What's Tony Thinking

Our Capacity to Adapt: Strength Or Weakness?


One of the remarkable qualities of human beings is our capacity to adapt to changing conditions. It’s a great strength.

Last week I wrote about the excellent book by the British palliative care physician, Kathryn Mannix, With the End in Mind. More than one of the stories Mannix tells is of individuals who were ready to take their own lives in response to an illness and changed health. Yet with support, information about their condition, and good palliative care, they adapted to enjoy and find meaning in life in changed circumstances.

These are inspiring stories. Our capacity to adapt is truly remarkable. There are things we can’t control. We can, however, “rise to the occasion.”

But are there times when our capacity to adapt can be less helpful? I have also mentioned the current series of our book group on Climate Change. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of response to global warming. One is fundamental change in our energy system, moving from fossil fuels to a different system and to sources of energy that do not increase global warming. The other broad response is to adapt to global warming, accepting our rising temperatures and doing things to mitigate the problems and damage.

In the latter category, for example, are better preparation to cope with extreme weather events, like building sea walls and bulwarks against storm surges. Another example would be what we are witnessing amid record high summer temperatures, e.g. “cooling centers,” handing out free water, advice on how to manage and protect yourself and loved ones from high heat. Another adaptation is to put in air conditioning in climates, like the Pacific Northwest, where it wasn’t needed in the past.

Our response to climate change, will be both: decreased reliance on fossil fuels and adaptation in the face of the effects of global warming. But I worry that people and societies that can afford adaptation will opt for that without making more fundamental change.

My thinking that our brilliant human capacity to adapt might also prove problematic was given further impetus by reading in another terrific book I’ve mentioned lately, A Swim In a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. Saunders takes readers through a series of classic Russian short-stories and offers his commentary on them.

In writing about Nikolai Gogol’s very weird story, “The Nose,” Saunders notes how human beings adjust to stuff with which we ought not so readily adjust or, we are blithely indifferent because it doesn’t effect us directly. One day the main character, Kovalyov, finds his nose has gone missing. What ensues is a rather hilarious account of how Kovalyov responds on finding his face now “flat as a pancake.” Of course, Kovalyov’s missing nose which does eventually come back, is metaphor.

Saunders sees in “The Nose” a story about our human capacity to adapt to the outrageous. Kovalyov “adapts,” while the people with whom he interacts about his problem are polite, but indifferent. It doesn’t effect them. Here’s Saunders:

“So, everything goes on normally, though a man has lost his nose and crippled beggars are mocked in front of the cathedral and innocent prisoners rot in filthy czarist prisons and children starve while the rich dance at elaborate balls, and here we might list hundreds of other outrages that would have been occurring in that fictional St. Petersburg, on that March 25, 1835, or on any day, in any real city, outrages that, it is tacitly agreed by all of us must continue, because solving them would be beyond the scope of that which might be reasonably expected.”

” . . . we learn something about Kovalyov that rings true for all of us: he adapts quickly (too quickly) to insane new conditions.”




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