The False Refuge Of "Deep Adaptation"

Deep Adaptation is a new school of environmental thought, centered around and popularized by a widely-read 2018 paper by Jim Bendell,1 who summarizes the stance as follows:

In a nutshell: because widespread and near term societal collapse is likely, inevitable or unfolding, we should begin to prepare emotionally and practically.2

Deep adaptation (DA) has proved broadly attractive, despite its chilly reception by some establishment climate scientists and communicators, and the fact that its direness supposedly drove a number of readers to therapy (the horror!). My sense is that DA particularly draws those who are curious and compassionate, engaged with the world, probably male, and who want to grapple with the climate crisis on a substantive level. Most of these are commendable qualities! The problem, as I see it, it that DA seems like the only rigorous path that is available to this group. I believe its dangers spring from the fact that it offers a degree of comfort, the comfort that results from facing and accepting one’s apparent fate, in return for relinquishment of hope. This psychological trade might make sense in the face of actually inevitable near-term collapse, but it is neither necessary nor helpful to the larger project of civilizational maturation. There is another way!

The good, the bad, and the ugly of DA

The key tenet of the Deep Adaptation is clearly stated in one of its axioms: DA “is premised on the view that social collapse is now inevitable,” and that therefore “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.”

The attraction of the DA interpretation lies in the fact that it does indeed offer one of the few psychological paths toward spiritual reckoning with the distressing facts of our situation. And it is true that much of society, and some who are working on the crisis, have thus far avoided fully engaging with the gravity and peril we face. DA is influential, I believe, because it gives permission to accept a dimly-seen but terrifying situation rather than indefinitely spending psychich energy to hold it at bay. If correct, this would mean that DA provides a desperately longed-for interpretation of our situation to those who have already come quite a way in their journey of climate learning, rather than convincing someone new to the topic to skip straight to despair.

The problem is that Deep Adaptation equates such a reckoning with the truth of our situation (necessary!) with an acceptance of the inevitability of near-term societal collapse (wrong!). Not merely that such collapse is one possible outcome that we should take seriously3, but that digesting the truth of our current situation compels acceptance of this particular outcome. But if near-term collapse is indeed inevitable, then the effort to prevent that outcome is futile, and, as Bendell charges later, those engaged in those efforts are seeking refuge in denial.

Whoa if true, right? But what is the evidence for inevitability of collapse? It turns out that Bendell does not offer a particular argument. He spends several pages reviewing the current climate research, and then concludes the following:4

It is a truism that we do not know what the future will be. But we can see trends. We do not know if the power of human ingenuity will help sufficiently to change the environmental trajectory we are on. Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.”

In other words, humanity has done a poor job of responding appropriately in the past, and therefore we should not place hope in the possibility that we will do any better from here on out. As a conjecture, this is fine — there would be no issue if he were staking out his particular view of the situation. But Bendell is after a larger claim: that his view is the one that responsible and honest observers should adopt. Doing so is not only compelled by intellectual honesty, but will also lead to actions that are more likely to lead to better outcomes - a deep adaptation to the chaning climate, meaning profound changes and curtailments to our lives.

To state it in the clearest possible terms: Bendell’s argument is utterly insufficient to justify this level of resignation.5 It amounts to a crypto-Hobbesian view in which a fear spiral and widening chaos are the only prospects worth considering, a narrow scenario that is erected on a view of human society that does not allow for collective learning and growth. Underlying this is Hobbes’ view: the climate crisis will lead us to revert to the state of nature in which we find a war of all against all. Bendell implicitly adopts this view in drawing his grim conclusion, but he does not highlight this assumption, much less unpack how his argument might change if we decide to play against type.

We’ve heard this many times before, including from the darker reaches of political realism. While Bendell might have much better intentions, his analysis is downright Cheneyesque — including, as we shall see, his patronizing tone toward what Dick once dismissed as the inadequacy of “personal virtue”. Both world views exude the sense that only Real Men can handle the truth. But what about those of us who ask whether another, more connected and compassionate world is possible? We, it seems, are the weak ones. In the immortal words of Nathan Jessup:

You can’t handle the truth! Son we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Whose gonna do it, you?…You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall!… I have neither the time, nor the inclination to explain myself, to a man who rises and sleeps, under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and than questions the manner in which I provide them! I’d rather you just said ‘thank you’, and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn, what you think you are entitled to!

Is this hyperbole? In 2017, David Wallace-Wells’ wrote a New York Magazine piece6, later published in expanded book form, that laid out in human terms the catastrophic effects that we should expect as the climate crisis unfolds. Bendell laments the skeptical reception that this article received from some climate activists and communicators, who among other critiques thought that it painted an overly-certain picture:

The argument made is that to discuss the likelihood and nature of social collapse due to climate change is irresponsible because it might trigger hopelessness amongst the general public. I always thought it odd to restrict our own exploration of reality and censor our own sensemaking due to our ideas about how our conclusions might come across to others.

In Bendell’s reading of these reactions, the problem is that most of us can’t handle his truth — even (especially?) those who think it amounts to counterproductive “climate disaster porn” that could prevent people from taking more action to avert the very scenario they have been made to fear.7 But apparently the rest of us are censoring our own sensemaking, because we are just not capable of putting on our big boy pants and dealing with the grim reality. But like Nathan Jessup, Bendell’s analysis overlooks the possibility that the rest of us can and are dealing with the truth — but it is a richer, more layered truth than he imagines. And we’re just not ready to throw in the towel.

