Deep Adaptation – Part 1

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.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. I hope you don’t get too gloomy and doomy Bill. There’s always hope we can make the world a better place. And anyone who wants to make the world a better place is already not overly interested in saving ‘the world we know at present’ or preserving all the power relations that currently exist.

  2. Two recent developments have proven beyond doubt that neoliberal societies are incapable of dealing with the complex change required to not collapse the environment.

    1. Bitcoin. This is possibly the lowest hanging fruit for policy makers. A huge amount of electricity is expended (as much as all of Argentina) to power a glorified financial scam. If you can’t stop this, what can you stop?

    2. Covid. A bigger problem in scale but an even simpler solution. Provide N95 masks to everyone and get them to wear them for about 6 weeks. Instead, some US politicians are banning the imposition of public health measures.

    China has banned Bitcoin and controlled Covid. Clearly they have a model of government that is better suited to the challenge of climate adaptation

  3. The Bendell paper is indeed a bit depressing, which – unfortunataly – does not mean it is wrong. The point is that one must make one’s mind over his thesis, not on account of its implications, but on account of its own truth-content.

    This phenomenon of “don’t say this because it may have undesirable consequences” is something that has been annoying me for a while.

    Down Under we’ve had several examples in the last few years. Perhaps the most prominent was the Big Face Mask Debate. All over the world the brouhaha started with the pandemic. Here it started earlier, with the 2019-20 Black Summer.

    The volunteer firefighters started complaining that the disposable face masks (even the N95 or F2) they had been issued were not fit for purpose: they were not designed for people doing strenuous physical labour; when the masks got wet or dirty it was difficult to breath; often they would fall off. They started asking for better masks (like those the Fire and Rescue Service uses), but at least tradie-grade masks.

    That’s when Rural Fire Service authorities intervened: those masks were good enough.

    Soon, however, as Sydney and Canberra began choking with the smoke, people away from firefighting duties started buying face masks themselves. Some would take disposable ones. I myself bought a rubber face mask.

    Medical authorities didn’t like that. People should avoid buying those masks, they said. And certainly nobody should recommend their use. They require special training; they may give a false sense of security. If you have cardiovascular problems they may kill you. The safest way to avoid the smoke is to stay at home. (You’ll remember that pretty much the same things were said a few weeks later, when the pandemic was declared).

    I’m sure the experts meant well and that there may be some true in some of their doubts. However, I would like to know do people really need a PhD to use a $30-$40 rubber face mask from Bunnings Warehouse that any amateur DIYer has in his/her tool-shed? Many tradies, from painters to cleaners to car-painters, use them.

    The main problem with the experts’ advice, however, is that not everybody has the luxury to stay at home just because outside is smoky. For them even limited protection is a whole lot better than no protection at all.

    Later the real reason for the opposition to the use of rubber face masks became clear: disposable N95 and F2 is all the authorities had in stock and even that stock was limited. The RFS had to send firefighters with them, because the alternative was not sending anybody. People had to avoid buying disposable face masks because the limited stock available was required for health workers.

    They could have said that, and let people decide. Personally, I think decency and civic sense, given a chance, often go a long way (the RFS itself is a good example). But it was risky. I imagine that would have been uncomfortable as well.

    It’s likely that a lot of patronising is involved.

  4. “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.”

    Brilliant Bill !

    Been thinking about this a lot lately.

    FDR was a master at it and some people call it ” monetary silencing ” as described in this fantastic discussion by the money on the left team.


    You are bang on with trying to incorporate this into MMT concepts.

  5. Warren should change the name of his book from innocent frauds to complicit frauds.

    They know exactly what they are doing and how the monetary system really works.

  6. Been thinking about this a bit lately as I read Ecological Economics. Climate scientists say they have their “oh shit” moment when some data comes in, for me being more economically inclined I had it reading a Steve Keen paper on the relationship between energy and production. Basically, our rate of energy consumption is such that even exponentially increasing renewable energy production will not prevent climate disaster unless we also de-grow. We have left it too late.

    The “steady-state” economy that ecological economics proposes will be smaller than what we have. Had we chosen the ecological path earlier we might not have noticed, but we certainly will now. We do still have a choice though – we can choose de-growth now, or wait for the earth to do it to us.

    I’m sure the rich delude themselves that they will be safe in their gated estates, but when the shit hits the fan those will be a prison, not a refuge.

    And rich people reminds me of something else.

    Ownership, and it’s associated rights to extract value and materials from people and the earth, is at the core of our conception of what economics is. Socialism doesn’t fix that, it just changes the owner. In the Australian context, we need to de-colonise ownership, such that it becomes a responsibility not a right of extraction, like it was before colonisation imposed propriety and property rights. Countries that still have their First Nations people will still have this concept to return to, not sure if Europe retains this cultural memory, but it does align nicely with ecological economics’ notions of social and natural capital.

