There’s an interesting debate going on at Judith Curry’s website, ‘Climate etc’, about adaptation, based on a new book by Rafe Sagarin, called Learning from the Octopus. In the American fashion, the book has a long sub-title as well. He is a marine ecologist, which is why his examples are drawn from the sea.

Sagarin argues that we humans could learn from nature in our approach to really big issues. Other creatures learn to adapt to their circumstances, while we humans like to overcome the circumstances. In Sagarin’s view this is usually unproductive, because the world is a most unpredictable place. We tend to make over-precise plans for an uncertain future, and would do better to adapt, preparing for a number of possible eventualities, learning more before committing ourselves to a particular course of action, remaining flexible.

I have a lot of sympathy for this point of view, and wish I had followed it more often! I think back to my time in higher education when I was supposed to be steering our ship. Sagarin would have had me working out what the normal, frequent problems ahead might be. A new Minister for Education, with new priorities, and a new review of higher education – well, that turned out to be likely. And it was not much good suggesting to the Minister that he read the previous review reports. For him they were old hat, although they tended to say much the same things.

What else? Foreign student numbers could go right down. We could lose all our good staff. An epidemic could sweep through the student accommodation. No, Sagarin would say, you are dreaming up unlikely possibilities. Stick with the new Minister scenario, and work out what you might do. But stay flexible.

His approach seems to me to fit nicely in the environmental domain. Those preoccupied with global warming want us to cut carbon dioxide emissions, though it is plain that nothing Australia does will have any effect at all on the level of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. The Sagarin approach would push us towards dealing more purposefully with what are the normal, frequent environmental threats: floods, droughts and fires.

We’re a bit sick of all the rain – but surely we haven’t forgotten ten years of relatively dry conditions. We are doing some of the right things. We’re building a new dam, we’ve learned to use less water, we’ve changed what we plant in gardens. That’s preparing for the next drought. We don’t know when it will come, but there’s one ahead of us.

I think we should be doing much the same with floods and fires. Why not push some of the AGW money towards a lot more knowledge about ENSO, which does seem to be the big influence on the weather in eastern Australia. We had a dreadful fire in Canberra in early 2003. We will have other fires in the years ahead. How well are we adapting to those probabilities?

Interestingly, some of those commenting on ‘Climate etc’ are arguing that it is the human capacity to plan which accounts for the fact that human beings, rather than the octopi, are dominant on the planet. But our capacity to plan is a function, among other things, of our having developed language and writing. It is what we do with those attributes that is important, and for the moment, anyway, I think Sagarin’s approach has a lot to offer us.

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