Imagine you have no chance to change the course of events, but someone offers you a forgetfulness pill – a blue one, as in The Matrix – after which you will wake up in your own bed, still able to believe in whatever you want. Do you decide to forget in order to maintain your peace of mind? Or do you opt for awareness, which will change everything in your life? If you don’t want to know, this is the best moment to stop reading this article.
Imagine that the catastrophe is inevitable. The blackest scenario that ever entered your head is happening. You will witness suffering and maybe even the death of your nearest and dearest. Your final years will be plagued with hunger and the fight for survival. Imagine that there is no way of changing the course of events, but someone offers you a forgetfulness pill. As in The Matrix, when Morpheus places in front of Neo a red pill of truth and a blue pill, which, after taking, will lead the hero to wake up in his bed and still be able to believe in whatever he wants. Do you decide to forget in order to maintain your peace of mind? Or do you decide upon awareness that will turn your life upside down?
A perfect loss
“It is, I promise, worse than you think.” With this sentence, the editor David Wallace-Wells began his essay entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth”, published in New York Magazine in 2017. The subtitle of the essay was “Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think”. The article, which summarized the latest scientific reports on the subject of the overheating and degradation of the planet, caused a stir in the world of environmentalists. Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science, declared “it’s important to not discourage people – you don’t want to go from denial to despair.” Michael Mann, a climatologist and co-author of a graphical reconstruction of temperatures on the Earth’s surface, advised against “overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.” The journalist Alex Steffen said that “dropping the dire truth […] on unsupported readers does not produce action, but fear.” Daniel Aldana Cohen, an expert in climate policy, called the essay “disaster porn”. There was further reaction from outraged ecologists, not to mention a sizeable group of climate change deniers, rejecting the facts and interpretation presented by David Wallace-Wells, who went on to publish a book in 2019, entitled The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.
In professional environmental circles, “the argument made is that to discuss the likelihood and nature of social collapse due to climate change is irresponsible because it might trigger hopelessness amongst the general public. I always thought it odd to restrict our own exploration of reality and censor our own sensemaking due to our ideas about how our conclusions might come across to others,” wrote Jem Bendell in his paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. A range of so-called experts hold the deep conviction that the public should be protected from what we may call the terrifying truth; irrespective of whether this concerns the imminent collapse of civilization or a nuclear reactor explosion. Svetlana Alexievich demonstrates this mechanism in her book Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future: “We were people chained by fear and prejudice.” Bendell talks in his paper about why concealing the terrifying truth is ubiquitous. But before I hand over to him, let us meet the professor and uncover some elements of this terrifying truth.
Jem Bendell is the founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria in the UK. For over 20 years, he worked on the subject of communication and leadership in business, creating development strategies for, among others, the United Nations. The World Economic Forum appointed him a Young Global Leader in the field of sustainable business alliances. However, on 27th July 2018, the professor quit his job in the business sector and published Deep Adaptation – a 40-page scientific paper that has been translated so far into more than 10 languages and is regarded by many as revolutionary and radical. “If all the data and analysis turn out to be misleading, and this society continues nicely for the coming decades, then this article will not have helped my career. If the predicted collapse comes within the next decade, then I won’t have a career. It is the perfect lose-lose.”
The terrifying truth
Pollution levels from plastic and other synthetic materials have risen tenfold since 1980, when the effects of ingesting plastic on the human body hadn’t yet been studied. Meanwhile, each of us consumes 5g of plastic every week, sufficient to make a credit card. Each year we ingest 250g of plastic in the form of 102,000 pieces smaller than one millimetre (“Solving Plastic pollution through accountability”, WWF report, 2019), chiefly through drinking water, both bottled and from the tap. Plastic pollution has spread as far as the Amazon rainforest, the Arctic and Antarctic, to distant, uninhabited islands, as well as to the bottom of the Mariana Trench; also into snow and rain. Gregory Wetherbee, a scientist from the Geological Survey, decided to study rainfall at a height of 3169 metres above sea level in the Rocky Mountains. Microplastics were found in 90% of the rain water (“It is Raining Plastic”, USGS, 2019).
