“We Will Adapt” as Insult of Our Intelligence, and Call to Action

"Terrace Fields" in Peri-Urban China

Human Adapting? ... Making the Best of It

We human beings are a fascinating species.

Where the Darwin finches evolved into different species with differently shaped beaks, utilizing different resources (in ecological-evolutionary terms: occupying different ecological niches), we invent different techniques and technologies. We have specialized in being unspecialized, and thus managed to spread into just about every corner of this planet, even making forays into the deep seas and outer space.

"It's like farming in hell."Funny thing, though: Pretty much every human culture seems to have stories explaining how the world works, how people are supposed to act in it, and what catastrophe ensues when these rules are broken.

Now, modernity has made quite a bit of progress, and exactly by pushing boundaries and breaking some rules.

Apparently, we can fly – in some ways. We can reach the moon. We can build houses taller than the trees, and we can make lives longer and more comfortable. We can learn and adapt to many a change.
We can, unfortunately, change the very climate of this our world.

When a Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, says that climate change is real, but however it plays out (which we can’t predict with absolute exactitude), we’ll adapt to those changes the same we have been adapting all our lives, however, he not only misunderstands ecology – both adaptation and the world’s workings – he also insults our intelligence. The traditional one inherent in that wealth of stories, and the one each and every one of us is imbued with.

This insult of intelligence is so common as to be almost all-pervasive, though.

Civilizational Eco-Gambles…

One of the common ways it surfaces is, indeed, in the argument that humanity’s still here, and therefore, we’ll always adapt… That adaptation because of which humanity is still here is that human beings spread everywhere and found some ways to survive. So, when some got uppity in one place – breaking all the rules for living, or having conditions change for other reasons – and their civilizations collapsed – as Jared Diamond put it, they “[chose] to fail” – some people survived there (but usually, just barely), and certainly somewhere else.

Those were always gambles, though. And they were paid for in migration, conflict, strife and maybe even cannibalism, hunger and population decline. If that is the adaptation that people have in mind…

"Terrace Fields" in Peri-Urban China
Human Adapting? … Making the Best of It

But, at least those gambles had always been localized – and as the CEO of a global company should certainly understand, there isn’t much of any “local” unaffected by global patterns anymore. When it comes to the climate and the weather, there cannot, in fact, be such a thing on this Earth.

The adaptation through which human beings were able to spread basically everywhere on Earth is, in fact, both our lack of physical specialization, and the learning we are capable of. Not just getting by on very different resources, but also having those stories, and the skills they promote, very often telling people how to live in and as part of their ecosystems without destroying them.

So, how about we adapt the way we alone are capable of, by looking at the now and the future(s) we can imagine, and working to avoid the worse and shape the better? By making our ways of living fit in with the bounds of ecosystem functioning, and get to better from that essential foundation?

Suggest something like that, though, and another of the ways in which our intelligence is short-circuited into convenient inaction surfaces.

… and the Real Backwardness of Not Thinking Forward

Immediately, scaling back, fitting in, localizing and moving beyond a “growth” that is really destruction (but one that provides some comforts) are decried as attempts at moving (us) from the materialist modernity and all its comforts back to the Stone Age.

Suggest that local, organic farming is necessary and better, and people who have never seen any kind of agriculture suddenly seem to know all about the pitfalls and problems inherent in it.
Suggest that there are problems with an industrial economy, and in fact with societies and cultures that do not recognize limits to infinite growth, and you get asked if you want to give up on computers and all the other tools you use, and comforts you have, already.

Moreover, in another of those popular but truly insulting “short circuits of thought,” the observation that pollution decreased again as societies grew richer – the famous Kuznets curve – has come to be interpreted as a law of nature and plan of action: “Get rich first, clean up later.

Let’s just put it like that: If it seems to have worked for the West, it’s also because polluting industries were outsourced to places such as China. And as the situation in China makes abundantly clear, destroying functioning ecosystems and the environment, poisoning oneself first, and hoping to make enough money in the process to pay for cleanups later, is not the most sane approach to health, power, development, or anything good and worthwhile.

Already, it may be a dangerous “welcome to the rest of our lives” that we are seeing, and that has come from that insane approach.

The worst of that insult, though, is that there are chances for such a diversity of better ways of (making a) living…

“We are not going to win by praying for deliverance by the hand of God or waiting for deliverance through the wizardry of gadgets.”
Robert Jensen, Hope is for the Lazy 

To survive, and to thrive, we can create human ecosystems in which we shape but are a part of our ecological communities, of nature and society, neighborhood and world, using and enhancing productivity and resilience of the ecosystems in which we live, and thus the chances for our personal flourishing.
We can learn more, and become capable of more, in our own lives and in the work we do. We can find and create beauty, not just luxury and superficially good design in products that are made to speak to, but never satisfy, our desires for connecting and feeling in touch and in power.
We can re-take the power that is in our own hands, remember that we are creative and caring – or certainly can be.

All it takes is that we quit listening to people who say that we’ll adapt to whatever comes in the future, making us wait for deliverance while they continue to get richer and we all continue to get poorer and deeper into peril.

Sure, it is easy to continue with the comfortable “normality” that is holding us back. Still, we can shift to learning how else we can live already, and live much better, by  “adapting” our own ways, ourselves and the structures we live in, for the flourishing we seek. Now.


  1. “All it takes is that we quit listening to people who say that we’ll adapt to whatever comes in the future, making us wait for deliverance while they continue to get richer and we all continue to get poorer and deeper into peril.”

    This argument is AT LEAST as old as civilization, itself. And, although it may be true in theory, few have ever had the balls to practice it!

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