Jem Bendell on stage


Article in The Glastonbury Oracle, May 2023

Towards the end of March, a massive tropical storm, Cyclone Freddie, hit southern Africa. Several countries experienced extreme high winds and torrential rains. The storm had turned around and crossed the Indian Ocean between mainland Africa and Madagascar, again and again. This is unheard of. The devastation in huge areas was complete. People in the region believe that such an unprecedented event marks the tipping point being reached in the violent changes to the planet’s weather systems.


In recent times nearly every part of the world has experienced extreme weather events; but of course it isn’t just the climate. Jem Bendell, founder of Deep Adaptation, no longer talks about societal collapse as being just to do with climate change; and his latest thinking is that the collapse of modern societies has already begun. People are now talking about ‘the polycrisis’. In this country, for instance, it’s beginning to feel like government is falling apart, along with the transport system, the health service, state education, fuel supplies, and now the banks are in danger. In the United States in many ways it’s worse, and in Europe there’s a war going on.


The Deep Adaptation Agenda was developed in a paper published in 2018 by Jem Bendell, a Professor at Cumbria University. It is a creative response to the fast approaching likelihood of society collapsing under pressures such as these. Five years later the scenario that he presented is becoming more of a pressing issue, and more and more people are taking his prognosis seriously. At the same time, those who take his ideas to heart often begin to live their lives more authentically. If we consider how we would want to spend our time if that time might be limited, it can bring what is really important into focus.


His initial paper was followed up with a lengthy blog post, ‘Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse’. The shift in his thinking over the intervening six months was very noticeable. Rather than hoping that we could somehow avert a climate catastrophe, he introduced the idea of ‘radical hope’ – that it could be possible for humanity to get through to the other side of the crisis and to create a new society with new values, radically different from the one we are currently living in.


A very interesting step in this direction took place recently in Glastonbury Town Hall. This followed a pilot project in which five local farmers and growers spent five months experimenting with agroecological methods, meaning not just organic growing but working in a way designed to regenerate the soil and its microbial life. This has been shown to lead to more nutritious food grown with far less expenditure on inputs.


Such projects are being encouraged by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, engaging local authorities and local communities in a response to the ever more urgent crisis. The event in the Town Hall was a community consultation, exploring the ideas and possibilities that have emerged. Styled as a ‘People’s Assembly’, this addressed what people felt are the problems with modern food production, where we would want to go instead, and how we could get there. This led to a list of five potential ‘next steps’, which will hopefully be taken up by the community.


They are: encouraging an essentially spiritual connection to the land; holding an annual Harvest Fair, as a community celebration, to share information, and to show-case existing projects; establishing a Community Land Fund, specifically to encourage regenerative growers; setting up a local food distribution hub, as a way of supporting local growers and as a step towards establishing a more resilient local economy; and continuing and extending the experiment with agroecology. Together, these amount to more than creating local food security – they could form the basis for a genuinely new society.


What I have been hoping for the past five years is that we can start to have this conversation, the ‘what if societal collapse might actually be coming’ conversation, within the community here in Glastonbury. Until recently very few people have wanted to go there, but this is beginning to change. The Town Hall food and farming event, seeking to begin making us more self-reliant in food production, was an important part of this conversation.


What had excited me about Jem Bendell’s thinking was that at last a mainstream academic was saying such things about the imminent crisis; and before long he was hanging out with Extinction Rebellion activists, exchanging ideas with Buddhists and Sufi mystics, and prominently using the word ‘love’ in his writings. Something important had clearly happened for him.


He is coming to Glastonbury on June 18th, launching his book ‘Breaking Together’. He will be the lead speaker at an event at the Town Hall entitled ‘Ecological wisdom in the time of collapse’. Tickets are available from £5, at The Speaking Tree in Glastonbury.

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