In January 2019, when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 410ppm (parts per million; i.e. atoms of CO2 per million atoms of air), Peter Gleick, a scientist from the National Academy of Sciences, wrote: “The last time humans experienced levels this high was... never. Human didn’t exist.” Five months later, the concentration of CO2 exceeded 415ppm. This excess of greenhouse gases is causing the planet to overheat. Since 1950, the number of very hot days in Europe has tripled and the number of freezing days has fallen by half or more, depending upon the region. Each of the last five years, (2014–2018), was among the five hottest since records began (WMO 2019). July 2019 was the hottest month on record; June 2019 was the next hottest. Since pre-industrial times, the average temperature of the world has risen by over 1°C. An increase of 2°C will bring desertification, drought, food and water shortages, and will force hundreds of thousands to migrate. Today, 820 million people in Asia and Africa already do not have food security, while 40% of the world’s population don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water (according to The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES).
“New records are being set around the world due to climate change, and the adverse effects of this change are already affecting agricultural production in Europe, especially in the south,” said Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, EEA, in August 2019. The Agency emphasized that the extreme weather conditions are a threat to the agricultural sector. “Yields of non-irrigated crops like wheat, corn and sugar beet are projected to decrease in southern Europe by up to 50% by 2050.”
A million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction, many of them in the nearest future. In the opinion of scientists from the University of Arizona, climate change is happening 3000 to 20,000 times faster than the speed of adaptation of many species of grasses. (“Climate change is projected to outpace rates of niche change in grasses”, Biology Letters, 2016). And these include, among others, rice, wheat, oats, rye, barley, sweetcorn and other cereals that form the basis of our diets. We take 49% of our calories directly from cereals. Their survival across large areas of Europe is in question.
In August 2019, the magazine Science Advances described the problem of atmospheric drought that has hampered the global expansion of vegetation since the 1990s. More than half of green landscapes are experiencing ‘browning’, i.e. disappearing vegetation growth (“Increased atmospheric vapor pressure deficit reduces global vegetation growth”, Science Advances). Polish trees are also suffering from the absence of the so-called climate optimum – the conditions necessary for survival. On 4th August 2019, the Polish Press Agency (PAP) published forecasts which predict that some 75% of the trees in Poland’s forests will die within the lifetimes of today’s 40-year olds. The very survival of Scots pines, Norway spruce, European larch and silver birch is at stake. “This is shocking information, when we consider that pines, birch and spruce make up 58.5%, 7.5% and 6.4% of Polish forest area respectively,” wrote scientists from the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Thus far, three-quarters of the land ecosystem and around two-thirds of the ocean ecosystem has been altered significantly by humans. Since our civilization arose, we have wiped out 85% of wild mammals and 50% of plants. Today, 60% of mammals are farmed cattle and pigs, 36% are people, while wild animals account for barely 4%. (“The biomass distribution on Earth”, PNAS, 2018). Despite this, our population is growing every day. The space covered by cities has doubled since 1992 and there are plans for 25 million kilometres of roads by 2050. 98% of the 500 billion tonnes of concrete on our planet has been poured since the 1970s. There is one kilogram of concrete for every square metre of our planet; including the seas and oceans.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg (although these are melting). Yet the mind easily gets used to, or tires of any information if it is delivered in too condensed a form. So here I will stop relaying the scientists’ reports, as one can track them down easily. Almost every day brings a new record. Melting icebergs and permafrost, forest fires in Africa, the Amazon and Siberia. Soil degradation, dying coral reefs, ocean acidification and the release of methane into the atmosphere, which heats it much faster than carbon dioxide. And those organic pollutants such as DDT as well. What will become of us?
