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Heinberg: Doom or denial: Is there another path?


I was recently asked to comment on a dustup between some members of Extinction Rebellion (see Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall, and Colleen Schmidt, “The Faulty Science, Doomism, and Flawed Conclusions of Deep Adaptation”) and Jem Bendell, founder of Deep Adaptation (see his “Letter to Deep Adaptation Advocate Volunteers about Misrepresentations of the Agenda and Movement”). Since the issues raised in this controversy seem relevant to readers of, I thought it might be worthwhile to accept the invitation and weigh in.

For those not familiar, Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation (DA) takes as its starting point the judgment that, because of unfolding human-induced climate impacts, the near-term utter collapse of society is inevitable. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an activist movement that uses civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid climate tipping points that would lock in trends leading ultimately to ecological and social collapse. In simplistic terms, you could say that Deep Adaptation is about accepting and coping with the reality of climate-driven collapse while Extinction Rebellion is about acting to prevent it.

The nub of the controversy is this: some folks involved in Extinction Rebellion think that Bendell is being too fatalistic, thereby discouraging his followers from taking actions that might still save civilization and global ecosystems. Bendell, in his response, accuses his critics of ignoring evidence and misrepresenting his views.

I don’t propose to plunge into the weeds, adjudicating each point raised in each essay. Instead, I prefer to step back and offer my own interpretation of the evidence, and then discuss the subtext of the dispute.

My conclusion, after years of studying environmental research literature, is that some form of societal collapse is indeed highly probable this century, depending on how we define “collapse.” Quite a few environmental scientists with whom I’m acquainted agree with this assessment. With regard to climate change, the problem is not that global warming has already proceeded too far to be reined in (on that point I am agnostic: I agree with the XR authors that the science is not yet settled, and they make some good points in this regard); rather, it’s that the things we would have to do to minimize climate change would undermine industrial societies by other means. That last statement requires some substantiation.

The only realistic way to minimize climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels; and, in my judgment, there is no way to do that without shrinking energy usage and therefore economic activity (I’ve explained my reasoning on this point elsewhere; repeating it here would make this essay over-long). Continuing to depend on fossil fuels likewise leads to economic contraction, because aside from the fact that they are destabilizing the climate, these are depleting, non-renewable resources that we have extracted using the low-hanging-fruit principle: what’s left of them will be increasingly expensive to get, both in monetary and energetic terms. And energy is the ultimate driver of the economy; with less of it available, manufacturing and trade will necessarily contract. So, one way or another, we must accept economic degrowth. However, we don’t know how to degrow our economy controllably, particularly in the context of a massive global debt bubble. Moreover, the structures of representative democracy which respond to the short-term concerns of the electorate, make planning for degrowth even harder. For decades, policy makers have promised only more growth, and economists have turned logical summersaults providing rationales for why growth in energy and materials usage can continue forever on a finite planet. Since we are unprepared for sustained economic contraction, we are unlikely to handle it well.

Moreover, global warming isn’t our only sustainability crisis. Others include: resource depletion, worsening environmental pollution, a food system that ruins topsoil and destroys biodiversity, the overuse of debt as a way to transfer consumption from the future to the present, worsening economic inequality leading to political destabilization, and increasing overpopulation and overconsumption (especially by the rich), justified and encouraged by the flawed belief that the Earth will always be able to support more people consuming more resources on a per capita basis.

Further, the complex interactions of known system stressors—let alone the unknown ones—make matters worse. Climate change worsens economic inequality, while social instability due to increasing inequality makes it harder for national leaders to focus their attention on climate change. Similarly, the growing crises of democracy around the world (with the rich and powerful feeling insulated from danger and blocking needed change) are a threat multiplier, making it harder for societies to deal with any of these problems.

In sum, we have created a fundamentally unsustainable way of living. In recent decades, as more problems have arisen, we have learned to rely on fossil-fueled economic growth to solve them, but now growth is just making those problems worse, and we have no other plan.

