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Adaptation or Manipulation? Unpacking Climate Change Response Strategies

Dana C Thomsen, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast
Timothy F Smith, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast
Noni Keys, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast


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Adaptation is a key feature of sustainable social–ecological systems. As societies traverse various temporal and spatial scales, they are exposed to differing contexts and precursors for adaptation. A cursory view of the response to these differing contexts and precursors suggests the particular ability of persistent societies to adapt to changing circumstances. Yet a closer examination into the meaning of adaptation and its relationship to concepts of resilience, vulnerability, and sustainability illustrates that, in many cases, societies actually manipulate their social–ecological contexts rather than adapt to them. It could be argued that manipulative behaviors are a subset of a broader suite of adaptive behaviors; however, this paper suggests that manipulative behaviors have fundamentally different intentions and outcomes. Specifically, adaptive behaviors are respectful of the intrinsic integrity of social–ecological systems and change is directed toward internal or self-regulating modification. By way of contrast, manipulative behaviors tend to disregard the integrity of social–ecological systems and focus on external change or manipulating the broader system with the aim of making self-regulation unnecessary. It is argued that adaptive behaviors represent long-term strategies for building resilience, whereas manipulative behaviors represent short-term strategies with uncertain consequences for resilience, vulnerability, and the sustainability of social–ecological systems. Of greatest significance; however, is that manipulative strategies have the potential to avoid authentic experiences of system dynamics, obscure valuable learning opportunities, create adverse path dependencies, and lessen the likelihood of effective adaptation in future contexts.

Key words

adaptation, adaptive capacity, climate change, learning, manipulation, path dependency, resilience

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087