Friday essay: if the world's systems are 'already cracking' due to climate change, is there a post-doom silver lining?

Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good … so far so good … so far so good …

La Haine, 1995

If it felt to you like things started going off the rails around the year 2016, you’re not alone. Symbolically, the double blow of Britain voting for Brexit, then the United States voting for Donald Trump, seemed like the “end” of something. (The postwar liberal consensus? The Anglo-American order?)

For some – myself included – it also felt like the stirrings of a more explicitly dystopian moment. If you count yourself in this category, buckle up: Jem Bendell, former professor in sustainability leadership at the UK’s University of Cumbria, and his research team are here with more bad news.

According to Bendell’s new book Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse, “the quality of life in most countries and regions of the world […] peaked around 2016 and [then] began to slowly decline”. There is no sound reason to expect a halt to this deterioration, Bendell argues.

Rather, declining Human Development Index statistics are one of many signals societal collapse due to climate change is not only possible, or even imminent – but already happening, right now.

But what if collapse is an ongoing and slow(ish) process, rather than a one-off mega-disaster? And what if the cracks appearing in the “cultural cement” of modern society represent not only a crisis, but also an opportunity to radically rethink how humans interact – with each other, and with the natural world?

Breaking Together encourages us to think about collapse in ways that are profound, possibility-expanding and startlingly original. Bendell’s “post-doom” perspective has the potential to change individual lives, upend organisational strategies and give birth to whole new social movements.

Bendell advocates for an ideal of “ecofreedom”. This moves beyond obvious ideas, such as reconnecting with nature, to encompass supporting youth climate activism and decolonial, resource-preserving movements in the Global South.

The post-doom approach also calls for embracing a “positive disintegration” of self and values, to refocus one’s mind, and entire existence, on things that really matter.

Read more: We live in a time of 'late capitalism'. But what does that mean? And what's so late about it?

Deep adaptation

Bendell is best known for his 2018 paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. He submitted it to the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal for peer review; the reviewers requested major changes.

Instead, Bendell published the paper himself, via the University of Cumbria’s Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability. Deep Adaptation is a brick hurled through the window of “corporate sustainability”, questioning its very viability as a field of scholarship. The first sentence of the abstract reads:

The purpose of this conceptual paper is 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.

Needless to say, this got people’s attention. The breaking-the-frame gesture of a supposedly sober academic paper containing bold, sometimes alarming claims resonated widely. Particularly this one:

when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’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.

Deep Adaptation went viral. By 2019, it had been downloaded more than 600,000 times. The argument’s appeal is based, first, on Bendell’s courage to draw meaningful, personally relevant conclusions from all the terrifying climate and ecological data that has been floating around unsynthesised for years.

This is combined with a sense one might have stumbled upon “the paper they don’t want you to read”. A whiff of contraband, the tang of illicit knowledge – which has, of course, become ever more appealing in these heady, post-truth days.

Bendell’s “Deep Adaptation” argument influenced the founding members of Extinction Rebellion, who sought to develop an environmental activism commensurate with the scale of threat humans face.

It also led to the formation of an international online Deep Adaptation Forum, which has allowed tens of thousands of people to begin processing their fear and grief about future societal and ecological breakdown.

Bendell’s work has also sparked fierce criticism: that he has got the science wrong. Or that, even if the science is okay, the implications of Deep Adaptation are counter to a politics of climate justice.

(It’s also worth noting that some critics of Deep Adaptation commit the classic fallacy of “shooting the messenger”, blaming Bendell for systemic problems and/or emotional responses that are not of his making.)

‘It’s already far worse’

Now, five years after the birth of the Deep Adaptation movement, Bendell is back with another nasty surprise:

as the research [for Breaking Together] progressed, I discovered the data was indicating things were far worse than I had previously assessed. Indeed, they were already far worse in the years before 2018 than I had known. I had been wrong to conclude that societal collapse is inevitable, because it had already begun when I was reaching that conclusion.

Chapter by chapter, the first half of the 500-page book presents an interdisciplinary laundry list of ruin: imminent or ongoing economic collapse, monetary collapse, energy collapse, biosphere collapse, climate collapse, food collapse, societal collapse.

