The Deep Adaptation Agenda

History | References

This page is intended to provide a summary and focus on “What is The Deep Adaptation Agenda?” as coined by Jem Bendell[1] in his paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. Note that there is also a blog post available about this here. In addition to the paper this page also includes material from Jem Bendell’s website as well as a Rupert Read lecture. Italics and “quotations” are used to highlight direct quotations from the paper. The page was recently updated to include a “Resources” section that provides more up to date information and links related to Deep Adaptation.

The paper, published in July of 2018, concludes “…recent research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress.  Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations. This situation makes redundant the reformist[2] approach to sustainable development and related fields of corporate sustainability. Instead, a new approach which explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse is important to develop. In support of that challenging, and ultimately personal process, understanding a ‘deep adaptation agenda’ may be useful.”

The essence of The Deep Adaptation Agenda is a conceptual map to explore what we, as mainly framed at a community level, can do differently given a shocking new found awareness of the more recently available information on climate change and its implications of near term social collapse. It expands the mainstream environmental movement’s focus on mitigation (e.g. lowering CO2 emissions) to one of considering how we can adapt to a coming climate tragedy.

Because of the sensitivity of this topic, it is important to note that Jem Bendell does not conclude that it is too late to change this course, as some interpretations of his work have claimed. Rather Professor Bendell argues that we have entered a time of dire uncertainty, which we must accept; and in so doing find the place in our psyches for a radical hope as we come to bear witness on this already unfolding sixth mass extinction. Rupert Read addresses this issue in his recent article titled “After the IPCC Report” stating:

“Climate-nemesis is near-certain. But “near-certain” is not yet “inevitable”. On the contrary, it is still uncertain. By making it sound inevitable, we run the risk of fomenting inaction at the worst possible time. We need to prepare for what is near-certain. But if we give up trying to stop it then it will become inevitable. We need to try to stop it: roll on the eXtinction Rebellion.”

Further, in a brilliant lecture called ‘Shed a Light’ (video) Rupert Read examines and clarifies the deep adaptation agenda and its consideration of probable collapse of civilization: “The Deep Adaptation Agenda says we need to be thinking and acting now in ways that take seriously into account the possibility that we will not be able to do the kinds of interventions in future that we can do now.”

With regards to the even more dire idea of Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction (INTHE) the paper says “….I have seen how the idea of INTHE can lead me to focus on truth, love and joy in the now, which is wonderful, but how it can also make me lose interest in planning for the future. And yet I always come around to the same conclusion – we do not know. Ignoring the future because it is unlikely to matter might backfire. “Running for the hills” – to create our own ecocommunity – might backfire. But we definitely know that continuing to work in the ways we have done until now is not just backfiring – it is holding the gun to our own heads. With this in mind, we can choose to explore how to evolve what we do, without any simple answers. In my post-denial state, shared by increasing numbers of my students and colleagues, I realised that we would benefit from conceptual maps for how to address these questions. I therefore set about synthesizing the main things people talked about doing differently in light of a view of inevitable collapse (i.e. near term societal collapse) and probable catastrophe. That is what I offer now as the “deep adaptation agenda’.”

The deep adaptation agenda involves the following three concepts or ideas:

Resilience – which asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?”
A number explanations or definitions are given from both a physical and psychological perspective. In pursuit of a conceptual map of “deep adaptation,” the resilience of human societies can be conceived as the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviors. The question is asked “What are the valued norms and behaviors that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive?”.

Relinquishment – which asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?”
“The concept involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviors, and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse (e.g. withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption).”

Restoration – which asks us “what do we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?”
“It involves people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our fossil fuel-based civilization has eroded. (e.g. re-wilding landscapes so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play, and increased community-level productivity and support).”

“It is hoped that the “deep adaptation agenda”, consisting of the above three concepts or ideas, can serve as a useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change.”

