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Progress or Progress-ideology? The Difference Between Sustainability & Deep Adaptation

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[This article contrasts Sustainability and Deep Adaptation.

Sustainable development tries to slow down climate change through many instruments: frameworks (e.g. Triple Bottom Line), goals (SDGs), tools (e.g. carbon offsets), targets (e.g. Net-Zero by 2050), intl. bodies (e.g. IPCC), certifications (e.g. B-Corp).

Its pragmatic, regime, and business-neutral.

Deep Adaptation (DA) believes that climate-influenced “societal collapse is now likely, inevitable or already unfolding.” It accepts that the damage has been done and we need to “deeply adapt” – not just build ‘resilience’. DA rejects market mechanisms and “progress-ideology”]

In the previous article, I tried to contrast two distinct positions on evolution: biological (bottom-up) and teleological (top-down).

I believe that humans are the only species able to embody and reconcile both positions.

Today, I also want to contrast two positions:

a) Sustainability

b) Deep Adaptation

Both approach the complicated issue of what humans should do in relation to the environment on which all life depends. Are we custodians, managers, or destroyers?

How do we deal with climate change?

‘Sustainability’ is shorthand for ‘Sustainable Development’ - belief in human progress. We need to make growth and progress environmentally friendly. The term ‘Environmental Pragmatism’ feels appropriate.

Deep Adaptation goes deeper. It questions our value structure and the very idea of progress – which it sees rather as “progress-ideology”. The term ‘Environmental Existentialism’ feels appropriate.

Let’s unpack them ...

a) Sustainability

‘Sustainable Development’, was defined by the UN in 1987 as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

It originated out of the new realization that we should consider the environment in order to continue growing our economies. That if we poison rivers, cut all forests and release toxic gases into the air, the earth won’t provide the resources necessary for our economic growth, so we should stop trashing it.

For the first time – only 35 years ago – people collectively, officially linked economic development with the health of the environment.

This is a crucial point - sustainability is a postmodern idea.

It was absent in the early, medieval, and modern history (except in Indigenous cultures of course).

The Triple Bottom Line Framework (TBL), I believe, is the best we have so far because it puts equal weight on the environment, economy, and society, and where these three areas intersect, we call human activity, e.g. business, sustainable.

(I personally consider the environment the most important, depicted by this model. But that jars many people, especially in business. When working with clients, I always use the TBL framework.)

The TBL framework takes a democratic stance – you have the economy, the environment, and the society – all equal.

It’s useful and functional. You can take it to a meeting full of suits and corporates. It gels with those whose main concern is people’s wellbeing. It gels with many greenies.

And you can craft a powerful argument using the TBL framework.


Because you are not a greedy bean counter capitalist; a new incarnation of Mother Theresa; or a greenie extremist blocking traffic.

Instead, you see the big picture and integrate all three positions into a sustainable whole.

That’s what makes it pragmatic.

TBL framework is the most accessible and understandable by most people, and that’s what matters since the majority has the greatest environmental, economic and social impact. Everyone consumes and buys, so if people have the slightest idea about the environmental impact of their actions, they can make better decisions.

Let’s not forget that the idea of considering the environment AT ALL is only a few decades old. If you accept our long evolutionary history (millions of years), how can you expect more?

Under the broad sustainability umbrella, there’re goals, frameworks, standards, tools, certifications, etc. to facilitate sustainable development.

For example,

Sustainability – through many ^ tools – is concerned with measuring the level of emissions, the rate of glacier melting, ocean acidification and coral bleaching. It looks at the world through the grid of acceptable temperature rise and greenhouse gas emission count by 2050 and has tools for fixing the problem. Again, it’s a pragmatic approach, operating WITHIN our current societal and economic model.

And it believes that by adopting these ^ frameworks, we’ll be able to –

slow down climate change.

Now, Deep Adaptation looks at the picture very differently …

b) Deep Adaptation (DA)

The main essay ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ was written by Prof. Jem Bendell in 2018. This is new.

(Head here to read it, it’s only 30 pages. Or watch this 15-min video.)

