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  • Posted March 12th, 2022

    How not to build a movement, as demonstrated by Chris Saltmarsh

    How not to build a movement, as demonstrated by Chris Saltmarsh

    We thought you might like this extraordinary defence of Deep Adaptation by Matthew Slater. Last year, he and Extinction Rebellion co-founder Skeena Rathor, authored a chapter in Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos; last month it was reviewed by newcomer Chris Saltmarsh, the champion of Jeremy Corbyn’s Green New Deal proposals and author of ‘Burnt‘.

    Despite Saltmarsh’s openly hostility to the chapter, book, and indeed the whole movement, the abusive review was carried by the Ecologist. In this open letter, Slater rebuts the criticism, then addresses Saltmarsh himself with deeper questions about the source, and purpose of his seemingly unwarranted hostility.

    Dear Chris,

    I am co-author of the chapter on localisation in the book ‘Deep Adaptation’. Your review did not just insult and misrepresent me and Skeena Rathor, but the whole of the Deep Adaptation movement. For example, when we pointed out that the boot of the state was firmly on the neck of the Transition Towns movement, you could have countered with a reasonable opinion such as this one from Burnt:

    Our task is to transform the entire economy, not just local communities. p122

    You could have summarised the arguments about why the state has not been helpful to transformation, perhaps partially agreeing with me, but suggesting I had gone too far. But instead you derided us as scholars and as people.

    … the mask begins to slip. The rejection of national and international socio-economic organisation is as much about a spiritual preference as it is supposed necessity.

    I want to ask you, could you look me in the eyes and say that? Or are my reputation and self esteem, not to mention weeks of writing after years of grassroots work, just the raw materials for some monument you are erecting, or collateral damage in some other war you are fighting.

    And when our chapter gave illustrated examples of regulatory barriers unjustly impeding local small-scale food production, you twisted that to say we rejected ‘national and international socio-economic organisation’. You seem to be lumping us in with the billionaires, neoliberals and anarcho-capitalists who argue for a very different kind of deregulation. Do you really not distinguish between regulations which protect capital and large corporations, and those which protect human rights and small producers?

    Moreover, nowhere does our chapter call for deregulation, certainly not around water. We referenced several rural producers featured on Lowimpact.org, recounting the difficulties they faced from regulations which developed with only industrial producers in mind. We did that to make the point that regulations need to be re-assessed from the perspective of enabling localisation, including often by worker-owned small businesses. Then our chapter concluded with the need for

    working together to push back against both global neoliberalism and xenophobic authoritarianism. [Which involves..] organizing across borders to promote national and international institutions and rules that support localization globally..

    So don’t you think it is unfair to characterise the whole chapter as “rejecting national and international socio-economic organisation”?

    I’ve since learned that the bias of regulations is worse even than we chronicle in the chapter. Warren R Bailey writes, specifically about farming,

    The fully mechanized one-man farm, producing the maximum acreage of crops of which the man and his machines are capable, is generally a technically efficient farm… The incentive for increasing farm size beyond the technically optimum one-man form is not to reduce costs per unit of production, but to increase the volume of business, output, and total income.

    – “The One-Man Farm”. Warren R Bailey. p3

    If he’s correct, then not only regulations, but many other socioeconomic staples like subsidies, access to credit, the direction of research, the available technologies – even the very use of profit as a measure, all comprise a political fiction in which ‘efficiency’ is something very different from ‘cost per unit production’. Wouldn’t you want to overhaul such a system as part of a Green New Deal? Perhaps not, if you are a follower of Bernie Sanders, who according to John Vibes only planned for more scale and centralisation.

    When it comes to reigning [sic] in mega corporations, lowering the barrier to entry for small businesses is the real solution, and nothing Sanders is proposing would lower the barrier to entry or make it easier for people to become independent and own businesses of their own. In fact, it would make it harder. The taxes and regulations proposed by Sanders would actually give mega-corporations an advantage over small businesses, through a process called regulatory capture.


    I would have thought such arguments from the agricultural sector would strongly support a socially just Green New Deal; but your book seems somewhat dismissive of a localisation agenda, preferring to focus on capturing the support of the trade unions, and not mentioning many other movements. I think a Left agenda for social, economic and political transformation, both national and international is far wider and more diverse than you seem to realise.

