Beyond Activism: On The Need for Deep Adaptation

The European Union recently declared a state of Climate Emergency. For those of us who have participated in the numerous protests and actions of civil disobedience throughout Europe, this feels to some degree like a victory. After all, for the government to declare a state of Climate Emergency was one of the three main demands of the Extinction Rebellion.

It took a mass mobilization to accomplish this. Hundreds of thousands of people marched on the streets, teenage girls faced online harassment and death threats, people in Belgium had watercanons deployed against them, in France and Austria they were peppersprayed and yours sincerely was taken away by the police and dumped with a group of people in a random location outside of Amsterdam because the jail cells were full.

The reality remains however that most people did not really take the situation genuinely seriously when we had time to genuinely address this crisis, in fact, most people still don’t. Take the average Extinction Rebellion activist, look them up on Facebook, scroll down their timeline a bit and you’ll find them somewhere in South America, South Africa, some tropical island or some other foreign destination that really doesn’t need middle-class bourgeois white people to visit it. I’m willing to hazard a guess and assume they did not arrive there by sailboat.

And that’s not even their fault, because we were kept in the dark. The climatologists saw no problem with flying back and forth to conferences, the politicians ensured us that some carbon tax and some subsidies would solve the problem for us, the media was telling us that the jury is still out on whether it’s a bad idea to use the atmosphere as a waste dump for fossil fuels that have been stored beneath our feet for hundreds of millions of years. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out this is a genuine problem too, but even then it remained an intellectual abstraction in my head until I saw what happened to the Great Barrier Reef.

The problem is that human beings are good at responding to problems that emerge, but bad at anticipating them. If you see a fire in your house, you try to extinguish it. How often do you sit down and ask yourself how flammable your house is? When do people find it easiest to stop smoking? When they have lung cancer. We’re also bad at dealing with problems that we can’t see, problems that require us to trust others and problems that don’t have a clear direct connection between cause and effect. If I wear a fur coat, I can point out an animal that died due to it. If I take a journey abroad, I have to trust in abstract scientific models that suggest a certain number of people will die from the effects of climate change.

Humans have been quite successful at addressing a number of ecological problems. We’ve stopped hunting whales, we’ve cleaned up the air in many places, created entire forests throughout Europe from scratch, brought an end to acid rain and we’ve essentially solved the hole in the ozone layer. So, you might expect that we could solve the climate crisis too, but we failed. It’s a problem that’s physically possible to solve. You can generate electricity with solar panels and wind turbines, you can use concrete that sequesters CO2, you can move away from using cars, you can feed people various alternatives to meat, you can even use seaweed as a biofuel that sequester carbon dioxide.

However, climate change is somewhat difficult to comprehend and requires you as an average person to place your trust in a cabal of uncharismatic technocrats who are demanding vast changes to our way of life and our economy. That’s the main thing that went wrong, it goes entirely against human intuition to place trust in people who seem eager to bring vast changes to our lives. The evidence for that argument is right in front of us, in the form of a Swedish teenage girl who managed to pull of what decades of celebrities, politicians and climatologists did not manage to pull off: Get average people to step outside of their comfort zone and demand vast societal changes to tackle this crisis.

The reason that happened is because Greta is charismatic. Some people will say to me that Greta is not charismatic, that she’s a strange and shy sarcastic teenage girl. The thing is, charisma doesn’t mean that you have the aura of a cheerleading captain or the rock star on stage. It simply means that something about you makes people intrigued by you.

There are a few tricks that Greta pulled off, that turned her into such a charismatic figure. The first is that she signals absolute devotion. People ignore climate change, because they receive the message from upper-middle class college professors who fly back and forth between conferences. However, through her actions and sacrifices, Greta incites fanaticism among her own followers. Humans are continually socially maneuvering, most people try to stand somewhere in the middle. The visible existence of fanatics leads people to adjust themselves to those fanatics.

The second trick that Greta pulled off is that she made herself vulnerable and thereby created an emotional angle to this otherwise abstract crisis. Greta makes no secret of her Asperger’s, selective mutism and OCD. She became famous when she explained that thinking about climate change made her depressed. Now an abstract issue you hear about in the news had an actual manifestation, in the form of a Swedish teenage girl.

