The personal dimension of climate change activism

Over the years, I’ve often compared the emotional difficulties of being a climate activist with the challenges faced by hospice workers: we are surrounded by death. Huge numbers of species are dying in the present, and far more will go extinct as temperatures continue to rise. It’s truly crazy-making to advocate for a strong governmental response to the seemingly obvious threat of climate change, yet receive only blank stares from the elected and appointed officials who have the authority to initiate action. It seems that most people just can’t imagine a world different from their current pleasant existence.

Unfortunately for me, I can. What I see by extrapolating trends out into the future is very dark, with a tremendous loss of human and animal life. It’s a very isolating perspective… Yet, I’ve gone deep into the darkness and found that one comes out the other side. I’ve recently been introduced to the work of a professor of sustainability, Jem Bendell, who has taken this inquiry into the darkness to a truly profound level, and made me realize there are others who see as I do.

I highly recommend his article After Climate Despair – One Tale Of What Can Emerge. For me, Dr. Bendell offers a much-needed model of how climate activists can cope with the emotionally crushing realities of the climate threat. After allowing himself to experience the despair lurking just under the surface of the climate field, he found himself turning in a deeply inner direction.

I’ve witnessed more and more people express their fear that despair leads nowhere. Not so. I have seen despair is not the end.

He then took an unpaid sabbatical to research the latest climate science and work out its deeper implications. A general-audience article “The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy” is what initially caught my attention. Dr. Bendell had written a groundbreaking article, “Deep Adaptation: a Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” After it was rejected by a professional journal, he described what happened in a blog “The study on collapse they thought you should not read – yet.

Deep Adaptation contains a review of recent climate science:

That report of subsea permafrost destabilisation in the East Siberian Arctic sea shelf, the latest unprecedented temperatures in the Arctic, and the data in non-linear rises in high-atmosphere methane levels, combine to make it feel like we are about to play Russian Roulette with the entire human race, with already two bullets loaded. …


Recent research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations. This situation makes redundant the reformist approach to sustainable development and related fields of corporate sustainability that has underpinned the approach of many professionals (Bendell et al, 2017). Instead, a new approach which explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse is important to develop. In support of that challenging, and ultimately personal process, understanding a deep adaptation agenda may be useful. …


In my work with mature students, I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression. Instead, in a supportive environment, where we have enjoyed community with each other, celebrating ancestors and enjoying nature before then looking at this information and possible framings for it, something positive happens. I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward. Despite that, a certain discombobulation occurs and remains over time as one tries to find a way forward in a society where such perspectives are uncommon. Continued sharing about the implications as we transition our work and lives is valuable.

A short video by Dr. Bendell pulls the themes of societal collapse and inner transformation together in an exceptionally beautiful way: Grieve Play Love.

Finally, Dr. Bendell created a page of resources for coping with the emotional challenges of the climate tragedy.

If this post speaks to you personally, you are invited to contact us at support at transdef dot org. Perhaps we can get a group or a list together to support each other.

Comments are closed.