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A Book for a Post-Normal World

Co-founder of the environmental group Extinction Rebellion (XR), Dr. Gail Bradbrook, described it as “the ‘red pill’ of our times, offering neither certainty nor confirmation of any story you may be holding about where we are heading in the face of so many colliding crises.” She was commenting on the first book in English on Deep Adaptation – the concept and movement for positively preparing for societal disruption and collapse. 

So what does this book offer, you may ask? “Togetherness in our insecurity and frameworks in our unknowing for coming to terms with and making sense of these times,” explains Gail. That such a book on collapse-readiness is endorsed by a co-founder of XR, includes a chapter from another co-founder, and is edited by a former lead spokesperson for XR, helps to illustrate the way ‘deep adaptation’ and climate activism are seen as complementary by the activists themselves.

There was a period at the start of this year when some experts were criticising people for discussing how to prepare for, or slow down, societal breakdown due to environmental strains. However, the return of rapid rises in carbon emissions after last year’s COVID stutter, means that more scientists are considering the implications of a failure to meet climate targets. That painful reflection still occurs mostly in private. With this book, co-editor Rupert Read and I aim to help them explore what it could mean to prepare for that failure to prevent climate chaos. Our wish is that fewer experts will confuse the general public with their vilification of activists who not only push for deep cuts in emissions and the natural drawdown of carbon, but also believe we must prepare for disruptive loss and damage in ways far deeper than current policies on adaptation have scope for. Instead, there is a need for a clearer message: that it is time to both push for the best and prepare for the worst.

Despite being an academic, it took me a while to decide to produce a book on this topic. When the Deep Adaptation paper went viral, I was approached by agents for major publishers. Instead, I wanted to focus on developing ways in which people who anticipate societal disruption and collapse could meet and support each other, and to collaborate on ways that various professions and communities might respond. Although I felt I had a lot to share on the topic, I focused on this emerging community through my blog and youtube channel, and not to reach out to a bigger audience or to attempt to define what is an emerging field with a popular book. Since then, this topic has become so well known that it has generated criticism from some experts who do not like it that people anticipate a disruption and even collapse of their way of life. It therefore seemed the right time to produce a book of myriad voices of senior leaders in their own fields.

We are fortunate to include contributions from internationally leading experts in various subjects. For instance, Professor Jonathan Gosling is one of the most well-known scholars on leadership, while Joanna Macy is one of the most respected educators of activists and seekers of wisdom. Professor Vanessa Andreotti is an internationally renowned expert on educational theory, and decolonization in particular, while Skeena Rathor is one of the co-founders of XR. The range of respected thinkers in this book demonstrates how seriously an anticipation of disruption and collapse is being taken around the world. The diversity of subjects, from food to education, psychology to management, is an indicator of how a destabilization of our way of life is all-encompassing.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of scholars around the world now share our view, and we hope this book will help them in their professional work, as well as in outreach to media. Along with over 600 scholars, some of the contributors to our book signed the scholars warning on societal disruption and collapse. We wrote:

“Only if policymakers begin to discuss this threat of societal collapse might communities and nations begin to prepare and so reduce its likelihood, speed, severity, harm to the most vulnerable, and to nature.

Some armed services already see collapse as an important scenario, requiring planning. Surveys show many people now anticipate societal collapse. Sadly that is already the experience or memory of many communities in the Global South. However, the topic is not well reported in the media, and mostly absent from civil society and politics.

When potential collapse is covered by the media, it typically cites people who condemn discussion of the topic. Ill-informed speculations, such as on foreign misinformation campaigns, or impacts on mental health and motivation, will not support serious discussion. Rather, such claims risk betraying the thousands of activists and community leaders whose anticipation of collapse is part of their motivation to push for change on climate, ecology, and social justice.

People who care about environmental and humanitarian issues should not be discouraged from discussing the risks of societal disruption or collapse. That could risk agendas being driven by people with less commitment to such values.”

Although reformists and ‘techno-hopers’ might try to shame us into silence, the positive pessimism of collapse anticipation has become irrepressible. As Gail concludes, “I look forward to both “deep adaptation” and “collapsology” entering mainstream discourse, so that we might then imagine creating together, as our current paradigm crumbles.” It is certainly a book for people who recognise we are entering a post-normal world.

In this new world, there are no ready made answers, so curious dialogue about possibilities will be key. In the conclusion to the book, Professor Read and I deliberately open up a range of questions which are beginning to be discussed and hold no simple answers. We also express in the conclusion the key areas where we currently have some differences of opinion. That is because we believe it is important to keep this conversation open and not succumb to the tendency to grasp simplistic stories and quick fixes when faced with complexity and anxiety.

The book is on sale now, in all formats. The proceeds will go to a UK charity, The Schumacher Institute, to fund future educational work on the topic of deep adaptation. We were happy to work with the sociology publishers Polity, who have done much to bring attention to collapse anticipation, through their release of two books lead authored by Pablo Servigne, which I highly recommend.  

Professor Rupert Read will be joining me and some of the contributors of the book, to answer your questions online, on July 7th, 4pm UK time. Who joins us is still to be confirmed, but they will be from: Joanna Macy, Pablo Servigne, Vanessa Andreotti, Jonathan Gosling, Raphaël Stevens, Gauthier Chapelle, Daniel Rodary, Adrian Tait, Katie Carr, Sean Kelly, Charlotte Von Bulow, Charlotte Simpson, Rene Suša, Sharon Stein, Tereza Ajkova, Dino Siwek, Matthew Slater and Skeena Rathor. Register here to join this event.

Jem Bendell is co-editor of the 2021 Deep Adaptation book, and founder of the Deep Adaptation Forum. He is teaching one online course on deep adaptation leadership this year with the University of Cumbria. 

The book is available to purchase in hardback, paperback and ebook on the Wiley website. Also available for Kobo ereader, and in hardback, paperback and kindle versions on Amazon.

Image by Jason Newport, courtesy of flickr.

deep adaptation, featured book, Jem Bendell

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