No, you’re in denial

Soon after, Bendell ascribes much of the reluctance to grapple with the truth to the psychological protection afforded by denial. He unpacks denial according to the taxonomy of {Foster, 2014, #86127}, who identifies one particularly tenacious form of the mechanism as follows:

If we recognise the troubling implications of these facts but respond by busying ourselves on activities that do not arise from a full assessment of the situation, then that is “implicative denial”. Foster argues that implicative denial is rife within the environmental movement, from dipping into a local Transition Towns initiative, signing online petitions, or renouncing flying, there are endless ways for people to be “doing something” without seriously confronting the reality of climate change.

This was the paragraph that made me yelp in frustration. Just the night before reading it, I had attended a meetup of listener of the My Climate Journey podcast.8 During the live taping that took place there, the host, Jason Jacobs, and his guests, Shayle Kann and Abe Yokell, had each stressed the importance of adopting a systems view of the problem. One entailment of this approach is the realization that many forms of action will be needed to successfully address the crisis. We will discuss this at length, but for now we can summarize it as “many more things will matter in responding to the climate crisis than are currently recognized as being crucial to the climate fight.”

But here we have Bendell, with Foster’s help, first equating clear-eyed recognition of the severity of the problem with the inevitability of a certain dire (and poorly-defined) outcome. (Why inevitable? Because look at human history.) Then he dismisses many of the actions that people are taking as tokens of their denial - mere palliatives to salve their dread. But this ignores a key dynamic, which is that the value of climate action lies not only in its direct impact on emissions, but also its indirect effects on subsequent actions. While some individual behaviors are indeed performative and easy to scorn, it is utterly out of touch to dismiss those who are taking action as “‘doing something’ without seriously confronting the reality of climate change.”

So what’s the big deal?

Why is Deep Adaptation such a dangerous argument to leave unchallenged for a mainstream audience? Or, as Bendell asks, why are most environmentalists and climate experts so reluctant to accept these difficult truths in public?

The process starts with an intellectually innocent move - it’s just a thought experiment! - which proves to be psychologically devastating. The problem is that a number of smart folks use that assumption as their starting point - they are not “trying it on for size”, but instead using it as the foundation on which to build the remainder of their world view. Once hope is relinquished, even on a trial basis, it is very hard to pick it back up - the deep adaptation thought experiment is a one-way emotional trap disguised as a cognitive day trip. It offers quick relief from looming dread but replaces it with stubborn despair. While the cognitive journey need not stop there, for many the emotional seduction of this move will make further progress difficult.

Those who are drawn to learn about DA are likely to be those who know that the situation is very difficult, and who also know that they are struggling to digest that difficulty into their psyche. They may also be people who comprehend the climate crisis first through an intellectual lens, and are not as aware or accepting of the emotional implications. Engagement with DA starts at the intellectual level, but those who enter its doors very quickly notice the calm that it brings. There is immense psychological and emotional relief in accepting that collapse is inevitable - for some, that acceptance is what allows them to breathe for the first time in a long time.

I explain how that perspective [i.e., that that we face disruptive changes in the near-term] is marginalised within the professional environmental sector – and so invite you to consider the value of leaving mainstream views behind.

I am aware that some people consider statements from academics that we now face inevitable near-term social collapse to be irresponsible due to the potential impact that may have on the motivation or mental health of people reading such statements. My research and engagement in dialogue on this topic, some of which I will outline in this paper, leads me to conclude the exact opposite. It is a responsible act to communicate this analysis now and invite people to support each other, myself included, in exploring the implications, including the psychological and spiritual implications.”

Once it is recognized as such, I think it becomes clear that there is little value in providing intellectual responses to what is at heart a psychological and emotional refuge, one that transforms the (unbearable) overwhelming and terrifying to the (merely) sad and inevitable. As discussed in the previous essay, most people have not yet found a psychological entry point to engage with the climate crisis, and are therefore in some form of denial or free-floating despair. DA is a bridge across those waters, but one that delivers its adopters into a new land that they can never leave.

What is desperately needed is the outline of a program that fills some of the same need - i.e., regaining some semblance of control - through means that produce effective action. The crucial fact, one that is not admitted in the DA worldview, is that such a program would be even more honest about the possiblities because it takes some factors into account that DA is unable or uninterested in assimilating. The irony of DA may end up being that, in asking people to make a full reckoning with the climate crisis, it incorporates only a small fraction of what make human society so adaptive and hardy. The stoics are the ones with their heads buried in the sand.

  1. ↩︎

  2. Bendell, J. (2019). Inviting Scientists to Challenge or Improve Deep Adaptation. Retrieved 2/15/20, ↩︎

  3. Nothing in the climate crisis is all or nothing, that it will never be too late not to try. ↩︎

  4. Where, at the risk of restating, we should remember that “near-term societal collapse” is simultaneously more extreme and hard-to-define than possible alternatives. Both its extreme nature and its ill-formedness are essential to the combined logos, pathos, and ethos of Bendell’s argument - these are not simply matters of semantics. ↩︎

  5. For those who like their fallacies named, this is an example of the modal scope fallacy - in this case, assuming that a condition that holds at one time period implies the necessity of its conclusion for all time.

    And as climate scientist Michael Mann explains, “The concept of ‘uncontrollable levels of climate change’ is both unscientific and nonsensical…” ↩︎

  6. Wallace-Wells, D. (2017). The uninhabitable earth. New York Magazine, 14. ↩︎

  7. Atkin, E. The Power and Peril of “Climate Disaster Porn”. Retrieved 2/15/20, ↩︎

  8. ↩︎