Imagine that you get on an aeroplane that is about to take off. On board are 101 seats. 100 passengers and you. At a certain moment someone stands up and shouts: “This plane is going to crash!” The passenger leaves the plane. What is your reaction? What do you think? Suddenly, the next person stands up and does the same. 97 people leave the plane, saying that the aircraft will surely crash. Three people are left. One seems to be a politician, the second looks like a drunkard, and the third you cannot place. Three people and you. Do you fly with them or do you leave the plane? In the opinion of 97.1% of the scientists surveyed (“Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”, IOPscience, 2013), global warming of the planet is the result of human activity. (The Guardian, in an article entitled “No doubt left about scientific consensus on global warming, say experts”, claims that 99% of scientists have reached a consensus on this matter.) In spite of this, the majority of society remains at the stage of denying the inevitability of an ecological catastrophe and behaves like a passenger who ignores the warning and chooses to fly on a plane destined to crash. However, even among the media, politicians and some ecologists, the narrative of this impending disaster gets distorted or coloured with hope.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, believes that “Climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.” Philip Alston, a law professor and UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote that the world stands at the edge of “climate apartheid”, or the segregation and discrimination of the poor by the rich: “The track record of the fossil fuel industry makes clear that overreliance on profit-driven actors would almost guarantee massive human rights violations, with the wealthy catered to and the poorest left behind. And if climate change is used to justify business-friendly policies and widespread privatization, exploitation of natural resources and global warming may be accelerated rather than prevented.” Naomi Klein adopts a similar tone in her book, This Changes Everything. In her opinion, “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.” Roger Hallam, co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion movement, claims that the democratic system may collapse over the coming decade when there will be water and food shortages, and hundreds of thousands of climate refugees from Africa will be pushing at the gates of Europe. In an interview with the BBC, Hallam said: “It’s like going to the doctor and the doctor says you’ve got cancer, and if you carry on as normal, you’re definitely going to die. Or you can try and change, but you might still die”. Greta Thunberg, who initiated the global youth movement for the climate, says simply: “I want you to panic.”
In Bendell’s opinion, we cannot stop the processes that will lead to the degradation of the planet and the extinction of plants and animals, thereby exposing ourselves to civilizational collapse and our own extinction, because we prefer to stay in the denial phase; hiding comfortably behind one of our defence mechanisms – displacement, rationalization, magical thinking or negation. It’s like taking a forgetfulness pill. “I see four particular insights about what is happening when people argue we should not communicate to the public the likelihood and nature of the catastrophe we face,” wrote the professor in Deep Adaptation. “First, it is not untypical for people to respond to data in terms of what perspectives we wish for ourselves and others to have.”
Second, “bad news and extreme scenarios impact on human psychology.” For this reason, often unconsciously, when communicating about ecological catastrophe, scientists, politicians, journalists and even ecologists and activists express themselves with words that soften or distort reality. In the Polish-language Facebook Group “Antropogeniczne zmiany klimatu i środowiska naturalnego” [Man-made climate and environmental change], beneath my article for “Przekrój” entitled “Trees We Are Killing”, a conversation got going about the birch, spruce, larch and pines that, according to scientists, will die. “Stupid title,” wrote Orsynia. “They won’t die. They’ll just change their range,” wrote Darek. “They’ll make way for others,” another user replied to him. The administrator, Jacek, wrote that the trees will “emigrate” from Poland and “some will head north towards the North Pole.” We prefer to think about dying species in terms of ‘giving way’, ‘removing themselves’ or ‘moving their range’, rather than admit that we are the perpetrators and that we are killing them. This same mechanism happens when we soften the description of a wing cut off a chicken to ‘crunchy’, ‘spicy’, etc. It tastes better then.
Third, writes Bendell, “people can express a paternalistic relationship between themselves as environmental experts and other people whom they categorise as ‘the public’. That is related to the non-populist anti-politics technocratic attitude that has pervaded contemporary environmentalism. It is a perspective that frames the challenges as one of encouraging people to try harder to be nicer and better rather than coming together in solidarity to either undermine or overthrow a system that demands we participate in environmental degradation.” Behind the decision of ecologists, scientists and journalists, with the knowledge on what size dose of information to give us, may stand a divine assumption that they know what’s best for us. However, for the governing elites, the information has become a tool of manipulation.
The fourth cause of interpretational denialism is founded on the fear of despair and hopelessness. In Bendell’s opinion, these “are understandably feared but wrongly assumed to be entirely negative and to be avoided whatever the situation.” Western culture, focused as it is on celebrating pleasure, treats suffering, illness, sadness and despair as a mistake, a disaster, an unnecessary experience or a challenge to any normal, happily-functioning life. It doesn’t ascribe to these experiences the opportunity for creating change, improved habits or better ways of life. The science of antiquity, shamanism, as well as psychotherapy, all treat despair as an indispensable element of the life process that includes pain, illness and loss. Honest confrontation of despair can be more valuable than building one’s life around affirmation and sustaining a hope that is only justified by the fear of reality.
