Two years ago, an influential paper suggested that we were too late to save the world.
This paper helped rewrite the direction of British universities, played a major role in reshaping the missions of climate organizations and religious institutions, had a significant impact on British activism and has been translated into at least nine languages. It made its author into something of a climate change messiah.
The report’s prediction of an imminent and unavoidable “societal collapse” from climate change had a striking and immediate effect on many of its readers. Andrew Medhurst, a longtime banker, cited it as one of four factors that made him he leave his job in finance to become a radical climate activist. Joy Carter, the head of a British university, moved immediately to incorporate it into her curriculum.
Alison Green, then an academic, printed it out and passed it out at executive meetings at her university. Galen Hall, now a researcher in the climate and development lab at Brown University, said that it led him to question the value of the climate activism to which he had been committed.
Other high-profile papers, like “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” also from 2018, and Timothy Lenton’s overview of tipping points, published in Nature the following year, have galvanized the climate movement. But this self-published paper, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating the Climate Tragedy,” had a different, more personal, feel.
The paper’s central thought is that we must accept that nothing can reverse humanity’s fate and we must adapt accordingly. And the paper’s bleak, vivid details — emphasizing that the end is truly nigh, and that it will be gruesome — clearly resonated.
“When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life,” wrote the author, Jem Bendell. “With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.”
Since publication, much of the way the science is summarized in the paper has been debunked by climatologists. But even if the math doesn’t add up, does that make the dark conclusion any less meaningful?
The most active Deep Adaptation forum is on Facebook, though believers can gather on other platforms, including LinkedIn. The forums were established by Mr. Bendell, 48.
“I had about 800 unsolicited emails in my inbox,” Mr. Bendell said, recalling the time shortly after publication. “I decided I’d launch a forum so all these 800 people could talk to each other.”
The forums were established for people who felt wide-awake after reading the paper. Psychologists who wanted to change their practices to help those who had been uprooted by climate change; retired bankers in New York who wanted to introduce Mr. Bendell to their networks; single mothers who couldn’t stop crying when they looked at their young children.
Despair was an immediate pitfall. Because the groups attracted people who believed that human extinction was imminent, many talked about suicide. (Forum rules on Facebook bar the “discussion of suicide methods”; other rules bar discussion of climate news, asking participants to focus instead on how to adapt.)
“It did have an uncomfortable cult kind of feel about it,” said Ms. Green, now the executive director of Scientists Warning. She left the forum because she didn’t feel qualified to counsel someone considering suicide.
But despair wasn’t all that bound Deep Adaptation’s more dedicated adherents. David Baum, a 60-year-old Seattle mystic, “latched on to the spiritual implications.”
“Jem has the most massive intellectual bandwidth I have ever encountered,” he said. “He is one of the best writers alive today. And he has coped magnificently with unexpected celebrity based on a very difficult role that he is being asked to play.”
Mr. Bendell, who is a professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria in England, said: “My own conclusion that it is too late to prevent a breakdown in modern civilization in most countries within our lifetimes is not purely based on an assessment of climate science.”
“It’s based on my view of society, politics, economics from having worked on probably 25 countries across five continents, worked in the intergovernmental sector of the U.N., been part of the World Economic Forum, working in senior management in environmental groups, being on boards of investment funds,” he said. “You know, I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades.”
Others took comfort in the certainty of Mr. Bendell’s assessment. There was little of the unknown associated with usual scientific forecasting. Even those who thoroughly disagree understand that appeal.
“It’s really difficult to look at those probability distributions and know what to do,” said Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. “I personally just want to be told, ‘This is what will happen. This is what you should do right now.’”
Mr. Bendell said that full apprehension of the extent of the climate crisis is naturally deeply shocking. That, he said, was why the forums needed to exist, as well as why he created the retreats he began hosting in 2019.
For the first retreat, a “safely held and gently facilitated space” to be held on Mount Pelion in Greece, Mr. Bendell emphasized that the focus would be on the inner lives of the participants.
“The focus is on inner adaptation rather than policies for reducing the harm from societal collapse,” he wrote.
The retreat cost 520 euros to 820 euros, depending on the participant’s choice of lodging. Mr. Bendell said he didn’t take any money from it personally because “I don’t need it. And it will complicate my tax affairs.”
Shu Liang, 42, the head of a Dutch climate action organization called Day of Adaptation, attended. She had a marvelous time, bonding closely with other attendees, with whom she has kept in touch.
“It was quite a rejuvenating experience” she said.
Ms. Liang described the morning exercises. In one, she said, a mini-shrine was set up in the middle of the room, adorned with objects including a rock and a piece of driftwood. Participants were asked to hold the objects and talk about what they represented. For Ms. Liang, the rock represented the burden of having to work on climate change.
In another exercise, participants were given a set of archetypes — including the warrior, the leader and the caregiver — and asked to choose one that they’d like to embody in a time of crisis.
A third exercise, designed in part by Mr. Bendell, was called “Death to the Experts.” Participants wrote down words that they associated with experts and threw the papers into a fire.
Mr. Bendell said that this exercise was intended to diminish the cultish aspects of his own authority. “We realized that people who are coming all the way to a retreat from around the world that I’m hosting are coming because of the fact that I’m doing it,” he said. “And yet we wanted to emphasize that I’m not the person who can tell you how to make sense of this.”
Earlier this year, Emily Atkin, an environmental journalist who had not even heard of Deep Adaptation — let alone read it — wrote about a repeating cycle she’d observed.
“The phenomenon is some dude who is really smart in some other way, and has expertise in something else, perhaps stumbles upon climate change, takes about one month to a year to think about it — and then decides that all of a sudden they have the solution that nobody else has thought about,” she said, asked to explain the pattern in an interview. “And they don’t consult with a diverse array of experts before releasing it. They do reporting that confirms their own biases.
