What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren?

Facing oncoming climate disaster, some argue for “Deep Adaptation”—that we must prepare for inevitable collapse. However, this orientation is dangerously flawed. It threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy by diluting the efforts toward positive change. What we really need right now is Deep Transformation. There is still time to act: we must acknowledge this moral imperative.


Every now and then, history has a way of forcing ordinary people to face up to a moral encounter with destiny that they never expected. Back in the 1930s, as Adolf Hitler rose to power, those who turned away when they saw Jews getting beaten in the streets never expected that decades later, their grandchildren would turn toward them with repugnance and say “Why did you do nothing when there was still a chance to stop the horror?”

Now, nearly a century on, here we are again. The fate of future generations is at stake, and each of us needs to be prepared, one day, to face posterity—in whatever form that might take—and answer the question: “What did you do when you knew our future was on the line?”

Jews humiliated by Nazis
Many ordinary Germans looked away as Jews were publicly beaten and humiliated by Nazis

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past few months, or get your daily updates exclusively from Fox News, you’ll know that our world is facing a dire climate emergency that’s rapidly reeling out of control. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a warning to humanity that we have just twelve years to turn things around before we pass the point of no return. Governments continue to waffle and ignore the blaring sirens. The pledges they’ve made under the 2015 Paris agreement will lead to 3 degrees of warming, which would threaten the foundations of our civilization. And they’re not even on track to meet those commitments. Even the IPCC’s dire warning of calamity is, by many accounts, too conservative, failing to take into account tipping points in the earth system with reinforcing feedback effects that could drive temperatures far beyond the IPCC’s worst case scenarios.

People are beginning to feel panicky in the face of oncoming disaster. Books such as David Wallace-Wells’s Uninhabitable Earth paint a picture so frightening that it’s already feeling to some like game over. A strange new phenomenon is emerging: while mainstream media ignores impending catastrophe, increasing numbers of people are resonating with those who say it’s now “too late” to save civilization. The concept of “Deep Adaptation” is beginning to gain currency, with its proponent Jem Bendell arguing that “we face inevitable near-term societal collapse,” and therefore need to prepare for “civil unrest, lawlessness and a breakdown in normal life.”

There’s much that is true in the Deep Adaptation diagnosis of our situation, but its orientation is dangerously flawed. By turning people’s attention toward preparing for doom, rather than focusing on structural political and economic change, Deep Adaptation threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the risk of collapse by diluting efforts toward societal transformation.

Our headlong fling toward disaster

I have no disagreement with the dire assessment of our circumstances. In fact, things look even worse if you expand the scope beyond the climate emergency. Climate breakdown itself is merely a symptom of a far larger crisis: the ecological catastrophe unfolding in every domain of the living earth. Tropical forests are being decimated, making way for vast monocrops of wheat, soy, and palm oil plantations. The oceans are being turned into a garbage dump, with projections that by 2050 they will contain more plastic than fish. Animal populations are being wiped out. The insects that form the foundation of our global ecosystem are disappearing: bees, butterflies, and countless other species in free fall. Our living planet is being ravaged mercilessly by humanity’s insatiable consumption, and there’s not much left.

Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies are close to extinction, with a 97% population decline

Deep Adaptation proponents are equally on target arguing that incremental fixes are utterly insufficient. Even if a global price on carbon was established, and if our governments invested in renewables rather than subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, we would still come up woefully short. The harsh reality is that, rather than heading toward net zero, global emissions just hit record numbers last year; Exxon, the largest shareholder-owned oil company, proudly announced recently that it’s doubling down on fossil fuel extraction; and wherever you look, whether it’s air travel, globalized shipping, or beef consumption, the juggernaut driving us to climate catastrophe only continues to accelerate. To cap it off, with ecological destruction and global emissions already unsustainable, the world economy is expected to triple by 2060.

The primary reason for this headlong fling toward disaster is that our economic system is based on perpetual growth—on the need to consume the earth at an ever-increasing rate. Our world is dominated by transnational corporations, which now account for sixty-nine of the world’s largest hundred economies. The value of these corporations is based on investors’ expectations for their continued growth, which they are driven to achieve at any cost, including the future welfare of humanity and the living earth. It’s a gigantic Ponzi scheme that barely gets a mention because the corporations also own the mainstream media, along with most governments. The real discussions we need about humanity’s future don’t make it to the table. Even a policy goal as ambitious as the Green New Deal—rejected by most mainstream pundits as utterly unrealistic—would still be insufficient to turn things around, because it doesn’t acknowledge the need to transition our economy away from reliance on endless growth.

Deep Adaptation . . . or Deep Transformation?

