Concept of deep adaptation could prove a useful tool for coping with challenging change.
Imagine that your child is about to embark on a long journey – the journey of their lifetime. Exciting, full of unforeseeable and unforgettable experiences, fascinating people to meet, incredible learnings to soak up, and all the unimaginable twists and turns of fate that long journeys can bring.
Imagine also that, somewhere at the back of your mind, lurk the fears that all parents carry for their children’s safety – even when they’re off to the shops for a packet of crisps.
But this is not a trip to the shops. This is a journey of their lifetime, because it is their lifetime. Their singular most important journey, and it’s already under way. And things aren’t looking great. With life being so very busy, a multitude of voices screaming for our attention – work, money, family, food, all those emails that just seem to breed every time you turn your back on them, that damp patch in the kitchen that really does need sorting out – what of the fears for our children lurking at the back of our minds? Are we content to attend to the constant daily noise that demands our attention? Or is there a restlessness that signals a worry about the world that we are bequeathing them that we need to pay attention to?
A couple of years ago I wrote a little piece outlining my responses to my children on the subject of climate change. My youngest, then eight years old, told me: “Dad, the planet’s dying and I’m scared that I won’t live long enough to know what it’s like to be a grown-up.” She was telling me very clearly about how her life journey was looking from her perspective. Since then, 200 international medical journals have produced articles highlighting their alarm for public health as a result of our collapsing ecosystems. More than 500 scientists and academics have published an open letter on the risks of major social disruption as the climate emergency unfolds. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published in September, states in very stark terms the current pretty dire state of affairs for the planet on which we live, highlighting the ongoing devastating impacts of inadequate action by international political leaders.
Finally, the results of a major piece of international research were released in early October that revealed the devastating impacts on the mental health of our children and young people when they consider the world that we are leaving for them. The thousands of young people who participated in this research reported feeling extremely worried, sad, despairing, angry and ignored and abandoned by politicians and adults. For many of our children here in the global north, the climate emergency is a spectre that haunts their future lives today. For other youngsters across the world the climate emergency is already in full swing and they are suffering terribly.
When I wrote that original piece in 2019 I really wasn’t able to appreciate the sheer scale and seriousness of the situation that we’re facing. So many people can’t. I didn’t realise that my youngest daughter’s words were a part of the call for help that psychologists are telling us is coming from children all over the world.
As a parent, I desperately wanted to be able to let her know that everything would be fine, and that we can fix this. Don’t we all? But what if it won’t be fine, and what if we can’t fix it? Do I have the capacity to think the unthinkable? Do any of us? As a clinician specialising in the mental health of children and young people, I’m used to dealing with very difficult and dangerous situations. Just because a subject was tough to think and talk about, that was never a valid excuse for avoiding the subject at hand. Considering worst-case scenarios – thinking the unthinkable – and planning accordingly have been the bread and butter of my clinical practice for more than 25 years. Yet when it came to my own children’s future, or possible lack of one, I wasn’t up to the task. It seems that so many of us parents aren’t.
Of course not – where on earth would we go to give voice to these thoughts and fears? Who would listen? What would happen if we even went there?
The mind is exquisitely tuned to shielding us from any uncomfortable truths that might overwhelm us and hurl us into being unable to function. After all, we all have lives to live, jobs to go to, bills to pay, damp patches in the kitchen to be ignored. And anyway, to coin a phrase, “What’s the point? There’s nothing that I can do.”
How on Earth do we begin to talk to each other and work from a starting point of experiencing or anticipating societal disruption and even collapse?
It needs to become the biggest conversation, with views from different contexts. I am still learning as I talk to more and more people from around the world. Some of them share their thoughts in this book, including Rene Suša, Sharon Stein, Vanessa Andreotti, Tereza Čajkova, and Dino Siwek, who are scholars and activists in decolonization efforts, and XR’s Skeena Rathor, who works on co-liberation from the systemic oppressions that underlie environmental destruction. With this detailed attention to the causes of climate chaos, I hope the book helps support a sober and non-divisive approach to navigating the implications.
Yet, the uncomfortable truths keep mounting despite many of our best efforts to shield ourselves from them. An increasing number of members of the scientific community to which we turn for guidance continue to put a variety of possible worst-case scenarios on the table. Sure, they frequently get shouted down as being ‘doomist’ or irresponsibly negative for risking mass despair and apathy. However, one of the most vocal critics of the ‘worst-case scenario’ gang, Michael Mann, has been quoted in the UK national press as describing the future for our children as “dystopian”.
Anybody fancy a dystopian future for their children? How can we muster the emotional and psychological resources to look more closely at the terrifyingly uncertain future that our children face and mobilise our natural instincts to protect them? How do we face the possibility of worst-case scenarios while working hard to achieve the best outcomes?
