Choose Your Spirit Rock in the Workshop of Doom

December 27, 2020

Long piece, excerpted here.
Doomism is Denial in drag.

Jonah Engel Bromwich in the New York Times:

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.

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?

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.”

Emily Atkin in Heated:

I feel like a hamster on a wheel: The Wheel of First Time Climate Dudes. 

The wheel starts to spin when a dude who spent his entire career doing everything except climate journalism decides he’s going to be the one to do a Big Climate Journalism Moment. This moment can be an interview with a famous person, a huge piece in a fancy publication, or a documentary film executive produced by Michael Moore.

Because of the bigness of said moment, it is consumed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But because neither the author nor editor has not done much climate journalism before, however, the viral moment suffers from factual inaccuracies and misleading tropes. 

That’s understandable. Climate change is a very difficult subject to cover—due in large part to the sophisticated 40-year disinformation campaign around the subject, perpetuated and funded by the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel industry and its powerful political allies. 

But that doesn’t change the fact that harmful inaccuracies have been consumed by many people. The wheel comes full circle when climate journalists have to spend massive amounts of time and intellectual energy consuming  and debunking the First Time Climate Dudes’ story.

New York Times again:

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.”

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.”

“Doomism” is a big theme in Michael Mann’s new book, so recommending that as somewhat of an antidote for rampant, and I believe intellectually flabby, doomism.
Meanwhile, those of us who understand the science, and the urgency, will continue to work like hell to save what we can, which is still, like, most of everything.


8 Responses to “Choose Your Spirit Rock in the Workshop of Doom”

  1. jimbills Says:

    I fundamentally disagree.

    As hard as it may be to understand, it is possible to BOTH believe we are screwed and believe we must do everything possible, as urgently as possible, to mitigate future trouble. I would also strongly argue that that is the only rational view, and that everything else is pollyanna wishful thinking that will likely only lead to more dire outcomes. I believe, as humans are immensely talented at self-deception, that we will follow a course of overly wishful thinking, painting ourselves further and further into a corner environmentally. We are racing towards oblivion and refusing to accept it. But – I also believe that any effort at improving our future prospects is incredibly worthwhile.

    But, whatever, paint me as a ‘denier in drag’.

    I haven’t read Deep Adaption. The NYT article says that multiple scientists have refuted it. But it also mentions that is has affected entire universities and climate organizations. Doesn’t that suggest it has SOME merit, and shouldn’t be immediately rejected as the scientific equivalent of a comic book supervillain?

    I’d also suggest reading this:

    I respect Mann’s past work, and I haven’t read his new book, but I have the strong feeling he’s just plain wrong here. It more than probably is the case that the FF industry uses works like Deep Adaptation for their benefit. But the study ALSO created a lot of movement in the climate organizations. We wouldn’t have people like Greta without acceptance of the more ‘alarming’ projections.

    Fear about climate and the environment ISN’T the problem. A lack of fear IS the problem.

    • redskylite Says:

      I heartily agree with the above eloquent comment, especially the last summary line – very well and plainly expressed.

      Younger people seem to appreciate the risks more than elder generations, and I am somewhat wary of scientist’s tendency to be conservative and careful, and concern about being labelled “alarmist”.

      Attitude to doom may vary depending on geographical location – what about the folks who live in parts destined to be virtually uninhabitable towards the end of this century.

      “Polls have found that climate change-related stress affects daily life for 47% of America’s young adults; over half of teenagers feel afraid and angry about climate change; and 72% of young adults are concerned that it will harm their community.”

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I think we’re screwed, but I don’t see any “imminent societal collapse”. I think we’re going the “boiled frog”* path: Town by town will be re-located, insurance companies drop policy areas (hurricane or wildfire) after every major payout, communities will lose tax revenue one neighborhood at a time, budgets will be stressed by repairing damage and half-fastly planning inadequate protection.

      If money is spent to avoid wildfires by burying power lines (say $1million per mile), that money’s coming from some other aspect of social support or infrastructure. Likewise for restoring levees, adding pumps and rebuilding beaches eaten by more frequent storms.

      As the old joke goes, “Isn’t it funny how everything important that happens always manages to fit on the front page?” As a population there’s a limit to how aware we can be at the slow, subtle and relentless increases of problems brought on by ocean warming, climate change and ocean acidification.

      *Compare the shock when Trump took office and not only didn’t put his properties in a blind trust, but hired family to work in the White House. After four years of this the news of him pardoning war criminals is quite the snooze-fest.

