From Imperial Modernity to Ecolibertarianism — the Agenda of the ‘Doomsters’

11 min readFeb 28, 2024

What we’re reading at r3.0 (10)

A review of Jem Bendell’s ‘Breaking Together — A Freedom-Loving Response To Collapse’

By Ralph Thurm

Many of us will still remember when they first read Deep Adaptation — A Map For Navigating Climate Tragedy — the 2018 soulful cry of an academic professor that couldn’t take it any longer. Jem Bendell’s groundbreaking paper got rejected by an academic Journal, condemned by many other academics, but was downloaded more than a million times within the first two years after its publication. It spoke to us at r3.0 right away, and I think it’s fair to say, it helped quite a bit over the last several years to shape our own organizational (and personal) journies from collapse awareness to actual collapse acknowledgement. Since then, other books on the topic of collapse were on top of our reading piles, assisting to further crystalize a view which we now call ‘post-collapse readiness’, most notably Pablo Servigne’s two books, and other literature paving the way to regeneration, like Vanessa Andreotti’s Hospicing Modernity, Daniel Christian Wahl’s Designing Regenerative Cultures, or Joe Brewer’s The Design Pathway For Regenerating Earth, just to cite some of the many thinkers in our field.

Motivated by the many interrelated aspects of the polycrisis (or what Dana Meadows and William Catton call our “predicament”) and longing for a better understanding of the systemic logic of collapse and how to respond to it, Bendell then embarked on a three year ‘critical interdisciplinary research analysis’, which resulted in Breaking Together — A Freedom Loving Response to Collapse. It describes Bendell’s growing insights in the interwoven web of what he calls ‘Imperial Modernity’, which holds us humans strait-jacketed, and developing ‘Ecolibertarianism’ for the deeper ideas for transformation that many people share. When reading, it becomes clear that this is a counter-model that cuts a lot of the ties with what exists, institutionally, politically, economically, often personally. We often say a lot of the old must be ‘hospiced’, and the new must be ‘midwifed.’

The book can be divided into two parts, the first part asking ‘what do the data tell us about collapse?’ (reasons), and the second part then focuses on ‘now how can we respond to that evidence?’ (reactions). As Bendell says,

‘for now, I opt for the necessary conversations and efforts to defend universal rights, accountability, and justice. If people like us do not try, then we leave preparing, guiding, and potential recovering from collapse to people and institutions who will not be approaching it with the same values.’

He continues to clarify

‘when I say “breaking together” I mean allowing the breakdowns in our privileges, comforts, worldviews and identities, to allow a new openness for connection with people, nature and even the eternal. We can also allow this breaking to reconnect us with aspects of who we are that have been hidden under the social conditioning we’ve experienced since birth. We have tended to cling to the products of that conditioning, in order to feel safe, respected, capable, and able to have fun in ways we already know. But we’ve got to let go and begin breaking together.’

Chapters 1–6 of the book develop the ‘dashboard’ of collapse indicators in great depth. Bendell discusses economic collapse, monetary collapse, energy collapse, biosphere collapse, climate collapse, and food collapse extensively. The span of data used, the interpretation of the role of diverse players involved, and the inability for us to reject, step out, and re-design what’s necessary becomes painfully clear. While aspects like water, housing, mobility, information technology, or health are not discussed in separate chapters, they are either woven into the existing chapters, or it is clear that they are severely and negatively implicated by those factors discussed at length. In that sense, this first part is rather complete in its assessment.

Chapter 7 then discusses Societal collapse as an ongoing parallel decay. It is clear that it is undeniably the consequence of the beforementioned discussed areas of collapse. What’s particularly interesting in this chapter is a deeper dive into our denial of the reality, the ‘taboo’ to acknowledge. Aspects like siloed research and reductionism, normalcy bias in all its forms and consequences, and elements of the ‘cultural cement’ (legal, commercial, monetary, political, and personal egoisms) are discussed in quite some length.

The chapters of part two of the book all start with ‘Freedom from…’ and by that invite us all to personally develop what Bendell calls ‘critical wisdom’ (the ‘Freedom to know…’):

the ‘elusive capability for understanding oneself in the world that combines insight from mindfulness, critical literacy, rationality, and intuition. A capability for mindfulness involves awareness of the motivations for our thought, including our mind states, emotional reactions and why we might want to “know” about phenomena. A capability for rationality involves awareness of logic, logical fallacies and forms of bias. A capability for critical literacy involves awareness of how the tools by which we think, including linguistically constructed concepts and stories, are derived from, and reproduce, culture, including relationships of power. A capability for intuition involves awareness of insights from non-conceptual experiences including epiphanies and insights from non-ordinary states of consciousness.’

