The Benefits of Accepting the Possibility of Environmental Collapse and Human Extinction

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By John BellS

Professor of Sustainability Leadership, Jem Bendell, has recently
published a thoughtful review of the scientific studies on climate
change, called “Deep Adaptation”.
He concludes that social
collapse is inevitable, environmental catastrophe is probable, and
human extinction possible
He says, dramatically enough to get our attention,

The evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war

But 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.

thinks facing this can lead to individual and collective change and
growth toward insight, compassion, and action. He proposes what he
terms “deep adaptation,” which includes the following framework:

I hope
the deep
and restoration
be a
the face
of climate
do we
what we
to keep?”
“what do
we need
to let
go of
to not
“what can
we bring
help us
the coming

reading the piece, I found myself relieved and encouraged.

because I too have been thinking about the likely collapse, thinking
that the earth’s environment is past the “tipping point” in
many areas, that we will lose more species that we can imagine, that
there will be social chaos, that we need to grieve the current and
looming losses, and that I may need to become a planetary hospice
worker, or a climate chaplain, joining with others in trying to
provide support, comfort, and perhaps some spiritual wisdom to help
us manage the coming troubles.

I was also relieved
because I too have been hesitant to share these kinds of thoughts
publicly for fear of reinforcing discouragement and despair that most
people carry. I haven’t wanted to be a voice of gloom and doom,
since that usually helps disempower people. Prof Bendell addresses
this fear by saying that refusing to look directly at the seriousness
of our situation gives us false hope that somehow we can avert the
worst, and thereby keeps us numb enough to go along with accepting
things as pretty much they are, or just advocating for mild,
piecemeal reforms, thereby sealing our fate.

because I have long believed that what is required is radical
transformation at the base of our civilization—an economy that
promotes well-being and happiness, not based on greed; a society
based on fairness, compassion, and cooperation where the “isms”
have been healed and eliminated; a re-uniting of humans with the rest
of the natural world, recognizing our inextricable interdependence
and embeddedness; a human culture that encourages contentedness,
sufficiency, caring, curiosity, and creativity. The author points in
that direction.

transformation seems like a dream, given the current trends. All the
more reason to not
continue the slow, incremental reformist moves that most of the
environmentalists have attempted. This is not sufficient. Nothing is
sufficient to stop the severe climate induced disruption and
suffering already built in. But hoping that technology or the market
or human decency or enough political will can “save” us from the
worst is not sufficient either. We are called to a radical shift in
consciousness coupled with deep changes in our behavior, policies,
and structures in the external sphere, and correspondingly deep
changes in the interior realms–our self-concept, beliefs,
internalized feelings of powerlessness and unworthiness, unconscious
biases that make us feel superior or inferior, and the underlying
conditioning that makes us feel separate from each other, other
beings, and the Earth.

The interior transformations
needed require, among many things, dedicated and effective methods of
healing trauma, providing emotional safety and safeguards in the home
and public settings, a set of mindful ethics to guide our behavior,
and ways of nurturing compassion, loving kindness, peacefulness, and
enjoyment in the joy of others.

the interior dimension of change needed leads me to three conclusions
or directions for myself. a) To re-dedicate myself to do even deeper
emotional work to release stored distress and childhood hurts so that
I can think more clearly and act more boldly. b) To re-commit myself
to meditate more diligently and to practice even more fully the
ethical principles
I’ve been engaged with, namely, reverence for life, generosity,
kind speech, and mindful consumption, so that my actions point to the
world I want, and c) To live more deeply into the insights of
interdependence, continual change, and unbroken wholeness of reality
from which I can’t be separated, so that I know that the Earth and
I are one, that what hurts the Earth or other being, hurts me, that
when I care for a river’s health I am caring for my health.

the radical change in social structures needed leads me personally to
commit myself to advocate for a bold vision beyond reform; to support
big ideas like the Green New Deal and beyond; to participate in mass
non-violent civil disobedience actions; to help dismantle white
supremacy, patriarchy, and all the dominator systems; to support the
creation of a new just, cooperative economy. A tall order for sure,
but why not go for it!

don’t and can’t know how the story ends. But starting by
embracing the strong possibility of environmental collapse and human
extinction can jar us into a deeper relationship with our true nature
and other beings.

healing, social transformation. You can’t have one without the
– the tagline of Tikkun Magazine years ago.

John Bell is a Buddhist Dharma Teacher who lives near Boston, MA, USA. He is a founding staff and former vice president of YouthBuild USA, an international non-profit that provides learning, earning, and leadership opportunities to young people from low-income backgrounds. He is an author, lifelong social justice activist, international trainer facilitator, father and grandfather. His blog and email

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