Depending on your background, some of this material might be (depressingly) familiar reading. For example, anyone who’s across the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s analysis that humanity has already breached six out of nine of the earth’s “planetary boundaries”, or who has read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (2014), won’t need convincing that ecological collapse is well underway.

Hedge-fund gossip

On the other hand, for readers who are unfamiliar with the finer points of economics or finance – such as myself – there are some huge claims it’s hard to know what to do with. Apparently, the world’s current monetary systems “are not only hastening the collapse of both natural and human systems, but are known to be on the verge of collapse by some senior officials”.

His proof? “Many private bankers I have spoken to believe that the current monetary systems will not last,” while “none of them […] considered the system to be ethically legitimate or sustainable”. This leads to an eye-popping suggestion:

the monetary system would not likely collapse in a random fashion but [would] be triggered when a coalition of corporate and banking interests, both public and private, determine that they are ready to profit from that transformation.

I’m willing to be convinced on this point – I have very little faith in the motives of investment bankers or bond traders – but I need more than the cocktail-party gossip of “for the last 15 years, in social occasions, I have occasionally chatted with people who work in hedge funds and asked about their views on their work and the future of the financial system”. A lot more.

Read more: Fallen crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried was 'perfectly positioned to make a religion of himself'

Systems under stress

But even while Bendell and co. can get a bit carried away with their sub-arguments in Breaking Together, its overall thrust is clear and compelling. Many of the world’s natural and human-made systems, which combine to make up “industrial consumer society”, are under severe stress, or are already cracking.

These systems are interdependent, complex, precarious and nonlinear – which means change can occur not just gradually and predictably, but also abruptly, drastically. A sudden breakdown in one part of the overarching structure of global capitalism can – and does – trigger disruptions in other areas.

For example, if extreme weather led to widespread crop failures across multiple wheat-growing regions – a possibility known as “a multi-breadbasket failure” – this would also trigger economic and political chaos. This, in turn, would make it much more difficult for the entire world to immediately transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, to avoid calamitous climate change.

And that’s without getting into the question of whether we have enough rare earth metals to make such a miraculous transition. (See Chapter 3, “Energy Collapse” for the short answer – we don’t.)

Meanwhile, in recent years we’ve already seen how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased Europe’s energy prices, as well as putting stress on the world’s grain supplies, which forces food prices up – which, when framed as a “cost of living crisis”, can justify regressive political responses.

It all points towards an understanding of our current situation as one in which widespread collapse is not a spectre looming on the horizon, but occurring all around us, in the present tense – if only we had eyes to see it.

Read more: Doomsday bunkers, Mars and 'The Mindset': the tech bros trying to outsmart the end of the world

Boiling frog, creeping collapse

What would it have felt like to live through the final years of the collapsing Roman Empire? Or the last decades of the Mayan civilisation? Would it have felt like collapse to a child – or to an old person? Would what we now understand as history have been legible at the time to an individual, any individual, struggling through their busy unique, vanishingly short lives?

Probably not, I’d suggest. And the experts agree. Jared Diamond, in his magisterial Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (2005), mentions the concept of “creeping normalcy”, which refers to:

slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it’s difficult to recognize that each successive year is on average slightly worse than the year before, so one’s baseline standard for what constitutes “normalcy” shifts gradually and imperceptibly.

This also gets called “shifting baseline syndrome”, or the frog-in-a-pot dilemma (which isn’t actually a scientific thing, but nonetheless remains an instructive parable).

Our individual ability to perceive medium-term change is further hindered by the dramatic changes that occur all the time in our personal lives. If you lose your job, or get a better-paying job in a new city, or are involved in a serious accident and become disabled, or find God, or stop drinking, or become a parent, or lose a parent, these events all function as “noisy fluctuations”.

Changes in your personal circumstances overshadow your understanding of the outside world, with its subtle, slow-moving phenomena (migratory bird populations, sea-level rise). The most obvious example of this is how every single one of us gets old, becomes frail and sometimes enfeebled, and finally dies.