Pointing all of this out is not an effective way to win friends and influence people—and that leads us to the core of XR’s argument. Let’s suppose the totality of the evidence favors Bendell’s conclusion (and I believe that it does, with a few caveats). XR’s criticism is that, if the people who are most aware of the climate crisis, and thus likely to drive change, consciously accept the near-certainty of collapse, this will lead to inaction and cynicism on their part, which will only worsen the situation. That criticism must still be answered.

One way of responding is to redefine collapse. Past civilizations have collapsed, and usually the process took two or three centuries and eventually led to some sort of renaissance. We see similar cycles of buildup and release in ecosystems (resilience scientists describe this universal tendency in terms of the adaptive cycle.)

The Adaptive Cycle (figure)

Source: Hollings,The Adaptive Cycle. Holling, Gunderson, and Ludwig. “In Quest of a Theory of Adaptive Change.” 2002.

Collapse needn’t imply that nearly everybody dies at once, or that the survivors become wandering cannibals. Rather, it means our current institutions will fail to one degree or another and we will have to find alternative ways to meet basic human needs—ways that are slower, smaller in scale, and more local. Even if we can’t altogether avert the release phase of the adaptive cycle we’re in, it may be within our power to modify how release and reorganization occur. Perhaps, if we think of collapse in these terms, accepting its near-inevitability won’t be so debilitating.

But a happy version of collapse is likely to be realized only if we act. Past civilizations didn’t have fossil fuels (hence climate change) or nuclear weapons. Without a great deal of luck and hard work, we might get a version of collapse that is indeed unsurvivable, or nearly so.

Can we mentally accept that the odds are stacked against us, yet still act sanely and vigorously? That’s a question that has dogged me for some time. I believe clues leading to an answer may come from a realm of psychology known as Terror Management Theory—which Bendell discusses in Deep Adaptation’s founding document, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.”

Non-human organisms appear not to be aware of the inevitability of their own death, so they don’t have to cope with that awareness. A few intelligent animals (including crows and elephants) take note of the deaths of their comrades and appear to mourn them, but we don’t know if they are able to contemplate their own mortality. For us humans, though, usually beginning in late childhood, language and rational thought ensure that we inescapably know that everyone will die sooner or later, ourselves included. Knowledge of death creates a psychological conflict between our self-preservation instinct and our knowledge of our own eventual demise, and we as a species have gone to great lengths to overcome that conflict. This, according to Terror Management Theory, explains a wide array of cultural beliefs and institutions that explicitly or implicitly promise immortality—including, but not limited to, religious teachings and rituals.

As a result, denial has become a deeply entrenched human capacity. In their book Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origin of the Human Mind, Ajit Varki and Danny Brower suggest that, as language evolved, our emerging expectation of personal extinction would have made us so depressed and cautious that we probably wouldn’t have been able to compete successfully with other species, or other members of our own species who were not so burdened, if not for the appearance of a simultaneous adaptation—our ability to deny death. Denial thus served an evolutionary function as an essential tool of terror management. Over time, our denial muscle strengthened—and it has arguably done so especially in recent decades, as a great collective death via nuclear war or climate change has become a distinct possibility.

Denial can take several forms. One form stems from cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings when they contradict our existing views (hence those disinclined to believe in climate change go out of their way to seize upon any evidence, however flimsy, to support their opinion). Another is disavowal, a state in which we’re aware of climate change and its effects, but “find ways to remain undisturbed” by its implications, rather than being stirred to action.

Denial of climate change (and the likelihood of societal collapse) is therefore more than just a political tool for maintaining the corporate profits of the fossil fuel industry. It is a complex collective coping mechanism. We’re all in denial, in varying ways and degrees.

The XR folks have a point: if we accept the inevitability of collapse, we could psychologically short-circuit our ability to make collapse survivable. However, if we indulge more in denial, we might blithely go our merry way, again doing nothing to improve our survival prospects. Is the solution to indulge in just the right amount of denial? What is that perfect quantity, and how should we go about monitoring everyone’s dosage?

There may be a sliding scale for how much “doom” each of us can handle. In which case, the XR vs. DA quarrel could at least partly be about groups of people sorting themselves according to their levels of psychological tolerance, then walling themselves off from one another through cognitive dissonance.