He comes with warnings against anti-radicalism on environmental issues, and how there will be a tendency to retrain the conclusions we reach about collapse. It opens a range of ‘third way’ options for thinking about collapse, releasing pressures that create the stress symptoms we now feel and see all the time. It is interesting to see that ‘woke’, a term nobody knew a couple of years ago, is now all over the place to discredit critical thinking of the current collapse-causing setting, instigated by those in power and hierarchy.

Further chapters in Bendell’s ‘freedom-loving response to collapse’ include ‘Freedom from progress’, ‘Freedom from banking’, ‘Freedom in nature’, ‘Freedom to collapse and grow the doomster way’, and ‘Freedom from fake green globalists’. Each of these chapters is a treasure trove of insights and argues for positions against Imperial Modernity.

‘Freedom from progress’ helps to rediscover the immense wisdom of indigenous peoples. Bendell mentions Lyla June Johnston (a 2023 r3.0 conference speaker) and her incredible dissertation about indigenous regenerative food systems that lasted for thousands of years. He also refers to David Graeber and David Wengrow’s reminder of ‘seasonal dualism’ (the dynamic, based on archeological evidence, that human groups governed themselves in different modes — from egalitarian to hierarchical — in different seasons). It debunks all sorts of classifications of the ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ kinds and to allow the ‘fluid ecological arrangements’ that offer a right to nutrition due to the people’s freedom. A fascinating concept, while the reader will be met with the question if we humans will ever be able to reach such a state of freedom again? The chapter is full with more examples from Deep Adaptation Network protagonists and known experts like Vandana Shiva (a 2022 r3.0 conference speaker) and Satish Kumar, mentions Robin Wall Kimmerer, as well as examples from different past cultures. Finally, r3.0 2023 conference speaker Vanessa Andreotti’s famous remark

‘more of us, who live in Imperial Modern cultures, need the courage and time to “compost our shit” rather than rush towards a nicer story and feeling about the situation’

closes out the chapter.

‘Freedom from banking’ is a continuation from the chapter about monetary collapse from part 1 of the book. Bendell writes

‘[…] we will see that monetary systems and the monied classes were crucial to the colonialism and imperialism that destroyed societies that were living more in balance with nature. I will demonstrate how monetary power has been involved in reproducing various restrictive and destructive paradigms, including neoliberalism, modernity and even patriarchy. Then we will observe that, by creating a growth imperative for economies and an expansion imperative for corporations, a particular kind of money system routinised social, environmental, cultural and political oppression. That monetary power was not an accident, but organised by a complex of people, organisations, resources, norms and rules that served the monetarily wealthy.’

He delivers examples of socio-environmental oppression (including describing his own situation), cultural and political oppression, and how the delusional story of wealth is separated from nature creates ‘omnicide’, especially combined with the everlasting growth imperative. As a result, modern societies will crash hard and fast.

In ‘Freedom with nature’, Bendell starts with a sharp attack of the Davos Summits, saying

‘What I didn’t realise is that the one thing worse than the world’s elites not taking climate change seriously would be them taking climate change seriously. The ideas and policies emerging at Davos primarily focus on accessing more public money for private ventures with dubious ecological credentials and creating digital infrastructures for the control of ordinary people. What the world’s elites fail to consider is how their own ideas, worldviews and decisions drove the world to the brink of collapse. Or how because of that track record, they aren’t the best people to be deciding what to do about it.’

So how do we liberate ourselves into a free will to allow for ecoliberatarianism to be birthed? Bendell criticises the purely natural scientific approach to only rely on what can be proven to exist (the ‘Enlightenment’), as a mechanistic understanding and a reductive approach. He mentions neuroscience, quantum physics, to then land at spiritual perspectives on free will, Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, and discusses a universal consciousness creating a ‘co-causal awareness’ as the source of free will, participating in the cocreation of the physical, chemical, biological and social factors that shape ‘it and everything’. Free will is therefore relative and contextual, which Bendell then discusses for the development of ‘Natural Freedom’ and his vision of ‘Ecofreedom’ for ecolibertarians. He calls his vision of the future ‘Evotopia.’ He explains:

‘My vision therefore includes millions of people of most faiths and none, having become newly aware of the way some of the dominant systems of communication have distorted their experience of themselves, others and nature. Consequently, they will cause less suffering, resist it more, and enable more joy, creativity and transcendence. Henceforth I will refer to this vision of the future as an Evotopia. That is because “evo” means to behold or witness and “topia” means a place or reality. An Evotopia is the idealised scenario where humanity better beholds natural reality so that both destruction slows and beauty flows.’