This admission simultaneously triggered two other effects. First of all, she manifested something that is widely held but rarely admitted. She’s hardly the only person who feels depressed and upset about the ecological catastrophe. She’s also hardly the only person with Asperger’s, but most Aspies choose to remain in the closet and live in denial. I don’t think the ecological catastrophe makes people who live in dense cities in Western nations depressed, I think that depressed people suffer from a lack of rose-tinted glasses, thereby seeing the world as it really is. Second, she triggered another effect. By making herself vulnerable, she created an entire demographic of people who are eager to stand up for her.

Some critics compare Greta’s charismatic leadership to that of Hitler, but a better comparison might be between Greta and Jeanne d’Arc. During certain periods of societal crisis, it’s common for vast swathes of the population to rally behind a figure who would normally occupy a marginal social position, someone who is perceived as having a certain gift. In Greta’s case, the gift isn’t explained in mystical terms, it’s explained as a psychological consequence of Asperger’s.

However, her charismatic leadership is not sufficient. One thing worked in Greta’s advantage, that didn’t work in Al Gore or any other big prominent activist’s advantage: The crisis became visible in plain sight. Sweden in 2018 was plagued by unprecedented forest fires. Western Europe broke temperature records throughout the summer. The Great Barrief Reef suffered enormous bleaching in recent years. The crisis turned from an ominous prophecy by technocrats into a problem that we can witness all around us. It wouldn’t have been possible for Greta to pull this off in the 80’s or 90’s.

There is a demographic of generally right-leaning angry white men, who are surprisingly well-informed about climate change but nonetheless dislike her. John Michael Greer is an example, as are some other collapse bloggers. I don’t belong to them, I think those guys are so used to being an edgy minority that they’re uncomfortable with the sight of their views receiving a public platform. In addition, I think they simply have a psychological immune response against the fact that Greta comes off as “politically correct” to them. Frankly, I think Greta is playing her cards perfectly and it disappoints me that people who should know better choose to distance themselves from her.

So, Greta was in the right place in the right time, played her cards perfectly and became a global celebrity. People want to believe that she convinced people to start making sacrifices, triggered a political revolution and now we will bring this crisis to a halt. Unfortunately, that reveals a wrong sense of understanding the problem.

A better way to understand the problem would be as following:

We can go down two paths. Either this crisis gets rapidly worse, or it gets much worse even more rapidly.

That’s what people fail to comprehend. Both in the best case and worse case scenario, climate change will be the story that will define your childrens lives. The reason is as following: On human timescales, carbon dioxide simply builds up in the atmosphere. If we stopped driving cars, we would overnight cease to have problems with air pollution, your children could breathe safe air. If we stopped using fossil fuels, we would still be stuck with all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Reducing emissions merely reduces the speed at which we are making the problem we already have worse.

Even Obama fails to comprehend this, unless he intentionally spreads disinformation. In his speech when he was elected he said that “this is the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. But that’s the wrong way of looking at it. A more accurate way to describe it would be to say “this is the moment when we gradually reduce the rate at which we bash the Earth in the face with a hammer”.

To illustrate what I mean, take a look at what the IPCC actually predicts:

 

In the best case scenario, if governments somehow make enormously rapid cuts to their emissions, the world will inevitably warm another 0.5 degree Celsius, from around 1.1 degree Celsius of warming today. Keep in mind, the situation is like a fever. Every degree of warming when you have a fever has worse consequences than the preceeding degree.

We can ask ourselves however whether it’s realistic. It would involve zero emissions by 2040, even though many oil companies are planning to increase emissions by 2030 and China is building huge amounts of coal plants. Infrastructure like that is not built only to shut it down again twenty years later, it is built to last forty or fifty years.

The IPCC’s predictions are pretty bleak, but they’re nowhere near as bleak as the reality we’re actually facing, due to two reasons. To start with, a lot of global warming is currently hidden by toxic air pollution from fossil fuel use. This is called global dimming, it involves the release of large amounts of particles that obscure the sun. Estimates of how much global warming is currently being hidden by global dimming vary widely. One recent study arrived at 0.5 to 1.1 degree Celsius of extra warming currently hidden. What this would mean is that if we were to pull off a miracle by 2040 and arrive at zero emissions, we wouldn’t just be dealing with 1.5 degree of global warming, but another 0.5 to 1.1 degree extra that’s currently hidden from us.