Well, I have to be honest with you, it might well entail going through the emotional mill. For me it was many sleepless nights, often crippling anxiety and occasionally a feeling of dread so great that I was completely overwhelmed. I appreciate that none of this is a selling point – but I had to ask myself: What am I prepared to go through so that my kids are in with a chance in a future where I can’t tell them that it’ll all be good?
Besides, I knew that I wasn’t on my own. According to a recent survey, more than 55 per cent of people feel that the climate emergency has had a negative impact on their wellbeing, and 58 per cent worry about how the world will be for future generations. And remember that recent international survey of young people? Two-thirds reported feeling, sad, afraid and anxious. I didn’t only have statistics to fall back on. I found a wide range of places from climate cafes, community resilience projects, workshops and online forums where people would speak openly about their strongest and most troubling feelings. Sometimes, optimism was hard to come by.
It was in one of these community resilience projects that I first came across the concept of ‘deep adaptation’ which was developed by one of those academics who was given a hard time for daring to suggest the possibility of some worst-case scenarios. As someone seasoned in working with dangerous situations, deep adaptation seemed to me to be an eminently sensible and simple framework for reducing harm and suffering and being able to adapt to uncertain situations. I used it with my students, all trainee healthcare professionals, to help them to think about how to adapt to the pandemic when it first crashed the party.
The four Rs of deep adaptation and their associated questions seem to provide a constructive response to the dilemma that we face of having to live without the certainty that we have become so used to, while standing a chance of weathering whatever storms that have started to come our way. And when I talk about uncertainty, hands up everyone who saw the pandemic coming? No matter that Deep Adaptation’s author, Jem Bendell, has attracted immense controversy – there’s an old saying: “A good idea doesn’t care who has it.” I’ve certainly found the four Rs to be incredibly helpful, and here they are, with my interpretation of the underlying ‘planning for the worst’ principle.
Resilience: What do we most value that we want to keep, and how? In other words, in a worst-case scenario what is going to matter to you most to ensure survival? In a worst-case-scenario future, how will our children keep going? What will keep their spirits up? Who will they be able to turn to and what will they be able to contribute? Principle: when things get bad, look after yourself and those close to you physically and mentally, do the things that keep you going.
Relinquishment: What do we need to let go of so as not to make matters worse? In a worst-case scenario, what things previously seen as essential now become burdensome and risk increasing harm? Just how many of our creature comforts do we actually need when so many people are already suffering? How can we help our children to learn the moderation that they will need, even as they become the targets for the ever-more aggressive marketing of stuff that they don’t actually need? Principle: when things get bad, anything that you are doing, thinking or saying that makes things worse – stop!
Restoration: What could we bring back so as to help us with these difficult times? What wisdom, ideas, skills, ways of doing things that used to be helpful but have been seen as out of date for a long time could we rediscover? What useful skills could our children learn from the past that will help them to be adaptable to their future as it unfolds? Principle – when the going gets bad, find things that can be used again, find out how people used to be resourceful, rediscover long-forgotten ways of doing things.
Reconciliation: What can we make peace with in order to lessen suffering? A worst-case scenario is bad enough without there being recrimination, blame and resentment. Remember that serenity prayer about ‘accepting the things I cannot change’? Can we teach our children the conflict-resolution, community-building and communication skills that may be essential as resources are predicted to become less available and millions of people become displaced and seek refuge? Principle: when things get bad, be gracious, be kind and work with others to be part of the solution.
What I really like about the four Rs is that you don’t have to be hanging around debating or waiting for a worst-case scenario for them to be handy in times of trouble. Building resilience, when a situation is dire, stopping things from making it worse, when things are bleak taking-up things that I used to enjoy, or rekindling old friendships and being forgiving and reconciling myself to what is outside of my control aren’t new ideas by any means. The underlying principles of resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation provide a framework for nurturing the adaptability that is so essential for the survival of any species.
And this framework can apply equally on an individual, relational, family, community, national and even international level. Our children and young people are the most affected by, the least responsible for and have least power to address the worst impacts of the climate emergency. In the four Rs of Deep Adaptation we have an accessible map to help us navigate with honesty and care some challenging conversations about the difficult truths that lie ahead. These difficult truths are incredibly hard to think about – they’re going to be even harder to live with.
Let’s make sure that our children are prepared and able to adapt.
And still hope for the best, of course.
– Fred Ehresmann is a Specialist Mental Health Nurse for children and young people, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health at the University of the West of England and Senior Trainer for Parents Plus. He is also a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, which offers therapeutic outreach support for people affected by the ecological, biodiversity and climate crises.