Justine Huxley writes:

“Yesterday, I found myself in Sainsbury’s with a friend and deep adaptation collaborator, having a powerful  moment of deja vu. As we walked along the rows of empty shelves, wondering if they would be replenished before our own cupboards ran bare, we were both having the weirdest feeling we’d been here before.      

Nine months ago, in one of St Ethelburga’s deep adaptation retreats, we had imagined this exact same scenario in great detail and prepared for it to become a reality.   But I’m not sure either of us thought we would see it with our own eyes in under a year.  

I watch this realisation land inside me.  

It’s here.  This is the moment.  Part of me is caught off guard.  But somewhere deeper – we are ready.   

Deep adaptation is about squaring up to the future that we as a species, are creating for ourselves.  It’s about allowing in the knowledge that much of the change we need, may be coming too late. It’s about holding a passionate vision for regeneration, whilst simultaneously preparing emotionally, spiritually and practically for a society disintegrating into collapse.   St Ethelburga’s leadership model has always included confronting worst case scenarios – because responsible leaders look to the horizons and attend to all potentialities. They ‘aspire for the best – and prepare for the worst’.  

In these retreats, we learn from experts in the fields of climate breakdown, migration and extremism (1), and then invite the participants to build up a detailed visual map of how the future could look if the radical transformation needed is slow to materialise.   

Images of empty supermarket shelves, skirmishes breaking out in car parks, and people being mugged for their food supplies crop up regularly when the group tackles this exercise.  

Hence the deja vu.  

Once we have that visual map, we separate out different aspects of collapse (such as food security, economic stability, biodiversity, conflict and violence, morals and mental health) and arrange them as 5 physical pathways that traverse the room (2), starting with where we are today and ending with the worst case scenario we are willing to consider in our lifetime.  Then we walk those trajectories, imaginging how it will be if/when those events unfold around us.  

It takes courage to do this.  Many people live with a nagging semi-conscious fear about what we are doing to Earth and to each other.  They skip past the scariest or saddest stuff in their newsfeed. They change the subject if it comes up in conversation.  They cling to a breed of hope unconnected with realism because to accept anything less is to face overwhelming grief and insecurity. But what we discovered is this:  the monster you look in the eye, is more manageable than the monster behind the wardrobe you try to block out of your mind. So, armed with this revelation, over the last 18 months, we have walked many groups of emerging leaders through the desperately bleak trajectories of social collapse.  Not to induce despair, but because when we are faced with the impossible, we are capable of extraordinary things.

St Ethelburga’s approach to deep adaptation (3) includes a model of values-based resilience.  It is a call to face reality, stand in solidarity, and dig into our values. After we walk the landscape we created with our alarming images, we go inside our hearts and ask: if these scenarios become a part of my future, by what values do I want to live?  What inner resources can help me find meaning in dark places? Then we walk the pathways again, holding those values alive within us – and notice how utterly different the experience becomes. The task then is to find creative ways to bake those values in, so they go through us like the writing in a stick of rock, while we still have the luxury of time to inwwardly prepare.

Pandemics like Covid-19 are not separate from climate breakdown and ecological destruction.  Ecologists and conservationists have been predicting this moment for a long time.  We have destroyed habitats, hunted wild animals to extinction, caused dramatic rises in temperature, changed the migration patterns of animals and humans, and altered ecosystems with blind disregard for the delicate balance held within the web of life.  The rise of zoonotic diseases is just another side effect of our destructive attitude. Now there is a new discipline, planetary health, which makes visible the connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living creatures and entire ecosystems.  Scientists also predict this is unlikely to be the last global pandemic. They could become a feature of the dangerously imbalanced world that is our legacy. We have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind.  

Right now, we are holding on to our hats, adjusting to the rapidly escalating situation, preparing for months of potential lockdown, hunkering down and waiting for the storm to hit. The luckiest among us may just run out of toilet paper. But others will lose people they love, their businesses or their lives. The government’s measures to support people will help individuals in the short-term, but the longer term economic impact could be brutal.  With a volatile financial system showing signs of meltdown, thinking too hard about where this could lead – either a few months or a few years on – is something many of us in the UK are not quite ready for.  

The morning after my supermarket deja vu, I could sense this in myself and the need to haul new monsters out from behind the wardrobe. I went back to our deep adaptation practices, and replayed that exercise in my imagination, asking myself: if things get tough, by what values do I want to live?  

When, god willing, we meet on the other side of coronavirus,  gathering once again in public squares, gratefully squashed on the Northern Line, flying kites together on Parliament Hill, and looking around, dazed, at a world that will never be the same again – I hope I can say, I stayed true to my promises.

What values will you live by? What collective values do we need in our communities, organisations, businesses, leadership and wider culture? And how can we root them down in ourselves, now, before the worst of the storm hits?


Join St Ethelburga’s weekly Friday lunchtime zoom call on living our values during covid-19. Watch this page for more info.

(1) With thanks to the many thought leaders who have helped inform the St Ethelburga’s approach, including: Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Professor Jem Bendell, Skeena Rathor, Gulwali Passarlay, Vanessa Andreotti, Sophy Banks, Toni Spencer, Vince Knowles and others too numerous to name.
(2) With thanks to Professor Jem Bendell for the inspiration behind this exercise and his analysis of the dimensions of societal collapse.
(3) St Ethelburga’s approach has drawn on the paper Deep Adaptation: A map for navigaing climate tragedy, and has evolved in line with our particular mission to include a strong emphasis on radical resilience, climate justice, building community across differences, values and diversity, mindfulness and deep ecology.

Deep adaptation
Radical Resilience
Standing at the Crossroads: Crisis, leadership and the financial sector
Listening to each other ~ Listening to Earth


St Ethelburga's Guest