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Deep Adaptation: Living in its own contradiction?

The strange case of Deep Adaptation’s thinking about government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic raises questions about the organisation’s ability to deal effectively with global heating.

I’VE FOLLOWED the Deep Adaptation Network, publisher of the Deep Adaptation Quarterly, for some time and have found much to agree with in terms of adapting to our changing climate.

Recently, there was a discussion about hope, about whether people have it. Some say they do, some say they don’t. I realised that this is a social media site for people in despair over our warming climate. I found that difficult to understand at first because my reaction to our heating climate is to take action. But I suppose despair is an equally valid reaction.

Despair. That is probably what I felt when I looked at Deep Adaptation Quarterly’s January issue to discover that the organisation approached the pandemic as an issue of individual rights rather than social rights. Their reasoning seemed to be similar to what we saw among demonstrators on the streets these past two years and on social media during the pandemic: that individual rights trump the shared rights of a society to personal and public health. How do I square this with the site’s advocacy of collective action to adapt to and ameliorate global heating, I wondered? It seemed a strange contradiction.

The Network’s Professor Jim Bendall wrote that “…any suspension or denigration of such rights is an aspect of societal disruption.”

Strange, I thought, saying government mandates were a social disruption rather than the pandemic they were introduced to deal with? It is not that I agree with everything that governments have done in their response to the pandemic and, of course, government mandates were disruptive. What we have to ask is how much more disruptive of society would have been the absence of the mandates.

Bendall went on:

Worse still, if such rights remain curtailed by power and undefended by much of the public, then that represents a societal breakdown…numerous people have responded with blame, denigration, and shaming of alternative ideas so that they undermine policy scrutiny and support authoritarian suspensions of human rights. That form of societal disruption — perhaps breakdown — is occurring right now.

Bendall seems to believe that government mandates in response to the pandemic were what was disrupting societies, rather than the virus itself, and that it was the mandates threatening human rights rather that the pandemic threatening human rights to public health. I agree that, had governments kept the restrictions on movement introduced to adapt to the pandemic, then that would have been more than alarming. Here in Australia they didn’t. Restrictions were lifted. A properly functioning market economy demanded that. The idea that a pro-market government would continue to limit movement and in doing so shut down a large part of the economy is not only contradictory, it is absurd.

Mandates and lockdowns have been disruptive, we all know, but the mandates on wearing masks, social distancing, the lockdowns and others — onerous that they are — might better be seen as government responding to a threat we have not experienced before. Sure, we have the 1918 Spanish Flu that brought widespread devastation to peoples’ lives, however that was over 100 years ago and occurred in a profoundly different kind of society. Its lessons for today are limited. In criticising Deep Adaptation I have to say that government mandates were at times authoritarian. Ignoring how mandates affected people living in lower-income suburbs whose work was of the type that necessitated their leaving the home to perform it was a case of governement ignoring the impact on those people. So was the Victorian government’s response in sending police to enforce the shutdown of social housing towers rather than medical workers to deal with the real problem. I see these as hurried and thoughtless government responses to something they had no experience in dealing with.

In saying that if individual rights remain curtailed and are undefended by much of the public that this is a form of societal breakdown is an exaggeration. We did have to be careful that government retired the remaining pandemic restrictions they introduced as soon as it was safe to do so, however their continuation would not be a breakdown of society. Any attempt to unreasonably prolong the lockdowns would likely produce the hostile response that Bendall says might be lacking among the population. Social breakdown is a more intense and deeper thing.

His claim that numerous people have responded with blame, denigration, and shaming of alternative ideas might have the thing the wrong way around. Perhaps that response came because some of those ‘alternative ideas’ were misleading, wrong and potentially dangerous. People saw the so-called alternative ideas as a threat to their own health, and responded accordingly.

Speaking of the issue in Australia, it was those holding so-called alternative ideas who denigrated and attempted to shame medical science, hospital staff and people who choose vaccination and public health measures as a means of protecting themselves, their families and their communities. We saw this in the placards of demonstrators out on the streets against public health measures and government mandates, and in their social media posts. If anyone is a risk to deep adaptation to climate and related trends including the pandemic, it is surely those who verbally trash the sciences that are critical to our adaptation.

Bendall goes on to mention that Deep Adaptation launched Freedom to Care, an online event “for people who feel they are experiencing medical aggression.” A look at its Eventbrite page revealed it is for those “… that have not fulfilled the ever-changing medical requirements, or sympathize with people’s right to choose, experience ridicule and bullying by media and even by managers, family and friends. We are being ostracized by the very society we are so used to being a natural part of.” Has Bendall considered that he may have the thing the wrong way around and that what he complains of is society defending itself?

What do we see here other than the victim syndrome? Bendall’s words — “medical aggression”, “ostracised”, “people’s right to choose” — are an attempt to reframe public health measures as attacks on individual freedom. Reframing like this is a common tactic among anti-vaxxers and opponents of government Covid mandates. His “bullying by media” is another instance of media bashing that those forces also indulge in. Bendall’s attitude reeks of American rightwing-libertarianism.

I suppose the piece illustrates how responses to the pandemic have polarised relationships between friends and family, between participants of social movements including the climate movement, environmentalism and related social movements like permaculture. Bendall hints as such in acknowledging criticism of a colleague by people in the environment movement.

I expected better of Deep Adaptation. I expected acknowledgement of the pivotal role of science in responding to the pandemic as well as adapting to the warming climate. Trashing one application of scientific reasoning while supporting another is nothing more than scientific cherry picking.

Environmentalism: a home in the far-right?

What I did not anticipate was Bendall’s libertarian response in placing the individual above the collective wellbeing of the society they are part of. Doing that suggests a political rightward drift to the Deep Adaptation movement, similar to what we have seen among some individuals and social organisations that would have previously been regarded as socially progressive.

That elements of environmentalism can find a home within the political right has become apparent over recent years. Conservation of nature has traditionally be a feature of political conservatism. It took a leftward drift in Australia with the emergence of the environment movement in the seventies. Perhaps it is now returning home.

I am uncertain what Deep Adaptation’s position means for the future of the climate movement. Pandemics are one of the things anticipated in a regime of global heating. How will Deep Adaptation respond to them and what government does?

The divisions we see over the Covid outbreak do not bode well for positive, solutions-oriented responses. I’m unsure that Deep Adaptation will play much of a role in climate change adaption because their record in dealing with a governmental and social response to the pandemic emergency and the government mandates could set a precedent for any of those things the climate emergency might bring. Will they then whine about restrictions on individual freedom?

Perhaps the deep adaption we need to see is that of the Deep Adaption movement taking a more socially responsible and pro-public health position.

Professor Jim Bendall is the Deep Adaptation Network’s main voice and publisher. The Network’s’ fiscal sponsor is the UK-based Schumacher Institute.



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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.