Denial of death
If you are still with me, perhaps you are wondering how to get through life in the knowledge that you belong to a species threatened with extinction. There are those who believe it is morally wrong to adapt to the ecological crisis unless all available measures have been taken to prevent it. Maybe you are starting to ask yourself what you should do and how to avert the crisis. Before you take any action, however, remember that bargaining with reality can be a natural part of the grief process; and grief is inevitable once we become aware of the collapse of civilization. Contained inside the question of what we should do, beyond a genuine desire to save the insects, trees, animals and people, may also hide a delusion, which makes it easier to escape reality; not the forecasts and black scenarios, but the current scientific state of the planet. The act of launching into a vortex of tasks brings the promise of delaying our moment of reckoning with despair and our fear of death. The anthropologist Ernest Becker claims that “the basic motivation for human behaviour is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.” In turn, George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, quotes the anthropologist Ernest Becker, who wrote that “the denial of death is a vital lie that leads us to invest our efforts into our cultures and social groups to obtain a sense of permanence and survival beyond our death.” Sometimes a range of passionate, dogged actions by activists stems from this fear, bringing with it a welcome chaos and the feeling of being engaged in something important. Bendell’s Deep Adaptation, a metaphorical road map through the ecological crisis, encourages us to stop this, right now.
As Bendell writes, “if we allow ourselves to accept that a climate-induced form of economic and social collapse is now likely, then we can begin to explore the nature and likelihood of that collapse. That is when we discover a range of different views.” At the same time, he warns that many people do not foresee the collapse of legal norms, order, identity and values in the coming disaster.
I asked Arkadiusz Wierzba why he translated Deep Adaptation into Polish. He said that the emotions were key. “During lectures, as teachers at EkoCentrum in Wrocław, we concentrated mainly on individual actions; the things that each of us can do to mitigate the escalation of climate change. Doubts increasingly appeared: what if it is already too late for individual changes? Bendell’s article contains a shocking dose of real fear in the face of what is happening, combined with a powerful portion of a new type of hope. Time is running out; we must reformulate the goals and work on a vision which will allow us to function in a world of escalating climate crisis.”
Bendell goes beyond the convention of scientific study when he asks whether, in the context of the times we live in, it wouldn’t be better if he stopped writing, negated the paradigm of sustainable development that he has advocated for years, and shared his personal emotions. “Writing about this makes me sad. Even four years after I first considered seriously the vision of near-term extinction without finding excuses to let me reject the idea, it still makes my jaw drop, my eyes moisten, and winds me. I have seen how the idea of INTHE (Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction) can lead me to focus on truth, love and joy in the present, which is wonderful, but how it can also make me lose interest in planning for the future. And yet I always come back to the same conclusion – we do not know. Ignoring the future because it is unlikely to matter might backfire. ‘Running for the hills’ to create our own eco-community might backfire. But we definitely know that continuing to work in the ways we have done until now is not just backfiring; it is effectively holding the gun to our heads. With this in mind, we can try to think through how to change our approach; without expectation of simple solutions.”
And so, after rejecting denialism, Bendell created the concept of deep adaptation, which is based on resilience, relinquishment and restoration. However, those who are counting on simple tips will be disappointed.
Bendell does not talk about resilience in traditional terms of development and progress, noting the psychological definition provided by the American Psychology Association: “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.” Under this definition, therefore, resilience does not assume that people return to their pre-tragedy state, but rather considers how a person ‘bounces back’ through a creative reinterpretation of their identity and priorities. Bendell writes about the society of the future, which will not only adapt to the new climatic conditions, but will do so on the basis of norms and values that allow united survival. When there is no water in the tap, no anti-depressants at the chemists, no alcohol in the shops, and the dry soil will not produce crops, conflicts will arise. Building a united society in the face of a life-threatening situation, with an influx of climate refugees, hunger and strong emotions may appear impossible. That’s why, in Bendell’s opinion, we should start now. Resilience forces us to question what we actually want to save. What do I want to save? What values are important to me? Is proving our worth on the employment market more important than time with our nearest and dearest? What need are we satisfying when we work to acquire new, shiny objects, clothes, equipment, gadgets and toys? What is more important than love, health and peace?
