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EcoVillage – Ithaca – New York – USA
Photo Credit: EcoVillage Ithaca

This is Part III and final overview of the book, Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos, editors Jem Bendell & Rupert Read (UK/USA 2021). Part III explores some of the ‘shifts in doing’ that occur when people anticipate societal collapse. Here are the links to Part I: “Climate Chaos: Humanity’s Predicament” and Part II: Climate Chaos: “Shifts in Being.”

In his article “Leadership and Management in a Context of Deep Adaptation,” British leadership scholar Professor Jonathan Gosling observes that leadership in periods of collapsing social structures requires maturity to tolerate, contain, and transform anxiety in constructive ways. Leadership of adaptation helps us to reconcile with the situation, evaluate the risks, grieve when we suffer loss, weigh our shrinking options, and choose pragmatic and courageous change. Success relies upon collaboration, partnerships, sharing, and organization. Political, media, and business leaders must also play their part in facilitating the policies and strategies to support deep adaptation.

Transition Town Hamamatsu – Japan
Photo Credit: Transition Network (TN)

“What Matters Most? Deep Education Conversations in a Climate of Change and Complexity” by British education specialist Dr. Charlotte von Bülow and Charlotte Simpson is a report of their research on the “Deep Adaptation Framework” conducted among diverse groups of people in the field of education. Beginning in early 2020, the study first focused on groups in the UK and then extended its reach worldwide. Using Jem Bendell’s 4Rs (discussed in Part I of this series), Bülow and Simpson posed four questions to the participating groups for discussion.

1. Resilience: What aspects of education as we know it would we want to develop and learn from in a climate of change and complexity?

No group proposed maintaining the current education system, in whole or part. They called for safeguarding two powerful cornerstones of childhood: (1) discovery through play in a test-free environment and (2) the power of positive relationships with adults for aspiration towards mastery. They stressed the need for positive role models in the child’s formative years for development of capacities needed to navigate in a complex and unpredictable world.

2. Relinquishment: What aspects of education as we know it would we want to let go of?

Foremost, participants were eager to let go of the passive learning style dominating many education systems worldwide. They called for processes to prepare students for life beyond exams, an unnecessary source of stress and anxiety. Teachers and students in higher education noted that the humanities still promote the idea that humans are separate from nature. This mindset at the heart of education leads us to see the natural world as a resource to be exploited. Others suggested that conventional school education should urgently let go of the notion that objective, scientific knowledge is superior to all other kinds of knowledge.

3. Restoration: What would we want to reintroduce into education?

Teachers called for a more situated village-style schooling, where people of all ages could interact with each other and the local environment. In this way, children would have the opportunity to learn from their elders and vice-versa. Participants wanted a reintroduction of life skills. Students in higher education saw the importance for children and young people to grow their own food, not only for sustaining themselves but also as a way of cultivating a deeper appreciation of nature.

4. Reconciliation: How can education facilitate acceptance as well as agency?

Participants stressed the need for educators to communicate, as truthfully and accurately as possible, the reality of our global situation and to promote acceptance of the uncertainty we face. Some suggested the creation of a “safe space” for students to voice their concerns and work through the issue with a sense of togetherness. Others proposed storytelling as another powerful way of exploring and developing agency. New stories are needed to determine what we value and care about. They considered, too, the power of gratitude for overriding humanity’s entitlement to nature’s resources and for inspiring us to rewrite a narrative of reciprocity.

Bülow and Simpson observed that some of the major obstacles to change pertains to the question: What matters most? As we have witnessed in dealing with the pandemic, we do not all agree on what matters most, resulting in discontent, disharmony, and disruption. What matters most also depends upon what we pay attention to. This presents a challenge for engaging our youth who are immersed in social media platforms.

Transition Network – Stories
Photo Credit: Transition Network (TN)

In his article “Riding Two Horses: The Future of Politics and Activism as We Face Potential Eco-driven Societal Collapse,” Professor Rupert Read draws on his experience as a spokesperson and political advisor with the activist group Extinction Rebellion, as well as his work as a political philosopher. He believes that this civilization is without doubt coming to an end, thereby making the politics of sustainability meaningless. Instead, he adds, “our politics becomes a sphere for frankly desperate efforts (which should be centered in transformative adaptation) to bring about a ‘compassionate revolution’ in time conceivably still to head off collapse, AND of profound efforts to begin the process of deep adaptation” (p.241). We have no alternative. To accept otherwise, he asserts, is simply soft denialism.