“And then they put out a product that uses very strong language, stronger language than the evidence that they have justifies, to paint a picture that the reason we haven’t solved this is because everyone has been wrong. No one has thought of their great idea yet. And the idea is, honestly, usually that we’re screwed.”
One criticism that emerged of Deep Adaptation more specifically was that this vague forthcoming disaster that Mr. Bendell was describing was already happening to many people — just not yet to the Western academics, bankers and journalists whose interests he had piqued.
Justine Huxley, the chief executive of St. Ethelburga’s Center for Reconciliation and Peace in London, said that the paper had strongly influenced the center’s work, but that some reality needed to be taken into account.
“The first thing that we did was really try and weave climate justice in how we teach it,” she said. “Because I think there was a real danger in the early days of the Deep Adaptation movement starting up was that it kind of looks like a bunch of privileged white people coming to terms with a reality that half of the global south is already living in the middle of.”
Another criticism that emerged was that the central fatalism of Deep Adaptation was based on misunderstood science. According to these critics, if you strip away the misconceptions, there’s room for the hope that Mr. Bendell has cast aside.
After his self-publication, the paper attracted criticism by climate scientists. (The paper was submitted to and rejected by a peer-reviewed sustainability journal. Mr. Bendell has framed the rejection almost as an advertisement of his paper’s provocation and import. He compared it to submitting a paper that says dental health is pointless to a journal of dentistry.)
Gavin Schmidt, a colleague of Dr. Marvel’s at the NASA Goddard Institute, corresponded with Mr. Bendell directly about his concerns. Mr. Bendell wrote a blog post about that experience in February. He ended with: “None of the conclusions from the climate science section of the paper need to be retracted.”
Dr. Marvel reviewed some of the science in the paper more recently and said that it was filled with errors and misconceptions. For instance, Mr. Bendell writes that the loss of the reflective power of ice in the Arctic is such that even a removal of a quarter of the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of the last three decades would be outweighed by the damage already done.
Dr. Marvel said that this represents a basic misunderstanding. Though ice melting represented a feedback loop, she said, in which an effect of the climate becoming warmer itself contributed to further warming, there was a conflation in Mr. Bendell’s thought between that feedback loop and a so-called tipping point.
“It’s not an example of a tipping point,” she said. “This is something that is well understood. You make it warm. You get rid of ice. You make it cold. You get ice.”
Mr. Bendell provided a list of other scientists who supported him. He said climatology was too big a field for Dr. Marvel or Mr. Schmidt to be able to assess his claims knowledgeably and recommended against “establishment figures in climatology” altogether.
“You shouldn’t be talking to Kate Marvel or whatever,” he said. “Just actually go and look at the stuff yourself.”
As it happens, someone did.
Galen Hall, the 23-year-old Brown University researcher, was studying at Oxford when Deep Adaptation was published. He had joined Extinction Rebellion, a group of British climate activists, and became friends with a fellow member, Tom Nicholas, a doctoral candidate in computational physics. The paper had a profound effect on both of them, and on their network. A friend of Mr. Nicholas’s dropped out of university, believing that his studies were futile.
Mr. Nicholas had become familiar with Deep Adaptation when he started to hear the paper’s worldview parroted by activists.
“I basically noticed undercurrents of things I thought were scientifically dodgy being repeated again and again within Extinction Rebellion circles,” he said. “And then when I read Deep Adaptation paper I was like, ‘Ah, that’s where all of this is coming from.’”
Mr. Hall and Mr. Nicholas, 26, came to believe that Deep Adaptation was wrong to teach people that the struggle was already lost. In the fall of 2019, they decided to write a rebuttal.
“The fundamental battle in climate change right now is whether or not we can understand it as a primarily political struggle — rather than a scientific or natural struggle — and then win that struggle,” Mr. Hall said. “Deep Adaptation or fatalism in general is just one way of depoliticizing it because it puts everything up to inhuman forces.”
In July, with Colleen Schmidt, who is 24 and has a degree in environmental biology from Columbia — and who acted as their de facto editor — they published a paper.
“I would call it a hit piece on the paper and by implication, the framework and the movement,” Mr. Bendell said. “It was quite upsetting, and I wasn’t sure how best to respond.”
About two weeks after Mr. Hall, Mr. Nicholas and Ms. Schmidt published their paper, Mr. Bendell released a second version of his Deep Adaptation paper.
“This paper appears to have an iconic status amongst some people who criticize others for anticipating societal collapse,” he writes. “Therefore, two years on from initial publication, I am releasing this update.”
The stark statement that had opened the original paper was altered. Once, it had said its purpose was to provide readers “with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change.” Now, to emphasize that the idea remains unproven, it reads “in the face of what I believe to be an inevitable near-term societal collapse.” Mr. Bendell added a sentence stating plainly that the paper does not prove that inevitability.
As the summer of 2020 ended, he announced on his blog that he would be stepping back from the Deep Adaptation forum, a decision he said he’d been planning for a year.
In this quiet, he is working on a new paper. In it, he said, he plans to explain exactly how the coming catastrophe of our society will play itself out, describing the starvation and mass death that so many anticipate.
The three young people who wrote the paper rebutting Deep Adaptation agree that the climate crisis has already resulted in horrific loss and that it will continue to exact a heavy toll. But they also believe that governments around the world can still make a difference and should be held to account, instead of being lulled into inaction by despair.
“We’ve lost some things,” Ms. Schmidt said. “We could lose everything. But there is no reason not to try and make what can work, work.”
“Even if you somehow knew that the chance of success was small,” Mr. Nicholas said, “you would still be morally obligated to try your best to limit the damages and to keep working.”