U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Collapse or Transformation

I suppose if one only stuck a toe into the literature of climate change, into its factual evidence, its numbers, into its long-form meditations and its day-to-day reportage, one might still be able to manage some deflection. One might still be able to push what it has to say into a corner to be visited only now and then. Put in a half of foot, however, and compartmentalization becomes almost impossible. We face a moral crisis of shattering proportions.

Here’s what some environmental activists are arguing about these days: Is societal collapse inevitable, and therefore, is our time best spent in moral and practical preparation for that collapse; or are we capable of some great transformation at the most fundamental levels–transformation of our myths and metaphors, of the way we think and the way we live? It sobers one to the bone just to grasp that this question isn’t being raised in some dystopian novel or film, one step away from nightmare, in an aesthetic practice of venting and processing. It’s being raised in the terms of a rational debate.

An approximately 250 m long part of the glacier front of the Svitjordbreen breaks off and causes a small tsunami and countless little ice floes and icebergs in the waters of the fjord. 2 August 2015. Photo credit: AWeith [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)].

This month Jeremy Lent, the author of The Patterning Instinct who I’ve mentioned several times at this blog, took issue with Jem Bendell, the writer of “Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating the climate tragedy,” a concept paper published last year that has since been downloaded many tens of thousands of times. In this paper Bendell argued that the resilience of our current systems cannot be assumed and that their breakdown is already unfolding and inevitable. He created a forum to explore what changes, personal and collective, “might help us prepare for–and live with–a climate-induced collapse of our societies.” Lent found much common ground with Bendell but pushed back on the notion of inevitability. That sort of hopelessness would become, he argued, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My purpose here is to call attention to their exchange. My summary sentences don’t do it justice, and it has already drawn notice and comment in other online locales. There are several ways to follow it, but this was my path:

“Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse — The 4th R of Deep Adaptation” — a January summary by Bendell of his initial paper with an extended discussion of his concepts of “reconciliation” and “radical hope.”

“The Love in Deep Adaptation — A Philosophy for the Forum” — a March post by Bendell and Katie Carr that makes clear that Deep Adaptation is not a call for going off-grid with a stockpile of weapons.

“What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren?” — Lent’s April essay pushes back against Deep Adaptation and poses, instead, Deep Transformation.

“Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation” — Bendell answers Lent the next day. This post includes all of Lent’s post with responses interspersed between passages.

“Our Actions Create the Future: A Response to Jem Bendell” — Lent follows up to Bendell’s response and includes a selected bibliography on civilizational collapse.

(Here is a link to Bendell’s complete Deep Adaptation paper, which I have not yet read in full.)

It’s best to read the exchange for oneself, but I’ll offer an observation. I was struck how much Lent and Bendell share in common in terms of fundamental orientation. Both have a “systems view of life,” to use Fritjof Capra’a and Pier Luigi Luisi’s phrase. This is explicit in Lent’s work. The Patterning Instinct begins with a preface by Capra, and one of its themes is the “remarkable correspondence” between what the West called Neo-Confucianism in Song-era China and “modern findings in systems and complexity science.” These findings emphasize “how self-organized systems are fractally embedded within one another” and “the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems” (252, 371).

I’m less familiar with Bendell’s thinking, but claims he makes in the posts above align with the systems view. We suffer from the “delusion” of separateness, he writes. We haven’t regarded “rivers, soils, forests and fields as part of ourselves.” This “othering” of nature, of a piece with the othering of people, has justified “exploitation, discrimination, hostility, violence, and rampant consumption.” Elsewhere he writes that “wisdom traditions” and “contemporary physics” tell us that “we are co-creating our reality with others, the material and ineffable dimensions in ways that we can never fully comprehend.” These are basics of the systems view. Lent wouldn’t disagree.

It is on this last point, however–the point about the co-creation of reality–that Lent intervenes. Maybe we can’t fully comprehend the ways in which we co-create our “material and ineffable dimensions,” but we do know that these dimensions are intrinsically coupled. “Human society itself,” Lent writes in his second response to Bendell,

is really two tightly interconnected, co-existing complex systems: a tangible system and a cognitive system. The tangible system refers to everything that can be seen and touched: a society’s technology, its physical infrastructure, and its agriculture, to name just some components. The cognitive system refers to what can’t be touched but exists in the culture: a society’s myths, core metaphors, hierarchy of values, and worldview.

