Adapting to Climate Change – What Change? What Levels of Response?

Initial notes as the basis for a presentation to the Hawke’s Bay Royal Forest & Bird Society, February 2013

What adaptations do we make for climate change? The question of adapting to a future that is inherently uncertain – as contrasted with some measure of stochastic risk probability we can model – leads us to all sorts of levels of response. And that is as it should be.

We can adapt at various levels: we can change our practices – for instance on the land; we can reframe our policy frameworks – to a more functional and integrated view of land, community, transport, energy, economic focus, social justice, etc.; we can change our political power structures – decentralised with increased levels of local resilience where the outside elite don’t capture the gains and socialise the costs; or we can change our whole core belief systems – ideas of what constitutes knowledge and where it resides, of what is ‘good’ and what we ‘ought’ to do, what things and relationships we acknowledge and emphasise, even how the whole cosmos works.

That’s a challenge to a whole ‘world view’, not some technofix within a paradigm we think is fine (“business as usual, but better”). It is a challenge to us all. We all have a world view, loaded with prejudgments and beliefs and ideas of what represents good and bad, success and failure. Most of us don’t even acknowledge we have that internal space within which we implicitly and subjectively define in our own minds what we presume to be ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ (subjective objectivity – ah, yes), preferring not to contemplate on the meaning of life. Being gets in the way of doing. And we think the solutions, and the sensible thing, is to do, not think; to simply act without considering the significance of it all. And so we do.

Assimilate into the collective. Once there, you won’t even know you’ve lost your individuality, and will resist being unplugged. You will be happy. We will feed you reality TV, and a thing we call ‘current affairs’, propaganda so subtle you will think it the truth, various forms of Huxleyian soma to sedate us. We will call it “civilisation” to differentiate it from those more barbarous alien savages over yonder water. In the choice between an overtly authoritarian Orwellian future of 1984, or the more covert authoritarianism of Brave New World, Huxley has won the argument. We are at risk of making ourselves and our children slaves to a non-thinking, non-participating approach to life. Erich Fromm and Theodore Zeldin do a great job of dissecting the human condition. Or if you feel like a more radical dissertation, check out John Zerzan or Edward Abbey.

Herein lies the dilemma. In order to adapt fully to climate change, to change ourselves, we need a sea-change in our core beliefs, and with them (whether before or after) the politics and power structures of economics and knowledge that currently prevail.

So how? If we actually want to achieve long-run solutions then we have to go deep to that core. It is from that core of ideas and beliefs from which are generated the power, politics, policy and practice that creates and perpetuates the problem. They are all linked, as Levin & Lewontin argue. In some connected dialectic of action – reaction, where the central idea has priority. Where that central idea acts as the generator. One field of thought influences the other in a self-organising cycle – the education begets the policies, which begets the science, begets the practice, begets the markets, begets the advertising, begets the demand, begets the money, begets the politics, begets the education ….. and so it moves on. In the case of land use, it is accelerating – a focus on production leading to industrial ideals, leading to more energy inputs, leading to energy dependency, leading to money for suppliers, research around the symptoms and problems generated, PhD factories, vested interests, commodity products, the promotion of the myth that we are doing “God’s work” to feed the world starved by geopolitics not low production, over-producing, reducing prices, marginal economics, environmental mining of soils, biodiversity, water quality, life-supporting capacities, free ecosystem services, generator of NOx and CO2, pressure to amalgamate and homogenise for ‘efficiency’s’ sake, lost diversity, lost high-value opportunities, lost communities, wealth concentration to the corporates at the expense of the local people, more demand for irrigation and fertiliser, the denigration of less financially resourced alternatives (fringe, weirdo, unscientific, won’t feed the world, hippy, homespun, backward, peasants), no matter how much better in outcomes social, environmental and economic.

The industrial idea of land creates the practice and all the self-reinforcing cycle of perpetual motion (and emotion) that makes up a real, fair dinkum blinkered, purblind, way of ‘seeing’ the world. There’s the trap, the cause, the problem, the invisible conceptual apparatus of the collective mind, producer of technocrats and boring cubicle-based lives, where scientists can measure poo production and fertiliser responses, or the new GM techno-fix. This industrial model of land use is analogous to a hamster on a wheel, going faster to stay still, yet still slipping backwards, pumped full of drugs and energy from a finite source, with an increasing dose, until … one day … the bearings will seize … or the hamster will simply stop.

So what is our role as individuals? As a community? We are told – constantly – that the people have sovereignty. We can influence by our ‘consumer choice’ – if you can read those words without slight queasiness. We are told we live in a democracy. Spin and advertising are merely informing us, no conditioning us. We are told, you need to read these text books by these great (irony alert, just in case you don’t get it) philosophers Rand and Friedman.

Our role? Four options perhaps – if you ignore the option of not bothering to change unnecessarily because ‘the Lord Market’ or something equally bizarre will save us. Four horsemen perhaps.

