October 2013

Inspiring Adaptation


Courtney White


The Westerner is less a person than a continuing adaptation. The West is less a place than a process.” – Wallace Stegner


From prehistoric times to the present, human societies have successfully adapted to the challenges of a changing West, including periods of bad drought, limitations created by scarce resources, and shifting cultural and economic pressures. However, the American West is entering an era of unprecedented change bought on by new climate realities that will test our capacity for adaptation as well as challenge the resilience of the region’s native flora and fauna. It is therefore paramount that we find and share inspiring ideas and practical strategies that help all of the region’s inhabitants adapt to a rapidly changing world.


But what is adaptation anyway? What I’ve learned over the past year is that there are two types of adaptation: short-tem and long-term. In the short-term, adaptation is a type of first responder—i.e., individuals, groups, communities and cities who see the early effects of a warming world, sense an emergency in the making and are taking action.


First responders aren’t particularly interested in why the emergency happened in the first place. Their job is to deliver aid, fix things that are broken, troubleshoot and deal with the mess generally. Their focus is on the acute side of the spectrum: hotter weather, bigger storms and more frost-free days. Triage here includes maintaining human well-being day-to-day, dealing with natural disasters, repairing infrastructure, adjusting to distorted rhythms of nature and coping with the cost of it all.


And it’s not just about humans. Heat-induced stress or a lack of food brought on by drought conditions is beginning to impact a wide variety of wildlife species as well.


On the long-term or chronic side of the adaptation spectrum are: the compounding effects of prolonged drought on water supplies and plant productivity, an increase in intensity and quantity of wildfire, expanded tree- and wildlife mortality, and reduced values associated with nature. Adapting to these latter challenges will be much more difficult and complex, partly because they are so unprecedented. They will also require a different sort of professional response—the difference, say, between an emergency-room doctor and a research physician or a medical disaster planner.


As Wallace Stegner noted, none of this should be news to westerners, especially the indigenous populations of the region. The West and water scarcity have gone hand-in-hand for centuries. Recently, however, we’ve managed to inoculate ourselves against climatic see-saws. We built reservoirs on the meager rivers to trap the water; we dug wells into the ground and attached electric pumps in order to draw out precious water from the deep; and lately, we’ve inserted long metal straws into the Río Grande and have begun sucking on their ends like someone trying to siphon gasoline from a car’s tank with a plastic hose.


It’s worked, at least temporarily. We’ve become so accustomed to this state of affairs, however, that we’ve let our guard down and eroded our ability to respond to the short-term emergencies or to take long-term threats seriously. The latter requires planning and transformational changes to business-as-usual. Are we willing to try? Tweaks won’t do it—a water conservation plan here, a ‘green’ building there, a research study in this place, a task force in that place—not in the long run, anyway.


Fortunately, there are a lot of scientists, ranchers, farmers, conservationists, urban planners and others who are working on short-term and long-term solutions and have bright ideas and important tools to share from their adaptation toolbox. We’ve assembled a wonderful group of them in this year’s Quivira Conference, this November in Albuquerque. I encourage everyone to come be inspired!




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