The dynamic interaction of these two systems creates feedback loops that “can profoundly affect each other and, consequently, the direction of society.” The attitude we take to the current crisis matters, in other words. Thinking in terms of collapse reinforces the possibility of collapse. Thinking in terms of transformation reinforces that possibility, in turn. “The only real path toward future flourishing,” Lent writes, “is one that transforms the basis of our civilization, from the current one that is extractive and wealth-based, to one that is life-affirming, based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies.” Already moving in that direction are “innumerable pioneering organizations around the world.” They need our support, our membership, not our dismissal.

I don’t know what to think about this argument. Is it that Bendell’s systems thinking is less thoroughgoing than Lent’s, or is it an understandable distrust, on Bendell’s part, that even a touch of the utopian is escapist? It may boil down to how one characterizes denial. “Green positivity,” as Bendell calls it, denies how bad things really are. Bendell, Lent charges, denies transformation a chance.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Considering we are functionally blind to our actual long-term chances, even if we assume that Bendel is correct (that we’re f*cked), if the end is not clearly imminent and could actually be quite far away, all things equal, aren’t we always better off assuming that there is
    a chance. Or looked at the other way, while we wait for the end, if believing in it doesn’t forestall it, what is the benefit in believing in it? I mean, isn’t that why we try so hard not to think about our mortality in general? I guess at this point, we have to believe there’s a chance, because it’s just too depressing to just sit around waiting to die.

  2. Reconciling ourselves to the collapse of civilization can make way for what Bendell calls “radical hope,” when the action required for deep adaptation becomes possible. Which is to say, “waiting ’round to die” is the opposite of the program Bendell advocates, though it did make a great Townes van Zandt song.

  3. This is so interesting Anthony, thanks for summarizing this debate. I have two questions that maybe you can shed light on; if not no worries!

    One, how do either of these thinkers grapple with anthropocentrism? My thoughts on this problem — because I do think it is a problem — have been really central to me in recent years but I’ve never figured out a way to connect it to my political or historical commentary in a way that adds up more to “get over yourselves, humans; dogs are awesome.” I kid a little bit but it seems like these are the folks that could help me bridge that gap or, maybe just overcome my own fear of not being taken seriously for suggesting it.

    Two, is there any serious overlap or exchange between these discussions and the tradition of anarcho-primitivism?, another guilty interest of mine as of late.

    • After writing this post, I’ve spent the past week struggling to summon belief in either Bendell’s hope for a best effort when things fall apart or in Lent’s hope for transformation. Our ability to imagine violence when confronting crisis and change is so elaborate and refined. We go there first, it seems, and anything else is just hazy. The circles all around me are talking about Game of Thrones and The Avengers; meanwhile the Extinction Rebellion Movement is getting very little play here in the states. (I do see a column in the NYT this morning.)

      As for Anthropocentricism, Robin, you saw the Bendell quote about rivers and trees. In the Environmental Humanities, the difference between the human and the non-human is of more analytical relevance than the difference between human and human, though Environmental Justice reminds us that certain human groups suffer more than others as a result of the othering of the non-human. The 2015 collection of essays, The Nonhuman Turn, introduced me to a lot of new thinking in regard to the matters you bring up.

      I don’t know much about anarcho-primitivism, but there is probably overlap somewhere, though the precise terms may change. The response to environmental collapse is huge and various, “the largest social movement in all of human history,” according to Paul Hawken and others. (See my earlier post on this: “Theological and Ecological Radicalisms: Some Common Ground.”)

  4. There is no way to have these discussions—about co-creation, othering, extraction, collapse, transformation, flourishing—without talking about and understanding capitalism. What exactly has caused the collapse? What specifically has man done?

    On capitalism, what does it mean to “profit” in, or from, this world? How do we define “profit”? What is excess in relation to production? Is capitalism sustainable, in any way—can it be transformed? If so, the corrective language is your language of reform. Otherwise, we must find an economic alternative to capitalism.

    Our dystopian language of collapse is a failure of imagination and ideas. We are confessing the inability to co-create when we wallow in collapse and tragedy. – TL

    • Tim, literature on the correspondence between the environmental destruction and capitalism is wide and deep, as I’m sure you know. Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation is one among several foundational texts. There are monographs aplenty, and as far as articles are concerned, no single person could take them all in. I’ll be playing catch-up for the rest of my life. But I’ve especially relied on Giorgos Kallis, one of the leading researchers in Degrowth. Kallis has published widely, several times in the journal, Capitalism Nature Socialism. I’m persuaded by his point that the unsustainable aspect of our economy is economic growth, “whether it is capitalist or socialist.” See his article, “Socialism without Growth” at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2017.1386695.

      • I’ll try to read the Kallis article (appreciate the pointer). And thanks again for this post. I love having your voice here, on these topics. – TL

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.