Are You A Climate Warrior or A Climate Weaver? Because We Need Both.
Michael is a member of the DA Forum Professions’ Network, and his article was originally published on Medium.
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How an unexpected Twitter tiff with the renowned climate scientist Michael Mann helped me rethink climate activism.
When I tweeted my reply, I had no idea that I would be on the receiving end of friendly fire. I was scrolling through my feed, looking for thought-provoking news and commentary (because that’s the only reason we’re on Twitter, right?), and I spotted a tweet by Swiss Professor of Global Ecosystem Ecology, Anaïs Tilquin, about the so-called “Deep Adaptation” (DA) movement. Dr. Tilquin had replied to a British scholar of climate change activism, who had questioned DA’s “doomist” tendencies. You might call me a DA sympathizer (more on this later), so I felt compelled to weigh in.
After that, I kept scrolling, thinking no more about it because, frankly, given my follower count and Twitter’s algorithms, I had every reason to assume that my tweet would quickly dissolve into Twittersphere vapor.
Wow, was I wrong.
What is Deep Adaptation?
Before I describe what happened next, I should give you some background details in case you’ve never heard of DA or seen any of the skirmishes going on nowadays within the international climate change activism community. I’ll assume you already recognize that we’re in a climate crisis and that there is a growing number of people — yourself included? — who want to do something about it. Deep Adaptation is a term coined a few years ago by University of Cumbria Professor of Sustainability Leadership, Jem Bendell. He introduced it in a self-published paper gone viral (downloaded over 600,000 times by November 2019) which claims that (1) societal collapse in some form is inevitable because of climate change and (2) rather than denying this reality, we should prepare for it in several important ways. In an online piece, entitled “The Love in Deep Adaptation,” Bendell and his co-author, Senior DA Facilitator Katie Carr, define DA and collapse in this way:
Deep Adaptation refers to the personal and collective changes that might help us to prepare for — and live with — a climate-induced collapse of our societies. … When using the term social or societal collapse, we are referring [to] the uneven ending to our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning. Others may prefer the term societal breakdown when referring to the same process. We consider this process to be inevitable, because of our view that humanity will not be able to respond globally fast enough to protect our food supplies from chaotic weather. People who consider that societal collapse or breakdown is either possible, likely or already unfolding, also are interested in deep adaptation.
Ok, before I go on, now seems like a good time to check in. I’m both an anthropologist and a mindfulness teacher (I invite you to check out my other writing on the climate crisis), so I can’t help but ask, how did that passage land with you? Did you have a gut reaction to the authors’ words? If so, please take a moment to examine it. What thoughts and emotions got triggered? Disgust? Fear? Anger? Anxiety? Despair? Desire? Acceptance? Apathy? Whatever your reaction, it’s likely motivating how you receive the rest of what you’re reading here, your subsequent judgments about it, and what you’re going to do with it. See if you can note your reactivity without judgment. Try to cultivate a sense of curiosity about it instead and see if that can bring a bit more clarity to your experience.
If you felt a knee-jerk sense of aversion to Bendell’s perspective, then what happened to me next will definitely resonate. Not long after I tweeted my DA-friendly reply to Professor Tilquin, it triggered a response from none other than the esteemed Penn State climate scientist and noted author, Michael Mann. (If you’re not familiar with Dr. Mann and his impressive work, please check him out on Twitter.)
Speaking of the need to take note of reactivity, this one definitely woke me up. My little tweet had been singled out by Michael Mann himself for special attention! He had held it — and, by extension, me — up for critical scrutiny and pronounced us both ignorant and doomist. I have never before felt such an intriguing mix of both pride and humiliation. To my knowledge, there isn’t a word for this in the English language, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it could be found in another one, perhaps German.
What is Doomism?