Faced with these realities, I understand why Deep Adaptation followers throw their hands up in despair and prepare for collapse. But I believe it’s wrong and irresponsible to declare definitively that it’s too late—that collapse is “inevitable.” It’s too late, perhaps, for the monarch butterflies, whose numbers are down 97% and headed for extinction. Too late, probably for the coral reefs that are projected not to survive beyond mid-century. Too late, clearly, for the climate refugees already fleeing their homes in desperation, only to find themselves rejected, exploited, and driven back by those whose comfort they threaten. There is plenty to grieve about in this unfolding catastrophe—it’s a valid and essential part of our response to mourn the losses we’re already experiencing. But while grieving, we must take action, not surrender to a false belief in the inevitable.

Defeatism in the face of overwhelming odds is something that I, perhaps, am especially averse to, having grown up in postwar Britain. In the dark days of 1940, defeat seemed inevitable for the British, as the Nazis swept through Europe, threatening an impending invasion. For many, the only prudent course was to negotiate with Hitler and turn Britain into a vassal state, a strategy that nearly prevailed at a fateful War Cabinet meeting in May 1940. When details about this Cabinet meeting became public, in my teens, I remember a chill going through my veins. Born into a Jewish family, I realized that I probably owed my very existence to those who bravely chose to overcome despair and fight on in a seemingly hopeless struggle.

A lesson to learn from this—and countless other historical episodes—is that history rarely progresses for long in a straight line. It takes unanticipated swerves that only make sense when analyzed retroactively. For ten years, Tarana Burke used the phrase “me too” to raise awareness of sexual assault, without knowing that it would one day help topple Harvey Weinstein, and potentiate a movement toward transformation of abusive cultural norms. The curve balls of history are all around us. No-one can accurately predict when the next stock market crash will occur, never mind when civilization itself will come undone.

There’s a second, equally important, lesson to learn from the nonlinear transformations that we see throughout history, such as universal women’s suffrage or the legalization of same-sex marriage. They don’t just happen by themselves—they result from the dogged actions of a critical mass of engaged citizens who see something that’s wrong and, regardless of seemingly insurmountable odds, keep pushing forward driven by their sense of moral urgency. As part of a system, we all collectively participate in how that system evolves, whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not.

Suffragettes.jpeg
The Suffragettes fought for decades for women’s suffrage in what seemed to many like a hopeless cause

Paradoxically, the very precariousness of our current system, teetering on the extremes of brutal inequality and ecological devastation, increases the potential for deep structural change. Research in complex systems reveals that, when a system is stable and secure, it’s very resistant to change. But when the linkages within the system begin to unravel, it’s far more likely to undergo the kind of deep restructuring that our world requires.

It’s not Deep Adaptation that we need right now—it’s Deep Transformation. The current dire predicament we’re in screams something loudly and clearly to anyone who’s listening: If we’re to retain any semblance of a healthy planet by the latter part of this century, we have to change the foundations of our civilization. We need to move from one that is wealth-based to once that is life-based—a new type of society built on life-affirming principles, often described as an Ecological Civilization. We need a global system that devolves power back to the people; that reins in the excesses of global corporations and government corruption; that replaces the insanity of infinite economic growth with a just transition toward a stable, equitable, steady-state economy optimizing human and natural flourishing.

Our moral encounter with destiny

Does that seem unlikely to you? Sure, it seems unlikely to me, too, but “likelihood” and “inevitability” stand a long way from each other. As Rebecca Solnit points out in Hope in the Dark, hope is not a prognostication. Taking either an optimistic or pessimistic stance on the future can justify a cop-out. An optimist says, “It will turn out fine so I don’t need to do anything.” A pessimist retorts, “Nothing I do will make a difference so let me not waste my time.” Hope, by contrast, is not a matter of estimating the odds. Hope is an active state of mind, a recognition that change is nonlinear, unpredictable, and arises from intentional engagement.

Bendell responds to this version of hope with a comparison to a terminal cancer patient. It would be cruel, he suggests, to tell them to keep hoping, pushing them to “spend their last days in struggle and denial, rather than discovering what might matter after acceptance.” This is a false equivalency. A terminal cancer condition has a statistical history, derived from the outcomes of many thousands of similar occurrences. Our current situation is unique. There is no history available of thousands of global civilizations bringing their planetary ecosystems to breaking point. This is the only one we know of, and it would be negligent to give up on it based on a set of projections. If a doctor told your mother, “This cancer is unique and we have no experience of its prognosis. There are things we can try but they might not work,” would you advise her to give up and prepare for death? I’m not giving up on Mother Earth that easily.

