The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It's Sending People to Therapy
On average, three people read an academic paper. At least 100,000 have read this – and a lot of them haven't taken it very well.
The author with the "Deep Adaptation" paper. Photo: VICE
What if I told you there was a paper on climate change that was so uniquely catastrophic, so perspective-altering and so absolutely depressing that it's sent people to support groups and encouraged them to quit their jobs and move to the countryside?
Good news: there is. It's called "Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy". I was introduced to it via an unlikely source – a guy formerly in advertising who had left his job to become a full-time environmental campaigner. "We're fucked," he told me. "Climate change is going to fuck us over. I remember thinking, 'Should I just accept the deep adaptation paper and move to the Scottish countryside and wait out the apocalypse?'"
"Deep Adaptation" is quite unlike any other academic paper. There's the language ("we are about to play Russian Roulette with the entire human race with already two bullets loaded"). There's the flashes of dark humour ("I was only partly joking earlier when I questioned why I was even writing this paper"). But most of all, there's the stark conclusions that it draws about the future. Chiefly, that it's too late to stop climate change from devastating our world – and that "climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term".
How near? About a decade.
Professor Jem Bendell, a sustainability academic at the University of Cumbria, wrote the paper after taking a sabbatical at the end of 2017 to review and understand the latest climate science "properly – not sitting on the fence anymore", as he puts it down the phone to me.
What he found terrified him. "The evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war," he writes in the paper. "Our norms of behaviour – that we call our 'civilisation' – may also degrade."
"It is time," he adds, "we consider the implications of it being too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today."
Even a schmuck like me is familiar with some of the evidence Bendell sets out to prove his point. You only needed to step outside during the record-breaking heatwave last year to acknowledge that 17 of the 18 hottest years on the planet have occurred since 2000. Scientists already believe we are soon on course for an ice-free Arctic, which will only accelerate global warming. Back in 2017, even Fox News reported scientists' warnings that the Earth's sixth mass extinction was underway.
Erik Buitenhuis, a senior researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells me that Bendell's conclusions may sound extreme, but he agrees with the report's overall assessment. "I think societal collapse is indeed inevitable," he says, though adds that "the process is likely to take decades to centuries".
The important thing, Buitenhuis says, is to realise that the negative effects of climate change have already been with us for some time: "Further gradual deterioration looks much more likely to me than a disaster within the next ten years that will be big enough that, after that, everybody will agree the status quo is doomed."
"Jem's paper is in the main well-researched and supported by relatively mainstream climate science," says Professor Rupert Read, chair of the Green House think-tank and a philosophy academic at the University of East Anglia. "That's why I'm with him on the fundamentals. And more and more people are."
Read's key disagreement with Bendell is his belief that we still have time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, saying, "I think it's hubris to think that we know the future." But that doesn't mean Bendell's premise is wrong: "The way I see it, deep adaptation is insurance against the possibility – or rather, the probability – of some kind of collapse," says Read. "'Deep Adaptation' is saying, 'What do we need to do if collapse is something we need to realistically plan for?'"
When I speak to Bendell, he tells me he thinks of "Deep Adaptation" as more of an ethical and philosophical framework, rather than a prophecy about the future of the planet. "The longer we refuse to talk about climate change as already here and screwing with our way of life – because we don't want to think like that, because it's too frightening or will somehow demotivate people – the less time we have to reduce harm," he says with deliberation.
What does he mean by harm? "Starvation is the first one," he answers, pointing to lowering harvests of grain in Europe in 2018 due to drought that saw the EU reap 6 million tons less wheat. "In the scientific community at the moment, the appropriate thing is to say that 2018 was an anomaly. However, if you look at what's been happening over the last few years, it isn't an anomaly. There's a possibility that 2018 is the new best case scenario."
That means, in Bendell's view, that governments need to start planning emergency responses to climate change, including growing and stockpiling food.
He minces his words even less in his paper: "When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you won't have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours 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."
Should people start building bunkers and buying bulletproof vests? "There's no way of getting through this unless we try together," he says. "We need to help people stay fed and watered where they live already to reduce disruption and reduce civil unrest as much as we can." Of the Silicon Valley financiers prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand, he says: "Once money doesn't matter anymore and the armed guards are trying to feed their starving children, what do you think they'll do? The billionaires doing that are just deluded."
Bendell wasn't always this gloomy about the state of the world. He once worked for WWF, one of the biggest environmental charities in the world, and in 2012 founded the Institute For Leadership And Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria. The World Economic Forum named him a Young Global Leader for his work. So how did he end up writing a paper that determined that civilisation – and environmental sustainability as we currently understand it – is doomed?
"Since the age of 15, I've been an environmentalist," he tells me. "I've given my life professionally and personally. I'm a workaholic, and it was all about sustainability." Once he sat down with the data, however, he realised that his field was quickly becoming irrelevant in the face of oncoming climate catastrophe. "It would mean not getting super excited about the expansion of your recycling programme in a major multinational," he says. "It's a completely different paradigm of what we should be looking at."
What he didn’t expect was for the paper to take off online. "It was aimed at those people in my professional community and why we're in denial," he says. "When I put it out there, I didn’t expect 15-year-olds in schools in Indonesia to be reading it with their teachers." He says that "Deep Adaptation" has been downloaded over 110,000 times since it was released by IFLAS as an occasional paper. "Someone in the alternative economics and bitcoin crowd told me, 'Oh, everyone's talking about deep adaptation in London at all the dinner parties,'" he laughs.
