For background on this 3-part series, see the introductory post “Many Cool Heads for a Hot and Unequal World: Reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences“ which reflects on a Global Environmental Change editorial by Arun Agrawal and others. Here is Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.
The “Cool heads for a hot world – Social sciences under a changing sky” editorial ends on an evocative note, using the familiar yet cautionary tale of Icarus who flies too close to the sun and when his wax wings melt, falls to his death. The authors ask, did Icarus falter because of an overconfidence in his wings (a technical solution as the editorial highlights) or his outsized ambitions (a psychological failure)? Or perhaps it was the moral failure of not listening to his father’s caution. They end that perhaps a ‘well-adapted’ solution, a parachute, could have helped Icarus land, singed and perhaps bruised, but alive nonetheless.
As I look back to the editorial from the vantage point of today, I think the adaptation research community, of which I count myself a part of, has made progress on many fronts. And yet, we have some big questions unanswered. We know the outlines of what effective adaptation could and should look like but the specifics of it remain elusive, the mechanics of getting to it even more so. We continue to stumble on foundational definitions, for example, adaptive capacity and adaptation are routinely used interchangeably (it’s my favourite nerdy pet peeve) and practical delineations between adaptation and development remain. We have too much data on some things (think community-based adaptation, studies comparing perceived and observed risk) and negligible data on others (empirical evidence of maladaptation, of transformation adaptation). Finally, the psychology of adaptation needs more attention and will shape how we can incentivise and enable adaptation.
More critically, I think the imagery of Icarus holds, with one caveat. In today’s unequal world, there are many Icarus – some with synthetic, solar-powered wings, flying towards the sun and burning the world in their wake; others with parachutes to soften the blow; a few Icarus have energy bars to keep them going, they have rudimentary face shields, perhaps, donated by a wealthy IcarusTM. Some Icarus have migrated to the moon, while others have pooled money to build a cheap airship (it’s promising but needs more funds and ‘technical transfers’). And then there’s a vast sea of Icarus that watch their skies clouded with fliers but are unable to fly themselves. They clean the debris of the fallen solar wings, they sweep away the fallen Icarus, and they continue to live flightless lives**.
* A Siders’ new paper “Deciding how to make climate change adaptation decisions” looks particularly promising here. I am, as I
suspect know we all are, woefully behind on all academic reading.
** This last bit draws on what I believe has been one of the biggest ‘waves’ in recent adaptation scholarship – a serious engagement with issues of justice and equity. My go to reading on this is Scholsberg’s 2011 Climate Justice, Vulnerability, and Adaptation: A Capabilities Approach; Tim Forsyth’s frank ‘Climate justice is not just ice’; and my aspirational read is this new Coggins et al. paper.