  2. grindupbaker Says:

    I purchased eXTreme camouflage carpet slippers on Canadian Tire special, for the rural Canadian who’s into survival & heavy weaponry but likes comfort in a carpet slipper. I’ve heard a “Roger Hallam” UK character say 2 large global warming lies to audiences (1) He added the 1.0 degrees of water vapour (H2O) feedback in twice (2) He said land surface will warm by between 3.3x and 13.5x as much as ocean surface will warm. There’s no science for these exaggerations, he simply makes up stupid stuff, and the 13.5x as much is inane, the sure sign of a lazy & idiotic brain. Meanwhile back in the actual fact & reality universe land surface has actually warmed by 1.72x as much as ocean surface per NOAA analysis for 2000-2020 (to show the highly recent faster trends) and land surface has actually warmed by 1.77x as much as ocean surface over the period ~1900 to ~2014, seems pretty consistent to me. It’s generally thought by scientists that, given time to settle down, land will end up having warmed by ~1.43x as much as ocean surface, but the higher 1.77x as much is presumably because humans are pushing it at breakneck speed. Roger’s concocted 3.3x and 13.5x is actually sickening drivel to persons interested in this topic, physical science fact & reality as best known. There’s now two, ostensibly opposed, socio-political-wealth-only-interested groups with their figure head blokes & acolytes spouting a fine mix of sickening drivel all over the place. On the end-of-civilization thingy an actual brainy WG1 climate scientist “Peter Wadhams” has said his analysis indicates that human civilization cannot continue past 2042 AD. I tend to be skeptical because my mum told me from my age 11 to 17 when I headed off to university that I was wasting my time because I’d be dead in <4 years from the Armageddons. I feel half dead now so she's half right so far, better than "Guy McPherson".

  3. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Well said JamesWilliam and Redskybright.

    Peloponnesian War. A force of Athenians are about to be snotted by a superior force of Spartans. Paraphrasing the Athenian commander whose name I cannot recall.
    “I don’t want to hear any smartass displaying his supposed intelligence by detailing how obviously we are screwed. We have NO CHOICE but to stop them.”
    Personally love it and the multiple embedded morals.

    Of course they stopped them.

    • Keith Omelvena Says:

      Problem is, the opposition are motivated by exactly the same principles. With humans, there is always an opposition.

  4. J4Zonian Says:

    “even if the math doesn’t add up, does that make the dark conclusion any less meaningful?”

    Uh, yes.

    One problem is the misunderstanding or disunderstanding of commonly used terms that have a special, exact or even counterintuitive meaning in science or specifically, climate science. Many people confuse “tipping point” with “point of no return”, as above. They mis- or disinterpret descriptions of likelihood (likely, 66% or 2 to 1; very unlikely, 10% or 1 in 9; extremely likely, 95% or 19:1…) in light of their own optimistic or pessimistic tendency. People over their heads in climate science make thousands of other mistakes, or “mistakes”.

    People of course misunderstand and are thus both victims and perpetrators of disinformation about science and absolutes, proof, evidence, outliers, preponderance…

    It’s also important for people not to judge other things outside their area of expertise. The exercises very briefly described may sound silly, especially to those opposed to becoming more aware of themselves. I don’t know these exercises and won’t judge them either way, but they sound somewhat like activities created and used by Joanna Macy, Buddhist scholar and leader of workshops for many decades. (Really. She’s in her eighties, still working.)

    Particularly moving are The Elm Dance;
    a non-traditional form and use of a typically traditional folk dance from North/Eastern Europe. It emerged from participants trying to connect with nature lost for the rest of their lives to Chernobyl.

    The Bestiary
    The poem is most powerful heard, but I couldn’t find any recordings that satisfied; one was too chirpy, one too monotonously dissociated.

    The Truth Mandala
    has been one of if not the most powerful, moving actions I’ve ever led.

    Creating Study-Action Groups

    Summary; list of exercises in 4 more-or-less sequential categories. workthatreconnects[DOT]org/resources/practices/

  5. Paul Whyte Says:

    To me, the key part is the withdrawal of the digit or we are stuffed.

    While the renewable acceleration is good it’s still way too little as yet.

    With the great unknown being just how stupid humanity is in allowing the fossil fools to lead the way. It’s very hard to put down outcomes and times.

    I generally agree with the above. However, the details of the climate scientists do need to be put well before the affections of the humanities.

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