Deep Adaptation is a philosophical framework created by Jem Bendell (a British professor) to cope with climate apocalypse. Bendell believes that our civilization will collapse fairly soon (within 10 years at most) because changes in the weather will make human agriculture impossible, leading to worldwide food shortages, starvation, chaos, war, and death.
And yet, Bendell is cheerful, more or less.
In a recent essay, he concludes: “In facing our climate predicament, I have learned that there is no way to escape despair. But there seems to be a way through despair. It is to love.” His philosophy is aimed at creating a humane response to societal collapse, including both spiritual adaptation to achieve “equanimity,” and practical adaptation “to support wellbeing ahead of and during social breakdowns.” His ultimate goal is to bring people together to discover a loving, compassionate way of being alive in this time of disaster.
I serve as a moderator on Bendell’s Facebook Group “Positive Deep Adaptation.” The group is called “positive” to signal that accepting the inevitability of collapse does not imply nihilism, negativity, or defeat. The mission that Bendell has set for himself is to find a way through the cataclysm to a “radical hope” on the other side of despair. I have found it rewarding to read thousands of messages posted by people coping with collapse.
Deep Adaptation is interpreted in many ways. Bendell’s original paper, published in July 2018, provides questions, not answers, so people project onto the framework what they want to think it means. Many people hear a call to action, and have undertaken vigorous efforts to either save the planet (cf. Extinction Rebellion) or to create enclaves in which small communities of humans may survive through collapse. Alternatively, I and others see in Deep Adaptation principally a spiritual quest for “equanimity” in the face of inevitable personal and planetary death.
Bendell himself maintains a strategic ambiguity about the ultimate purpose of the Deep Adaptation agenda. He encourages collective efforts like Extinction Rebellion, but seems to predict that the campaign will not achieve its stated goals. Rather, he says, the campaign is valuable because:
“…it is prefiguring the way of being together – putting truth and love and sacrifice first. That’s what’s most important. Not what it’s calling for. It’s the fact that people are coming together in solidarity across all generations, across all political persuasions and classes, and they’re doing it to help each other to put truth and love first. That’s why I support them; that’s why I’m involved. Not because I think it’s going to stop what’s coming, [though] it could help us prepare.”
During my work as a moderator in the Facebook Group, I have identified a process implicit in Bendell’s writings that characterizes what people must go through to adopt the Deep Adaptation approach. Here it is:
The Practice of Deep Adaptation
- Deep Adaptation begins with the acknowledgement of loss. We accept that climate breakdown is happening and that societal collapse is inevitable. We overcome “denial;” that is, we accept that collapse will happen to us.
- We let it be personal. We accept that collapse will render meaningless the ways we have previously related to the world and to other people. We allow our new knowledge to “destroy our old stories of identity and agency,” as Bendell puts it. This is emotionally difficult, and challenges the very notion of “self.”
- We grieve. Grief is the process of coping with the loss of our concept of ourself, our world, and the future we thought we had. Grieving includes feelings of profound sadness, and a period of “disorganization” during which the familiar patterns of our thinking and activity may loosen or vanish. This opens the ground to a reorganization of our lives, and a resolution of grief.
- We seek new meaning. Some people find new meaning on an inner path toward spiritual revelation and clarity. (This is my way.) Other people seek a closer relationship with the Earth and other people through communal homesteading, off-the-grid living, regenerative agriculture, etc. Still others are moved to political action and communication on a global scale, to deliver the warning that collapse is on its way. Deep Adaptation accommodates all of these responses!
- We commit to new lives. The practice of Deep Adaptation is transformational. We are not the same person at the end as we were when we began. (If we are, we haven’t gone deep enough.) The discovery that Bendell has made, and has shared with us, is this: On the other side of despair is love, which – climate apocalypse or no – is the proper foundation of human life. ⭐️