Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Adaptation and Resilience Are More Boring Than You Think

For some time now, the hot new thinking in the areas of climate change and environmental degradation has been all about "adaptation": how political, economic, cultural, and biological systems will respond to environmental changes to minimize human suffering (or maximize human flourishing; pick your moral poison). This is in contrast to "mitigation" efforts, like enacting carbon taxes, which seek to prevent harmful environmental changes in the first place. "Resilience" is best understood as adaptation's conceptual cousin: how can we preemptively modify our political, economic, cultural, and biological systems to reduce the human costs of disruption caused by adaptation to environmental changes?

These concepts seem highfalutin, but they're not. In fact, they're so straightforward and mundane that examples abound in any daily newspaper. The Economist recently had a nice piece about how the fishing industry is splitting into two market segments: more efficient, more commoditized "aquaculture" (farming), and costlier, more upscale "capture" (wild). Also in the news has been the "in vitro" burger, a lab-grown synthetic meat product.

It's not just about community spirit guys
Photo Credit: baylocalize.org
The environmental dimension in these stories isn't immediately apparent. After all, these are simple technological changes that one might expect given the similar market dynamics at play. In both cases, we have shortages increasing (or threatening to increase) the price. In beef's case, increasing demand in developing countries is placing strain on available land. For fish, the ocean's collapsing ecosystems are reducing supply. That these market changes are terminal in nature creates a huge incentive for producers to develop low-cost alternatives.

But these two new production methods are also increasing the global food system's resilience. By decoupling the production process from nature (beef from farmland, fish from oceans), these products get less exposed to environmental risk. Adapting to future environmental changes, such as further ocean ecosystem collapse, or marginal farmland becoming unavailable, will be much easier. Beef and fish will still be around for consumption, preventing an economically (and culturally) painful transition away from them.

The more we recognize that existing, mundane market mechanisms are the channel through which most environmental adaptation and resilience will occur, the better off we'll be in confronting future challenges.

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