However, that assessment somewhat trivializes the debate; there’s more going on here. Just one additional angle: maybe collapse has already arrived, and it just isn’t evenly distributed yet. Hundreds of millions, perhaps a couple of billion poor people around the globe are already experiencing many of the horrors that are likely to follow in the wake of the collapse of modern industrial societies (not to mention the billions who have not benefitted equally from, or have been victims of global, industrial capitalism and imperialism). These people, whose plight is likely to worsen, don’t have the luxury of sitting back and philosophizing about the future; they spend each day doing what’s necessary to survive, which sometimes means fighting back against the forces of capitalist exploitation, which usually coincide with the major causes of climate change. Perhaps DA followers are mostly privileged people whose bubble has been popped by awareness of climate change and who, for the moment at least, can afford to be somewhat immobilized by this sudden disorientation.

I would counsel folks more inclined toward the DA point of view not to waste effort trying to convince their XR critics that catastrophic collapse is indeed inevitable within the next few years. Resist the pitfall of certitude: none of us knows at this point whether near-term human extinction is inevitable, or whether concerted action could result in a relatively benign version of collapse. Instead, concentrate on areas of agreement, and join with XR critics in taking action—which, among other things, is an effective way of managing our terror. Reject the tendency toward navel-gazing stasis.

Meanwhile, here’s a bit of advice to the XR critics of DA: go easy. Despite its questionable tendency toward worst-case fixation, DA nevertheless provides a support system within which people can undertake the inner work entailed in facing the reality of the great unraveling that is upon us. While that inner work shouldn’t become an end in itself, thereby subverting effort toward minimizing harm to ecosystems and human communities, it is nevertheless a necessary stage in moving beyond denial.

Perhaps the great classic of ancient Hindu literature, the Bhagavad Gita, has wisdom to offer in this regard. The Gita is a dialogue between prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna, which occurs beside a battlefield during a war between Arjuna’s kinsmen and another tribe. Arjuna is overwhelmed with moral dread about the violence and death—the utter doom of it all!—and that his actions may contribute to it, even though he believes his kinsmen are in the right, and he wonders if he should renounce his title and duty and devote himself to philosophizing. Krishna counsels Arjuna to fulfill his warrior obligation, but to act without thought of self or attachment to outcome.

Similarly, those of us with awareness of the crises ahead must understand that action will have largely unknowable consequences. We find ourselves drawn to a role simply by the fact of our awareness; however, our awareness is incomplete. Despite that limitation, it’s up to us to play our role in the defense of nature and humanity as cleanly and selflessly—and as effectively—as possible.


28 Comments on "Heinberg: Doom or denial: Is there another path?"

  1. jef on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 8:51 am 

    The “Science” has completely left out arctic permafrost and thermokarst both of which are emitting carbon at an increasing rate and they dismiss shallow ocean methane which is starting to be released at both poles.

  2. jeannick on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 9:39 am 

    that sound pretty much right
    doom is not doom , it’s reality
    like most people living today having a contraction in their standard of living
    like citizen of India in the 19th century
    no prospect ,no hope , but plenty of theology
    forget about women’s rights ,they get back into the kitchen dropping a kid every other year
    a society define it’s cultural level by it’s energy level
    with 19th century level energy one get children in the mines
    with Roman empire level of energy ,
    one get industrial slaves

  3. Davy on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 12:41 pm 

    This is the gift the extremist shit lib coastals are giving their people:
    “Seattle Police Abandon Residents As Antifa Uses Twitter, Facebook To Organize Nationwide Protests”

    “The Seattle Police Department announced on Friday that residents and business owners are essentially on their own, after the City Council banned the use of pepper spray and other ‘less lethal tools’ to disperse crowds. “Simply put, the legislation gives officers NO ability to safely intercede to preserve property in the midst of a large, violent crowd,” reads a letter from Seattle Chief of Police, Carmen Best – who added that thanks to the City Council, “Seattle Police will have an adjusted deployment in response to any demonstrations this weekend… In a Facebook ‘call to action,’ the anarchist group writes: The Federal Government has already waged war against Portland, which has been protesting everyday for 50 days straight, and now feds are going to war against protesters everywhere in an attempt to take control and snuff out the fire of this uprising. We must become more powerful than them: Form an affinity group. Coordinate an action. Get tactical. Mask up. Bring a friend. Show up.”

