The Ideology of Escape

This post is taken from Professor Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation Forum newsletter

That modern humans have been oppressing and destroying life on Earth is the most obvious and salient observational fact of our time. I am interested in the deepest reasons for that, beneath the injuries from colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, anthropocentrism and such like. The core ‘why’ that is found within the collective psyche of modern humans, albeit to varying degrees. I call it the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e, where each letter of the acronym describes a way of thinking and feeling, which co-produces our (now empirically-observable) omnicidal culture. The ideology expresses itself through us due to our understandable, but problematic, aversion to impermanence and death.

Entitlement involves thinking “you must make me feel better.”

Surety involves thinking “I will define you and everything in my experience so I feel calmer..”

Control involves thinking “I will try to impose on you and everything, including myself, so I feel safer.”

Autonomy involves thinking and feeling “I must be completely separate in my mind and being, because otherwise I would not exist.”

Progress involves thinking and feeling “the future must contain a legacy from me, or make sense to me now, because if not, then when I die I will die even more.”

Exceptionalism means assuming “I am angry at this world because much about it upsets me and so I prefer to think I’m better and/or needed.”

Modern humans, like me, and probably you, are addicted to these patterns of thought, and therefore this ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e. We will never be cured but can seek support to enter constant recovery. The patterns give rise to attitudes like individualism, nationalism, fundamentalist religiosity, and selfish spiritualities, as well as systems like capitalism, neoliberalism, and nationalism.

As we become aware of how bad our environmental predicament now is, plus how it is the result of our civilisation and not an accident, so we can observe this ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e. We can begin to recognise it as limiting what we can imagine and how we might collaborate. That is what has happened to me, and many people I talk with in the emerging fields of deep adaptation and ‘collapsology’. However, just because we begin to recognise aspects of e-s-c-a-p-e ideology does not mean we will escape it. The same ideology often arises in conversations and initiative on deep adaptation. Insight on that comes from the international ‘Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures’ arts and research collective, which seeks to identify and de-activate colonial habits of being. Their members suggest that certain mental and emotional processes will be happening within most of us when we engage with any initiative of global change (see the table below).

I demand that you sanction my… I demand that climate activism or deep adaptation… I demand that climate activism or deep adaptation makes me feel…
Entitlement meets my existing desires, hopes and expectations inspired, moved, elated, validated and justified in my demands and consumptive desires
Surety gives me a guaranteed known alternative for the future certain, safe, redeemed, hopeful, comfortable, righteous, positive and “rescued” when I feel uncomfortable or fragile
Control empowers me to have everything on my terms morally and intellectually authoritative and legitimate in determining meaning, direction and justice
Autonomy affirms that everything is my choice including interdependence and responsibility free to make choices and have those affirmed as legitimate (regardless of the consequences for others)
Progress allows me to determine the way forward according to my vision of what is real and desirable that my life has/had purpose and that I will be remembered for the important legacy I am leaving behind
Exceptionalism validates my self-image, my feelings and my ideas as legitimate, unique and indispensable praiseworthy, enthroned, exalted and deserving of my privileges

If this ideology is why modern humans oppress and destroy life on Earth, and we will keep succumbing to it even as we awaken to it, I wondered how we might better help each other in our continuous recovery. Therefore, I asked Deep Adaptation Holding Group member, Professor Vanessa Andreotti, who is a co-founder of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective, who offered the following perspective:

“E-s-c-a-p-e can be seen as an affective and relational pattern (of hopes, fears and desires) with an ideological/intellectual surface. The deeper aspects of it work like an addiction (a predicament) and need constant observance and management in order to be interrupted. The interruption process may itself depend on a number of stages of “hospicing” including:

  1. “reaching rock bottom” and accepting the patterns as limiting the imagination, restricting possibilities and damaging relations;
  2. losing the satisfaction with the securities and rewards that these patterns offer;
  3. building capacity and stamina for sitting with difficult things (including complexities, uncertainties, failures, paradoxes, dis-illusionment, pain, death, grief and the shame, guilt and worthlessness associated with complicity in harm) without being irritated, overwhelmed or immobilized (de-infantilizing, de-arrogantizing, breaking the narcissistic mirror);
  4. sitting with and composting difficult things without burdening othered bodies, facing collective pain and unprocessed collective traumas, integrating painful lessons as learning experiences, committing to the uncomfortable work towards individual and collective maturity and sobriety;
  5. then disinvesting from patterns that are limiting and/or harmful. In this sense we cannot escape E-s-c-a-p-e, we can only learn to dis-invest (as opposed to “divest”) from it through discernment and discipline as well as expanding exiled somatic capacities (in the individual and collective bodies/ neurogenesis).”

I recommend engaging in discussion about how to aid mutual recovery from e-s-c-a-p-e. The Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective has made a few pedagogical tools available to support this process. Vanessa recommends the with/out modernity cards (especially the fragilities suite), the radars to learn to read and to be read text, and the exercises “Why I can’t hold space for you anymore” and “Co-sensing with radical tenderness.”

A long form essay on the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e is available. In it I also describe how modern monetary systems reward feelings, thoughts and behaviours that reproduce this ideology. So that is also something to engage with further, as I did here some years ago in a TEDx talk on the problem.

On July 6th I host Extinction Rebellion co-founder Skeena Rathor for a Q&A, and we will likely discuss the themes arising here. Join us?