Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse – Jem Bendell
“People need hope, Jem.”
“It’s really important to have a vision of a better future, Jem”
As someone who worked in environmental campaigning and then organizational change, I learned about the role of hope and vision in helping to align and motivate people. As someone who worked at the heart of political communications during the 2017 UK General Election campaign, I’m also aware of the power of a positive narrative when told well, consistently and authentically. In my professional world of leadership and its development, hope and vision are recognized as key. I still teach such skills to senior executives in business, politics and civil society and am proud of the way they feel empowered in their purpose as a result.
But, but, but…
Since my return to analysing climate science last year led me to conclude we face inevitable near-term societal collapse, where might we find any hope or vision?
The question used to be a quiet one, raised in private conversations. But since the unexpected impact of my paper on Deep Adaptation and the attention generated by the peaceful Extinction Rebellion protest movement, I am hearing it a lot. When faced with evidence of forthcoming collapse, people not only wonder about their personal need for hope and vision, but also what should be said to others – whether fellow professionals, kids, parents or the general public. You may have read or heard people saying we must not give up hope or destroy another’s hope: that to lose hope would undermine action that might prevent catastrophic climate change. Or you may have heard people say that we need to be able to believe in a positive vision of how life could be, whether that is averting, living through or beyond a breakdown in our society due to climate chaos.
Right now, people are seeking to frame the future and the meaning of our activism on climate. So although I am still working things out for myself, perhaps unendingly, I want to share my current and provisional thoughts on the topic of hope and vision. In so doing, I will offer a new “R” to my framing of Deep Adaptation – reconciliation – and invite feedback on this and related ideas (in the comments below).
The subject of my following reflections is one that has been explored for millennia and across cultures. In comparison to that, my level of intellectual inquiry, experiential reflection and lived practice is a bit like a skin cell on the floor of a crowded temple. I feel some embarrassment writing about these things. But our current predicament means that none of us should postpone finding our provisional answers to existential questions, and we might help each other with that by sharing things in writing. So here goes…
When exploring this matter, I recommend you do not follow people who say that people like me look at the world in an overly pessimistic or defeatist way. The suffering of this world today and to come, and in ourselves, is something to be witnessed, but, with intention, I am beginning to sense that we can feel and realize peace and happiness through it all. That will not happen through a desperate belief in stories of personal or collective salvation in this world or the next. Instead, we can turn away from frantic chatter or action, relax into our hearts, notice the impermanence of life, and let love for this momentary experience of life in all its flavours flood our being and shape our next steps. Expressing that aspiration in our words, actions and inactions may invite people who are fear-driven to put down their microphones for a time and join people living from love. It is with that sentiment I share the following ideas.
If we say to a terminally ill person that they should not give up hope then that could become cruel. If by that we mean hope that they could survive, or that they could live while forgetting their situation, then it reflects unresolved and pathological fear of death. It suggests the person spend their last days in struggle and denial, rather than discovering what might matter after acceptance.
I’m not saying the human race has a terminal diagnosis in the near term. But we do in the long-term. Many hominids have gone extinct and so will homo sapiens one day. When that will be is another question – a difficult one, and I am not currently convinced of the arguments for near term human extinction. But I have concluded that our way of life has a terminal diagnosis. Because rain-fed agriculture will continue to breakdown over the next decade. Unless we immediately build massive irrigated greenhouses, and plan for compulsory plant-heavy diets and food rationing, we will see malnutrition in the West and resultant civil unrest, lawlessness and a breakdown in normal life.
One problem with hoping things will be OK is that it means we give up our agency. We assume someone will fix things. That is what some call “passive hope.” Meanwhile, any unrealistic hope steals possibility, by wasting the precious time we have to attempt to reduce harm and save humanity. So the problem with proponents of the hope that “we can fix this” is that it makes taboo the needed conversations about what to do given that we can’t fix things. That is what we could call “magical hope”, as it often comes with an overt or implicit suggestion that we can make the reality evolve according to moments where we are choosing to hope (as an aside: if we are co-creating our reality through our consciousness then it is through every moment of attention, not just those moments when we choose to pull ourselves together and do some magical hoping). In distinction to passive hope some have called for an “active hope” where we drop mainstream or received ideas of hope and instead face what we think is reality and construct a new hope based on what we believe in. That is a powerful rethinking of what hope means, as it makes us realise that hope involves actions to make it real. But I don’t think it is a sufficient reworking of the concept of hope. Because it can downplay whether we really think our actions will add up to the outcome we are actively hoping for. Instead, the emphasis is on intention, without being precise about the nature of intention, such as love, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. Therefore, people who speak of “active hope” may actually be practising magical hope, and avoiding either deeper inquiry into the intentions they value or into the implications of the futility of their actions.