  4. Duncan Idaho on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 1:47 pm 

    why the liberals are going to get us all killed

  5. supremacist muzzies jerk on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 2:48 pm 

    if low energy regime means we have slaves then I can’t wait to feed supremacist muzzies into our industrial meat grinder the way china is doing right now but I don’t think it will happen, sadly.

    It’s time we get enslaving, jihadin’, jizya collecting muzzies to do some work.

    jeannick on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 9:39 am

    that sound pretty much right
    doom is not doom , it’s reality
    like most people living today having a contraction in their standard of living
    like citizen of India in the 19th century
    no prospect ,no hope , but plenty of theology
    forget about women’s rights ,they get back into the kitchen dropping a kid every other year
    a society define it’s cultural level by it’s energy level
    with 19th century level energy one get children in the mines
    with Roman empire level of energy ,
    one get industrial slaves

  6. On This Day... Jul 25, 2018: Sweida, Syria A wave of ISIS suicide bombings claim scores of lives: 246 Killed on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 2:51 pm 

    muzzies killed 5 aid workers in nigeria a couple of days ago but the love for supremacist muzzies always increase

    no feeding supremacist muzzies into industrial meat grinder, sadly

  7. Anonymouse on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 3:02 pm 

    Whineberg is a just another Russia-did-it shill, pimping for the globalists. I bet wears a face-diaper everywhere he goes. Wouldnt be surprised if he has a closest full of ‘hand-sanitizer’ on hand as well.

  8. juanPee on the moderated side on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 4:06 pm 

    juanPee, is this fantasy permaculture design dreamed up like your fantasy Yoga teaching of a 1000 Japanese women?

    Re: “Fast Crash” vs. “Slow Crash”?
    Unread postby JuanP » Sat 25 Jul 2020, 14:47:13

    “I did a Permaculture design for all the restaurant’s outdoor spaces, including the West and South sidewalks, outdoor deck, garden, and parking lot. All the landscaping is edible now, mostly herbs, spices, and edible flowers. It has raised beds, ground beds, pots, planters, grow bags, and hanging baskets. This will save him several thousands of dollars per year and also looks pretty amazing, even if I say so myself.”

  9. makati1 on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 5:42 pm 

    “… maybe collapse has already arrived, and it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.”

    The reality is that most Westerners will be stepping down the lifestyle ladder, either voluntarily, as I did, or by force, as is happening in most Western countries, including Amerika.

    The Great Leveling…

  10. supertard madkat when are u gona apologize to me for saying im a sinophobe i never said i am but ive said numerous times china is grate because they feed their supremacist muzzies into chinese industrial meat grinder to produce cheap goods which on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 6:19 pm 

    i buy. this gives me a yuuuuge advantage over competitors.

    it’s true i don’t like thier spying on US but i said that’s alright as long as they capture their muzzies for good use

    so i’d appreicate an apology supertard madkat
    u’re gonna croak soon so do the rite thing before u go ok

  11. JuanP on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 6:22 pm 

    Mak, you been down to the wet market lately? Get this I went to mine and they had Chinese Shrimp instead of American. I prefer the Chinese kind because they are firmer and have a tangy taste.

  12. makati1 on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 6:35 pm 

    JuanP, I do not do the shopping during the lock-down, but we eat locally farmed shrimp. Most shrimp sold in Amerika are from Asia. The oil well leaks in the Gulf of Mexico have killed off most of the Amerikan shrimp business. I prefer them steamed in ‘Old Bay’ seasoning from the US.

    As I have mentioned before, we are pretty much food self sufficient in my area. Piggeries ($2/lb.),chicken ranches ($3 large whole fresh chicken), a fish-port (Blue Marlin steaks $2.50/lb), and locally grown shrimp and crabs (also about $3/lb). Nothing prefrozen. Not to mention rice ($0.30/lb) and even cheaper veggies. There is a locally made palm wine which is very good and about 40 proof (about $16 per 5 gallon container). Why would I want to live in expensive Amerika? LOL.

