“Leading is sometimes disappointing your people at a rate they can absorb”
- Marty Linsky
The word ‘leader’ comes from the Indo-European root word leit, the name for the person who carried the flag in front of an advancing army going into battle and who usually died in the first attack. His sacrifice would alert the rest of the army to the location of the danger ahead. For those choosing to lead, not much has changed since those days.
- Ron Heifetz
It is my hope that Jem Bendell is not a causality in the climate change debate but he is certainly disappointing and upsetting people’s thinking about the near term consequences of its impact. It is unclear if they can absorb his argument, which is, “there will be a near-term societal collapse with serious ramifications for people in all parts of the world.”
The early returns are that his ideas are being refuted by his peer community.
Bendell is not spending his time trying to convince people that there is a clear pathway to reducing global warming by driving electric cars, flying fewer times or reducing our dependence on petroleum based products. He asks some hard questions of himself and us:
- Can professionals in sustainability management, policy and research continue to work with the assumption or hope that we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilisation?
- Have professionals in the sustainability field discussed the possibility that it is too late to avert an environmental catastrophe and the implications for their work?
- Why are sustainability professionals not exploring this fundamentally important issue to our whole field as well?
Bendell’s point of view first appeared in 2018, when he wrote a paper titled Deep Adaption: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. While his ideas were met with resistance by many in the climate change establishment, they found an audience in the broader world. Over the last three years, a movement has built up by word of mouth. The movement produced a 2020 refresh of his original work, the Deep Adaptation Forum for discussions and a pending book.
Personally, I am engaged in Bendell’s hypothesis because the case he makes is plausible and that is activating my thinking. It’s not a comfortable activation, but it is useful.
Professionally, Bendell is providing a concise master class on what it takes to lead. The first leadership move he makes is choosing to lead. He took an unpaid leave to research a topic that mattered to him, and then he wrote his paper. Writing and publishing his ideas is Bendell raising his hand and choosing to lead this discussion. Leading is a choice and an activity, and he models it from the beginning.
Bendell’s paper, in my view, is his attempt to wake us up and see climate change for what it is, a wicked problem with hard choices to make and difficult consequences ahead. This is his second leadership move. He has arrived at a much different diagnosis of what is at stake and he is using his voice to “name the debate”. Wicked problems call for leadership and he has put himself forward as a leader.
I have no idea if Bendell was trying to foster a movement through his writing, but three years after the 2018 publication, a movement is building around his ideas. He seems to be doing the work to mobilize that movement via the various resources he has put together to spread the word. This is his third leadership move.
It is too soon to know how this will play out. There are many learned climatologists in opposition to his ideas and his writing. That is a reminder to him and to all of us, that choosing to lead can be dangerous and that you can get hurt.
I came to know Jem Bendell and his ideas mostly by coincidence, but it was enough to engage me. I am joining his movement.