In my work I have begun to invite people to explore what a radical hope may look like. In my Deep Adaptation paper, I explain how this was inspired in part by how some Native Americans responded to a realisation of the inevitability of the destruction of their way of life. Some elders decided that they had to let go of all their existing hopes and construct a new one that was possible. In comparison to their past way of life, this form of hope would seem more like a horror, but in comparison to complete annihilation, it was chosen by some tribes. Radical hope is a form of hope that’s consciously chosen after denial. It is a form of hope that is empowered surrender to a situation. It accepts difficult realities about what is happening as well as one’s capabilities to influence things, but still connects with deeper values and requires action to make it real.
To explore what a radical hope might be for humanity facing global breakdown, I realised it is useful to set aside discussing hope for a time and consider what I really believe in.
So we need to turn to the matter of belief. Yikes. Now I am really out of my depth. But please join me while I sink…
Some spiritual perspectives on the ‘oneness’ of oneself with the universe suggest that we have power to create our reality. That view has been misunderstood and deliberately marketed to people seeking ways to improve their lives. A more accurate insight from both wisdom traditions, contemporary physics, and current experience, is that we are co-creating our reality with others, the material and ineffable dimensions in ways that we can never fully comprehend through human thought and language. We each participate in shaping our experience of the world, but not autonomously of others or the world. Now, even with this perspective, it means that the current calamity facing humanity is one of our own mutual volition. Crikey. Why have we done this to ourselves?
Partly because what is happening, as painful as it is, is normal. Yes, the cosmic nature of things is that everything must go. Sure, we don’t like death. It hurts. But death has always been the partner of life, not its enemy. Impermanence makes everything and everyone around us totally sacred and significant. It invites our heartfelt gratitude for all that we experience. Certainly, sensing a nearer end to my own life has meant the rebirth of my ability to love being alive. The tragedy of climate chaos is also an invitation to drop our illusions of permanence. Abundant life, coming and going, shows just what the cosmos can do. While some religious buildings might be nice, it’s our whole planet that is an altar for the adoration of the creative cosmos. We can worship it in all that we do, and all that we do not do.
Climate chaos can invite us to consider the life force of consciousness that came before material organic life. And to consider the way in which aspects of our conscious being will continue after our death. Also, the way our lives may affect a universal field of consciousness and thus the future of life in whatever forms. Indeed, perhaps consciousness has chosen to experience itself in our minds and bodies at this moment and time. How else would we come to exist?
Climate chaos invites us to bring all of that into our present awareness. It may be a shock. But it can wake us up to that impermanence so that things fall away to leave us with love, curiosity, play, compassion, and creativity. Upon reflection, I wondered whether in our ‘heart of hearts’ we really do want this civilisation to continue more than anything; or even the human race to continue more than anything. I wondered if we want something else more than that. I wondered if we desire that our hearts bulge with love and we merge our consciousness with the all. And that we hope all other people might have the chance for the same experience. I wondered if in our hearts we want the planet to continue as a living organism more than we want our species to do so. I present these as musings, as I’m not going to pretend I am certain about these views. I recommend reflecting on these questions and finding your own sense of things.
I particularly like how an Extinction Rebellion leader Skeena Rathor, expressed it in her speech on Westminster Bridge in London on Rebellion Day (November 17th 2018).
“If we are honest with ourselves and look into our heart’s deep interior, if we are honest from there then this isn’t about saving humanity this is about our courage to love as we have never loved before… Let us live now at the edge of our courage to love.”
But don’t take my word for it, or Skeena’s. Rather, once you have explored what you really believe in, then stared back into the abyss of an imminent societal collapse, so you may be find a radical hope of your own.
A RADICAL HOPE OF RECONCILIATION
If you, like me, hope that through growing realisation of a coming collapse, more people will awaken to a deeper understanding of themselves and life, and live with love and compassion, then that is not an idle hope. Because it is not prediction. People respond in myriad ways when the shit hits the fan. There will be some horrible reactions. Indeed, there already are. Therefore, a radical hope of humanity awakening is one where we are actively engaged in it.
