Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why Adaptation Is A Good Thing

As I mentioned in my last post about adaptation, there is some controversy swirling around adaptation which has prevented it from taking as prominent a position on the world's stage as it should. Now, some of you who read my last post might think, wait, why would adaptation be controversial?

Well, it's controversial for the reasons Diane MacEachern encapsulated in her comment:
Though adaptation is part of evolution, I think it gets us into trouble in the
industrial age. It seems like the notion that we'll adapt to the problems we
create generates a barrier to the idea that we should prevent problems from
happening in the first place. I'd like to see a greater emphasis on "prevention"
and more caution around the notion of adaptation.

Essentially, adaptation became controversial because people feared that if we started discussing adaptation, people would figure that we didn't need mitigation.

Now, I love Diane. I adored her book (go read it by the way!) So, I say this with nothing but admiration and respect for Diane. I think the idea that we should be wary of adaptation in and of itself is really wrongheaded and dangerous.

Let me give you an analogy. Let's say you don't believe that teens should have sex. Then you might argue, well, we shouldn't talk about condoms because that's encouraging teens to have sex. Now, and again, this is my opinion, but in my opinion, talking about condoms does not encourage teens to have sex. Talking about condoms simply informs and empowers teens, allowing them to make better decisions. And frankly, given that many teens are having sex, not talking about condoms is basically burying your head under the proverbial sand. It doesn't make the problem go away.

Basically, mitigation-only environmentalism is like abstinence-only education. It's a denial of the reality on the ground which is that global climate change is happening. Now. And people *have* to learn to adapt. (And by the way, I'm not saying Diane advocates mitigation-only environmentalism, because I don't think she does.)

So what I'm saying is we must, must, must talk about adaptation, and we do need to adapt. BUT, and this is where I think Diane and I agree, this doesn't mean we should accept any old adaptation strategy presented at us. For example, I remember during the great tomato outbreak, one of the adaptive strategies tossed around was, "Just cook all your vegetables!" Uh, no. That's a stupid form of adaptation.

So, while in and of itself, adaptation is a good thing and not something to be wary of, we do need to critically assess adaptation strategies to decide whether or not they are reasonable solutions. If you want to go back to my previous analogy, what I'm basically saying is adaptation, like birth control, is good. But just like all forms of birth control are not equal (some are good, some are bad, some are stupid) all forms of adaptation are not equal. But just because some forms of adaptation are bad does not mean we should stop talking about adaptation. Rather, it means we need to discuss adaptation MORE so we can start to truly figure out what are good adaptive strategies versus bad ones.

Our focus should not be: should we adapt?
Instead our focus needs to be: how do we adapt?


Joyce said...

I think another alalogy might be found in the area of medicine. Say we put all of our emphasis on getting terrifically good at treating breast cancer, but never even think about what might prevent it in the first place. I don't think many of us would accept only the one approach without the other. BOTH are clearly important. The same is true with climate change.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I love your analogy! I have to confess to thinking much more about mitigation than adaptation, but your argument makes a lot of sense.

Amber said...

When I first started really educating myself on climate change issues, I came across many terms new to me then, familiar to me now. 'Mitigation' and 'adaptation' were two words I added to my climate change vocab.
I still remember the shock and concern I felt when I started reading all kinds of stuff about adaptation. I thought, "Whoa, we're already talking about this? What about mitigation? What about prevention? I'm just getting started here, I'm not ready to adapt yet!"
I thought focusing on adaptation was conceding defeat and giving up the game. I got really depressed after that.
Then of course I realised that, as you say, climate change is happening now, and adaptation must and is taking place. This doesn't need to exclude mitigation.
I view adaptation as another tool in the kit to use when needed. And I've also learned that many adaptive measures can also help mitigate things like climate change and resource depletion, and vice versa. Shopping locally now reduces dependence on fossil fuels. Shopping locally in the future is something that people will have to adapt to when fossil fuels can no longer be relied on to transport food.
For me they are both connected.

Farmer's Daughter said...

To continue the birth control analogy... We also need to know what REALLY will work as adaptation and what is an urban legend. That's why the people in the know need to talk about adaptation, and not just let the kids hear about it on the street.

Anonymous said...

Can you give me an example of a time when mitigation has supplanted an adaptive strategy that would have been useful in a developed society? I understand that adaptation and mitigation both serve a purpose but I don't understand why you need to address adaptation and mitigation simultaneously, since it seems like adaptation is generally reactive, not proactive, and would mostly take care of itself... do you see what I'm saying?

I understand why we might have a responsibility to make sure underdeveloped nations have the resources to adapt when global warming like, sinks their islands and destroys their ability to farm rice, but that seems like it has more to do with globalization and economics than it does with climate change per se.


ruchi said...

Honda, you bring up an interesting point about adaptation taking care of itself. Adaptation can only take care of itself when a society has the wherewithal to do so. We can't trust that adaptation will just happen because 1) sometimes there are innovations we haven't come up with yet and 2) because not all societies have equal capabilities. Thus, even if we have the technological resources available, a society might not have the social or financial capital to adapt. So, I would argue that we can't trust adaptation to happen.

In terms of the developed world, um, let's see. I think you could make the case that the US focus on mitigation, mitigation, mitigation means the US environmentalists are not pushing as much as they should be on further strengthening the levees in New Orleans which apparently were leaking a year ago. If we are worried about climate change and potentially rising water levels, we should be pushing to get those levees strengthened. But that's not a priority as far as I can tell of American environmentalists. Why?

I don't really follow your point about developing countries. Can you explain that a little more?

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Have you watched this video about Kiribati's attempts at adaptation to climate change?

There's a part in the video where the president of Kiribati tries to talk about adaptation policies with the UN, and they were too busy talking about the economic impact of climate change prevention to listen. Their disregard for what is a huge issue for the people of Kiribati infuriated me.

I think that's when your point about adaptation really hit home for me. They say in the video that by 2050 there will be 250 million climate change refugees. Whether we want to or not, we're going to have to start looking at adaptation as a real issue.

Jennifer said...

SO true... great analogy. The hardest part will be figuring out WHAT works... what is the "condom", and what is "pulling out". And, figuring out who is the "teenager next door" and who is the "trusted science teacher or doctor" so we get the RIGHT info. Good luck to us all!

Silver Pen said...

I love what Joyce said about Cancer. I have been really disterbed by all of the products pushing the 'pink'. Beacuse a lot of cancer is really linked to contaminats in our enviornment. I live in a farming comunity which uses a lot of pesitisides and petrochemical fertilisers. Which are leaking into our groundwater. We have a higher than average canser problem around here yet no one wants to talk about it. I think adaption might apply here. We need to realize that we have an impact on our enviornment and perhapas stop doing it. Perhpas change how we get our clean water perhaps do someting else. But just pretending we can solve the probelem by detecting cancer faster and finding a cure isn't really adressing the real issue.

I think its very intresting that you talk about adaptation and mitigation. Until I read this blog I had never heard either term.

Buy Tamiflu said...

Actually the arguments against adaptation seem to be unconvincing.