This “personal collapse” occurs over a matter of decades. As it does, old age has “a strong negative effect on information processing”. In short: humans aren’t well placed to understand societal change occurring on decades-long timescales.

With this in mind, and borrowing from Diamond, Bendell uses the phrase “creeping collapse” to describe what is arguably happening right now. Bendell clarifies “the study of both ancient and recent history suggests that the collapse of a society is typically a process, not an event” (italics mine).

This is the first big head-shift for us all to make: when societal collapse happens, it won’t be quick and dramatic and simple like an apocalyptic disaster movie (although spectacular one-off disasters and wars will continue to occur). Instead, Bendell cites sustainability scholars Cathy Rubiños and John M Anderies’ 2020 definition of collapse:

such a process is worthy of that term if “key actors, system components and interactions” disappear in “less than one generation”, where there are “substantial losses of social-ecological” assets that sustained the system, with consequences “persisting longer than a single generation”.

Bendell contends “most existing trends will more-or-less continue without stopping until the method of human organising no longer resembles what we now call industrial consumer societies”, and that “the current creeping collapse of modern societies will be completed within a generation” – by around 2045 or 2050.

Is he right? Only time will tell. Breaking Together is “unfalsifiable” in that sense: we’ll have to wait for 20 or 30 years to know for sure. Meanwhile, even if contemporary society is still somehow staggering along pretty much unchanged a decade from now, a true believer in Bendell’s society’s-already-collapsing thesis could simply say, “That’s because the breakdown only properly began a couple of years ago; just wait another 20 years, you’ll see.”

In the intervening years and decades, we might all adjust surprisingly quickly to a series of “creeping normals” – just as we’ve become acclimatised to the ubiquity of the World Wide Web, the proliferation of smartphones, the rise of AI, and the increasingly common occurrence of droughts, floods, heatwaves and deadly forest fires.

A radical rethink of ‘the entire Western project’

If you haven’t already spent much time pondering how bad things might get, Breaking Together will probably be a brutal read. But for readers familiar with Diamond’s Collapse, or with other books from the new field dubbed “collapsology”, this isn’t the most original, or interesting, part of Bendell’s new book. (I particularly recommend Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens’ excellent 2020 book How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times.)

The second half of Breaking Together tackles the question of what to do with the difficult knowledge of “collapse awareness”. Bendell originally trained as a sociologist, so it makes sense that his insights here are particularly thought-provoking.

Bendell identifies a disturbing trend of “panic-driven authoritarian” in contemporary politics, with governments and elites forcing the public to change their behaviour for their own good. He rejects this vision of top-down change as symptomatic of deeper problems within modernity.

In fact, he suggests:

public, private and civic institutions of incumbent power, and their officers and apologists, are already making matters worse in the early phases of unfolding societal collapse.

I would agree with this general point, even if the example Bendell chooses – government responses to COVID-19, such as lockdowns and vaccine mandates – isn’t convincing.

Bendell advocates instead for an ideal of “ecofreedom”, defined as “that individual and collective state of being free and enabled to care for each other and the environment, rather than coerced or manipulated towards behaviours that damage it”.

In the mode of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed in the essential innocence and goodness of humans before they’re corrupted by society, Bendell argues “human nature” isn’t to blame for the climate crisis. Instead, the problem is capitalism, as well as deeper hierarchical tendencies within societies that use forms of money – which Bendell describes, unnecessarily, as “the money-power”.

Read more: Explainer: the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is profoundly contemporary

This informs his vision of “ecolibertarianism” – which is not to be confused with far-right libertarianism. (Bendell is really talking about something akin to anarchism or eco-socialism, but avoids both terms because of the stigma attached to them.)

Ecolibertarians believe “modern societies are destroying their own foundations because we have been manipulated to experience life as unsafe and competitive[,] and behave accordingly”. Unlike Silicon Valley-style libertarians, ecolibertarians see “the influence and intrusion of corporations [… and] capitalism more generally” as one of the factors responsible for the destruction of our ecosystem.