Note that the author, Jem Bendell, has a website where one may contact the author and/or view posts pertaining to questions, concerns and  further discussions of these concepts.

In one of the posts called “Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse – The 4th R of Deep Adaptation”, a fourth ‘R’ is added to the three ‘R’s’ of the Deep Adaptation Agenda as follows:

Reconciliation – At this point the reader is encouraged to read the link first hand for themselves. To summarize, it speaks to moving through a process to arrive at a state of hope and vision despite imminent societal collapse. To do this one is asked to consider different forms of hope. In that consideration, the idea of radical hope is arrived at, which is summarized to mean “a form of hope that’s consciously chosen after denial. It is a form of hope that is ’empowered surrender’ to a situation. It accepts difficult realities about what is happening as well as one’s capabilities to influence things, but still connects with deeper values and requires action to make it real.”

The process then turns to the question of beliefs. At the end of the discussion on belief one is invited to do as follows: “…Once you have explored what you really believe in, then stared back into the abyss of an imminent societal collapse, you may find, a radical hope of your own.” Once again the reader is asked to read the discussion regarding beliefs first hand for themselves here.

The next step is to ask the question: “What could I make peace with to lessen suffering? This question incorporates the idea of Reconciliation with one’s death, including any difficulties and regrets in one’s life, any anger towards existence itself (or God). It also invites reconciliation between peoples, genders, classes, generations, countries, religions and political persuasions. Because it is time to make our peace. Otherwise, without this inner deep adaptation to climate collapse we risk tearing each other apart and dying hellishly. My radical hope is that more of us work together to achieve this reconciliation, in all its forms, as a basis for the fuller deep adaptation agenda that I explain in my paper.”

How Does ‘The Deep Adaptation Agenda’ Differ from ‘Climate Change Adaptation?’

Climate Change Adaptation (i.e. CCA) focuses on the physical aspects related Climate Change. It attempts to analyse risks and propose actions to reduce risks. It involves adjustments to natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate change including increases in the frequency and severity of weather related disasters such as droughts, floods, severe storms, wildfires, hurricanes etc. The term “Resilience” in this context is defined as the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse weather events.

These ideas are summarized in the Deep Adaptation Agenda paper as follows:

  • “The term “Climate Adaptation”, which aims to give more attention to how societies and economies could be helped to adapt to climate change, is highlighted. A summary of the steps taken by various international organizations towards this goal starting with the IPCC in 2010 are given. There is a long list of organizations involved in these actions.”
  • “The term “Disaster Risk Reduction” is introduced, which has the aim of reducing the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones, through reducing sensitivity to these hazards as well as the capacity to respond when these disasters hit.”

These measures can be contrasted with the Deep Adaptation Agenda (i.e. DAA) which speaks to how we plan and prepare for change given an acceptance that societal collapse due to climate change is likely inevitable. Given this inevitability how does one, as an individual and/or community prepare and adapt? The adjective “Deep” implies a need for an individual psychospiritual adaptation in the form of an acceptance that the current socioeconomic system, or industrial civilization, will likely fail. That process allows for a grieving for this sense of loss which is best done by sharing this information with other like-minded individuals. From this, an individual emerges from a process of ‘reconciliation’ equipped with “radical hope” empowering them to take action, in service to humanity, despite the knowledge that societal collapse is likely inevitable.

Besides the psychospiritual aspect of DAA the physical planning and preparation aspects are framed more from a post-industrial collapse perspective. Note that DAA’s idea of ‘radical hope’ does not discourage an individual from taking part in actions towards mitigation (e.g. political engagement, civil disobedience, being green, or being the change). It just accepts that these types of actions may ultimately fail.

What are some of the implications of the ‘Deep Adaptation Agenda framework?’

