Research Futures in the Face of Climate Tragedy
I was only partly joking earlier when I questioned why I was even writing this paper. 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. I mention this to highlight how it will not be easy to identify ways forward as academic researchers and educators in the field of organisational sustainability. For the academics reading this paper, most of you will have increasing teaching loads, in areas where you are expected to cover certain content. I know you may have little time and space for reinventing your expertise and focus. Those of you who have a mandate to research might discover that the deep adaptation agenda is not an easy topic for finding research partners and funders. This restrictive situation was not always the reality faced by academics. It is the result of changes in higher education, that are one expression of an ideology that has made the human race so poor at addressing a threat to its wellbeing and even existence. It is an ideology that many of us have been complicit in promoting, if we have been working in business schools. It is important to recognise that complicity, before considering how to evolve our research in the face of the climate tragedy.
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.
This ideology has now influenced the workloads and priorities of academics in most universities, which restricts how we can respond to the climate tragedy. In my own case, I took an unpaid sabbatical, and writing this paper is one of the outcomes of that decision. We no longer have time for the career games of aiming to publish in top-ranked journals to
impress our line managers or improve our CV for if we enter the job market. Nor do we have a need for the narrow specialisms that are required to publish in such journals. So, yes, I am suggesting that in order to let oneself evolve in response to the climate tragedy one may have to quit a job – and even a career. However, if one is prepared to do that, then one can engage with an employer and professional community from a new place of confidence.
If staying in academia, I recommend you begin to ask some questions of all that you research and teach. When reading others’ research, I recommend asking: “How might these findings inform efforts for a more massive and urgent pursuit of resilience, relinquishment and restoration in the face of social collapse?” You may find that most of what you read offers little on that question, and, therefore, you no longer wish to engage with it. On one’s own research, I recommend asking: “If I didn’t believe in incremental incorporation of climate concerns into current organisations and systems, what might I want to know more about?” In answering that question, I recommend talking to non-specialists as much as people in your own field, so that you are able to talk more freely and consider all options.
In my own work, I stopped researching corporate sustainability. I learned about leadership and communications and began to research, teach and advise on these matters, in the political arena. I began to work on systems to enable re-localisation of economies and support for community development, particular those systems using local currencies. I sought to share that knowledge more widely, and therefore launched a free online course (The Money and Society Mass Open Online Course). I began to spend more time reading and talking about the climate tragedy and what I might do, or stop doing, with that in mind. This rethinking and repositioning is ongoing, but I can no longer work on subjects that do not have some relevance to deep adaptation. Looking ahead, I see the need and opportunity for more work at multiple levels. People will need more support to access information and networks for how to attempt a shift in their livelihoods and lifestyles. Existing approaches to living off-grid in intentional communities are useful to learn from, but this agenda needs to go further in asking questions like how small-scale production of drugs like aspirin is possible. Free online and in- person courses as well as support networks on self-sufficiency need to be scaled. Local governments will need similar support on how to develop the capabilities today that will help their local communities to collaborate, not fracture, during a collapse. For instance, they will need to roll out systems for productive cooperation between neighbours, such as product and service exchange platforms enabled by locally issued currency. At the international level, there is the need to work on how to responsibly address the wider fallout from collapsing societies (Harrington, 2016). These will be many, but obviously include the challenges of refugee support and the securing of dangerous industrial and nuclear sites at the moment of a societal collapse.
Other intellectual disciplines and traditions may be of interest support going forward. Human extinction and the topic of eschatology, or the end of the world, is something that has been discussed in various academic disciplines, as you might expect. In theology it has been widely discussed, while it also appears in literary theory as an interesting element to creative writing and in psychology during the 1980s as a phenomenon related to the threat of nuclear war. The field of psychology seems to be particularly relevant going forward.
Whatever we choose to work on in future will not be a simple calculation. It will be shaped by the emotional or psychological implications of this new awareness of a societal collapse being likely in our own lifetimes. I have explored some of these emotional issues and how they have been affecting my work choices, in a reflective essay on the spiritual implications of climate despair (Bendell, 2018). I recommend giving yourself time for such reflection and evolution, rather than rushing in to a new agenda of research or teaching. If you are a student, then I recommend sending your lecturers this paper and inviting a class discussion about these ideas. It is likely that those who are not embedded within the existing system will be the ones more able to lead this agenda.
I think it may be our vanity as academics to think that any one but academics and students read academic papers. Therefore, I have chosen to leave my recommendations for managers, policy makers and lay persons for another outlet.