In the past week, I have been introduced to Professor Jem Bendell and his ground-breaking research paper on Deep Adaptation. Bendell is a professor at the Institute of Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria in the UK. In July of 2018, he published the paper, called an occasional paper, through IFLAS on the internet. As he explains on his blogsite (https://jembendell.wordpress.com/2018/07/26/the-study-on-collapse-they-thought-you-should-not-read-yet/), his paper was rejected by the peer-review committee for the scholarly journal he submitted it to, so he decided to simply publish it regardless, in the interests of urgency for public reading. He notes on his blog that by now the paper, entitled Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, has been downloaded over 300,000 times.
The degree of interest that Bendell’s paper has generated came as a surprise to him, as he explains in his blog. He has been a professor of leadership and sustainable management for over two decades and is widely respected for his work on sustainable development in the west. However, with the Deep Adaptation paper, he explains how he finally realized that the odds are very great that we have reached the point globally where there is no “fixing” or solving the vast problems of man-made climate change, before it’s too late. In fact, he writes, “The approach of the paper is to analyse recent studies on climate change and its implications for our ecosystems, economies and societies, as provided by academic journals and publications direct from research institutes. That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers” Bendell, p. 2).
I admit that I first read his words with a mixture of horror and fascination. Having been obsessed with this subject for the past four years, reading everything I could on the subject of climate change and how humans must work to mitigate, adapt and become resilient in the face of it, I found it increasingly difficult to hold onto hope that humanity will, in fact, turn our global society around in time to avert collapse. Watching the news cycle day after day and month after month, it seemed to me that a pattern of extreme weather events had begun that has no foreseeable end in sight (in fact, many climate scientists have done research that proves this out). I followed closely the high-level meetings of the United Nations during 2018 and wanted, more than anything, to believe that the world’s governments are taking these talks seriously and doing everything in their power to hold to commitments they made for reducing pollution and CO2 emissions. Yet, I also watched with dismay as agreements continue to be broken, fragile peace talks break down, wars continue, and corporations continue to pollute, plunder and destroy our earth unabated.
As readers of my blog know, I became very interested in Greta Thunberg and her climate activism, including inspiring tens of thousands of school kids and teens to school strike for climate change this year. She only began striking in August of 2018, yet the movement quickly grew in momentum, as did her speech-making opportunities with high-level heads of state in Europe and the UK. Recently, Greta gave a powerful and heart-wrenching speech before the leaders of the European Union, which you can watch here (https://youtu.be/dKd1V2NgAi4)
In her speech, as she reiterates in all her speeches, Greta tells the EU’s leaders that “our house is on fire” and yet nothing is being done to change it. She tells them the world’s children (the ones who are too young to vote) have decided to take matters into their own hands, since the adults are doing virtually nothing to avert climate catastrophe. She implores them to “get behind the science.” Such a reasonable request, and yet, so seemingly impossible to do in actuality.
Why is it so difficult, if not impossible, for the world’s leaders to “get behind the science?” Myriad books, articles, blogs, podcasts, news stories and more have been written to try to explain our current predicament. It’s easy to simply point the finger at the large, multi-national corporations and say it’s all their fault, call them evil, and be done with it. But the truth is much more complex than that, once you start digging down into the muck. It goes very, very deep, and there is an extraordinary amount of personal, as well as corporate and political, denial involved.
Finding Jem Bendell’s paper was a kind of revelation for me last week. I won’t go into the details of his paper in this blog post; however I want to share a couple of quotes by him to give you, dear readers, a taste of how he views our situation. From Deep Adaptation’s introduction, he writes,
The result of these five questions is an article that does not contribute to one specific set of literature or practice in the broad field of sustainability management and policy. Rather, it questions the basis for all the work in this field. It does not seek to add to the existing research, policy and practice on climate adaptation, as I found that to be framed by the view that we can manage the impacts of a changing climate on our physical, economic, social, political and psychological situations. Instead, this article may contribute to future work on sustainable management and policy as much by subtraction as by addition. By that I mean the implication is for you to take a time to step back, to consider “what if” the analysis in these pages is true, to allow yourself to grieve, and to overcome enough of the typical fears we all have, to find meaning in new ways of being and acting. That may be in the fields of academia or management – or could be in some other field that this realisation leads you to. (Bendell, p. 3)
In a blog post on his site, he shares his rationale for releasing the Deep Adaptation paper to the public without having it published in a scholarly journal first. He writes,
“The trauma from assessing our situation with climate change has led me to become aware of and drop some of my past preoccupations and tactics. I realise it is time to fully accept my truth as I see it, even if partially formed and not polished yet for wider articulation. I know that academia involves as much a process of wrapping up truth as unfolding it. We wrap truth in disciplines, discrete methodologies, away from the body, away from intuition, away from the collective, away from the everyday. So as that is my truth then I wish to act on it as well, and not keep this analysis hidden in the pursuit of academic respect. Instead, I want to share it now as a tool for shifting the quality of conversations that I need to have.” (from Jem Bendell’s blog, https://jembendell.wordpress.com/2018/07/26/the-study-on-collapse-they-thought-you-should-not-read-yet/
What strikes me the most about Bendell’s paper is its absolute honesty. He drops any pretense or arrogance he may have once assumed as a renowned academic at a prestigious English research university, in favor of writing from his gut and heart of the tragic conclusion that we have collectively gone beyond being able to come up with fixing what we’ve clearly broken—our atmosphere and natural environment. He asks the reader to seriously consider the “what if” scenario that we have, in fact, reached a point when Near-Term Societal Collapse is a likely probability, if not a near-certainty. These are hard words for anyone to take, and coming from a sustainable leadership scholar, harder still. He put his entire reputation and future on the line by publishing the paper. Yet, it has struck a nerve with many both in and outside of academia. It’s as if Bendell has uttered the words that the rest of us have been too terrified to say: there’s no turning back. The damage is too far gone, we cannot reverse it, so now we must find the courage and compassion to manage what is to visit us all in the very near future.
Deep Adaptation is not a doomsday scenario, as are the multitudes of popular films, books, videos, and other creative works out in the world now. It’s precisely because it’s written by a respected thought leader, academic, and scholar that, for me and thousands of others, it rings true. None of us want to admit that civilization, as we have known it, will be ending sooner than anyone could have imagined. And reading over these words, they indeed sound horrendous. Yet, isn’t it what we are most afraid of facing as a coming reality, not simply a science fiction film?
As Greta Thunberg and Jem Bendell so eloquently remind us all, NOW is the time to become mature humans and face up to our common situation. We are literally all on this spinning ball called Earth together, and what happens next will affect us all, as recent events over the past few years has so clearly shown us. I keep coming back to the old story of Noah building his ark, even as the others around him ignored or insulted him, and went on with their business-as-usual. They chose not to believe the warnings that there would soon be a catastrophic flood that would wash everyone and everything living away. Here in 2019, we are facing similar times—the signs are all around us that we must change the ways we’ve been living and respect Earth, stop destroying and polluting our only home. Not in five, ten, or thirty years from now. NOW.
For a wealth of information, support and encouragement from Jem Bendell, please visit his blog at https://jembendell.wordpress.com. Here too, you will find links to his paper on Deep Adaptation.
Bendell, Jem. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. IFLAS Occasional Paper 2, July 27, 2018. Accessed from https: jembendell.wordpress.com, May 1, 2019.
Another article on this subject in Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-09-26/new-climate-debate-how-to-adapt-to-the-end-of-the-world