When people talk about adaptation that can make human populations more sustainable, they are thinking about behavioral adaptation rather than physical adaptation. That is, they are not thinking about people adapting to climate change by evolving gills or a different type of kidney so that rising sea levels aren’t a problem. They are thinking about people adapting to climate change in some behavioral way. Two specific scenarios are suggested in the casual (and sometimes not-so-casual) statements made in policy documents and media:
- Humans will behaviorally adapt in active ways such as building seawalls (to prevent drowning and so increase fitness), OR
- Humans will adapt in a Darwinian way (that is usually only implied) — meaning those who absolutely insist on living on a seacoast, for example, will experience Darwinian selection when they drown in a hurricane at some point and the gene to insist on living that way gets weeded out.
The first scenario — the one that involves building seawalls — manifests an enormously important paradigm of Western culture that’s actually maladaptive.
The second scenario is most commonly expressed in phrases that refer to “humanity’s” inability to live in a sustainable way. But of course, if you say that a behavioral trait such as “living unsustainably” is a trait of “humanity,” you are saying it’s a species-level genetically-based trait common to all Homo sapiens. The implication is that we poor humans literally cannot help but live unsustainably because it’s genetically hard-wired into every single human being. That idea lets us off the guilt and blame hook, so it’s attractive to many people. But if it’s true that unsustainable living is geneticaly innate in humans as a species, then we’re impaled on a whole different hook. Instead of simply learning to live sustainably, we have to swim against a tide of genetic programming forever to accomplish it.
It’s also worth pointing out that the existence of Indigenous cultures that understand sustainability and live that way pretty seriously negates the possibility that “unsustainability” is a trait of the entire species Homo sapiens.
So. The behavioral traits that make human populations live unsustainably can be seen not as species-level genetically-based traits, but rather as simple behavioral traits that are cultural and learned. In that case, learning to see things in a new way — having a paradigm shift — would lead to very rapid changes of behavior. Of course, that process of change would not be one of biological adaptation but simply of learning. Adaptation isn’t even necessary to change the behaviors we’re talking about.
The downside to all this, though, is that it leaves many people of the dominant culture feeling guilt and shame for the harm their ancestors’ ways have caused over the centuries. Negative emotions are so difficult for people of Western culture to handle that they’ve begun to engage in aggressive pushback in other areas of change. So if we really want to empower change, we need to help people deal with painful emotions they’re afraid they can’t survive feeling. We will actually address this issue more closely in Part 3 of the exercise.