1. Introduction: Setting the scene
  2. Tools of emancipation, or tools of alienation?
  3. My research approach
  4. Learning from our failures: Lessons from FairCoop
  5. Introducing the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF)
  6. The Diversity & Decolonising Circle
  7. The Research Team
  8. The DAF Landscape: Cultivating relationality
  9. Considering DAF from a decolonial perspective
  10. Radical collective change

Introducing the Deep Adaptation Forum

(a summary)

I will now (try to) summarise key research findings from the second online community on which I focused - the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF). Doing so feels much more daunting than with FairCoop (FC). For one thing, the research process was much longer (it lasted mostly from April 2020 to April 2022). Besides, contrary to FC, I was much more deeply involved in DAF, as a member of the Core Team - which allowed me easy access to people and interesting data. This was also facilitated by the fact that people were more relaxed, considering that this community was not being torn apart by conflict. And last but not least, this research was more participatory, and I was lucky to form a team with my co-researcher Wendy Freeman, another very active participant in this network. For all these reasons, I have a mountain of things to say about DAF (which is why there are so many annexes appended to Chapter 5 of my thesis).

To keep this post (and the next few) concise and readable, I will focus on what feel like the most salient points. First, let's set the scene a bit.

Deep Adaptation and the Deep Adaptation Forum

In July 2018, Prof Jem Bendell published an academic paper on the IFLAS blog of the University of Cumbria, where he taught and still teaches. The paper was titled “Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy.” Its central claim was that the collapse of global civilisation is inevitable, and that it may happen within the coming decade, due to the catastrophic impacts of climate change. In the paper, social (or societal) collapse was defined as “an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning, and hope.”

On the basis of this assessment, Bendell proposed an approach he called the “deep adaptation agenda,” relying on aggressive emission cuts and drawdown (mitigation) efforts coupled with personal and collective attempts at adaptation to the coming changes, based on compassion, curiosity, and respect. In Bendell’s seminal paper and subsequent writings, Deep Adaptation (DA) is presented as “an agenda and framework for responding to the potential, probable or inevitable collapse of industrial consumer societies, due to the direct and indirect impacts of human-caused climate change and environmental degradation.” It “describes the inner and outer, personal and collective, responses to either the anticipation or experience of societal collapse, worsened by the direct or indirect impacts of climate change.”

Surprisingly for this kind of work, the self-published paper soon went viral. Within a few months, it had been downloaded several hundred thousand times. Its notoriety further grew as the Deep Adaptation approach was publicly endorsed by leading figures of the Extinction Rebellion movement, and after it was reported on in several major news outlets, such as the BBC, the New York Times, or Vice. It has more recently been featured in GQ.

In late 2018, a private sponsor approached Prof Bendell, offering some financial support to launch an initiative building on the wide-reaching impact of the ideas presented in the paper. Bendell agreed, under the condition that the sponsor would have no authority in designing said initiative. Having secured that agreement, he invited several close collaborators to form a Core Team which would help steward this project: the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF). I was one of these people, due to previous research involvement with Jem Bendell.

(see here for more information about Jem Bendell; here for the 4 "R's" that underpin the DA agenda; and here for an early blog post outlining the DA ethos.)

So what is this Forum thing?

Simply put, DAF is the name that has come to designate the various online platforms and initiatives initially established and managed under the leadership of Prof Bendell and/or the DAF Core Team, since March 2019, as vehicles for DA-oriented discussion and action according to the DA ethos. Originally, these initiatives were more focused on initiating DA conversations within professional fields of activity, but they gradually expanded their scope to include many other topics and dimensions, including emotional, psychological, spiritual, or social justice issues (see Annex 5.4 of my thesis for details).

The DAF website currently introduces the network as follows:

The Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) offers free events and online platforms for people who are seeking and building supportive communities to face the reality of the climate crisis.
The mission of DAF is “to embody and enable loving responses to our predicament”. The predicament refers to societal collapse, resulting mainly from the climate emergency and other global crises such as biodiversity loss and soil degradation.

DAF has also been described as “a set of communication platforms that enable collapse-aware people to connect internationally, exchange information, and take positive action,” and as "an intentional, self-organising network (and associated community) comprising platforms, people, content, and events for learning, support and action." As of Nov. 2022, DAF brought together between 15,000 and 17,000 participants, largely English-speaking and living in North America, western Europe, and Oceania. In addition, more than 16,000 mostly non-English speakers participated through groups affiliated with DAF.

DAF landscape.png

The DAF landscape, as of Nov.2022. NB: this graph is no longer an accurate depiction of the network, as a result of deep shifts in its governance model that took place in the first half of 2023. See here for details.