Breaking Together is not a big book of “solutions”, let alone “policy solutions”, to our predicament. It is both vaguer and more radical than that. Bendell is basically calling for us to rethink the entire Western project of modernity and the Enlightenment, beginning with a spiritual “rebooting”.

In this context, he sees little value in “asking for a specific fix for a specific difficulty that is neither solvable nor happening in isolation from other difficulties”. Such thinking amounts to tinkering with a fundamentally broken machine.

He doesn’t discuss large-scale infrastructure projects such as rewilding cities (for a whimsical take on that, see Steve Mushin’s recent illustrated book Ultrawild). Some readers might find this frustrating, but I think it’s inspiring – it signals the ambition of Bendell’s vision, his attempt to look beyond quick fixes and greenwashing, to discover something genuinely novel.

Bendell believes Western activists should “shift [their] focus to efforts at regenerating nature, an agroecological revolution in farming, shortening supply chains, major economic redistribution and monetary reform”.

He expresses admiration for community-based micro-finance schemes and small-scale farming projects. He has himself moved from the UK to Bali, to establish a “collapse-ready” organic farm north of Ubud. He is also starting to think about decolonial approaches to the climate crisis.

In this context, Bendell suggests Western activists need to support poor people in the Global South to make their own choices – including radical ones – about what they want their futures to look like.

This might include “a rebirth of anti-imperialism and protectionism across the Majority World, leading to curbs on [resource] exports to those ‘richer’ regions”. Bendell is more clear-eyed than most about the fact that even if middle-class Western climate activists might be willing in principle to sacrifice their own privileged way of life for the greater good of the planet, in practice this hasn’t happened in the past 50 years. Real change, if it’s going to come, will come from elsewhere.

The final piece of the puzzle is inner transformation. In Breaking Together, Bendell offers some brief suggestions of spiritual and wellness practices that have been useful for him: meditation; mindfulness; “deep relating” (or, focused conversations); “hikes in nature […] fasting […] ecstatic dance”. Learning a musical instrument, getting into improvisational theatre.

This is all well and good. More generally, it is refreshing to see self-help discourses appear side-by-side with serious discussions of monetary policy and climate tipping points. But the self-actualisation aspect is also a bit … basic. The key point, really, is we all have to work this stuff out for ourselves. Elsewhere in the book, Bendell suggests:

Personally, I find natural scientists much less interesting and wise on metaphysical matters than the teachers of the great wisdom traditions. Perhaps I just prefer my spirituality from people with less of an interest in statistics.

I agree.

Read more: Friday essay: in an age of catastrophe is there still a place for utopian dreams? Or might our shared vulnerability be the key?


Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse is an important, uneven, paradigm-scuttling book. It deserves a wide readership, though I fear it might be too endnote-heavy for a general audience.

This book is worth reading even – especially? – if you don’t believe climate change will lead to a widespread breakdown of social structures. I would also suggest the book is worth persevering with even if you’re not convinced by every link in its chains of logic.

As Jonah E. Bromwich wrote for the New York Times in 2020, “even if the [Deep Adaptation] math doesn’t add up, does that make the dark conclusion any less meaningful?” Or, put slightly more constructively: if there’s a non-zero probability of societal collapse, isn’t that something for us all to take very, very seriously? Isn’t that prospect worth devoting a significant amount of time and mental energy to?

Obviously, it’s worth doing everything in our power to prevent or slow aspects of this collapse. But it’s just as important to face up to the possibility the green energy transition might fail. That politicians around the world might not get their collective shit together in time. And that Earth’s climate will continue to spiral out of control, bringing ever-new record-breaking temperatures, wave after wave of “unprecedented” disasters and worse.

In such a world – which is, I repeat, the world we already live in – Bendell’s writing on “the Doomster way” is only going to become important. Breaking Together encourages people to take stock of their lives and actively make the most of what good time we have left.

To “dig garden beds, not bunkers”. And to, as Bendell quotes the words of the yogi Ram Dass, “keep our hearts open in hell” – even as things deteriorate around us.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Tom Doig, The University of Queensland.

Read more:

Tom volunteered for Extinction Rebellion Aotearoa in 2021.