It's Wednesday and I have a few observations on a few things today. I have…
As part of the my research on the concept of a ‘poly crisis’, which is the focus of my next book, I have been reading a lot about urban systems, building codes, and other facets of the climate problem. In that vein, I have been considering the concept of – Deep Adaptation – which emerged from the work of British academic Jem Bendell in 2018. His seminal paper – Deep adaptation: a map for navigating climate tragedy – was updated in July 2020 as – Update. The author has a background in geography and makes it clear he is not a climate scientist. His work on deep adaptation came up against a harsh refereeing process because it ran counter to the Groupthink surrounding how we should deal with the climate issue. Most of the resistance I suspect relates to a view that the crisis can be solved within Capitalism. In that sense, his work was dismissed as being overly pessimistic. However, the initial work on deep adaptation is rather scant on how it fits in with the ideas of class conflict within the current economic order. Jem Bendell admitted that is his original essay “the power of capital in keeping us compliant is implied” rather than explicit. His defense was that he was “writing for the sustainability profession” and he was thus “embedded in that system” (Source). This is where I am interested in the concept – to fully embed it within a more radical, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) focused paradigm. This is Part 1 of a series of unspecified Parts at this stage where I explore the concept of Deep Adaptation and try to extent it into the MMT world.
What is deep adaptation?
One could read the original paper as just another offering predicting doom, with little evidence to support the prediction.
His premise is that the vast literature purporting to argue that “we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilisation” is questionable, which then raises the question of how radical a transformation needs to be.
All the talk of Green New Deals etc are still framed within the current mode of production (capitalism) and do not suggest a major shift in class relations, which, in turn, means that power elites are not being challenged.
Instead, Jem Bendell wants us to focus on the “implications of a societal collapse triggered by an environmental catastrophe”, which is why his approach is considered by the mainstream – even the mainstream GND types – to be scaremongering.
He called his alternative agenda – “deep adaptation” – and while he doesn’t offer any additions to the “existing research, policy and practice on climate adaptation”, he considered his intervention to be a sort of “what if” exercise to promote thinking outside the groupthink.
His motivation was that he identified a “gap in the literature” on climate adaptation where there is a threat of societal collapse.
His premise is that we live in a non-linear world.
In this blog post – Climate change – Australian government further entrenches the market myth – (August 29, 2012) – I mentioned a 2009 public forum that I was speaking at which was organised by the national broadcaster in Australia.
In that forum I argued that a rules-based regulation approach rather than a market-based approach was preferred in dealing with environmental problems.
One of the arguments I made among many supporting my disdain for market solutions rested on my contention that there are non-linerarities in biological systems.
Markets are insensitive to biological systems.
The mainstream economics approach is that you can pay for pollution through more growth. That is, we have to generate wealth before we can clean the place up.
Many progressives also believe this line – for example, those who argue for carbon taxes and emission trading schemes.
Mainstream economic theories about resource efficiency are based on the idea of a production possibilities frontier where maximum output is obtained through some optimal mix of inputs (including pollution).
The only thing you need to do is make sure the true costs of all resources are reflected in the mix.
These solutions assume there is some known pollution level that is safe.
But market systems do not know when a biological system dies – so we need to be more risk averse than economists would recommend.
There may be a point – that we certainly cannot predict with any accuracy – beyond which there is no trade-off between pollution and other goods and services.
After that point the planet dies.
That is the non-linearity reality that motivates Jem Bendell’s work.
He believes the pace of climate change is much faster than even the IPCC predicted and:
Non-linear changes are of central importance to understanding climate change, as they suggest both that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections and that the changes no longer correlate with the rate of anthropogenic carbon emissions. While non-linear change does not necessarily mean exponential, or that there might not be a curb or pause, in the natural world, changes like non-linear rise in sea level or non-linear changes in sea ice are the result of such massive processes with amplifying feedbacks, that it is reasonable to consider that such non-linear processes will be unstoppable. In other words, such changes would constitute both aspects and indicators of what is called ‘runaway climate change.’
That was the point I was making 13 years ago at the public forum I mention above.
These non-linearities relate to “tipping points” beyond which there is no comeback and the future prospects are permanently altered – “self reinforcing and irreversible change”.
We read in March this year of the collapse of the Conger Ice Shelf in East Antartica.
The – Thwaites Glacier (Doomsday Glacier) – was reported in this article – A New Clue to Antarctic Ice Shelf Collapse (April 22, 2022) – as being in danger of partial collapse, which would be disastrous for the planet.
Many of the worlds major rivers are now at record low levels which is severely disrupting our socio-economic processes.
Events like this are becoming more commonplace and cannot be explained away by claims that we don’t have long enough data sets.
All the portents – fires, floods, temperature, sea level, storms, etc – are moving in adverse directions and are extreme.
Scientists say that the upper limit is:
2 degrees warming of global ambient temperatures, to avoid dangerous and uncontrollable levels of climate change, with impacts such as mass starvation, disease, flooding, storm destruction, forced migration and war.
