12 Reasons why people deny we’re headed for collapse.
Jem Bendell offers a list of 12 styles of resistance of confronting the imminent collapse of human and Earth systems.
The starting point for a generative discussion of the deep adaptation agenda is a difficult one. Because to begin to rigorously and imaginatively discuss this topic first requires us to accept the likelihood of near term societal collapse. By which I mean that within ten years, in whatever society we are living in, that we will find ourselves in a situation where our normal means of income, sustenance, security, pleasure, identity and purpose all disappear. As it is impossible to predict the future within complex systems, “ten years” is not my prediction, and I mention it as a device to help focus this discussion without making people run out the room to stock their bunker. Please note that I am not suggesting we have the whole ten years: we might have less than that. Havent a clue about what I am talking about? Then please read my paper on Deep Adaptation.
As I have been talking with people about this topic over the past few years, I’ve become aware of the barriers accepting near-term societal collapse and therefore barriers to rigorous and creative thinking and discussion about what we might do about it, personally and collectively. I have also become aware of the barriers I had for a few years to avoid addressing this topic with the seriousness it merits. So before outlining either the analysis of our environmental predicament or the new agenda this opens up, it may be useful to outline some of these barriers to useful dialogue. I do that as part of my invitation for you to either avoid – or momentarily suspend – such responses and adopt a “what if” perspective on societal collapse. Only then can one explore what a deep adaptation agenda might mean for oneself, one’s work and wider society.
I am not a psychologist. I presume there is a lot of psychological theory related to what I am perceiving when I discuss climate-induced collapse. Some theories like confirmation bias, wilful blindness, cognitive dissonance and the relatability of new information are ones that have reached me via the mainstream. But rather than attempt a poor hack of psychological theory to validate or explain my perceptions, I will instead share a purely layman’s perspective of the attitudes and responses I have encountered. I will therefore leave it to psychologists to come to my aid in elaborating on these experiences. In the following discussion, I may also be exhibiting certain fallacies that psychologists could point out for me. Any feedback is welcome (in the comments below). For ease of future discussion, I will label each of the following twelve types of dialogue-barring response with a somewhat catchy title.
The “Problem Person” Response
The first response that is a barrier to discussing deep adaptation is an “ad hominem” response, where we question the credibility of the person sharing the analysis. It is a response we all have when confronted with uncommon views. Is he credible? Is he an expert? Is this view widely shared? These are obvious and important questions to ask. But should not mean you avoid looking at the evidence yourself. Therefore, when asked that question, I suggest people read the summary of climate science and current measurements, in the first part of my Deep Adaptation paper.
The “Objectifying” Response
The second response that is a barrier to generative dialogue on this topic is to label the analysis of collapse as just one type of analysis amongst many. This approach sometimes includes expressing how apocalyptic thinking is a cultural trope throughout human history. This means that one can feel one has a broader perspective of a range of different views held by different people and organisations. Therefore, the emotional charge of the analysis of near-term collapse is reduced. One’s worldview is maintained including the view that one is a reasonable balanced person operating sensibly within a reasonable balanced society. The problem with this perspective is you are choosing to “sit on the fence” on the most important matter in your lifetime.
The “Polite Avoidance” Response
The third response that is a barrier to generative dialogue is to renegotiate for yourself what I am saying. It’s a polite conflict-avoiding form of response. It is where you might choose to focus on what you think is the useable bit of what I’m saying, where you conclude that things are very bad and therefore we need to increase our efforts to stave off collapse. But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying societal collapse is now inevitable within, probably, the next ten years. And I’m using the concept of “inevitable” because even if there is a eureka technology right now that is deployed at scale to take carbon out of the atmosphere, the heating that’s pre-determined from existing atmospheric CO2 plus the escalating feedback loops means societies will collapse anyway.
The “Moral Superiority” Response
The fourth response that is a barrier to generative dialogue on this topic is what I will call the “moral superiority” response. It is when people ask “is he being irresponsible for expressing this view?” The supposition made, most often without evidence, is that it will make people panic or become apathetic, and therefore we shouldn’t even be discussing it. Yet silencing our own thinking and discussion because of speculation on what this might do in the wider world is an illogical way of thinking. It is a response that I examine in my Deep Adaptation paper and contrast with the evidence from worldwide opinion surveys that suggests more people are becoming doubtful about the future. This objection often comes with accusations that people like me are “giving up” and irresponsibly implying everyone should “give up.” That is often said rhetorically without specificity of what exactly we are giving up on. Therefore, such statements reflect an annoyance a person is experiencing when hearing the idea of collapse. I am suggesting people give up efforts at the incremental reform of existing systems. I am suggesting people give up on any dependence on the status and security associated with their current way of life. I am suggesting people give up on assuming their lives have meaning by contributing to progress. I am suggesting people give up in postponing their attention to their own mortality and the meaning of life. I am not suggesting we give up on carbon reductions or active engagement in society. Quite the opposite. Many things can be discussed, as a result of this switch in thinking.
The “Postpone Judgement” Response
The fifth response that is a barrier to generative dialogue on this topic involves thinking to oneself that it might be true, but to know for sure then I’d have to really study and think, and I am too busy right now so will aim to analyse this later. Being busy is comprised of so many things. We could be having so much fun, or having invested so much of our time, money and spirit into a project that hasn’t yet succeeded, or know we want to have the fun we haven’t had before looking at this topic more. Why? Because we sense that looking more closely at near term societal collapse risks disrupting everything think about ourselves, the world and all that we have worked towards. The problem is that while one postpones, a subconscious panic can set in as more information about our current situation passes across our screens. Yes, I speak from experience on that one!