What did Mann mean by “doomism”? To explain, allow me to quote directly from his latest book, The New Climate War (Hatchett Book Group, 2021), which I purchased moments after our little interaction:
…there is a segment of the climate activist community that not only overstates [the threat from climate change], but displays a distinct appetite for all-out doomism — portraying climate change not just as a threat that requires urgent response, but as an essentially lost cause, a hopeless fight” (p. 183).
In his book, Mann doesn’t just call out Deep Adaptation for being doomist. By including it in a chapter entitled “The Truth is Bad Enough,” in which he also names and blasts climate denialism (the benighted and sometimes disingenuous and strategic conviction that there is no climate crisis), he basically declares war on DA.
Once again, let me pause here, this time to address a question that might by now be arising in the minds of some of my readers, namely, “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, isn’t it a duck?” And aren’t I afoul, too, for supporting such a bleak perspective? And I have to agree with you: on its face (or bill), it seems like DA is climate activism’s Debby or Danny Downer, and anyone who’s friendly to it should be called out for their disloyalty to the cause. Indeed, in his book, Mann reserves a special circle of hell for DA’s first author. He writes, “Bendell’s paper is a more powerful tool for disengagement than any article ever written by a climate-change denier” (p. 200). Yikes.
But I’m here to say that, regardless of whether we’re a professor, a scientist, or a fellow citizen, we shouldn’t just glance at the face of things. Indeed, we should be courageous in probing our cognitive and emotional reactivity around information that challenges our assumptions. We should also be curious about what’s going on below the surface — what’s inspiring both the rhetoric and our reactions to it — because then we’re in a decidedly better position to judge the content’s merits and make an informed choice about whether to reject it out of hand, accept it, or treat it like a buffet (remember those, pre-covid?) and take only what we think is worth consuming. So, to put my money where my mouth is, after my encounter with Michael Mann I took the opportunity to examine more closely my own confusion and how it might teach me something new about climate activism.
Two Climate-Crisis Cultures
As a result, I’m ready to make the following argument: Michael Mann and Jem Bendell each belong to one of two interdependent, climate crisis-spawned cultures, both of which inhabit the same community and both of which are necessary for humanity’s long-term survival. Human society (however it winds up looking) can’t survive for very long with just one of them. The two cultures are, respectively, Climate Warriors and Climate Weavers. Like any self-respecting cultural group, each one has its own adherents, perspectives, core values, and survival strategies. Likewise, while it is possible to belong to both (that’s how culture works sometimes), membership in one can make it very challenging to fully grasp the world view of the other.
So, now that I’ve set the stage, let’s take a closer look at what makes them tick. Below I present a synopsis of the two groups, which consists of my own representation of their respective flag, motto, mission, and favorite movie (these are unauthorized; I’m using my own creative license here!), along with a description of aspects of their culture and key guiding principles.
Motto: Assist. Protect. Defend. (Military Police Corps)
Mission: Educate and shield the vulnerable from harm; defend them from their enemies (climate change deniers, predatory corporations, greedy politicians, doomists, bad science, etc.).
This group manifests differently in different places depending on their own demographics and cultural histories. In the UK, for example, one way it shows up is Extinction Rebellion (XR), a group that uses daring protests, civil disobedience, and evocative performing art to raise public awareness about the urgency of addressing climate change. Mind you, in The New Climate War, Michael Mann takes aim at XR, calling the organization an example of “soft doomism,” which, as he puts it, is “doomism dressed up…in more respectable clothing” (p. 200). In other words, although XR doesn’t wave an “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” sign, it does employ what Mann calls “the ‘p’ word” (“panic”; p. 201), which he banishes from his climate activism lexicon due to concerns that its use will cause ordinary people to run “screaming through the streets with their hands over their heads” (p. 201).
In the US, the Climate Warrior group conspicuously manifests as embattled scientists and their foot soldiers. Mann cites the iconic astronomer Carl Sagan, who died of cancer in 1996, as a model “Scientist as Warrior” (p. 17), one who “used his public prominence, media savvy, and unrivaled communication skills to raise awareness…” (p. 18). Although he doesn’t say it directly, Mann strongly implies that, with his own book, prodigious scholarship, and media savvy, he has picked up Sagan’s fallen weapon to continue his fight.