The second issue is that the IPCC generally doesn’t properly take positive feedback loops into consideration. When the Earth warms beyond a certain limit, systems that currently serve to stabilize global temperatures become incapable of doing so. As a few examples, forests store large amounts of carbon dioxide and coral reefs keep themselves cool with aerosols that they release into the air that create clouds. If the Earth warms too much, those coral reefs die and no longer keep their environment cool, while the forests burn down and release carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Recently it was argued in Nature, that nine global tipping points have already been passed, so more than half of the known positive feedback loops are already active. If you consider that we still have 0.5 degree of global warming that’s guaranteed to arrive and another unknown amount hidden from us by air pollution, then it’s clear that these positive feedback loops we currently suffer from are going to get much worse too.

How bad does it all get? To answer that question, your best bet is to look at previous periods in Earth’s history, but the problem is that during most comparison periods, the fossil fuels we are burning today were simply stuck in the ground. The feedback loops we mentioned earlier caused most of the warming during such periods, not fossil fuels. However, the last time we had as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as we do today was during the Miocene. Back then, there were forests on Antarctica and the whole world was three to four degree warmer than it is today.

This is what everyone forgets. Before the industrial revolution, CO2 was at 280 parts per million. With today’s concentration of 410 parts per million, levels are already dangerously high, but it takes a while for the effects to become visible. As an example, consider the Great Barrier Reef. It’s not capable of dealing with the kind of heatwaves it faces at today’s CO2 levels, but those type of heatwaves don’t strike every year, so it takes a while before you notice the damage being caused by today’s climate. The reality remains that heatwaves now strike the coral reefs so often that the reef does not have sufficient time to recover from a heatwave before the next one strikes. The Great Barrier Reef is already stuck in a death spiral.

None of this should shock people, because we’ve known this for decades. Long before we had a two degree target to stabilize global warming, we had a one degree target. Bill McKibben did not set up a campaign named 350.org to shift the Overton window. He set it up, because James Hansen concluded decades ago that an upper safe limit for atmospheric CO2 concentrations would be 350 parts per million. This is the upper limit generally agreed as safe, though some think there are risks involved even at these levels and actual safe levels are even lower. On a personal level, the head of the IPCC agreed that 350 is the safe level, but it’s politically (and increasingly physically) impossible to achieve, so it’s not treated as a genuine target.

The feedback loops we triggered don’t last forever. Eventually you run out of ice to melt, coral reefs to kill and forests to burn down and find yourself stabilizing at a new normal. This won’t happen overnight, the destabilization we are triggering today will still have an impact a century from now. What we are deciding right now, is how rapidly it will get worse.

If you look at the current situation, you find that we already can’t cope with it. The coral reefs are already dying and the permafrost is already disintegrating and releasing growing amounts of extra greenhouse gasses. In Australia, the forest fires are so severe that the firefighters simply stand no chance to contain them.

The point I’m making here is that we have already set ourselves up for catastrophic changes to the climate. Perhaps with enough disruptive civil disobedience and not-so-non-violent resistance we can somewhat slow down the rate at which we pollute the atmosphere. That means that more species will have time to adjust to the changing climate and perhaps we prevent some positive feedback loops from triggering. As an example, at around 1200 parts per million of CO2, clouds begin to break up and you receive a rapid further increase in warming of eight degree Celsius.

However, in 2019, it’s time to acknowledge that we’re not giving birth to the kind of society that we should look forward to. Europe suffered a refugee crisis, when one million people tried to enter the continent. It’s expected we’ll have 1.5 billion more refugees globally in the next thirty years. Large parts of the world will end up looking like Syria, which plunged into a civil war as a consequence of a massive drought that forced rural people to migrate to the cities.