    • The cooperative movement would redefine profit and workers’ rights and welcome a return to active government support
    • Transition Towns and permaculture movements need to scale massively and would be ready to back a transformative policy agenda
    • Regenerative agriculture would make our food systems just, healthy resilient, and carbon negative, given the right policy incentives
    • The degrowth movement has many radical and necessary economic ideas about the economics we need and importantly, how to get there.
    • People working on new types of organisations and forms of governance would level-up our businesses and our political system given half a chance.
    • The monetary reform experts who assess that fiat money created by private banks, as debt, has deeply embedded injustices, are interested in radical policies.
    • Many organisations working to balance the billionaire bias in the media could support an inclusive green left wing agenda
    • Many of the alternative education establishments nurturing creative capable people, instead of docile workers, would listen and support
    • The blockchain movement is fundamentally about freeing people from financial oppression and injustice, with many projects aimed specifically at the Left.
    • The many young technologists seeking to solve important problems without the skills, contacts or perhaps interest to succeed commercially. Whereas society needs that technology, the market is not financing it. A broad left agenda would finance it, perhaps if not directly then as a side effect of a basic income or more generous income support.

    – all of whom are needed both now and after an election victory. Such ideas remain part of the landscape of both centrist and leftwing thinking, yet you are either oblivious to them or trivialise them. Combined with your oversight of basic issues like monetary reform, land reform and political reform, that should seriously worry those in the British Left who wish for meaningful intellectual progress within the Labour Party.

    This passage is particularly revealing of your own reluctance to consider societal change:

    He argues for adaptation through resilience (psychological, as well as material), relinquishment (of elements of modern civilisation, including inhabiting coastlines, certain industry and consumption habits) and restoration (of older ways of life including re-wilding, seasonal diets and non-electronic forms of play). Bendell’s vision of adaptation is an austere primitivism that would be as punishing to those blameless for climate change as climate impacts themselves.

    Why are some of those changes in lifestyles and living arrangements so objectionable as to deserve the label ‘primitivist’? Do you really assume that everyone everywhere would find it ‘punishing’ not have to have the latest ‘planned obsolescence’ gadgets but instead have more recession-proof and inflation-proof livelihoods? Fortunately the Deep Adaptation framework doesn’t put that decision in your hands because it is not prescriptive. Bendell doesn’t say what should be made resilient, what should be relinquished and what restored. Deep Adaptation doesn’t prescribe policies or recommend any solutions. It was always just a thinking framework for the increasing numbers of people coming to see climate change as an existential threat. So when you judge the book a failure

    the editors do not successfully pull together a coherent or compelling political program

    you have completely missed the point. It feels to me as if you misread the book deliberately, only looking for the plumpest targets – like myself and Skeena, apparently – for your derision. The resulting ‘review’ was more diatribe than dialogue; it was a veritable hit-piece and not worthy of the magazine the Ecologist used to be, before the tenure of its current editor. If I had any doubts about unintended nastiness they vanished when I saw your accompanying tweet:

    “Anti-humanist. Primitivist. Immaterial. Defeatist. Incoherent”


    Readers shouldn’t need me here to ratiocinate on the anti-intellectual and propagandistic nature of these adjectives. Do you see yourself fighting some kind intellectual war which has descended so far into savagery? Did you learn this behaviour before or after you entered politics? If the book was so bad, why give it the oxygen of a review? Perhaps to gulp   some oxygen for your own book?

    So now I want to ask why.

    Why, having identified billionaires and capitalists as the enemy, do you save your sharpest arrows for Deep Adaptation, with whom you share maybe 80% of your discourse and 95% of your values?

    Many of your talking points are supported in great depth within the Deep Adaptation discourse. For example your radical three line criticism of environmental NGOs for their structurally fake optimistic discourse was in the Deep Adaptation paper with deeper discussion about ‘professionalism’ and economic class. In addition, Bendell was the first person I remember, before Greta, who pointed out that speaking about climate change as future event was, basically, racist, because it detracts attention from current climate impacts which are mainly on people living insecure lives in vulnerable places today.

