Compulsory optimism on overshoot in our society is maladaptive

False smiles don’t work when you are otherwise convinced.


Often when groups talk about climate action or lack of it, a sort of despair sets in and people go quiet. It’s as though society demands a compulsory optimism. How dare you be pessimistic about the prospects of having a liveable climate?


“It has become a paradox”, write Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens in their book How Everything Can Collapse, “we have to face this deluge of disasters in the media, but we’re unable to talk explicitly about the really big catastrophes without being called alarmists or catastrophists.” The book was originally published in French in 2015 and in English in 2020. These two young Frenchmen were part of a trio who met at a Joanna Macy workshop.

Maybe we thought that our optimism of the 1960s to 1980s of continual progress would just continue. But by the 1990s we wondered. In early 2000s we learnt more of climate change, biodiversity loss and ocean acidification and began to panic a little inside. Things didn’t seem to be getting any better. They were getting worse.

Then in 2018 social scientist Professor Jem Bendell publishes an occasional paper that went viral. He starts off by writing,

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.

Deep Adaptation by Jem Bendell 2018, revised 2020

He note the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done useful work but has a track record of significantly underestimating the pace of change. Then he reviewed the scientific evidence on abrupt climate change and noted, “Non-linear changes are of central importance to understanding climate change, as they suggest both that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections.”


After a long summary of the possible tipping points, he concludes that his experience is that “a lot of people are resistant to the conclusions I have just shared” Then he considers some of the emotional and psychological responses to the information he just summarised.