Denialism and Hopium

There are people out there who insist on arguing that the “it’s too late” argument is another form of denialism. The thing is, the “it’s too late argument” is exactly what follows out of the predictions climatologists made in the 1990’s if we would not immediately change course. With the scenarios offered back then to us, we would have no viable path to stay under two degree Celsius of warming by now. Today’s scenarios somehow suggest 1.5 degree might still be possible.

What happened? The answer is that climatologists started pretending that we can somehow start sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in huge amounts near the end of this century. Somehow people stopped treating this as science fiction and decided to pretend that we will somehow figure out a way to do this at a significant scale.

If you then refuse to play along with this game and point out that people only began to consider these negative-emissions a viable option when it became clear that we were not changing course rapidly enough, you’re argued by today’s activists on Twitter to be some kind of “bizarro-denialist”, who prevents effective action from being taken with your cynicism. Unfortunately, there’s a fair chance they’ll use your racial background and gender to dismiss you too.

Nonetheless, I would suggest that we have to look realistically at our situation. The current situation essentially requires of us to bring about the entire transformation of our societies over the course of two or three decades. That’s what’s being asked of us. We’re not just supposed to stop flying and revamp our entire energy infrastructure in two decades. We’re supposed to eliminate almost all animal food products from our diet within thirty years. Beef consumption in European countries has to go down by 90% within thirty years, to keep global warming under two degree Celsius.

I live in a country that’s reaching a breaking point right now, because livestock farmers are revolting after suggestions were made by politicians that their business model might be unsustainable and need to be reformed. They plan on shutting down our country’s entire food infrastructure, to make their point, they want the shelves in the supermarkets to go empty around christmas. And believe it or not, they have the public opinion on their side.

We’ve seen in France that complete riots break out, when prices on fuel are increased. The Yellow vest movement is the result of a simple measure meant to address climate change. You might say “well that measure unfairly hit the poorest citizens” and that might be right, but that means completely ignoring the point that we will inevitably need measures that hit the poorest citizens. We’re aiming to be carbon neutral after all. You can get rid of a good chunk of emissions by taxing wealthy people’s flights, but that doesn’t solve your problem. At the end of the day, even the poorest European citizen cooks his food and heats his home with natural gas and throws away bags full of plastic garbage.

So this is the situation we witness in Western European nations, a growing clash between middle class urban climate activists and forces within our government on the one hand who fear an imminent catastrophe and still wish to avoid it, versus average working class folk, predominantly rural citizens who witness an assault on their standard of living. At the end of the day, the lived reality of the working rural poor remains that they can buy a cheap old van for less than 2000 euro that allows them to drive around whenever they want, whereas you pay at least 40,000 euro for a Tesla model 3. Is it strange that they feel threatened by you?

Now note the important distinction I’m making here. It might be physically possible to have a sustainable society. People could decide to have two children at most, they could start eating seaweed, shellfish and mushrooms instead of meat, they could travel everywhere by bicycle, stop heating their houses, stop going on vacation to the other side of the world and wear used clothing for the rest of their lives.

But the reality remains, that most people don’t want that. And when a government tries to force it upon them, they start rioting. You can say a lot about the Extinction Rebellion, against the school children, against all of us, but we remain excessively polite and submissive when you consider the fact that most of the opponents of sustainability are quite willing to riot to force governments into submission.

Here are some facts to consider, in regards to how important climate change really is to most people. Low oil prices have led people to buy big SUV’s, which has entirely offset the reduction in oil demand due to electric vehicles. Air travel emissions have grown faster than the worst case scenario considered.

If you point this out to people, that most people really just don’t give a shit, they’ll complain to you that you’re blaming individuals when you should be angry at a few big abstract corporations. But that’s weak and ignorant of you, because those companies become so big, by delivering their bullshit to YOU. Without consumers, there would be no Shell, there would be no Exxon-Mobil, there would be no Scandinavian Airlines and there would be no McDonalds.

There’s nobody, literally nobody out there, who forces you to buy an SUV. There’s nobody, literally nobody out there, who forces people to eat so much meat that they become obese, but they do it anyway. The fact that eating too much meat will kill you is not some sort of occult knowledge either, people hear and see it on a daily basis.