Climate Warriors follow a code that’s based on militant optimism and three key principles, the names and definitions for which I have borrowed wholesale from a 2012 article in Police Magazine, entitled “Developing a Warrior Mindset.”
- Prepare. “…the people with the best attitudes and strongest survival mindsets are the ones that make it all the way through.”
- Believe. “…if you prepare mentally and believe you can accomplish a task, you will increase your chances of success. If you allow negative thoughts and doubts to enter in, they will decrease your chances of success.”
- Overcome and win. “Having a warrior mindset means you won’t quit. It encompasses the Spartan philosophy of bringing back your shield or being carried back on it.”
Motto: No mud, no lotus. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Mission: Embrace impermanence; compassionately attend to what remains and help to transform the rest.
Deep Adaptation is perhaps the most distinctive manifestation of the Climate Weavers to date, although quite recently it’s partnered with another group of primarily European scientists and thinkers who have dedicated their work to “collapsology,” the study of societal collapse. Indeed, in their newly published book, cheerfully entitled Another End of the World is Possible (Polity Press, 2021), collapsologists Pablo Servigne, Raphaël Stevens, and Gauthier Chappelle cite the work of French philosopher, Abdennour Bidar, whose book, Les Tisserands: Réparer Ensemble le Tissu Déchiré du Monde (The Weavers: Repairing Together the Torn Fabric of the World; Les Liens Qui Libèrent, 2016), introduces the term and purpose of “weavers” (tisserands). On page 138 they write,
[For Bidar], there are three main forms of connection to rediscover: the connection with yourself, the connection with other people, and the connection with nature. This is the same as what Joanna Macy has been suggesting for forty years. … In the process, these two authors (and other “weavers”) touch on a fourth fundamental connection that needs to be rebuilt: being in harmony with what lies beyond us.
DA’s geographic point of origin is the United Kingdom, but it is now broadly international with much of its activity centered in the online Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF), a multidisciplinary meeting place for, to date, nearly 3,400 scholars and practitioners from around the world. (Full disclosure: I am a member.) DAF includes working groups focused on such domains as food and agriculture, “holistic approaches and guidance,” education, philosophy, research, “arts and imagination,” government and policy, and business and finance. For a treasure trove of literature and other information resources, visit University of Washington-Bothell Marine Scientist and fellow DA member Dr. Robert Turner’s website, “Bibliography of Literature Relevant to Our Future Sustainability.”
Climate Weavers follow a code that’s summed up by the four principles Bendell introduces in his Deep Adaptation paper and, with Katie Carr, offers as guiding questions in “The Love of Deep Adaptation”:
- Resilience. What do we most value that we want to keep and how?
- Relinquishment. What do we need to let go of so as not to make matters worse?
- Restoration. What could we bring back to help us with these difficult times?
- Reconciliation. With what and whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our mutual mortality?
Why we need both Climate Warriors and Climate Weavers
In case you’re wondering about how my little Twitter tiff with Michael Mann ended, I must confess that it was with a whimper (mine) instead of a bang. I wager he quickly reasoned that I was too oblivious to be persuaded and that he had already cashed out what little rhetorical value he could find in our exchange.
But I still stand by what I wrote. I don’t believe we can mitigate or respond to the effects of climate change without a dynamic collaboration of warriors and weavers. Without Climate Warriors, the veil of climate change ignorance, denial, and obfuscation cannot be lifted — at least not until it’s way too late to do anything about it. Moreover, without Warriors, those who are reinforcing and profiting from that veil will not be called to account for their actions.
