Wednesday, 7 March 2012
Adaptation - I just don't get it
Winners and losers - natural, inevitable and evolutionary or created by processes that
benefit some at the expense of others?
You say adaptation, I say adaptation (let’s call the whole thing off)
If we’re going to talk about adaptation in the context of climate change it is probably a good idea to be clear about what we mean. In a hugely influential paper published in 2006 (generating a whopping 686 academic citations by my recent count), Smit and Wandel suggest that there whilst there are numerous definitions of adaptation to be found in the literature on climate change, they are mostly variations on a theme: “Adaptation in the context of human dimensions of global change usually refers to a process, action or outcome (system, household, community, group, sector, region, country) in order for the system to better cope with, manage or adjust to some changing condition, hazard, risk or opportunity.” (p.282)
In talking about scale or, in simpler language, who or what is required to do the adapting, Smit and Wandel observe that analyses range from consideration of an individual or household at one of the spectrum to the whole of mankind at the other. On a related point, adaptation may be required in response to one particular stress (such as sea level rise and coastal flooding/erosion) or multiple stresses. Questions of timescale can also be brought into play – is change required this moment, this year, this decade, or are we looking at centuries? A moveable feast, then.
Also helpful is Smit and Wandel’s tracing of the idea to evolutionary biology, and mapping of how its meaning has changed as it has been differently applied. Originally referring, they say, to “development of genetic or behavioural characteristics which enable organisms or systems to cope with environmental changes to survive or reproduce” (p.283), ‘adaptation’ (according to Denevan whom they cite) might be broadened in the human context to encompass response not only to the physical environment, but also a “change in internal stimuli such as demography, economics and organization.” (p.283)
Climate stress and human activity
Why is this important? Well, it occurs to me, for example, that the latter interpretation encourages us to think more deeply about how climate stresses are framed by human activities. If, for example, we take Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and apply to it a simplistic ‘environmental change’ analysis, we might argue that the Joads and their neighbours had to leave their Oklahoma homes and move on simply because drought had rendered their farms no longer viable. It requires Deneven’s broader conceptualization to understand the Joads’ plight more in terms of changing agricultural practices and their effects, the Great Depression, and the policies and practices of the banks in foreclosing on them that we have come to associate with the story. I’ve long been an admirer of Steinbeck, and it has occurred to me more than once in recent years that in his reporting on the shabby treatment of the vulnerable he is very much a writer for our times.
Some researchers have sought to analyse policy discourse on climate change using pretty much the two distinct positions briefly outlined above. Drawing on what they describe as “cornerstone social and scientific theories” (p.91), O’Brien and Leichenko propose “two basic and contrasting views of winners and losers” in terms of climate change impacts. (p.93) The first – linked with social Darwinism, environmental determinism and neo-classical economics – “suggests that winner and losers are a natural, inevitable and evolutionary outcome of either ecological outcomes or the invisible hand of the free market – processes that are regarded as working for the larger good”. (p.93) …The second view – linked to Marxian perspectives - suggests that winners and losers are deliberately created through processes that benefit some at the expense of others.” (p.93) To simplify, losses to climate are broadly justified (desirable, even) by the first analysis, but not by the second.
Are coastal dwellers adapting to climate change or, as I see it, to an understanding of projections of climate change filtered through political preferences and resulting policies? We have seen that ‘adaptation’ as a term might cover a range of ideas, processes and activities that can differ hugely. The London dweller who may never have heard of the Thames Estuary 2100 project that will protect her and her interests from sea level rise in perpetuity – she is adapting to climate change by Smit and Wandel’s definition. So too is the rural coastal dweller who is told he can expect to lose his house uncompensated and who spends his days and nights organising his neighbours, writing to officials and reading policy documents.
And yet in the time I have spent dealing with those who make and discharge policy I have picked up the strong sense that ‘adaptation’ is only really used in reference to those people and communities where the sums for state investment in effective sea defence don’t add up. Recent Environment Agency guidance for those working on the coast that “A number of ‘tools’ are available to help individuals and communities to adapt and become more resilient to coastal change and sea level rise, especially where coastal defence measures are not an option (my italics)” (p.154) would appear to lend credence to this view, although of course this may be designed to reflect the interests of the intended audience (I will attempt a fuller analysis of UK government discourse at some point).
Sometimes, when I am tired and my resilience in the face of all this has deserted me, my imagination leads me to the time when my home is pulled down in the face of the sea and we must leave (although in reality I will probably be long dead by then). My family and I load our things into our jalopy and join the other losers on the dusty road to higher ground to begin our new lives. As the road climbs I look back at the estuary we are leaving behind – in the distance I can see the new flood barrier and, safe behind it, the skyscrapers owned by the global banking corporations, the cathedral spires, the faint roofline of the busy city. Much closer, the bulldozers bite into the walls of our house with disconcerting ease – soon it will be hard to tell that it, and we, were ever there. Scanning a printed flyer promising work opportunities further west, I comfort myself with the thought that – even though we must surely suffer casualties along the way – this is natural, inevitable and evolutionary, and that we are all of us now properly adapted.
 Smit, B. and Wandel, J. 2006. Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, vol. 16, pp.282-292.
 O’Brien, K.L. and Leichenko, R.M. 2003. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 93(1), pp. 89-103.
 Environment Agency. 2010. The coastal handbook. A guide for all those working on the coast.