Framing after denial
As a sense of calamity grows within the environmental movement, some argue against a focus on "carbon reductionism" for how it may limit our appreciation of why we face this tragedy and what to do about it (Eisenstein, 2018). I agree that climate change is not just a pollution problem, but an indicator of how our human psyche and culture became divorced from our natural habitat. However, that does not mean we should deprioritise the climate situation for a broader environmental agenda.
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. Some frame the future as involving a collapse of this economic and social system, which does not necessarily mean a complete collapse of law, order, identity and values. Some regard that kind of collapse as offering a potential upside in bringing humanity to a post-consumerist way of life that would be more conscious of relationships between people and nature (Eisenstein, 2013). Some even argue that this reconnection with nature will generate hitherto unimaginable solutions to our predicament. Sometimes that view comes with a belief in the power of spiritual practices to influence the material world according to human intent. The perspective that natural or spiritual reconnection might save us from catastrophe is, however, a psychological response one could analyse as a form of denial.
Some analysts emphasise the unpredictable and catastrophic nature of this collapse, so that it will not be possible to plan a way to transition at either collective or small-scale levels to a new way of life that we might imagine as tolerable, let alone beautiful. Then others go further still and argue that the data can be interpreted as indicating climate change is now in a runaway pattern, with inevitable methane release from the seafloor leading to a rapid
collapse of societies that will trigger multiple meltdowns of some of the world’s 400 nuclear power-stations, leading to the extinction of the human race (Macpherson, 2016). This assessment that we face near-term human extinction can draw on the conclusions by geologists that the last mass extinction of life on earth, where 95% of species disappeared, was due to methane-induced rapid warming of the atmosphere (Lee, 2014; Brand et al, 2016).
With each of these framings – collapse, catastrophe, extinction – people describe different degrees of certainty. Different people speak of a scenario being possible, probable or inevitable. In my conversations with both professionals in sustainability or climate, and others
not directly involved, I have found that people choose a scenario and a probability depending not on what the data and its analysis might suggest, but what they are choosing to live with as a story about this topic. That parallels findings in psychology that none of us are purely logic machines but relate information into stories about how things relate and why (Marshall, 2014). None of us are immune to that process. Currently, I have chosen to interpret the information as indicating inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction. There is a growing community of people who conclude we face inevitable human extinction and treat that view as a prerequisite for meaningful discussions about the implications for our lives right now. For instance, there are thousands of people on Facebook groups who believe human extinction is near. In such groups I have witnessed how people who doubt extinction is either inevitable or coming soon are disparaged by some participants for being weak and deluded. This could reflect how some of us may find it easier to believe in a certain than uncertain story, especially when the uncertain future would be so different to today that it is difficult to comprehend. Reflection on the end of times, or eschatology, is a major dimension of the human experience, and the total sense of loss of everything one could ever contribute to is an extremely powerful experience for many people. How they emerge from that experience depends on many factors, with loving kindness, creativity, transcendence, anger, depression, nihilism and apathy all being potential responses. Given the potential spiritual experience triggered by sensing the imminent extinction of the human race, we can appreciate why a belief in the inevitability of extinction could be a basis for some people to come together.
In my work with mature students, I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression. Instead, in a supportive environment, where we have enjoyed community with each other, celebrating ancestors and enjoying nature before then looking at this information and possible framings for it, something positive happens. I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward. Despite that, a certain discombobulation occurs and remains over time as one tries to find a way forward in a society where such perspectives are uncommon. Continued sharing about the implications as we transition our work and lives is valuable.
One further factor in the framing of our situation concerns timing. Which also concerns geography. Where and when will the collapse or catastrophe begin? When will it affect my livelihood and society? Has it already begun? Although it is difficult to forecast and impossible to predict with certainty, that does not mean we should not try. The current data on temperature rise at the poles and impacts on weather patterns around the world suggests we are already in the midst of dramatic changes that will impact massively and negatively on agriculture within the next twenty years. Impacts have already begun. That sense of near-term disruption to our ability to feed ourselves and our families, and the implications for crime and conflict, adds another level to the discombobulation I mentioned. Should you drop everything now and move somewhere more suitable for self-sufficiency? Should you be spending time reading the rest of this article? Should I even finish writing it? Some of the people who believe that we face inevitable extinction believe that no one will read this article because we will see a collapse of civilisation in the next twelve months when the harvests fail across the northern
hemisphere. They see social collapse leading to immediate meltdowns of nuclear power stations and thus human extinction being a near-term phenomenon. Certainly not more than five years from now. The clarity and drama of their message is why Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction (INTHE) has become a widely used phrase online for discussions about climate-collapse.
Writing about that perspective makes me sad. Even four years after I first let myself consider near-term extinction properly, not as something to dismiss, it still makes my jaw drop, eyes moisten, and air escape my lungs. I have seen how the idea of INTHE can lead me to focus on truth, love and joy in the now, which is wonderful, but how it can also make me lose interest in planning for the future. And yet I always come around 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 holding the
gun to our own heads. With this in mind, we can choose to explore how to evolve what we do, without any simple answers. In my post-denial state, shared by increasing numbers of my students and colleagues, I realised that we would benefit from conceptual maps for how to address these questions. I therefore set about synthesising the main things people talked about doing differently in light of a view of inevitable collapse and probable catastrophe. That is what I offer now as the “deep adaptation agenda.”