This is the first part of a conversation between Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org and Jem Bendell, professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria, and author of the now famous 2018 Deep Adaptation paper that claimed that we’re on an inevitable path to civilisational collapse. (Here’s a review of his new book, Breaking Together that we published a few weeks ago). Part two, about how we should respond to the collapse of capitalism, is here.
Dave: Hi Jem. You’ve got a new book out – Breaking Together, and you’ve changed your position slightly haven’t you – you’re saying that collapse is a process not an event, and that it’s more than inevitable – it’s already underway.
Jem: Yes. It’s been 5 years since Deep Adaptation, since when I’ve discovered it’s much worse than I thought. In the majority of countries we looked at, quality of life indicators have been falling since 2015. That can be related to the underlying systems – energy, food, biosphere, economy, money, climate. Then the question is: ‘what to do about it?’ (and ‘what not to do about it?’).
D: I discovered you in 2011 – in a TED talk, asking ‘where does money come from?’ I thought at the time ‘it comes from the government’ and you said: “I bet you think it comes from the government” – but I learnt from you that it doesn’t. Almost all money comes into existence when banks make loans. Then I did the MOOC that you developed with Matthew Slater. I found Tom Greco and Matthew via you, and Dil Green via Matthew. I’m now working to promote and support mutual credit, credit clearing, commons institutions – nationally and globally with Lowimpact and locally with Stroud Commons. So you were very instrumental in where I am now.
J: It’s great to hear the connections. Matthew introduced me to the problems associated with the money system. I studied it and realised the debt-based money system is indeed the core of our problems. So either we need monetary reform (which isn’t going to happen) or we need to get stuck into building a new system. Crypto got all the attention for a while, so it’s really good to see the kinds of things you’re involved with having a bit of a leap forward in terms of tech, protocols etc. So people can exchange without having to rely on banks or crypto billionaires.
Yes, it’s about trading with something that can’t be extracted and concentrated – which kills the corporate business model.
Yeah – there’s a chapter in the book on the money system, and how it enslaves us to a particular way of being in the world. We’ve all grown up with it, and been manipulated and coerced into a destructive approach to life. We don’t know what it would be like to live free of that – how much we could be co-operating with each other, rather than harming each other and nature. So when I talk about freedom, I’m talking about getting free from our damaging monetary and economic system, and the ideology connected to them (which I call Imperial Modernity), and allowing ourselves to collaborate better with each other and to live more in harmony with nature.
In the book you say that most people will find the idea of collapse shocking. That’s not my experience. Almost everyone I talk with thinks we’re headed for disaster – maybe it’s the circles I move in. I’m more shocked by the opposition you’ve had from some on the left (I’d expect it from capitalists). NASA says that without major action to reduce emissions, we’re headed for 2.5-4.5 degree increase by 2100. But 2022 saw the highest carbon emissions ever, so that major action isn’t coming, is it?
A lot of young people think that our system isn’t sustainable, and already in decline. Polls show that younger people are more pessimistic about the future than older people. Some frame this as a mental health crisis in the young, rather than the young seeing reality as it is. They have less invested in this system, so they’re more open to this information. However, it’s still taboo in mainstream media, and suppressed and hidden by social media. So we’re not invited to have open-minded and -hearted conversations about how to live with what’s coming, which will include huge environmental and social damage, but still stay positively engaged.
We’ve been told that humans are in control and that material progress is inevitable. Those are juvenile concepts, that don’t exist in ancient wisdom traditions. We can live fully and creatively without believing those things. I’m being more public now. It’s time to tell people that they’re not alone if they see the world this way, and that we should be having more conversations about it. That’s the reason for this book.
But some (including on the left) call you a ‘doomer’. Are you a doomer, and if so, you’re saying that capitalism is doomed, not humans or nature.
A lot of the criticism hasn’t been accurate – it’s more of an emotional rejection of the general idea that we can’t avoid massive harm now. I’m not going to speculate on their reasons, but I remember I reacted badly when I first came across with these ideas. Dark Mountain came out with some ideas in 2009, and I was working in corporate sustainability and for campaign charities. I didn’t like hearing that it wasn’t going to work – that this way of life was going to break down. I assumed that meant giving up, and despair. But those assumptions weren’t right, and were created in me by my culture. Actually, research shows that fear of catastrophic outcomes are more motivating than believing that some technology or billionaire is going to save us.
I didn’t investigate more, because it was scary to me and to my identity, my status, my income and the idea that I’d wasted years of my life. I blanked it out. If Dark Mountain had got as much publicity as Deep Adaptation, maybe I might have been aggressive in criticising them publicly, as some people have with me. It’s disappointing though, when people misrepresent what I say in order to delegitimise the topic.