You don’t need to advertise a hamburger to people, hamburgers advertise themselves. On the other hand, you need to terrorize someone with an endless series of documentaries about the fate of our planet and expose them to horrifying traumatic imagery of slaughterhouses and force them to submit to a state of lifelong existential dread, to make them embrace veganism and switch their hamburger for a fermented seaweed burger. There’s nobody out there who thinks “meat stinks and tastes shitty, I’ll settle for veganism”. Veganism is an ideology, not a dietary preference.

Nobody forces you to spend a gap year backpacking in South America, nobody forces you to volunteer in a South African orphanage, nobody forces you to do any of this dumb shit. The reality remains that most people just live out their petty lives, entirely uninterested in your fears of ecological annihilation and your arguments back and forth over individual responsibility. If they can’t even be bothered to worry about their own self-inflicted premature death, how much chance do you think you have to make them think differently about an existential threat that will strike once they’re dead?

What’s being asked of the world’s people, is to embrace a lifestyle that is even a struggle for the environmental movement’s most radical fringe. I would suggest attending an Extinction Rebellion meeting and asking for a show of hands. Who owns a car? Who has seen the inside of an airplane within the past five years? Who eats meat? Who eats cheese? Those are the things that EVERYONE in the Western world will have to abandon, if you want to solve this crisis.

“But we need structural changes, not individual changes!” The activists say, but that’s a fancy way of saying that you want the government to force individuals to make changes to their lives that they don’t want to make on their own. “I’m not asking people to stop eating meat, I’m merely asking them to elect political representatives who will tax eating meat out of existence!”

And let me remind you, that I’m not a naysayer or a denier. I take this seriously, I fully recognize the problem and acknowledge the changes that are necessary. I try to practice what I preach. I don’t own a car. I don’t really buy new clothing. I don’t fly. I don’t eat meat, I try to abstain from dairy too.

But the main reason that’s possible for someone like me, is probably because I seem to fit somewhere on the spectrum along with Greta and most other radical greens. That allows me to entirely rearrange my life around intellectual abstractions, because let’s be honest here, for middle class white people who live in big cities in Western nations, climate change is still an intellectually abstract problem.

If you think this is an option for most people, that merely reveals a lack of empathy. My younger brother is perfectly aware of the problem we face, he still eats so much meat that he ends up overweight. Why? Because he’s a normal person! I can’t remember how many times I have suggested to my parents that eating more fruit would be healthy for them. Greta might be capable of convincing her mom to stop flying, but that’s not the average person’s experience. The average person’s experience is isolation and alienation.

Climate change activists who think the general public will ever somehow embrace the changes they are asking of them, are living in cloud cuckoo land. Most normal people don’t want this. They want luxury and they want comfort. If they have sufficient money for it, they fly to the other side of the world during winter to enjoy the sun. They buy SUV’s for the two times per year when they need to haul their boat to the lake. We wouldn’t have a climate change crisis, if people were willing to live within the boundaries of the Earth. The problem is that most people are unwilling to do that.

Deep Adaptation

There’s a term for the recognition of the consequences that climate change will have on our lives. That term is “deep adaptation”. It’s best known from a paper written by Jem Bendell. The paper explains that instead of expecting that we can still somehow avert this disaster, we should be preparing for the near-term collapse of civilization in our lifetimes.

It’s certainly possible that things begin to break down far more rapidly than most people anticipate. However, it’s simultaneously important to avoid charlatans like Guy McPherson, who pretend that somehow every study can be stacked onto each other to arrive at ridiculous figures for imminent catastrophic global warming, combined with a scenario where governments detonate their nuclear weapons, to predict near term human extinction. That’s symptomatic more of a psychological problem than a proper understanding of our predicament.

Instead, you’re better off recognizing the simple fact that this is all going to end in a catastrophe one way or the other. We don’t know when. It could break down next year, it could break down fifty years from now. Like a decaying bridge, we know it’s not wise to walk over it, but we don’t know when it falls apart.

Renouncing the world is a seduction more than an accomplishment in this day and age. That is essentially how I feel about my own life. If you understand the climate change catastrophe, if you have truly internalized it, then you don’t really feel the desire anymore to live like a normie.

