Grace Ross: Adaptation Can Be Deadly
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Adaptation could be described as your ability to function in lots of different contexts. Human beings have managed to build igloos to live where it seemed too cold for us to survive year round to huge skyscrapers – some trying to rival the height of a mountain – to living in blistering hot arid deserts.
But human adaptation skills went farther than that.
Not only can we make small changes around us to be able to psychically survive, but we became adept enough to actually alter the climate around us. Not just in some area like a crew of ants that build an anthill to safely live and work, but we can redo mountaintops and change lakes and rivers.
We seem almost infinitely able to adapt our environment to us as much as we adapt to our environment.
The problem is that mindless adaptation – changing ourselves to just get along with whatever changes are happening – can be dangerous.
There is the somewhat hypothetical scenario of the frog that jumps into the water and, because the water temperature is rising slowly, boils to death before it has the sense to jump out versus a frog that jumps, hits boiling water and immediately moves on because the contrast makes the life-threat unmistakable.
Perhaps the most chilling example of human adaptability gone wrong are the stories of and too often personal experience of the battered and batterer. Usually it’s a woman who’s battered by a man who’s a batterer, so that’s my reference even though the other way around also happens.
Typically, the relationship starts off well, often idyllically. The guy brings flowers and is incredibly responsive; the woman feeling extra special. Unfortunately, over time a cycle builds where good times still happen, but in between resentment often drives the batterer to slowly spiral down to anger and frustration that plays itself out in violence.
Battered women often stay because battering is not a constant. Like the frog with the hot boiling water, a woman would notice consistent danger and leave. In reality, violence tends to escalate slowly over time. It tends to be cyclical; a period of anger and violence and jealously, then one of trying to fix that and guilt and being extra nice. Usually over the years the battering periods get worse leading women to often end up permanently injured or dead.
This happens because the woman adapts. She comes to feel her behavior caused the situation. To survive, she comes to remember the good times when they’re happening and deny the bad ones, not even remember them often or numb herself to how bad they are.
The rest of us play a critical role around these relationships. The simple piece of offering a woman a way out may not be sufficient if she feels guilty or responsible. We need to help her stay in touch with reality – not denying how dangerous it is when things are bad, nor romanticizing the good times. While no relationships are perfect, we have to consistently reflect the difference between a standard set of relationship ups and downs and a dangerous relationship that is slowly spiraling out.
The battering example shows the human capacity to adapt includes denial. Denial can be a very powerful and important force for getting through a critically bad situation, but only in the short term. For instance, a soldier who runs off the battlefield having lost a foot: they manage the seemingly impossible to run and so escape to live to another day. If, however, that soldier stays in denial and never gets the foot treated they will die later. In life-threatening situations, your adrenaline rushes narrowing your view to the point of ignoring what is normally critical so you pay focus on what is critical for immediate survival.
Adaptation requires many different skills; denial is certainly one. You don’t have a foot, but at least you’re alive. But used repeatedly to settle into a life-threatening pattern like battering – well, you need friends who can face the reality and support you so you save your life.
A devastating, clear and probably irrefutable report has come out showing not just the significant climate change (increase in average, world-wide temperatures) over the last 1500 years, but actually going back almost 12,000 years. That length of time is beyond our capacity to imagine. It appears there is a somewhat cyclical nature to the temperature of the earth, but that that cycle is longer than our human memory really reaches.
There was an ice age, a warming period and now we are supposed to be in a cooling period.
Unfortunately, what is unprecedented is that average temperature rise has been so rapid and so dramatic. Measured through fossils from locations worldwide, our temperatures are projected to far surpass any previous record that we and our planet experienced over the last almost 12,000 years.
The real question is not whether this is true. This evidence is cleaner and researched through an irrefutable method.
The real question is what part of our adaptation skills are we as a human race going to choose to use in this situation? For those who find this hard to conceive of, we move towards the very natural adaptation skill of denial.
There can be nothing more critical than taking responsibility for not just for own lives, but those of our children and our children’s children.
If we are not about more than simply ourselves, then we are not even worthy of ourselves. We have an opportunity here to remember that we are a part of a larger human race and a larger planet. That is the reason the pace of temperature change matters so much.
While we have in our heads that we’re adaptable, that we can put all our stuff in the back of a truck and move farther north that is not true of the land masses, the water masses, and the plants and animals on whom we depend.
Because of rising ocean levels (part of the huge negative impact of Super Storm Sandy) we could lack enough land mass in 80 years for us to live and the animals, the plants, we need to live on. Then we have doomed our grandchildren’s children.
If we think we can just move the plants north with us, we are ignoring something. Even if the climate for our food plants is moving north, they may need more hours of daylight than that northern climate. They depend on things that we do not control like the angle of the earth to the sun, the lengths of the seasons and of the days. And we depend upon them.
The climate has changed 5 times as fast in the last 100 years than ever before.
So if we have truly muddied our nest or in this case baked, boiled and broiled our nest, then we cannot survive. We are not separate beings in the future nor are human beings separate from the nature within which we were born and to which we will die and within which we live during our days on this planet.
This is an opportunity within this crisis to reclaim a future for all of us and for our planet. I believe we can still do it.
We have got to start by avoiding the dangerous side of our amazing adaptation skills: mindless denial.
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