process of the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal.
Responses to the paper are split among academics and popular audiences. Some reviewers dismiss Deep Adaptation as a poorly substantiated, doomist framing that threatens to hamper true efforts to address climate change adaptation. Others contend that Bendell successfully provides an alternative framework through which impacts of climate change may be approached. The paper has achieved popularity, having been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and providing the nucleus for online communities with thousands of members.
The Deep Adaptation concept and community arose from 'Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy', a paper self-published in July 2018 by sustainability leadership professor Jem Bendell. Bendell used his 2017 sabbatical to review climate science. Bendell began writing 'Deep Adaptation' towards the end of this time period, describing his interpretation of the current state of climate research.
Bendell initially submitted his paper for publication at the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, but the paper was rejected in its original version at review stage. Bendell instead decided to publish the paper on his blog and through the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, a department at the University of Cumbria started by Bendell. Bendell argues on his blog that the journal requested major revisions that would change the significance of the paper and therefore it was a rejection. The publisher stated that the paper required major revisions because it was not satisfying the publication standards. The publisher has requested that Bendell revise his blog post to reflect this statement, but as of February 2019 he had not done so.
Vice has noted that it had a very large readership for an academic paper, having been downloaded more than 100,000 times as early as February 2019 (and more than 600,000 times as of November 2019). The paper has been translated into a variety of languages. Bendell released an updated version of the paper in June 2020, saying, "This paper appears to have an iconic status amongst some people who criticize others for anticipating societal collapse. Therefore, two years on from initial publication, I am releasing this update." The modified content emphasizes that near-term collapse is not inevitable, addressing some of the criticisms of the last few years.
Bendell describes Deep Adaptation as an ethical or philosophical framework, rather than as a projection. The paper describes the likelihood of near-term collapse, leading to the argument that envisioning what to do after the post-collapse future arrives requires more than just mitigation. Supporting his argument that mitigation efforts cannot be the only strategy, Bendell argues that even an absolute end to carbon emissions, use of geoengineering, or large-scale infrastructure changes are now insufficient to avert systemic upheaval. He describes a three-part strategy to allow 'deep adaptation' to climate change: "resilience" through infrastructure upgrades, "relinquishment" by giving up aspects of civilization that lead to additional climate risk, and "restoration," a return to older culture values and practices. After the paper was released, he added a fourth part to the framework, "reconciliation" which "is all about living in peace."
The paper's writing style is dissimilar to most academic works, including figurative language, dark humor, and the stark conclusion that "climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term," in around a decade.
Emergence of a broader movement
Bendell's paper popularized the term "deep adaptation" and sparked the emergence of associated online communities. The BBC says that the paper "has become the closest thing to a manifesto for a generation of self-described 'climate doomers' " and that it "sparked a global movement with thousands of followers" who wish to "adapt their lifestyles to cope with the harsh conditions" through the principles of Deep Adaptation. BBC presenter John Humphrys notes that the paper has "influenced the founders of Extinction Rebellion."
In March 2019, Bendell founded the Deep Adaptation Forum to support practitioners and concerned citizens in preparation for what he considers a likely collapse of industrial civilisation. A Facebook group titled "Positive Deep Adaptation" had nearly 10,000 members as of March 2020 and was the most active site for the Deep Adaptation community, while 3,000 individuals participate in the official Deep Adaptation Forum. A LinkedIn group titled 'Deep Adaptation' includes professors, government scientists, and investors.
At the end of summer 2020, Bendell announced that he would step back from running the Forum, pivoting to focus on development of a new paper. In the upcoming paper, Bendell said he would map out how climate apocalypse could unfold in more specific terms.
Two main criticisms of Deep Adaptation have emerged. First, some argue that Deep Adaptation warns of an impending collapse, but fails to account to the disasters already occurring to those outside the Western context of most of those interested in Deep Adaptation. This critique centers on the lack of a climate justice element in the work. The second stream of critique argues that Deep Adaptation is overly fatalistic, going beyond the science to remove any hint of hope or doubt.
