Contemplating collapse — should we speak about it more and, if so, how?
On discussing societal disruption and collapse
Professor Jem Bendell, in a paper published in the journal of the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists, provides a number of interesting psychological insights on discussing collapse which should be of interest to activists for whom his 2018 paper “Deep Adaptation — A map for navigating climate tragedy” may have been wake up call.
Despite Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) success, in raising public awareness of the climate and ecological emergency over the last three years, action has not yet followed. Emissions aren’t falling, plans consistent with what most of the world’s governments signed up to in Paris in 2015 remain absent and most people (at least in the privileged parts of the world) remain oblivious to what we face without (perhaps even with) credible climate action.
- At what stage should my activism pivot from its dominant focus on mitigation, to adaptation?
- How can a wider public debate about collapse risk be helpful?
- Am I somehow ‘letting the side down’ by accepting that ‘we’re too late’?
Swallowing the red pill…
Occasionally, I wonder how life might be different if I hadn’t ‘woken up’ to the climate emergency. What if I hadn’t swallowed that metaphorical red pill in 2018 which made me question everything I was doing in my life and what I most valued.
For some, the red pill is a step into the office of a doctor who tells them the diagnosis is bad news and they should put their affairs in order in the few months they have left. In this case, the diagnosis was not specific to me, and I could have ignored it and carried on with my way of life. I’m not sure why I reacted in the way I did, which I tried to make sense of in this piece from February 2019.
The fifty-something professional quitting a career for more meaning in life is a privilege of the affluent and a well-trodden path (even if in my case it was to volunteer for, and get arrested with, XR!) But, as I look back, it hasn’t always felt like an easier path and, occasionally, I daydream about that ‘blue pill’ that so many others (friends, family and ex-colleagues) appear to have swallowed.
What does it say about one person’s psychology (mine) that I reacted the way I did and yet so many others hear the same information and carry on with their lives. I’ve given many talks to audiences which have implored them to join XR as we strive for Erica Chenoweth’s theoretical 3.5% that might be somehow a tipping point for XR’s three demands. So many decent, caring people have expressed gratitude for my activism but don’t seem to see it as I do — a fight that they must also join if it’s to have any chance of success.
Thoughts on how my activism needs to evolve
Deep Adaptation (Bendell 2018) was my ‘kick up the arse’ in mid-2018. Whilst it triggered resignation from a career and full time activism with XR, I was conscious of how this same activism prevented me from fully engaging with Bendell’s ‘map’.
That said, it felt a price worth paying…I had just woken up, properly, to the seriousness of our predicament and hence there were huge sections of the population who needed to hear that same message. That didn’t stop me wondering, at times, whether there was a risk that busy activism was simply a coping strategy, or perhaps another form of denial (that action might ‘solve’ the climate crisis).
But almost three years after the launch of XR, its support seems to have plateaued and the only people who believe there’s still time to stay below 1.5°C would appear to be the ignorant and politicians who parrot phrases in the hope of convincing the electorate they are on the case.
If “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results” at what stage is it time for those who have concentrated their activism thus far on mitigation (and demands of government) to switch their focus more to adaptation?
The benefits of ‘living in climate truth’ which I have experienced over the last three years would feel jeopardised if my activism remained ‘stuck’ in the same place we were just a couple of years ago — with all the consequences for one’s personal mental health that might entail.
Discussing collapse risk and how it might be helpful
Bendell’s paper lists seven reasons why the increasing calls for more public discussion on collapse risk might be helpful and many resonate with me.
Being honest with ourselves about our predicament invites conversations which help ourselves and others to cope with the difficult emotions that surface. Often I still experience anger, which I attribute to the lack of a societal response and my climate grief. Bendell suggests such reflection, exploration and engagement might also help to reduce aggression and the risk of responding in antisocial ways.
So as I contemplate the future for myself and my family, where I want to live and how I might serve my community, I realise it helps that I’m undergoing self-transformation and finding new paths for the remainder of my life than what might have been before.
This work feels both necessary and something that cannot be rushed, otherwise Bendell suggests I may risk “delusion, depression and aggression” if I suppress emotions which might surface.
Attempts to discredit discussion of collapse as ‘doomist’
Some climate scientists are critical of those who anticipate collapse or think it inevitable. David Wallace-Wells’ ‘An Uninhabitable Earth’ was dismissed as ‘climate porn’ and in mid-2020, three scientists and members of XR dismissed Bendell’s Deep Adaptation as “pseudo-science with flawed conclusions”.
Prominent among such critics is Michael Mann, a scientist with several books and 190,000 Twitter followers, who thinks Extinction Rebellion is problematic for its ‘soft doomism’ and regularly blocks those who seek to engage with him but don’t share his particular vision of hope (including myself). Mann (just before he blocked me) branded those who anticipate collapse as “deeply misguided individuals” who play “right into the agenda of the forces of inaction”.
Bendell’s latest paper suggests that if there’s a problem with calls for more public debate about the possibility of collapse and academic research on collapsology, it may actually sit with those who criticise us. Perhaps, he hypothesises, those critics are experiencing a psychopathological suppression of their own difficult emotions!
Whilst I can understand why some might claim contemplating collapse could be a demotivator to action, it is the exact opposite of my personal experience and I’m not alone.
Why this matters — the risk of accidentally promoting authoritarianism
It is a well known fear amongst environmental activists that increasing awareness of our ecological predicament will lead to various forms of fascism. Those fears, in my view, are not assuaged by how public discourse is controlled in these social media times. Independent and dissenting voices struggle to be heard above the echo chamber of corporate-owned media and compliant commentators with large platforms.
Perhaps the most important parts of this new paper are where Bendell summarises the psychological antecedents of facism and explores how ‘experiential avoidance’ could lead scholars to accidentally promoting authoritarianism.
Bendell asks “Could more psychotherapists and psychologists act as an antidote to rising aggression and authoritarianism as eco-distress grows amongst scholars and the general public? There is a need for courage, not only in holding space for individuals but also in reaching beyond the therapy context to help educate people more widely, so people can help themselves to escape becoming accidental fascists.”
It’s now six months since I stepped down from full time volunteering with XR. I took a role with a non-profit which aims to use contract law to help fight climate change but this hasn’t felt aligned to the situation as I see it and so, unable to generate the necessary enthusiasm, I’ll shortly be leaving them.
I believe I’m only now experiencing the fifth and final stage of climate grief — acceptance — possible only after I consciously try to become less busy and deliberately slow down to ask “What now?”
I was an anti-war activist thirty years before I finally ‘got’ the climate emergency so I am familiar with noble claims of politicians and journalists about why we should invade and bomb (which never seem to work out well for the citizens of those countries).
So perhaps I’m starting to realise that acting appropriately, after acceptance, is to defend human dignity and this must be central to my everyday life and continuing activism. I realise environmentalists will include both allies and opponents in that respect and that a rights-based radical environmentalism is the way I want to fight for the future.
Ref: Bendell, J. (2021). Psychological insights on discussing societal disruption and collapse.
Ata: Journal of Psychotherapy Aotearoa New Zealand, 25 (1), 45–63. https://doi.org/10.9791/ajpanz.2021.05
Listen to an audio reading of Professor Bendell’s paper here (60 mins)
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