The Great Adaptation

When Nicolaus Copernicus published his model of heliocentrism (positing the Sun as the centre of the universe) in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres just before his death in 1543, he accomplished what amounts to the literal moving of heaven and Earth. He also politely informed his five hundred million planetary (human) cohabitants of their mediocrity.

The “Copernican Revolution” then, is not a hyperbolic moniker (although its downgrading of humanity is certainly anti-triumphalist, as revolutions go.) It set in motion, along with our revolving planet, the scientific age, and in retrospect even managed to spin a measure of irony. Since while humanity’s displacement from the centre of the universe must surely rank as one of our more embarrassing and humbling moments, it begot the dispassionate and empirical methods of our eventual technological mastery, placing us firmly in the more relevant centre of control of our own destiny. In short, heliocentrism provided the kind of adaptive opening on which life advances.

Although Copernicus had no way of knowing the full consequences of his insight, he knew enough to purposefully alter his calculations to preserve the metaphysical implications of the mathematic order within the prevailing Ptolemaic system. Whether or not it was the case, it is hard not to read this capitulation to orthodoxy as apologetic of our unbridled future hubris.

The moral offence of the modern world toward the living world is now so total in its conceit it can no longer remain obscure to even the most purblind. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say the physical offence toward the living world, since—it would appear from the widespread advocacy for economic “growth” and all its tailings—so few people are willing to grant life enough basic dignities to justify a moral offence. This helps explain the subsequent paucity of moral defence of the living world. And also, the aseptic and euphemistic terminology of environmental remediation. Thus, amid the nightmarish predictions of climate disruption, which include the collapse of the ocean food chain, the desertification of the American bread basket, the mass extinction of vertebrates, and the unprecedented migration of entire human populations, we are presented by the world’s top scientists with two irreproachably unsympathetic options: mitigate or adapt.

Both of these “now or later” alternatives rely—to the virtual exclusion of other means—on the sort of technocratic solutions industry experts are most fluent. Although they embody the manipulative compulsions responsible for our current situation, they have the advantage of seemingly reducing the possible collapse of human history to nothing more than an engineering problem. The now obvious fact that nature is too complex to “manage” is irrelevant. To the technocrat, the solution to an out of control climate is to introduce new controls. Hence the ever more ambitious plans to control emissions, control population, control development, control economic expansion—even, as backup, to control the weather through an engineered climate. The logic of such a course is, one assumes, pathologically durable enough to conceal the inherent flaw of compounding a problem through its deeper elaboration (in precisely the kind of negative feedback that characterizes climate change.) If the hubris to preside over nature is the heart of our problem, how much can be solved by preserving the outdated “metaphysical implications” of a subservient living world? Perhaps, as with the events of 1543, changes of a certain scale only occur with some capitulation to orthodoxy, which in our case, as in the time of Copernicus, is an abiding belief in human ascendancy.

While technical intervention is a necessary component of averting environmental ruin, it is a secondary matter of detail. The primary concern is systemic, universal, and broad. It is a governing principle, not an exact prescription. And it is most importantly, a moral safeguard against the automatic acquiescence to amoral technologies. Before we can begin to ask the question of how to address our environmental problems, we must first answer the question of our proper function within the greater living community, and what opportunity we can provide for the community’s enhancement.

The peculiarity of such a concern is itself indicative of our situation, since it raises, what is in essence, a question of biological determinism. An organism’s purpose is ordinarily resolved in the gradual processes of natural selection—processes we have escaped, but are no less subject to. Our present challenge is to re-integrate with nature in a symbiotic way, engaging consciousness in a manner that increases complexity through mutual benefit. Although we are in constant interaction with the living world, our most profound effects tend toward the diminishment or reduction of nature. Our relationship is extractive, non-reciprocal and brutalizing. Faced with the limits of this dynamic, we must harness our endowment of self-awareness toward the realization of a new evolutionary imperative. We must adapt—once again—to the evidence of our mistaken exceptionalism, while constructing a mode of being that allows for the full expression of the gifts that make us different. As in the latter half of the sixteenth century, we must find the courage to thrive within our proper place in the universe.

In the lexicon of climate change, “mitigation” is the term used to describe the reduction or prevention of our effects on climate. In contrast, “adaptation” is a process of adjustment to climate change’s impacts. Both terms derive from interventionist thinking: they presume, in conventional usage, a level of subordination in nature, and endorse a reflexive adoption of industrially based counter-measures. They are reactive in the sense they prescribe action from our existing worldview. Consequently, implicit in their use is the continued coercion of nature.

It is becoming the platitude of our time to suggest the human species has never faced a problem as complex, pervasive, intractable, or grave as climate change. But not only is it (incomprehensibly) true every sector of society will need to change—from food production to manufacturing to transportation—every different society will need to change. It is a problem uniting all of humankind—every demographic and every culture from every part of the world. We are faced with the literal remaking of not simply “our society,” but our species. And in less than fifty years.

So with due respect to Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe may indeed be long, but time is short. Both the scale and urgency of climate change are making it increasingly clear we can no longer attempt to solve our problems with the same mindset that created them. In fact, it is the overwhelming—one might say, universal—nature of climate change that is forcing a hard look in the mirror. The real adaptive opening before us lies in the paradoxical truth that although humans have caused the problem of climate change, humanity may be the cure: the forethought, humility, empathy, and goodwill we equate with the highest expressions of the human community, and that are so undeniably absent from the human economy. What we need before any technocratic fix is to awaken the resilience and maturity of those innate capacities for cultural advancement found in the authentic acceptance of the living world as home.


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