An introduction to TrAnsformative Adaptation. by Rupert Read

An introduction to transformative adaptation


   [By Rupert Read.]



  Background: where we are now

Virtually everyone’s approach to the long emergency we are entered into, has focussed to date on so-called ‘mitigation’: ie on reducing climate/eco damage (to zero) by reducing emissions and habitat destruction through Government action / pressure on Government.

This is no longer tenable as the sole objective. Too little time is left; and Government (and the system) is too profoundly resistant to doing the right thing. 

This point applies to XR too. Trying to fill the jail cells (with a diminishing number of rebels who are willing to do so) isn’t enough; and ‘mitigation’ in its technical sense is not a sufficiently encompassing objective.

Many of us have been aware of these points for some time; awareness of them can no longer be kept at bay.

We need to be doing actions that hold the solutions within them. We need to embody the transformation that we aim to bring. It’s too late for ‘mitigation’ alone; we need to make adaptation central too. Adaptation that is genuine. That is transformative.


  Adaptation comes in 3 forms:

  • 1. Shallow adaptation. Eg Building higher sea walls.  No psychological change: just business as usual while trying to cope with a deteriorating world. [The IPCC calls this ‘incremental adaptation’.]
  1. ‘Transformative Adaptation’. [aka ‘TrAd’] Eg Restoring wetlands/mangroves, using appropriate technology, living closer to the land and less dependent on the far away. And: Floating islands for food-growing, as in Holland, as in Aztec culture. Transformative adaptation is transformative because it is <system change>. It requires, crucially, the willingness to undertake major psychological adjustments away from what has been ‘normal.’ [The IPCC calls this ‘transformational adaptation’, though what is meant by this is often more modest than what we have in mind as ‘TrAd’. See ‘A very brief history of TrAd’.]
  2. Deep Adaptation. Eg Moving coastal cities inland and reducing their scale. Deep adaptation is adaptation to collapse. To a future where our existing society is going to be swept away. It requires massive psychological adjustments. (It may run the risk of being a counsel of doom, a self-fulfilling prophecy.)


  The 3 forms of adaptation compared

 Shallow adaptation is like King Canute. It is (worse than) useless, on its own, because it pretends we can keep this civilisation stumbling on as is without real change. We can’t. Obviously, some measures of incremental/defensive adaptation are necessary: eg there will be a need for some new hard flood defence measures to be put in place; but these need to be framed within transformative plans for system-change, plans to transition in 

  Deep adaptation (DA) is necessary: but arguably it should be viewed as an insurance policy against worse case scenarios, not as the whole of our goal. In particular, it risks being debilitating to assume that collapse is definitely coming. DA works best if conceived rather as in alliance with TrAd; DA is taking precautions against a possible/likely (not certain) collapse.

  Transformative Adaptation (TrAd), as reconceived and emboldened here (building on the origins of the concept in academia, the UN and the work of the Green House thinktank), is an agenda which can encompass mitigation and complement DA. And it uses NVDA as a tool in pursuit of these aims where appropriate, one (key) tool among others.

…Both TrAd and DA — Transformative and Deep Adaptation — make it essential that we confront the likelihood of collapse together/psychologically. This requires that we confront what I call ’the great sorrow’: that the great turning that Joanna Macy had hoped for is not here enough / in time, and that now it is too late to accomplish such a turning, even on an emergency basis, in a way that will obviate great suffering. Great suffering is coming. (It’s started, but far more is coming. This is certain, because of the onward momentum of the system we have and the bad feedbacks baked into the system already.)


A vision for this: 

Civilisational decline – the ending of this civilisation – is inevitable and already under way. That future is already here only it’s not evenly distributed yet… In other words, some parts of the global South are already experiencing collapsing. The task is to seek to morph gracefully into a better civilisation as we undergo energy descent. That process, (which is very likely at some point to proceed via civilisational collapse but doesn’t yet have to) will primarily be a process of relocalisation. And of adaptation to a degenerating ecology and climate. 

We need to adapt in a manner that is bold and forward looking: This is called transformative adaptation. TrAd is a win win win: we mitigate the effects of dangerous climate change, we work with nature not against her, and we transform society in the direction it needs to transform in anyway: all at the same time. TrAd enables us to cope with the deterioration that is already baked in while potentially IMPROVING our society and our future.

If we pull this off without collapsing altogether, then we get to keep the best of what we have (including global communications inter-connectivity) while radically relocalising, rebuilding community, insuring ourselves against over dependence on long uncertain polluting supply lines. With TrAd-centred ‘glocalisation’, our world can still be the best of both worlds…

If society does collapse, then TrAd will have prepared us for that as well as possible (especially if combined with an explicit DA agenda functioning as the ultimate insurance policy).

TrAd goes back to the future: it returns us to aspects of traditional life that should never have been abandoned, while >keeping< those features of life today that oughtn’t to be lost and that are completely compatible with oneplanetliving. We can do this for ourselves; we have to try to.



  Qu: How is TrAd different from the Transition Towns movement? 