Now is the time for a politics of truth telling which does not shy away from the abyss into which humanity has already begun our descent. Activism needs to change its focus from sustainability to transformative adaptation. To accomplish this, our activism must shift society in the direction of being able to ride two horses at the same time:

  1. One horse leads the demand for an emergency program of “mitigation” integrated into plans for transformative adaptation; and
  2. The other horse leads the beginning of the deep adaptation as the ultimate insurance policy.

Aware that this “two horses” approach is complex and uncomfortable for the general population to accept, Read insists that our current path of ecological reforms is not feasible. The imperative of continuous economic growth of our globalized capitalist system leaves no future for our civilization. The better prepared we are for societal collapse, the greater our chances of building something meaningful after a collapse event.

Preparation would include resilient seed banks and bio banks, creating multi-form libraries, learning relevant skills, and preparing ourselves mentally for a crash. Read recommends “staying with the trouble; living and acting in the uncomfortable but fertile realm of unknowing, represented by the slight hope of civilizational transformation and the deep need for deep adaptation in the face of (in my judgement, very likely) eco-driven civilizational collapse” (p.247).

He calls for the injection of deep adaptation into our political discourse, among our scientists, “think tanks,” and the media. Until this occurs, we the people of the world will not believe the truth of the crisis of our civilization. He admits that getting everyone on board, especially the rich and powerful, will not be easy. Extensive and radical changes to our lifestyles within the short time available will face strong resistance.

Video of Ecovillages: A movement for lived sustainability by GEN Europe – October 6, 2014

In the chapter “Relocalization as Deep Adaptation,” community currency expert Matthew Slater and Extinction Rebellion founder member Skeena Rathor explain why and how “relocalization” of economics and societies is an important part of the response to climate chaos. Many theories of collapse indicate less control from distant centers of power, less taxation and redistribution, less access to technology, and a smaller military. Decaying infrastructure and concerns for personal security limit one’s freedom of movement. When nation-states are weakened, self-sufficiency on a regional or local scale gains prominence. Interpersonal relationships within the community becomes vital for resilience in dealing with disruptions to normal life.

Slater and Rathor emphasize that, with widespread societal collapse, the best option for survival lies in a coordinated relocation movement among neighbors or self-selected groups of people. In combining their diverse skills and knowledge, such relocation projects are also small enough to promote inclusive decision-making and participation. The authors cite the examples of ecovillages, centered on sustainability and cooperation, and the Transition Network (TN), based on permaculture.

Both relocation projects cited have their limitations. Ecovillages would require massive land reform worldwide for expansion to an estimated nine billion people by 2050. The TN’s projects, predominantly comprised of middle-class people of European descent, create an atmosphere not welcoming to working-class and minority groups.

The authors conclude that organizing ourselves locally offers no guarantee for survival. As occurred during the precipitous decline of the Roman Empire, today’s minority power elite in its dying throes might “redistribute” all wealth among themselves. [Note: This is already in progress.] Nevertheless, they believe that a relocalized lifestyle based on permaculture would offer more resilient means of meeting our material needs and promote a shift in our sense of self-hood to one more connected with each other and Mother Nature.

In their concluding remarks, the editors Jem Bendell and Rupert Read note that whether we see societal collapse as inevitable and fairly “near-term,” humanity is entering uncharted territory. We will have lots to unlearn and to learn. As more courageous people stay with the trouble and not seek an easy way out, the greater our chances of generating ideas and initiatives for humanity to avoid further harm and create more possibilities for the future. They understand the resistance to their proposed deep adaptation agenda. It challenges our assumptions of personal identity and purpose. Worse yet, it invites us not only to contemplate our feasible death and that of our loved ones, but also the end of the taken-for-granted framework which has sustained our civilization for centuries. Denial or ignorance is no longer an option.