Even when people share the conclusion that we’re in a collapse period, there are many whose proposed solutions I disagree with. I don’t agree with ‘doomers’ who say there’s no need to look at the cause of this mess, or with those who believe that the influx of a huge a non-renewable resource made collapse inevitable. Those are self-serving, scientifically-incorrect views. There’s a lot of aversion to guilt and shame in the ‘doomershpere’; they don’t want to look at this mess. But there’s a different way of responding – becoming free from the culture and systems of modernity and becoming more courageous and radical in anticipation of collapse. There’s a lot of people who are like this, and I call them ‘doomsters’.
I look at it as building lifeboats or safety nets.
There’s confusion about what lifeboat means. I know in your case, you’re thinking of ways for people to look after themselves and each other better in communities. Some people think of it more in terms of keeping people out. But in Britain, 60-80% of our food comes from elsewhere. We can’t have lifeboats unless we relocalise production.
It’s very fragile, isn’t it?
Britain is one of the most fragile places in the world. It’s scary how arrogantly dependent we are on the rest of the world’s resources. The work you and others are doing to try to relocalise production is essential. It’s really simple – getting people reconnected with their neighbours to grow food together, to cook together, to play together, to share resources, to help each other out. It’s not new.
I want to ask you about governments. They’re not going to provide solutions are they? They’re all locked into a capitalist game to grow GDP. There have been 27 years of COP meetings, followed by record carbon emissions, and they’re still subsidising fossil fuels and fund their war machines. Here’s a direct question: do you think COP meetings are a waste of time and aviation fuel?
I’m beginning to think they’re worse than a waste of time – that they’re part of an ongoing illusion that distracts people who care. When I was in Egypt for COP 27, it was a career-fest and trade fair. It’s all about people doing business and prioritising their own personal success. It’s pretty sick, to be honest. Collapse is about much more than climate, but climate is an accelerator of the other problems, as well as being a major problem itself. It’s strange that as we’re witnessing the climate going bonkers in terms of weather, ocean temperatures etc. that there’s also so much scepticism in society about climate change and what’s to blame; and there’s also resistance to bold action, as it’s seen as synonymous with global capitalists trying to control us, and steer us towards their dubious schemes, like direct air capture of carbon. So it’s a total mess. Not only do we have an ecological and climate crisis, we have stupid, greedy responses to that crisis, with understandable negative reactions. I call them the ‘fake green globalists’ in my book. The environmental movement needs to be reclaimed fom capitalist interests and ideology – for example, the lie of ‘decoupling’, which has been recognised as a lie for decades. (Decoupling is the idea that we can square the circle of an expansionist monetary system with energy consumption and environmental damage). It doesn’t work – efficiencies lead to more demand in a growing economy. Renewable energy doesn’t reduce the use of fossil fuels in a growing economy; recycling metals doesn’t reduce mining for metals in a growing economy.
That’s Jevons’ Paradox
Yes. He wrote that 160 years ago, so we should know it by now. I want to say more about COP. Establishment climatology has made it seem that carbon dioxide is a thermostat on temperature. It’s not – it’s a temperature amplifier, but it’s not the only factor influencing temperatures. But because of the focus on carbon reduction, establishment climatology has left the door open for opportunist deniers. About 50% more carbon has been added to the atmosphere in the last 200 years, but before that, world temperatures got higher not because of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide levels lagged behind the warmer weather by 2-300 years (and pre-industrial revolution, carbon would have been released by warmer oceans). Now that doesn’t disprove carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, but it means that we’re not in control. We’re about to go into a period of high sunspot activity and have a warm Pacific Ocean current – El Niño. These could tip us over the edge because we’ve already got so much carbon in the atmosphere.
The other thing that’s been ignored is the importance of deforestation – forests sequester carbon, but also seed clouds with pollen and bacteria. That was downplayed as a local phenomenon, but it’s not – it’s a global phenomenon. In Tibet there’s snow that’s been nucleated by forests around the world. In the last 120 years, we’ve removed as much forest as in the previous 9000 years. It’s clear that forest removal is a major part of global ambient temperature rise. This has all been drowned out by the focus on carbon in the atmosphere and getting to net zero. We should be having massive reforestation programmes in partnership with communities. We should be stopping all deforestation and rolling out agroecology and regenerative agriculture everywhere – not with the idea that it might save this system / society, but that it might save the human race.
- The collapse of capitalism is a process not an event, and it’s more than inevitable – it’s already underway.
- The debt-based money system is the core of our problems. So either we need monetary reform (which isn’t going to happen) or we need to get stuck into building a new system.
- We’ve all grown up with this money system, and been manipulated and coerced into a destructive approach to life. We don’t know what it would be like to live free of that – how much we could be co-operating with each other, rather than harming each other and nature.
- It’s really simple – getting people reconnected with their neighbours to grow food together, to cook together, to play together, to share resources, to help each other out. It’s not new.
Next week – Part 2: how should we respond to the collapse of capitalism?
