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Societal collapse, deep adaptation, and an agenda for mission

Helge Seekamp recently drew attention to a paper by Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, entitled “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” He suggests that Bendell gives us a “secular agenda for an apocalyptic time.” I think that the idea is worth exploring.

The paper was originally published in 2018 and revised in 2020. The revised version can be downloaded here. It’s fairly long, so I’ll summarise the main points as best I can, leaving out most of the technical detail, and then briefly consider its implications both for our reading of the Bible and for the “mission” of the church today. Many will dislike or dispute the pessimistic view that Bendell takes, and he is honest enough to admit that he could be completely wrong; but I think that there are important lessons to be learned regardless from his deep adaptation agenda.

The outlook is grim

Back in 2018 the scientific literature pointed towards “near term societal collapse.” Since then there has been some progress on reducing emissions, but I notice that a Climate Action Tracker report published this week, in the middle of COP26, says that a “massive credibility, action and commitment gap… casts a long and dark shadow of doubt over the net zero goals put forward by more than 140 countries.” The current 2030 targets “put us on track for a 2.4°C temperature increase by the end of the century.”

This doesn’t take into account the possibility of unpredictable “runaway change” or a “cascade of inter-related tipping points.” We have some control over emissions but none over how the natural world responds to warming. In any case, we have seriously to consider the implications of it being, in Bendell’s words, “too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today.”

Some of those standing here will not taste death before they see…. Well, whatever.

The implications include an increase in the intensity and frequency of climate induced natural disasters, flooding, drought, and disease, severely reduced agricultural production and fish stocks, massive internal and international migration, civil disorder, conflict over diminished resources, and a loss of biodiversity on a par with other global extinctions.

Ezekiel pulled Extinction Rebellion type stunts and no one listened to him. The whole nation was in denial. In the end, the worst case scenario became a ghastly reality, and the survivors had to adapt.

The severity of the disruption caused by climate change is difficult to predict, but there is now a significant body of “collapsology” research addressing the question of how societies break down.

How are we supposed to respond to such alarming—if not alarmist—predictions? One option would be to do our best to preserve the values, standards, and practices of society as we know it. Bendell thinks, however, that current notions of sustainability are inadequate and need to be expanded dramatically to encompass how humanity at all levels might “adapt to the coming troubles.” He calls this the “Deep Adaptation Agenda.”

Systems of denial

Before explaining what he means by this, he outlines various “systems of denial” that prevent people from facing up to the uncomfortable reality of the situation. He offers four “insights” about what is happening when people seek to downplay the seriousness of the crisis and censor reporting.

  • People often “respond to data in terms of what perspectives we wish for ourselves and others to have, rather than what the data may suggest is happening.” I suppose he means by that basically wishful thinking.
  • There are concerns about the impact of such bad news on human psychology on a large scale. Again, the point is not as clear as it might be, but he seems to be saying that climate professionals and activists are not giving enough thought to the social-psychological impact of their messaging.
  • Scientists working in the field of climate change may fear being perceived as paternalistic—superior, nannying, manipulative?—by the general public. The tendency, therefore, is to encourage people to do a bit more of what they are already doing (keep up the good work!) rather than to “undermine or overthrow a system that demands we participate in environmental degradation.”
  • There is a general belief that dire warnings of societal collapse will generate fear and despair, which are entirely negative emotions to be avoided at all cost.

On that last point, it is Bendell’s conviction that hopelessness and despair are not a dead end but a necessary stage in a painful process of reconstruction. In times of crisis there may be a false hope in preserving the status quo, which must be abandoned before more realistic hopes of a new future may emerge on the other side of disintegration and loss. He describes a “form of creatively constructed hope” and suggests that it may be “relevant to our Western civilisation as we confront disruptive climate change.”

He also argues that the professional environmentalist community is itself prone to denial, for three reasons.

  • Climate scientists instinctively err on the side of caution and avoid inflammatory rhetoric or bombast, and the publication of scientific research is subject to pressures that mean that “the information available to environmental professionals about the state of the climate is not as frightening as it could be.”
  • At a more personal level, scientists have a natural attachment to existing social norms and identities—and to the educational and economic structures that provide them with a livelihood—and may, therefore, hesitate to voice opinions about the likely collapse of the whole system.
  • Professionals work for institutions, and institutions have a vested interest in safeguarding their institutional existence, not “in articulating the probability or inevitability of societal collapse.”

Bendell concludes: “These personal and institutional factors mean that environmental professionals may be some of the slowest to process the implications of the latest climate information.”

Beyond denial

If the premise is accepted that a “climate-induced form of economic and societal collapse is now likely,” what can we expect?

A liberating collapse of the current economic system and the emergence of a new eco-friendly “post-consumerist” social and spiritual order perhaps? Bendell is sceptical: “The perspective that natural or spiritual reconnection might save us from catastrophe is… a psychological response one could analyse as a form of denial.”

Or an uncontrollable disintegration leading to human extinction? Bendell’s personal view is that collapse is inevitable, catastrophe is probable, extinction is possible—a 20% possibility according to two “reputable climate scientists.”

The deep adaptation agenda

There are a number of ways in which his analysis of the messaging around climate change mirrors biblical patterns and perspectives. Jeremiah brought warnings to Israel about a looming catastrophe, at the cost of livelihood, social status, institutional security. Ezekiel pulled Extinction Rebellion type stunts and no one listened to him. The whole nation was in denial. In the end, the worst case scenario became a ghastly reality, and the survivors had to adapt.

