Dancing in the Dark

Or, as the case may be, making tea. A few moments ago, I went upstairs, washed a few dishes, and made tea, all with the lights off (note: I’m writing this around 11:00 pm). As I was walking through the several small rooms between my desk and the stairs, it was so dark that I couldn’t quite make out the locations of the door handles. None of the small actions I took were big feats, but doing it with the lights off reminded me of my other senses, and of the time I lived in a place that didn’t have wall switches (it was a trailer with the switches built into the ceiling-mounted lights, so you had to reach up and fumble for the switch).

An old flatmate of mine used to leave her bedroom light on, nearly 24/7. I never could tell whether she was in the room or not, because the light would be on no matter what (in fact, since she did turn it off to sleep, it was more likely that she was in the room if it was off). My father and I used to share a home office, and when one of us would get up to make tea, frequently we would also turn out the light on our way through the door–even with the other person still in the room!

Seen in the dark, in Lyon. (Not in the kitchen.)

Seen in the dark, in Lyon. (Not in the kitchen.)

I’m curious about the minute motions of daily tasks. As I washed my spoon by touch, I realized that the family I work for was sitting in the next room probably wondering why I hadn’t turned on the lights (if they noticed at all). It didn’t feel necessary, but it did strike even me as a little odd. Working in a 1661-style building one summer, I became used to drawing my chair up to the window if I wanted enough light to read. I stopped reaching for the light switch when it grew dark inside the building, and I paid more attention to the physicality, rather than the visual cues, of the small hand tasks I learned there–but this isn’t normal. Normal 21st century people in the developed world automatically flip switches as they enter and exit rooms.

I just found an old note I had written to myself with definitions of resilience versus adaptation. Resilience is a measure of how long it takes for an ecosystem to bounce back to a previous stable state; in contrast, adaptation is the transformation to an alternative stable state (one better suited for changed conditions). When I wrote this note to myself, I had been muddling these two words amidst lengthy babble about sustainable this, sustainability that.

Resilience and adaptation are closely linked. Both are important in the field of sustainability, if you want to think about sustainability as a subdivided area of work and study. Both are also important ideas relating to mental state and our daily lives. How quickly can we recover from damaging events in our lives? How clear is our sense of inner direction, integrity? Yet, overall, our lives continuously shift. In a sense, a human life is never exactly in a stable state. As we grow up and continue to age, our needs and desires change. In that sense, we must continually adapt.

In more ecological terms, we like to focus on sustainability first (because it means a maintaining of the status quo, more or less), resilience second (because it indicates speedy recovery and the eventual return to ‘normal’), and adaptation last. Realistically, though, adaptation–for most, if not all, of the human population–is going to be the most realistic path in the face of climate change. ‘Normal’ isn’t working, and is making the world more unsafe for the future.

Lacking from the definition of ‘adaptation’ is the possibility of prediction. Adaptation is typically a reactive, not proactive, way to deal with events. Before living without wall switches, I never reached for the ceiling to turn on the lights. Change the location of the switches and suddenly my light-turning-on habits changed as well. But when we ask people to reduce their carbon footprints by turning off lights, we’re asking for, essentially, proactive adaptationWe’re asking people to change their habits without any direct circumstantial “training.”

When my automatic behavior to find wall switches ended, it was due to overwhelming, repetitive correction to the behavior. It is a quick action with almost immediate consequences. Climate change works in precisely the opposite way; it is slow-building and its effects are barely noticeable now. Events we may be able to frame as “corrections,” such as Hurricane Katrina, are also tangled up in larger systematic issues. These events affect entire cities and regions, not solely single citizens. Though the effects are felt by individuals, the actions required to avoid or adapt are predominantly collective.

Light switches are human-scale; climate change is not. How do we communicate about large-scale adaptation when our own understanding of the world is myopically limited? Hmmm. Well, this gun’s for hire.

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