FOLLOWING THE COLD WAR, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, suggesting mankind’s political ideology had completely evolved. From now on, all around the world, it would be western liberal democracy, all the way. But Fukuyama didn’t actually predict the end of our story.
Reflection on the end of history and humanity — eschatology — is a major dimension of the human experience. The sense of loss of everything to which one could ever contribute can be extremely powerful. Some people find it easier to believe in a certainty than an uncertain story, especially when the future would be so different, unimaginable and incomprehensible.
Professor Jem Bendell argues that taking the bleakest view of climate change, including collapse of the system and even human extinction, can help us break from conformity and release creativity. Founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria, Bendell has set up the Deep Adaptation Forum, offering online support for practitioners and concerned citizens involved in preparing for what he considers a very likely collapse of industrial civilisation.
Psychology research suggests that we relate information through stories, Bendell notes. When talking about collapse, catastrophe and extinction, he found that people choose scenarios with probabilities not based on data and analysis, but on the story with which they choose to live.
“Currently, I have chosen to interpret the information as indicating inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction,” he says.
If Fukuyama’s 1992 book suggests that liberal democracy has won, it’s ironic that Bendell blames the dominance of neoliberal economics for restricting society’s response to environmental issues. “That led to hyperindividualist, market fundamentalist, incremental and atomistic approaches”, he said. “By hyper-individualist, I mean a focus on individual action as consumers,
switching light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than promoting political action as engaged citizens. By market fundamentalist, I mean a focus on market mechanisms like the complex, costly and largely useless carbon cap and trade systems, rather than exploring what more government intervention could achieve.”
Bendell proposes a ‘deep adaptation’ agenda of resilience, relinquishment and restoration as a useful framework for dialogue in the face of climate change.
In 2018 several international funds and banks agreed major financing for governments to increase resilience of their communities. Yet many initiatives are falling short of commitments made. Disaster Risk Reduction activities have increased in order to reduce damage from natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones; to reduce sensitivity to these hazards; and to increasing the capacity to respond when disaster hits. Businesses are responding through risk and business continuity management, identifying weak spots in their value chains, and trying to reduce vulnerabilities or the impact of a failure.
Bendell points out that resilience is not the same as sustainability. Aiming for material progress may be counter-productive, while the initiatives tend to focus on physical resilience rather than mental resilience. The aim should not be to bounce back to where we are, but might be more about reframing identity and priorities. He proposes we also practice ‘relinquishment’ and ‘restoration’.
Relinquishment means “letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse”. Examples he gives include retreating from coastlines, closing vulnerable industrial facilities, and giving up certain consumption.
Relearning attitudes and approaches to life and organisation “that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded”. Examples are re-wilding landscapes to increase ecological benefits and reduce management; eating to match the seasons; rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play; increasing community-level productivity and support.
In the British city of Peterborough, citizens devoted a whole day to exploring what relinquishment could involve. As such, it allowed more open conversation and imagination than a narrower focus on resilience. Further events are planned across the UK