Bendell also hastens to clarify the difference of ecolibertarianism from mainstream right-wing libertarianism. The rest of chapter then discusses consequences of his thinking to rebooting environmentalism, countering eco-authoritarianism or eco-Stalinism, and degrowth.

In ‘Freedom to collapse and grow’ Bendell calls us people in the collapsology arena ‘Doomsters’. He explains

‘the term “doomer” has been used to criticise people for having a negative outlook and giving up. Some people who self-identify as doomers are happy with that characterisation. However, others think it ignores the ongoing passion they have for being useful in society. To move beyond that baggage, some of us have begun describing ourselves as “doomsters”. The suffix “ster” has been used to indicate something good (e.g. rhymester), or bad (e.g. gangster), or a profession (e.g. pollster), or a fashion trend (e.g. hipster). If one uses a word with “ster” to describe oneself, it indicates a confidently chosen identity.’

He gives us 15 charactereristics of doomsters (see box).

The chapter is a potpourri of examples of people who went through personal collapse to arrive at ecoliberatarianism, and what they did, mostly spiritual experiences, to get there, and how their lives changed. Bendell comes with 5 approaches to develop intuition, or ‘vital compass’ for developing the necessary confidence (meditation, calming fears, exploring sensations held within our own bodies, addressing sense of personhood within Imperial Modernity, and critical literacy). He also mentions his own 4R framework (Resilience: what do we most value that we want to keep, and how?Relinquishment: what do we need to let go of so as not to make matters worse? Restoration: what could we bring back to help us with these difficult times? Reconciliation: with what and whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our mutual mortality?). Finally, the chapter discusses policy agendas in an era of collapse and offers six areas of scholarship and action on social change that are incorporating an acceptance of the breakdown of industrial consumer societies, disciplines like planning, community-level initiatives, collaborative governance, cosmolocalism, transformative adaptation, networking in local groups.

To close, in ‘Freedom from fake globalists’, we come back to the earlier mentioned critical literacy, e.g. to counter media manipulation (Bendell uses the Covid hype extensively as an example,) refers to conspiracy porn, and arrives at ‘Reclaiming’ as a 5th ‘R’ to his 4R framework. It would help to resist authoritarianism, avoiding distraction and dilution.

In a conclusions chapter Bendell comes with some answers to some of the most frequently heard questions on collapse.

‘Most senior officials are unfamiliar with the evidence that I have summarised in this book, and typically repeat the same blocking tropes that prevent proper engagement with the topic. Those tropes are the following, and they all arise from deep assumptions ingrained in us through what I call Imperial Modernity: we can’t know for certain; scientists are undecided; technology is amazing; the kids are going to change everything; we can’t lose hope; we can’t undermine people’s commitment; we mustn’t create a self-fulfilling prophecy; we can’t risk anarchy; and we should have more faith in humanity or more faith in God. In this book, I have demonstrated each of these blocking tropes are unintelligent. If I may crudely summarise for a moment, I can respond to each of those statements as follows: we certainly know what’s happening already; scientists aren’t trained to integrate from outside their specialisms; technology cannot fix multi-system collapse; protesting teenagers often evolve into salespersons for green business; whereas our passions are unleashed by recognising the full destructiveness of elites; blaming realists for being right is obviously moronic; voluntary self-governance will be better than constant manipulation and control; because our faith in humanity and the divine means we trust our freedom to care for each other and nature once freed from the cowardly and narcissistic officers of Imperial Modernity. Just saying‘.

Breaking Together — A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse offers the reasons and reactions to our joint collapse. It offers additional depth to those that were pretty sure that collapse is already happening. The different perspectives in which data are presented (especially on energy and food) in part 1 of the book are specifically helpful, and are of course also essential reading for all starters on collapsology. It is appreciated that the second part of the book is so rich in content and examples, while of course nobody knows exactly how the culmination of 50 years of collapse will unfold. There is more to find than in any other book on the topic, it’s the most comprehensive compilation so far.

Want to hear more about the book and from its author? Please join us on April 8, 2024, 5pm CET for r3.0’s 3rd Open Dialogue Session, titled ‘Jem Bendell — Breaking Together: a talk about reasons and responses to collapse’. Just let r.thurm@r3– know or respond with a PM to posts on Linkedin or facebook.




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