Deep Adaptation

by Nancy Margulies

“Deep Adaptation,” a term coined by Professor Jem Bendell, refers to a way of responding to the climate crisis with the understanding that it is likely to impact us sooner than we realize and will likely result in a massive societal upheaval and transformation. In my despair around the fragile state of our planet, I was drawn to Deep Adaptation because it maps a way to approach the challenging territory that lies before us. Its basic tenets are:

  • It’s too late to reverse the climate crisis.
  • Societal collapse is inevitable.
  • Confront and share your pain, grief, and confusion.
  • From the rubble of old ideas, look for what of value is emerging.
  • Focus on building strong and enduring communities.

I have felt less alone since I discovered Deep Adaptation. I have found myself able to connect with others who have also been fearing the worst and experiencing a range of overwhelming emotions. I have been able to express my grief and then step way back and unearth some of the assumptions that drive much of Western society. I feel I am ready to ask: If a complete overhaul is needed, then how might we best respond? What new beliefs might we adopt? In the midst of dark times, this approach has given me an odd sense of hope.

A growing community of people are concluding that we face inevitable human extinction and treat that view as a prerequisite for meaningful discussions about the implications for our lives today. I understand that this view is but one of many predictions of our future, yet I have found it helpful to try on this perspective and explore what it means for my life right now.

In a recent presentation, Bendell said:

“Our hope in a time of climate chaos is promoting ways of responding other than fear or anger. Our hope in a time of climate chaos is that experiencing the fragility and impermanence of life can lead more of us to greater gratitude for the present and less involvement in the judgements and tactics of our minds. We can be freer to love and forgive each other and ourselves, and so do what we can to help, whatever may come.”

This diagram is my capture of the essence of one of Bendell’s webinars, which I recently attended.

A Buddhist approach might urge us to reconnect with nature, meditate, step toward difficulty with courage and love, and respond to pain with healing rather than fear. Thus, I have also found inspiration in the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, who tells us that in uncertain times, our own steadiness can become a sanctuary for others. And I have also turned for solace to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who reminds us that ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching to mend the part that is within our reach. When I focus on these principles as a practice, I feel less fear, more hope.

For many of us, the fear of death mandates that we ignore anything that reminds us of death. Even those who deny the climate crisis can be seen as experiencing the initial stages of grief: beginning with denial, and moving on to the second stage, anger.  We are observing this nearly every day in the violence playing out in our nation’s, and the world’s, social and political arenas.

Deep Adaptation requires moving past denial and distraction and facing head-on the scope of the crisis and the emotions it evokes in us. To process feelings such as fear, despair, anger, and guilt, we need to turn to one another. Meeting with those who share our concerns to work through strong emotions is a necessary first step. The feelings our current situation engenders are too strong and the uncertainty of the future too great for us to handle alone. We need community in order to move from despair toward hope.

Journalist Dahr Jamail puts it this way:

“I’ve learned that I need to work on my own grief because it’s the only way I can access the depths within myself that are requisite of these times. Only then am I able to be clear about what is most important, and what my next right step should be. Only after fully taking in the gravity of our crisis and the impending collapse of civilization are my eyes cleared of any delusion…”

The challenging times ahead demand that we change and adapt, but how do we achieve this?

Taking a hard look at facts of the situation is one necessary element but is not sufficient. Linear projections have proven inadequate in the context of the nonlinear complex dynamics that account for “runaway climate change”. The scope of this change, therefore, is unknown, but the actions we can take are becoming clearer.

Spending more time in nature is important as it is soothing and healthful for the body, mind, and soul. It is also opens a pathway to a perception of reality that can offer lessons and solutions for going forward.

Equally important is that we experience a deeper appreciation for the present life we are still able to live, while at the same time remain willing to look to a possible hazardous future and take steps to prepare for it. For many of us, our present lifestyle is full of comforts too often taken for granted. We can benefit from practicing gratitude for what is currently working in our lives and in our society. But even as we learn to accept that it can’t continue in the same way, we can take steps to responsibly participate in co-creating adaptations that ease the transitions we will all need to face.

I remind myself that we often experience personal growth and change as the result of a sudden loss or other tragic events. Climate crisis has the capacity to elicit such change. Indeed, we need to radically rethink the stories we tell and nurture the emergence of new stories.

A major story change must be to view one another and all of life as connected and interdependent in one living Earth system rather than as a collection of lone individuals, separate and afraid. We must exercise our ability to form strong bonds, participate in community, pool skills and resources, and cooperate toward shared goals. Such attitudes and actions will prove much more effective in adapting to and surviving climate chaos than taking a “survivalist” approach, building walls, and hunkering down with a cache of food and weapons.

Such a story shift requires deeper questions to be explored, as well. What are the values, norms, and behaviors that human societies need to return to and maintain as we seek to survive? What higher purpose and deeper meaning can we experience as we support one another during harsh times?

There are a host of concrete actions we can take to mitigate the situation. For example, we could be taking millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere immediately and continually if we launched a massive effort to restore sea grass meadows and begin farming seaweed. Similar opportunities lie in forestry and regenerative agriculture. We need to be rethinking—from the point of view of interdependent, interconnected beings as part of a living Earth— the ways we move and manufacture goods, communicate with one another, and power our society and economy.

Fundamentally, a sustainable future depends upon community: community with one another, community with all life, and community with Earth. James Allen explains “community” as “… defined uniquely by a place, and a people whose identities and daily lives are inextricably woven into the fabric of that place as well as into each other. It is a community at the human scale whose health is manifest in such things as a thriving informal economy of exchange and gifts, a native code of civility and conflict resolution, a sense of responsibility and mutual obligation, and the confidence and ability to decide its own goals, destiny and the actions it will take to get there.”

The state of the world often seems unmanageable, even chaotic. For those of us paying attention, awareness of our systemic issues is confusing and painful. If you feel pulled to act but don’t know what to do, Deep Adaption suggests you start by building or joining a community of concern and talking with others about the crisis and what each of you can do.

That’s what I am doing now, and it gives me hope as well as a sense of meaning. It enables me look with optimism toward the possibility of an emerging society based on love, mutual respect, and honoring all life.

There are a host of resources available for inspiration, and support: Truthout recently published an article about implications for people (such as me!) who live in coastal areas. Jem Bendell’s video entitled Grieve Play Love provides poetic insights into the essence of Deep Adaptation. And, The Good Grief Network offers support for building personal resilience while strengthening community ties to help combat despair, inaction, eco-anxiety, and other heavy emotions in the face of daunting systemic predicaments.


Nancy Margulies is currently making a documentary film about the strength of the human spirit. Prior to retiring she facilitated visioning sessions and presented ideas using her unique form of graphic representation, Mindscaping. Nancy regularly collaborated with Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science.  She has also worked with President Clinton and the Cabinet, the Dalai Lama, and facilitated workshops in Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Switzerland, Turkey, South Africa, and India. Margulies co-developed The World Café process with Juanita Brown and David Isaacs. Among her seven books authored are Mapping Inner Space, Learning and Teaching Mind Mapping (Zephyr Press Gold Medal winner) and the book/video, Yes, You Can Draw! Her website:

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1 Comment
Kathy Kaiser

This article gives me hope in the sense that acceptance of our current situation is the only way forward–that, and love and compassion. Thank you.

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