Bendell notes that work is being done towards adaptation to serious disruption under the rubric of “Disaster Risk Reduction.” But much of this must be characterised as keeping the current state of things sustainable rather than promoting resilience against extreme shocks to the system.

And even when resilience is made the objective, efforts may be diverted in two unhelpful or limiting directions. On the one hand, it may seem desirable to maintain the momentum of economic development, when material progress may not be an option at all. On the other, it is mostly physical adaptation to climate change that is being considered. Little thought is given to psychological resilience—how communities, societies, people, deal with catastrophe.

So Bendell sets out what he calls a ‘conceptual map of “deep adaptation,”’ which he thinks will enable human societies to survive with core values intact if the more pessimistic predictions of some climate professionals turn out to be correct.

If resilience is the overall objective, the second task on the agenda is relinquishment, which involves “people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse”—moving away from coastlines, for example, shutting down at risk industrial facilities, giving up certain types of consumption, and so on.

The third task is restoration—recovering “attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded.” He suggests rewilding landscapes, eating seasonally available foods, rediscovering leisure activities that are not powered by electricity, and shifting production and social support to the community level.

Finally, there will be a need for reconciliation. As the situation deteriorates, how we “reconcile with each other and with the predicament we must now live with will be key to how we avoid creating more harm by acting from suppressed panic.”

This is really as far as the paper goes. But before we move on to consider some further biblical and missional implications, here’s a simple summary of the four step deep adaptation agenda:

Resilience asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?” Relinquishment asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?” Restoration asks us “what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?” Reconciliation asks “with what and whom can we make peace with as we face our mutual mortality?”

Deep adaptation and the Bible

It strikes me that Bendell’s four stage agenda works very well as a paradigm both for biblical interpretation and for the mission of the church as we endure the birth pains of the Anthropocene—this new age of humanity’s overwhelming domination of the planet.

The shape of the biblical narrative is wholly determined by a series of large-scale crises. The catastrophe of the flood, the migration to Egypt, the exodus and journey to the land, the destruction of the northern kingdom, the Babylonian invasion and exile, the attempt made by Antiochus Epiphanes to eradicate Jewish religion, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome, and finally the collapse of the idolatrous civilisation of the Greek-Roman world.

Under these circumstances different strategies of adaptation and survival are developed. Noah builds an ark. Joseph has to find the path of righteousness and wisdom through the treacherous labyrinth of the Egyptian royal court. The fleeing Israelites struggle to trust in the fierce God of Moses. The Davidic kingdom adapts to schism and conquest. The exiles must get used to the idea of a long sojourn in Babylon—Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles is certainly more about deep adaptation than about mission. The righteous must pay the price of resisting Hellenisation. Jesus’ disciples must develop the resilience that will get them through to the end of the age of second temple Judaism, to be vindicated in the presence of the Son of Man. And Paul teaches the churches in the Greek-Roman world, in very practical terms, how to live through the distress that will attend the passing away of the form of this world.

Invariably, something needs to be relinquished: the fleshpots of Egypt, the ruins of Jerusalem, the fishing boats, livelihoods, families, property and wealth, social standing, even life itself. The tax collector Zacchaeus repents of his malpractices, gives half of his property to the poor, makes amends to anyone he has defrauded, and so becomes an authentic son of Abraham—reconciled, restored.

This prophetic message of restoration and reconciliation runs no less insistently through the narrative. Noah and his family become the beginning of a new creation. The Israelites set out from Egypt in hope of gaining the land as a new creation in microcosm. For all their gloomy warnings, the prophets never lose sight of the faithfulness and steadfast love of the God of the patriarchs, who will make Jerusalem again like the garden of the Lord. Jesus restores the many outcasts in Israel to their father Abraham. The apostles labour to safeguard the startling reconciliation of Jews and Greeks, men and women, slaves and free, rich and poor, in the fragile communities of eschatological witness.

Frankly, this is more or less the sum of our theology, and the paradigm remains fully relevant for the church today.

Deep adaptation and the mission of the church

The mission of the church, I think, is determined, in the first place, by the crisis of the collapse of Christendom and the real possibility, in parts of the progressive secular West, of its effective extinction.

But as in the New Testament, the crisis facing God’s people is being lived through against the backdrop of a larger civilisational crisis—not the fall of a pagan empire this time, but the possible collapse of the whole modern industrial-consumerist order and the societies that depend upon it; and the smoke of their ruin will go up for ever and ever….

Given these contexts, I think we can begin to talk about mission in fundamentally New Testament terms as apostolic-prophetic-evangelistic (it’s time to put APEST to proper use!) witness to the coming “judgments” of God—the intervention of YHWH in history to put certain things right, on these two fronts. It’s what the kingdom of God was all about. And if we are a biblical people, we have to be able to say that the living God is deeply involved in these tumultuous events, not a remote observer.

But consistent and honest witness to the judgments of God will inevitably require the church in the West to undergo a “deep adaptation”—first, to disruption and loss; secondly, to the radically different social conditions of the emerging new age.

So how do we do resilience rather than sustainability? What comforts, habits, securities, treasures, traditions must we relinquish? What do we need to repent of? What good things do we need to hold on to? What would a “creatively constructed hope” look like for churches as they are impelled into a very uncertain future? How do we prefigure restoration? Can we undertake, by the grace of God, the sort of deep reconciliation that we see modelled so powerfully in the New Testament?

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