  13. makati1 on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 6:39 pm 

    Also, prepared ‘Morehouse’ horseradish, mixed 50:50 with Heinz Ketsup makes a great shrimp dip. ^_^

  14. JuanP on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 6:42 pm 

    Mak, you are an amazing guy I am so glad I met you. I wish I could live in the 3rd world.

  15. Davy on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 7:17 pm 

    You never met mak juanPeePee.


  16. Duncan Idaho on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 7:26 pm 

    Some great background with the Fat Boy:!/image/image.jpg?ssl=1

  17. makati1 on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 7:27 pm 

    JuanP, There are less ‘conveniences’ here in the province, but the laid-back culture makes up for them in so many ways. People share what they have. Most neighbors are treated like family and families are close. I do not miss the city (or Amerika).

    I have never regretted my decision to move here. Especially now that I am out of the US and have a more realistic view of the world and what is really happening in Amerika. My family and friends there keep me informed with their lives and how the US is changing for the worse. I look forward to many many more years of ‘retirement’ and enjoying life. Good luck!

  18. makati1 on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 7:28 pm 

    BTW, JuanP, the 3rd world is coming to you. Prepare and be patient. ^_^

  19. JuanP on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 7:29 pm 

    Mak, I hate it here in Miami but my wife likes it. She wears the pants so I do what she says.

  20. Davy on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 7:51 pm 

    Happy wife. Happy life juanPee. I was to stupid to figger that out. Now my mommy is payin for it. Your obv. way more smarter then me.

  21. The Board on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 8:06 pm 

    Note to the intelligent Posters

    Every Post by ‘JuanP’ in this thread, was made by the lunatic sock thief, davy, the missouri shut in and nutter.

  22. supertard madkat pleaes apologze for saying im a sinophobe and yeah i have nothing but admireaton for u on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 8:09 pm 

    me too i hope someday i get to live in 3rd world

  23. Davy on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 8:20 pm 

    We asked you real nice not to cum in our mouth juanPee. We can never forgive you fer that.

  24. Davy on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 8:22 pm 

    “This is the gift the extremist shit lib coastals are giving their people” ~~DavySKum~~


    I’m in no position to criticize, otherwise people will accuse me of being a hypocrite now that Missouri is now among the Top 5 states in terms of where COVID cases are rising fastest. Missouri, Alaska, Mississippi, Indiana, Kentucky are all in the Top 5 and what do these states all have in common?

    RepubliCONS are in control.

  25. JuanP on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 8:23 pm 

    In your dreams, Davy. We have never met.

  26. when our supertards have the muzzie ck and suckle on it for too long the muzzie ck secrets milk and numbing chemical to make them addicted on Sat, 25th Jul 2020 9:00 pm 

    then the muzzie ck grows root inside the mouth

    it is impossible to separate the muzzie ck from supertards after that because they would die.

    now they wear face DIAPER-19 to cover up the muzzie ck

  27. Abraham van Helsing on Sun, 26th Jul 2020 1:45 am 

    “Mak, I hate it here in Miami but my wife likes it. She wears the pants so I do what she says.”

  28. zero juan on Sun, 26th Jul 2020 4:14 am 


    when our supertards have the muzzie ck and suckle on it for too long the muzzie ck secrets milk and numbing chemical to make them addicted said then the muzzie ck grows root inside the mouth it…

    JuanP said In your dreams, Davy. We have never met.

    Davy said “This is the gift the extremist shit lib coa…

    Davy said We asked you real nice not to cum in our mouth jua…

    supertard madkat pleaes apologze for saying im a sinophobe and yeah i have nothing but admireaton for u said me too i hope someday i get to live in 3rd world…

    The Board said Note to the intelligent Posters Every Post by R…

    Davy said “Watch a once proud country with a resilient and h…

    Davy said Happy wife. Happy life juanPee. I was to stupid to…

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