It brings the possibility of societal collapse due to climate change to the table and invites people to talk about it openly and without fear of being labelled as alarmists or catastrophists.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • Prof. Bendell opens with - “The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of what I believe to be an inevitable near-term societal collapse due to climate change.”

  • DA believes that “a climate-influenced collapse of societies in most parts of the world in the coming decades is either likely, inevitable, or already unfolding.”

  • People who have this realization are “organising a diversity of activities to help reduce harm, save what we can, and create possibilities for the future while experiencing meaning and joy in the process.”

DA doesn’t believe in hope that we’ll avert climate catastrophe.

DA goes deep – it questions the values of humans and the meaning of life per se. It takes the cardinal position of “societal collapse is now likely, inevitable or already unfolding” and everything else flows downstream, e.g. where you live, what you do, should you go to work...

Through the DA lens, sustainability -

  • is shallow because it doesn’t address the fundamentals, e.g. “progress-ideology;” it adds the environmental and social aspects to an otherwise growth-driven, neoliberal “development-first” approach.

  • tells us that economic growth and “progress” are okay, provided they’re sustainable. It’s a promise of a win-win, of a bright future. It doesn’t criticize the idea of progress or development itself. It doesn’t challenge the primacy of GDP growth.

  • isn’t achieving the goal of reducing emissions, and preserving the environment. Despite many tools and initiatives (e.g. carbon offsets, vacuuming CO2 from the atmosphere, endless summits), emissions are rising, rainforests are disappearing, corals are bleaching and glaciers are melting.

DA believes that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the global authority behind Kyoto Protocol, Paris Agreement, etc. “has a track record of significantly underestimating the pace of change.”

According to DA, the IPCC downplays the “existential climate risk.”


Because the IPCC, like sustainable development, is progress-ideology driven.

It’s not bold enough to admit that it’s been failing. That the pragmatic, technocratic approach isn’t working. It won’t (can’t?) offer a better alternative to what we have.

Sustainability - Environmental pragmatism

Deep Adaptation - Environmental existentialism

DA isn’t concerned about how much warmer it’s going to get, how much the ocean level’s going to rise, or what’s the current rate of glacier melting.

DA acknowledges that the new normal is here, we’re facing it, it’s only going to get worse and we need to adapt now. We don’t need to obsess over targets and deadlines. We don’t need to think positively.

With its agenda of resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation, DA offers an alternative –

“post-sustainability” framework.

To me, the main contribution of DA is its de-tabooing uncomfortable possibilities, e.g. societal collapse. It brings it to the table in a way that isn’t extremist but mature.

It provides a platform for people who feel low about climate change, it gives them a community and advice on what to do. They’re no longer “doomsayers”, or “extremists” but people with valid concerns. Because who knows the extent of climate change? Who can tell that it won’t lead to societal collapse?

I’m open to DA. There’s something wrong with the current system, and I agree that sustainability is not good enough.

But I believe in sustainability. It’s the best we have, at least in the West.

Let’s not forget that -

until the 1960s, nature had generally been seen as an inexhaustible resource to be exploited and an enemy to be fought.

We have made decent progress as far as this novel idea – that you consider the environment at all - goes.

Sure, sustainability isn’t enough and it has holes, but we’re trying to fix the mess we’ve created.

Only five years ago our PM Morrison waved a lump of coal in parliament saying, “this is coal, don't be afraid.” Doing it now would be political suicide, even for a conservative.

It’s only now that the ideas of sustainability are reaching the mainstream across society. For example, we now have a minister for waste reduction at the federal level (for the first time). We have a national target of halving food waste by 2030 (for the first time). There’re thousands of similar moves across governments, businesses, families, and schools, locally and globally.

If you accept Darwinian evolution, a painstaking gradual process –

how can you expect people to re-tool the whole societal and economic model in a few years?

To me, calls like “change the entire system” raise alarm, because in most cases, they end up catastrophically.

And even if DA is right in its forecast of societal collapse due to climate catastrophe …

I would much prefer that than a social catastrophe caused by utopian change-the-system ideals.

Marx comes to mind.


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