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Mike Nickerson June 26th, 2023
It has been so long since humans have been on a sustainable tact that we may as well start from scratch in terms of how we would reconstruct a human society. My sense is that the basics of good health are relatively easy to meet. These are presented in these two short videos.
I welcome any reaction you have.
The Substance of Life:
A venerable experiment demonstrates that the primary components of life are abundant. (2 min. 58 sec.):
Long-Term Well-Being on Spaceship Earth:
Cyclic use of nutrient elements can assure healthy life over the long term. While cycling through the environment, the substances of our bodies mix thoroughly with all life. (2min. 37 sec.):
2Denis Postle June 27th, 2023
I've long been a Bendell enthusiast, I found his Deep Adaptation paper about a year after I'd begun to put together a movie about the climate crisis. At that time I felt tentative about even using the word Crisis. Since then and four movies later, I have more confidence and I have been adding to the collapsology conversation that in attempts to correct the trajectory we are on, something vital is missing, the extent to which dominion in gross and subtle ways is regarded as 'natural' and inevitable, a fundamental given of culture, living with it, and for it, is seen as unavoidable. It shapes capital but it shape personal and interpersonal behaviour too. I explore this in Difficult Times the Threat of Collapse.
3Malcolm Purvis June 30th, 2023
Hi, another good article thank you.
I read the deep adaption paper in 2018 and very much liked the philosophy behind it and the information in it. So, I was very keen to get a copy of Jem’s new book as soon as it came out.
‘Breaking Together’ has the potential to be a groundbreaking book and contains some excellent results from years of research. However, despite the fact that I am university educated and a lecturer of 20 years I found much of the language and words used impenetrable. Jem spends much of the book criticising the moneyed and power elites and yet this book seems to be written solely for academic elites and the average person in the street would surely struggle to make sense of much that is written in it.
I struggled through 3/4 of the book and liked much of it but gave up at this point after re-reading multiple passages to try to find out what was trying to be conveyed and also needing to have a computer or dictionary continuously by my side to look up words and phrases that I had never even heard of. The final straw for me was this paragraph, which was one of very many, that had me so frustrated I just gave up reading any more. “Therefore, some metaphysical libertarians regard consciousness as an epiphenomenon arising from matter but never less indeterminacy within the physical world leaves a potential for free will.” (Page 375).
It is a crying shame that such an important book is so difficult to read and it is really time for this ‘language of the priesthood’ to be changed so that important information such as this can be read and understood by the many and not just by the few. It is the masses that have the power to change things if given the tools, which in this case would be a book that is easy to read and understand.
Keep up the good work Dave.
4Dave Darby June 30th, 2023
Malcolm - I tend to agree with you about some books - but I thought this one was (relatively) clear. But that may be because he's writing about subject matter I've been looking into for years.
But now we have AI. I put the phrase you mentioned into ChatGPT and asked it to explain it to a 10 year old. It came up with this:
Some people believe that our thoughts and feelings come from our brains, which are made of matter. They think that consciousness, which is our awareness of ourselves and the world, is a result of how our brains work. But even though everything in the physical world follows certain rules and is predictable, there are some things that can happen by chance or are uncertain. And this uncertainty leaves room for the idea that we have the ability to make choices freely, without being completely determined by the physical world.
Don't take what it says as gospel though. I asked about Kevin Carson's position on the labour theory of value. It said that Carson believes in a subjective theory of value, and extrapolated from there to explain how that view is consistent with his political philosophy (mutualist anarchism). Then I asked the same question again, and it said that Carson was a believer in the labour theory of value, and extrapolated from there to explain how that view is consistent with his political philosophy (mutualist anarchism).
I've also heard that it sometimes makes things up. But it's good at simplifying dense text.
5Malcolm purvis June 30th, 2023
Many thanks for that.
It seems a bit daft to me that we would need to keep putting things into ChatGBT when reading a book that surely is meant to explain things by itself? Is that not the idea of a book/the written word when you are trying to communicate? As you say AI is not always right or clear either.
Jem doesn't write like this so much in his deep adaption paper and your interview with him is easy to understand, as are Jem’s TED talks. It makes me wonder whether some of Jem’s research team have written some of the chapters of this book? Maybe if there is a reprint in the future it could be ‘tweeked’ a bit? I live in hope…
6Dave Darby June 30th, 2023
Malcolm - yeah, I'm reminded of the 'serenity prayer'. Academics will be academics I guess - we won't change them. They tend to write for other academics, and if us mere mortals can grasp some of what they're talking about, great. Their work, if important, tends to get reviewed, reported and commented on in ways that are more accessible to the mainstream. I mean, how many people have read Marx directly? Most people would be baffled. But his work has been influential via others (his critiques, good, his solutions, bad). I do find some authors impenetrable, although in Jem's defence, I didn't find this book too bad in that respect. But as I said - it's 'my thing'.