    Of course, this overturns the entire structure of power and wealth accumulation. If you thought de-growth would trigger the corporate media, try dangling de-colonisation. Murdoch blowhards like Andrew Bolt will detonate Mr Creosote style. Get me a bucket!

  7. Magpie,

    Can’t speak about Australia, but, for whatever it is worth, not only was the stock limited, it was being stolen from hospitals. Normally I’m all for taking office supplies, but that was a bit much, putting your own colleagues at high risk.

  8. Those that deny global warming ignore the fact that air force jets have been spraying chemtrails for decades.

  9. I see Jem Bendell as an example of the result of an across-silo fertilisation of ideas and understanding of the interconnectedness of everything. In the same way that Bill had earlier integrated his speciality with an understanding of human behaviour and the impending collapse of a livable environment, Bendell has got to a similar macro view of things from his micro area of expertise. All because they are curious.

    The understanding of money/MMT seems to be the key that has eluded Bendell as to how and what then becomes possible under the human devised economic system under which we live. He knows our economics is wrong but doesn’t know what enables that to change (he may have moved on since writing the following).
    “The West’s response to environmental issues has been restricted by the dominance of neoliberal economics since the 1970s. That led to hyper-individualist, market fundamentalist, incremental and atomistic approaches. By hyper-individualist, I mean a focus on individual action as consumers, switching light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than promoting political action as engaged citizens. By market fundamentalist, I mean a focus on market mechanisms like the complex, costly and largely useless carbon cap and trade systems, rather than exploring what more government intervention could achieve. By incremental, I mean a focus on celebrating small steps forward such as a company publishing a sustainability report, rather than strategies designed for a speed and scale of change suggested by the science. By atomistic, I mean a focus on seeing climate action as a separate issue from the governance of markets, finance and banking, rather than exploring what kind of economic system could permit or enable sustainability.”

    Bill has had an advantage in that regard having come from heterodox economics and an MMT understanding, where economics is the self-inflicted framework overarching all human activity. Now, how to break down the silos so that economists, historians, sociologists and scientists/engineers can all talk to each other via an MMT understanding (and, of course, the politicians or it goes nowhere)?

  10. I think we also should about the human urge to accumulate wealth and power. The behaviorist psychologist, BF Skinner, argued that a technology of behaviour is needed to control or counteract the destructive outcomes such as war and environmental degradation.

    He argued that behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences, ie positive or aversive consequences and in one of his books, Walden Two, imagined a society in which everyone had adequate comfort, contributed in some way, where art was treasured etc,

    There are echoes if that in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek series.

    A society

  11. @Bradley Schott

    I am interested in your views on colonisation and de-colonisation. What exactly do you mean by colony and colonisation? In particular, how can people “de-colonise ownership”?

  12. Bill needs to school Bendell and his mates on money creation.

    Their ideas on local currencies, barter, or prepaying for local services by residents lending to their councils are misguided and just plain wrong. Repeated references to “Quantative Sleazing” are immature and misinformed.

    Yes, the future will be utterly shit for multitudes of people. Just as the past was. And the present largely is.

    Life’s a bitch, and then you die, basically. Same as it ever was.

  13. @Magpie,

    One of the first – if not the first – things a colonising power does is establish the institutions of ownership that allow value extraction, be that minerals, rent, or labour power. In the case of Australia, our First Nations had a very different concept of ownership. Land was exclusive and inheritable, but could not be disowned. It could be said the land owned them. (That’s a short version, much more to learn).

    The British concepts of land as lines on a map or survey pegs defining areas to be bought, sold, or rented; and the idea of private property as conferring an exclusive right of exploitation and value extraction; are from another universe.

    And that’s the problem. While pre-colonial ownership is intimately related to people, land and ecology, colonial ownership and economics is so abstracted from nature that these are just assets to be exploited. As we have seen repeatedly, no amount of greenwashed regulation or corporate social responsibility bullshit can overcome extraction driven by the profit motive – so long as that right to extraction exists it will be used.

    Importantly, extraction of value is easier than creating it. Extraction, and accumulation, confers power, making further extraction easier, a self reinforcing and exponential process of capital accumulation explaining the dominance of capitalism and our acceleration towards oblivion. Power also entrenches this extractive model of ownership, and ensures the institutions of the state protect it above all else.

