"Our job is not to feel hope—that’s optional. Our job is to BE hope." Jeremy Lent on why climate despair isn't enough to trigger change
As they used to say in American academia - before the current fall into polarisation - sometimes you need to “teach the debate”. Meaning, we need to patiently lay out the terms of a dispute, and substantively make each point, giving ourselves time to dwell on the implications.
Such is the case in the debate between two major voices in the politics of climate disruption. The topic is how we best respond, emotionally as well as practically, to our worsening conditions.
Sustainability academic Jem Bendell has caused a shockwave with his Deep Adaptation thesis (blog here, original essay here), which in essence says that the stats on climate disruption means that we must accept that a massive degradation in our lifestyles is inevitable, no matter our best efforts. Acknowledging our despair at this, says Bendell, will help us act more effectively - “deeply” (rather than shallowly) “adapting” to the coming, dire circumstances.
There has been much pushback on this, but most significantly from a frequent contributor to this blog, the Californian public intellectual Jeremy Lent, author of Patterns of Meaning. Here’s his core objection, from “What Will You Say To Your Grandchildren”:
Paradoxically, the very precariousness of our current system, teetering on the extremes of brutal inequality and ecological devastation, increases the potential for deep structural change. Research in complex systems reveals that, when a system is stable and secure, it’s very resistant to change. But when the linkages within the system begin to unravel, it’s far more likely to undergo the kind of deep restructuring that our world requires.
It’s not Deep Adaptation that we need right now—it’s Deep Transformation. The current dire predicament we’re in screams something loudly and clearly to anyone who’s listening: If we’re to retain any semblance of a healthy planet by the latter part of this century, we have to change the foundations of our civilization.
We need to move from one that is wealth-based to once that is life-based—a new type of society built on life-affirming principles, often described as an Ecological Civilization. We need a global system that devolves power back to the people; that reins in the excesses of global corporations and government corruption; that replaces the insanity of infinite economic growth with a just transition toward a stable, equitable, steady-state economy optimizing human and natural flourishing.
More here. Bendell then replied with his post “Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation”. An extract:
Unlike previous social revolutions, climate change has been the wrong kind of challenge. It was largely invisible and with no clear enemy and no clear policy ask – because our civilization was based on fossil fuels.
I have argued in my paper that recent measurements suggest we are experiencing non-linear climate change, which is no longer under our control. Therefore, we could soon witness the most exponential social movement in history and it won’t stop collapse.
However, it might achieve a lot else: we could reduce harm, save more people from starving, work out how to stop the Arctic unfreezing and threatening human extinction, or organize to avert meltdowns of nuclear stations in countries that collapse, and learn how to care for each other and ourselves through this calamity.
Indeed, I am hopeful of an exponential transformation in human consciousness as we wake up to our predicament and thus our delusions of dominion and progress.
Should I have said Deep Transformation? I chose the term Deep Adaptation to indicate how existing work on adaptation to climate change had been somewhat shallow. It was shallow in profile and funding, as most focus was on efforts to reduce emissions.
Adaptation work was also shallow in its scope, as it was premised on the continuance of our industrial consumer societies. The meaning of the word transformation is a deep and radical change, so I don’t see logic in the term “deep transformation” – just a rhetorical feel.
Awakening from our delusions of separation with nature and each other [as Lent argues for] is a wonderful thing to do. Liberating ourselves from political, monetary and economic systems that structure those delusions of separation is also a wonderful thing to pursue. Both are important whether they achieve any material outcome or not.
We do not need a fairytale of flourishing on this planet for these processes of awakening and liberating to be pursued. Rather, such a fairytale could even be counter-productive by suggesting we only do these things in so far as they create a desired end state.
It is useful here to note that many past civilizations collapsed, and many hominids went extinct over millions of years. What is humanity’s destiny in infinite time, next to a Sun that will one day blow up, and on a planet where all previous hominids have gone extinct? We were always going extinct at some point.
So a state of human society that we might call flourishing would have only ever been temporary within the wider sweep of time. Recognising the impermanence of our species could invite us to consider how awake and liberated we can be today; to flourish now and during chaos and loss.
Lent’s latest reply is “Our Actions Create the Future: A Response to Jem Bendell”. It’s from here the title of this blog is taken. An extract:
Jem’s program of Deep Adaptation is based partially on the notion that despair, rather than hope, is the most effective vehicle for transformation. “It turns out,” he writes, ‘that despair can be transformative” by enabling a person to “drop past stories of what is sensible or not.”
Ultimately, as he tells it, a call for hope might make people “feel better for a while,” but they will reach a point where “they can’t avoid despair anymore,” at which point they should “let it arise and ultimately transform their identity.”
From personal experience, I feel what Jem is describing. There have been times when I have found myself sobbing uncontrollably with seemingly limitless grief at the enormity of our civilization’s vast ongoing crime of ecocide. I recognize only too well how a false hope that, “somehow things will be better if we can only improve our technology, recycle more, or go vegan,” can cause continual suffering, emotional paralysis, and political incrementalism.
We need to open our hearts to the agony of the truth that we’re facing—to the loss of our living earth, to the devastation already being wrought on millions of climate refugees around the world. When we do that, we need spiritual sustenance. We need compassionate community support. Each of us needs to find our way through the quagmire of despair.
Jem—I’m with you on that. I appreciate how your narrative has touched a nerve in so many people, and how you’re devoting your time to building support structures for the grieving that is part of our new reality. But I don’t think it ends there.
I believe that hope has a crucial role in healing, and in driving our engagement in effecting the deep transformation we need. When you write that “All hope is a story of the future rather than attention to the present,” I believe you’re showing a profound misunderstanding of what hope really is.
Hope is not a story of the future, it’s a state of mind. In Vaclav Havel’s famous words, it’s not the belief that things will go well; it “is a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times.” And hope can propel us from that deep place to active engagement.
As Emily Johnston—one of the courageous valve-turners who faced prison for shutting down tar sands pipelines—has written: “Our job is not to feel hope—that’s optional. Our job is to be hope, and to make space for the chance of a different future.”
For you, Jem, and those that follow your program of Deep Adaptation, I wish only the best, and I empathize with your embrace of despair. If that is the path that feels most meaningful to you, and leads you to your most effective work, go for it. However, I plead with you not to disparage those who are driven by hope, and working to transform our current destructive civilization.
I urge you not to keep repeating that collapse is inevitable; that your approach is the only one that’s realistic; and that other people working toward a positive vision are merely in denial. Instead, please recognize that you really don’t know the future course of our world; that despair at the inevitability of collapse is a gut feeling you experience, but is not based on scientific fact.
As a wise man once told me: “Believe your feelings; don’t necessarily believe the stories that arise from them.”