On the same token, without Climate Weavers, we have no contingency plans for climate change impacts on human mental and physical health or the integrity of human societies and our natural environments. We have no ways to process the grief or models for how society might be sustainably transformed. As Mann writes in his book, “we’re walking out onto a minefield, and the farther we go, the greater the risk” (p. 180). Without Weavers, how will we manage our anxiety, despair, and yes, even the “p” word, when yet another of those mines (caused by, for example, human-intensified hurricane cycles, wildfires, inundation of island states, and unprecedented weakening of the Atlantic “conveyor belt”) — or perhaps the entire field — explodes?
Are you a Climate Warrior or a Climate Weaver?
As you can infer from the above, I identify as a Climate Weaver. But as a professor, I have the honor of working with both cultures, which comprise some of my colleagues and many of my students, the “game-changers the climate advocates have been waiting for” (The New Climate War, p. 6). Last fall I taught a brand-new anthropology course called “The End of the World.” I broke it into three main topics: Collapse in the Past, Collapse in the Present, and Collapse in the Future. In the first topic, we examined the archaeological evidence for collapse in societies that rose and fell in, for example, the Indus Valley, Greece, Egypt, Europe, South America, and Mesoamerica. We discovered that they all disintegrated for different combinations of reasons and, in many cases, collapse meant transformation rather than annihilation.
In the second topic, Collapse in the Present, we explored evidence from contemporary ethnographic research in such places as the Marshall Islands, Switzerland, Peruvian Andes, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Alaska, and Colorado, where my students interviewed subjects about their own perspectives on and experiences with climate change. Our findings highlighted the roles of adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability in how people are responding and reacting real time to the climate crisis.
In the final topic, Collapse in the Future, we applied the “anthropological imagination” (sort of a cross-cultural version of C. Wright Mills’s famous “sociological imagination”) to the problem of societal collapse. This led us to recognize the value of, for example, ethical conduct (in her book, Who Do We Choose to Be?, leadership guru Margaret Wheatley writes that “ethics are how we behave when we decide we belong together”), systems thinking, self and social transformation, and even questioning the construction and meaning of hope.
As a coda for the class, students presented works of their own anthropological imaginations. These included poetry, jazz music, and song-writing (“Things are changing, you can feel it / Let’s try to make it for the best / Cuz empires were made to fall apart / But we were made to last”); a short story based on the word “sonder” (defined in the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”); exquisite hand-made models of abandoned buildings taken over by nature, and photographic displays of restorative agriculture and the 2020 Colorado wildfires; sculpture, oil paintings, illustrations, pastel art, and abstract fluid art and graphic art pieces accompanied by brilliant time-lapse videos revealing the processes underlying their forms; and an extraordinary miniature “Galleria della Fine” (Gallery of the End), that included a tiny hanging exhibition of “recently exhumed art from the survivors of the US collapse.” One of the most poignant realizations I took away from this stunning exhibition was that, although part of the answer to the climate crisis clearly lies in doing and appreciating the work of scientists and other scholars, perhaps a majority of it will be found in the whole person, in the fullness of being human.
So, now it’s your turn. I invite you to take some time to pause and reflect on the following questions.
- Are you a Climate Warrior or a Climate Weaver? Note: there’s no rule that says you can’t be both!
- How do you know? Don’t stop your inquiry at immediate, more superficial responses.
- How will you find others who share your values? Don’t limit your response to social media. What other pathways to connection exist?
- How will you organize your own community? The warriors need weavers to help nurture their communities and the weavers need warriors to protect and defend their dreams and designs. Don’t be confined by definitions and fixed identities.
- In which ways will you enact your code of conduct? Think on multiple scales here, from the personal, to the interpersonal, to the metapersonal; both in the present and for our uncertain future.
Because let’s face it, regardless of whether societal collapse is large- or small-scale, inevitable or simply conceivable, co-creating a world that’s hospitable and sustainable for all living beings depends on initiative, improvisation, community-building, and, yes, collaboration of warriors and weavers.
Header image by Kevin Snyman from Pixabay