Most people jump to thoughts of Charles Darwin the minute they hear the word, ‘adaptation’; perhaps not the seven-year-old Darwin of the portrait to the left, but the father of the theory of evolution, nonetheless. One and the same, Darwin was already studying natural history, as this portrait of him clutching his beloved plant confirms. The curiosity he had for why living things are as they are, what they have been and will be in the totality of their biology, planted the seeds for his discoveries about adaptation. I’ve often thought back, as I’m sure many of us have, to those theories of his when I watch our human societies changing with the challenges of our times. But when I was a seven-year old, it was the challenges of the weather of our changing planet that caught my imagination most; small wonder considering the severity of winter snow storms and fall hurricanes in the 1950s.
But it wasn’t the discomfort of dealing with wild winds and many feet of snow in a paralyzed city, or the fury of the Atlantic Ocean sweeping over Long Island to take away so many of the homes I knew along the shore that stunned me. It was the fact that most of the home-owners I knew rebuilt those houses just as they were and where they had been before the storm—repeatedly, mind you; not just once or twice. Human nature, one might say, but if so they’re the humans who don’t survive. It wasn’t just the repeated history of the ocean’s reclamation of its own level on land, but the obvious truth that one could predict these events well in advance just by looking at the topography of Long Island’s east end that mattered.
Those questions have resurfaced as I’ve watched people around the world make the same mistakes where other natural disasters are so often repeated and so obviously possible, and often lead me to articles such as the one in the New Yorker Magazine on urban planning in the Jan. 7, 2013 issue. The after effects of Hurricane Sandy were its impetus, and the scientist hired to run the investigation, Klaus Jacob, was a fascinating gadfly, at least to my mind. The article discusses how social science looks for patterns behind human occurrences, and develops elaborate plans to protect us from climate-induced disasters in the future.
When asked how he’d become interested in urban planning in the first place, this geophysicist referred to his experience during WWII of being moved by his parents from a home in the middle of a big German city they deemed risk-prone, to one in a small village far from an urban center. The move saved their lives. “…You can plan your fate, at least to some degree, if you assess your risks and do something about it”, he said, and that reminded me of the mother of a world-famous musician who assessed the Nazi risk in the face of mounting evidence and got her family out of Berlin in time. I’ve often wondered if I would have had the same ability to “do something about it”, as she did in the face of all the familial and societal disclaimers around her.