In truth, collapse is already happening in different parts of the world. It’s not a binary on-off switch. It’s a cruel reality bearing down on the most vulnerable among us. The desperation they’re experiencing right now makes it even more imperative to engage rather than declare game over. The millions left destitute in Africa by Cyclone Idai, the communities still ravaged in Puerto Rico, the two-thousand-year old baobab trees suddenly dying en masse, and the countless people and species yet to be devastated by global ecocide, all need those of us in positions of relative power and privilege to step up to the plate, not throw up our hands in despair. There’s currently much discussion about the devastating difference between 1.5° and 2.0° in global warming. Believe it, there will also be a huge difference between 2.5° and 3.0°. As long as there are people at risk, as long as there are species struggling to survive, it’s not too late to avert further disaster.

This is something many of our youngest generation seem to know intuitively, putting their elders to shame. As fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg declared in her statement to the UN in Poland last November, “you are never too small to make a difference… Imagine what we can all do together, if we really wanted to.” Thunberg envisioned herself in 2078, with her own grandchildren. “They will ask,” she said, “why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.”

That’s the moral encounter with destiny that we each face today. Yes, there is still time to act. Last month, inspired by Thunberg’s example, more than a million school students in over a hundred countries walked out to demand climate action. To his great credit, even Jem Bendell disavows some of his own Deep Adaptation narrative to put his support behind protest. The Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched a mass civil disobedience campaign last year in England, blocking bridges in London and demanding an adequate response to our climate emergency. It has since spread to 27 other countries.

Extinction rebellion
Extinction Rebellion has launched a global grassroots civil disobedience campaign to confront climate and ecological catastrophe

Studies have shown that, once 3.5% of a population becomes sustainably committed to nonviolent mass movements for political change, they are invariably successful. That would translate into 11.5 million Americans on the street, or 26 million Europeans. We’re a long way from that, but is it really impossible? I’m not ready, yet, to bet against humanity’s ability to transform itself or nature’s powers of regeneration. XR is planning a global week of direct action beginning on Monday, April 15, as a first step toward a coordinated worldwide grassroots rebellion against the system that’s destroying hope of future flourishing. It might just be the beginning of another of history’s U-turns. Do you want to look your grandchildren in the eyes? Yes, me too. I’ll see you there.


FURTHER READING

Read Jem Bendell’s response to this article: Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation, April 10, 2019

Read Jeremy Lent’s follow-up response to Jem Bendell: Our Actions Create the Future, April 11, 2019.


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

48 thoughts on “What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren?

  1. Deep Adaptation is really just mitigation on steroids. It’s already too late to completely reverse climate change, so lets try to reduce the impact. If your car is sliding toward the bridge abutment, you don’t stop braking just because you realize you can’t stop in time. No, you try to slow as much as you can in the space you have available.

    The problem: Individuals can make small impact on the problem itself, and can be effective only in mobilizing their governments to take action.

    So: Write to your government people.

    Uninhabitable Earth, however IMHO is too extreme, and too sensational. There are going to be some serious impacts, but I don’t think it will be quite that bleak.

    My take:

    * Equatorial regions will not quite be uninhabitable. Most of the extra energy there will evaporate more water instead.

    * The poles on the other hand are warming like crazy. Polar bears are either going to change behaviour or go extinct. They won’t have access to seals any more. Not sufficient ice.

    * Food production world wide will drop by 50%. You will see lots of local violence as people fight for the remaining food. This will hit countries without good roads worst, as they can’t move food around easily.

    About half the drop in food supply will be due to more erratic weather. Droughts and floods. Heat waves and untimely frosts.

    * Polar warming is going to speed up the demise of Greenland much faster than expected. It may shut down the gulf stream resulting in a northern Europe that has massive crop failures. I expect sea level rise to move from an inch per decade to an inch per year within 20 years.

    * The hurricane season is going to lengthen by 2 months at each end. At the peak hurricanes will still gain strength at latitudes as far north as New York, and southern England.

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  2. Humanity is presently confronted with a predicament but the conversation about this predicament is mostly occurring among its Western minorities that represent no more than 10% of the world population.

    China, India, and Africa represent nearly 60% of the world population and are barrelling full steam ahead to catch up with, what they perceive, as a Western consumerist paradise.