From the scientific community
Lead author of the 2019 UN global disaster risk assessment, Scott Williams, said "Bendell is closer to the mark than his critics," as the UN report was "close to stating that ‘collapse is inevitable’." Subsequent to the paper's release in July 2018, more climate scientists have warned of societal collapse. In June 2020, climate scientist Will Steffen explained that "collapse is the most likely outcome of the present trajectory" and former lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber said "there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation." Steffen told the BBC: "With global emissions continuing to rise, and no signs that the Paris targets will be respected, Jem Bendell has some justification in taking the strong position that it is already too late and we'd better prepare to deal with the collapse of the globalised economic system… I can't say for sure that Jem Bendell is right… but we certainly can't rule it out."
One of the reviewers at the time, as well as climatologist Michael E. Mann and Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, had criticisms of the paper's core scientific arguments. The reviewer and Mann suggested that the paper's conclusions do not follow climate science, with Mann describing the paper as "pseudo-scientific nonsense." Further, Professor Mann expresses concern that Bendell's "doomist framing" may "lead us down the same very path of inaction as outright climate change denial. Fossil fuel interests love this framing." Gavin Schmidt argued that, though local collapse events might occur more frequently as climatic changes progress, the paper fails entirely to show why global collapse might occur. Myles Allen, professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford, argues that, "So far, the system's responded to greenhouse gas emissions almost exactly as predicted. So to say it's about to change and become much worse is speculation."
A further criticism of Deep Adaptation by Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall and Colleen Schmidt entitled 'The faulty science, doomism, and flawed conclusions of Deep Adaptation' was published in July 2020 on openDemocracy, supported by several prominent climate academics, including Richard A. Betts and Julia Steinberger. It argues that Bendell's claim that runaway climate change has made societal collapse inevitable is not only wrong, but that it undermines the cause of the climate movement. In a response in the same publication, biologist and creator of the term Collapsology, Pablo Servigne argued "We find the Deep Adaptation work to be credible, and the criticisms often misleading. Those criticisms do not invalidate the main message that collapse is a probability high enough to engage in mitigation, adaptation and Deep Adaptation as early as possible." A recent literature review investigating how humans respond to crisis found that emotional responses were common and adaptive. Higher levels of distress were linked to higher levels of post traumatic growth and adaptive behaviour. The importance of collective responses to processing emotional experiences and adapting to crisis was highlighted, with these approaches reducing disaster related losses be a half. This review recommends exploring emotional responses to the climate crisis and processing these in collective platforms in order to increase resilience. Communicating honestly about the crisis was also recommended.
From general audiences
Writing in the libertarian magazine Reason, Ronald Bailey argues "that as well-meaning as he may be, Bendell is engaging in 'apocalypse abuse.' Like earlier practitioners of that suspect craft, Bendell operates chiefly by extrapolating only the most horrendous trends, while systematically ignoring any ameliorating or optimistic ones, offering worst-case scenarios in the guise of balanced presentations."
In an April 2020 interview with the BBC, Jeremy Lent argues that, "If he [Bendell] chooses to go with his gut instinct and conclude collapse is inevitable, he has every right to do so, but I believe it's irresponsible to package this as a scientifically valid conclusion, and thereby criticize those who interpret the data otherwise as being in denial." Lent expanded on these points in an article for the left-wing political magazine CounterPunch in which said "Deep Adaptation threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the risk of collapse by diluting efforts toward societal transformation."
Some commentators in the environmental movement, such as Professor Rupert Read, have welcomed Bendell's analysis, suggesting that although the inevitability of societal collapse can be debated, its likelihood means the concept of Deep Adaptation is important to engage with. Naresh Giangrande responded in the Ecologist that "Deep Adaptation is not faulty science at all, but a very necessary contribution to the field of environmental thought and action. First and foremost, Deep Adaptation is robust and motivating science because it is not a single research paper but a new movement of both scholars and activists from around the world."
Notable responses by Bendell
The BBC highlighted Bendell's response to Mann's criticisms. Bendell rejected Mann's assertion that his framing might lead people to inaction. Bendell suggested that his framing instead leads people to more radical action, gesturing in particular to Deep Adaptation's influence on leadership of and participants in Extinction Rebellion.
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- Kieft, J.; Bendell, J (2021). "The responsibility of communicating difficult truths about climate influenced societal disruption and collapse: an introduction to psychological research". Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) Occasional Papers. 7: 1–39.
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- "Climate change and deep adaptation". The Ecologist. Retrieved 20 June 2020.
- Giangrande, Naresh (29 July 2020). "Is Deep Adaptation good science?". The Ecologist. Retrieved 29 July 2020.