Professor Jem Bendell was interviewed for the daily newspaper 20 minutes, the Paris equivalent of the UK's Evening Standard. The translation of the interview by Laure Beaudonnet follows below, along with a short video of the interview. It marked the publication of his book in France: Adaptation Radicale, about how to respond to the coming disruptions from climate change.
"It is too late to save the society in which we live", according to Jem Bendell, author of "Adaptation Radicale" the French translation of "Deep Adaptation" which inspired Extinction Rebellion in 2018
Original article in French is here.
Every Friday, the newspaper 20 Minutes invites a personality to comment on a social phenomenon.
On the occasion of the publication of a book including the translation of Deep Adaptation, a paper that inspired Extinction Rebellion in 2018, Professor Jem Bendell, founder of IFLAS (Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability) at the University of Cumbria (Great Britain) returns to what leads him to believe that the collapse of our society is inevitable and soon.
"Collapse is the irreversible end of our lifestyles: shelter, security, health, identity, pleasure..."
This is the prophecy of Jem Bendell, environmental and sustainable development specialist and author of Radical Adaptation (published by LLL).
The original article, Deep Adaptation, became a real phenomenon when it was published in 2018. Downloaded almost a million times since it was posted online, it has inspired the civil disobedience movement Extinction Rebellion.
Q: The civil disobedience movement Extinction Rebellion was inspired by your article. What are it's links with the Deep Adaptation movement?
Jem: These are two distinct movements that arise from the same basis of the failure of environmentalism. Extinction Rebellion focuses on non-violent direct action to force governments to be carbon neutral while Deep Adaptation believes it is too late to save the society we live in. Many people are part of both movements. If you think that the general effort for the environment has failed, that there is no point in trying to reform the capitalist system in order to achieve sustainability, then it is natural to both commit to carbon neutrality and prepare for future disruptions. It is true that some key members of Extinction Rebellion have joined the movement after reading Deep Adaptation, but some co-founders had already planned their action before the publication of my paper.
"You cannot bypass sadness, if you think you can find a guide to find serenity, that would be a lie."
Q: What are the main differences between your ideas and those of collapsology?
Jem: I am not an expert in that literature. Pablo Servigne and his colleagues concluded that the collapse of society is very likely to occur after their analysis of a wide range of social stresses. I was already aware of these social stresses - our financial system, the terrible inequalities that exist, the biodiversity crisis - when I studied the climate again at the end of 2017. My conclusion that the collapse of current society is inevitable was based on knowing these other stresses, but I did not analyze them for the paper. Collapsology takes a broader approach to societal stressors while I focus on climate. This is the main difference.
Q: Is the coronavirus crisis a first step towards this collapse you are talking about?
Jem: I don't have a crystal ball. We will know how to talk about the pandemic in relation to collapse in the years to come. But if it is a first step towards collapse, it is partly linked to the climate. Climate change coupled with erosion of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems makes zoonoses [diseases from animals] more likely. If Covid-19 creates collapse, it will be through political and economic processes. We are seeing more and more people from the lower economic classes, in many countries, claiming to be anti-masks, anti-lockdown, and we look closely, the campaigns are often associated with the far right. So one of the impacts of Covid-19 could be a political destabilization of European countries.
Q: You give eight years before society collapses. How are we supposed to live with this idea?
Jem: There is no right answer. I have no legitimacy to tell someone what to do in response to this realisation. In the new book I say people should talk about it, find people with whom you can explore, share your difficult emotions, your fears, your sadness, your anger. Talk about what you could do and you will find an idea that satisfies you. I'm worried when people lock their emotions away, or when they turn to any story that helps them feel safe, or any story about blaming others. Those responses are used to manipulate, but they don't help people. You cannot bypass sadness, if you think you can find a guide to finding serenity, then I think that would be a lie.
"We have to accept that we may have to do with a lot less very quickly"
Q: For example, you say that going into exile in the middle of nowhere to seek self-sufficiency comes down to a survivalist conception of things. However, this is the idea of many people and, according to some, staying in big cities could be even more dangerous in times of collapse?
Jem: I do not discourage people from going to the countryside to cultivate their vegetable gardens and find their own source of water. I invite them to realize that that does not mean that they will survive if society collapses, because, even if we do that, we still rely on industrial society. If you live in a country like UK or France, which has over 66 million people: what will you do with your vegetables if hungry people knock on your door? The idea of going to live in nature is wonderful, but for other reasons. Living in the city could be less dangerous if the government supplies people with basic foods. You are more likely to collect them in a city than in the middle of nowhere. I encourage people to stop thinking individually and to focus on thinking about what we can do collectively. How can each country improve its food security, keeping in mind the poor cereal harvests to come in the decade? We have to accept that we may have to deal with much less very quickly.
Q: One of the main criticisms of your article is that by giving a date for the collapse, you are leaving science. How do you respond to that?
[Editor's note: the original Deep Adaptation paper does not give a specific prediction of a date for societal collapse. Prof Bendell offered his own guess in later work, that societal collapse will be happening in most countries by 2028).
Jem: For me, it's a natural question: how much time do we have left? I don't mind going beyond science on this issue. Science is a language: statistics and mathematics are languages based on specific epistemologies. They are not the only way to seek knowledge, and they are certainly not the only way we have to access knowledge. We deal with data in an infinitely complex world. People are afraid, they cling to their models of what is right and wrong and in this way they can sometimes turn away from complex assessments.
Q: That is to say?
Jem: My anticipation of societal collapse within a decade is the feeling that I got from analyzing all kinds of data and a lot of experiences. I've lived much of my life outside UK/Europe, and I've seen things change with the desire for material progress growing around the world. We have created all these high carbon lifestyles. Many people, climatologists and environmentalists, live in their European bubble. They don't understand the hundreds of millions of people who are trying to make ends meet and who, right now, need fossil fuels to do so. I don't see things changing rapidly enough.
"We must remember that many people are already suffering from our system"
Q: In two or three years, will we be talking about 2020 as the “good old days”?
Jem: We can stop thinking that we can speak for all of us. Who are we when we talk like that? There are nearly eight billion people on Earth. Is this the "we" that we are talking about? Will they look at the past and say to themselves: "2020, what a great year"? This question seems a patriarchal attempt to access universal knowledge about the human condition. And this ideology is the root of our destruction. We must recognize that each individual has a unique experience of this world. Telling people that such and such an experience is universal experience or that one has objective knowledge of people's experience is problematic. Some people will think 2020 was their best year. Other people will have died or will be stuck in depression because they will have lost loved ones in 2020.
Q: Will happiness exist after the collapse?
Jem: Yes, and in some cases even more. We must remember that many people are already suffering from our system. For instance, there are fishing villages that have always caught, ate and sold their fish, and suddenly they don't earn anything anymore because of industrial fishing, because of the appetites of people thousands of miles away, the appetite of capitalists and bankers thousands of miles away. Many lives have been destroyed by the current system. So the changes won't all be bad.
A video of a segment of the interview is available here.
You can engage on these topics via www.deepadaptation.info
Bendell's next course with Cumbria University is over-subscribed and the next opportunity to study with him is in April 2021 in the Lake District, UK.