First, Levin & Lewontin might support the view that by ‘being the change you want to see’ we will influence change. Perhaps we can create a new perpetual motion/emotion machine. But without the money and the political clout, to date. That is at least a working hypothesis. And there is no doubt that enough people acting in a particular way can and have forced change.

Secondly, the rational argument. A number of scientist and technocrat colleagues believe (why?!!) in the rationality of humanity, that ‘factual’ information and ‘logical’ argument will win the day, and that all the political master who spend money on their chosen parliamentary puppets will through self-interest and a moral sense, see the light. Hmmmm. Whose paradigm? Whose facts? Whose logic?

Thirdly, a modification might be to not believe in rationality, and focus on the non-rational argument; getting the message across through the arts and humanities, those disciplines whose utility is often questioned by the technocrats. To appeal to the sense of people, not their deeper knowledge of, and trust in, mathematics and logic. I have far more faith in appealing in peoples’ sense than their use of mathematical/logical symbols.

Or, lastly, we can wait for the crisis, when all bets are off and people are in a position to ignore the powerful, and we reorder a new world view. But that better world view had better be ready, because the Terror is perhaps as likely as a new constitution between our people and our planet.

The point, perhaps, is to acknowledge the need for adaptation in all these levels of response, and to create ‘resilience’ for whatever surprise may occur, in both our physical environment and within our society. But resilience requires a new way of thinking.

Resilience involves the ability to foresee, the robustness to take a hit, the capacities to innovate and adapt, to visualise an alternative system, and to collaborate for change. That is a whole new world of relationships and understandings, and requires completely different thinking than the Brave New World collective we have been seduced into accepting.

The very idea of a ‘Resilient’ landscape and society is in itself a challenge to a hierarchical and authoritarian order – in both corporations and government organisations. It is a challenge to those that feed the hamster on the wheel and profit by it. Resilience demands thought, debate, innovation, and the collaborative group- and self-motivation to shift direction quickly, not keep this, and only this, wheel turning. That sits at odds with a corporate world where people are far more focused on the obedient performance of pre-set tasks than thought and debate relating to what outcomes we need and in what way we ought to achieve them. We need urgently the thought and debate, not the compliance of pale wan men and women living life in a physical and emotional cubicle.

Uncertainty has replaced predictability; the idea of a Complex Adaptive System has replaced mechanical determinism, presumably knowable through reduction to the essentials; socially-inclusive ‘transdisciplinary’ knowledge systems have replaced the idea of top-down instruction from the ‘experts’; judgment that takes into account local conditions is replacing the idea of universal ‘laws’ of practice; non-linear threshold effects, emergence, self-organisation and new attractor points (many not so attractive to humanity) have replaced the idea of an inevitable linear progress to heaven on Earth; the limits of our planet is replacing the idea that “the market will provide” (though the priests are not listening); and an intolerance of exploitation is replacing the idea that we can do nothing about it.

The best practical step, at least, is to act within those new ideas ourselves, in our own particular place, and to stand up against any ideas that prescribe any attempt at universal thought and action. The days of Newtonian mechanical God-given laws are nearly over.

Chris Perley
3rd March, 2013

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

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10 Responses to Adapting to Climate Change – What Change? What Levels of Response?

  1. James P says:

    Chris – do a quick search on “super wicked problems and climate change”. You should find some good material you can build into your talk.



    • cjkperley says:

      Hi James. I’m looking at a book. Brown et al.(eds) 2010 Tackling Wicked Problems. Through transdisciplinarity approaches. You can’t hope to buil St Paul’s by producing a pile of disciplinary bricks without some broader concept in mind. Lots of disciplines and forms of knowledge required. Hope you’re well. Best to A. C

  2. James P says:

    Hi Chris

    Also read Mike Hulmes’ review of the book at


    • justind says:

      Gday James, Thanks for sharing this link. A ray of sunshine. A streak of warmth succouring impulses to care about the kind of future possible.

  3. Paul Bailey says:

    Great speech Chris. Can I humbly suggest though that you remember who your audience is. Whilst F&B would be quite open to your message they have to be able to understand it and even I had to read it twice.

    As for not trusting mathematics, as a mathematician I belive that mathematics is the scientific proof of philoshophical thought. Therefore so long as the challenge and the solution has been correctly defined (and thats where the study of arts and humanaties is important as you suggest) then we should be comfortable using matematics to extrapolate the solution into the future.