    The predicament of humanity in the present era of Late-Modernity goes as follows :
    — the Western worldview of Modernity has infected the minds of the entirety of the world population
    — the externalities of Modernity that we witness today are largely the result of the process of western industrialization (individualism pushed for the conversion to the reason that is at work within capital and to rationalism)
    — now that 60% of the world population wants to emulate the West the causes, of what produced these externalities in the West, are being drastically reinforced …
    — due to the fact that there is a lag between these causes and their effects a tiny minority of individuals powerlessly witnesses the reality that this drastic reinforcement of the causes is unfortunately going to impose a drastic reinforcement of the externalities on today’s children and the generations that will follow them…

    These cascading externalities are threatening the principle of life on planet earth and each living species is left with a shortening time-span to adapt. But be not afraid. A minority of Western individuals is talking…

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  3. The sooner civilization collapses, the more chance humans have to survive. My book, For a Future, has a chapter on LAODAND’s point, that if millions of people living Privileged Energy-Intensive Lifestyles created this mess, billions trying to do so will destroy everything. It would appear that humans are no more intelligent than the yeast in my beer.

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  4. I think I’m going to sit this one out. I did go to one fairly large peaceful protest or gathering last nite–mostly young black people and i stood out since i have a lighter skin color but had no problems— about all this violence around here . also prompted by this murder of a well known LA rapper who was using his money to transform his area into a better place. someone (an aspiring rapper he knew) was envious of his success and so killed him.

    there are some good scientists working on deep adaptation—some forms may be good , others not good. (eg i dont support forms of of geoengineering which do something like drop alot of stuff in the ocean or use planes to put something in the air to deal with greenhouse effect; but there are other forms which may hold promise–ften forms of energy efficiency, or even just plant trees, and go to less meat and industrial ag based diet. ).

    i dont think changing a word from adaptation to transformation will change the world, though i may be wrong. a pharse like ‘coke is it’ or ‘miller time’ did change aspects of the world.

    also not everybody does or can go to protests—there are like 5 protests in my area everyday or every week for as long as i can remember. get tired of that. alot of the people also live lives inconsistant with what they are protesting—they fly from australia to go to a 1 day protest and then fly back.

    greta is actually calling on politicans to pass laws to do something. maybe people should spend a bit of time figuring out what laws may be useful, or what can be done even without passing a law–in usa now passing good laws may be difficult so long as trump is in there and republican hold the senate.

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  5. “It’s not Deep Adaptation that we need right now—it’s Deep Transformation”. Yes Jeremy. But, your intuition surely suggests you that, humans are not going to initiate such a deep transformation in due time in order to ensure the survival of their species.

    Such a deep transformation has already been set in motion by the whole in which we are no more than very very tiny particles. Life is indeed one of the applications that runs on the operating system of the whole universe and as such life has to operate within the bounds of the operating system.

    Note that humanity is the only living species that lost touch with this basic reality.

    In my last comment I described the present predicament of humanity as a species. But to the few individuals who are conscious that something is really wrong the knowledge of our species’ predicament is not very helpful to say the least. The conscious individual is indeed confronted with the predicament of his species’ governance inertia. And the conscious individual understands that the “Deep Transformation” you talk about will only take place as the result of societal collapse.

    But societal collapse implies the near total die-out of the citizens from ‘Western advanced countries’. Just try to imagine the US or Europe without electricity for 6 months… The way I see it, if humanity by any chance gets to survive the great convergence of all the side-effects of Modernity, it will only be due to some savages who escaped the domestication of civilizations and who are presently living in geographic environments that will be minimally impacted.

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    1. Deep transformation requires a change in the mindset of how we act, think and are. Going back to something more primitive could be a problem because the West’s problem is that it remained primitive despite an exponential increase in power. See Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7176/7176-h/7176-h.htm) for a critique of how spiritually primitive the West was leveraging its power from the Industrial revolution to imperialize the rest of the world. We can’t all live like aborigines either. There are too many of us. Humans can only save themselves if they can discover within themselves the universal values that would push everyone to live within ecologically sustainable means. That means we have to understand ourselves, our ego, our spirituality and how morality works. Tried to do that in my book with a critique of the political economy, science, and religion.

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  6. Well done, Jeremy. The coinage of ‘Deep transformation’ is helpful. It is indeed exactly what we need. (Much of what it would consist in is set out in Green House’s brand new book, Facing Up To Climate Reality: https://www.greenhousethinktank.org/fucr-book.html . We centre upon the need for >transformative adaptation<. Unlike deep adaptation, transformative adaptation is not premised on collapse/catastrophe, but is designed to prevent it. Transformative adaptation is adaptation that is open-endedly responsive to the deteriorating climate, and that mitigates at the same time as it adapts – unlike conventional shallow adaptation, that tries to perpetuate our current doomed system as is.

