Dinner and devastation: will everyday adaptations be enough?

Kitchen full of water

There was a heated debate at my family’s dinner table the other night. On one side: hope and determination. On the other: fear and frustration. The question was whether COP26 negotiations had any chance of resolving the global climate crisis with its far-reaching implications that will eventually touch us all. Who is responsible for where we are now? Who has the power to change the trajectory? What can we do as a family? What should we do as individuals?

Both sides eventually sat in stunned silence as they thought about the immense work ahead. And, eventually, a negotiated peace was reached: we could do better as a family and we wouldn’t give in to eco-nihilism as individuals (LeVasseur 2017). We’ll vote with our pens, our wallets, and our minds. We’ll act across most shades of green; we’ll try to stay flexible, alert and open to opportunities; we’ll mitigate and adapt.

Our family’s dinner table tension – so real and painful – also plays out in the scholarly climate adaptation literature. Frustrated critiques of existing climate adaptation efforts are that they offer merely “familiar structural oppositions” and “inadequate incorporation of the politics, capacities, and practices that may have the potential to facilitate effective adaptation” (Agrawal et al., 2021). In short, the standard us vs them, good vs evil, enough vs feasible, narrow vs expansive and optimism vs pessimism positioning. In this approach, adaptation and elusive sustainability initiatives may be not nearly enough to capture the momentous personal, ecological, and societal change that’s upon us.

In response, and to dismantle the entrenched barriers, some researchers have argued for much sharper focus on what they call “everyday adaptation”.  Adaptation is generally – and sometimes disparagingly – understood as adapting to the expected-but-uncertain future and identifying whatever positive opportunities can be found. For researchers investigating everyday adaptation, future changes are set. Their job now is to “focus on everyday life, everyday resistance, and everyday practices. The everyday is the sum of the lived actions and practices…[that] can be analysed in terms of their spatial, temporal, and social variations”.

In other words, what can we learn about how people are already adapting across space and place, up and down the economic continuum, across cultures, norms, and differential power arrangements? If we accept that the human species is characterized by a survival instinct, everyday adaptation will be a deep analysis of what that survival looks like. For these researchers, the “key dimension of the analysis of everyday adaptations is to show how adaptation practices produce their effects to the extent different adaptation practices become part of the everyday” lived reality of billions of people (Agrawal et al., 2021). 

All of which, like much in academia, sounds interesting and exciting. But here’s the problem with focusing on everyday adaptations: the potential scope is so vast that empirical testing will be immense, descriptively rich, but methodologically unwieldly. As a result, any insights will be so nuanced and contextualized that even the best findings will be inevitably incremental. And while incremental science(s) is fine in normal times, we’re no longer in normal times (Bradshaw et al., 2021).

Of greater concern is the implicit rationality assumption—that people are acting or adapting with perfect knowledge—that seems to underpin much of the everyday adaptation literature. That rationality assumption leads to a focus on participation, communication, shared learning. Again, these aspects are all wonderful. But what we know from cognitive and affective science, among other disciplines, is that humanity’s supposedly rational decision-making is actually the aspirational model, the shared and willful delusion and, in some cases, the greatest distraction or barrier to problem resolution (Geiger et al.,2019; Zhao & Luo 2021).

So, what to do? Well, we don’t have the luxury of giving up or giving in to eco-nihilism (Smith 2019) while we wait for global governments, multi-national organizations and billionaires to get their heads out of “the sand” [edited for language!].  And despite the critiques above, I’m confident that documenting and learning from everyday adaptations is a worthy activity. But it must be seen as a necessary-but-insufficient component of a larger process.

We must also identify and analyze the elements that underpin, motivate, and unite all the disparate everyday adaptations. In my research lab, we explore how emotions strengthen beliefs, how beliefs inform learning, worldviews, and behaviour. We need to focus on identifying the other connective and shared drivers quickly, decisively and across space and place. Fear of death is one, love, care and protection of children is another; there are others. With emotions, we’ll have the power to understand and explain why people do and believe what they do – even if it’s not in their best interest – and target interventions that shift our shared future to a better path.


Agrawal, Arun et al. (2021). Everyday Adaptations to Climate Change. Ecology and Society Special Feature – Call for submissions. https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/issues/view.php?sf=152

Bradshaw, C. et. al., (2021). Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. In Frontiers in Conservation Science (Vol. 1, p. 9). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419/full

Geiger SM, Geiger M and Wilhelm O (2019). Environment-Specific vs. General
Knowledge and Their Role in Pro-environmental Behavior. Front. Psychol. 10:718.   http://doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00718

LeVasseur, T. (2017). Decisive Ecological Warfare: Triggering Industrial Collapse via Deep Green Resistance. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 11(1), 109–130. https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.29799

Smith, K. C. (2019). Homo reductio: Eco-nihilism and human colonization of other worlds. Futures, 110, 31–34. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.02.005

Zhao, J., & Luo, Y. (2021). A framework to address cognitive biases of climate change. Neuron. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2021.08.029