In my case, that feels like why I am putting out this blog, with my half-baked ideas on the cosmos, God and all that. Because my radical hope is that many more of us will begin to explore together publicly what “spirituality” and love are and can mean today.
To make this more explicit in the Deep Adaptation framework, I now propose a 4th R to the existing ones on Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration. The original Deep Adaptation paper has been downloaded over 100,000 times. Like Skeena, people have told me it changed their life. What I have noticed is, however, that some people who report being woken up by that paper are now calling for anything to be done to stop collapse. That is, to attempt whatever draconian measures might cut emissions and drawdown carbon. I still think bold cuts and drawdown measures are essential. But that is not the focus of Deep Adaptation, which invites us to prepare for what is now inevitable. Therefore, to make that even more explicit, I propose a fourth question to guide our reflection on how to navigate our climate tragedy:
“What could I make peace with to lessen suffering?”
This question incorporates the idea of Reconciliation with one’s death, including any difficulties and regrets in one’s life, any anger towards existence itself (or God). It also invites reconciliation between peoples, genders, classes, generations, countries, religions and political persuasions. Because it is time to make our peace. Otherwise, without this inner deep adaptation to climate collapse we risk tearing each other apart and dying hellishly. My radical hope is that more of us work together to achieve this reconciliation, in all its forms, as a basis for the fuller deep adaptation agenda that I explain in my paper.
Unless you are a spiritual leader, then a hope for mass awakening and reconciliation does not sound very specific. It may not immediately seem to support straightforward campaign strategies or policy development! If we are to offer a vision where our radical hope of awakening is realised, then what would that look like? From my work as a Professor of Leadership, I know a vision is meant to be tangible, relatable, credible, and relevant to the problems faced. I would really like to see your own ideas on visions in the comments below (but I wont grade them )
To whet your own imaginations, here is one idea…
I envision seeing whole neighbourhoods and camps of people spontaneously singing and dancing together of their pure joy of experiencing all sensations of life, both during and between working together on useful tasks. Not because they are singing from habit, custom, obligation, or recreation, but because they are so connected to the wonder of experiencing life while serving life. I envision people feeling grateful they suddenly found there is time in their lives to sing, dance and connect with nature and each other. I envision this connection also supporting ways of production, sharing, consumption, and caring, that mean people are able to live happily with fewer resources and less certainty.
If that sounds hippy, then so be it. For me it is a highly aspirational, credible and relatable vision, one I can truly hope for and work towards. But please share your own visions below!
In the coming months and years there will be many views emerging on how to achieve change, for both cutting and drawing down emissions, as well as adapting to disruptive impacts of climate change. Some will argue for eco-socialist revolution to take over the key infrastructure, so we have the chance of everyone being fed, watered, housed and cared for as best as possible. Others will seek to harness the powers of the existing system, and turn to transnational corporations, financial institutions and international organisations. Others will continue to hope that elected representatives will be able to suddenly find within themselves the heart and boldness to act and the talent to explain sufficiently to their electorates to remain in power. Others will turn to their neighbours, local associations and local governments, to organise as best they can locally and regionally. I do not yet have a hope or vision in relation to any of those ideas, but welcome people exploring these and other ideas.
With this blog I intend to open up conversation on hope and vision rather than close it down. However, as it is a long blog, here is a summary…
We can no longer stop disruptive climate change. We might be able to slow it. We can try to reduce the harm coming from it. We can explore how to live and die lovingly because of it. But all of that we can do because we have a faith or sense that this is the right way to be alive, not because it will work. Most calls for hope that I’m hearing are from, or for, those fearful of living with death in their awareness. That’s typical, but also a recipe for discussion and action that is counter-productive to life, love and understanding. Which is exactly the opposite of the effect of those who say “don’t take away our hope”. It is time to drop all hopes and visions that arise from an inability to accept impermanence and non-control, and instead describe a radical hope of how we respond in these times. I believe it’s possible and necessary, though mutual inquiry and support, for our fears, beliefs or certainties of collapse to be brought to a place of peaceful inner and outer resourcefulness. Ours is a time for reconciliation with mortality, nature and each other.
We can develop and share a vision of more of us experiencing the invitation to live lovingly, creatively, and truthfully, in acceptance of mortality and impermanence. After all, any other hope or vision were always a tactical delusion for temporary benefit. Ultimately, many more of us may come to see that we love love more than we love life. Hopefully before too much unnecessary suffering and destruction.