The paper itself intentionally avoids the discussion of more detailed implications stating that its purpose is to provide a “useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change.” Despite this statement, there are hints and ideas about what some of those practical implications might be such as:

  • People need support to access information and networks for how to attempt a shift in their livelihoods and lifestyles.
  • Free online and in-person courses as well as support networks on self-sufficiency need to be scaled. Local governments will need similar support on how to develop the capabilities today that will help their local communities to collaborate, not fracture, during a collapse. For instance, they will need to roll out systems for productive cooperation between neighbors, such as product and service exchange platforms enabled by locally issued currency.
  • At an international level there is need to work on how to responsibly address the wider fallout from collapsing societies (Harrington, 2016). These will be many, but obviously include the challenges of refugee support and the securing of dangerous industrial and nuclear sites at the moment of societal collapse.

Interesting Observations on Mainstream Responses to Environmental Issues

The paper makes some interesting observations about the West’s current mainstream responses to environmental issues in the context of the dominance of neoliberal economics starting in the 1970’s as follows (A humorous cautionary note that you may recognize your own behaviors in some of these) :

  • Hyper-individualist
    The focus on individual action as consumers, switching light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than promoting political action as engaged citizens.
  • Market fundamentalist
    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.
  • Incremental Approach
    A focus on celebrating small steps forward such as a company publishing a sustainability report, rather than strategies designed for speed and scale of change suggested by the science.
  • Atomistic Approach
    A focus on seeing climate action as a separate issue from the governance of markets, finance and banking, rather than exploring what kind of economic system could permit or enable sustainability.


The Deep Adaptation Agenda captures the dire nature of the Climate Change Emergency and provides a framework for dialogue on how individuals and communities can adapt psychologically and physically.  It offers hope with the idea that a post-collapse society could be planned in such a way as to survive with valued norms and behaviors. It fosters the idea of ‘radical hope’ which empowers one to take action in our current ‘pre-collapse societal state’ on matters such as mitigation and adaptation despite one’s understanding that a societal collapse is likely.

Resources related to Deep Adaptation:

  • 7:30 pm Apr. 5, 2019 – Charles Gregoire – (Added “Other Resources Related to Deep Adaptation” section at the end of the post).
  • 7:30 pm Jan. 25, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Added Rupert Read quote from Medium article titled “After the IPCC Report”).
  • 4:30 pm Jan. 13, 2019 – Charles Gregoire – (Completed and published an initial version of the page and linked it to the TOC).
  • 2:00 pm Jan. 14, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Reviewed the page, made some suggestions for using usability and graphics, color theory, and references section and fixed up small typing errors).
  • 4:00 pm Jan. 13, 2019 – Heidi Brault – (Did an editorial review in terms of grammar and spelling etc.).
  • 1:00 pm Jan. 9, 2019 – Charles Gregoire – (Added initial outline and structure for The Deep Adaptation Agenda).

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1. Jem Bendell

Professor Jem Bendell is the originator of the concept of Deep Adaptation to near term societal collapse due to climate chaos. Five years ago, Jem began offering transformational professional development courses after 20 years pursuing a variety of methods for social change. From anti-globalisation activism and sustainability consulting in the late 1990s, via senior management in large environmental organisations and research roles with the United Nations. Jem’s approach to education is participative, experiential and focused on the whole person. He now dedicates his time to helping people, and himself, evolve in response to the latest climate science (Back).

2. What is a ‘Reformist’ approach to sustainability?

A Reformist approach (or Reformism) takes the view that the current dominant socio-economic system is sound and more than capable of providing what Reformism claims is the key sustainable world goal, namely, continued human development (or, more commonly, sustainable development). Under this model, the challenge that humanity faces
is to maintain the current dominant socio-economic system, but to do so in ways that address the ecological and social harms that are currently being experienced. In short, we need to ‘green’ the current system and make it more socially just. Reformism seeks strong consistent global GDP growth, supported by continuation of the current globalisation and free-trade agenda.(Back)

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Note: This page as with many wiki pages is a work in progress. It aims to inform the reader of the discussion about The Deep Adaptation Agenda as coined by Jem Bendell.