    And your main theme of climate justice is covered in great depth under the label ‘decolonisation’ in the forum and in the book you reviewed, but you don’t mention it at all. And yet you opine

    Bendell’s vision of adaptation… would be as punishing to those blameless for climate change as climate impact themselves. p43


    Were you even aware that in the 2017 election campaign, Bendell co-wrote acclaimed speeches for Jeremy Corbyn and helped write parts of the manifesto? You are emphatically on the same side. This book could have been your bible, and Deep Adaptation your church, yet you are ripping it to shreds on false pretences.

    In so doing, you are standing on the shoulders of other fallen warriors. A 2020 piece attempted a systematic take down of the original paper which Bendell answered point by point, summarised in a more readable article which was not answered. You linked to the hit piece but not the response. That is not the behaviour of truth-seeker, a scholar, an intellectual, or someone who researches what they write, that is telling people what to think – propaganda.

    It’s clear from the way you call for unity

    Whichever [strategy] we choose [to win state power], we should really go all in on it. Burnt, p.127

    while at the same time proposing a political strategy, that you aspire to leadership. (Bendell, by the way is a professor of leadership). You put forward your strategy as our best or even Only hope. Could that explain why you might attack, denigrate, marginalise, taint – for the greater good and all that – anything that might divert people away from your plan? Most of all, the ideas closest to it?

    Like many people you probably read the Hothouse Earth reports and other terrifying projections about the consequences of continued carbon dioxide emissions. Your whole discourse is about how to avoid that future. You stress in Burnt that this is ‘possible’, even as the window of opportunity narrows every day. Unfortunately you give no evidence that it is possible, say what makes it so possible, or state the conditions under which it remains possible. Some would say that the trouncing of Corbyn in 2019 showed that it is impossible, certainly in the time left available, however much that is. To me this ‘possibility’, this glimmer of hope that you hold up, has all the meaning and poetry of a religious utterance. Indeed, without belief in the existence of this Possibility, your plan is dead.

    Yet even you struggle to believe it.

    No matter how painful and overwhelming… we do still have a chance. We don’t have to be optimistic (On most days I’m not) but we can be hopeful.

    Mentioning this struggle may be your way to connect with your readers, who also struggle to believe, but who depend on the Possibility to keep them going. Not having that Possibility doesn’t bear thinking about, and it certainly doesn’t bear mentioning in your book. No, the book directed us squarely towards salvation, however improbable.

    It is time we all grew up. Salvation is not a binary thing, and nor is climate change. An asteroid hurling towards Earth will hit or miss, but climate change will hit, is already hitting, is already a disaster, it’s just a question of how bad, who gets hurt, and how much humans can even do at this late stage. A just Green New Deal is very far from a panacea. With massive consumption of scarce resources, it might reduce total climate impact, and could only be ‘fair’ if implemented globally.

    That binary mindset is becoming an increasingly stressful place because the narrower the window gets, the more we doubt the Possibility, and the more shameful it is to betray the Possibility by expressing doubt. Eventually, perhaps already, you are living a lie.

    By peddling a hope you don’t feel, you become as bad as those green NGOs who peddle hope in order to appease the consciences of their donors. Even knowing their solutions aren’t making a dent in the problem, and with no better ideas, they lead people up the creek without a paddle. You wouldn’t knowingly do that would you Chris?

    I’m telling you this in stark terms because I don’t believe you are fully conscious of what you are doing. Bullying, othering, and authoritarianism creep up on us when we are afraid and in denial. Many in the environmental movement are making absurd claims about Deep Adaptation only because it is challenging them to stop lying to themselves and their donors, and to admit what most climate scientists believe, that there will be no political solution. You don’t have to extrapolate the present very far to anticipate mass migration, war, fascism, financial collapse, food shortages in even the richest countries, and so on. We should spend less time praying for rain and more time digging wells.

    Deep Adaptation wants to talk about the increasingly likely future in which Saltmarsh fails to take over the government and implement global climate justice, but you (and several other prominent environmentalists) are trying to shut them down. Are you sure that honest despair is more harmful than pretended optimism? Then you probably haven’t read Bendell’s paper on that subject!