  Ans: It isn’t. We are natural allies. But this needs to be both realised and real-ised. To achieve TrAd will involve politics in the broad sense of that word; it will at times potentially require much NVDA. Eg PopUpAllotments that we defend, for starters (up and down the HS2 line? [For more on ways of implementing the vision of transformative adaptation vs HS2, see & ]. That is something that XR etc can bring to the Transition Movement.


  Qu: How is TrAd different from ‘Trust The People’? 

   Ans: It isn’t. We are natural allies, and it is possible that the relationship is or should be closer than that. What is distinctive in TrAd is perhaps its nature as an idea/concept to fit into the ‘ecosystem’ of different forms of mitigation and adaptation. Additionally, TrAd, while agreeing with TTP that citizens democracy is an essential part of the goal, is not as wedded as TTP to its being the means as well as the end. TrAd will seek to embody as well as to create Citizens Assemblies etc – but TrAd actions may sometimes move ahead of what is agreed or popular.


  Qu. What are the best >actions< for symbolising/narrating\bringing about TrAd, and the new more realistic narrative, post-ImaginedSalvation, that it embodies? A story that gives up on us saving civilisation as we know it, a story that recognises that XR’s second demand as it stands is now unrealistic (because the world is not changing as it should, and the clock is running out) — and moreover therefore incomplete (because it needs to include transformative (and deep) adaptation)…

   Ans. See previous answers. But to generalise: TrAd actions are likely to be most effective if they are the change we want to see in the world. If they are beautiful and powerful, if they make sense to people, if they try to create something and not just to hold something back. The most obvious ways therefore of narrating TrAd will involve the growing of food or activities similarly fundamental (to our lives), the starting to make possible of a vision of a good and liveable future, despite everything.


  Qu.  How might a TrAd vision influence XR?:

  Ans. TrAd actions could powerfully make the point that we will not go back, that the powers that be have utterly failed, and that we demand a TrAd agenda: we simply won’t be fobbed off with talk of a green industrial revolution, of 2050, etc… Another powerful possibility is TrAd actions modelled on what the landless movement in Brazil has accomplished: seizing and using land that is being ‘wasted’ or misused. For, as indicated above, TrAd is most likely to succeed when it is seen as for something, not just against something.

TrAd is a way to mobilise many of the rebels who do not come to rebellions, the rebels who have signed up but remain passive, in particular those who prefer to remain local. TrAd includes inherently a vision that we are actively pursuing — co-creating — for a new, regenerative and just society, and could enable us to model the world we want to see which would in turn hopefully attract new rebels to the broader movement. With some rebels dropping from the movement in despair this provides a place for them to still act now... That we despair seeing the government’s failure to act.. so we’re just going to do it ourselves….


A way forward

We need an alliance between the likes of XR and the likes of the Transition Towns movement. If someone wants simply to go and grow food and create a community etc, great — but lots of people were doing that before XR. We have an opportunity here to unite many of the movements seeking to model and create a better world and a healthy planet. We can help highlight and bring attention to their pioneering work with the flair of our NVDA-heritage. 

Our best hope is a future that brings these things together. 

That is the golden thread: that is why we seek out actions that embody the story of system-change via an alternative system that we model AND that challenge to the existing system at the same time. Again, a good possible example of this could be pop-up allotments / ecovillages down the route of HS2. That is something that tells the story of transformative (and deep) adaptation.

A liveable future is probably going to require relocalised living AND nvda. What will be truly transformative IMHO is if these get done simultaneously.


TrAd in summary

Transformative Adaptation as reconceived here is thus an approach that is both/and

>mitigation AND adaptation simultaneously; 

>a role for deep adaptation but WITHOUT assuming we are already condemned to societal collapse; 

>facing up to climate and ecology deterioration and decline without pretence or denial AND believing in a positive vision for a better life;

>modelling a different future bottom up on the ground AND continuing to carve the space for that future out thru NVDA.

   My belief is that this is the vision that can unify us and point a way forward for a realistic mass movement. 



It bears repeating that the real prize would be an alliance, a deep collaboration between (eg) the Transition Towns movement and XR. This could start to form the movement of movements we need. And TrAd can in particular be a framework for the utterly-like-minded emerging ‘Climate Emergency Centres’.

   If we only talk/do DA, then we’ll be accused of giving up. A gulf will open up between the localisers/‘crusties’ etc and the political types. But can’t great, unprecedented strength be found if we were to really bring these two distinct types together? TrAd is a way to do that. It’s never been done before at scale. But now is the time. Through actions like creating a series of pop up allotments or even of ecovillages on the HS2 route and being serious about defending them as part of a strategy of growing food while stopping HS2. Or through guerrilla gardening at scale. Or through defending taking back land for the landless.

  Obviously there are important precedents for this kind of approach in wonderful projects like GrowHeathrow. But the vision and framework for it at scale is new.

  We should drop much of what we think we know: including the rash assumption that we KNOW what the future will hold. The humble, precautious, unknowing attitude to the future is exactly what TrAd cultivates and invites. We need to move into an unknown uncertain future in a way that does not presume that we know that the future will be good – or bad. This is exactly what TrAd enables us to do. It protects against the worst, while inviting and seeking to manifest the best.


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