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This is the second of a three-part series of overviews of the book, Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos, Edited by Jem Bendell & Rupert Read (UK/USA 2021). Here’s the link to Part I: “Climate Chaos: Humanity’s Predicament.”

Part II (chapters 4 to 8) of the book explores the ‘shifts in being’ that can occur and be supported in the event of a societal collapse due to the planetary climate and ecological crises. In Chapter 4, psychologist and co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) Dr. Adrian Tait describes the ways in which psychotherapists are beginning to change in response to growing public distress, giving rise to the terms ‘climate-distress’ or ‘eco-distress.’

The CPA came into being in the United Kingdom during 2009-2012 following the mobilization of psychotherapists and academics in the field concerned about increasing evidence of climate and ecological destabilization due to human activities. The alliance has two main objectives:

  1. To promote understanding of the way our minds work in preventing us from acting in the face of climate chaos, and
  2. To develop support systems for those of us who are committed to persistent engagement in dealing with humanity’s predicament.

“Support is essential,” Dr. Tait notes. “If we have not been racked by grief over what is happening, then we are shutting its meaning out of our hearts and bodies. But if we remained immersed in grief alone, we would become part of the wreckage. The loss is continuous and mounting, which prevents us from moving on as in normal mourning. We need relief from the pain” (p.106).

Climate psychologists consider not only why people are ignoring the climate science, but how people are listening when they do, or why they are not listening. They draw on psycho-social studies, which includes the cultural matrix in which we operate as individuals. Eco-psychology recognizes the interconnection between the human psyche and all non-human beings, systems, and elements of Planet Earth.

Dr. Tait notes that climate psychologists offer unique contributions to the subject of denial, given their focus on questions of emotion, meaning, and identity. He stresses the need for a wide-ranging alliance of people and movements for success in re-imaging a future where we face up to the consequences of irreversible harm, accept limitations, and learn from past mistakes.

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In Chapter 5, Jem Bendell explains the ideology at the root of human-cause climate chaos and why it has spread worldwide. He calls this the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e: our assumptions of, or belief in Entitlement, Surety (another word for certainty), Control, Autonomy, Progress, and Exceptionalism that govern our conception of self and relationships with other humans and non-human life. His use of the acronym e-s-c-a-p-e is intentional and convenient as these mental habits arise from a desire to escape from unavoidable aspects of our reality—impermanence and death.

Bendell notes that “these mental habits of e-s-c-a-p-e give rise to attitudes like individualism, nationalism, fundamentalist religiosity and selfish spiritualities, as well as systems like colonialism, capitalism, and neoliberalism. They are also involved in processes of unconscious bias, helping to reproduce prejudices and oppression of various kinds” (p.124). Drawing on insights from relevant sociology, psychology, and philosophy, he dissects each mental habit that has brought humanity to its current predicament.

Entitlement assumes that we are entitled to happiness without emotional pain or suffering; to be heard and validated; to have more than our basic needs met. Entitlement has led to societal inequalities, power in the hands of a few, excessive consumption, and refusal to deal with unpleasant news.

Surety describes the threefold assumption that we can be certain of reality, that it is good to be certain, and that we can all agree what reality is and how to know it. The desire for surety has led humanity to fixate on our stories of reality and expand on the elements. In clinging to our worldview, we can become less present to what is actually happening.

Control over all lifeforms and the environment is an acceptable dominant cultural worldview. Because of this assumption of control, humanity failed to pay attention to our interdependence within Earth’s complex life-supporting systems. As our climate and ecological crises deepen, we humans should come to realize that we are not in control of Nature and never were.

Autonomy is another false assumption of the dominant male white culture. The belief that each individual is the separate autonomous origin of our awareness, values, and decisions does not take into consideration our social conditioning. Nor does it consider the influence of the biology of our physical body and brain.

Progress assumes that human civilization is advancing without interruption from the days of cave dwellers into an age of planetary exploration. We move forward blindly with each new technological advancement without considering the consequences for our natural world.

Exceptionalism comes in two kinds: (1) We and our kin are different and better, and therefore more entitled than others. (2) Humans are an exceptional species, separate and completely different from the natural world. This inflated, false sense of exceptionalism supports degradation and destruction across our planet that is one indivisible whole.