    This is why Terra Nullius endured. By 1820’s it was becoming widely discussed that Terra Nullius was wrong, but ownership and its structures of power were already so established that overturning it would be impossible. Landowners were appointed judges. In fact, reading history from an economic perspective, colonialism is really a naked form of capitalism. (Mabo case just invented a form of native title that can co-exist with colonial ownership)

    For ecological economics to work, the profit motive must be redirected to value creation, not extraction. Shifting taxes to extraction (Henry George) will help (an idea that already pisses off the ownership class), as will allowing people to keep the value they create while rewarding them for contributions to social and natural capital. But none of this will withstand the rapacious ownership class unless those rights of extraction and exploitation are removed.

    And this is where we de-colonise ownership. It means returning to a model of ownership that is exclusive and inheritable, but without the rights of extraction and exploitation. Ownership becomes a responsibility, not a right. Only then can we build a sustainable model of capital accumulation, based on what we create, not what we can extract from the earth and other people.

    This utterly transforms all existing structures of wealth and power! Which is why we could end up waiting for the earth to do this to us. The owners will resist.

    (Socialism is not it either. Without de-colonising ownership and setting ecological boundaries, socialism is just extraction by the many, not the few.)

  14. @Bradley Schott

    Thank you for your answer. I will need to give it some thought. If you can provide references, I’ll be grateful.

    I can say I am in complete agreement with the first five paragraphs.

    After that I have my doubts.

    You write: “For ecological economics to work, the profit motive must be redirected to value creation, not extraction.”

    The idea, if I understood you well, is that profit motive persists after decolonisation, but it is re-directed from extraction to value creation.

    You do not explain in your answer, perhaps for brevity, where profit comes from. The general gist suggests that for you profit comes from the exploitation of nature only (correct me if I am mistaken).

    Value, of course, shall still be produced after de-colonisation. But how it is to be distributed? De-colonised property still belongs to someone. What contribution will that proprietor(s) make to the process of value creation? What happens to non-proprietors?

    You write “ownership becomes a responsibility, not a right”. Maybe so, but it is not clear to me why that should be.

    Likewise, you add “this utterly transforms all existing structures of wealth and power”. I haven’t seen anything in your brief answer that indicates that’s the case.

    I don’t mean to sound dismissive or harsh, but as you can see, I still find the concept nebulous. (That’ why, additional references, for the utter beginner, are most welcome).

    For Marxists, profits and power come not only from exploiting nature, but from exploiting workers. Indeed, although Marx did consider nature a source of wealth, he focused on the exploitation of workers. You never mentioned that W-word. Not once.

    Finally, I also partially agree with your parting comment: “Without setting … ecological boundaries, socialism is just extraction by the many, not the few”. I still don’t understand what “de-colonising ownership” means and so far, I believe setting ecological boundaries is all it’s required for socialism to at least be compatible with a sustainable society.

    Thanks for your attention.

  15. @Derek Henry

    Bill Mitchell: “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.”

    I must disagree strongly with Bill & you. Marx and Engels disagreed. With other non-capitalist measures, the original and the Green New Deals in essence contain(ed) state full employment, a job guarantee. Marx, Engels and others clearly said that alone was a major shift in class relations and a decisive challenge to power elites.

    Derek Henry: “FDR was a master at it and some people call it “monetary silencing ” as described in this fantastic discussion by the money on the left team.”

    “Fantastic” is right. That discussion is fantasy. Especially on the New Deal it is incredibly ignorant and the exact reverse of the truth.

    From that fantastic discussion:
    “[Monetary silencing] is about excluding people from knowledge of monetary institutions and turning them into mere money users and consumers.”

    “FDR actively discouraged people from thinking about money as a public good, even though his administration did all of those major restructurings of money.”

    Diametrically opposed to the easily verifiable and accepted fact that FDR actively, deliberately, explicitly and successfully encouraged people to think of money as a public good and thought of such educational efforts as one of his most important duties. What “revelation” are we going receive next? About Lincoln’s Enslavement Proclamation?

    Will Rogers famously quipped that the fireside chats made banking so easy even bankers could understand it. When I showed the second fireside chat to Randall Wray, his comment was something like – ‘we like to think there is progress but…’ meaning FDR was doing MMT monetary education back then, far better than today’s politicians.

  16. I recommend the following which are central to an argument of whether I or Deep Adaptation ignore or can incorporate a critical perspective on monetary systems.

    My paper on MMT, climate adaptation and collapse

    My blog on the monetary issue, within a series of essays on a political agenda related to anticipating societal breakdown:

    I also have a chapter on this topic, with Tom Greco, a key thinker in this field, an academic paper on the need for monetary reform for better SME financing. I started working on such issues in 2009 as both scholar and activist.

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