    • cjkperley says:

      Don’t worry Paul. These are just notes in the sun. I’m giving F & B are PowerPoint of practical things we can do in our landscapes. But I got to thinking that’s simply not enough. We need a shift in world view. I may touch on that, but not focus on it.
      As to maths. Maths is definitely something. Maths is also not definitely everything. The are many values and meanings we cannot measure, cannot measure easily, are too mutable in time and place to measure. And complex adaptive systems are inherently uncertain rather than predictable in any quantitative sense. We’ve stuffed up a lot of things through a scientific management approach that assumes we can reduce things to numbers. Thats why transdisciplinarity, work on ‘wicked problems’ and even the revival of Aristotle’s epistemology has risen in the last decade or so. Max-Neef wrote about the need for transdisciplinarity in 1995. It was a major theme for us when looking at social, environmental and economic performance in land use at Otago. There was just no way to do justice to forms of knowledge through numbers alone. Check out the review that James Barton posted. Cheers C

  4. Chris Rosin says:

    HI Chris,
    There is no doubt that this is your voice, you imaginary of achieving change. Great piece! There are, however, likely to be some bits that require a bit more explanation (as Paul notes). My suggestion would be to step back a bit from the ‘final solutions’ in the talk itself and provide some more empirical insight around some of the contradictions that you identify. As you argue, we all have to some extent bought into the siren call of the market and rational man — otherwise we wouldn’t participate in it to the extent that we do. Because of this, I think it is often very difficult for us (especially the less enlightened who do not get their consistent dose of Chris Perley) to comprehend that these contradictions exist and that they are rooted within the social ideology that we ascribe to. So, I’d challenge you to confront F&B with examples of their own practice where you see this ideology as being pervasive (and perhaps also provide a hint of an alternative vision/imaginary — or dare I say utopia without getting you to focus too much on that particular concept). Properly baited, the audience will be appealing for your insights to solutions in the question/answer time following the talk and — having had a better grounding in the issues you draw attention to — these will fall on more comprehending ears.

    Also, because I can’t avoid a gentle nudge of caution, I remain somewhat concerned about raising resilience as the standard leading the change that you ask for. Resilience has already been subsumed within ‘business-as-usual’ representations and imaginaries. The US and the NZ economies, among others, have been celebrated for their resilience to the global financial crisis. Similar stories of resilience are attached to green revolution technologies in response to the global food ‘crisis’. Yes, resilience is a valuable concept in the arsenal of change — but just like sustainability it is subject to reframing within the existing ideology — and it has been shown to fit well within the narratives you seek to disrupt. The other potential issue is the tendency to revert to the claims that I am not adequately acknowledging the work of the true resilience thinkers, thus recreating the knowledgeable and informed elite who seek to conform action to a particular form of knowledge and perspective under a new guise.

    Best of luck with the talk. Keen to hear what feedback you get.

    • cjkperley says:

      Hi Chris. I will focus on the on-the-ground potentials. But couldn’t resist going beyond when I thought that a group behaving well could still end up swallowed by the beast. So how to prevent the beast.
      I’m going to very subtly challenge F&B to think beyond either-or preservation-industrial dichotomies as promoted by John Muir. Start with the Leopold quote Conservation is harmony betw people and land. Both have to do well. But I’ll leave the challenge there. Will mainly focus on land use strategy and practice.
      As for ‘resilience’, I see these apologists for a failed world view everywhere. The local council is using it, partly I suspect because I used it all the time. But they represent its opposite. “We will create a resilient Hawke’s Bay by industrialising our land and promoting commodity corporate high input homogeneous agriculture.” But the word is not theirs, it is ours. I have not given up on it yet. I hope it doesn’t go the way of ‘accountability’ or ‘efficiency’, now meaningless spin doctors words. Appreciate your thoughts. Keep warm.

  5. Ben McNeill says:

    My experience with F and B types suggests a certain mindset towards a ‘correct’ ecology consisting of our stereotypical pre-colonisation forest ecology. Yet our fossil record suggets some quite radically different ecological conditions in the past. We have already changed the NZ ecology to the extent it would be impossible to go back. I would argue the emphasis on climate change should be seen as almost irrelevant to your target audience, instead a more fundamental discussion needs to be held to assess the impacts of HBs existing post-colonial ‘new ecology ‘ with the various economic, social and environmental/conservationist needs. The impact of climate change will not be as major as the ecological changes of the last two centuries.

    • cjkperley says:

      F&B had a history of being ‘preservationist’ but there have been a few changes. Some of us challenged their ecological understanding, since ecology shifted significantly from ‘predictable determinism to a climax natural state’ to ‘discordant patch dynamics’ in the 80s. We argued they were the flip side of the mechanical world view – people-less industry on one side, people-less preserves on the other. Like Mordor OR the Wilderness sans elves. And the poor old agrarian Shire gets it from both sides. You’re evil if you live IN nature. You’re very evil if you harvest Bambi’s mother, however ecological and ethical the act.

      There is little future in that dichotomy. We need the Shire more than Mordor. And we can have Wilderness, but not by getting rid of the Shoshone at the point if a machine gun.

      Read Daniel Botkin’s Discordant harmonies if you get the chance Ben. Borrow mine. Has a new one as well – updated – cant remember name. Argues “use and protection can be part of one approach”. Amazing you had to argue that as we did through the 80s to today. Still arguing. Cheers. Chris

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