Bendell shows how our current economic capitalist system fuels each element of the e-s-c-a-p-e ideology. Workers and consumers systematically destroy our planetary home to provide wealth and power to a minority elite. “The e-s-c-a-p-e ideology is therefore an ideology of oppression for exploitation that is producing omnicide,” he concludes. “Therefore, our climate tragedy is the result of our oppression. Any meaningful environmentalism should be first and foremost a movement for our co-liberation from those systems of oppression that have been forcing us into the insanity of destroying the life-support system of ourselves and our families” (p.144).

To counter the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e, Bendell proposes the c-o-s-m-o-s remedy: Compassion, Openness, Serenity, Mutuality, Oneness, and Solidarity. The acronym is not intended to invoke the image of a cosmos ‘out there’ in space, but rather a cosmos of everything, everywhere, ‘everywhen.’ Recognizing that he is a white, middle-class, middle-age western man with an elite education, Bendell notes: “anything I suggest about a better way of thinking as we face collapse is influenced by my experience of life as someone inhabiting a privileged identity” (p.148). He recommends consideration of other ideas about how to move beyond e-s-c-a-p-e, with special attention of the advice and tools from the collective Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures (GTDF) discussed in Chapter 6.

GTDF is an international assembly of researchers, artists, educators, students, social justice and environmental activists, and ancestral/indigenous knowledge seekers. The analysis presented in Chapter 6: “Unconscious Addictions: Mapping Common Responses to Climate Change and Potential Climate Collapse” focuses on four constitutive denials that are preventing us from meaningfully engaging with the multiple crises we are facing.

Through the metaphor of ‘the house modernity built,’ the analysis describes modernity as a way of being, seeing, desiring, and relating to the world. The house is grounded on the foundation of separability between humans and nature. The twin carrying walls are the nation-state and universal reason (humanism). All within the house is sheltered by the roof of global capitalism. Our current global crises, the authors assert, are not related to a lack of knowledge, but rather to “an inherently violent modern-colonial habit of being” (p.159).

They note that we tend to focus on existing power structures and power relations as the major obstacles for necessary change and transformation. We neglect to consider the deeper and more foundational influence of our own socialized conditioning of wants, entitlements, attachments, and more that fuel the systems that define/regulate our lives.

The authors discuss the four main kinds of denial observed:

  1. Denial of systemic violence and complicity in causing harm;
  2. Denial of the limits of the planet that cannot sustain exponential growth and construction;
  3. Denial of entanglement, our insistence in seeing ourselves as separate from each other and the land; and
  4. Denial of the depth and magnitude of humanity’s predicament.

Based mainly on studies conducted in the countries of the global North, the authors have identified four groups or types of responses to the possibility of climate collapse. They describe these groups as romantic, revolutionary, rationalist, and reactionary. None of the groups challenge the dominating rule of Enlightenment humanism and the foundation of separability. Except for the revolutionary group, humanity’s complicity in historically sanctioned violence and systemic harm is ignored.

To own up to the foundation of violence and destructiveness upon which our current existence is built, the authors propose the ‘rehab’ or rehabilitation approach as an imperfect gesture towards developing new possibilities. This approach explores ways to wean us off the neurochemical addictions and attachments to humanity’s modern-colonial unsustainable habits of being.

In using the language of neuroscience in speculative and metaphorical ways, the authors believe that they can bring attention to the differences in responses to humanity’s predicament. These differences are not merely due to conflicting ideological positions. There are also differences in the ways we sense ourselves to be in the world.

Rehab does not mean a return to ‘the house of modernity’ after a program of detoxification. If we are to sever the harmful patterns of being, that we are often not even aware we inhabit, we will have to delve much deeper into the unconscious levels of our psyche. The task of achieving a ‘shift in being’ will demand both courage and stamina to navigate the relapses in the rehab process. The authors offer no easy way out. Throughout our rehabilitation program as a species, “we will have to sit comfortably with the discomfort at the edge of a form of existence that is dying” (p.172).

My final overview of “Part III: Shifts in Doing,” coming in May, explores possible ways of leading in response to increasing turbulence in society, new approaches to schooling and education, and the future of politics and activism in the face of societal collapse.