Hurricane Sandy: prompting a Rethink of Life’s purpose

“Life does more than adapt to the Earth. It changes the Earth to its own purposes.” – James Lovelock

“Reasonable men adapt to the world around them; unreasonable men make the world adapt to them. The world is changed by unreasonable men.” – Edwin Louis Cole

“We’re the only creature God ever created that doesn’t want to adapt. We want to make it stand still. And one thing that’s constant is nature is constantly changing.” – Don Young

Peter Spotts, a staff writer for The Christian Scientist Monitor, has just published a nice piece entitled “Surging Storms: Can the U.S. adapt in time to avert coastal damage?” [Spoiler alert…the answer is probably “no;” we’ve hardwired in extraordinary future losses along the length of our coasts.] He looks at several aspects of the issue, including the cost of engineering works to provide coastal protection, and people’s strong attachment to place. Here’s a nice excerpt on the latter point:

Another challenge centers on personal or cultural attachments to a home, town, or geographic setting that has been heavily affected by coastal flooding or other natural hazards and likely will be again, notes Shirley Laska, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of New Orleans and a specialist on community responses to natural hazards. Rebuilding the old neighborhood as it was before is a strong pull for residents and politicians trying to restore a sense of normalcy to a stricken area. Global warming, however, could change that predisposition.

“People will start getting it into their thinking that they have to do something if they are impacted more than once,” she says. “They start accepting that they have to change the way they live, that they can’t go back to the way it was.”

Ultimately, she says, the goal is to move vulnerable communities “more rapidly into thinking about how to achieve the goals they have for using this place, but that it be in a safer fashion. They have to come to grips with risk reduction as they are planning their future, and it can’t be tomorrow. That’s what climate change is telling us.”

Which brings to mind one last quote:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” (often attributed to Albert Einstein, but possibly mistakenly so).

Fortunately, the Lovelock quote and the others point to the way out…a kind of compromise between humankind and nature if you will. The negotiation starts with the recognition that we can’t or won’t be able to simply kowtow to nature, to live under its oppressive thumb. That builds resentment, and we don’t tolerate resentment for extended periods of time (periods of time longer than a few minutes, say). We also recognize in our saner moments that nature will not be denied. Our planet accomplishes most of its business through extreme events. It’s not going to stop.

But we might be able to change our purposes. We might be able to set new goals…and find pride, enjoyment, satisfaction, fulfillment in building resilience to nature’s extremes. [That’s something akin to what we do on the individual level when we get tired of being couch potatoes and hit the gym. We learn to like the workout versus fear it.]

Human purposes that are congruent with, as opposed to oblivious to, Earth’s realities?

Worth a try.

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