Friday, January 4, 2008

Another way of describing adaptation

I get tired of writing, uttering and thinking the word. Many people tell me it's way too early to even suggest that we be talking about it. To suggest that we begin planning how to adapt to climate change implies that we've given up and surrendered. The climate wins. We lose and submit. So I was glad to hear someone NOT use the word while making the point I seek to make.

Today's editorial in the online version of the Huntsville (Alabama) Times does not use the word adapt in any form - not adaptation, nor adaptive, nor even adaptable. We are spared by John Ehinger of the editorial board.

Northern Alabama is, of course, living through the same extreme drought conditions as northern Georgia. What's interesting to me is how the writer frames the issue and - as he puts it - "What's to be done?"

The year 2007 was the driest of three straight dry years locally.

Because the fractions don't count for much, let's just round the numbers off a little. In 2007, Huntsville's rainfall was just over 28 inches. That was almost 30 inches below normal. The same thing, though sometimes to a lesser degree, occurred over other portions of Alabama and the Southeast.

What's to be done? Start with what's not to be done.

The lack of rainfall - at times characterized by the phrase "exceptional drought" - was not the result of some bureaucrat's oversight or an ill-conceived government policy. Human beings in the 21st century are the beneficiaries of (and the victims of) the same cycles of nature that have long influenced both human progress and, over the eons, life on Earth.

But, again, what's to be done? What has to be done is coping. We have to find ways to manage in years of exceptional drought as well as in years of excessive rainfall.

In other words, we have to use resources wisely and plan for contingencies. Trouble is, people define such ideas as wise use differently. Georgia defines it differently than Alabama. Developers define it differently than conservationists.

The rain comes or it doesn't come. We simply have to find ways to deal with it, and the notion of assuming the annual average is what we'll get every year doesn't suffice - because it doesn't hold up.

Huntsville's water system is in better shape than most. But the challenges it faces are the challenges faced by water systems across the region.

Here's an example. Huntsville's system can pump up to 80 million gallons a day. And how much do we use? In winter, for example, the daily usage is about 40 million gallons. That leaves a cushion for growth and for breakdowns.

But in summer, particularly last summer when watering systems had to make up for the chronic lack of precipitation, actual usage reached about 76 million gallons on some days. If a treatment plant had failed or some other misfortune had struck, we'd probably have ended up under mandatory conservation measures.

I sure sounds like adaptation to me, but by avoiding using the word, the writer appealed to good old common sense in the face of natural forces. What's to be done? "Use resources wisely and plan for contingencies."

What's glaringly missing, of course, is any acknowledgement that human beings in the 21st Century are influencing those natural forces. Without that - and the changes in behavior it should prescribe - we're not truly adapting; we're just trying to survive a little longer.

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