Researchers from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), an established progressive think-tank, consulted Bendell's paper in the process of writing its new report, "This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown". Laurie Laybourn-Langton, its lead author, told me via email: "I appreciated the frankness of the report in facing up to issues that so many in research and policy communities seem unwilling to. We don't subscribe to the view that social collapse is inevitable, however."
He explains: "This is partly because it's so hard to predict the outcomes of the complex and uncertain process of environmental shocks interacting with social and economic systems. We simply don't know. That said, they shouldn’t be disregarded as a potential outcome, and so we are calling for greater levels of preparedness to these shocks."
Not everyone was so taken with the paper. Bendell submitted it to a well-respected academic journal for publication, with little success. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal (SAMPJ) told me that the paper was in need of "major revisions" before it would be ready for publication. Bendell ended up publishing it through IFLAS and his blog. "The academic process is such that I took that as an effective rejection," he explains, saying that the reviewers wanted him to fundamentally alter his conclusions. "I couldn't completely rewrite the paper to say that I don't think collapse is inevitable. It was asking for a different paper."
Emerald, the scholarly publisher that owns SAMPJ, says it takes issue with how Bendell frames its reception of its paper on his blog: "the study on collapse they thought you should not read – yet". A spokesperson told me: "The decision was arrived at based on the merit of the submitted article and the double blind peer review process integral to academia and the advancement of knowledge. SAMPJ, and [editor Carol Adams] are proud members of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and adhere to the highest ethical standards in publishing. We see no evidence that the decision of Major Revision was politically motivated.
"Emerald requested the author correct their blog post to reflect the facts. This request was unfortunately ignored. The post continues to imply the paper was rejected because it was deemed too controversial. The paper was not rejected, and was given a Major Revision due to the rigorous standards of the scholarly output of the journal."
Bendell says he did reply to Emerald's request to amend his blog post – but only if they would consider telling him the decisions of those who reviewed his paper. (Under the double blind peer review, reviewers' decisions are anonymous.) "That title can be read in a number of ways," he says. "It is a paper that the reviewers didn't want you to read. They didn't want it published."
Climate gloom and doom is nothing new – doomsday preppers have been stockpiling their freeze-dried food rations for decades now. But Bendell's paper appears to have hit a unique nerve, especially given that the average scientific paper is estimated to be read by only three or so people. Rupert Read tells me that he was sent it simultaneously by three other academics when it was published. But it hasn’t trended on Twitter. It hasn't been pushed by a celebrity. It was briefly mentioned in a Bloomberg Businessweek article, but that's it.
"Deep Adaptation" is that unique social phenomenon: an academic paper that has gone viral through word of mouth.
Nathan Savelli, a 31-year-old high school life coach from Hamilton, Canada, was recommended the paper by a local environmental activist. Reading it sent him spiralling into depression. "I guess in some ways it felt like I was diagnosed with a terminal illness," he tells me. "If I'm being honest, it was a mix of heartbreaking sadness and extreme anger."
Savelli felt so low that he sought help from a climate grief support group organised by 350.org, the global grassroots climate movement. "I had attended counselling in the past for other issues, but never a group session, and thought it might be something helpful for me," he tells me. Did it help? "I'm not sure I'd say it alleviated my grief, but it was definitely comforting to be around people who understood what I was feeling."
And therein lies the problem with "Deep Adaptation": if you accept that the paper is entirely correct in its prediction of collapse, how do you move on with your life? How do you even get out of bed in the morning?
"I'm aware of what difficult emotions it triggers," Bendell acknowledges. "I do believe that if you’ve come across this [paper], then absolutely some grief and despair is very natural. Why isn't that OK? We all die in the end. Life is about impermanence." On his blog, he lists several sources for psychological support, including several groups on Facebook and LinkedIn that discuss collapse and offer help to those struggling to come to terms with the conclusions of his paper.
But, Bendell adds, reading the paper has been "transformative" for some. "People find a new boldness about living life on their own terms – actually connecting to their heart's desire. How do they wish to live, and why don't they live that way now rather than postponing it?"
In one case, it even helped prompt one high-ranking academic to quit her job and the city.
In December of 2017, Dr Alison Green left her post as the pro vice-chancellor of Arden University. She had read the IPCC report warning that the world is nowhere near averting global temperature increases, as well as the 1,656-page National Climate Assessment on how climate change is now dramatically affecting our lives – and then she read Bendell's paper.
All three combined to put her on the road to a drastic life change. "My desire is to get out of academia and to get out of the city. I tell people I’m heading for the hills," she tells me over the phone. "My plan is to get a smallholding and live more closely to nature."
Reading the paper, she says, helped to crystallise her increasing uneasiness about the pace and scale of climate change. "What was really striking about this paper is that a social scientist was saying – not just the wacky fringe, this is a professor at an established institution, with a track record – saying that he believed that collapse was inevitable."
"That," she adds, "had a profound effect on me."
She's not the only one. Bendell himself says that he is still working out how much he can reconcile his job as an academic with his newfound conclusions about the state of the future.
"I think the reason why my framing and my paper took off is that it’s maybe the first time a social scientist was saying these things categorically," he says. "We are seemingly in denial. It's time to break that taboo and have serious conversations about what we do now."