Resilience leads naturally to relinquishment, which is the honest answer to the question: what must we give up in order not to worsen the situation? “It involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations about certain types of consumption.” On a societal scale, resignation could mean renouncing obedience to a system that prioritizes economic development over the preservation of life. Examples of individual choice include giving up flying, car ownership or buying new clothes. On the spiritual level, this will be the rejection of aspiration and efforts to feed one’s ego.
Restoration is the answer to the question: what can we restore in order to better face the difficulties and tragedies? This is the process of restoring or listening to the voices of native communities, returning to forgotten traditions, and seeking answers in the past. “Examples include re-wilding landscapes, so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play, and increased community-level productivity and support.” Restoration also means returning to nature with recognition of our absolute co-dependence on the earth, water, trees, fungi, animals, air and other people. Restoration means awareness that my health and life are dependent upon the health and life of the millions of species with whom I share the planet. Martin Prechtel, a shaman of the Mayans of New Mexico, in an interview entitled “Grief and Praise”, said that there is “a certain thing for which it is worth living. In the modern world they talk for example about God and man. But it is something else. We weren’t born together with the beginning of the Earth and let’s hope that our blessing will not die with the end of the Earth. Life will go on with a whiff of our beautiful smell on the wind. So that those who come after us can feel that beauty and feel inspired by them, to go forward, to create more beauty. This is how spirits are sustained, our ancestors want this from us, a beauty, which is contained in an honest way of living life.”
The last dance
“Imagine if you opened the newspaper and you could read at the very top about a community that was living in harmony, where people were listening to each other, people are smiling at each other every day, people are sharing their material resources with each other, people are discussing ideas with each other, coming to a consensus. Imagine at the top of the New York Times ‘Community in Iowa living in harmony’ or ‘Community in Mississippi sitting down and listening to one another’. Once a week. Imagine,” said Thầy Pháp Lưu, a monk from Plum Village in his lecture “Awakening to Non-Fear in a Climate Crisis”.
Yet, we prefer dystopia over the vision of the monk, which many critics would describe as naïve. In the opinion of literary expert Marek Oziewicz, this results from a crisis of imagination that affects many artists. In Mad Max, The Hunger Games, and even Margaret Atwood’s trilogy, MaddAddam, we are plunged into a post-apocalyptic world, ruined by humans. A few souls fight for freedom; greed, power and violence rule. In the visions of future extermination, such as the film Interstellar, and in literary fiction, such as Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir’s Island, the fate of humankind is important, not the disappearing animals and plants. “In line with the prevailing code of culture, we are powerless against the processes that destroy the biosphere; processes that somehow we are unable to stop or change. Post-apocalyptic stories take advantage of our emotions, which are rooted in the primitive, instinctive mechanisms in our brains, so they make exciting tales. But they remove our sense of agency over our futures,” says Oziewicz in Kryzys wyobraźni [Crisis of imagination], (Kontakt magazine, no. 40). He added that, if we take responsibility only for ourselves, we lack the moral footing to halt the devastation of the planet; as if the only answer to capitalism is apocalypse and not the united society that Thầy Pháp Lưu and Bendell talk of. This fascination with dystopia seems not only to be learned from and disseminated by detractors, authors and screenwriters, but also news publishers and journalists.
A female scientist, a shaman, a monk, an activist and many others, irrespective of their professions, having come through a phase of climate grief, and having rejected denialism, speak with one voice, even if they use different vocabularies. They repeat the need for unity, not just between our nearest and dearest and not only between two-legged beings. It does not require deep reflection to recognize that trees and nettles are living things; to understand that I depend upon the oxygen supplied by the forests, the water in rivers, the fish swimming in the oceans, the bees pollinating flowers, or the vegetables sprinkled with rain. Irrespective of how this adventure that we call life will end, we still have to face the decision about how we want to spend these precious moments we have been given on Earth. Imagination may help. Therefore, imagine that you are at the ball of your dreams, or a reception. A party that is so absorbing that it should last forever. Suddenly, over the microphone comes a voice saying: listen up, it’s time for the last dance. You can pull a face and go and stand by the wall. You can complain that the whole party was pointless since it finished so early. You can get into a fight or dance to lose yourself in pleasure and tread on other peoples’ toes. You can also go to the middle of the dancefloor and dance as if the world is about to end, thinking about the earth on which you are dancing and all its inhabitants who have exactly the same right as you to exist and experience life. What will you do?
Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska
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