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  7. However, it is not inevitable (see what I did there 😉 to interpret deep adaptation as a response to ‘inevitable’ ‘near-term’ societal collapse. One can instead argue for it as a response to highly-likely probably-nearing-term societal collapse. That is the basis on which I argue for it, as the ultimate insurance policy. See my constructive critique of Jem B., here: https://medium.com/@rupertread_80924/after-the-ipcc-report-climatereality-5b3e2ae43697 .
    So I think that your important piece, Jeremy, is founded on a false dichotomy. It isn’t Deep Transformation OR Deep Adaptation. IMHO, we need to aim for BOTH. We need to ride both horses simultaneously. Pursuing #deepadaptation alone risks, as you say/imply, giving up active hope. But pursuing #deeptransformation alone risks ignoring the brutal likelihood of civilisational collapse sketched in some of the previous comments on your blog.
    We need both. One of the great virtues of Extinction Rebellion is that it leaves room for both.

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  8. As always, there’s much to appreciate in your article Jeremy. I’ve been watching Deep Adaptation within the Fb Group and you’ve articulated some of my disquiet.

    Yes, “the primary reason for this headlong fling toward disaster is that our economic system is based on perpetual growth”, fuelled by consumerism. Yes, we should be “focusing on structural political and economic change (because) incremental fixes are utterly insufficient”. Yes, the incremental fix of a Green New Deal is a red herring “because it doesn’t acknowledge the need to transition our economy away from reliance on endless growth.” Yes, “we have to change the foundations of our civilization (to) one that is life-based—an Ecological Civilization”.

    So, we need deep structural transformation. And we need effective strategic activism to achieve it. Does XR have this potential? At present this seems doubtful.

    You said that “while grieving, we must take action, not surrender to a false belief in the inevitable.” Rupert amplified this in his call for not either/or but both Deep Transformation and Deep Adaptation. Deep Holistic Transformation, perhaps, which recognises the need for simultaneous inner transformation and social-economic-political transformation.

    David Bohm and Mark Edwards articulated this need in their 1989 book “Changing Consciousness: Exploring the Hidden Source of the Social, Political, and Environmental Crises Facing our World.” There’s a 6-part excerpt online at: http://www.hardrainproject.com/changing_consciousness (click the arrow at the bottom).

    For Bohm the hidden source of the crisis is the fragmentary nature of thought:

    “If I’m right in saying that thought is the ultimate origin or source, it follows that if we don’t do anything about thought, we won’t get anywhere. We may momentarily relieve the population problem, the ecological problem, and so on, but they will come back in another way…We see the Green movement growing. They are doing good work, and much more should be done along these lines. But the important point is that they’re not considering thought. That is to say, they are not considering the fundamental cause, just the effect.”

    Bohm proposed group dialogue as a way to address the fragmentary nature of thought. 30 years further on into the crisis, perhaps we no longer have time to explore thought in the way he envisaged. And yet, activism that gives insufficient attention to fundamental causes is doomed to endlessly repeat failure.

    Can we formulate an approach to strategic activism based on Deep Holistic Transformation that might offer a genuine glimmer of hope?

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  9. So-called “deep adaptation” is a marketing term and an example of reification. If you make a process abstract and isolated you can attack it with ease. Adaptation as some of us have been working on for fifty years means doing hard physical labor to build a better world. What I work on is growing food, developing landraces that adapt more quickly to climate change, and the long slow process of building community. This has a short-term, mid-term and long-term aspect and consequent benefits. Your thinking on adaptation is simplistic.

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  10. I enjoyed reading this article. It resonates with much I feel and write about myself. I am a Work That Reconnects Facilitator and follow the ideas of Active Hope as written about in the book of the same name by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. Hope is active, it is something to engage with and for me it is better than doing nothing because we think it’s all over. That makes us complicit and I for one want my children and if I have them grandchildren to know I tried to help us transform the way we live on planet earth.
    I have been writing about the need to fall back in love with the earth, and have plans to write about ur grief which you touched on. When we process our emotions, allow ourselves to move through them we become more available to support the transformation instead of needing to turn away and numb it all out.

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  11. Another problem with the doom scenarios is that it just feeds into the very large chunks of the population that adhere to ‘end times’ religious fundamentalist worldivews …so ironically they just get their ‘prophecies’ confirmed and are happy to watch it all burn to speed Jesus’ (or fill in the blank) return.

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  12. Being realistic, collapse not only bound to happen but it will imply the meltdown of the over 400 nuclear reactor worldwide because for functioning those require all the sophisticated supply chains, workers, energy, and resourses that depend on a working economy as it is working now. Unfulfilled hope brings disappintment and thus anger. We should do our best to make our remaining time meaningful, not because we depend on hope.

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