It was after having been involved in DAF for about a year that I decided to include it within my research. An important reason for this was that this network takes as a starting point the need to question everything we think we know about how society should work - and so, places a high emphasis on collective learning and critical thinking, in order not to reproduce the mistakes that are leading to social and ecological collapse. This already felt closely connected to the purpose of my research. Furthermore, I discovered thanks to DAF that radical collective change, this slippery concept, could be approached in a very different way than how it was in FairCoop, for example: as deep changes in relationships - between humans, and between humans and the rest of the living world. This felt fascinating, and became central to my own understanding of social change. I return to this relational perspective below.

How did I see the forms of social/collective learning taking place within DAF as being relevant to the topic of radical collective change?

Seeds, soil, and sowers

What is social learning?

My approach to social learning is very much informed by the body of theory and practice developed by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner. They focus on learning "in its social dimensions,” more than as a biological, cognitive, psychological, or historical process: “It is a perspective that locates learning, not in the head or outside it, but in the relationship between the person and the world, which for human beings is a social person in a social world.”

So from this point of view, learning is not something that happens only in formal settings - e.g. at school - but is actually all of the social structures and relationships that we create day by day, as we participate in social activities such as conversations or reflections, intertwined with the production of concepts, stories, methods, documents, artworks, etc. Over time, these processes create a social history of learning that combines individual and collective aspects, giving rise to communities of practice - that is, "groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn to do it better as they interact regularly." For example, imagine a group of parents whose children are on the autistic spectrum. They meet once in a while for a BBQ, and discuss over dinner the challenges they encounter. At some point, they decide to co-create a blog to share their experience: this group could be considered a community of practice.

Etienne and Bev have also invented the idea of social learning spaces which I also find very useful. This refers to a more informal social experience, in which people are caring to make a difference in their lives, for others, or the world at large; participate from a place of uncertainty (not as people teaching others what to do); and pay attention to responses and feedback to whatever they do or say, in order to better accomplish what they try to do. For instance, imagine two of the mums or dads mentioned above who meet for the first time, find out that their kids are both autistic, and who decide to have coffee to discuss their mutual experience. The conversation feels very energising, and gives each of them new ideas with regards to how to bring up their children (it creates value for them). This discussion, although, is a social learning space. Indeed, the friendship and learning that came out of it will eventually prompt them to start the regular dinner parties referred above!

(This free ebook, which the Wenger-Trayners just published, is a very good summary of their approach and theory, and contains a lot of useful practical tips to help people to learn more from each other within any type of organisation)

I love this way of looking at the topic, because it helps me "zoom in" on the continuous change that happens to anyone, anywhere, as we go about our daily lives and interact with other people. And perhaps some of these personal changes can then be so powerful that they "ripple out" and bring about unexpected, radical forms of collective change?

How to study all of this?

To what extent can social learning (and unlearning) taking place in DAF be considered relevant, in terms of the radical collective change required to face our global predicament?

To explore this question, my co-researcher Wendy and I asked about 40 participants (including ourselves!) about our personal stories of learning and change that had happened thanks to the network. Many of these stories were published - with the consent of the people involved - as "learning journeys" on the Conscious Learning Blog that we created. We also disseminated 6 surveys in the network, and convened two editions of the Conscious Learning Festival, in which we encouraged any DAF participants to share their stories and create collective learning spaces.

Because there so much data to analyse, I found it made more sense to group these results into 3 main "research streams":

  1. The Diversity and Decolonising Circle;
  2. The research team (Wendy and I);
  3. DAF as a whole.

The first two streams focused on groups that can be viewed as communities of practice, while the third is more of about a landscape of practice, bringing together various communities of practice and social learning spaces within the Deep Adaptation Forum.

There is a lot to say about each of these case studies, so I will dedicate one blog post to each of them. First, a few words about how I will present the findings. I decided to use a gardening metaphor, and to find answers to the following questions:

  1. What are the main “seeds of change” that are being cultivated within DAF social learning spaces? This refers to forms of social learning that appear most relevant to DAF participants, in view of the global predicament.
  2. What are the conditions – or the “soil” - enabling these changes to happen, or preventing them from happening? This refers to the social and material conditions that may help these seeds to grow.
  3. Who are the “sowers” helping to nurture the soil and to sow the seeds, and what forms of leadership do they enact in doing so? This brings the attention to the persons who enact the clearest forms of leadership in creating the conditions for social learning to deepen, within a given learning space and beyond.


Seeds, Soil, and Sowers. Based on Vincent Van Gogh, "The Sower at Sunset" - Arles, June 1888. Image source: Wikimedia

In the next blog post, I will look at the seeds, soil, and sowers that have shown up in the Diversity and Decolonising Circle of DAF.