Adaptation and resilience

11/11/2020

As the climate crisis looms large in our lives, we humans are sure to renew our awareness of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in natural systems. Homo sapiens have largely forgotten that we’re not just citizens of a nation, units in an economy or channelers of creativity and culture. We’re components of a bioregion and, ultimately, of the planetary biosphere. Humanity does not rule these realms. Instead, the same forces that govern any ecosystem, no matter its size or complexity, also rule us.  

Because our life support system is undergoing stress and radical change, it’s instructive to review a couple of ecosystem dynamics that come to the fore in these conditions: adaptability and resilience. 

To picture adaptation and resilience in a natural system, consider a tidal marsh that sits in an active earthquake zone: How permanent do you suppose that landscape is? What about a coastal dune system facing oceanic wave trains and weather fronts? Or a flood plain where a stream may carry big pulses of water from higher ground after heavy rains? How long will these systems remain static or stable?

Whenever change is catastrophic (a word that means “overturning”), ecosystems know how to respond. A marsh finds a new level where its roots can tap into salty water, its vegetation can build new soil, and its creatures can reinhabit their niches. Dunes find a new configuration, in dynamic interplay with the elements, to gather and shape the sand again. A riparian flood plain settles into a new profile with the stream flowing in its modified channel and the willows and ferns resprouting.

This is what ecologists call dynamic equilibrium: vulnerability to extremes, reorganization, and multiple pathways back to a modicum of stability. It’s an adaptive quality of living systems present on many levels, from your gut biome to a grazed pasture to a continent-wide forest. 

Natural systems, with their elegant dynamics, offer worthy models for humankind. At present, calamitous changes in our natural and built life-support systems impel us to modify our life strategies toward wiser adaptation capacities and greater resilience. Because we humans are causing planetary climate change, our first adaptive steps are to mitigate, or soften, the terrible consequences. 

Likely the first place to take on this challenge is in a home bioregion, together with other people. West Marin has growing opportunities and many resources in place for modifying our ecosystem to ensure the well-being of all its members. We also face the same disruption as everywhere else: There’s no localized immunity from the effects of climate change. Our lovely weather, modulated by the ocean, is giving way to extremes, with continued warming certain and prolonged drought likely. Fresh water supplies are fragile, especially in Bolinas and Inverness. Wildfire poses danger. The comfort zone that some (but not all) people here enjoy is fragile, as is true everywhere on earth. The economy we’re held within is unfair to some families and individuals. The future is shaky for young people growing up here, or anywhere.  

Yet the window remains open for humans to play by the rules of an ecosystem. There is a strong call within our West Marin bioregion, as elsewhere, to increase resilience on a community level, with no one left out. Proactive questions frame our adaptive options. Can we produce clean, reliable power for homes and schools and personal economies? Where will the majority of our food come from? Where can our homes and roads remain or move if sea level rises by a few feet? By a few meters? Can local agriculture restore the power of soils to draw carbon out of the atmosphere? Do our shopping habits have shadow costs due to long-distance shipping and trucking? What’s the ultimate price we pay for discarding so much plastic and even food waste? 

What will we bequeath to the people of the future, and how will we prepare today’s youth for their lives ahead? 

These questions have given rise over the past two years to West Marin Climate Action, which welcomes everyone in the bioregion to learn and participate. Our energy at present is focused on growing more of our food locally, reducing our plastic consumption and waste stream, optimizing solar electricity, and honoring youth leadership. Equity—everyone’s inclusion and well-being—is both essential and a challenge. Interconnections with county programs and the many local service organizations are huge assets.

Our human ecosystem will require more ideas, and more involvement, to grow its adaptive capacity. Instead of the old revolutionary call “Be part of the resistance,” the evolutionary call now—to take on the climate crisis—is “Be part of the resilience!”

Everyone is welcome to the free online gatherings coming soon: on local food resiliency, with gardener Burton Eubank, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19; and on reducing our plastic waste, with two films to view in late November and a panel discussion at 4 p.m. on Dec. 3. Learn more and register at westmarinclimateaction.org.  

 

Claire Peaslee is a writer and naturalist who lives in Point Reyes Station.