The “Fairy-tale” Response
A sixth response that is a barrier to generative dialogue on deep adaptation arises from a belief that we create the reality we experience, so we can help avoid a collapse by imagining something else. Within an individualistic framing, there is positive psychology, whether the moderate kind that involves believing ‘where the attention goes so energy flows’, or the extreme kind, where people want to believe in their own cosmic power to manifest anything they want by focusing their desire. Such a view ignores how we co-create our reality with other people and the more-than-human world. It stores up greater pain for when things don’t work out according to ones hopes and dreams. It might also restrict people from applying their minds to the world as it is now. A different version of this “fairy-tale” response to the latest climate science is the idea that so long as we identify with a new story of reality, beyond separation, we will be able to overcome a climate catastrophe. Although our current climate predicament is the result of a warped story of reality and place within it, the idea that by identifying with a new story of interbeing that we can reshape the world around us to avoid a collapse seems like wishful thinking. It may also be seeking to justify a view on reality and metaphysics by arguing for the utility of that view to an individual self – a highly seductive trap for spiritual teachers and their followers.
The “Not Bothered” Response
The seventh response that is a barrier to generative dialogue, is to think that because this analysis means it’s too late to fix things and maintain society as we know it, therefore we “may as well” just forget about climate change and do something else. In my experience, this view is shared by people who were not actively participating in society beyond their own self-interest. They may have accepted socially-defined notions of success and seek to avoid pain and maximise superficial pleasures. Therefore, they were not likely to contribute much to dialogues on social change in any case. So, we could let them go on their way. But sometimes I hear people express this view because they are angry at the injustice and inequality in our societies and could welcome how collapse will punish elites. When I hear that, then there is an opportunity to channel that anger at injustice into something more useful, given that it is the poor and marginalised who may suffer the worst in early stage of collapse.
The “Distract-Me Please” Response
An eighth response is to take on board the view that we face inevitable near-term collapse and decide one can’t live with the emotions this causes, so set it aside and work on something else, as if it didn’t exist. That is understandable, but impossible. I know, as this is how I responded for a few years. As more and more information is shared about the state of our climate and impacts on our agriculture and societies, the unresolved emotions lurk ready to interrupt your work and life.
The “God’s Will” Response
A ninth response that is a barrier to generative dialogue is to say yeah, I know we screwed, and that’s OK as our true nature is eternal spirit and therefore the end of society, civilisation, even our species, is just the normal passing of things. Such a perspective means you might say let’s take a deep breath in together and chant Om, then go get a green juice or glass of red wine. Another form of this response that is more likely in cultures shaped by Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Bahai) is that whatever is going to happen to our species is God’s will, and therefore we don’t need to discuss what to do about it.
The “Personal Survival” Response
The tenth response I have experienced over the years is to take the analysis of collapse on board and then let the fear-response shape one’s priorities and decisions, so begin to look for means of self-preservation. Many people with that kind of response think they are fully accepting the situation and integrating it into their lives. But being a “prepper” in the complex system of human society within the wider complex system of nature means that this kind of “bunker mentality” is unlikely to work. Not that we shouldn’t look to create arks.
The “Extinction Wins” Response
An eleventh response to generative dialogue on deep adaptation is the view that near term human extinction is inevitable or very likely. Some people with such a view consider any discussion about what to do to reduce the impact of collapse, save the species, or support what might come after this civilisation is gone, are all forms of deluded hope. That one thinks human extinction is inevitable would not necessarily preclude working on the things I just mentioned, as one can act as if it might still be possible to achieve such things, just in case that it is. Or, it might even be possible to accept human extinction and seek to reduce the radioactive legacy we would leave the rest of planet Earth. Those who dismiss any such dialogue are therefore likely trying to find solace in certainty, rather than reconsider everything and consider being active in society.
The “Nit Picking” Response
Rather than deal with the gravity of the analysis, the twelfth barrier is to focus on a detail of communication. For instance, a mistake in a piece of data, or a reference, or annoyance at the tone or content of once utterance. Or perhaps focusing on the lack of depth of discussion in one paper on one set of ideas – from permaculture to geoengineering – which are seen as the be all and end of what should be discussed. This is milder than an ad hominin attack, but helps someone engage with the material without engaging with the significance of the material and thus avoiding meaningful dialogue on deep adaptation. I left it to last in my list as this response is such a boring one, I find it draining to even mention.
Beyond Those Barriers: The Power of “What If?”
These twelve types of response all share the implication that we don’t have to sit with the analysis of near term collapse and explore openly with others all the possible implications. I think these forms of response may therefore all respond to the subconscious desire to close-down this awkward topic as quickly as possible. But I’m not a psychologist. So, to any psychologists reading this, if you can add any context to the ideas I have outlined that could help me (and others). Then any advice for how to help people awaken to such patterns and move beyond them would be great. Also, if I’m exhibiting a pattern as well, then go let me know 😊
If people avoid or overcome the twelve barriers I have described, to then discuss the components and implications of a deep adaptation agenda, or similar, then this doesn’t mean people will agree with each other. Not at all. Someone may turn to religion. Some to nationalism. Some to principles of universal love and compassion. Some may focus on geoengineering. Others on humanitarian action. Some on moving beyond capitalism. And so on. But that’s where our dialogues should be focused on now. Sadly, our dumbed-down establishment-aligned media still think it is best to debate whether climate change is real or associated with extreme weather events that, by repeating regularly, show how climate has changed.
In future I will write more about some avenues for discussion, for those who want to seek meaning, potency and urgency within a context of impending collapse. But my conviction is that once people overcome the twelve barriers I have just described, then hopefully many better views on what to do than my own will begin to emerge.