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NOAA Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide at Mauna Loa Observatory 1960-2020
Source Credit: NOAA

We the inhabitants of Earth are in trouble. Serious trouble. Our failure, so far, to end our addiction to fossil fuels and change our consumption habits may well lead to societal collapse within our own lifetime. Such is humanity’s predicament.

In their book, Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos (UK & USA 2021), Editors Jem Bendell and Rupert Read present “an agenda and framework for responding to the potential, probable or inevitable collapse of industrial consumer societies, due to the direct and indirect impacts of human-caused climate change and environmental degradation.” (Introduction, p.2)

By ‘societal collapse’ they refer to an uneven ending of the consumer systems that make our lifestyles possible. These are systems that we take for granted: sustenance, shelter, health, security, pleasure, identity, and meaning. The term ‘collapse’ implies a permanent and total breakdown of these systems. There is no going back to the way things were before the breakdown. The word ‘deep’ takes us deeper into the causes and numerous ways in which we respond to catastrophe as individuals, organizations, and societies.

The Covid-19 global pandemic provided a preview of the vulnerability of our normal ways of life. Beyond the initial health crises, the pandemic triggered an ongoing series of cascading effects on our local and national economies—increasing joblessness, homelessness, and food insecurity. The domestic political upheaval continues to divide us. The disruption in our consumer and industrial supply chains plague us still.

Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos is divided into three parts. This overview will cover “Part I: The Predicament,” comprised of three chapters. Bendell and Read admit that the approved scientific method is flawed when presenting findings and theories to the scientific community and to civil society. For decades, climate scientists have leaned towards conservative assessments of the risks facing humanity. Our situation is far more dire than previously reported.

Bendell and Read note that “[s]cientists have been trained to be cautious before accepting new evidence or, even more so, new theories. This constitutes a certain type of ‘precautionary principle’: there is certain fear of being seen to be exaggerating findings and promoting the possibility of less likely outcomes” (Chapter 1, p.22). Who wants to be ridiculed in The New York Times or on the Fox News channel? Evidence suggests that the IPCC has also maintained a conservative stance.

The branch of paleoclimatology leaves no doubt about the scale of our calamity. By analyzing tiny bubbles trapped in deep Antarctic ice cores, researchers have constructed a continuous record of carbon dioxide going back 800,000 years. During the period 2015-2020, global mean levels of carbon dioxide stood at 415 ppm, an annual growth rate of almost 3 ppm (NOAA 2020). Such a concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has not been seen since over three million years ago during the Middle Pliocene period. If we continue at our current trends, we will exceed levels of 500 ppm in about 30 years, taking us back to a period 25 million years ago when the first primate appeared.

NOAA Climate Dashboard: Carbon Dioxide Over 800,000 Years
Source Credit: NOAA

Given that we are on track to approach 2℃ of global ambient warming, Bendell argues that the time has come for environmentalists and professionals in the sustainability field to discuss the likelihood and nature of societal collapse due to climate change. He presents the following considerations in framing humanity’s situation:

  • Where and when will the collapse or catastrophe begin?
  • When will it affect my livelihood and society?
  • Should we drop everything now and move somewhere more suitable for self-sufficiency?

Bendell alerts that deep adaptation will require resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation, as defined below (Chapter 2, p.72):

Resilience: the capacity of human societies to adapt to changing circumstances for survival with valued norms and behaviors.

Relinquishment: letting go of certain assets, behaviors, and beliefs which could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines and certain types of consumption.

Restoration: rediscovering attitudes and approaches of life and organization that our fossil-fuel civilization have eroded. Examples include re-wilding landscapes and changing our diet back to local seasonal produce.

Reconciliation: how we reconcile with each other and with the predicament will be key to avoiding more harm by acting from suppressed panic.

In Chapter 3, Pablo Servigne, Raphaël Stevens and two other scholars focus on the science of societal collapse, or ‘collapsology,’ which provides a framework for academic and independent experts, governmental organizations, and the general public to engage in a meaningful conversation. They do not believe that it is ‘alarmist’ to prepare for the risk of a societal collapse, as we do when we take out fire insurance (Chapter 3, pp.88-89).

Despite repeated warnings of our existential climate change crisis, our climate scientists have failed to emotionally connect with much of society, particularly those in the most powerful positions. Some scholars argue that bad news lead to inaction or that fear causes paralyzation. On the other hand, an eco-psychologist has found that hope does not come from good news or from hiding emotions, but from community and action. Emotions are not our enemies; denial is.

My overview of “Part II: Shifts in Being,” coming next month, tackles climate psychology, denial, eco-distress, ‘e-s-c-a-p-e ideology,’ climate collapse denial, and more.