At present, despite all the statements from governments around the world, policy shifts are nowhere near sufficient to stop this upper limit being breached.
Jem Bendell says that “a massive campaign and policy agenda to transform agriculture and restore ecosystems globally is needed right now”, yet even with such a transformation “the heating and instability already locked into the climate will cause damage to ecosystems, so it will be difficult for such approaches to curb the global atmospheric carbon level.”
He argues “we have progressed too far already to avert disruptions to ecosystems”.
The upshot is that he proposed a “Deep Adaptation Agenda” to address the “too little, too late’ problem.
The Agenda has the following characteristics:
1. We have to recognise that “material ‘progress’ may not be possible and so aiming for it might become counterproductive” – this observation is tied in with the ‘Degrowth’ ideas and poses a major threat to global stability where the materially rich nations defend their positions and try to impose the transitions on poorer nations that, by any ethical standard, deserve more material security.
How that conflict is resolved is a major issue that needs to be addressed, especially as I will note later, we are in a mode of production where distributional conflict between workers and capital is already at the centre driving system dynamics.
2. “Psychological resilience” where it is assumed that people do not return after a major shock or catastrophe “to how they were before” will become central to our adaptation agenda.
During the pandemic, we heard the constant refrain of ‘when it is over we can return to normality’. By now we know 2019 is gone and we won’t get back there.
Resilience structures will be necessary.
As we lose the possibility of building endless fields of inefficient homes, we will need those structures to ease the pain.
3. In the losses we will experience, we have to be able “to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours.”
What norms and behaviours can survive a societal collapse?
Thus, in addition to resilence, the Agenda will have to foster relinquishment, which:
… involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse.
The paper provides examples like “withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption.”
4. The next aspect of the Agenda is restoration – which:
… involves people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded.
I have written a lot about how neoliberalism has progressively imposed a user-pays, profit-seeking agenda on all our activities.
The market paradigm has become central to our family lives, our recreation etc, all areas that were traditionally not part of the surplus-value generating production system.
It is likely that we have to reject those ‘neoliberal’ approaches.
It is here that I think the Agenda is weak – because it assumes we can reconstruct our lives while still being part of the surplus-value generating system where capital expropriates that value as profit.
I know Jem Bendell is aware of those issues and it is where I will write more about another day.
5. Another aspect of his Agenda is reconciliation which suggests we have to be able to:
… reconcile with each other and with the predicament we must now live with …
How do people “make peace” with our impending doom?
His work has been severely criticised along a number of themes – non-scientific, the precautionary principle, etc.
I don’t agree with most of the criticisms and I will write more later on that.
But, in part, Groupthink enters the picture.
I have clearly written about this concept and how it constrains intellectual progress and stifles necessary policy interventions many times before.
Just type in ‘groupthink’ into my search function on this blog and you will find many previous blog posts.
I have largely focused on the impact of this destructive pattern of behaviour within the economics profession.
Jem Bendell considers that the climate debate is similarly constrained by a “rationale of maintaining self-identities related to espoused values” which are challenged by an agenda such as the deep adaptation notion.
He writes about the “process of strategic denial” and cites an example where a New York Magazine article was not challenged by environmental scientists on matters of fact but on:
… whether such ideas should be communicated to the general public
I have previously cited the famous US economist Paul Samuelson who gave an interview with Mark Blaug in 1988 film – John Maynard Keynes – Life – ideas – Legacy – and said:
I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times … Once it is debunked takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have … anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that long-run civilised life requires.
Jem Bendell is pointing to the same sort of denial among environmental scientists who want us to believe that we can save the world by taking time to adjust (2050 agendas etc).
What does the process of denial protect?
This is a fundamental question because it goes to the issue of power relations.
We often employ denial strategies in our personal live – denying a pain or something – and try to protect our psychological well-being.
We also often busy “ourselves on activities that do not arise from a full assessment of the situation”.
Jem Bendell believes that form of denial is endemic among the “environmental movement” – and they seek peace by running seminars and “signing online petitions” to be seen to be “doing something without seriously confronting the reality of climate change”.
He considers academic communities are by their nature cautious, face funding bureaucracies etc which reduces their willingness and/or capacity to confront ‘system collapse’.
Further, researchers are typically more highly educated and research shows that:
… people who have a higher level of formal education are more supportive of the existing social and economic systems that those that have less education … people who have invested time and money in progressing to a higher status within existing social structures are more naturally inclined to imagine reform of those systems than their upending. This situation is accentuated if we assume our livelihood, identity and self-worth is dependent on the perspective that progress on sustainability is possible and that we are part of that progressive process.
And, there is a tight web of interlinked institutions in the climate/environmental lobby that have no incentive to shift outside of the cosy funding arrangements, merchandising arrangements, etc to admit that it is too late to save the world we know at present and all the power relations that are defined by it.
In Part 2, I will consider these institutional rigidities that prevent a shift towards a Deep Adaptation agenda.
Among those are shortcomings in the Agenda itself – specifically a failure to fully embed it within a critique of capitalism; and, a failure to recognise the currency capacities of the government.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2022 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.