8 Replies to “Deep Adaptation Agenda”

  1. Climate change is a symptom…it is not the underlying “disease.”

    Step 1 in solving a problem is recognizing that you have one. Good job!

    Step 2 in solving a problem is correctly identifying the cause…we aren’t there yet.

    Human history is littered with failed civilizations. The “disease” is quite old…estimated @ 40,000 years (perhaps longer).

    We are an inherently irrational species smart enough to create powerful technologies. But, how can anyone imagine this combination will end well? (Especially with the evidence provided by our own history.)

    Simply put, we’ve failed to adapt to ourselves. A naturally intuitive-thinking species living-in and responsible-for a world we created using an analytical thought process–a fundamental incompatibility.

    Solution(s) possible but improbable–especially now. “Too late, Maria. Too late.”

    P.S.: Don’t assume it’s going to come back…the natural resources needed to build and maintain our high-tech civilization can no longer be reached with a pick-ax and a shovel. Once the lights go out, the planet goes dark and silent. Something the SETI folks might ponder–the same traits a species needs to build a high-tech civilization would also be an evolutionary requirement on other worlds. And, the same incompatibility would have to be recognized and overcome.

  2. I hesitate to write, but I’m old now and I don’t understand why people have to seek the so-called spiritual path, there is no god, no soul, no spirit, we can have deep adaptation, acceptance and all that goes with it without the need to get all ‘spiritual’. It’s all nonsense, and the belief in god/s and spirits is a construct of the childhood of our species. Not that we’ve actually grown up, hence the state we are now in.

    We can, in the face of everything, just simply come to terms with it and help each other. And do whatever we can to lessen the pain and suffering of all non-human animals and ecosystems everywhere. That’s where our attention could be directed.

    It seems far better for the human species to go completely extinct. We are, and have always been, a species that is selfish, cruel, manipulative and a host of other things. Yes, there are pockets of lovely people scattered throughout history and in our current time, but for the most part we’re an awful species.

  3. I agree with Julie about the pockets of lovely people. The problem that never seems to be mentioned is the unsustainable trajectory of human population growth. The fuel of this fire is the fact that the religions/ societies of the world are mostly patriarchal based and as such women’s choices/voices are relegated. I had a conversation with a Latino male who was complaining about traffic congestion. Later in the conversation he told me he had 10 kids…there was a total disconnect when I pointed out that maybe having large families was part of the problem..

  4. Julie, humans are not more selfish than other creatures and have the capacity for incredible self-sacrifice. It is not just some humans that are beautiful, kind, loving creatures: every single one has that capacity. It often goes wrong, but all natural things have light and shade. Nature is cruel too.

    If we give up on humans we surrender to sterility, to a world made of marble and still as a tomb. We give up on the visceral, dance and music lost forever.

    I’m an atheist too, but religion also contains non-theistic wisdom, and the ideas above reminded me of the serenity prayer, which still works if you remove the deity:

    Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,
    and the Wisdom to know the difference

  5. We may have messed up, become more consumers than stewards on this world. But
    the mysteries of life will continue
    elsewhere even when and if we “wink out”.
    One on the writers on this site I think mentions the term negentropy
    in the sense of the universe creating more complexity
    as opposed to just breaking down (in entropy).
    It is a concept I find comfort in.

  6. Julie speaks of “no god, no soul, no spirit” with all the conviction of a religious zealot.

    People seek the so-called spiritual path for the same reason people seek the scientific path… to put some element of their experience as humans into context by exploring various realms for the truth.

    As we approach the near-certain collapse of the current social order, perhaps we will be better served to view all realms as having value, as long as the lessons and behaviors drawn from each realm support a purposeful and meaningful evolution toward humanity becoming a less awful species.

  7. Jem does not discount human extinction due to societal and environmental collapse.
    His timeframe is simply longer than other commentators.

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