    Whereas the Conservative politicians who defeated both you and Bendell in subsequent elections might be “”Anti-humanist. Primitivist. Immaterial. Defeatist. Incoherent,” it is difficult to witness you throw such accusations at the diversity of people in the Deep Adaptation field, such as the many women of colour who speak so eloquently on the subject, including the co-author of my chapter, Skeena Rathor. To judge the arguments she puts forward with me as ‘primitivist’ might even be regarded as racially insensitive. Given that you, me and the editor of The Ecologist are all white men, we should listen to how such statements come across to people unlike us. 

    So, could we begin again? Are you ready, Chris, to engage in honest adult dialogue with people who have other ideas and other insights to you? To ask questions and listen, rather than pass colourful judgements? To make allies rather than enemies? To lead by excellence rather than by bullying? To acknowledge and appreciate all the diverse approaches that smart, passionate people, no better or worse than you, devote themselves to? To put yourself down in order to raise up new leaders? To hold tight to justice even when the mainstream climate movement descends into ends-justify-the-means eco-fascism? We in the Deep Adaptation movement are waiting for you.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1Dave Darby March 12th, 2022

      Localisation / decentralisation / reducing overall consumption is not ‘retreat’ or ‘defeatism’. It’s exactly what we need to mitigate climate change, as well as taking power from the corporate sector and improving people’s mental health.

      The Deep Adaptation gang are saying: ‘brace yourself, we think some bad things are coming; and let’s build resilient communities’. Why would anyone interested in challenging corporate power attack that position?

      Much of the left is losing its way – first they abandoned and denigrated the working class, now some of them at least are going after the decentralisers. Who’s going to be left – a rump of diehard Guardian readers (many of whom still think the Graun is an unbiased trust), who despise working people, cling to a faith in centralised institutions, that we can maintain our levels of consumption and still tackle climate change, that socialism can work in one country, and that the state somehow provides a counterbalance to corporate power.

      They don’t see (or maybe care) that licensing and regulation disproportionately affect small businesses, or that the corporate sector requires state support to maintain the size of its institutions. Without being allowed to avoid the taxes that small businesses have to pay, without govt. contracts and subsidies, and ultimately, state bailouts, their ‘economies of scale’ would be exposed as the fallacy they are. Even Hayek recognised that the inefficiencies of state bureaucracy also apply to giant corporations (although the right conveniently forget that part of his work). Workers tell managers what they want to hear, and managers don’t understand operations. Without the state prop, small businesses would wipe the floor with bloated corporations.

      The most outrageous example is that state subsidies for farms start at 5 hectares – even though smallholding of less than 5 hectares are way more productive per hectare (and biodiverse) than large holdings – https://biosafety-info.net/articles/sustainable-systems/ecological-agriculture-food-security/small-farms-more-productive-and-biodiverse-than-large-farms/. What possible reason could there be to start subsidies at 5ha? It seems that the state wants to get rid of all those pesky little producers.

      Very disappointing piece by Saltmarsh.

    • 2Dil Green March 12th, 2022

      Brilliant, Matthew. Thank you.

    • 3Peter Jones March 12th, 2022

      The issue Dave raises about subsidies kicking in at 5 hectares is typically one of convenience.

      Government will have said we can’t process every farm in the UK, so we’ll only support the bigger ones, who can afford bigger fees, Dave’s point.

      Neglecting grassroots is always a myopic stance, whatever arena we are talking about.

      The very essence of the Decentralising movement is to provide much better support to grassroots, such that more folk can get through that stage to deliver impact across the country.

      It is entirely possible that this movement, given time, may produce better support for grassroots than is provided to larger establishments, and perhaps even at more competitive cost rates.

      At that point, some centralised institutions will start trying to debunk their Decentralised competitors, and perhaps this has already started.

    • 4Jem Bendell March 13th, 2022

      Here are some thoughts from XR founder member Skeena Rathor, the co-author with Matthew of the chapter.


    • 5Sandy Heather April 7th, 2022

      Very well said Matthew. Thank you!

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