If you still feel that desire to go backpacking in South Vietnam or to play with the orphans of Tanzania for a week, then climate change is not something you have internalized, it is an abstract moral lesson you heard about, the equivalent of the imagery in your head of a priest wagging his finger at you as you lay in bed and put your hands beneath your blanket.

When you’ve genuinely figured it out, there is no inner temptation left that you have to resist, so there is no genuine accomplishment anymore either. Instead, there is primarily mourning and grief.

And that’s important to comprehend, because that is the essence of Deep Adaptation. Deep Adaptation is not about building that permaculture farm in rural Saskatchewan where you will smugly eat your sunchokes in the middle of winter when all the normies in the city die of hunger, because you were the only genius who saw it coming while everyone else was maxing out their IRA contribution (hint, almost ANYONE with an IQ above room temperature now sees it coming dipshit). That’s the prepper fantasy, the delusion that you will somehow survive as the living world around you starts to die.

Deep Adaptation on the other hand, is a process of learning to live with grief. And that is one of the few things the Extinction Rebellion movement did get right. The Extinction Rebellion is not just an activist movement, it is a deep adaptation movement. There is room for grief. It’s normal and accepted to mourn. We mourn the demise of the living world, the demise of ecosystems that took millions of years to come into existence.

To me, it is abundantly clear that grief has not found a proper place in mainstream environmentalism. We’re still fed a narrative of “save the world and live happily ever after”, when everyone who genuinely studies the facts knows that’s not going to happen. The best case scenario we might accomplish would still mean the demise of the Great Barrier Reef, it would still mean unprecedented heatwaves throughout the world and millions of refugees. But nobody wants to think about any of that, or the implications, which ensures that the eventual outcome will only be more traumatic.

The recommendation I want to make, as part of the process of Deep Adaptation, is for people to go out and communicate with nature. Don’t treat nature as an intellectual abstraction, under threat unless people listen to scientists who present graphs and pie charts. Build up a relationship with nature. Witness the beauty that is still here around us, it might not be there for you when you are old. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world for that.

And perhaps most importantly, open yourself up to nature. The Extinction Rebellion was founded by a woman who went on a psychedelic retreat and took Iboga and participated in three Ayahuasca ceremonies. Psychedelics put you in contact with nature. They dissipate the boundary between self and non-self. Don’t underestimate the complexity and agency of nature, it has a wisdom to offer that you can not begin to anticipate if you have not gone through the psychedelic experience.

I don’t suggest this will change the world. I don’t think a single individual should live under the impression that they can somehow meaningfully influence vast societal trends to begin with. The most you can aim for is to be nice to the people in your own environment, but that won’t get you a place in the history books, so people don’t do it. What I am suggesting instead, is that it will help you to cope with the crisis we face that is setting us up for so much misery. And that is ultimately the most we can hope for.

4 Comments

  1. shamelessly double posting to point out:
    You might have hit a jackpot just with this line: `A more accurate way to describe it would be to say “this is the moment when we gradually reduce the rate at which we bash the Earth in the face with a hammer”.`

    Many ancient ultures put a tangible and relatable face on the abstract forces of life.

    But since most people are now steeped in the materialist conception of existence, they’ve ironically been robbed of the tools needed to actually understand all those climate graphs. What do they care if some coral reefs and orangutans are killed? It’s all material resources and you gotta get your share before you croak and leave a pile of plastic behind to mark your existence.

    What would be the way to make animism cool again?

    Artistic movements pushing it?

    A religious revival?

    Mass psychedelic contamination of the water?

  2. I really enjoyed your article, but I think you are wrong about prepping. Deep adaptation is not against prepping. Obviously prepping as an individual in a remote farm is not ideal. But prepping your community or starting or joining a transition town/ecovillage is a smart thing to do if you have the passion. Your article talks about grieving, which it can be thought of as a emotional/mental preparation and anticipation. We need air, water, food, and shelter to live, therefore anticipating, preparing for the challenges ahead as individuals, communities, and families is something we should encourage.
    Sincerely,
    Someone on that “spectrum” that has internalized what our converging predicaments mean.

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